n 1959, while working for then-Secretary of State James Hare in Lansing, John Green was introduced to a book that changed the course of his life.
A state of Michigan librarian, Lila Colby, who showed him the book, asked why more Black people weren’t interested in the “Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress“-compiled in 1915 to salute achievements of African Americans in Michigan 50 years after the 13th Amendment.
Green wasn’t just interested; he was enthralled.
Green assembled the book’s index by hand, received permission to reprint it as “Negroes in Michigan History” and got it placed for a time in Detroit Public Schools. A living slice of history himself-one of the first African Americans in Michigan to earn a securities license and a former historian for what’s now the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History-Green, 80, remains a tireless champion of promoting the invaluable role Blacks have played in Michigan and America.
You’re preparing a fourth edition of “Negroes in Michigan History” for publication in 2015. That’s an anniversary?
Yes; in 2015, the book will have been in print 100 years. I’m coming out with a special commemorative edition with all the flourishes in it. And you’re only going to be able to get it by subscription, before it goes to press. I’m not going to try and get it out on the market.
This book has been a consuming passion for you, hasn’t it?
It’s been such a phenomenal ride… There’s nothing but role models in this book, and not just for Black kids. Shortly after the book came out, (State) Sen. Basil Brown and Sen. Arthur Cartwright sponsored Senate Resolution 233, commending me for acquiring this book and redoing it. You don’t get a lot of recognition being a Black historian, but to be involved with this book is the greatest thing that’s happened to me in my life.
Some Detroiters still rhapsodize about “Paradise Valley” and a golden era for African Americans here. You have a different view?
Detroit is not, was not and never has been a panacea for Black people. Those same Southerners that we left behind came up here with us for jobs in the auto plants, and they brought their same attitudes with them! And nobody ever talks about the “Black codes,” laws set up specifically to keep Black people out. Every state had them, including Michigan. And it’s ironic because Michigan, being part of the Northwest Territory, was never supposed to be a slave state. But they did have slaves in Michigan, in Detroit. When people talk about “paradise,” I say, “paradise where?”
The Underground Railroad, and Detroit’s role in it, served as a paradise of sorts for African American slaves, didn’t it?
I have a lot of criticism for people who say Detroit was a “stop” on the Underground Railroad. Detroit was a terminal, and there’s a big difference between a stop and a terminal. More Blacks crossed into Canada, which was called “Canaan,” from “Midnight,” which was Detroit’s name, than anyplace in the United States. But the Underground Railroad Museum is in Cincinnati.
You established the nonprofit Ralph J. Bunche Repository, Inc. to increase education and recognition regarding the late U.N. diplomat. Why?
Because here is Dr. Bunche, born in Detroit and the first person of color to be awarded a Nobel Prize, and I want him to receive his propers. … He’s the first Michigan person to receive the prize. Other cities and states acknowledge their native sons. We’ve got Joe Louis Arena. What’s wrong with doing something for Ralph Bunche?
Do you think he deserves a statue?
Well, we’ve got “The Fist”! I never met Dr. Bunche, but I just became so fascinated with him. He marched with Dr. King. When he finished Harvard with his degree in international relations and political science, he went to Howard University and set up the first political science department there. People don’t understand the role he played in establishing the United Nations. He helped write the charter! And he came from this town? I mean, please.
What keeps driving you to do this?
You cannot write Michigan history, or any history of the United States, without including us. America would not have become the country it is had it not been for our free labor. Sad to say, but a lot of us are still ashamed of being Black. I believe God made me the way he wanted me to be, and I am proud of my history. I am not going to let anybody forget the contributions we have made to this country. No way.