The oppressive history of curfews in Detroit

The oppressive history of curfews in Detroit

Historian Jamon Jordan traces the roots of Detroit's protest curfews to a Black uprising in 1833.

After two nights of anti-police brutality protests in downtown Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan on Sunday announced a citywide curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.. Officers have used the curfew — which makes an exception for going to work, dealing with an emergency or patronizing a business — to force protesters, rallying in outrage over the police killing of George Floyd, to disperse as daily rallies continue. On Tuesday, police ended the demonstration by arresting the most protesters so far, 127, almost all for violating the curfew.

While protesters and spectators have decried police violence during protests, Duggan and Police Chief James Craig have instead blamed the violence on a small group of outside agitators who they say have planned attacks using the cover of darkness, making the curfew necessary. On Wednesday, Craig said he would not enforce the curfew that night in support of the peaceful protests. (Other cities in Michigan and other states have also enacted curfews.)

There’s ongoing debate about whether the protests should be nonviolent or a more militant uprising against police brutality and other forms of racism. There are also arguments over whether and how suburbanites and non-Detroiters should participate in the city’s protests. 

But all of us in Detroit have been under curfew. And we are not the first Detroiters to be so. Over nearly 200 years, local officials have routinely instated curfews — often to limit the freedoms of Black Detroiters and quell activist movements. 

In 2012, City Council began issuing curfews for minors the night of the Fourth of July fireworks (usually held in June), applying to the whole city and with no exceptions for First Amendment-protected activities. In 2015, police proposed extending the curfew for several days, prompting grassroots organizations and the ACLU of Michigan to challenge the rules, and that year’s ordinance was less restrictive than in past summers

A few decades earlier, officials issued curfews each October. For years, “Devil’s Night” – the night before Halloween — came with scores of fires as arsonists destroyed Detroit homes, businesses and vacant buildings. In the mid-1980s, curfews were used as an attempt to address the problem, and in 1995, the city government announced “Angel’s Night,” with a three-day curfew from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1, volunteer patrols and increased police presence aimed at curbing arson. It has been largely successful. 

Go back another generation, and maybe you remember the 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. curfew set by then-Mayor Jerome Cavanagh on July 23, 1967, the beginning of the Detroit 1967 Rebellion. Gov. George Romney also declared a curfew. And numerous cities throughout the state declared curfews, even though there had been no unrest there.

Birmingham had a curfew.
Dearborn had a curfew.
Livonia had a curfew.
All of the Grosse Pointes had curfews.
Flint had a curfew.
Royal Oak had a curfew.
Grand Rapids had a curfew.

In some of those suburbs, like Dearborn and Grosse Pointe, police officers stood guard at their city’s border with Detroit, to deal with any suspected Detroit rioter who crossed into the suburb.

At that time, the National Guard, the Michigan State Police and the Detroit Police Department were enforcing the curfew, often with deadly responses to curfew violators.

Police arresting a man during the 1942 riot at the Sojourner Truth housing project in Detroit, a precursor to the riot of 1943. Photographer: Arthur Siegel. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection.

Jump back another couple decades. You’re probably not old enough to remember the three-day race riot in Detroit during June of 1943. Mayor Edward Jeffries and Michigan Gov. Harry Kelly enacted a 9 p.m. curfew, enforced with support from federal troops sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although white curfew violators were largely ignored by the Detroit police, white officers arrested African Americans in front of their homes for violating curfew, and even shot African Americans for violating curfew. 

But the very first curfew in Detroit — the very first curfew in the state’s history — was after the 1833 uprising to free Thornton Blackburn from slavery.

Hundreds of Black people came to the jail in Detroit to stop slave-catchers, or bounty hunters, from returning Blackburn to slavery in Kentucky, two years after he escaped. Thornton’s wife Rutha (who would later change her name to “Lucie” Blackburn) had been rescued the prior day by a Black Detroiter, Caroline French, who had visited the jail and switched clothes with Rutha so she could escape across the Detroit River.

In the course of the standoff between the Black activists and the sheriff, the deputy and the slave-catchers, the sheriff was critically wounded. He would die later from those injuries. Thornton was rescued and transported to Canada, where he would be reunited with his wife.

A number of Black people who were accused of assisting the Blackburns were arrested. Some of them, deemed to be runaways, were extradited back to slaveowners in the South. Others fled to Canada. 

The author at the Gateway to Freedom memorial to the Underground Railroad in downtown Detroit. Courtesy Jamon Jordan

Under then-Mayor Marshall Chapin, city leaders responded to the uprising by creating more oppressive restrictions for Black residents. An ordinance passed in 1827 that stated all “negroes and mulattoes” must pay a $500 fee to the county clerk when they arrive in Michigan began to be strictly enforced. (In 1833 dollars, $500 is roughly the equivalent of $15,000).

A new ordinance forbade negroes from docking their boats on the Detroit River. And they had to stay away from the riverbank.

A 16-man patrol was created to assist the sheriff and deputies with patrolling the docks, putting down any other uprisings and enforcing the ordinances. This patrol was the precursor to the Detroit Police Department.

Negroes and mulattoes were required to carry lanterns when it was dark out and announce themselves to any white person they encountered in public. 

And finally, city aldermen passed an ordinance banning negroes and mulattoes from the streets every night at 9 p.m., Detroit’s first legal curfew. It lasted for months, but by 1844 was no longer being regularly enforced.

Curfews have a long history in Detroit, and have been used by Detroit governmental leaders for nearly two centuries. By design, they are a tool that empowers police to arrest large numbers of curfew violators, whether to prevent arson or quell protests.

And whenever there’s a serious protest or uprising, where hundreds of people gather in situations that may or may not become violent, you can expect a curfew.

You have 200 years of history riding on that bet.

Jamon Jordan is the historian and tour leader for Black Scroll Network History & Tours. He is president of the Detroit Chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.