OUR AFRICAN AMERICAN STORY
No city’s history can be written in black and white, but Detroit, as much as any other American metropolis, has seen its tensions and triumphs linked inextricably to race.
Since 1736, when the first formal mention of a black Detroiter was recorded in a Catholic religious rite, African Americans have been drawn here by economic opportunity and the lure of a better life. Some have found it, others have not. But the rise of Detroit’s black community from obscurity to dominance in politics, the arts, business, medicine and athletics been steady and perhaps inexorable; a result of grit and guts in the face of frequently monstrous disadvantages.
Entrepreneurship (perhaps seen first in the pelt company formed by Haitian immigrant Jean DeBaptiste Pointe Du Sable in 1757) has been a driving factor in the success of black Detroiters. Equally, a deeply felt faith in the power of forgiveness—often while shadowed by unforgivable treatment—has proven to be a catalyst in a laudable social and political ascendancy.
In fact, from its rise from a small fur trading colony on an obscure Midwestern river to the industrial powerhouse envisioned by Henry Ford’s, Detroit has courted, shunned, segregated and ultimately celebrated African Americans, a population which now makes up more than 80% of the city. It’s been a journey filled with as much culpability as compassion, part of the greater dichotomy that drives the American spirit. Once a key stop in the Underground Railroad, Detroit also bears the ignominy of Packard Motor’s ‘hate strike’ of 1943, a protest against the hiring of African Americans, and two weeks later, the bloody race riot which claimed thirty-four lives—a tragedy sometimes overlooked in the wake of the 1967 riots.
Prior to 1950, even amid an ostensibly integrated Detroit workforce, many blacks were consigned to living in ‘black bottom’ conditions, especially the infamously misnamed Paradise Valley—neither paradise nor a valley—in the area of St. Antoine, Elmwood, Larned and Lafayette. But these deplorable living conditions fanned a deep artistic tradition which is very much alive today. First seen in the rogue rhythms of the jazz scene, there was, perhaps, a natural progression to the bebop and freewheeling soul of Motown, which became the largest African-American-owned business in the United States, and then to hip hop and rap, which have burst through racial lines as an international phenomenon. Avante garde movements have flourished in Detroit by drawing from an essential African influence, from Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project to the multimedia extravaganza of the Detroit Dance Collective; meanwhile, the acumen of Detroit business leaders, a focus on education and broadening egalitarian attitudes have allowed the city to prosper in all phases of global commerce.
Today, African Americans form not only the backbone of Detroit’s population, but the heart and soul of the cultural face that we present to the world. Visionalist is honored to be allowed to record that face, made up of the personal stories of men and women who have made the journey—the struggles, the concessions and ultimately, the triumph of will through character and perseverance.