History professor helps state honor Michigan’s Underground Railroad history

October 15, 2020

After a proclamation by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, September in Michigan has been officially designated Underground Railroad Month, and Detroit Mercy Professor of History Roy E. Finkenbine played a crucial role in making that happen.

Finkenbine, who is also director of the Black Abolitionist Archive, heard about the idea of an international underground railroad month about a year ago while attending the annual Network to Freedom Training sponsored by the National Park Service in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Backed by the support of the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission (MFTC), of which he has been a long-time member, Finkenbine worked with representatives of the National Park Service and the Maryland Office of Tourism to see how they might begin driving the effort forward.

Michigan supported the abolition of slavery and served as one of the main gateways for enslaved African Americans to find their freedom in Canada. The designation commemorates the state’s contribution to the eradication of slavery in the United States through the network of the Underground Railroad.

People around the country worked to develop a strategy for individual states to join the efforts, which culminated in a national web meeting in July to inform and motivate people from Hawaii to Maine to join the effort.

Nine states and several locales have now proclaimed September to be International Underground Railroad Month and the list keeps growing. Finkenbine and his partners in this national effort hope it will help states and locales highlight positive stories of interracial cooperation, which have meaning in a time of racial protest. They also hope it will provide citizens with options for safe, socially-distanced day trips to Underground Railroad sites at a time when tourism is suffering. 

Finkenbine has been a member of the MFTC since 2009, appointed by Michigan Govs. Jennifer Granholm, Rick Snyder and Whitmer to consecutive four-year terms. The MFTC is charged with preserving, protecting and promoting the state's heritage of involvement in the Underground Railroad and the antislavery movement.