Hart Plaza interactive tour
for INF 7740
Historians estimate that as many as 45,000 runaway slaves passed through Detroit on their way to freedom in Canada. Although Michigan was a free state, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it possible for slave catchers (or any white person) to claim that an African American was a runaway slave pending the decision of a special court that required only the testimony of one white person. The Fugitive Slave Law also barred the accused from defending themselves, a situation that caused many free African Americans to leave the nation of their birth and seek refuge in Canada. The anti-slavery movement in Detroit comprised of African Americans, foreign and native-born whites, and Native Americans who defied the law and worked together to provide safety for thousands of women, men, and children. Sculpted by Ed Dwight and dedicated on October 20, 2001, the Gateway to Freedom International Memorial to the Underground Railroad pays tribute to the city’s contribution and the thousands of railroad conductors who made freedom possible. Several routes diverged on Detroit, code name “Midnight,” and for many, the city was the final destination for freedom seekers until the mid-1830s. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, many of the runaways then moved to Canada. Thus, across the Detroit River in Windsor, Canada, the second part of the memorial faces the Gateway to Freedom Memorial in Detroit. From characters such as Peter Denison, who returned to Detroit to lead a black militia, to Thornton and Ruth Blackburn, this memorial pays tributes to Americans who stood for freedom in an era of slavery.
This exhibit gives a look behind one of the most famous statues in Hart Plaza and the man behind “The Fist.” Joseph Louis Barrow otherwise known as Joe Louis or The Brown Bomber, was an American heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949. His reign as a heavyweight boxing champion is the longest in history in any weight division. He successfully defended his title 25 times and even served in the United States Army during World War II. His roots as a boxer began in Detroit, Michigan after his mother remarried and moved him and his sibling there from Alabama. His first professional fight took place on July 4, 1937 and within twelve months he had beaten the previous six heavyweight boxing champions.
The dedication of the “Monument to Joe Louis,” informally known by locals as “The Fist,” took place on October 16, 1986. The sculpture is a memorial to Joe Louis, an American professional boxer and the World Heavyweight Champion from 1937 to 1949. Created by Mexican-American sculptor Robert Graham, the artwork symbolizes a correlation between a boxer’s closed fist and the fight against racial injustice. The sculpture has become an icon of Detroit as well as a source of controversy over the years.