Ypsilanti was founded in the mid-1820s on or near the site of a former Potawatomi village and settled in the following decades largely by people from Upstate New York and New England. Upstate New York was the center of what has become known as the Second Great Awakening, a movement among Protestants which sought to prepare the world for Christ’s return by cleansing it of sin and injustice. Many early migrants from those areas to Ypsilanti brought the attitude of moral intervention into society with them. Central to this movement were Methodist and Baptist churches. The first churches organized by Ypsilanti blacks were originally connected with local, white-led Baptist and Methodist churches before striking out with their own congregations of those denominations.
Ypsilanti, while not a stronghold of abolitionism, did contain strong anti-slavery attitudes and a number of prominent abolitionists, including the Norris, Chase, Prescott, and McAndrew families. In 1844, the small abolitionist Liberty Party won just 23 votes in the City. However, leaders of that party would later become prominent in the State’s administration during the Civil War, including Lt. Governor James Birney.
While few Ypsilanti blacks played open roles in the local abolitionist movement, they, quite literally, were the underground railroad. It was Ypsilanti blacks that provided much of the organization, help and guidance to their fellows in need, almost all of those accounts lost to us now.
In 1840 there were 58 blacks counted in Ypsilanti, many living as farm laborers or servants in the homes of white families. Some came to the area because of the nearby River Raisin Institute, an interracial, co-educational school run by abolitionist Laura Havilland. Early black residents included Adams Street families, the Mortons, Staffords, the Artis’ and the Yorks. In 1850 about 70 blacks lived in Ypsilanti.
The years of the 1850s were tumultuous and saw a dramatic increase in the numbers fleeing slavery in the south and racism in the north. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 pushed many ‘free’ blacks into Canada and greatly developed the activities of the underground railroad. Many of those on their way to Canada came through Ypsilanti, on an important rail line, on their way to Detroit and Canada some forty-five miles to the east. Some stayed and by 1860 the black population of Ypsilanti had tripled to over 220.
In the years during the Civil War and the decade that followed, Ypsilanti was seen by many as tolerant, if not welcoming, for black citizens. Mayors attended local Emancipation Day festivities and the Ypsilanti Commercial, one of the leading papers of the city edited by CR Pattison, was relatively consistent in defending the newly won rights of blacks.
In the 1856 Presidential election, anti-slavery and former Free Soil candidate John C. Fremont won Washtenaw County as a Republican by over 700 votes. Lincoln won the County in 1860 by over 600 votes, however Ypsilanti would continue to have a strong Democratic presence through the war. In 1864, Lincoln lost by those voting in Ypsilanti (though won the City thanks to the votes of Union soldiers from Ypsilanti who voted in the field.)
In the period after the Civil War black Ypsilantians lived in family clusters in several parts of town including the area around Emmet and Ballard, Depot Town and what used to be the city line near Oakwood and Washtenaw. The corner of Buffalo and South Adams was also one. Here stood the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the First Ward School and, eventually, the Good Samaritan Lodge hall.
Around this corner generations of Ypsilanti blacks were married and mourned, educated and initiated. This historic street was home to Sunday school teachers and Lodge Elders, Civil War veterans and civil right activists. The vast majority worked in low paying, manual labor at the bottom of Ypsilanti’s economic order.
Blacks, while marginalized were not completely segregated. Blacks owned a few businesses; grocery stores, barber shops and construction contractors, many with white patrons. In this period, there were many who returned to the United States from the settlements that grew up in Canada in the 1840s and 50s.
By 1880, Ypsilanti’s black population had risen to 440, about 10% of the city’s population. In 1900, the year of our survey, there were over 600 blacks living in Ypsilanti, also about 10% of the population. By comparison, in 1900 Michigan’s black population was .7%, Detroit’s 1.4%, and Ann Arbor’s around 3%.
However, Ypsilanti was not immune to the white supremacist reaction to black liberties won in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Toleration receded and hostility increased in the 1880s and 90s. In a few short years segregation would become so complete that even the service work blacks did for whites as barbers, domestics, laundresses, etc. were no longer available.
Many a downtown store, theater and restaurant became a cold house in this period, a situation that would last for decades. Blacks were increasingly shut out of institutions and public discourse as well.
Increasingly crude references to Ypsilanti’s black community in the local newspapers were often only to be found in the ‘Crime’ sections, leading to the establishment of independent black newspapers like Detroit’s Plaindealer and Informer.
The community responded to this by building their own institutions in the form of fraternal and benevolent organizations, religious institutions and, increasingly, political groups like the Afro-American Protective League of the early 1890s. While blacks voted overwhelmingly for the Republican Party (it was said that there was only one black Democrat in the City in those years; local dog-catcher John Perry), that party grew less reliant on and interested in courting the black vote.
The allegiance of Ypsilanti blacks to the Republican Party, forged in the Civil War and Reconstruction, gradually weakened as the Party abandoned even the pretense of interest in the issues of the black supporters. The south side First Ward, home to the majority of Ypsilanti blacks, routinely nominated residents to be on the local Republican ticket; though it was only a show of formality (it would not be until after World War Two that African Americans entered local government).
As Jim Crow separation became codified in the latter nineteenth century, north as well as south, Ypsilanti’s scattered clusters of African American residents coalesced into segregated neighborhoods south of Michigan Avenue and west of Washington Street. South Adams Street, with its school, church and abundance of empty lots became a central avenue of African American life in Ypsilanti.
The years of the Great Migration brought many more people to Ypsilanti. They came from the South looking for work and a little more freedom. The community that existed in Ypsilanti would become a part of a larger, new community. The common thread that united them was centered on the Canadian experience and defined by the struggle for emancipation. While similar to those that came later, Ypsilanti’s black community would develop a new identity in the post-war years.
In many ways South Adams today is like the South Adams of 1900. South from Michigan Avenue the street is a largely black, working class residential one. Empty lots, single family houses and multi-family homes lines the street; some newer, some older. Some are in disrepair, some in neat upkeep. Then, as now, an A.M.E church and school building stood at the corner of Buffalo.
A scattering of the residences remain from the period and before, though most houses inhabited by the community under study do not. Most of those from the period were replaced in the decades after World War Two. It remains a street rich in history and heritage, much of it unknown by Ypsilanti’s white community, and indeed, by many black Ypsilantians as well.
The photograph above was taken during the 1923 Ypsilanti centennial celebrations. It illustrates the depth of both racist segregation and the historic defeat suffered by blacks in the years of Jim Crow. The photo ‘celebrates’ the role Ypsilanti played as a refuge on the way to freedom that many blacks found in the 1840s and 50s. Not with the descendants of those very underground railroad passengers living in the City (more than ten percent of the Ypsilanti’s population at the time), but with local whites dressed in black face. Segregation was so profound in this period that even the historic role played by black freedom-seekers in the story of Ypsilanti had to be presented by whites, while those who actually played the historic role suffered in oppression right next door, unseen as the City celebrated in ‘freedom’ in blackface.