A Tale in a Timeline

This Black History Month, recall some of the moments, movements and people central to the story of Black Detroit.

Detroit history

September 1807: Slavery Outlawed

The first chief justice of the Michigan territory Judge Augustus Woodward rules that all enslaved persons (except those owned by British subjects) are to be freed. He also later rules that the enslaved who could establish their freedom in Canada couldn’t be taken back to the United States.

June 14-15, 1833: Blackburn Riots

Detroit’s first racial uprising occurs at what’s now the Detroit Public Library’s Skillman branch, once the city’s jailhouse. Couple Thornton and Rutha Blackburn are jailed here after escaping slavery in Louisville two years prior. The city’s Black residents band together – led by Caroline French and Tabitha Lightfoot – to free the Blackburns and help them flee to Canada.

March 1836: Second Baptist Church

The Territorial Legislature of Michigan grants 13 former slaves permission to own and operate their own church. It becomes only the seventh major church in Detroit and a pivotal player in the underground railroad. Second Baptist is the oldest Black-owned religious institution in the Midwest and is still in operation in Greektown today.

Second Baptist Church
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

1869: Detroit Public Schools

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Detroit begins admitting African American students to its public schools. The Black community commissions the school board to admit its students, and when this fails, they take their fight to the Michigan Supreme Court, which rules that Black students have the right to admission. 

1934: Baker’s Keyboard Lounge

The jazz club – purported as the “world’s oldest” – is erected on Livernois Avenue as a sandwich shop, first, in 1933, and then becomes a piano lounge. It was designated a historic site by the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office in 1986. Today, it still holds steady as a favorite among Black Detroit’s grown and sexy.

June 20-22, 1943: The Detroit Race Riot

Racism, poor living conditions and unequal access to jobs and housing during wartime leads to race riots in the summer of 1943. When the city tries to construct a Black housing project in an otherwise white neighborhood, an armed white mob gathers, lights a cross on fire and pickets. Tensions boil over into a fight between the races on Belle Isle that spills over into the city, lasts three days and leaves nine whites and 25 Blacks dead.

Detroit history
Photo courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

1940s and 1950s: Black Bottom

Once a center for Eastern European Jewish settlement, by the 1950s, Black Bottom – named for its dark and rich topsoil – had become a bustling African American neighborhood, chock-full of Black-owned businesses, social institutions and social clubs. It garners national attention for its music scene, attracting Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and others. The neighborhood is demolished in the early 1960s in the name of “urban renewal.”

Feb. 2, 1948: Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. Michigan

In 1945, 24-year-old Black secretary Sarah Elizabeth Ray is barred passage on the Bob-Lo boat, traveling from Detroit to the amusement park on Bois Blanc Island. The NAACP and Thurgood Marshall take up the case and the Bob-Lo Excursion Co. is convicted in a criminal prosecution under the Michigan Civil Rights Act, affirmed on appeal by the Supreme Court. Legal historians say this set a precedent for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Ray has since been dubbed “the other Rosa Parks.”

Jan. 12, 1959: Motown Records

With an $800 loan, young songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. founds Tamla Records, later incorporated as Motown Records Corporation on April 14, 1960. Motown Sound soon takes over the world, turning out hit after hit and making stars out of Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and more. In 1985, Gordy’s sister Esther Gordy Edwards founds the Motown Museum. 

Motown Museum

June 23, 1963: Detroit Walk to Freedom

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leads this march to commemorate the Detroit Race Riot 20 years earlier, and highlight segregation and brutality against civil rights activists in the South and Black concerns in the urban North, like hiring practices and housing. On this afternoon, 125,000 people fill Woodward and move in relative silence as 15,000 others look on from sidewalks, windows and roofs.  

Detroit Walk to Freedom
Photo courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

July 23-28, 1967: The Detroit Rebellion

Because of deindustrialization, widespread joblessness and white flight, between 1950 and 1960, Detroit loses 20% of its population. A culmination of decades of institutional racism, segregation and tensions between Detroit police and the Black community results in the largest civil disturbance in 20th century America that only relaxes when federal troops are called in. In the end, 43 people die, hundreds more are injured, and at least 7,000 are arrested. 

History Makers 

Jacob Young 

In 1793, Young purchases land from a French settler to become the first Black landowner in Detroit.

William Lambert

Lambert owned a successful dry cleaning and tailoring business during his early days in Detroit but soon became a key player in the abolitionist movement in the 1840s and beyond, publicly helping fugitive slaves escape to Windsor. He founded the Colored Vigilant Committee, the first civil rights organization in Detroit. 

Elijah McCoy 

An inventor and engineer born in 1844, McCoy held nearly 60 U.S. patents in his lifetime. Most notably, while working for the Michigan Central Railroad, he invented a lubricating cup that distributed oil evenly over the steam engine’s moving parts, allowing trains to run for long periods without needing to stop for maintenance. 

George DeBaptiste 

The prominent entrepreneur was a key conductor on the underground railroad in Detroit and in Madison, Indiana, helping over 180 of the formerly enslaved cross the river from Kentucky to Indiana. In Detroit, having moved from Madison in 1846, DeBaptiste used his boat the T. Whitney to ferry those seeking freedom across the Detroit River to Canada. 

Fannie Richards 

Educated herself in Toronto and Germany, Richards was Detroit’s first Black school teacher, opening a private school for Black children in 1863 and later developing Michigan’s first kindergarten class. She was also one of the founders of the Michigan State Association of Colored Women. 

C.L. Franklin

The Baptist minister with the “million-dollar voice” was a civil rights activist and civic leader, helping to organize the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom. Franklin served as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit from 1946 to 1979, where his daughter, Aretha, found her voice.   

Coleman A. Young

Elected in 1974, he became Detroit’s first Black mayor, serving for 20 years. A veteran of the U.S. Army and a navigator with the Tuskegee Airmen, as mayor, Young created coalitions among corporate leaders and secured funding for major Detroit projects including the Renaissance Center and the Joe Louis Arena.  

Sources: C-SPAN, biography.com, Detroit Historical Society, detroitmi.gov, detroitsotherrosaparks.com, Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation, Motown Museum, supreme.justia.com, Walter P. Reuther Library 

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