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Current Exhibition

“Il faut se souvenir, we must not forget: Memorializing Slavery in Detroit and Martinique”

Opening Reception: Wednesday, September 18, 4:00–7:00 p.m.

Using photographs of memorials to slavery as a story visual, “Il faut se souvenir, we must not forget” is a multi-media exhibit that explores the little-known history of slavery in the city of Detroit and its unexpected connection to the French island of Martinique. 

Artist Statement

English

In the early 18th century, French soldiers massacred over a thousand Meskwaki natives during a fateful battle in the settlement of Detroit, igniting a series of violent conflicts that would come to be known as the Fox Wars. These conflicts dwindled the Meskwaki population and led to the capture and enslavement of many. In the aftermath, the French sold five individuals - three men, two women - including the Meskwaki’s leader, Kiala, as slaves to Martinique, a small island in the Caribbean that was also part of the French empire and home to a plantation economy where the French enslaved captured Africans and forced them to cultivate sugar. As both a French and Francophone studies major and a native of Detroit, the story of the Meskwaki five both saddened and intrigued me, and during my senior year of undergrad I began to brainstorm a photography project that would allow me to construct a multi-media narrative that I could share with others in order to spread knowledge about this interconnected history of slavery in Detroit and Martinique. And so, using photographs of modern-day memorials to slavery in both Detroit and Martinique, the first half of this exhibit is meant to tell their story. But rather than ending with the fate of the Meskwaki five, the second half of this exhibit combines my work with research undertaken by Dr. Tiya Miles, former chair of the Department of Afro-American and African Studies here at the University of Michigan, for her project “Mapping Slavery in Detroit”. Through Dr. Miles’ work, we are able to see the continuation of slavery in Detroit after the Meskwaki captives were sent away, as the territory passed from French hands into the British empire and then to the young United States before ultimately becoming a stop on the Underground Railroad. Because Detroit is best known for having been on the path to freedom for many enslaved people, uniting these two threads of history gives us a better picture of Detroit’s implications in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and how it sat uniquely at the crossroads of multiple empires and nations, connecting it to seemingly disparate places such as Martinique. You can follow along with the story on your mobile phone by scanning the barcode below to access the audio narration that accompanies each photo. After the exhibit, I encourage you to visit http://www.mapping-marronage.rll.lsa.umich.edu on your computer to browse Mapping Marronage, an interactive website created by Dr. Annette Joseph-Gabriel in the Department of Romance Languages & Literatures that I have been helping to build as a research assistant for the past two years. Mapping Marronage utilizes data mined from archival documents and slave narratives to map out the movements of people who escaped enslavement.  Through this website you can view a visual map of the path that the captured Meskwaki five took from Michigan to Quebec - where one of them managed to escape - to Martinique, accompanied by the archival documents that I used to develop my narrative. In visualizing their journey alongside the journeys of other individuals in our database whose travels took them through the city of Detroit, such as Elizabeth Denison Forth, Nicolas Said, Frederick Douglas, Mahommah Baquaqua, and more, you will see that Detroit was also a place where individuals from around the world negotiated and confronted the boundaries of freedom and bondage in their personal lives every day. What I hope you will ultimately take away from this exhibit is that in an era where there is much talk about border protection, claims to reparations, and what histories we should memorialize, it is important to remember just how global, intertwined, and borderless our histories actually are.

French

Au début du 18ème siècle, les soldats français ont massacré plus de mille indigènes Meskwaki pendant un bataille fatidique à la colonie de Detroit, qui a commencé une série des conflits violents qui seraient connus comme les “Fox Wars”.  Ces conflits ont diminué la population Meskwaki et ont provoqué la capture et asservissement de plusieurs. Dans les suites de cet événement, les Français ont vendu cinq individus - trois hommes, deux femmes - qui ont inclus le chef des Meskwaki, Kiala, comme les esclaves en Martinique, une petite île du Caraïbe qui faisait aussi partie de l’Empire française où les Français ont assujetti les Africains capturés et les ont forcés de cultiver le sucre. À la fois une spécialiste des études françaises et francophones et une originaire de Detroit moi-même, l’histoire du cinq Meskwaki m’a attristée et m’a intriguée, donc pendant ma quatrième année du premier cycle j’ai commencé à générer un projet de photographie qui me permettrait à formuler des hypothèses sur leur destin et en même temps de partager la connaissance sur l’histoire de l’esclavage à Detroit et en Martinique, la première moitié de cette exposition est censée de raconter leur histoire. Mais au lieu de terminer avec le destin des cinq Meskwaki, la deuxième moitié de cette exposition combine mon travail avec la recherche entreprise par Dr. Tiya Miles, l’ancienne chaire du Département des Études Afro-Américains et Africains ici à l'Université du Michigan, pour son projet “Mapping Slavery in Detroit.” À travers le travail de Dr. Miles, on peut voir la continuation de l’esclavage à Detroit après le départ des captives Meskwaki, comme la territoire a passé des mains françaises à l’Empire britannique et ensuite aux jeunes états-unis avant que la ville ait été devenue finalement un arrêt sur le Underground Railroad. Puisque Detroit est plus connu pour étant un chemin à la liberté pour les gens assujettis, joignant ces deux fils de l’histoire nous donne une meilleur image du rôle de Detroit dans la traite négrière atlantique et comment elle était uniquement située au carrefour des empires et des nations multiples, la connectant aux lieux apparemment disparates comme la Martinique. Vous pouvez suivre l’histoire sur votre portable en scannant le code-barres en bas pour accéder à la narrative auditive. Après cette exposition, je vous encourage à visiter http://www.mapping.marronage.rll.lsa.umich.edu sur votre ordinateur pour accéder Mapping Marronage, un site-web interactif créé par Dr. Annette Joseph-Gabriel dans le Département des Langues & Littératures Romanes que j’aide à construire depuis deux ans. Mapping Marronnage utilise les données des documents d’archives et des récits d’esclaves pour cartographier les mouvements des gens qui se sont échappés de l’esclavage. À travers ce site-web vous pouvez visionner une carte du chemin que les cinq Meskwaki capturés ont suivi du Michigan au Québec - où une des Meskwaki s’est échappée - à la Martinique, accompagnée par les documents d’archives que j’ai utilisés pour développer mon récit. En visionnant leur voyage à côté des voyages des autres dans notre base de données qui ont voyagé à Detroit comme Lisette Denison Forth, Nicolas Said, Frederick Douglass, Mahommah Baquaqua, et d’autres, on verra que Detroit était aussi un lieu où les individus du monde entier ont négocié et ont confronté les limites de la liberté et la servitude dans leurs vies personnelles de tous les jours. Dans une ère où il y a beaucoup de discours sur la sécurité des frontières, les droits aux réparations et quelles histoires on devrait mémorialiser, il faut se souvenir exactement le degré auquel nos histoires sont en fait globales, entrelacées, et sans frontières.

Audio Tour Experience

Click the buttons below to have the artist guide you through this photographic journey. 

Photo 1: “Old Fort-de-France”

Making its way from Quebec, down to the Caribbean Sea, and a group of small islands called Lesser Antilles, the ship carrying the Meskwaki captives would arrive to Martinique in 1734, perhaps docking at the bay located in the capital city of Fort-de-France, pictured here. If they survived the voyage, the Meskwaki would have likely been auctioned off to local French planters upon their arrival to the island.

Rachel Willis
Fort-de-France, Martinique

Photos 2 “The Sugarcane Field"

It’s likely that the Meskwaki were sold to a sugar plantation, such as this one located in Trois-Rivieres. In contrast to the U.S. South where cotton was king, most plantations in the Caribbean were sugar plantations. There, slaves would be cutting down sugar cane plants like what you see here until they reached the root, which was very grueling work particularly in the hot and humid Caribbean climate. 

Rachel Willis
Trois-Rivières Distillerie, Trois-Rivières, Martinique

Photo 3: "Inside the Sugar Factory”

Unlike what most people probably think of when they think of a plantation, this process could also be highly industrialized. Some enslaved people worked inside of the plantation’s distillery, operating the machine equipment which turned the raw sugar cane into products, such as molasses or rum, to be shipped to France. This was also extremely dangerous work as you could accidentally lose a finger, or even a hand in the process. 

Rachel Willis
Trois-Rivières Distillerie, Trois-Rivières, Martinique

Photo 4: “Victim of the Black Code”

Perhaps the Meskwaki, rebelling against their fate at the hands of the French, would have tried to run away. Under the Code Noir - or Black Code - a series of laws related to the treatment of slaves in French territories, the penalty for running away the first time would have been to have their ears cut off; the second time one of their legs; and the third time they would be executed, a punishment that is depicted by the severed head you see here, at the Savane des Esclaves memorial in Trois-Ilets.

Rachel Willis
La Savane Des Esclaves, Trois-Îlets, Martiniquephoto

Photo 5: “Rape of an Enslaved Woman, Memorialized”

The female Meskwaki captives would have joined the ranks of other enslaved women in Martinique, who performed the same labor as men while also experiencing gender-specific forms of violence. That said, despite the fact that under the Code Noir, sexual relations between white men and enslaved women were prohibited, rape was rampant. In this memorial at La Savane Des Esclaves, an enslaved black woman is depicted fleeing from a white man with his genitals exposed behind her. The particular form of violence pictured here was facilitated and justified by a social hierarchy that valued both whiteness and patriarchy.    

Rachel Willis
La Savane Des Esclaves, Trois-Îlets, Martinique

Photo 6: “The Maroon”

However, it’s also possible that the Meskwaki could have been successful in their runaway attempt, and joined one of the many maroon communities on the island. Maroons were groups of runaways - mostly men - who formed their own  camps in the mountains or in remote locations far from the plantations. An armed maroon man is memorialized here at La Savane Des Esclaves in Trois-Îlets.

Rachel Willis
La Savane Des Esclaves, Trois-Îlets, Martinique

Photo 7: “The Shipwreck at L’Anse Caffard”

Of course, it is always possible that the Meskwaki never made it to Martinique at all, as was the case for the slave ship memorialized here at a site called L’Anse Caffard, in the town of Le Diamant. L’Anse Caffard is a monument erected in memory of the 40 captured men, women and children, who died aboard a slave ship that sank off the coast of Martinique in 1830.

Rachel Willis
L’Anse Caffard, Le Diamant, Martinique

Photo 8: “Memorializing Slaveholders or, What’s in a Street Name?”

Meanwhile in Detroit, the French lost their foothold on the territory during the decades following the Fox Wars, and the area was taken over by the British. Despite the change of hands, Detroit continued to maintain a steady enslaved population, which included both people of African descent and indigenous Americans. Their slaveholders, many of whom were prominent men in early Detroit history, are memorialized by street names in Detroit today, as pictured here. 

Kaisha Brezina
Detroit, Michigan

Photo 9: “President Jefferson’s Man: Site of William Hull’s House”

As the 18th century closed, and the 19th century opened, Detroit saw another change of hands, after the American colonies defeated the British in the War of Independence. Thomas Jefferson appointed a man named William Hull as governor of the Michigan territory. Perhaps due to the long history of indigenous armed resistance, Hull was concerned about attacks from nearby Native communities, and decided to form a militia made up of Black men, most of whom were runaway slaves trying to reach Canada, to fight them. The site of his home is pictured here.

Rachel Willis
Detroit, Michigan

 

Photo 10 “The Whipping Post: 2014” & Photo 11: “The Whipping post: 2019”

Although being enslaved in Detroit did not mean toiling away on a plantation as it did for most enslaved people in Martinique, slaves in Detroit were still subject to the whims of their slaveholders, and could be punished in whatever way he or she deemed fit, such as through a public whipping. Here is the approximate site of a whipping post that would have been used for such purposes 300 years ago. The photo on the left was taken by Dr. Tiya Miles and her team in 2014, while the photo on the right was taken in 2019 by Rachel Willis and Emily Na in the same location. As you can see, the white settler violence that once characterized this space remains as absent of physical markers as it was in 2014, but is now further masked by the flowers and picnic tables that gentrification has brought to downtown Detroit within the last 5 years. 

Michelle Cassidy (2014) & Rachel Willis (2019)
Detroit, Michigan

Photo 12: “A Case of Marronage: Site of Lisette Denison Forth’s House”

Despite the ongoing domestic slave trade in the United States, some enslaved people in Detroit managed to maneuver their way to freedom, as was the case for the family of Lisette Denison Forth, who crossed over to Canada and then returned to U.S. territory as free people, and were among Detroit’s small free Black population before the Civil War. Lisette Forth eventually went on to own property in Detroit, including a home the site of which is pictured here.

Michelle Cassidy
Detroit, Michigan

Photo 13: “Gateway to Freedom”

During the 1800s up until the Civil War, enslaved people from all over the southern U.S. came to Detroit via the Underground Railroad in order to cross over to Canada and gain freedom. This is what the city has primarily come to be celebrated and widely-known for in relation to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, memorialized by the Gateway to Freedom monuments, one of the Detroit side (pictured here) and one on the Canadian side.  

Rachel Willis
Detroit, Michigan

About the Artist

Rachel Willis grew up on Detroit’s west side and is a proud former student of Detroit Public Schools. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in French & Francophone Studies from the University of Michigan in May 2019 and is currently completing an accelerated Master of Arts in Transcultural Studies. She is interested in Francophone and Caribbean history and is passionate about making history accessible for all.