Prophet of possibility Pt. II
Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman and the roots of black power in Detroit
By Paul Lee
Special to the Michigan Citizen
Pt. II of III:The economics of power
Black Star ventures
On Jan. 22, 1969, Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, then still known as the Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr., reviewed the contributions of the militant Citywide Citizens Action Committee (CCAC), which had been organized in the wake of Detroit’s destructive Rebellion in July 1967 as a broadly based, all-black coalition to achieve Black Power.
“The major emphasis of CCAC has been in the area of Economic Development,” he advised CCAC’s annual meeting at Central United Church of Christ, later Shrine of the Black Madonna #1. During its brief lifetime, CCAC had real achievements to show for its efforts.
In December 1967, it opened the Black Star Co-op Market, formerly Rashid’s Market, at 7525 Linwood, several doors south of the Central Church.
The Black Star name paid homage to the string of ambitious global enterprises established by the Hon. Marcus Garvey, the founder and president general of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities’ League of the World (UNIA-ACL), the largest mass black movement in modern times, whose legacy had been rescued from obscurity by a new generation of black nationalists, including Jaramogi Agyeman.
With church member and bookstore owner Ed Vaughn as president, the market was run by the Ashanti Co-op, Inc., in cooperation with the Shrine of the Black Madonna Economic Development Corp.
It was projected to be one of several “pilot cooperative projects,” including low-cost housing, designed to give black people a sense of ownership and possibility that would eventually lead to economic and political independence.
CCAC also opened the 24-hour Black Star Shell Service Center at Linwood and Clairmount, several blocks west of where the Rebellion began.
Additionally, it launched the Black Star Clothing Cooperative at 4808-10 Whitfield, west and north of the church near Joy Road, which produced African-inspired and “mod” clothing, as well as jewelry. It was formerly the small, black-owned Stockton Manufacturing Company, which specialized in women’s dresses.
In Vaughn’s original 1967 proposal for the factory, he pronounced it “a positive step forward in the Black Community.” “Our first line will be African attire, the latest and hottest clothing item in the Black community throughout America,” he wrote.
The service station and factory were operated under the umbrella of the church’s Black Star Cooperative Services, Inc., also directed by Vaughn.
Cultural center and bookstore
With an $85,000 grant provided by the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) of New York, CCAC purchased a two-story building at 13535 Livernois near Davison. The funds were channeled through the Shrine of the Black Madonna Economic Development Corp., which soon moved to the Livernois site.
“The grants were made without strings and with a complete understanding and acceptance of the principle of Self-determination,” Jaramogi Agyeman assured the 1969 CCAC meeting.
The clothing cooperative also moved into the Livernois building, with the “Afro-Mod Boutique” showroom on the first floor and the factory in the basement. A Black Star Nursery, which would serve 200 children, was also projected to be housed there.
According to a flier in the Shrine’s archives, the grand opening of the building was scheduled for March 1969, but was apparently postponed until June 1970, when it was named the Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Center and Bookstore.
It was directed by Barbara Martin, Jaramogi Agyeman’s sister, who was later known as Cardinal Nandi. Cultural centers were later opened at Detroit’s Eastside and Westside “satellite” shrines; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Atlanta, Ga.; and Houston, Tex.
They would eventually become the world’s largest black bookstore chain.
On Sept. 13, 1967, CCAC held a meeting at the International Mason’s Hall at St. Aubin and Gratiot on the city’s near Eastside to announce its “Achievements to Date.” These included:
- The People’s Tribunal.
- The bond posted for Michael Lewis.
-A conference with the “Hudson Committee” — that is, the New Detroit Committee (later New Detroit, Inc.), headed by young department store magnate Joseph L. Hudson, Jr., which was the white power structure’s effort to rebuild Detroit after the Rebellion.
- “Investigations of police criminality.”
- CCAC’s motorcades throughout Detroit, during which organizers distributed literature, spoke to residents about their concerns and announced CCAC’s plans; and
- CCAC’s “Demand for quality education” in the Detroit Public Schools, which had recently been disrupted by student strikes, most notably at Northern High School.
On Dec. 10, 1967, CCAC hosted what it advertised as “A Mammoth Variety Show to Launch the Black Cultural Revolution,” titled African-Soul ’68. Ed Vaughn organized the gala affair, which was held at the now-closed Ford Auditorium on Jefferson Avenue along Detroit’s riverfront (just west of where the Renaissance Center/General Motors Headquarters now stands).
By this time, Vaughn had already helped make a cultural statement that had worldwide impact.
In early 1967, in an effort to better reflect Central Church’s fast-evolving black-centered theology, Jaramogi Agyeman decided to cover over the church’s old chancel mural with a Black Christ painted by Detroit artist Jon Onye Lockard.
(The original mural portrayed the 1920 landing of Pilgrim Elder William Brewster at Plymouth Rock. Before being purchased by Jaramogi Agyeman, the church was known as Brewster-Pilgrim Congregational.)
However, Vaughn, as chair of the church’s Black Heritage committee, argued for a Black Madonna and child. He raised the money and hired local artist Glanton Dowdell, CCAC’s co-chair, to paint the now-iconic 18-foot image, which was unveiled on Easter Sunday, March 26, 1967.
It was inspired by “Black Madonna,” a poem by Detroit writer Harold Lawrence (later Kofi Wangara), which was published in the now-defunct Negro Digest in 1962.
Performers at African-Soul ’68 included the Jazz Nationalists with Michael Abbott; Central Church member and vocalist Connie Williams, daughter of church general treasurer Thomas Williams, later known as Cardinal Changa; the Concept East Theatre; church member and Motown saxophonist Thomas (Beans) Bowles; poet “Slick” (later Abdul Jalil) Campbell; the Black Freedom Dancers; and the Central Church choir.
“The Culture of Black people predates that of any other people,” Vaughn wrote in the handsome printed program. “The Black Man was the first to make Iron from Ore. Africa invented the Abacus, a hand computer. Medicine, surgery, art and crafts, were first pioneered by Black People. Needless to say, our History and our Culture have been stolen from us, but we are regaining them. We must now increase this momentum with revolutionary Zest and Zeal.”
To give practical expression to this recovery of black history and culture, the program advised its readers to “Give Your Child An African Name” and listed 14 Ghanaian names for boys and girls corresponding to each day of the week, which is traditional in many West African cultures.
Radio show and column
On Feb. 4, 1968, CCAC launched “Voice of the Black Nation” on black-owned radio station WCHB, which aired on Sundays from 8:30-9:30 p. m.
The program featured sermons by Jaramogi Agyeman recorded by Central Church member Ollie (later Omari) McKinney, who edited the tapes for broadcast; songs by the church’s choir, led by deacon Oscar Hand (later Ola Mwanza); and news from the Afro-American World Press Service.
McKinney’s tapes were later used to produce Jaramogi Agyeman’s first book, The Black Messiah (Mission, Kans.: Sheed and Ward-Universal Press Syndicate, 1968).
CCAC and Central Church member Grace Lee Boggs, the Chinese-American wife of radical black labor theorist James Boggs, took shorthand notes on Jaramogi Abebe’s sermons to produce his weekly column, “Message to the Black Nation,” in The Michigan Chronicle.
Dissolution and rebirth
Despite these accomplishments, which helped to revolutionize the thinking of many black people in Detroit as well as nationally, CCAC was to be short-lived.
Among other problems, it suffered from competition with and attacks by traditional civil-rights groups, which undermined CCAC’s promising efforts to obtain no-strings-attached financial support from white public, private and religious bodies.
However, more fundamentally, CCAC failed to elicit the support of the masses of black Detroiters, who found it difficult to grasp what Jaramogi Agyeman saw as the necessity of self-reliance and nationhood. They were still captives, he said, of “slave culture.”
At the CCAC annual meeting in early 1969, Jaramogi Agyeman presented an itemized accounting of the group’s operations and, in effect, closed the books on the organization. He said that it would be kept alive as a “standby group” in case of another Rebellion or emergency, in keeping with its origin.
However, Jaramogi Agyeman increasingly turned his energies inward towards the building of counter-institutions and a counter-culture through his church, which was formally rechristened the Shrine of the Black Madonna the following year.
But this did not signal the end of his extra-church efforts, particularly since he saw no division between the sacred and the secular.
With siblings attorney Henry Cleage, printer Hugh Cleage, physician Dr. Louis Cleage and bookstore manager Barbara Martin, as well as close friends Oscar Hand and William W. (Billy) Smith, Jaramogi Agyeman co-founded the Black Slate, Inc., in 1973, an independent, not-for-profit public relations and community service corporation that endorses candidates, which has played a major role in helping elect African Americans to local, state and federal offices.
Coleman A. Young, the city’s first black mayor, often credited the Black Slate for helping him to get elected.
Copyright © 2008 by Paul Lee
(Next week: “Spotlight on Black Power”)