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Conference in Sterling Heights celebrates Michigan history

Mar 3, 2017

People sometimes ask me, “How do you find something different to talk about, every day?” Well, if this were North Dakota Public Radio, it might be hard. But I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll ever run out of topics in Michigan.

We’ve got around 10 million people, more than the entire country had 200 years ago, more geography than some European countries, a diversified economy and a far richer ethnic mix.

And on those rare occasions when there’s not much political or economic news, there’s 180 years of history just since we became a state.

I’ve always believed firmly that you can’t really know where you are going till you know where you’ve been.

That’s one of the reasons I am vice-president of the Historical Society of Michigan, a non-profit group which is in fact the state’s oldest cultural organization. It’s not part of state government and doesn’t get any government money, and exists to connect the past to the present.

And today and tomorrow we are holding our annual Local History Conference at the Wyndham Garden Inn in Sterling Heights. Walk-ins are welcome; and it is the perfect place to either bring a history buff, or to look for an exciting new book on Michigan history.

After all, Easter, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are coming up. You can find a full schedule of events and admission fees on Facebook or the website, hsmichigan.org.

But there are sessions later this afternoon and tomorrow on everything from proper ways to commemorate the Detroit riot (or rebellion) of 1967, to Islam in Detroit in colonial days.

I’ll be moderating a discussion tomorrow morning on the life and legacy of the amazing activist Grace Lee Boggs, and giving a talk tomorrow about this state’s long history as a political battleground.

The conference ends tomorrow night with a gala entitled "a walk through the wars," which will feature reenactors dressed in the uniforms of every conflict the state has had since the War of 1812, one in which, to be frank, we didn’t exactly cover ourselves with glory.

The American commander of the fort at Detroit abjectly surrendered to a much smaller force of British and Native American fighters. Well, we later made up for it by becoming the Arsenal of Democracy.

There are sessions on how Native Americans harvest maple sugar, one on the lost Detroit neighborhoods of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, and others on everything from the mineral baths at Mount Pleasant to Leader Dogs for the Blind.

My guess is that your teachers didn't tell you that we made it here.

Early this morning, there was a session that was really fascinating about how Detroit was also sort of an arsenal of democracy during World War I, when among the things we made was mustard gas, a weapon so awful even Adolf Hitler never used it, and which has been outlawed by the Geneva Convention. My guess is that your teachers didn’t tell you that we made it here.

I’ve been going to these conferences for a number of years, and all I know for certain is that before it is over, I will have met some interesting people I didn’t already know; learn a ton of new stuff – and buy more books than I promised myself I would.

And it would be nice to see you there.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.