Bottom’s Up

More than 60 years after Black Bottom was razed, the Detroit region named for its rich, dark soil has become an unlikely point of interest to a new generation of African-American history enthusiasts
The Paradise Theatre in Paradise Valley welcomed such African-American jazz notables as Duke Ellington and more.

Jamon Jordan canvasses the pavement and relays stories about dwellings that have been demolished, about people who have passed away, and about history that many people may not be familiar with. The educator, historian, and founder and proprietor of The Black Scroll Network, History & Tours loves to tell the story of Black Bottom, one of the city’s lost communities. “A lot of rich history is there,” Jamon says. “There’s no part of Detroit’s history that Black Bottom doesn’t touch.”

The dashiki-clad Western Michigan University graduate says he has led as many as 40 tours of Black Bottom, a region close to his heart, over the years. His father, James Jordan, was raised in the former community on Orleans Street during the 1940s and ’50s, the popular pathway on which Henry’s Swing Club sat. Blues legend John Lee Hooker referred to the popular Black Bottom venue in his classic 1947 recording “Boogie Chillen.”

“There’s no part of Detroit’s history that Black Bottom doesn’t touch.”
— Jamon Jordan

City government, led largely by former mayors Edward Jeffries Jr. and Albert E. Cobo, razed Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, the predominantly African-American neighborhoods separated by Gratiot Avenue, beginning in the early 1950s to make room for redevelopment that ultimately became Lafayette Park. Jeffries, in fact, asked Common Council, the city’s legislative branch in April 1946, for authority to demolish the Black Bottom neighborhood in the name of urban renewal. Later, President Harry Truman signed the American Housing Act of 1949 that pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into cities like Detroit with a goal of building 810,000 public housing units throughout America by 1955. Problem was, for people like Jamon’s father, discrimination in real estate, banking, and local government made it virtually impossible for African-Americans to move to other sections of the city. Many of them saw the so-called “urban renewal,” as Negro removal.

Singer Billie Holiday (left) and heavyweight champion Joe Louis grace the stage of the Paradise Theatre.
The Great Migration

Detroit’s African-American population skyrocketed from roughly 5,700 in 1910 to 120,000 in 1930 and many of the black residents from that period were living in the Black Bottom. In 1942, the Detroit Urban League reported that within Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, there were more than 300 black-owned businesses, which included physicians, barber shops, hair salons, hotels, drug stores, and more.

While Black Bottom was more of a residential community, Paradise Valley, to the north, was a small but vibrant entertainment district. Iconic musicians such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie all performed in Paradise Valley. So did Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan. Between Dec. 19, 1947 and New Year’s Day 1948, Charlie Parker performed at the El Sino Club at 1730 St. Antoine St. in Paradise Valley. Parker, nicknamed “Bird,” brought to town an ensemble that included Miles Davis on trumpet, Duke Jordan on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, and Max Roach on drums. Orchestra Hall, which was sold in 1941 after the Detroit Symphony Orchestra left in 1939, was renamed Paradise Theatre and many jazz greats performed there until 1951 when it closed its doors. The building was vacant for more than 20 years but became known as Orchestra Hall again in 1989 when the DSO returned to the building. Paradise Valley sat where a portion of Comerica Park and Ford Field sits today.

Left: A young boy, identified as Earl Fowler Jr., pulls a boxing pose as part of a series of photographs taken of children in Detroit’s Near East Side, comprised of the Brush Park. Right: Three boys stand before a five-and-dime store, one of Black Bottom’s many small business shops.
Michigan Historical Marker

The lost neighborhoods are now popular. Emily Kutil, a Detroit architect, has brought Black Bottom back to life. A few years ago, she discovered photos at Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library. The historic images were taken during the late 1940s and early 1950s as surveyors for the City of Detroit were preparing to level the community. Kutil has assembled a 3-D-like presentation called Black Bottom Street View, which illustrates a block-by-block perspective of what Black Bottom looked like at its peak. Her exhibit is housed at the Detroit Public Library’s Main Branch and, at press time, was set to open formally last month.

Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois has also embraced the history of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. After several social media searches about the general neighborhood where he plays professional football, he sported a pair of cleats during his pre-game workout that illustrated a custom design of jazz musicians and lettering spelling out Black Bottom landmarks created by local visual artist Sydney G. James. “I wanted to bring that back up, so that people are aware of it,” he said in a recent interview with The Athletic, “and to show love to the city.”

Left: Jazz ensemble, the Ted Buckner Band performs onstage at Paradise Valley’s club Three Sixes. Right: Paradise Valley drew crowds of African-American concert-goers to its array of nightclubs and venues for live entertainment.

And there’s more. About eight months ago, the Michigan History Center received a request to create a historical marker for the Black Bottom neighborhood. “Black Bottom is such a historically significant part of the city of Detroit for so many people that we just didn’t feel comfortable with one individual or organization [weighing in on the idea],” says Tobi Voigt, community engagement director for the Michigan History Center. “We wanted to make sure that we opened it up for community input.” When the state of Michigan held a community meeting last December to solicit notions on where to place the marker and how it should read, dozens of people attended. The center will determine next steps for the process.

What is certain is that wherever the marker is placed, it will precisely focus on the prominent American-American presence in Black Bottom. “A historical marker coming to Black Bottom is monumental,” Jamon says. “It is probably yard for yard, acre for acre, the most culturally significant site in Michigan’s history.”

Black Bottom’s Most Notable African-American Residents

Zeline Richard

A Miller High School graduate, Richard earned a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University at a time when few blacks attended the school. She became a teacher and an official with the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Michigan Democratic Party, and New Detroit Inc. In 1968, she ran unsuccessfully for American Federation of Teachers president. She died in 2017.

Coleman A. Young

He was 5 years old when his family left Tuscaloosa, Alabama and moved in with relatives in Detroit. Young attend St. Mary’s Catholic School in Royal Oak, after his father’s conversion was inspired by a white co-worker. Young graduated from Eastern High School in Pontiac in 1935. He became Detroit’s first African-American mayor in 1974. Young died in 1997.

Charles C. Diggs Sr. 

Diggs opened House of Diggs Funeral Home in Black Bottom on St. Aubin Street in 1921, making him one of Detroit’s first black funeral home owners. A leading businessman, he was elected to Michigan Senate in 1936 and along with attorney Harold Bledsoe, helped recruit tens of thousands of blacks to the Democratic Party. Diggs died in 1967.

Fannie Richards

Born in Frederick, Virginia in 1840, Richards moved to Detroit during the 1850s. A teacher, she founded a private school for blacks and later became the Detroit Public Schools’ first African-American educator. She was a leading member of Second Baptist Church, Michigan’s first black congregation. She died in 1922.