Ken Coleman shares the heritage of Detroit’s Black Bottom

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Apr 1, 2015 at 1:00 am

Having worked as a reporter, communications director, and now author, Ken Coleman knows how to tell a story. His latest book, Million Dollars Worth of Nerve, covers the golden age of Detroit's Black Bottom, which was where the majority of the city's African-Americans lived during the first half of the 20th century. He took some time out to speak with us recently.

Metro Times: It's interesting that you chose to tell the story of Hastings Street, Paradise Valley, and Black Bottom by zooming in on 21 of the most prominent Detroiters of that era. Why did you choose to do it that way?

Ken Coleman: I really wanted to do a deep dive into that time and place, and there were several names that kept popping up: Sunnie Wilson, Robert Bradby, Rosa Gragg, Beulah Whitby. The reason I took the approach of doing personality profiles is that it was very much like my approach as a newspaper writer. If you're covering a city council meeting, it's the who, what, when, and where, of what happened. So I decided to pick 21 people, a diversity of people within that community, making sure that there were men and women, preachers and bar owners, singers and activists, to get the best, well-rounded 21 people I could. By weaving in the big events of the day, I hoped to tell a compelling story about Black Bottom and Paradise Valley and the Lower East Side through the lens of those profiles.

MT: I think a person who isn't engaged with Detroit might not realize that there was a black upper class in Detroit at that time. And you certainly hit a lot of the high points of that high society.

Coleman: Yeah, over the last century, you look at cities that we've termed, at least in my community, "chocolate cities" — Detroit, Atlanta, Washington D.C. I mean, Atlanta's known for having three or four major black colleges. That was a place where African-Americans from all over the country went to go to college, to earn a degree in whatever the discipline was, and a lot of them stayed there. So in Atlanta, you find an upwardly mobile black middle class, or upper middle class. In Detroit, we started coming here in 1910, and a lot of us went to work on assembly lines. And we didn't necessarily have to have a college education. A lot of us didn't. But we earned great livings. And Detroit very much had a strong middle class. But the other part of it was, we did have college-educated folks. I think that what happened was racism and segregation sort of limited what people could do. And you could have a dentist that lived next door to you. Today, if you live in a challenged neighborhood, the dentist doesn't live next door to you. He lives probably 30 miles away in an outlying suburb.

MT: That's one of the things that's fascinated me: Restrictive housing covenants kept African-Americans in that tightly packed neighborhood — but it produced tremendous political power, where clergy and businessmen live right next to the rest of that society and everybody knew each other.

Coleman: In the book, I do cover restrictive covenants. The language used in deeds prevented African-Americans, Jews, and sometimes others from owning and maintaining property in certain parts of Detroit proper and metropolitan Detroit. In 1948, there's a couple of landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases that strike down covenants and deeds. But before that, the doctor was right next door to you in Black Bottom, and probably 75 percent of the black community lived in the environs that were known as Black Bottom.

MT: I loved the story of an alternative political system by which a leading citizen of that district would be elected mayor. Can you talk about that?

Coleman: Yeah. It was one of the coolest things I found in my research. African Americans didn’t get elected to citywide positions, but the community is growing exponentially — in 1930, there are 120,000 African Americans. Who will service these people as elected officials? Who from downtown calls you when you’re child dies from TB? Who will bring a food basket to you if you lost your job during the Great Depression? Well, African Americans were already doing this, helping each other. Eventually, what happens is one of the people I profile comes up with this idea of electing a leader. Not somebody officially sanctioned by law, but someone responsible for carrying out some of the good-natured things that I talked about earlier. So the contest for “Mayor of Paradise Valley” is held in 1936, smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression carried out by the Michigan Chronicle over seven months, and a popular bar owner named Roy Lightfoot is elected. They have this grand swearing-in ceremony on Oct. 17, 1936, at the Graystone Ballroom, where the city clerk, Richard Reading, actually pinned the gold lapel, the gold lapel, on Roy Lightfoot, symbolically making him the mayor of Paradise Valley. It’s a cool thing. I mean, I was 5 years old when Coleman Young was elected, and you spend most of your adulthood here thinking the first black guy to do anything politically was Coleman Young. And you sort of learn later that there was a sort of Paradise Valley community thing that was going on, and they had their own mayors until the end of the Second World War.

MT: These days, though, those stories are being rediscovered by young people in Detroit.

Coleman: More people need to know it. I mean, most of the time, these conversations are had are in university classrooms around urban planning or sociology. The conversation really hasn’t been widely disseminated in the Detroit’s schools. I think this history and this information should be part of the K-12 curriculum. One of the things I’m going to work toward is helping make that happen.

MT: Can you try to evoke in the image of what was there. Black Bottom was a symbol of the nerve, the gumption of that community, and yet, at the same time, it was also the most run-down district in the city.

Coleman: Well, visually, what’d you see on a street like Hastings, would be storefronts on the street level, with residential rooming units above. It may be a bar or saloon on the first floor, with a couple of units upstairs that have been carved up into living units where they were big enough for maybe two or three people, where actually, four, five, or six people were living. By 1930, a lot of these structures had been around for fifty or sixty years, going back to the previous century, and did not necessarily have adequate plumbing, and so you had tremendous aging, wear and tear among these buildings. The African-Americans that lived in them in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, were really the second or third generation of people to live in them. So the state of the structures were horrible, as you point out. There was tremendous pride in unity, because again, there was a doctor’s office on one city block. And the next one, it was an accountant. And the next one, it was a church. And the next one, it was the popular jazz and blues hangout, bar or club. Particularly as African-Americans, when we talk about this community, we talk about in grand terms, and we talk about it as if it was utopia. It definitely had some aspects of utopia from a sociological or economical standpoint. But it was just as challenged: Prostitution was there, illegal gambling was there. So you had fights, you had vermin. Tuberculosis was a huge issue. The rats and the stuff that you would normally see in that type of environment were all there. But yet, at that time, there was a sense of pride. I mean, we talk a lot as African-Americans about the American South, that there was so much pride that a grandmother would go out and sweep the dirt. “We don’t have much, but what we do have, we will protect. And we have pride in it, because it’s ours.” And I think that was the general feelings about Black Bottom and Paradise Valley.

MT: Your book’s timeline was particularly interesting, because as the very same time that progressive groups are winning rights for African Americans on the national level, the local push for so-called “slum clearance”, freeways, urban renewal, whether it’s intentional or not, disrupts the community and scatters it, spatially.

Coleman: Yeah. It’s an interesting set of times, right? One of the big buzzwords of those decades was “slum clearance.” The term, gave a lot of African Americans at that time a real bad feeling, especially how slum clearance was dealt with by City Hall. It is because of “slum clearance” that Black Bottom gets leveled for Lafayette Park, and for the Chrysler Freeway, and, if you move north several year later, the Medical Center. City fathers said at the time, “We have to clear these slums in order to re-develop Detroit to attract new people, to retain people who are there.” Oftentimes, far too often, urban renewal meant “negro removal.” To some extent, we’re starting to have that conversation again about downtown and midtown.

MT: You have a fair amount of black businesspeople profiled in the book. In a way, it ends up being sort of a powerful portrait of what some people call “black capitalism.” Can you talk about that?

Coleman: Sure. And, certainly during lean economic times like the Great Depression, there were a lot of people who weren’t getting loans from the bank — least of all black people. And so there’s an economic phenomenon that goes on in the black community: Illegal gambling — the policy industry, the numbers industry — really becomes the black bank, if you will. The Roxborough brothers, who I write about— John Roxborough was convicted in the early 1940s of being one of the masterminds behind this $10 million illegal gambling scheme. It’s basically the lottery of today done without government sanction.

MT: That would be about $150 million today.

Coleman: Yeah. It’s huge. And people played a penny or two at a time. But a couple things about that industry point to that community and how it took care of itself. There were lots of people whose rent was paid; whose, if they had a mortgage at the time, it was paid; kids that were sent to historical black colleges in the South; lots of people that benefitted from this industry that was going on in Detroit. And it was leading, respected community members that were the heads of it. John Roxborough was referred to as the black man’s Santa Claus, because he was a philanthropist, really.

MT: What do you hope that people will take away after reading your book?

Coleman: That there were African-Americans who lived in these parts, some of whom were extraordinary people who made things happen with only a few dollars, but a million dollars' worth of nerve. They found a way out of no way, and that we can do it again. There is nothing new under the sun, as the cliche goes, and when one door closes, you have to find a way around that and make the other open. And that's what Rosa Gragg did. She lived 500 feet away from this great colonial house on Ferry Street at Brush and says, "That's the place I want to be the headquarters for the Detroit Association of Colored Women's Club." And they go to try and purchase it, they find out it has a restrictive covenant — black people can't even walk in and out of the front door. So they brick the front door, put a door on the Brush Street side of the house, and petition the city to change the address. They moved the front door from Ferry Street to Brush and created a new address, and got around the restrictive covenant. And guess what? The buy it in 1941, and the group is so successful that they burn the mortgage four years later. That's a million dollars' worth of nerve.

Ken Coleman will be signing copies of his books on April 2 at the Northwest Activities Center, 18100 Meyers Rd., Detroit; 313-578-7500.