Unfortunately, most people’s grasp of history is limited to what happened in their lifetime. So, if you mention Detroit’s black history, many people will recall Motown entertainers, the civil-rights struggle, or the election of Coleman Young as Detroit’s first black mayor in 1973.
But as the information-rich Detroit African-American History Project Web site (daahp.wayne.edu) makes clear, Detroit’s black history extends as far back as the 1700s. And, although the city’s African-American population remained relatively small until the early 20th century, several individuals and events made history before that time.
The site, a collaboration between Wayne State University’s Education Technology Services/Computing and Information Services and the Walter P. Reuther Library, isn’t a typical dry-as-dust history lesson. The easily navigable format encompasses oral-history videos, a timeline from the 1700s onward, biographies, photos, Detroit landmarks, and links to related material. With initial funding from Ford Motor Co. and others, the project got off the ground about nine years ago, and has been growing ever since, says co-director Louis Jones, an archivist at the Reuther Library. Three history scholars — Todd Duncan, Mike Smith, and De Witt Dykes — serve as content advisers. The site’s organizers also have collaborated with the Detroit Public Library, Detroit Historical Museum, WSU’s Africana Studies Department, and other groups.
Of all the DAAHP’s features, the oral histories are among the most interesting because they lend an immediacy to historical events.
“Oral recollections breathe fresh insight into history,” Jones says. “Some historians have felt that it’s an illegitimate way of gathering history because people have a glorified perception of how things happened, which can be true. But there’s no substitute for listening to someone who was actually there. Historians’ views have changed today regarding oral histories.”
Jones cites an interview with Detroit dentist Horace Jefferson, who tells what “Brown Bomber” Joe Louis meant to Detroit’s black community.
“He recalled listening to Joe Louis fights on the radio, and how the whole neighborhood reacted in the summer,” Jones says. “When Louis won, he said you could hear the screen doors slam as people came out of their houses, shouting in celebration, and horns would be honking. When I asked him how it was when Louis lost, he said, ‘Oh, man, it was like a funeral.’ ”
Other reminiscences of places and people come from such well-known figures as Judge Damon Keith, Congressman John Conyers, and former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer.
The extensive timeline gives history in a nutshell, but some facts and figures jump out, such as the wave of migration to Detroit by people hoping to find work in the auto industry.
“In 1910, there were only about 5,000 black people in Detroit,” Jones says. “By 1920, there were over 40,000, and most of that migration happened within three years.”
The majority of black migrants were rural Southerners who had never been to a big city. The institution of the Detroit Urban League in 1916 helped these transplants get acclimated to their new urban environment.
Jones says DAAHP remains a work in progress, because history is always being made.
“History is happening right now, even though we might not be aware of it,” he says. “As the maxim [from Shakespeare’s The Tempest] says on the National Archives building: ‘What’s past is prologue.’ ”