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Black Bottom history lesson

French farmers were the first to name a part of Detroit “black bottom” because of the rich black soil there. In the early 20th century, the influx of thousands of “Blacks” into what had essentially been occupied before 1910 by immigrants from Europe, caused a host of social problems: the most prominent being the creation of this area — first a ghetto, then a slum.

In 1918, as many as 15,000 people were squeezed into the ghetto area. By 1920, “the Bottom” was a defined area within the city of Detroit, whose boundaries enclosed an enclave consisting of a radius of 20 city blocks. The perimeter loosely followed Rowena (Mack) on the north, Macomb on the south, Revard on the east and Beaubien on the west.

The “bottom” — a Black city within a city; which included Paradise Valley and Hastings Street — had everything from grocery stores to clothing stores, hospitals and music schools. Within the strip of land, called “Black Bottom” there were 17 Black-owned businesses in a five-square block area. In 1930, Bertha Hansbury opened her “Little Folk School,” a licensed home kindergarten on Frederick Street.

Biddy’s restaurant sold bologna sandwiches for five cents. Duke Ellington’s band ate at Biddy’s when he was in town. At one time, Biddy’s owner employed 80 waitresses and four cooks. Biddy was taken away by the freeway.

Before integration, Detroit’s, “‘Black Bottom’ actually had more Negro {sic} businesses than any other city in the country.” By 1940, Blacks had maximized the economic benefits of segregation and created for themselves a community that brought international fame to “Black Detroit.”

In 1940, Black Detroiters celebrated 75 years of progress. The focus was on “progress as reflected in science, technology, literature and religion; and was designed to create interracial goodwill and understanding. “At the close of this largest Negro (sic) affair of its kind ever staged in Michigan, more than 85, 000 persons had seen the various expressions and products of 75 years of Black progress.”

One such irony in history is that members of a race or nation unite only when they are oppressed or struggling against some external problems that existed. Once such victory is obtained, old conflicts reemerge.

We united around integration of our schools, removing the “Colored” signs on buses, and so on.  However, we were convinced by our leaders who believed that the ice cream was better across the street, that integration was what we needed. We forgot what Booker T.  Washington espoused: “We can be as separate as the fingers in all things social, yet,  ‘one’ as the hand in all things economical.”

So, we took our money out of our communities and transferred the wealth to the people across the street. Now that we have wiped out the “main” perpetrator, segregation, now we must figure out, how do we provide our youth jobs?

When did we ever build a factory?  Never. Instead, we protest for European-owned jobs.  Somewhere between passing a bill to make us human and believing white is better, stands self sufficiency; can you dig it?

The so-called African American community again today is in struggle against the powers that be — the ugly “white, you’re right” theory/complex called white supremacy.

Now is time for all men and women to come to the aid of the nation. There is a lot to be done to ensure our youth’s birthrights and to define and name ourselves to stop begging.

Join me in dialogue — with the object of planning our way of this condition and reminiscing — at the Spirit House  (8129 East Lafayette, Detroit) on Dec. 30 at 7 p.m.

— Excerpt from “A Hastings Street Opera: Black Detroit’s Economic District” by Azingha Bey-EL

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