These articles highlight the importance that Ypsilanti was to the social and political life of black Michigan during the Civil War. In 1863, at the height of the War and the beginning of black recruitment into the Union Army, it was the honor of Ypsilanti to host a state-wide convention of “colored men”. The convention demanded that Michigan’s state constitution delete the word “white” and drop all references to race.
The delegates were among the State’s most important leaders of both the political and underground struggles against slavery and included Ypsilanti’s HP Jacobs and the “Father of Black Nationalism”, Martin Delaney as well as Underground Railroad activists like Rev.’s Brooks and Webb of Detroit.
As this remarkable document shows, from the Liberator newspaper February 17, 1863, (100 years before the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act) African-American Ypsilanti has a 150 year tradition of nearly unbroken struggle for human and civil rights.
Racial discrimination and segregation increased and became codified after the defeat of Reconstruction, leading the Ypsilanti black community to create a myriad of institutions of their own. This happened at a time when the role and number of fraternal organizations and secret societies in the country generally had reached their zenith. Along with ‘colored’ counterparts to organizations like the Oddfellows, blacks created organizations specific to their needs and interests, like the various benevolent societies that formed to care for funerary services, the infirmed and others in need. A huge range of activities are represented in these groups. Religious, musical, craft, political, fraternal, women’s, sport, lecture, philanthropical, educational and legal. Some organizations were mirrors of ‘proper’, white late Victorian society that blacks were shut out of.
A 1915 directory of African-American organizations in Michigan is available on a separate page. In addition, the Newspapers page has dozens of additional references to Ypsilanti’s social, political and religious life.
A read through the Ypsilanti press in the years following the Civil War shows that blacks receded from the pages as the racial division in society became more stark. Blacks were rarely mentioned at all in the white-owned press by the 1890s, except in the crime pages. African-Americans began to publish their own newspapers to report on their lives and champion their concerns.
These newspapers, like all newspapers of the time, carried social columns that reported on the comings and goings of the community. Above is an example of the social column for Ypsilanti that appeared nearly every week in the late 1880s and early 1890s in the Detroit Plaindealer. This reporter writes as ‘Little Nugget.’ Several Adams Street residents are mentioned here, including Allie De Hazen and Anne Morton, mother of Robert Morton. The mix of life, social and religious events reported in the Plaindealer occasionally included political ones as well.
Ypsilanti had a fairly strong, if sporadic, labor union presence aided by the arrival of a great number German-speaking immigrants. Some of the unions would have had black members. Most were craft unions, and exclusively white, but several were laboring unions organized at Ypsilanti factories and machine shops. Perhaps the most prominent unions for blacks during this time would have been those organized in rail through the Michigan Central Railroad and the interurban lines. Ypsilantian’s would commute to Detroit to work in rail was well. The Railwaymen’s Association and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters were both predominately black unions and active in Wayne and Washtenaw County.
Ypsilanti was represented in nearly every early national civil rights movement. The National Afro American League, led by Timothy Thomas Fortune, was a pioneering civil rights and black political organization and forerunner of the NAACP. The NAAL met at its first convention in Chicago January, 1890. A sign of the deterioration in the relationship between blacks and the Republican Party, the NAAL sought to pursue its goals outside the parameters of the Republicans, since the Civil War until then, the arena for most black political action. The convention agreed on a six-point program:
- The securing of voting rights
- The combating of lynch laws
- The abolition of inequities in state funding of public school education for blacks and whites
- reforming the southern penitentiary system — its chain gang and convict lease practices
- combating discrimination in railroad and public travel conveyances;
- and discrimination in public places, hotels, and theaters.
The Washtenaw County Protective League was an affiliate of the short-lived Afro American Protective League. The League, founded at the Detroit convention mentioned below, was an early civil rights and black welfare organization and a forerunner to the NAACP. It sought to redress discrimination in schooling, Jim Crow and lynch law. It also aided blacks feeling from white mob violence, then regular in the south and parts of the north. The convention, according to the 1913 published The Negro’s progress in fifty years, had 141 delegates from 21 states, at least six of them from Ypsilanti.
Hewitt Hall, on the northeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street, then had a third floor hall that was used for all kinds of activities, including lectures, plats, dances and meetings. The hall was not exclusive and for many years Ypsilanti’s black community held events here.
Those events included celebrating the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, socials connected to Emancipation Day celebrations and talks by the likes of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Robert De Hazen, of 111 South Adams had a barbershop on the second floor of the Hewitt Block for a number of years.
Ypsilanti African-Americans were heavily concentrated in the City’s First Ward well before 1900. Like most black communities in the United States after the Civil War that could vote, Ypsilanti voted overwhelmingly for the Republican Party.
When President Grant was challenged by those who wanted to end Reconstruction in the South, Ypsilanti blacks formed Grant Clubs to defend the gains made by blacks under Reconstruction.
An August 10, 1870 issue of the Ypsilanti Commercial detailed the meeting, held at the First Ward School. The club was led locally by Solomon Bow, among others. Two years later, in the midst of the 1872 elections, Grant Clubs were again formed, also at the First Ward School.
Notice how the attempt by the local Democratic Party, then a party associated with white supremacy, to appeal to black voters was received in the story below.
Being dominant in the city’s First Ward, Ypsilanti blacks offered candidates in Republican primaries until around 1900, when blacks were increasingly shut out of access to local politics.
Religious life was the center around which much of the rest of the community’s life orbited. Until the Great Migrations of the years between World Wars One and Two, most Ypsilanti blacks were either members of the Second Baptist Church on South Hamilton, or the Brown AME Church on South Adams. Ypsilantians traveled to attend religious conferences and gatherings throughout the area. Picnics, retreats and camp meetings, like the one held in Ypsilanti advertised below, often gathered participants from around Michigan, Ohio, India and southwestern Ontario.
The African-American communities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti were naturally very close. Family, social, school and work ties united the two communities. Then, as now, people moved back and forth between the two towns. Below, Ypsilanti hosts friends from Ann Arbor for sledding in winter.
Then, as now, there was a rivalry between the two towns.
Music, from the church to the street, seems to be an activity nearly everyone participated in. Church choirs, parlor concerts, singing recitals, marching bands , and folk songs rang out from Ypsilanti’s south side. Below are just a few of the many references to music found in newspaper social columns, mostly from the black-run Detroit Plaindealer.
Weddings often united communities as much as couples and families.
Below is a clipping detailing the wedding of Ypsilanti’s Claribel Thompson and William Blackwell of Chatham. It is a wonderful widow into the close relationships between area black communities and the continued connections to Canada.