Detroit essential to black history

Although most African American movements were born in the South, there is one city here in Michigan that remains crucially important to black history.

From the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights movement, Detroit has played a large part in African American history.

The Motor City was remembered nationwide during the NFL Super Bowl, when Chrysler’s nearly $9 million, 2-minute ad was released.

Rap artist and Detroit local Eminem cruised along the worn streets of Detroit in the new Chrysler 200, to his Oscar-winning hit “Lose Yourself.”

The narrator’s words gave a goose bump affect.

“I got a question for you. What does this city know about luxury? What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? I’ll tell ya; more than most. You see, it’s the hottest fires that make the hardest steel.”

Eminem says only eleven words in the commercial, but they are hard-hitting. “This is the motor city, and this is what we do.” The final message read across the screen Imported from Detroit.

“[The commercial] was good,” MCCC student Corey Shagena said. “It showed the rest of the country how strong Detroit is getting.”

The world was forced to recognize Detroit’s importance.

Danielle McGuire, an author and professor of modern African American history at Wayne State University, said that while she’s done most of her research in the South, she acknowledges Detroit as a crucial location in African American history.

“Detroit is like the Mecca of African American history, so in that essence it’s just an incredible place to study African American history,” she said. “It shouldn’t go unnoticed.”

McGuire pointed out that Martin Luther King, Jr. held a march in Detroit before the March on Washington, which was larger than the latter. Also, Rosa Parks settled in Detroit after the Montgomery bus riots.

“She lived in Detroit longer than she lived in Alabama,” McGuire said.

Before the Civil Rights movement, the nearly 310-year-old city served as an important stop along the Underground Railroad, because of the easy access into Canada.

Edmund Laclair, a history professor at MCCC who teaches the History of Michigan, said while there weren’t many prominent African Americans in this area, there were some prominent cases.

“There were three major lines of the Underground Railroad and one of them came up through Marshall, Mich.,” Laclair said.

Adam Crosswhite, a freed black slave, came up through and settled in Marshall. When slave capturers arrived to kidnap him, a group of citizens surrounded his house and beat up the capturers, Laclair said.

“Then when the sheriff showed up to break up the fracas, the slave catchers were charged with trespassing and carrying a concealed weapon. While they were being arrested [the group] snuck Crosswhite into Canada,” Laclair said.

Laura Smith Haviland was an important figure in the Underground Railroad who lived closer to Monroe County. Working out of Adrian, Haviland’s family farm was the first Underground Railroad establishment in Michigan.

Haviland escorted slaves to Canada, as well as travel to the South to escort them northward.

A statue of Haviland stands in front of the Adrian city hall, which reads, “A tribute to a life consecrated to the betterment of humanity.”

Laclair has done research on the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the Black Legion, which broke away from the Klan in the 1920’s and became active in the 1930’s. Although they were primarily an anti-labor organization, they did murder an African American named Silas Coleman.

“The reason they killed him is that some of the officers of the Black Legion just wanted to know what if felt like to kill a black man,” Laclair said. “And so they took him out to an abandoned field, they chased him through the field, shot him to death and left him in a ditch.”

There were about 5,000 Black Legion members in Monroe County and 20-30,000 in Wayne County, according to Laclair.

Detroit became a center point for African Americans in the early 1900’s. From 1916 to 1917, black migration into Detroit averaged at 1,000 people a month, according to People’sWorld.org. By the early 1920’s, 45 percent of black men in Detroit worked at Ford.

As the Chrysler 200 commercial said, Detroit is now largely unnoticed.

“That’s who we are. That’s our story. Now, it’s probably not the one you’ve been reading about in the papers, the one being written by folks that have never even been here and don’t know what we’re capable of,” the narrator said.

“[Detroit] could use improvement, but what city couldn’t?” MCCC student Raven Payne said.

With the African American community serving such a crucial part in the Motor City, as well as the automobile industry, it isn’t a wonder that Chrysler would choose the Detroit streets to sell the Chrysler 200.