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Michigan’s Rich African American Past

For years, February has been recognized as Black History Month. In nearly 250 years of living in Michigan, African Americans have made many important-and often overlooked–contributions to our state’s past. One of the earliest records of African Americans living in Michigan came in the early 1760s when the British replaced the French at Detroit. Two decades later, a British census showed than nearly 200 African American slaves were living in British Detroit. The number of slaves declined after the Americans arrived in 1796. Although a census in 1830 indicated that 30 slaves lived in the territory, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned human slavery and it never thrived in Michigan.

Conversely, opposition to slavery did grow. Michigan was an active participant of the Underground Railroad even before it became a state. In 1836, thirteen former slaves organized the Second Baptist Church in Detroit. Besides allowing African Americans to worship without discrimination, the church also opened Michigan’s first school for black children and it was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Michigan’s black population grew slowly but steadily during the years before the Civil War. Famed black abolitionist Sojourner Truth made Battle Creek her home in 1857. At a time when women, especially black women, did not give speeches, Truth used her remarkable speaking skills to promote equality and the need to end slavery. Truth stood six feet tall and had a deep voice. Her listeners were “melted into tears by her touching stories.”

As automobiles became Michigan’s central focus, tens of thousands of African American moved north, seeking employment in the auto factories. During the twentieth century, the list of African Americans who had an impact on Michigan – and the world – includes world champion boxer Joe Louis, political scientist Ralph Bunche (the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), Motown Records’ founder Berry Gordy Jr., actor James Earl Jones, Congressman John Conyers Jr. and activist Rosa Parks.

For a massive listing of happenings check out: “Black History Month events: February is full of music, exhibits and cultural events celebrating African-American achievement” – via Freep.com

Photo Credit: Visual Materials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records (Library of Congress)