Today in history: White mobs attacked blacks during Detroit race riot of 1863

The Detroit race riot of 1863.

An angry white mob violently attacked black residents and looted and burned down more than 30 homes and businesses in Detroit on this date in 1863 after a dark-skinned man was falsely convicted of raping two 9-year-old girls.

The race riot of 1863 ended with two people dead and dozens injured, prompting the creation of the first full-time police force in Detroit. It was “the bloodiest day that ever dawned on Detroit,” the Detroit Free Press reported at the time.

Less than three weeks before the riot broke out, Thomas Faulkner was accused of raping two young girls – one white, one black – by luring them into his saloon on Michigan Avenue. Police described Faulkner as “mulatto, not very dark-skinned, and would pass, if not scrutinized closely, as a white man,” according to a Detroit Free Press article on Feb. 23, 1863.

Faulkner said he was of Spanish-Indian descent and lived with the freedoms of a white man because of his relatively light skin.

Old Detroit City Hall.

Whatever the case, Faulkner was convicted of raping the girl on March 6, 1863. A white, angry mob gathered around City Hall and began to assault black residents.

“For some Detroiters, the Faulkner trial provided an opportunity to vent their growing frustration with the war, the national conscription law, and racial issues,” wrote author Tobin T. Buhk in his book, “True Crime in the Civil War.”

The Detroit Free Press fanned the flames by blaming black people for the Civil War and suggesting that they can’t be trusted. The competing Detroit Advertiser and Tribune declared, “This is a Free Press mob.”

When Faulkner was led out of City Hall by the Detroit Provost Guard to begin serving his life sentence, the mob rushed after Faulkner. The Provost Guard responded by firing a shot into the crowd, killing a white man.

The shooting sent the white mob into a fury. They began throwing stones, bricks and anything else they could find at properties owned by black residents on Beaubien Street. Houses were ransacked and burned to the ground on Lafayette Street. When black residents ran out of burning buildings, they were attacked by the mob.

One of the residents, Joshua Boyd, was hit in the head with an axe as he fled a burning house. He later died.

Several hundred black people were left homeless. Many of them had recently fled slavery and now were forced to leave Detroit; some of them fled to Canada. At the time, Detroit was 97% white and home to about 1,500 African Americans.

When the mob began burning down white homes, Mayor F.B. Phelps requested the help of independent military companies, which were able to quell the violence.

Years after the riot, the girls who blamed Faulkner for raping them testified that they fabricated the story. Faulkner was freed from jail in 1870, after spending seven years behind bars.

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Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.