Today in Detroit History: December 9

203 years ago today: Some guy from Massachusetts named James Witherell got his commission as the lieutenant colonel commandant at the fort at Detroit. When General Hull surrendered the fort and the city to the British, he was captured and held prisoner. He'd stick around Detroit for a while as an administrator and, eventually, acting governor of Michigan Territory. Among his more prudent acts, he voted for an act changing the unwieldy name of something called the Catholepistemiad to the University of Michigan. (You're welcome, Ann Arbor.)

159 years ago today: The Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church dedicated its brick church building on Jefferson Avenue between the Rivard and Russell streets, the Rev. Hugh McElroy presiding. The congregation would include some of the most prosperous Detroiters of that day, including a senator, several bank presidents, a newspaper publisher, manufacturers, railroad superintendents, lawyers, doctors, and a county auditor. Small wonder that the lot between Rivard and Russell would host an increasingly impressive array of buildings, until the congregation moved to the present-day church, at Burns and Jefferson, in 1926.

82 years ago today: Jazz and R&B trumpeter Donald Byrd is born in Detroit. Born with the hefty name of Donaldson Toussaint L'Ouverture Byrd II, he'd attend Cass Tech, and perform with Lionel Hampton while still in his teens. When he died last year, former MT editor W. Kim Heron referenced Al Young’s memories (from the now-out-of-print Bodies and Soul) of strolling outside the Byrd household and hearing the prodigy at work, with “the ring of a solitary trumpet smearing blues all over a sequence of diminished and augmented 7th, 9th and 13th chords.”  Byrd would leave Detroit and go on to a fruitful career in New York, probing the boundaries of jazz in a very Detroitlike way, with funk- and soul-influenced sounds.

43 years ago today: Ralphe Bunche dies in New York City. An African-American political scientist, negotiator, diplomat, professor, and author, Bunche's résumé would have been considered impressive had he not been born the son of a black barber in 1903, but it's outstanding given the narrow opportunities African-Americans had in the first half of the 20th century. His life story is full of firsts: His B.A, summa cum laude, was earned at the University of California, where he was valedictorian of the class of 1927. After earning his M.A. in political science in 1928, he earned his Ph. D. in 1934 from Harvard University, where he was the first black American to earn a doctorate in political science in the United States. Bunche helped plan the United Nations, negotiated the 1949 Armistice Agreements in the Middle East, and in 1950 became the first person of African heritage to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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