Jamon Jordan teaches the hidden Black histories of Detroit

click to enlarge Jamon Jordan teaches the hidden Black histories of Detroit
Courtesy of Jamon Jordan

In 1999, Jamon Jordan became a public school teacher. Twenty years later, he’s a different kind of educator, leading tours about African-American history in Detroit on topics ranging from slavery to Motown.

As a social studies teacher at schools in and around Detroit, Jordan noticed that the curriculum often left out African-American history. He decided to do something about it.

“I was including it, even when it wasn’t in the textbook and even when it wasn’t in the curriculum,” Jordan says. “I was personally making sure that African-American history got covered as well.”

As times changed, Jordan found that the official curriculum began to include African-American history. His students knew about the role of cities like Selma and Montgomery in the civil rights movement, and the importance of Oakland as the birthplace of the Black Panther Party. They knew about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland. But what the students didn’t know was how Detroit was involved with these histories.

“Detroit had an underground railroad — they didn’t know that,” he says. “Detroit played a part in the civil rights movement and fighting for housing and fighting against school discrimination — they didn’t know that. They didn’t even know that Rosa Parks lived in the city of Detroit longer than she lived in Montgomery, Alabama. Part of the time I was teaching, Rosa Parks was still living in the city of Detroit, and they didn’t know that.”

Jordan set out to change that by taking his students on field trips to historic sites around Detroit. “If it was about civil rights, I took them to the home of Dr. Ossian Sweet,” he says. “If it was about the radical movements or the Black Panther Party or the Nation of Islam or Malcolm X, then I took them to see where the mosque was when Malcolm X was the leader of the Nation of Islam, on Linwood. I took them to see the church known as the Shrine of the Black Madonna. I took them to see where the 1967 rebellion started.”

These field trips became popular among his students’ parents, who heard about the trips from their children — and even other people wanted to come on the school trips that weren’t parents. “I said, ‘This is a school, you can’t go on a school field trip with children, that’s not allowed,’” he says. “So on weekends and summers, I began doing this like a hobby — just taking people who wanted to know about Detroit’s history.”

Eventually, Jordan was splitting his time between teaching and tours. For the past five years, he’s focused solely on his tour business, Black Scroll Network History & Tours.

While Jordan doesn’t teach in a classroom anymore, he still has the patient demeanor of a teacher. On a recent tour about the history of slavery in Detroit, he told the group that male Indigenous slaves were the least valuable. “Why do you think that is?” he asked. When no one volunteered an answer, he explained that it was because they escaped so easily. “This was their home terrain,” he says. “They knew exactly where to hide to be safe.”

Jordan’s enthusiastic storytelling and attention to detail set Black Scroll Network History & Tours apart from other city tours. On the Pathway to Freedom tour, he takes visitors to sites in Detroit such as the Second Baptist Church, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Meanwhile, on the Royal African tour, which takes place at the DIA, he takes participants on a trip through ancient Egypt and Africa by way of the museum’s artwork.

In the years since he founded Black Scroll Network History & Tours, Jordan has expanded his programming to include tours about slavery, segregation, music, and Detroit’s Black neighborhoods. He does walking tours as well as bus tours, and has formed partnerships with the Detroit Association of Women’s Clubs, the Detroit Historical Museum, and the Charles H. Wright Museum.

In addition to tourists from around the country, natives of Detroit also attend to learn about their hometown. Jordan often leads groups from universities, including students from local colleges like the University of Michigan, as well as other institutions and social justice groups from across the U.S.

Jamon Jordan teaches the hidden Black histories of Detroit
Courtesy of Jamon Jordan

One of Jordan’s tours, Detroit Divided, focuses on the history of racial inequality, housing and school segregation, and how people organized against these policies and attitudes. One important stop on the tour is the former site of the house of Fanny Richards — the first Black public school teacher in Detroit, who helped sponsor a lawsuit to overturn segregation in Detroit Public Schools in 1869, 85 years before Brown v. Board of Education.

Jordan’s Black Paradise tour covers the history of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, two of the city’s historic Black neighborhoods that also included other groups, including Jewish people and immigrants from Germany, Greece, Poland, and Italy.

“Paradise Valley was the Black business district in the city of Detroit from the 1920s to the 1960s,” he says. “Both Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were destroyed because of urban renewal policies.” The National Housing Act of 1949 gave funds for the city to begin urban renewal and slum clearance, though Jordan notes that African-Americans called the practice "Negro removal" because of how the act targeted Black neighborhoods.

Another piece of national legislation helped ensure the destruction of Detroit’s Black neighborhoods: the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1966. After the mayor and city council approved the construction of Interstate 375 in downtown Detroit, Hastings Street, which was the center of activity in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, was cleared to make way for the new highway. Jordan explains that parts of Black Bottom are now Lafayette Park, Elmwood Park, and Greektown.

Jordan thinks it’s important for people to learn about Detroit’s history, since stories are still being told that don’t recognize the role of racism and discrimination in the history of the city.

“People need to know this history, because there’s a narrative about the city of Detroit,” Jordan says. “Sometimes it’s explicitly stated, sometimes it’s implied, but it kind of goes, ‘Things were great in the city of Detroit. The French arrived in 1701, Detroit was booming, it began to grow, and then Henry Ford started his car company along with a bunch of other auto factories. Detroit became a major city with 2 million people — and then Black people showed up. And when Black people showed up, the city began to decline, and white folks left.’”

In recent years, we have Dan Gilbert, Mike Duggan, and the late Mike Ilitch: “Three great white guys who are now making the city great again,” Jordan says. “It’s almost like ‘Make America Great Again.’ The ideology behind both ideas is the same.”

But what that ideology misses, Jordan says, is the role discrimination played in decimating Black businesses.

“The government removed African-American businesses, while at the same time today, the government rewards businesses,” like Gilbert’s Bedrock, or the Ilitches’ Red Wings arena, he says. “They get taxpayer funds to build their skyscrapers. They get taxpayer funds to build the Little Caesars Arena. But African-Americans not only did not get taxpayer funds, the government kicked them out and built a freeway through their business district.”

Jordan imagines an alternate history in which Black business owners were supported by the government, rather than wiped out by its policies.

“Instead of two or three billionaires running downtown Detroit, there would be 30 or 40 or maybe even 50 millionaires — they wouldn’t be billionaires — many of whom would be African-American, who would be behind the development in downtown Detroit,” Jordan says, “But that reality was stunted — not by the Ku Klux Klan, not by some fringe organization, but by the government. The national government, the state government, and the city government.”

One way to educate people about little-known facets of Detroit’s history is to add information to historical plaques and monuments. But not every monument tells the whole story.

The history of slavery in Detroit is especially hidden. Jordan explains that Michigan territory Gov. Lewis Cass was instrumental in instituting the Indian Removal Act in 1830. About 100,000 Indigenous people were displaced, and as many as 6,000 died en route. Cass was also a slave-owner, as were the Woodwards, the Campau family, John R. Williams, and Elijah Brush. Few know that these famous Detroiters, for whom many of the city’s streets, institutions, schools, and buildings are named, participated in the slave trade.

Tiya Miles, a professor at Harvard University, created an online resource in 2014 called Mapping Slavery in Detroit with a team of students when she worked at the University of Michigan. Jordan met Miles at a conference about five years ago, and began using her work as a resource for his tours about slavery. Miles’ books and website helped him find additional sites for his tours and became resources for Jordan to learn new information about historical figures.

Like Jordan, Miles believes that learning about Detroit’s history with slavery is important to understanding present-day Detroit. “Because the past remains powerfully with us in the present — influencing group trajectories, shaping identities, and inspiring cultural productions — slavery is still a silent feature of the life of the city, where street signs continue to bear enslavers’ names,” Miles says.

Jordan first learned about the history of slavery in Detroit from Detroit Free Press writer Bill McGraw, who wrote a series of articles in 2001 on the topic. “It blew me away,” Jordan says. Even as a social studies teacher, he had never heard about this side of Detroit’s history.

“I was talking about slavery in Mississippi with my students, and slavery in the South,” he says. “I began to tell them the North had slavery — specifically, Detroit had slavery. I began to name the people who were involved in slavery in the history of Detroit.”

By leading tours on Detroit’s history, Jordan hopes to provide an alternative story about the role of African-Americans in the city. He thinks that highlighting the creativity, activism, and resilience of Black Detroiters — from slaves in the early history of the city to business owners in the early twentieth century — is key to creating a more equitable city.

“I like to talk about that history because I want people to have another narrative, so they can understand that things could have gone a different way,” Jordan says. “There were 350 Black-owned businesses in Paradise Valley in the 1930s. What would that look like in 2019 had they not been disrupted by a freeway taking the land from them?”

Jamon Jordan’s next tour, “Pathway to Freedom: The Underground Railroad From Oakland County to Detroit,” runs from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 15; more information can be found at Blackscrollnetwork.weebly.com. Tickets are $50.

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