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William Lambert

Detroit Free Press, January 5, 1890



Fifty years ago last Wednesday William Lambert, the veteran negro citizen of Detroit, reached this city to remain her permanently. He had been here three years before, but he remained but a few weeks. His first visit to Detroit was as cabin boy on a steamboat. Mr. Lambert was born free at Trenton, N.J., his father having been a slave who had bought his own freedom. In those days all negro children who received education in the common school branches, received it at the hands of Quakers and other philanthropic white people, and young Lambert was one who was so favored. After the historical Watt Tyler massacre the feeling against all people having African blood in their veins was so strong that it was very uncomfortable for them to live in counties bordering the southern states and so many of them moved into Canada. Young Lambert, about this time, accepted an invitation to accompany his schoolmaster, also a negro, on a visit to Canada. Reaching Buffalo, the teacher changed his mind and left the boy at that city while he took a run over to Toronto. The boy passed his leisure by haunting the wharves, and when the teacher returned to Buffalo he learned that Will Lambert had shipped aboard a steamboat. Upon reaching Detroit Lambert had had enough of sailing and so stopped off. He had no shoes or stockings, no coat and no hat, but he had a good constitution and could read, write and cipher quite well. More than that he had energy, self-confidence and ambition.

Three years after reaching Detroit to remain here permanently, he was the secretary of the first state convention of colored citizens of Michigan ever held and the following winter he made an able argument before the judiciary committee of the State Legislature in support of a resolution - adopted at the convention named - and of a petition signed by Judge Wilkens and forty other leading citizens of Michigan asking that the word "white" be stricken from the State Consitution. From that time to the time of John Brown he was an indefatigable worker in the cause of anti-slavery and it was at his house in this city that many meetings were held by John Brown and his followers, Mr. Lambert being one of them. The subject of this sketch, now over 70 years old, is full of thrilling reminiscences of the underground railway, and reels them off with great gusto. He is also well to do in a worldly sense, a member of the Episcopal Church, of many years standing, and one of the wardens of the St. Mathew's Church. A thorough believer in the inherent abilities of the negro race, he does not air his views except upon invitation, and then he argues clearly, forcibly and fairly, and greatly to the credit of that race of which he is so marked and able a representative.

Detroit Tribune, May 1, 1890.



The funeral of William Lambert, the highly respected Afro-American citizen and old time anti-slavery worker, was held from Christ church at 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon. The services were opened by Rev. Dr. C. H. Thompson, rector of St. Matthew's church. Rev. J. N. Blanchard, rector of St. John's church, read the lesson. There were also present Revs. G. Mott Williams of Milwaukee, John Munday, Paul Ziegler, W. Warne Wilson and G. M. Skinner. The creed was read by Rev. W. Warne Wilson and the blessing pronounced by Bishop Davies. The church was filled. Many prominent people were present, and others sent flowers. The ladies of St. Matthew's church sent a beautiful floral representation of the "Gate's Ajar." The gentlemen of the same rectory sent a floral anchor. Flowers were sent by Mrs. Pittman, Mrs. Thomas Fitts, and Mrs. H. H. H. Crapo Smith. The remains found their last resting place in Elmwood cemetery.

The active pallbearers were Dr. L. H. Johnson, Nathan Wilson, Alex. Bryant, Henry Parker, H. C. Clark and Charles Wilson. The honorary pallbearers were John Williams, Amos Burgess, John L. Martin, George Crisup, Thaddeus Warsaw, Robert Pelham, Sr., Alex. Grant, Theodore Finney, Charles W. Thompson, A. Lewis, C. Morrison, Peter Thomas, W. Beard, D. A. Straker and J. D. Carter.

Detroit Free Press, April 29, 1890




About 4:30 yesterday morning the dead body of the venerable William Lambert, Detroit's most prominent and distinguished colored citizen, was found hanging by a clothes line suspended from a rafter in the woodshed in the rear of his cozy home, 497 Larned street east. Sunday morning and evening Mr. Lambert attended service at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, of which he was a warden and prominent member, returning the evening about 9 o'clock. His wife soon retired for the night, but Mr. Lambert, in pursuance of a custom that he has observed for some time, sat down in a favorite rocking chair near a base-burner stove, in the family sitting-room, and alternately dosed and meditated. When his son, Cromwell, returned home about 11 o'clock his father was in his accustomed place by the stove, and the young man supposing that he would soon go to bed, went on upstairs to his own room.

At 4 o'clock yesterday morning Mrs. Lambert awoke, and discovering that her husband was not in the room, immediately aroused her sons, Cromwell and Benjamin, who made a careful search of the premises, with the startling result before stated. Benjamin, who first found his father hanging in the shed, at once cut the body down and sent for Dr. Lyster, who soon responded. The physician soon satisfied himself that there was no possible hope of resuscitating Mr. Lambert, as life had apparently been extinct for two or three hours at least. Coroner Brown was summoned and viewed the remains.

For the last three months the members of Mr. Lambert's family have observed with much concern that a change was gradually coming over him. He seemed to be losing his mental grasp, and developed a well-defined tendency to wander almost dazed, and it ws with considerable difficulty that he could be made to appreciate his surroundings. Dr. Eaton, who was consulted, said that he had incipient softening of the brain, and ought not to be permitted to be left alone at all. About two months ago he left the house in the night and was found early the next morning at his place of business, 273 Jefferson avenue. The probabilities are that while sitting by the fire Sunday night, he became unusually despondent, and the impulse to take his own life became so strong he could not resist it. The clothes line with which the suicidal act was consummated was doubled four times around Mr. Lambert's neck, and from the position in which he was found, it is believed that he stood on the partition of a coal bin until he had fastened the line to the ring in the rafter, and then jumped off.

William Lambert was well and favorably known in Detroit, where he has resided fifty-two years. He was born in Trenton, N.J., a little more than seventy-one years ago. At an early age he was taken in hand by a schoolmaster named Abner Francis, under whose tutelage he received a good education. In 1832 young Lambert accompanied Mr. Francis as far west as Buffalo, where they separated. Lambert shipping as a cabin boy on a vessel. During that season he made his first visit to Detroit. He returned east after a brief experience on the lakes, and remained there until 1838, when he took up his permanent residence in Detroit. He opened a small tailor shop at the corner of Brush and Larned and there carried on business in a modest, unpretentious way for a number of years. Subsequently he moved to 273 Jefferson avenue, where he has since remained.

During the operation of the fugitive slave law Mr. Lambert was one of the principal conductors of the underground railway, and through his efforts many a poor, despairing, hunted slave was helped across the border into Canada. He was a conspicuous figure in the Chatham convention that met in May, 1858, where John Brown and a score or so of the faithful met in conference. About that time Fred Douglass lectured in Detroit, and a meeting was held here at which that distinguished orator, Elder Monroe, George DeBaptiste, Isaac [ ], and Mr. Lambert were prominent figures. At these conferences Brown advanced his ideas and presented his plans, which were opposed by Douglass, but approved of by Lambert. At the Chatham conference a provisional constitution for the United States and a declaration of independence that John Brown had prepared, were adopted. The chief end aimed at in this constitution was the emancipation of all slaves, dissolution of the union was not asked for, nor anything subversive of good government advocated.

Mr. Lambert was elected treasurer of the league of liberty that came into existence after the convention adjourned, and in that capacity did much good work. Mr. Lambert was a man of wide information, a student all his life, and possessed the faculty of expressing his ideas and opinions with more than ordinary felicity. He was a contributor for several years to the Voice of the Fugitive, a Canadian publication that did notable service in behalf of the colored race. In this community Mr. Lambert has always held the friendship and respect of the very best people, who saw in him much to honor and esteem. He was an excellent and exemplary citizen in all the walks of life, and his demise will have the best and kindest thoughts of all. All day yesterday his late residence was thronged with friends and acquaintances, who called to tender their sympathies and condolence to the stricken family. Mr. Lambert had accumulated a handsome property, which is estimated at about $75,000. He was a Mason and Odd Fellow of high standing. He is survived by a widow and six children. His oldest son, Touissant, is a letter-carrier; another son is a resident of New Orleans, while his remaining sons, Cromwell and Benjamin W., have been associated with him in business. One daughter, Miss Ella, lives at home, the other is Mrs. Samuel Williams, of this city. The time of the funeral has not yet been definitely fixed.


Delivered at Detroit City Hall, Detroit, Michigan 10 January 1843.

The committee would respectfully report, that their efforts for the past year, though few and feeble, have far exceeded our most sanguine expectations. At the time it was first proposed to organize a Committee of Vigilance from among our own people, to watch over our interests - to draft our petitions to the Legislature, praying that we may enjoy the elective franchise in common with other men, or to do any other business which they may deem of importance to our people. It was argued by some, that there was no necessity for such a committee, as we had friends who were already advocating our cause, and endeavoring to elevate us to our rights. Therefore, we should stand still, lest we should take a burden upon our own shoulders, that we were not able to bear, and thereby retard the great enterprise which they were about to achieve. But the more reflecting portion of us, being well satisfied that the long lost rights and liberties of our people in this community, or in any other, could only be regained by our own exertions, elected and organized a committee of nine persons from among ourselves, and sent them forth to act in behalf of our whole people. As a matter of course, the want of experience in the various duties to be performed, caused much difficulty in deciding upon some definite plan of operating calmly, upon those difficult case which have hitherto heated the minds of our people with inflamed passion, and called forth their physical force, to consummate in riot and bloodshed, that which should have been done calmly, peaceably, and with deliberate reason. Thus have the committee learned from the past transactions of our people, as well as from history, that the spirit of physical conquest, led on by ignorance, was always formed in enmity, pursued in hatred, inflamed by passion, and consummated in riot and bloodshed, and often without accomplishing the object of its design. And as the object of the committee was to lay the foundation for the triumph of the just principles of liberty, and the right of all men to enjoy an equal protection, under the government in which they live, and this to be done under the dominion of calm and deliberate reason, have adopted morality as their shield - education, as their armor, and ungarnished truth as their weapon to carry on this moral and political warfare.

From these instruments, the committee have learned that education is the principle means by which an enslaved and degraded people can be elevated; and that our moral, upright and correct deportment will be one of the strongest arguments we can present, in favor of our universal elevation to our civil, religious and political rights. In laying down this plan, the committee have endeavored to impress upon the minds of our people the great necessity of laying aside those light and frivolous amusements of the giddy and gay, for the more calm, studious and reflecting mind of the Philosopher, and thereby bring ourselves and posterity within the benign influence of education, temperance and morality.

The committee would now respectfully report that they have seen their efforts abundantly blessed. They are now able to point to the names of from 60 to 70 individuals, from our own people, the majority having no children of their own to educate, who have resolved to contribute a portion of their daily earnings to support a day school where all sects and denominations may be taught free of charge. The committee are now able to enter into a day school supported principally by our people, and taught by a man of color, and there behold its scholars, making rapid strides in moral and intellectual improvement. They are also able to count the names of a hundred individuals who have laid aside the intoxicating bowl, and came and signed the "temperance pledge." They can also refer to a Young Man's Society, their debating Club, their Reading Room with a Library of Historical works, all established by their own individual exertions, to disseminate a general diffusion of knowledge among our people. The committee have beheld, with much joy, the organization of two Female Societies, whose objects appear to be education, temperance, economy, and the universal reformation of the present, as well as the rising generations. It is true that the committee have had cause to grieve, on seeing the spirit of ignorance rising up in the midst of our people, to draw a division, and thereby presenting itself an obstacle and stumbling block in the way of our general elevation. But as ignorance is the mother of misfortune, and its wars always formed in enmity, pursed in hatred and inflamed with passion, always destroys itself and sinks to its own level, without accomplishing its designs. Such has been the fate of those obstacles which presented themselves to retard the general reformation which we are about to achieve. Thus have the committee learned from experience as well as from history, the superiority of the moral and intellectual power over that of ignorance or physical force. The case of Nelson Hackett, a fugitive slave from Arkansas, is a striking evidence of the superiority of calm and deliberate reason, over that of hatred and inflamed passion. When Nelson Hackett was arrested in Chatham, brought and cast into Sandwich jail, information was forwarded to our committee that a slave had been pursed into Canada by his master, who had offered five hundred dollars for his arrest, and he had been arrested and cast into Sandwich jail, to await his trial at the Court of King's Bench. A portion of our committee made it our their business to attend that Court, and there learned from the presiding Judge that Nelson Hackett had been arrested on a charge of felony, and would remain in jail a certified time, and if sufficient proof should be brought within that time, the case would go before the Governor, and as there was no treaty stipulation (then) binding the two governments to agree up fugitives, and as Nelson Hackett was a slave, it was his decided opinion that he would not be given up. The committee returned to Detroit and reported. General information of the case was circulated among our people, recommending to keep a vigilant eye upon the course under the pursued by British law, in the case of a slave claimed on British soil, under the charge of felony. Nelson Hackett remained in Sandwich jail for several months. Inquiry was made, time after time, by the committee, respecting Nelson Hackett's case and all the information we could receive from our people in Sandwich was, they had been informed that he had been set at liberty, yet no one had seen him. Thus the case died gradually away, and faded from the minds of many. But the mysteriousness of the case excited the suspicion of our committee, and caused them to keep an eye of vigilance to ferret out the whole proceedings.

On the night of the 8th of February 1842, at a dark and late hour of the night, Nelson Hackett was taken out of Sandwich jail, conveyed across the river and lodged in our city prison, unknown to the inhabitants of Sandwich, or the good citizens of Detroit. But a vigilant eye encompassed the whole affair. General notice was circulated among our people, calm and deliberate reason was recommended as the basis of action; our friends and able counsel was consulted, who after examining the papers gave it as their opinion that they had been correctly made out, all had been legally done, as he was a felon, it was better to let him go back to the prison house of slavery, than to bring a reproach upon the cause of emancipation by insitituting a suit on his behalf. But the committee feeling themselves duty bound to act in his behalf called a general meeting of our people and resolved to publish the whole affair to the world, and thereby set a ball in motion that would roll into the British House of Commons. It had its desired effect; several letters were immediately received from distinguished persons in Canada, calling on the committee for more information upon the subject, and were all immediately answered. On the 26th of July 1842, a letter was received from England, calling on the committee for the names of all those concerned in the affair, with such other information as the committee was able to collect , such facts as the committee were in possession of were immediately forwarded. It is true that Nelson Hackett was returned to the prison house of bondage, but the name of "Nelson Hackett is now sounding upon the highest notes in the British Hose of Lords." Thus have the committee learned from experience, the superiority of moral and intellectual power, guided by calm, and deliberate reason, over that of ignorance and physical force, guided by heated and inflamed passion.

The committee while endeavoring to secure justice for our own people have also endeavored to impress upon their minds the great necessity of observing the law and becoming good and peaceable citizens. The committee was present themselves, before the good inhabitants of this community, to lay our people's claims upon your sympathy to act in our behalf. [William Lambert]

From THE BLACK ABOLITIONIST PAPERS, VOLUME III. C. Peter Ripley, Editor. University of North Carolina Press, pp 397-400.