While most have only recently gotten in on the conversation around how we teach and preserve history, educator and historian Jamon Jordan has been preaching the power of the past for over two decades. In October, he was named the official historian for the city of Detroit — its first. Jordan says he’s been tasked with “finding ways to reach people and teach people the history of Detroit.” After teaching social studies in Detroit’s public and charter schools for years, Jordan founded The Black Scroll Network History & Tours in 2013, focusing on spotlighting the city’s African American history.
As city historian, he is continuing the tours and lectures that have garnered attention and acclaim, and is also incorporating videos and working to forge closer relationships with political and social leaders. He’s also considered developing a podcast. Jordan says he often encounters seasoned Detroiters who have never heard some fact or another — information crucial to the story of Detroit. The fix, he says, is to teach folks young. While most of us are acquainted with the basics, like Motown and Henry Ford, he says, “There’s this longer and much deeper story of Detroit’s history that is missing.”
Jordan says he noticed while teaching that many of those misplaced stories are about the contributions of Black Detroit to the story of America. “The Underground Railroad,” he says, “that’s part of Detroit’s history.” He’d like to see Detroit students learn about Harriett Tubman and George DeBaptiste, who, among other inputs, used his steamship to ferry escaping enslaved persons across the Detroit River, into Canada.
He also wants to enlighten nonnatives. Jordan says, “People who come to the city of Detroit can have notions about Detroit based on what they’ve read, based on media. For a long time, Detroit had this stigma. Detroit’s history was presented in just a limited level of ways: devious, dysfunctional, dangerous.” He wants to combat those negative, often false notions and replace them with a richer, more nuanced understanding of the city’s people, places, and stories.
To that point, Jordan joined the faculty at the University of Michigan, for the fall 2021 semester, as a lecturer for the institution’s Semester in Detroit program. Students enrolled in the program live in Midtown, take courses in the city, and complete internships with community-based organizations. “The program’s underlying goal — really from the beginning to today — has been to help undergraduate students develop substantive and reciprocal relationships with Detroit,” says Craig Regester, associate director and adjunct lecturer.
Regester praises Jordan’s robust and nuanced knowledge, his out-and-about approach to teaching, and the interconnected network of relationships he’s built over the years. “What he knows — and the ways in which he knows it — is pretty remarkable,” Regester says. “He’s able to talk to people and learn information and to open up windows of knowledge that our students would otherwise really not even know exists.” He also appreciates that, more than just teaching Detroit’s history, Jordan is intentional about fostering a promising future.
In all his initiatives, Jordan says, “My job is to help make sure that the Black history in the city of Detroit, and the Indigenous people’s history, and the Latinx people’s history, and the Arab and Chaldean American history are part of Detroit and [that] they don’t go missing, as they have for so many decades.”
Did You Know?
In honor of Black History Month, Jamon Jordan shares a few of his favorite lesser-known historical facts about Detroit.
The Nation of Islam was founded in Detroit.
The religious and political organization that combined traditional Islam and Black nationalist ideas was founded by Mecca-born Wallace D. Fard, in 1930.
The Underground Railroad in Detroit was organized and led primarily by free African Americans.
Detroit, codenamed “Midnight,” was one of the last “stops” on the Underground Railroad for enslaved persons fleeing across the Detroit River to freedom, in Canada.
Jesse Owens lived in Detroit.
In 1935, one year before he won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, Owens competed in the annual Big Ten Track and Field Championships in Ann Arbor, where he tied or broke six world records. And from 1942 to 1946, he was the director of minority employment at Ford Motor Co.
Martin Luther King Jr. gave a portion of his “I Have a Dream” speech in Detroit, before the March on Washington.
During the Detroit Walk to Freedom in 1963, King walked down Woodward, to Cobo Hall (recently renamed Huntington Place from TCF Center), and delivered his speech alongside Baptist Minister C.L. Franklin and former Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh.