This history tour shows Detroit’s pivotal role as a battleground for racial justice

Jun 12, 2018 at 7:30 am
Jamon Jordan. - Courtesy Black Scroll Network History & Tours
Courtesy Black Scroll Network History & Tours
Jamon Jordan.

We at Metro Times were recently introduced to the work of Jamon Jordan, who runs his own business called Black Scroll Network History & Tours. Born and raised in Highland Park and Detroit, Jordan attended public schools in both cities, graduating from Highland Park High School and completing his triple major of sociology, American history, and black studies at Western Michigan University.

He spent 20 years teaching, mainly classes in social studies to middle-school students at public and charter schools in Detroit. But with his grounding in black studies and Detroit history, he noticed a lot of missed opportunities to show how the forces of history coursed through our city, especially on matters of race.

“A lot of that history deals with issues that are specific to the history of Detroit, but the curriculum and the textbooks didn’t do that,” Jordan says. “Detroit plays a part in all these historical eras in American history, but it doesn’t show up that much in the history books until you get to Henry Ford. And when it comes to African American history Detroit doesn’t really figure prominently in any lesson plans until you get to Motown.”

So Jordan got creative. He began taking his students on field trips to historical sites in and around the city of Detroit. “And, of course, that’s what I do now as a business full time,” Jordan says, “lectures and presentations dealing with African American history mainly in and around the city of Detroit.”

Metro Times: Some people, white and black, may say black history isn’t for them. What would you say to them to whet their appetites for the subject?
Jamon Jordan: Well, history is the foundation of where we are. I think most people have an innate feeling they need to know it. The problem is history is often presented in a formulaic, boring way, Without the intrigue and drama, people fall asleep. On top of that, one of the things that I have to do, particularly in the city of Detroit, is acknowledge the fact that Detroit’s history is largely a history of race. To talk about Detroit’s history is often to talk around race, and so we talk about all these other things: the history of the auto manufacturers, the history of music, the history of falling down and being reborn again. So there are all these different narratives about the city of Detroit, and all of it is really just talking around the key aspect of the conversation, the issue that’s most central in Detroit’s history: the history of race and racism. You cannot understand much of Detroit’s history without understanding the history of race and racism in the city.
When people go on my tours and we talk about those things, people say, “This helps to explain a lot of what I didn’t understand about the city of Detroit.” And that’s both good and bad. It’s not all negative. Detroit’s African American population coming into Detroit during the Great Migration changed the city of Detroit, and was able to transform Detroit from what would have been a small Rust Belt City to the fourth-largest city in the country.

MT: What are the some of the things that wow people on your tours when they hear them for the first time
Jordan: Detroit’s radical history in the days of the Underground Railroad makes a powerful statement about the history of the city of Detroit. Detroit’s Underground Railroad activists were even more radical than the majority of the other Underground Railroad activists, so that’s an eye-opener for a lot of people.

MT: And some of those stories from those days are incredible, like the whole Blackburn affair.
Jordan: The story of Thornton and Rutha Blackburn is a powerful one. That’s a wild story no matter who hears it, African American or white. Thornton and Rutha Blackburn escaped from slavery in 1831 in Louisville, Ky., and made it to the city of Detroit. They had been living here for about two years before they were discovered by the a relative of Thornton’s slave owner. So two slave catchers, or bounty hunters, come to the city of Detroit and hire the sheriff and deputy to assist them in capturing Thornton and Rutha, which they do: Thornton and Rutha are captured and put into the city jail, now the site of the Skillman Library. They were to be held there while they waited for a steamship to come take them back south. While they were waiting, African Americans had a meeting at the home of Benjamin Willoughby, a prominent African-American who owned some land and a number of small businesses. In that meeting are Caroline French and Tabitha Lightfoot. And this is just really indicative of not just Detroit’s Underground Railroad but in some sense the Underground Railroad in general: Women, particularly African American women, played a central role in the Underground Railroad. They’re not off to the side, they’re not just window dressing, they’re leaders. At the meeting, a plan is concocted to do something to free Thornton and Rutha Blackburn. People who had attended the meeting went down to the jail to visit Thornton and Rutha Blackburn. Thornton was not allowed visitors, but Rutha was. So Caroline French and Tabitha Lightfoot go into the jail cell to meet with Rutha Blackburn and they’ve brought some home-cooked food with them, and they pray with her. But Caroline French switches clothes with Rutha, and when the sheriff, John Wilson, tells the visitors it’s time to go, Tabitha Lightfoot walks out with Rutha Blackburn wearing Caroline French’s clothes. She’s crying into her handkerchief walking right by the sheriff, who doesn’t know that the woman he should be holding is walking right past him, and the woman who should be walking out is still in the jail cell wearing the clothes of Rutha Blackburn. The next day when it’s time to take them back down into slavery, Caroline French reveals who she is, and she tells the sheriff that Rutha is by now in Canada and free. And since French is a free woman, the sheriff is going to have to let her go. The bounty hunters get paid based on bringing back property human property, so they lost half their bounty, and so they want to sell Caroline French to make up the difference of what they lost by losing Rutha. Caroline protests that they shouldn’t be able to sell her. Of course, by now, hundreds of people have gathered outside the jail, predominantly African American, but even white abolitionists were out there, and many were armed with sticks, knives, bricks, some have guns, and this is hundreds of people versus two slave catchers and the sheriff and a deputy, so they let Caroline French go. And in the melee of trying to transfer Thornton through this crowd, the sheriff is shot and later dies from his injuries, the deputy has to escape for a dear life, and the slave-catchers are rendered useless as the crowd frees Thornton and transports him to a boat where he crosses the river and reunites with his wife Rutha.

MT: That’s one hell of a story!
Jordan: It’s a devastating and powerful story. It’s also a foundational story for the building of African American history in the city of Detroit. You can’t really understand the birth of the African American community without knowing the story of Thornton and Rutha Blackburn, because the African American leaders who lead Thornton and Rutha Blackburn to freedom from City Jail are going to go on to be founders of some of the earliest institutions for African Americans in the city of Detroit. The first black church in the city of Detroit, the Second Baptist Church, was founded by Caroline French and her husband. Second Baptist will have the first school for African Americans in the city of Detroit. A member of that church, Fannie Richards, is going to become a teacher at the church and then lead a lawsuit to overturn segregation in public schools and become the first African American public school teacher in Detroit’s public schools.
This is going to change not just Detroit’s history but this is going to change international history, because U.S. President Andrew Jackson, Michigan Gov. Stevens T. Mason, and Detroit Mayor Marshall Chapin are all going to petition Canada to return Thornton and Rutha back from their escape, and they’re going to argue that this is not about them escaping from slavery but because they’re suspected felons in the killing of a sheriff. Of course, the United States and Canada have a treaty for returning felons, but Canada is going to make a ruling that is a precedent for a Canadian law to this day: Canada will not send anyone back to another country if they face a penalty higher than they would face in Canada. See, Canada had done away with slavery, and they realized that if they returned Thornton and Rutha that they’d stand to be re-enslaved. And so Canada did not send them back; that precedent still applies in Canada today to people fleeing the death penalty from countries Canada has an extradition treaty with, since Canada does not have a death penalty.
It’s also going to affect the Underground Railroad leaders on the East Coast, like Harriet Tubman, Levi Coffin, and William Lloyd Garrison. Because of this ruling that happened after 1833 Detroit Uprising, they’re going to start taking people all the way to Canada now instead of worrying about slave laws and bounty hunters coming into towns and capturing people and taking them back into slavery. Detroit has set the stage for the rest of the Underground Railroad.

MT: Geez, I didn’t know that. So it really had a lasting impact.
Jordan: It’s also where we get Black Bottom becoming a foundational area for African Americans who are coming into Detroit during the Great Migration, which is, of course, 80 years later. When people are coming from Mississippi and Alabama and Tennessee in the 1910s and 1920s and 1930s, there’s a reason why black institutions are waiting for them. This earlier African American history associated with the Underground Railroad is why there are churches, schools, and businesses there to accommodate those people. The earlier African American history created some of the institutions that are there for the people arriving during the Great Migration. So all that history is connected. And people are really amazed that Detroit’s African American history goes back beyond Henry Ford offering $5 a day, and that the African Americans who do come to the city of Detroit after that are intimately tied to the earlier history of African Americans who were here before then. There was a community that was created and intact for them created by the freedom fighters of the days of the Underground Railroad.

MT: It’s fascinating stuff. Another thing, I find that actual sites of black history are so precious because they are so likely to have been bulldozed in the name of civic improvement. You must find that it’s hard to find existing buildings and even streets that are important to black history.
Jordan: That’s right, Detroit has gone through a number of declines and rebirths and removals and renewals. They affected the African American community, of course, with the largest and most significant being the destruction of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in the 1950s and 1960s. With the removal of the whole community, a lot of history went along with that community. But there are smaller versions of that that have happened throughout Detroit’s history. History gets forgotten because it’s no longer visible. And so part of what I like to do in my tours and presentations is resurrect that history.

MT: I’m still learning the depth of that history. I was researching the Lexus velodrome and realize it was put down on what used to be Tolan Playfield, and I didn’t realize till when was a famous athlete.
Jordan: That’s right: Eddie Tolan, the Olympic runner. We still have some structures that still exist, thankfully, such as Orchestra Hall, which is where the Detroit Orchestra plays today. It’s part of the Max M. Fisher Music Center now. But that was once the Paradise Theater. In 1941, just before the city was going to tear it down, African Americans worked alongside two Jewish owners who bought the building when it had gone into foreclosure. They ran it as the Paradise Theater, and so you have Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington and those kind of big band and swing jazz performers headlining for about 10 years, and that actually saves the building from being demolished. A large part of the reason why we have Orchestra Hall is because African Americans were able to keep it running during a time when the symphony orchestra was not playing there. All of that is connected to this African American history at a time when African Americans really were dealing with a higher level of Jim Crow in the city of Detroit then we are today.

MT: I think that history of Detroit-style Jim Crow gets overwhelmed by what I call a mythology that’s grown up in the largely white suburbs of Detroit — that Detroit was a great city and then black people moved in and it turned into a war zone.
Jordan: That myth is one of the major narratives in the city of Detroit. It’s one I combat every day. I’m really just trying to teach history, but what ends up happening is people have these notions that they’ve been raised with. They come up to me and they tell me, “I never knew that Detroit had a business community of 350 black-owned businesses called Paradise Valley. I never knew that African-Americans were Underground Railroad leaders in the city of Detroit. I never knew that African Americans were battling housing discrimination in the 1920s through the 1950s in the city of Detroit. I never knew that schools were unequal in the city of Detroit, where African-Americans would go to schools that predominantly had fewer resources than schools that were white in the same district.” They would say, “I never knew. I grew up in Royal Oak. I grew up in Farmington. I grew up in Dearborn. I grew up in Livonia and I never knew these things.” And so there are people who grew up with a mythology. Everything was great, and then one of three things happened: One was the ‘67 Riot, another was Coleman Young was elected, or even some people say Kwame Kilpatrick was elected — and everything went downhill. Those are the three bullet points that I get the most, depending on the age of the person.

MT: But the fact is that powerful global forces were changing Detroit even as the racial dimension played itself out: Industrial dispersal, the GI Bill, the Interstate Highway Act. And people of means have been leaving Detroit since the ‘50s.
Jordan: Detroit has its highest population in 1952. Since 1952, Detroit’s population has been going down even to this day.

MT: Plus, you don’t need any mythology when the facts of Detroit’s story are already so mythic. It’s the incredible story of a place where people from all over the world and all over America are thrown together and have to figure it out themselves. It produced a lot of great things in a lot of horrible things, and that’s at the center of one of the tours you give, called “The Two Detroits,” right?
Jordan: Right, and the next one will be in July. Arguably, all of my tours present a little bit about the two Detroits, but the tour that’s actually called “The Two Detroits” takes place downtown and it talks about this early history in Detroit of Europeans arriving, building the fort, building a settlement, and how that played out, first, with Native American communities and, later, with Africans brought in by French people as slaves. Talks about that portion start with the Underground Railroad, where you had predominantly black abolitionists — with white allies who are also abolitionists like Seymour Finney and Zachariah Chandler and Samuel Zug and Jacob Howard. But then you had this other powerful force that was pro-slavery and pro-inequality — people like Joseph Campau, John R Williams, the Macomb family, the Beabiens — these other powerful Detroiters who were, in some cases, slave owners themselves, but in many cases pro-slavery and even pro-South during the Civil War. So we have that history of these two Detroit’s at the same time.
Then we get to the end of the Civil War and slavery is ended and you have one group of people who are progressive — African Americans are a major part of this progressive movement in the city of Detroit. And then you have this other group of people who do not believe that African-Americans should be afforded the same rights, the same kind of schools, the same kind of resources — that the things that tax dollars create for the white community should not be created for the African American community. And the Detroit Free Press is a major part of that. They had been a pro-slavery publication, and became a pro-Jim Crow institution, and remained so until the Knight family bought them in 1940.
And then you have Henry Ford offering $5 a day to all workers, working with five African American institutions — four of which are churches — to help recruit African Americans, but at the same time you have Henry Ford funding and bankrolling segregated communities — helping to develop Inkster for African American workers who work at his River Rouge Plant because he does not believe that African Americans should be living alongside whites. You have Paradise Valley, this African American business district in the city of Detroit in the 1920s and 1930s, but at the same time you have the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the city of Detroit and then this later group the Black Legion. So you have two Detroits going on at the same time.

MT: The fact that you can have Detroit be the city with one of the largest memberships in the Ku Klux Klan and recruitment zone for the Black Legion, as well as home to racists from Father Coughlin to Gerald L.K. Smith, but then also at the same time the Republic of new Afrika, not to mention the Nation of Islam ...
Jordan: That’s right you have the Nation of Islam, founded in 1930, right here in the city of Detroit, around the same time as the Black Legion group. And, like you say, you’ve got Father Coughlin on one end and on the other end you have the Rev. Albert Cleage Jr., the Rev. C.L. Franklin — all these things are happening. Sometimes it needs to be pointed out that there are these two worlds that exist at the same time, and that people in some cases only know so much about the one world because they live in one and they only get glimpses of the other. Martin Luther King Jr. leads a March down Woodward Avenue in 1963 of 125,000 people, and the humongous civil rights march is considered a victory. But less than two weeks later, Cynthia Scott is going to be killed by Detroit police officers right on John R near Mack, and that’s going to transform the activism of the African American community, taking a much more militant militant Direction against police brutality. You could argue that ‘67 is directly connected to the murder of Cynthia Scott in 1963, that the two things kind of go together.
“Two Detroits” is a reality — and people have begun to voice that narrative in response to the development that’s going on in Detroit right now, lot of what Gilbert and the Ilitches and some of the other developers are doing downtown right now. The discussion around gentrification and new residents and some neighborhoods being built up a certain way and other neighborhoods being neglected, that talks about two Detroits. What we’re really talking about is the continuation of an ongoing issue in the city of Detroit. This is not something new, these two realities in the same city, where one group of people tend to have more resources and more power tend to have control over the narrative about their development, versus another group of people who tend to have less resources and less power and tend to not be able to control the narrative around them. The narrative of African Americans in Detroit is one of ruins, destruction, deviance, dysfunctionality, and danger, while the narrative of whites coming to Detroit is really about saviors. Henry Ford was the old savior and Dan Gilbert is the new savior, and Detroit wouldn’t have been Detroit without Henry Ford, but the new Detroit wouldn’t be the new Detroit without Dan Gilbert, the Ilitches, or Mike Duggan. And so it’s really a continuation of this “two Detroits” theme.
I hope that, as people learn more about history, we’ll be able to get rid of this idea that there should be two Detroits. Maybe we’ll come to the conclusion that we are to do something to dissolve these two Detroits that seem to be reborn every generation.

MT: You make a strong case that the forces of the 19th and 20th centuries have made Detroit a great battlefield of two competing visions. Do you get the feeling your tours help people understand that all our destinies are intertwined?
Jordan: Yes, I do think that I think a lot of people get that, and even some of the critics, even they get that from the tour. For some of the critics don’t want our destinies to be intertwined, so they have a problem that I’m making the claim that what happens to African Americans in the city of Detroit is affecting you: You are connected to that; you’re not leaving unscathed by what’s happening to the African American population in the city of Detroit. Some of them have a problem with that — they get it, but they don’t like the fact that it’s true. But I think that a lot of people to come on my tours and go to my presentations do leave with the idea that our destinies are connected, and what affects one group of people affects the other groups of people, and there’s got to be some way to address this and move forward. You’re not going to “win” and this other group is going to “lose.” There’s got to be a way that this is going to be done as a community — and that includes new Detroiters, white Detroiters, African American Detroiters, Southwest Detroit people who are Latino, the Arabs in Chaldean communities — all these communities are affected by what’s happening, good or bad, in the city of Detroit, and there’s got to be some way for us to understand. That that’s my hope, and when people go on my tours, I get the feeling from their questions and comments and statements that they do understand that message.

For more information about Black Scroll Network History & Tours, see the company’s Eventbrite or Facebook pages. The “two Detroits” tour is scheduled for July.

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