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Two Detroits

Tale of Two CitiesBy Jamon Jordan

I just read Malik Yakini’s interview in the recent Metro Times issue. In just a few statements, he hit key points African Americans face nationally and locally, ranging from white supremacy, to food policy, to Black self-determination, to race and class disparities.

What I really applaud was his framing of the “two Detroits” concept. Baba Malik outlined how one Detroit located in the downtown/Midtown area has more resources, obtains more benefits, is more influential, is more powerful and is predominantly white; and the other Detroit has virtually none of this wealth, power and influence and is predominantly Black.

I would like to add that there has been an historical Two Detroits paradigm, especially as it pertains to Black community development. When Detroit’s first white settlers were beginning to take over land near the riverfront, they set up a fort that created a physical barrier separating them from the indigenous people of this area.

But even inside the fort, there was the racial dichotomy of two Detroits. St. Anne’s Church, the oldest European religious institution in Detroit, which was originally housed within Fort Pontchartrain Du Detroit, has a burial record of “unknown negresse,” who no doubt was enslaved by one of the mainly French residents of the fort.

As the French began to move outside of the fort, they developed ribbon farms — long narrow farms that ran from the Detroit River into the growing town of Detroit. These French ribbon farmers left their names as a legacy in Detroit. Chene, Beaubien, Randolph and others were beginning to make a living in farming, with riverfront access for trade and transportation, while at the same time enslaving Africans and restricting their movement, as these white farmers benefitted from the slave trade.

When Michigan becomes “American,” and the Northwest Ordinance outlaws slavery in its borders, there are special “carve-out” exceptions and agreements, that allow the British and French residents, who were the majority white population here in Detroit, to continue enslaving Africans and Native Americans. The 1805 Great Detroit Fire didn’t change this in the least.

When slaveowner President Thomas Jefferson appoints his friend Augustus Woodward, as Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory, Detroit is ripe for a growth spurt. At the time, slavery is still legal in Canada. When two Africans escape from Windsor and make it to Detroit, Woodward declares that anyone “who comes into this territory is a freeman,” preventing the return of the Africans to enslavement.

However, at the same time, Woodward declared that the French and British settlers could continue to enslave Africans if they were already living here prior to 1796. Of course, that kept most Black people who were here enslaved.

During the period of heavy activity in the Underground Railroad in Detroit, there were Black firebrands like William Lambert and George DeBaptiste, and William Webb organizing vigilance committees, and networks in order to help Black people escape from enslavement.

There were also whites like Seymour Finney, Zachariah Chandler and Samuel Zug heavily involved and invested in anti-slavery activity.

But before you get the idea that Detroit was a “bastion of freedom,” please understand that the most powerful and wealthiest Detroiters were pro-slavery white supremacists.

Wealthy individuals like William Macomb and the Dequindre family owned numerous African people. In 1827, a law was enacted to require “negroes and mulattoes” coming to Michigan to pay $500 and register in the county clerk’s office. This was a racist attempt to keep free Africans out of Michigan, especially Detroit.

The wealthiest Detroit family of the 1800s, was the Campau family, and it was Joseph Campau and his nephew John R. Williams, whose money backed what is now the oldest Michigan business, the Michigan Intelligencer and Detroit Free Press. Now known as simply, the Detroit Free Press, it was the strongest voice of pro-slavery, racist ideas throughout the 1800s, even during and after the Civil War!

So on the one end, you have a Black community struggling in the downtown Detroit area for liberation, but a wealthy and more powerful white Detroit community struggling to strengthen slavery and white supremacy.

In the early 1900s, the Black institutions, which were started to fight against slavery and for Black self-determination were located in the city’s lower east side. This area, known as Black Bottom would become the center of Black life until at least the 1950s.

Black people leaving the South, in what is known as the Great Migration, began to settle in this area, especially after Henry Ford announced his $5 a day salary. However, what is not discussed, is that many whites, especially from Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina also came to Detroit during that time, and were hired by the auto plants, and became the supervisors of the Black workers.

They went from “overseers” to “foremen” in a generation, and instead of being plantation supervisors, became “plant supervisors.” The same class of white people, holding the same ideology and opinions on race, who used to force Black people to work from “can’t see to can’t see,” were now running Black workers in the foundries, and the other dangerous and arduous divisions of the auto industry. Of course, many of these whites also joined the police department.

North of Black Bottom and related directly to it, was Paradise Valley, the predominately Black entertainment and business district. While that reality existed, the other reality was that Detroit was ground zero for white supremacist groups.

The Black Legion, a breakaway group of the Ohio Ku Klux Klan, and most notorious for their involvement in the kidnapping and murdering of WPA worker Charles Poole in southwest Detroit, as well as the Lansing murder of Malcolm X’s father, Earl Little, set up some of its major centers in and around Detroit.

One of its headquarters was in Highland Park, in walking distance from Henry Ford’s Model T plant. While Black Ford employees were proudly displaying their Ford badges in Black churches like Second Baptist, St. Matthews and Bethel AME, Black Legion members were getting special privileges for wearing their badges at General Motors, Hudson’s, Ford and Packard.

Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were basically a “city within a city.” The most evident exhibit of the Two Detroits model.

By 1930, there were over 200 businesses owned by Black people in this area. So when we get to Mayor Edward Jeffries’ 1946 Detroit Plan and the destruction of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley and its businesses in order to bolster a white business center in the downtown area as well as create I-75 & I-375, we see the Two Detroits model again.

As Malcolm X asked Detroiters in his 1963 speech “Message to the Grassroots,” “Is Hastings St. still here?” No Malcolm. It is now a freeway. And Black Bottom is Lafayette Park, and Paradise Valley is Ford Field and Comerica Park.

Today, we see the development of downtown, Midtown, and even Corktown with massive taxpayer subsidies or one-dollar-land-deals, or massive tax abatements to businesses from Whole Foods to Meijer’s. This has created the Ilitch District, Gilbertville and Hantz Farms.

The creation of two Detroits is political, racial and artificial. It has not been done by accident, or by osmosis, but by public policy and financial dealmaking.

Its success is banked on white privilege, white supremacy and marginalization of the Black community. To add insult to injury, plans are now in the making to pave over I-375 — which was built to and destroyed part of the Black center of life in Detroit — in order to make the area more amenable to the planned Gilbert entertainment district that includes Greektown Casino as well as the Wayne County jail site that he is scheduled to be taking over.

From the first riots and rebellions, to persistent racial segregation, discrimination and oppression, to the founding of a police department in Detroit, the story of Two Detroits — one white and powerful, the other, Black and exploited, has continued.

Recently, I joined a “Detroit tour” offered by the downtown hipster group D-Hive. In this two- hour tour that took place mostly in areas that were important in the Underground Railroad, as well as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, there was nothing uttered about the importance of these sites to Black history in Detroit.

In a city that is at least 85 percent African American, there was no utterance, no suggestion, no discussion, in a two-hour tour of Detroit’s Black history.

There are still two Detroits. Denying it is either naive or dishonest.

Jamon Jordan is an educator, writer and historian. Also known as Baba Jamon, he was a teacher of Black history for 15 years.  He  runs Black Scroll History & Tours, where he leads lecture tours and gives presentations dealing with African and African American history, in the Detroit area, and throughout Michigan and the United States. He can be reached at blackscrollnetwork@gmail or follow him on Facebook.

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