Sunday, April 21, 2024
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Detroit’s Black history should be shouted from the rooftops


Here’s why the founder Carter G. Woodson created Black History Month and how it’s different today than he originally planned.


When Dr. Carter G. Woodson — the second African American to graduate from Harvard University, the founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the Father of Black History — created Negro History Week in 1926, he probably was not thinking of Detroit.

And now that Negro History Week has grown into Black History Month, when we learn about and talk about Black History, many of us do not instinctively think of Detroit’s history as a major part of the conversation.

We may think of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who both escaped from slavery in Maryland and became great abolitionists and leaders of the Underground Railroad.

Carter G. Woodson in an undated photograph. Woodson is a founder of the Association for the Study of African American History, who first came up with the idea of the celebration that became Black History Month. Woodson, the son of recently-freed Virginia slaves who went on to earn a Ph.D in history from Harvard, originally came up with the idea as Negro History Week to encourage black Americans to become more interested in their own history. (Photo: Associated Press file)

Perhaps we discuss the life of the scientist George Washington Carver, whose revolutionary work with peanuts made him the most prominent Black scientists of the early 20th century, and one of the greatest scientists in American history.

During Black History Month, maybe you like to talk about the Civil Rights Movement in the South, and how African Americans sued, boycotted, marched, rallied, sat-in, freedom-rode and got arrested to desegregate schools, buses, lunch counters and gain the right to vote, with heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and John Lewis. 

The way we tell the stories of Black History often leaves Detroit’s story out. And with the monumental stories of people like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., and places like Tuskegee, Montgomery and Selma, Ala., and the 1963 March on Washington, maybe that’s understandable.

But it shouldn’t be understandable for those of us in Detroit.

There is no legitimate excuse for those of us in and around the city of Detroit to be unaware of the stories of Detroit’s Black History.

And there is no logical reason for those that know this history not to shout it from the rooftops.

So here I am, shouting.

Before Dred Scott, the Denisons fought for freedom

Dred Scott, an enslaved Black man, sued for his freedom as well as that of his wife, Harriet Robinson Scott. The case — Dred Scott vs. Sandford — reached the Supreme Court in 1857, ending in a ruling against Scott. Chief Justice Roger Taney, in his written opinion stated that Black people: “…had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

The Dred Scott case is one of the most famous legal decisions in US history.

However, we Detroiters should also know Denison vs. Tucker.

In 1807, Peter and Hannah Denison, a Black husband and wife, were freed from slavery by their slaveowner, Catherine Tucker. However, the Denisons’ four children, Elizabeth, Scipio, James and Peter Jr., were not freed by Tucker, who planned to pass down their children to her children as an inheritance.

Fifty years before the Dred Scott case, Peter and Hannah took the case to court. Territorial Supreme Court Justice Augustus Woodward ruled that Peter Jr., who was born after 1793 (a date which may have had to do with the Upper Canadian Act Against Slavery passed that year in neighboring territory) was to be freed at the age of 25. However, the other three Denison children — Elizabeth, Scipio and James, were to be enslaved for life.

The Denisons, with help from their father, escaped to Canada to achieve freedom, establishing Canada as a destination point for what would one day be called the Underground Railroad.

When Detroiters rose up 

In 1831, Nat Turner led a slave revolt in Southampton County, Va., in which more than 50 whites were killed. Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838 and became one of the greatest leaders, spokesmen and writers of the abolitionist movement.

But Detroiters should know that in 1833, about 400 Black people, along with a number of white abolitionists, staged an uprising to free a Black husband and wife who had been seized by slave catchers.

Thornton and Lucie Blackburn escaped from slavery in Louisville, Ky., on July 4, 1831, after Lucie had been sold as a “fancy woman,” a horrible euphemism for sexual slavery.

Skillman Branch of the Detroit Public Library on February 1, 2018 in downtown Detroit. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

In 1833, slavecatchers, along with Wayne County Sheriff John Wilson and Deputy Sheriff Alexander McArthur, captured the Blackburns and placed them in the city jail, then located on Farmer and Gratiot where the present-day Skillman Public Library sits.

On June 16, 1833, a young Black woman, Caroline French, visited Lucie Blackburn in her cell, and unbeknownst to the sheriff and deputy, switched clothes with Lucie. Lucie left the jail and was whisked away to Canada. Because Black men were especially feared in the wake of Turner’s rebellion, Thornton was not allowed visitors. The uprising severely injured sheriff John Wilson, freed Thornton Blackburn, and reunited him with his wife in Canada. Facing persecution for her role in the Blackburns’ escape, French followed the couple to Canada. She returned to Detroit later in life. 

The sheriff, John Wilson, would eventually die from his injuries.

The leaders of the uprising became the founders of Second Baptist Church, the oldest Black church in Michigan, and the center of Detroit’s Underground Railroad.

When Detroiters fought for equal education

You probably know about Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal, and therefore unconstitutional. You may also know about the later battle in Little Rock, Ark., when nine African-American students were admitted to Little Rock Central High School, and mobs of whites attempted to prevent them from getting into the school, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent the Army’s 101st Airborne to protect the students.

But Detroiters …

You should know that 85 years before Brown, and 88 years before the Little Rock Nine, Detroiters fought a major battle for school integration.

Detroit Public Schools was founded in 1842. There were no public schools for African Americans, but the school board authorized the existing school for Black students at Second Baptist Church as a “common school.” Eventually, the school was designated as “Colored School.”

By 1863, the school board authorized “Colored School #2.”

Fannie Richards, a Second Baptist member and highly skilled teacher, was hired at Colored School #2. Disgusted at the savage inequalities between the white and “colored” public schools, she joined with Second Baptist Church to fund and sponsor the lawsuit of Joseph Workman, a Black man who attempted to enroll his son at one of the white schools.

In 1869, 85 years before Brown v. Board, there was Workman v. Detroit Board of Education, a case that went to the Michigan Supreme Court, which rules that mandatory segregated schools are illegal in Michigan. Detroit then opened its first racially integrated school — Everett Elementary — and Fannie Richards was transferred there, becoming the first Black teacher of a racially integrated public school in Detroit.

Richards, who studied in Germany, brought the practice of kindergarten to the state of Michigan, and taught for 50 years.

When Detroiters fought for the right to vote

Of course, you know about Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, when hundreds of civil rights workers and thousands of Black Mississippians volunteered in efforts to register Black people in Mississippi to vote. The campaign brought about the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, led by legendary activist Fannie Lou Hamer — and the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.

However, Detroiters, you should know that in October 1843, Detroit hosted the Michigan Colored Convention. This state convention of “colored citizens” was held at Second Baptist Church, and developed a list of demands, including an end to slavery, equal education and the right of Black people to vote.

Richard Gordon, one of the co-chairs of the convention, would attempt to vote in Detroit in 1844, and would be prevented from doing so by a poll worker. After Gordon won in the lower court, the case was appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court. In 1847, that court ruled against Gordon’s right to vote.

Black people in Detroit were fighting for voting rights nearly a century before Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 and the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965.

You should know about Paradise Valley

If you know about the music, art, poetry, literature, dance and the growth of African-American culture in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, then as a Detroiter, you should know about Paradise Valley, the Black economic and entertainment district that existed in Detroit from the 1920s until the 1950s. Jazz clubs, theaters, restaurants, bars, stylish hotels, and other businesses were concentrated in the lower east side neighborhood on and near Hastings Street, just north of Gratiot.

African Americans would even save Orchestra Hall, by taking it over and making it the Paradise Theater from 1941 to 1951. The Gotham Hotel, the five-star Black-owned hotel on John R, was the upscale lodging site listed in the Green Book from 1943 until its closing in 1963.

The Forest Club, on Forest and Hastings, with its roller rink, its bowling alley, and its 107-foot-long bar made it the largest Detroit nightclub.

It is this history of business and entertainment that created the foundation for what would be the most famous Black-owned record company in the country — Motown.

Motown recorded history

Motown Records would record the keynote speech after what was, at the time, the largest civil rights demonstration in history in June 1943.

The Detroit Walk to Freedom, organized by the Detroit Council for Human Rights, was led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. C.L. Franklin of New Bethel Baptist Church, Rev. Albert Cleage Jr. of Central United Church of Christ (Cleage would later be known as Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, and the church would become the Shrine of the Black Madonna) and Benjamin McFall of McFall Brothers Funeral Home.

They joined with UAW President Walter P. Reuther, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh and former Michigan Gov. John Swainson, to lead 125,000 marchers from Adelaide and Woodward to Cobo Arena, where they would hear Dr. King speak, culminating with an early rendition of the “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered in Detroit two months before the March on Washington.

When Rosa Parks was a Detroiter

Rosa Parks is one of the most famous civil rights icons in history.

Her story is always centered on one day in Montgomery, Ala., and the 382-day bus boycott that followed. But her civil rights activism didn’t begin on that day, nor did it end there.

Rosa Parks had been a civil rights activist for years before Dec. 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. By the way, Second Baptist Church in Detroit was the largest donor to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

And after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Parks came to Detroit, and continued her civil rights activism here.

While in Detroit, Rosa Parks was involved in the fight against housing segregation. She campaigned for John Conyers, who would go on to be the second-longest serving representative in the history of the US Congress. She, along with Aretha Franklin, supported Angela Davis, and raised money for the Angela Davis Defense. Parks served on the People’s Tribunal for the Algiers Motel killings during the 1967 Rebellion.

Rosa Parks lived in Detroit longer than she lived in Montgomery, and was just as much an activist in Detroit as she was in Alabama.

Black history is Detroit’s history

So, Detroiters … don’t forget to say that during slavery, Detroit was a center of the Underground Railroad. Second Baptist Church was an important station on the Underground Railroad, and it was here in Detroit where Frederick Douglass met John Brown to discuss his plans to attack the military arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va.

During the Jazz Age, Detroit was a center of African-American music, culture, business and performance.

It is no accident that Motown Records is founded in Detroit. It is the logical outcome of being in a city with a rich foundation of the music and business history that was the structure of Paradise Valley.

Hitsville U.S.A., a museum dedicated to Motown, is on Grand Boulevard in Detroit. (Photo: KENT PHILLIPS, DETROIT FREE PRESS)

Even before the Civil Rights Movement, Detroit was the site for the fight against housing discrimination, school inequality, police brutality and northern Jim Crow.

From Dr. Ossian and Gladys Sweet’s defense of their home in 1925, to the battle at the Sojourner Truth Housing Projects in 1942, and the Orsel & Minnie McGhee case of 1944 (which would reach the Supreme Court in 1947) Detroit broke ground on the battle for fair housing.

From the Detroit Walk to Freedom and Rosa Parks’ activism in Detroit to Milliken vs. Bradley and Gary B. vs. Whitmer, activists in Detroit remained committed to fighting against job discrimination and school inequality.

We know of much of the great Black history that occurred in other places in this country. But we cannot leave out Detroit.

We know the Detroit’s auto industry changed the world.

But as much as Detroit changed the world, Black history changed Detroit.

Black history is Detroit’s history.

And Detroiters oughta know.

Jamon Jordan, a Detroit historian, is the founder of the Black Scroll Network History & Tours. 

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