DETROIT (FOX 2) - You have heard of the Underground Railroad - a network of secret routes and safe houses used by African-American slaves in the 19th century to escape to free states with the help of abolitionists.
There is a hidden part of the Underground Railroad - right in the heart of Greektown.
The passage was steep, narrow and dark, yet thousands of freedom seekers made their way down steps just like these into Croghan Street Station. It was one of the last stops of the Underground Railroad into Canada - right here in Michigan.
The beautiful old church has been around for more than 150 years. Founded by 13 former slaves in 1836, Second Baptist Church is the oldest African-American congregation in Michigan.
The church was more than just a house of faith; it was a path to freedom for thousands of slaves. Worshippers sang praises in the church above, protecting the secret of the Underground Railroad, housed beneath the building.
More than 5,000 slaves also known as Freedom Seekers, made the arduous journey from the south to safe haven through this portal.
"Very few came from the most southern states like Louisiana and Georgia," said Priscilla Robinson, tour guide, Second Baptist Church. "Most of them came from Kentucky, Tennessee and the Virginias.
Many escapees sought refuge on the other side of this wall, anxiously waiting for the opportunity to flee to Canada. Sometimes they waited for days.
"We could house up to 15," Robinson said. "They slept in bunk beds. Sometimes there was an overflow. And I can't say exactly how long they stayed because they had to wait until it was safe to go to the next location. It was more than one night. They got fed, they got shelter, they got clothing and they were able to rest."
They couldn't rest for long. Slave catchers were all around and they were legally allowed to reclaim the men, women and children they viewed as property.
"The fugitive slave law, the last one passed said, even if they got to a free state, the people were bound to send them back to slavery so they were not safe to stay here," Robinson said.
They used the cover of darkness to make their next move.
"Late at night they would leave in a false bottom wagon," Robinson said. "They put straw on top of the wagon and manure on it so the dogs could not sniff out the people hidden under there."
There were five conductors, four black men, one white man - ministers of Second Baptist Church.
In turn, each guided the freedom seekers to the next stop on the Underground Railroad: Finney's barn on State and Griswold street, behind the hotel, where once again, they waited until it was safe to move.
The journey may have ended there, if not for the generosity of Second Baptist parishioner George De Baptiste. Presumed to be born a free man, De Baptiste migrated to Detroit from Indiana by way of Virginia, risking his own freedom by challenging existing slave laws.
He worked several jobs and owning a business, his wealth allowed him to purchase a steamboat called the T Whitney with the intent of carrying freedom seekers across the Detroit River into Canada. But black men were not allowed to captain ships, so De Baptiste hired a white man to pilot the former slaves or "black wool" as they named the cargo, to avoid detection.
No one felt secure, until the river crossing was over and they took their first steps as free men and women in Ontario.
The final passage to Canada is depicted in the memorial, The Gateway to Freedom. The gateway is a sculpture of hope on the Riverwalk where freedom seekers look across the Detroit River to Canada toward a better life.
You can tour the Underground Railroad Station at Second Baptist Church Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. For more information, go the website ugrrbookstore.com