Survival in the Straits: Tiya Miles, "The Dawn of Detroit" at Literati
On Monday, Oct. 7, author and University of Michigan professor Tiya Miles visited Literati Bookstore to discuss her new book, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits. This book is an examination of Detroit’s early days and seeks to discuss an element of the city’s history that isn’t often discussed. Miles’ work aims to locate people of color in Detroit’s history, adding them to a narrative that is often told chiefly as the stories of European settlers.
Miles began working on her book six to seven years ago as a public history project aiming to increase discussions about Detroit. During a classroom field trip in Washtenaw County, Laura Swift Haviland, a white Quaker from Adrian, caught Professor Miles’ attention. She had planned to write a book on Haviland and dove into the relevant historical resources. However, in Haviland’s autobiography, Miles noticed the way that Haviland spoke about Michigan’s slavery laws, which begat questions for Miles about the role of slavery in the state.
Eventually, this question led Miles to study the history of slavery in Detroit. Professor Miles and a team of students spent multiple semesters researching the history of slavery in Detroit, and have mapped locations that were significant to the topic. They mapped where enslaved people lived and other significant places to their lives, or the Detroit slave trade more broadly.
Miles says that the group’s experience with this research, and an eventual tour of related sites, was an emotional experience as much as an intellectual one. Together, they stood among the buildings imagining the lives and experiences of the previously unacknowledged people who made Detroit possible. Here, Miles contemplated the physical intimacy of space. She was also stricken by the river, the only real remaining entity from this era of Detroit’s past.
“Somehow the river felt magical to us, the only witness to the lives of the people we were uncovering.” --Tiya Miles
Miles painted a panoramic picture of what slavery had been in Detroit. Native Americans were enslaved first. African-Americans were enslaved more over time. Detroit’s formal slaveholding period was roughly from 1733 to 1837, when Michigan became a state. There were never very large numbers of enslaved people. But 60-300 enslaved people in a population of 1,300-2,200 is significant.
These enslaved people performed labor that was fundamental in building Detroit. The fur trade was an important industry then and it was the enslaved who possessed the knowledge to properly prepare and transport the furs. These people also carried messages and products across vast distances and performed the domestic labor that kept everyone alive such as growing food, sewing, and cleaning. While there are no explicit primary sources that explicitly point to it, it's also likely that these people maintained the built environment.
The Dawn of Detroit is a work about the perseverance of enslaved indigenous and African people, and also about the conflicts and alliances between these groups and others, notably working class whites. During this project, several relevant primary documents were transcribed and formed the basis of their research. In fact, Miles argues that it is the issue of slavery that helped forge an American identity among Detroiters. Here whites in the area challenged British settlers around the issue of slavery.
Many of the enslaved people in Detroit were Native American women. Miles paused here, and then followed the meaningful silence by verbally acknowledging the reality that these women were often forced into sexual labor in addition to the domestic tasks. Slaveholding men sought these women specifically, and numerous children were born into slavery, the records recording their fathers as “unknown.” With this in mind, Miles implores anyone who is considering the variety of costume sometimes marketed as a sexy Pocahontas costume for Halloween to reconsider.
Though this is a book that talks about slavery in Detroit, Miles is careful to ensure that her audience knows that this is a story about survival and fighting back. There are stories of these individuals stealing from slave owners and running away in order to take control of their own lives. There are also stories of Native American communities that bordered the Detroit area providing refuge for those who those seeking to determine the direction of their lives. Here, Miles properly treats them as people, human beings with full lives, stories, and desires, rather than the footnotes treatment applied by too many history books.
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.