Detroit's location, just across the narrow waters from Windsor, Ontario, was instrumental in its role in the Underground Railroad. Detroit's Underground Railroad history was fairly well-known even 30 years ago, when I was beginning my research. The meeting of Frederick Douglass and John Brown and others at William Webb's house, for instance, has long been part of the known story--but I was fascinated when I came across documentation about Detroit's Order of African Mysteries, an underground black organization dedicated to the struggle against slavery.
The Order of African Mysteries was based on a Masonic lodge and had a system of secret signs, handshakes, passwords and other signals. The group was dedicated to protecting brothers and sisters from the South by making sure that there was a secure connection to Canada. The order had a profound influence on the Underground Railroad in Detroit, though its role is still largely unknown to many historians.
Interestingly, the Detroit railroad employed the services of a group of white cutthroats, known as the McKensyites. These people, many of them former prisoners, stole slaves from the South and brought them to the Underground Railroad. Although they were more or less unsavory people, the McKensyites played a role in the Underground Railroad movement in Detroit. Many of their escapees went on to Canada. As Malcolm X used to say, "Liberation or freedom, by any means neccessary."
Though Michigan's role in the Underground Railroad forms the centerpiece of the permanent exhibit at Detroit's Museum of African American History, the wider experience of abduction and slavery provides visitors with an interpretive context. From the shores of West Africa, through the Middle Passage (interpreted through a fullscale mock-up of the cargo hold of a slave ship), to Colonial and antebellum America, slavery's long night is detailed. Two-dimensional explanatory panels predominate in the museum, though these are complemented by period artifacts, including letters of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington and photographs of stalwarts of the antislavery movement.
The museum also hosts temporary exhibits that touch upon the artistic expression and historical experience of African Americans. In August of each year, the museum sponsors its African World Festival, which drew a crowd of more than one million people in 1994.
A still longer perspective on the cultural substratum of the black diaspora is provided to visitors of the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the city's true highlights. The institute's Ancient Egypt collection embraces the Predynastic through the Roman and Coptic periods, with its greatest strengths in Middle and Late Kingdom sculpture and Coptic textiles. The Islamic North Africa rooms examine the Abbasid period (A.D. 75-1258) and the Fatimid and Mameluke dynasties--the collection's strength being in Abbasid textiles and Mameluke glass--and Maghreb (Morocco) illuminated manuscripts, rugs and clothing. If the names of the periods and dynasties are unfamiliar, don't be put off: the objects are stunning, and the story they tell--of Africa's great contributions--is enlightening.
The institute also holds more recent objects traditionally associated with African collections. Sub-Saharan Africa is represented by sculpture, decorative arts and textiles from West and Central Africa. Figural sculpture and masks from the Kongo, Yaka, Bena Lulua and other peoples are complemented by the metalwork of the Akan peoples and the bronzes of Benin.
There are few cities in America that treat you to four millennia of history--fortunately, you're in Detroit!
"Don't know much about history," but why isn't Berry Gordy Jr. a case study in more graduate business schools? Why can't the man get more Respect? To move from the streets to the history books is rare--but nothing more; from the shop floor to the boardroom is rarer still. But a black guy moving from the shop floor of a Detroit auto plant in the mid-1950s to the boardroom of a multimillion-dollar business in the early 1960s? Gordy had to build his own business and boardroom to get there, of course; by dint of imagination and drive he could break into the record industry--he never could have broken into the boardroom of a white company.
As everywhere in life, luck and timing played a part: Gordy elbowed his way into the recording business as black music was crossing over and as the industry and radio stations were running scared from the payola scandal--in which the major labels bribed DJs to play their songs--and Gordy just happened to have this song-writing-looking-to-be-a-singer friend ... who went by the name of Smokey Robinson. Please, Please, Please--everyone should be so lucky, crying Tears of a Clown all the way to the bank. Gordy's Motown label, initially headquartered in his two-story home prophetically dubbed "Hitsville USA," rained Supremes throughout the 1960s. With his dreams, it's no Wonder that Gordy felt the Temptations of Los Angeles, to which he departed in the early 1970s. He left behind his old home, which now serves as the Motown Historical Museum.
There's no need to Shop Around: With restored studios and exhibits on the major singers, writers and musicians of the Motown label, this place is the Tops (all Four of them) for lovers of the sound. Can't get enough of it? Beginning in May of this year, an exhibit of the costumes and voices of Motown's stars will be featured at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in nearby Dearborn, Mich.
Attention! If you've got children in tow, head for Your Heritage House. The room of toys, puppets and dolls at this youth museum occupies the large minds of smaller people. Even if it's all fun, however, it's not all games. There are also instruments, masks, cloth--and games--from Africa, exhibits of the work of contemporary African-American artists, and a resource library. From top to bottom, this 100-year-old Victorian house reveals to children that it's a multicultural world, past, present and future.
The impact of this multicultural world--including its African-American component--on Detroit is one of the themes explored at the Detroit Historical Museum. Changing exhibitions chronicle the city from its 1701 founding as a French trading post through its role as a major terminus of the Underground Railroad and its dramatic 20th-century transformation.
The 1910 U.S. Census revealed a black population in the city of fewer than 6,000. But Jim Crow and the collapse of cotton prices combined to drive scores of thousands of Southern blacks to the western bank of the Detroit River, many of whom settled in Black Bottom, a neighborhood whose most famous resident was Joe Louis. Central to the rise of the American auto industry and to American trade unionism, Detroit's African Americans have profoundly influenced the city's history, as you'll see when you visit the museum.
Of course, Detroit is a lot more than African-American heritage sites. The city offers a host of restaurants, nightspots, athletic events and festivals, the details of which will be cheerfully supplied by the Metropolitan Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau when you call (800) DETROIT, ext. 1113.
Just outside Detroit's city limits is Dearborn, Mich., home of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, one of America's most enlightening stops for those interested in exploring important aspects of the black experience in detail. Here, a stroll through the Hermitage Slave Houses and Mattox House introduces visitors to the changes and continuities of enslaved and free black life in coastal Georgia in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Hermitage was an industrial plantation, with steam-powered saw and planing mills, a rice barrel factory, Savannah, Ga.'s largest brickworks, and 201 enslaved men, women and children who, among other labors, produced more than 60 million handmade bricks. Though by no means unusual in antebellum America, industrial slavery is an experience rarely highlighted in the 20th-century portrayals of the life of the disenfranchised, which until recently focused almost exclusively on the unskilled field hand, the whip and chains--all the more reason to visit an 81-acre, indoor-outdoor museum that comprises more than 80 buildings and spans more than three centuries of American history.
The two small, gray-brick, one-story, 16-foot-square slave houses originally raised at Hermitage between 1820 and 1850 and then transported to the museum in the 1930s now host exhibits that feature the testimony of slaves who gained their freedom and later wrote books about their experiences; reproductions of period beds, tables, benches and cookware of an enslaved skilled carpenter and his family; and exhibits that focus on the culture that Africans brought with them and its transformation in the cauldron of slavery.
Nearby is the Mattox House, built in 1879 on 522 acres in Savannah's neighboring Bryan County by Amos Morel, a formerly enslaved African-American steam engineer who after Emancipation became a landowning farmer and a leader of Bryan's black community.
The 1 1/2-story, two-room, frame farmhouse has been restored to its 1930s appearance and furnished with the original possessions of and an exhibit about the Morel and Mattox families. Through period rooms, graphics, artifacts, audio recordings and staff presentations, visitors to these adjacent buildings gain a sense of the complexities of Southern black life in a span of three generations that separated late antebellum from Depression-era America.
Greenfield Village's two other major African-American exhibits focus on the life and career of George Washington Carver, whose, memorial consists of a reconstruction of his log-cabin birthplace and exhibits that detail Carver's innovative agricultural research, and on the mid-19th-century Susquehanna Plantation house in which resided the Maryland slave-owning Carroll family. The Carrolls employed 74 slaves on the wheat and tobacco fields that adjoined their upper-middle-class home, and Greenfield Village interprets for visitors the interdependence of the estate's free and enslaved communities.
Unless your imagination is impoverished, the greater Detroit area has so much to offer that the mind boggles. Now, however, you have a quick guide to help you choose how to juggle time, interest and money, secure in knowing that there will be more to see on your next visit.