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Local woman remembers families who crossed Detroit River to escape slavery

Posted at 6:01 AM, Feb 01, 2023

(WXYZ) — The Detroit River was coined the Fluid Frontier for freedom seekers in the final stretch of the Underground Railroad, escaping from the states to Canada trying to live a life free of slavery and bondage.

For Kimberly Simmons, her family successfully made the journey to the other side, and now, she is following in the footsteps of her ancestors.

Simmons' third great-grandmother, Caroline Quarrls-Watkins, made the journey at just 16 years old on July 4, 1843. While her family was out celebrating the country's freedom, she escaped to get hers.

"She hid an old silk dress and a veil and gloves the dress of the day in a cherry bush outside," Simmons said.

Hand-written letters chronicle the story. With $100 and jewelry her white grandmother gave her to barter with, Watkins began what would be a terrifying three-month, multi-state trek from St. Louis to Detroit. She took refuge at Second Baptist Church until she could finally cross the Fluid Frontier.

“Caroline was chased right to the river, I mean the bounty hunters followed her, they watched her being rode across the river," Simmons said.

Rochelle E. Danquah, an adjunct professor at Oakland University and Wayne State University, said there were more failures than getting to successes. It's believed 30,000-35,000 people escaped to freedom.

"Many of them, when they arrive in Canada and there are sources that will verify the kind of conditions they were in emaciated, dehydrated, barely had clothes hanging on themselves but we say all that to say, through all that they made it," Danquah said.

But, their journey wasn't necessarily over.

Zwena Gray, a native Detroiter who now lives in Canada, created her own trip through the Underground Railroad when she hiked the Bruce Trail in Canada. It's a 550-mile journey that flows through towns of freedom seekers.

"There is a history of the Underground Railroad along the trail," Gray said. "I was walking on a trail that was already paved and made and the people who were traveling that route for the underground railroad did not have that trail.”

Gray said she connected with her ancestors and the land on a deeper level, stopping at museums and hearing stories from freedom seekers and descendants along the way. It's an experience she wants more people in her generation to cling to.

"What had kept that history alive is talking about it, passing those stories down and having pride within the stories in our history," Gray said.

"Our history is American history. Our story is the American story," Simmons said.