Stir It Up: Detroit's black heritage

These are historic times in Detroit. We're in the late stages of the largest municipal bankruptcy ever. We've spent 18 months under a state-appointed emergency manager. The local economy is slowly diversifying from the automotive industry that has dominated the past century.

That has to be historic from just about any angle you look at it.

This latest upheaval isn't the first time Detroit has come back. The Great Detroit Fire in 1805 burned the then-fledgling city down. The auto industry sprang up after a national depression in the 1890s. It seems like every 100 years or so, we have to reinvent ourselves.

As we turn this page on the city, it might be a good time to look back, and that's just what historian Herb Boyd is doing. Boyd now lives in Harlem but is a former Detroiter who co-founded the Metro Times and was its first managing editor back in 1980. Since then he has written or edited 24 published books, including 1995's Brotherman and this year's The Diary of Malcolm X along with Malcolm's daughter Ilyasah Al-Shabazz. His latest project, with the working title Black Detroit, A People's History, could be his nearest and dearest, a long letter to the folks back home.

Boyd has been in and out of town the past year researching Black Detroit, which covers 1701 to the present, and he expects it to be out about this time next year.

"It's a people's history, so I'm considering what role certain icons play," Boyd says. "It's people-driven. I'll be talking about the working class as much as I can. It's not academic or turgid and hard to read. I'm up to 2001, just getting into Gil Hill."

For Detroit newbies, Hill is a former homicide detective, actor (Beverly Hills Cop I, II, III and IV), City Council president, and mayoral candidate. He lost the mayoral election to Kwame Kilpatrick in 2001.

And it's pretty much the period since 2001 that most people think of when considering Detroit — the political corruption, the police department under a federal consent decree, emergency management, the bankruptcy. Those are biggies, and there are plenty of little details to fill in the big picture. Who remembers the "Do you know who the fuck I am" moment?

But that's part of the appeal of such a book. "One of the selling points is that Detroit has been in the news the last few years in New York City on the front page of newspapers," Boyd says.

That's recent history. When you take the long view, it's different.

Detroit's early historical significance to African-Americans was its spot on the river across from Canada. People escaping from slavery knew that if they could get to Detroit, they could cross the river to freedom. Not that slave catchers didn't know the same. They were regularly snatching people from Ontario towns such as Chatham and Amherstburg.

Regardless, Detroit was then and is still an iconic international conduit.

"You start talking about Detroit as a terminus for the Underground Railroad," Boyd says. "It was a very important part of the anti-slavery, abolitionist phase of American history. That established trailways for future migrations coming out of the South to Detroit. Blues people coming out of the South. Look at all the monuments and plaques scattered around the city, the Second Baptist Church, Bethel AME, St. Matthew. You look at some of those early churches and the role they played in the struggle."

The bulk of the book looks at Detroit from the 1920s up through the 1980s. Incidents such as Dr. Ossian Sweet defending his home in a white neighborhood in 1925, the 1943 riot, and the 1967 rebellion fall in there. Public figures such as Joe Louis, Berry Gordy, and Coleman Young are considered, as well as the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

"There are historical milestones that you have to discuss," says Boyd. "More than just talking about these moments, I need to apply analysis to consider how this happened and what came out of it? New Detroit came out of the '67 rebellion, and that was tied into the Kerner Commission."

The Kerner Commission was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the causes of civil disorder across the nation in 1967. Boyd looks at such developments and how they affected the give-and-take between the black and white communities.

Boyd's own story reflects that of so many Detroiters. He arrived here from Alabama as a child shortly before the 1943 riot. Unlike many Detroiters, he has traced his family back through patrilineal lines to a former member of British aristocracy. That doesn't count for much in Detroit; his mother was one of the convoy of black women who did domestic work in the suburbs after getting laid off from the arsenal-of-democracy factories after World War II.

These ladies, as well as other "heroic" black women, as Boyd calls them, take their place in the narrative. Figures such as Fannie Richards, Detroit's first black schoolteacher in 1863, Rosa Parks, and Aretha Franklin all settle in as Detroit aristocracy.

"When you look at the history of Detroit, my goodness, it's a pretty large expanse," Boyd says. "I need to apply a systems analysis in terms of politics, economics, and culture, and what takes prominence from one historical period to another. I'll show how we improvised from each one of those stages to survive."

In looking at how things have gone in Detroit over the course of his own lifetime, Boyd refers back to the culture of the early European settlers of the area.

"It's like the French say: "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Speaking of Change

There are plenty of people looking ahead to a future Detroit history, or, as the folks at the Boggs Center would ask, What time is it on the clock of the world? The New Work, New Culture Conference is taking place Oct. 18-20 at Wayne State University and the Samaritan Center, at 5555 Conner.

Reimagining work is the overall theme of the event as presenters such as Frithjof Bergmann, Blair Evans, Silvia Federici, Emmanuel Pratt Gar Alperovitz, Kathi Weeks, Sarah van Gelder, Tawana "Honeycomb" Petty, and others examine change in pretty much everything we do. Workshops will cover things like environmental justice and community production, media, and the new work narrative, and changing the culture of shame, blame, and embarrassment. Economics, gender issues, land, race, co-ops, and more take the focus at various times.

There will also be offsite workshops, tours of sites such as the Packard Plant, the Heidelberg Project, and the Incite Focus maker space. Information can be had at

New Work/New Culture is one of the key forces in Detroit trying to reshape the direction of how we live. Progressive activists might note that this overlaps with the Oct. 16-18 North American Labor History Conference at Wayne State University.

Well, this particular week is just conferencemania. The Black Urban Growers and Farmers Conference takes place Oct. 17-19 at Western International High School.

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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