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A black granite sculpture of a family with satchels and luggage. One member points forward.
The Gateway to Freedom International Memorial in Hart Plaza.
Susan Montgomery/Shutterstock

Detroit’s essential civil rights sites, mapped

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The Gateway to Freedom International Memorial in Hart Plaza.
| Susan Montgomery/Shutterstock

When most Americans think of the modern civil rights movement, they think of the South. But Detroit had an important part to play as well.

Its proximity to the Canadian border made it a final destination of the Underground Railroad. And even after the end of slavery in the United States, Detroit remained a central city in the fight for equality and justice. Housing and school segregation, as well as police brutality, were prevalent here for decades after African Americans migrated north.

To get a better sense of the city’s place in the civil rights movement, and learn more about important local sites, we spoke with historian Jamon Jordan of Black Scroll Tours—a popular black history tour company based in Detroit.

“It’s important for Detroiters and others to know this history because civil rights is connected to Detroit history,” Jordan says. “Jim Crow and segregation were national phenomena.”

Here are 10 Detroit sites that played an important part in the civil rights movement.

Note: locations are ordered from west to east

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1. The Birwood Wall

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20194 Mendota St
Detroit, MI 48221

Roughly a half mile long, the Birwood Wall was built in 1941 specifically to separate black and white homeowners on the west side of Detroit.

While white residents were incentivized to move into homeownership through FHA loans, the government refused to loan them the money due to this Eight Mile neighborhood because of its close proximity to the African Americans already living nearby. A developer proposed the erection of the wall to separate the neighborhood and help keep property values on the white side high. 

The wall still stands to this day as a reminder of Detroit’s painful past of racially segregated housing, though local community activists have painted it with colorful and education murals.

2. Orsel McGee House

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4626 Seebaldt St
Detroit, MI 48204

During the Great Depression, a black couple named Orsel and Minnie McGhee moved into a rental property on an all-white block on Seebaldt Street. The property was rented to the McGhee’s because Orsel could easily pass for white, however, when neighbors saw Mrs. McGhee working in the yard weeks later, they sued on the basis of restrictive covenants.

The McGhees were represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the trial. The case made its way to the United State Supreme Court, who in favor of the McGhees. 

Years later, a book written by their granddaughter, The Color of Courage, would go on to become a network feature film. 

The exterior of the Orsel McGhee House. The facade is red brick with a grey roof. Google Street View

3. Rosa Parks Home

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3201 Virginia Park St
Detroit, MI 48206

On the corner of Virginia Park and Windermere sits the home where civil rights activist,Rosa Parks lived for 30 years. The Civil Rights icon moved to Detroit after living in Montgomery, Alabama where she ignited the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

In Detroit, Parks continued her activism career. She worked for Congressman John Conyers and raised money for the legal defense for activist Angela Davis. 

Parks lived in Detroit longer than she did in Alabama, and remained interested in civil rights until her death. She is buried in the Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel in Woodlawn Cemetery.

A close-up of Ms. Parks face. She’s not smiling and has her gray hair tied behind her head.
Rosa Parks in Detroit (1971).
AP

4. King Solomon Baptist Church

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6100 14th St
Detroit, MI 48208
(313) 355-2150
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This historic church was founded in 1926 and moved several times before a new church was constructed on the current site in 1951. With its 5,000-seat auditorium, King Solomon was a popular venue for gospel acts to perform, as well as important speeches in the civil rights movement.

In 1958, soon after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. gave the keynote address at the National Baptist Convention at King Solomon Baptist Church. King also addressed a crowd at the church in September of 1963, just a week after his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. Malcolm X spoke at the church twice, once in 1963 when he delivered his “Message to the Grassroots,” and again a year before his death in April 1964. 

Exterior of a brick building with stone columns and other stone details on the facade. Above an awning it says “Solomon Baptist Church” in wobbly block letters. Wikimedia Commons

5. St. Matthews Episcopal Church

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8850 Woodward Ave
Detroit, MI 48202

Due to its proximity to Canada, the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act made Detroit a key part of the Underground Railroad. St. Matthews Episcopal Church, founded in 1846 by William and Julia Lambert, would become a stop on the Underground Railroad. The son of the founders, Benjamin Lambert, founded the Detroit NAACP in 1912.

The church was initially located in Paradise Valley, an all-black enclave in Detroit, which was razed for the construction of I-75. St. Matthews Episcopal Church is now located in the North End on Woodward Avenue. The interior of the church is adorned with twenty scenes depicting the life of Christ and the floor of the church is Pewabic tile. The stained glass windows, including three Tiffany windows, make the interior of the church as magnificent and the exterior.

Wikimedia Commons

6. Detroit Association of Colored Women’s Clubs

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5461 Brush St
Detroit, MI 48202

The Detroit Association of Colored Women’s Clubs was founded in 1921 by eight women’s clubs for the purpose of fostering educational and philanthropic programs. In 1941, club president Dr. Rosa Gragg and the organization bought this mansion to use as its headquarters on the corner of Ferry and Brush streets. 

A restrictive covenant, however, prohibited Blacks from owning property on Ferry. Dr. Gragg had the ingenious idea to close off the Ferry Street entrance and created one on Brush, making the house no longer a part of the covenant. The Detroit Association of Colored Women’s Clubs paid the mansion off in just five years. Today, the club is known now as the Detroit Association of Women’s Clubs as still headquartered on Brush. 

Google Street View

7. Sojourner Truth Housing Projects

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4525 Nevada Ave
Detroit, MI 48234

Named after the historic abolitionist, these homes were one of Detroit’s earliest affordable housing neighborhoods, built in 1942 for African Americans to live while they worked in a local factory that had a defense contract. Protests ensued from the white neighbors in the surrounding neighborhood, and surprisingly even some black homeowners from nearby middle-class Conant Gardens,

Ultimately, these protests became increasingly violent. Combined with the challenges of the housing projects, more African Americans working at auto factories, and likely, the collective stress of World War II, a race riot erupted in 1943 with Sojourner Truth Homes as an epicenter. 

The Sojourner Truth Homes were later nicknamed, “Slum Village.” A Detroit hip-hop group by the same name featuring producer J Dilla would become internationally famous. 

Protests near the Sojourner Truth housing project in 1942.
AP

8. Cobo Arena

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1 Washington Blvd
Detroit, MI 48226
(313) 877-8777

Some historians think that Cobo Hall (now TCF Center) is built on or near the exact site where French colonist Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac first stepped foot on the banks of the Detroit River. 

Built in 1960, Cobo Hall has been home to the North American International Auto Show since 1965. But arguably the complex’s most significant event took place on June 23, 1963 at its former arena.

At a walk commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1943 Detroit Race Riots organized by various ministers and organizational leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would first deliver the impassioned “I Have a Dream” speech to a rapt audience, prior to its larger and better-known reception during the March on Washington D.C. for Jobs and Freedom. The speech was recorded at Cobo Arena and later released as a single by Motown Records. 

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Cobo Arena.
AP

9. Fannie Richards Homesite

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930 E Lafayette St #101
Detroit, MI 48207

Born in Virginia in 1840, Fannie Richards moved to Detroit in her youth and eventually became the city’s first black public school teacher. In 1863, she opened a private school for black children—two years before the legal end of enslavement in America. 

Later Richards was the sponsoring plaintiff in a lawsuit against segregation in the Detroit’s public school system. In a landmark decision, the Michigan Supreme Court sided with Richards and integrated Detroit’s schools. The decision came nearly a century before Brown v Board of Education.

A Michigan Historical Marker sits at this location, marking the site of her home.

Wikimedia Commons

10. Ossian Sweet House

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2905 Garland St
Detroit, MI 48214

When Dr. Ossian Sweet moved onto Garland Street in 1925, he was soon under protest from his all-white neighbors. Dr. Sweet, his wife, and nine of their friends moved into the house with the assistance of a police escort. 

The next night, a crowd of more than 100 gathered outside the Sweet house and began to throw rocks and bottles through the windows. As the riot escalated, people rushed the house in an attempt to enter. In defense, someone inside the home fired shots from the second story and killed one man, wounding another. Police charged Dr. Sweet and all of his companions with first-degree murder

But in a landmark decision, Judge Frank Murphy (future Governor of Michigan) released Sweet and his companions and declared a mistrial. The verdict illustrated that African Americans too had the right to protect their home and property. 

Today, the home is the site of a Michigan Historical Marker and efforts are underway to preserve and turn it into a museum.

A green plaque with gold lettering stands in the yard of a two-story brick home. The heading of the plaque reads “Ossian Sweet House.” AP

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1. The Birwood Wall

20194 Mendota St, Detroit, MI 48221

Roughly a half mile long, the Birwood Wall was built in 1941 specifically to separate black and white homeowners on the west side of Detroit.

While white residents were incentivized to move into homeownership through FHA loans, the government refused to loan them the money due to this Eight Mile neighborhood because of its close proximity to the African Americans already living nearby. A developer proposed the erection of the wall to separate the neighborhood and help keep property values on the white side high. 

The wall still stands to this day as a reminder of Detroit’s painful past of racially segregated housing, though local community activists have painted it with colorful and education murals.

20194 Mendota St
Detroit, MI 48221

2. Orsel McGee House

4626 Seebaldt St, Detroit, MI 48204
The exterior of the Orsel McGhee House. The facade is red brick with a grey roof. Google Street View

During the Great Depression, a black couple named Orsel and Minnie McGhee moved into a rental property on an all-white block on Seebaldt Street. The property was rented to the McGhee’s because Orsel could easily pass for white, however, when neighbors saw Mrs. McGhee working in the yard weeks later, they sued on the basis of restrictive covenants.

The McGhees were represented by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the trial. The case made its way to the United State Supreme Court, who in favor of the McGhees. 

Years later, a book written by their granddaughter, The Color of Courage, would go on to become a network feature film. 

4626 Seebaldt St
Detroit, MI 48204

3. Rosa Parks Home

3201 Virginia Park St, Detroit, MI 48206
A close-up of Ms. Parks face. She’s not smiling and has her gray hair tied behind her head.
Rosa Parks in Detroit (1971).
AP

On the corner of Virginia Park and Windermere sits the home where civil rights activist,Rosa Parks lived for 30 years. The Civil Rights icon moved to Detroit after living in Montgomery, Alabama where she ignited the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

In Detroit, Parks continued her activism career. She worked for Congressman John Conyers and raised money for the legal defense for activist Angela Davis. 

Parks lived in Detroit longer than she did in Alabama, and remained interested in civil rights until her death. She is buried in the Rosa L. Parks Freedom Chapel in Woodlawn Cemetery.

3201 Virginia Park St
Detroit, MI 48206

4. King Solomon Baptist Church

6100 14th St, Detroit, MI 48208
Exterior of a brick building with stone columns and other stone details on the facade. Above an awning it says “Solomon Baptist Church” in wobbly block letters. Wikimedia Commons

This historic church was founded in 1926 and moved several times before a new church was constructed on the current site in 1951. With its 5,000-seat auditorium, King Solomon was a popular venue for gospel acts to perform, as well as important speeches in the civil rights movement.

In 1958, soon after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. gave the keynote address at the National Baptist Convention at King Solomon Baptist Church. King also addressed a crowd at the church in September of 1963, just a week after his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. Malcolm X spoke at the church twice, once in 1963 when he delivered his “Message to the Grassroots,” and again a year before his death in April 1964. 

6100 14th St
Detroit, MI 48208

5. St. Matthews Episcopal Church

8850 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48202
Wikimedia Commons

Due to its proximity to Canada, the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act made Detroit a key part of the Underground Railroad. St. Matthews Episcopal Church, founded in 1846 by William and Julia Lambert, would become a stop on the Underground Railroad. The son of the founders, Benjamin Lambert, founded the Detroit NAACP in 1912.

The church was initially located in Paradise Valley, an all-black enclave in Detroit, which was razed for the construction of I-75. St. Matthews Episcopal Church is now located in the North End on Woodward Avenue. The interior of the church is adorned with twenty scenes depicting the life of Christ and the floor of the church is Pewabic tile. The stained glass windows, including three Tiffany windows, make the interior of the church as magnificent and the exterior.

8850 Woodward Ave
Detroit, MI 48202

6. Detroit Association of Colored Women’s Clubs

5461 Brush St, Detroit, MI 48202
Google Street View

The Detroit Association of Colored Women’s Clubs was founded in 1921 by eight women’s clubs for the purpose of fostering educational and philanthropic programs. In 1941, club president Dr. Rosa Gragg and the organization bought this mansion to use as its headquarters on the corner of Ferry and Brush streets. 

A restrictive covenant, however, prohibited Blacks from owning property on Ferry. Dr. Gragg had the ingenious idea to close off the Ferry Street entrance and created one on Brush, making the house no longer a part of the covenant. The Detroit Association of Colored Women’s Clubs paid the mansion off in just five years. Today, the club is known now as the Detroit Association of Women’s Clubs as still headquartered on Brush. 

5461 Brush St
Detroit, MI 48202

7. Sojourner Truth Housing Projects

4525 Nevada Ave, Detroit, MI 48234
Protests near the Sojourner Truth housing project in 1942.
AP

Named after the historic abolitionist, these homes were one of Detroit’s earliest affordable housing neighborhoods, built in 1942 for African Americans to live while they worked in a local factory that had a defense contract. Protests ensued from the white neighbors in the surrounding neighborhood, and surprisingly even some black homeowners from nearby middle-class Conant Gardens,

Ultimately, these protests became increasingly violent. Combined with the challenges of the housing projects, more African Americans working at auto factories, and likely, the collective stress of World War II, a race riot erupted in 1943 with Sojourner Truth Homes as an epicenter. 

The Sojourner Truth Homes were later nicknamed, “Slum Village.” A Detroit hip-hop group by the same name featuring producer J Dilla would become internationally famous. 

4525 Nevada Ave
Detroit, MI 48234

8. Cobo Arena

1 Washington Blvd, Detroit, MI 48226
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Cobo Arena.
AP

Some historians think that Cobo Hall (now TCF Center) is built on or near the exact site where French colonist Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac first stepped foot on the banks of the Detroit River. 

Built in 1960, Cobo Hall has been home to the North American International Auto Show since 1965. But arguably the complex’s most significant event took place on June 23, 1963 at its former arena.

At a walk commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1943 Detroit Race Riots organized by various ministers and organizational leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would first deliver the impassioned “I Have a Dream” speech to a rapt audience, prior to its larger and better-known reception during the March on Washington D.C. for Jobs and Freedom. The speech was recorded at Cobo Arena and later released as a single by Motown Records. 

1 Washington Blvd
Detroit, MI 48226

9. Fannie Richards Homesite

930 E Lafayette St #101, Detroit, MI 48207
Wikimedia Commons

Born in Virginia in 1840, Fannie Richards moved to Detroit in her youth and eventually became the city’s first black public school teacher. In 1863, she opened a private school for black children—two years before the legal end of enslavement in America. 

Later Richards was the sponsoring plaintiff in a lawsuit against segregation in the Detroit’s public school system. In a landmark decision, the Michigan Supreme Court sided with Richards and integrated Detroit’s schools. The decision came nearly a century before Brown v Board of Education.

A Michigan Historical Marker sits at this location, marking the site of her home.

930 E Lafayette St #101
Detroit, MI 48207

10. Ossian Sweet House

2905 Garland St, Detroit, MI 48214
A green plaque with gold lettering stands in the yard of a two-story brick home. The heading of the plaque reads “Ossian Sweet House.” AP

When Dr. Ossian Sweet moved onto Garland Street in 1925, he was soon under protest from his all-white neighbors. Dr. Sweet, his wife, and nine of their friends moved into the house with the assistance of a police escort. 

The next night, a crowd of more than 100 gathered outside the Sweet house and began to throw rocks and bottles through the windows. As the riot escalated, people rushed the house in an attempt to enter. In defense, someone inside the home fired shots from the second story and killed one man, wounding another. Police charged Dr. Sweet and all of his companions with first-degree murder

But in a landmark decision, Judge Frank Murphy (future Governor of Michigan) released Sweet and his companions and declared a mistrial. The verdict illustrated that African Americans too had the right to protect their home and property. 

Today, the home is the site of a Michigan Historical Marker and efforts are underway to preserve and turn it into a museum.

2905 Garland St
Detroit, MI 48214