On Juneteenth, Detroit organization advances history of legendary Black Bottom neighborhood ⋆
During a Juneteenth celebration in Detroit, Black Bottom Archives (BBA) on Monday debuted a new version of its Black Bottom Street View exhibit.
It represents the launch of the organization’s Sankofa Community Research Project.
“Sankofa is a West African Adinkra symbol meaning to go back and get it, representing the idea that it is important to remember our past to build a better future – and that is exactly what we intend to do with our Sankofa Community Research project,” said Marcia Black, BBA director.
The walking exhibit was offered in Lafayette Park, a section of Detroit’s lower east side formerly known as Black Bottom. Attendees were able to listen to oral stories, and visualize the neighborhood as it once stood in the immersive exhibit.
A Juneteenth flag at Detroit Unity Temple on Detroit’s northwest side. | Ken Coleman
In response to the state government led-I-375 Reconnecting Communities Project development, BBA is launching Sankofa Community Research, a year-long project in partnership with Detroit People’s Platform, University of Michigan, and Wayne State University to conduct archival research, collect oral histories, and facilitate community conversations about reparations for the Black Bottom community.
Eighty percent of Detroit voters approved a 2021 measure that called for the creation of a task force to study and address the issue of reparations in Michigan’s largest city, which is 77% African American. Driven by the establishment of the Detroit Reparations Taskforce and growing community interest in reparations, the group sees an opportune moment for leaders and government officials to acknowledge the historical injustice inflicted upon Detroit’s Black Bottom and Paradise Valley — another Black neighborhood that razed in the name of urban renewal — and create a plan for renewal and repair for Black Detroiters.
Founded in 2014, BBA is a community organization dedicated to amplifying the voices of Black Detroiters and transforming dominant narratives about the city. It received a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council and the Detroit Public Library Foundation for its street view photo project.
The exhibit showcased a collection of photos captured by the city of Detroit between 1949 and 1950, offering visitors a glimpse into life in the Black Bottom neighborhood before its city-government-sponsored demolition and the subsequent displacement of its residents.
The name Black Bottom actually came from the area’s rich, dark soil farmed by French settlers in the eighteenth century, not the African-American population that settled there during the Great Migration. Its boundaries, whose maps are included in the archive, are considered by many to be Gratiot Avenue and East Vernor Highway to the north; the Grand Trunk Railroad or Chene to the east; Congress or Lafayette to the south; and Brush Street to the west.
In 1910, only about 5,700 Black people lived in Detroit. Two decades later, that population had skyrocketed to 120,000. Many of those residents in that period lived in Black Bottom, east of downtown Detroit, alongside European immigrants whose families had arrived in the nineteenth century.
By 1942, within Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, the Black commercial district located immediately north, more than 300 Black-owned businesses — bars and restaurants, doctor’s offices, barber shops, hair salons, hotels and drug stores — were in operation.
Coleman A. Young, a former Michigan state senator and Detroit mayor, grew up in Black Bottom. So did Charles Diggs Sr, a former Michigan state senator, and Charles Diggs Jr, a former Michigan state senator and U.S. House member.
The event is one of many Juneteenth events across the state. Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day or Emancipation Day, is celebrated annually on June 19, marking the anniversary of Union soldiers arriving in Galveston, Texas, and informing enslaved African Americans of their freedom, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Detroiters celebrate Black Bottom historical marker
In bipartisan fashion, the Michigan Legislature has approved legislation to make Juneteenth an official holiday in Michigan. Senate Bill 50, sponsored by state Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), is awaiting final approval from the Senate before it heads to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk.
If Juneteenth is recognized as a public holiday in Michigan, it would align with the federal government making it a national holiday in June 2022.
Following federal legislation, Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who is the first African American to hold the post, proclaimed June 19 as Juneteenth Celebration Day in Michigan.
“Today, we celebrate Juneteenth in Michigan and highlight stories of Black Michiganders who have made invaluable contributions to our state’s economy, culture, and history,” said Whitmer. “Since I took office, we have been focused on making Michigan a more equitable place by expanding opportunity and investing in communities in every region of the state. I encourage Michiganders to use this day to celebrate and learn more about Black history. Together, we will learn from our past and build a brighter future for Michigan.”
authored by Ken Coleman
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