The Detroit Gunpowder Plot - George De Baptiste, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown's Raid

George De Baptiste was an influential leader of Detroit's black community before the Civil War. Born to free black parents, De Baptiste was trained as a barber, and he distinguished himself sufficiently that General and future President William Henry Harrison hired him in 1840. De Baptiste accompanied Harrison to the White House, serving until Harrison's death (he reputedly supported Harrison's head in his arms as he died). He then spent several years in Indiana, where he served as a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, and once bet a Kentucky farmer a new hat that he could steal one of his slaves within a month; he claimed the hat within days. He moved to Detroit in 1846, where he continued his work with the Railroad, including aiding the escape of runaway slave Robert Cromwell from Detroit when his master came to reclaim him, an incident which directly led to the passage of the Fugitive Slave law of 1850. De Baptiste helped organize Michigan's black regiment during the Civil War, and after the war he became the president of the Detroit Urban League, where he helped with the integration of the city's school system. Also of note is De Baptiste's long history as a Freemason. He features prominently in the Gateway to Freedom sculpture at Hart Detroit.

Aside from his other personal accomplishments, De Baptiste's main claim to fame was his participation in a meeting of abolitionists at the home of William Webb on March 12, 1859, a pivotal event in the lead-up to the Civil War. At the meeting John Brown, the famous radical white abolitionist, laid out his plans for a military uprising in the south, which would eventually be played out in his raid on Harper's Ferry in November. As it happened, ex-slave and orator Frederick Douglass was in Detroit at the time on a lecture tour, and attended the meeting. He spoke out in opposition to the plan, judging it to be poorly planned and too risky, and far too accepting of white casualties. After the heated exchange between Brown and Douglass, De Baptiste spoke up. He proposed an alternate plan to blow up over a dozen southern churches with gunpowder on a single day. Brown reportedly opposed De Baptiste's proposal on the grounds of the number of deaths it would entail, which is somewhat surprising in that Brown's plan entailed raids on hundreds of plantations, with the intention of raising a force of hundreds of men with which to attack cities across the south.


The state of Michigan has placed a historical marker at the intersection of Jefferson and Beaubien where De Baptiste lived in the 1850s and 60s, and the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University has a reprint of De Baptiste's 1875 obituaries. The state also has another historical marker commemorating the 1859 meeting, at the intersection of Congress and St. Antoine, and the Douglass branch of the Detroit Public Library has a 10 by 12 foot mural depicting the meeting.