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New book covers 300 years of black history in Detroit, including more than one civil disturbance

Jul 21, 2017

There are many histories of Detroit. The latest is a comprehensive look at the contributions, accomplishments and long-suffering of the African Americans who have called Detroit home.

The book is Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination by Herb Boyd, son of Detroit and an instructor at The City College of New York currently teaching African American history. Boyd now lives in Harlem.

Boyd says the issue of slavery in the so-called Northwest states in the 19th century is often misconstrued. Although slavery was outlawed in the territory at the time, he says there were “a whole lot of slave holders in Detroit.” But Detroit also played an important part in the abolitionist movement and as a stop on the underground railroad.  

“Detroit is like the terminus [of the underground railroad],” Boyd said. “If you can make it to Detroit, you figure that you have a refuge, a sanctuary and you escape bondage. But the bounty hunters were always on the trail.”

Boyd tells the story of Lucy and Thornton Blackburn, escaped slaves that made their way to Detroit and eventually to Canada. But bounty hunters intent on recapturing the Blackburns created an uproar in the community, the aftermath of which caused what Boyd calls Detroit’s first riot in 1833.

During the Civil War, Detroit wasn’t without racial tension. White immigrant workers in the city, who were often relatively new immigrants to America, were being sent to fight for the Union. Tension rose in the city as white soldiers and their families watched black workers step in and fill jobs vacated by the soldiers.

By the 20th century, work in Detroit provided lots of opportunity thanks to Henry Ford's five-dollar work day.

“That was an astronomical amount of money at that time, particularly for sharecroppers, [and] people so recently emancipated from slavery,” Boyd said. "Black sharecroppers saw this opportunity to get beyond the cotton curtain, to get to the so-called promised land. This offer spurred a whole lot of activity in this country … and kind of quadrupled the black population in the city of Detroit.”

However, Boyd says there were some illusions about how great opportunities were in Detroit at the time and problems with housing availability. The second wave of people moving north, dubbed the Great Migration, happened in the first half of the 20th century. It brought a diverse wave of southerners into Detroit, which Boyd says solidified the foundation of the black cultural community in the city.

In 1943 there was a race riot. Boyd says his mother came to Detroit as part of that second wave of migration in time to witness it.

“I arrived in Detroit a couple of months before the ’43 riot. That was kind of like my introduction to Detroit, more or less, when I was four years of age,” Boyd said. “[The riot] was spurred by a rumor. There was already a kind of bubbling tension and intensity in the community between the various groups anyway, which you might call the ingredients for an explosion. All you needed was a fuse and then a spark.”

Despite the clashes, Detroit did provide opportunity in Detroit for entrepreneurs and what Boyd calls the black elite. Black workers labored in the factories, but there were black business owners and professionals. And Boyd says there was actually an unintended cultural benefit of the racially segregated neighborhoods at the time: Because African-Americans were relegated to just a few areas of the city, a factory of shop worker could be living next door to a lawyer or business owner, which created a cultural coalition of African-Americans that crosscut socioeconomic class.

By the time 1967 rolled around, Boyd says Detroit's social problems were deeply entrenched.

“You had the educational problems, you had housing problems, and you certainly had employment situations -- to say nothing of police brutality,” Boyd said. “So you mix all those things together and you know you have a recipe for disaster and that’s essentially what happened in 1967.”

When it comes to the latest redevelopment of Detroit’s downtown and mid-town areas, Boyd says he’s concerned by the concentration of capital in those areas. He says Detroit neighborhoods like the one he grew up in are still plagued with empty lots and a lack of development or economic activity.

“[Things] seem to be flourishing downtown. It gives you kind of the illusion that Detroit is doing quite well,” Boyd said. “But we had that kind of illusion in ’67.”

Listen to the entire conversation with Herb Boyd, author of Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination, and instructor at The City College of New York.

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