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Celebrating Black History Month in Michigan

by Lisa Diggs

February is Black History Month, making this a great time to pause and remember some of the many significant people and events that helped shape Michigan and the nation.

Black people have been living in Michigan for nearly 250 years, arriving originally as slaves, until the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned human slavery, long before Michigan became a state.
 
In 1836, thirteen escaped or freed slaves petitioned the Michigan legislature for permission to start a church.  Their efforts lead to the formation of the Second Baptist Church in Detroit.  Shortly thereafter, members of the church began participating in the Underground Railroad which helped runaway slaves find refuge from 1830 until 1860. Station operators provided food, clothing, shelter, and directions to help slaves escape to freedom in Canada.
 
Nationally, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law forced the return of people who had escaped the horrors of slavery.  To counter that, the Michigan legislature prohibited the use of county jails for the detention of escaped slaves and directed county prosecuting attorneys to defend the recaptured slaves.
 
At a time when neither women, nor people of color, were encouraged to express their views, Sojourner Truth emerged.  Born a slave in New York in 1797, she was freed in 1828, and moved to Battle Creek in 1856, where she would reside until her death in 1883. A former slave herself, she advocated passionately for emancipation as well as the right for women to vote. While she had not learned to write, those who witnessed her speeches said that she was a powerful orator whose stories and style commonly moved audiences to tears and action.
 
Fannie M. Richards moved to Detroit with her family in the 1850’s and also fought for equal rights.  She opened a private school for black children in 1863, and joined others in 1869 in filing suit with the Michigan Supreme Court, and arguing that segregated public schools were unconstitutional.  The court agreed and in 1871 she became the first black teacher in the newly integrated Detroit Public Schools.
 
In 1864, Henry Barns, editor of the Detroit Advertiser and Tribune suggested that Michigan needed to raise a regiment of black soldiers to fight in the Civil War. Governor Austin Blair eventually received permission for such a regiment and made Barns a colonel to command Michigan’s first and only black military regiment.  Eight hundred and ninety five brave men served in what was eventually designated the 102nd U.S. Colored Infantry.
 
Elijah McCoy took a job with the Michigan Central Railroad in 1870. Meanwhile, toiling away in his Ypsilanti home, he invented an automatic lubricator cup that eliminated the previous need for trains to stop along the way to oil locomotive bearings.  His patented invention was often imitated, but not duplicated, leading to the term “the real McCoy”.
 
After being expelled from Gies' European Hotel Restaurant for refusing to eat in the “colored” section, Detroit native, William Ferguson, filed a discrimination suit. He lost originally, but won on an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1890. The court ruled that separation by race in public places was illegal. Ferguson went on to become the first African American elected to serve in the Michigan House of Representatives in 1893 and again in 1895.
 
In 1924, a then 10-year old Joe Louis moved to Detroit with his family.  By age 19 he was already an amateur champion.  He won the heavyweight title of the world in 1937, and then became an icon for democracy and equality in 1938, when he defeated Hitler’s symbol of “Aryan Superiority,” Max Schmelling, in a first-round knockout in their famous rematch.
 
Songwriter, Barry Gordy opened his own recording company in 1953.  The following year, he created Motown Records, and changed music history. The company launched the careers of Michigan natives, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross.
 
In the nation’s largest civil rights gathering up to that time, an estimated 125,000 people marched down Woodward Avenue in 1963. The march ended at Cobo Hall, where (many people may be surprised to learn) the Reverend Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech for the first time.
 
These are just a small sample of the endless significant contributions African Americans have made to our state and our society as a whole. To learn more, look for special programming throughout February at colleges and universities in your area. Take a trip to the Henry Ford Museum and sit on the actual bus where Rosa Parks took her brave stand or visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, which is one of the greatest resources of black history in the nation. 
 

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