On this frosty day, Stewart McMillin stands animated and oblivious to the cold, apparently warmed by his own unbridled enthusiasm. He’s the subject of a photo shoot at Elmwood Cemetery, but he’s the one with suggestions: This angle would capture old Bloody Run Creek; that angle would get Martin Luther King Jr. High School. You’d think he could bring the cemetery to life — and there’s no doubt he can bring history to life.
Elmwood Cemetery is just one of several extended stops on the black history tour that McMillin has conducted for more than 30 years now. As the final resting place of so many prominent Detroiters, particularly African-Americans, the site is a natural. Turn of the century composer Harry P. Guy, former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, and Charles H. Wright, founder of Detroit’s Museum of African-American History, are among the notables that McMillin will point out.
The former East Detroit High School history teacher and irrepressible history buff is conducting his nine-hour tour on Feb. 21. He knows people get tired, but says, “There is so much to cover.”
And in those years of leading tours, McMillin says questions about a white guy who grew up in the suburbs leading a black history tour in the city have come up only a couple of times: “My response is that Europeans can do black history tours, but a white person really does not know what it is really like to be a black person.
“Everyone needs to know the contributions that black people have made,” he adds. “Discrimination is based on ignorance, and when education is increased, hopefully discrimination will decrease.’
His own awareness of racism, he says, grew slowly.
McMillin says he became conscious of racial issues as a high school student in Grosse Pointe, but he didn’t really see their impact until he was an undergraduate at Michigan State University and his fraternity literally blackballed a potential member. That the rushee was a Chippewa Indian outweighed that he was “a scholar, athlete, nice guy,” says McMillin.
Later, as a substitute in the Detroit Public School system, he noticed the discrepancies between the schools where he taught and the Grosse Pointe schools that he and his younger brothers attended. Those observations affected his approach to teaching history when he went to work for East Detroit High School. He made field trips and tours a staple, including visits to Detroit high schools, and visits to East Detroit High from Detroit students.
“My students loved these experiences, and it is one of the things they mention first when I meet these students again — years later,” he says.
Not everyone was happy, McMillin says, noting that “certain individuals in the KKK would call my home with obscenities, threats, just because I was taking my students downtown and dealing with racism.” One comment McMillin remembers: “You are never going to become an old teacher.”
But he did, staying at East Detroit High School until 1993. He later taught art and architecture at Wayne State University, and he continues to teach through his tours.
“He really does his homework,” says Mary Graessle, who has taken five different tours with McMillin through her church group. Dana Gamarra, a former high school student of McMillin’s, describes him as pro-Detroit, pro-education and someone who tries to get young people involved in the city
This year’s tour will board a school bus outside McMillin’s Indian Village home at 9:30 a.m. and make extended stops at sites including Elmwood Cemetery, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History and the Tuskegee Airmen’s Museum. The bus will also drive through the old Black Bottom district and view other historic spots. Back in Indian Village around 6:30 p.m., there’ll be pizza and beer, a video on Detroit’s Paradise Valley and plenty to talk about.
Tour tickets are $45, lunch included; for information and reservations (through Feb. 16), call 313-922-1990 or e-mail [email protected].Joanna Galuszka is a Metro Times editorial intern. E-mail [email protected]