Detroit has experienced major changes in recent years. One change is the racial composition of the City as more Whites and non-Blacks move here and larger numbers of Blacks leave the core for the suburbs and exurbs. As populations change, so do histories and memories about the City. In this course we will be studying the history and memory of Black Detroit. In saying “Black Detroiters,” we mean all people of African descent. However, since the bulk of Black residents have been and are African American, certain parts of the course will tilt toward that population. In investigating Black people’s histories in the City, we’ll be focusing primarily on the period transformed by the great migrations from the South but we will also explore histories that predate that.
Students for Fall 2015 are pretty advanced–upper division undergraduates and PhD and MA students from History, Library Sciences, Communications, and more. The advanced enrollment allows us to dispense with a lot of “history for beginners” and get right to the nitty gritty of learning a bit of Detroit history and developing the research project.
We started by reading some texts on history, historical production, and collective and historical memory to ensure we’re clear on the production of history and what’s at stake in what groups and institutions (dis)remember about events, etc. Our readings included Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “The Power in the Story” from Silencing the Past, Pierre Nora’s “Between History and Memory: Les Lieux de Memoire,” and David Blight’s “W.E.B. Du Bois and the Struggle for American Historical Memory.” This was a great discussion! The texts and our discussion of them got students to rethink their understandings of history and memory.
Students will get tutorials on OMEKA & WordPress for developing their sites but they are welcome to use apps like iMovie or Sway. Then we will visit some major research libraries on Detroit, namely the Reuther Library, Burton Historical Collection, and Wright Museum’s Archives/Research Library. Students who commute or are willing to travel to Ann Arbor and Lansing may visit the Bentley Historical Library and the Archives of Michigan.
Much of the City’s 20th century Black history is centered around labor, namely the automobile industry. So we spend considerable time exploring Black Detroiters’ lives as workers by reading Beth Bates’s The Making of Black Detroit in Age of Henry Ford and Heather Ann Thompson’s Whose Detroit?. Because work is only one facet of people’s lives and Black Detroit’s history doesn’t start or end with automakers, we read articles and chapters by Joyce Baugh, Kevin Boyle, Angela Dillard, Darlene Clark Hine, David Katzman, Suzanne E. Smith, Jeanne Theoharis, and Victoria Wolcott touching on topics like early Black settlement, housing, the informal economy, religion, and education from the early 19th century through the 1970s. Then we shift to looking at contemporary debates about Detroit’s future (and Black people’s place in it), in light of bankruptcy, and the discourse about the City’s “rebirth.”
Students can research whatever they like as long as people of African descent are the focus. However, I did impose a ban on Motown, Black Bottom or Paradise Valley subjects that have been done to death. The Black Bottom and Paradise Valley communities and Motown are critical to Detroit’s Black history and memory but scholars, news media, and other people have written a LOT about these topics. If students find new materials or an original way of studying these subjects (like conducing interviews and documenting different memories or analyzing visual or creative representations of them), they are welcome to research them.
At the beginning of the term, students expressed interest in researching a range of topics including Detroit’s civil rights leaders, medicine, policing, housing segregation and displacement by gentrification, and Islam. As their instructor, I’m really excited to be teaching and learning from them. More updates to come.
Kidada E. Williams, Department of History, Wayne State University