When Kimberly Simmons’ third great-grandmother Caroline Qualls arrived in Detroit, she had been chased by bounty hunters from St. Louis all the way through Wisconsin. Fortunately, she arrived at “Midnight” – the code name for Detroit on the Underground Railroad, and was ferried across the Detroit River to safety in Canada under the protection of local station master William Lambert. Reaching freedom, she later took up residence in Sandwich (Windsor), Ontario. The year was 1842.
Today, a monument to the Underground Railroad at the foot of Hart Plaza memorializes Qualls’journey and others like her. It features a sculpture by renowned artist Ed Dwight of “freedom seekers” gazing across the Detroit River towards freedom in Canada. A companion sculpture lies on the other side of the river in Windsor, the Tower of Freedom which commemorates several areas of settlement for escaped slaves.
The monuments, together entitled “Gateway to Freedom International Memorial,” were erected as part of the Detroit 300 celebration in collaboration with the International Underground Railroad Monument Collaborative.
But Simmons has long had an even greater goal for the Detroit River. She believes it’s a prime candidate for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, placing it alongside the likes of Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, and the Acropolis. UNESCO World Heritage is “a designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity,” including places that feature natural and cultural heritage.
The United States is home to just 24 of the more than 1100 sites worldwide. For the past 15 years, Simmons has advocated that the Detroit River become the next one.
“A UNESCO World Heritage site becomes part of the United Nations family. That’s why it becomes an economic development opportunity,” Simmons, who established the nonprofit organization The Detroit River Project to help advocate for the Detroit River’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, told Planet Detroit.
Simmons will be honored on Wed. Oct. 5 by the Michigan Humanities Council for her “fifteen years of commitment to telling the stories of Michigan and highlighting the participation of African Americans in the making of our state and in crafting complex meanings of freedom,” Estee Schlenner, a communications coordinator with the Council, told Planet Detroit. The Michigan Humanities Council is one of 56 state and territorial humanities councils funded partly by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Its mission is “bringing people together through stories, histories, cultures, and conversations.”
It’s been largely an uphill battle for Simmons to gain interest in her idea. But in June of this year, the concept was officially supported by the UNESCO Routes of the Enslaved Peoples Project (formerly the UNESCO International Slave Route Project) during a meeting of the International Scientific Committee. And in 2019, the Detroit Urban Land Institute mentioned the potential of the UNESCO World Heritage Designation to help offset costs for the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy in a report on building financial sustainability for Detroit’s parks and open spaces. In addition to generating additional tourism, the designation could unlock federal funds from the National Park Service, the report points out.
In terms of official support, Simmons cited four U.S. Congressional resolutions, the latest in October 2021 introduced by Rep. Rashida Tlaib, support by the Consul General of Canada – Detroit, Joe Comartin, in February 2022, and most recently, a Detroit City Council Resolution in April 2022.
But while local economic development agencies have expressed verbal support for the concept to Simmons, she said none have as yet stepped forward with technical assistance or funding. It’s something that frustrates her because she sees a designation as a major tourism and economic development driver.
For the past fifteen years, Simmons has worked to keep the idea alive, which she’s done through her work with the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, as a Board member with the Windsor Detroit Bridge Authority, and most recently, as a Community Fellow with the Detroit River Story Lab at the University of Michigan, among many other engagements and posts.
She authored a chapter in A Fluid Frontier, a 2016 Wayne State University Press book on the role of Detroit in the Underground Railroad, and has helped establish a first-of-its-kind cross-border middle school curriculum based on the history of resistance and freedom tied to the Underground Railroad. The curriculum was piloted in 8 U.S. and Canadian school districts in 2022.
“Honestly, I think one reason it’s taken so long to get people on board is that it is being spearheaded by an African American woman who is not connected to the economic development community that is the primary driver of investment in Detroit,” said Jodee Raines, chief operating officer at the nonprofit New Detroit who has known Simmons for two decades.
“And Detroit does not do a great job honoring its history. Especially Black history as told by Black-led organizations,” Raines added.
But, Raines noted, Simmons is persistent, which is why she believes she is finally getting the recognition she deserves. Simmons believes the Detroit River will make the UNESCO list by 2027.
“I’ve been told it’s about a 20-year process,” she said. “This is cultural heritage tourism at its finest.”