Before Black History Month slips away, consider Michigan’s rich diversity of accomplishment

As we start Lent, I’m reminded how hard keeping a Lenten promise can be for 40 days and 40 nights. In college, I tried giving up beer for Lent. That lasted about three weeks. During the first few years I worked in Lansing, I tried giving up swearing, and that didn’t even last through Ash Wednesday). I think the best I’ve done was three years ago, when I decided I’d go to the gym three days a week; I made it about a month.

There’s something similar to the way I’ve gone about appreciating Black History Month. As soon as February 1 hits, I am all about talking up the racial issues of the day, whether it’s Ferguson or the lack of diversity in local police forces. I watch movies like “Selma” and “Do The Right Thing.” I’ll even start to re-read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” But somewhere close to Valentine’s Day is the time that I go back to focusing on the day-to-day journey of a work week, commutes, sports, and binge-watching my favorite TV shows (most of which don’t have anything to do with racial harmony).

I wonder, if I can’t really make it through 28 days of celebrating my heritage and the struggle to keep the dream alive, just like I often fail to make it through the purifying season of Lent, does that make me weak?

Fr. John Fleckenstein, pastor of St. Phillip’s Roman Catholic Church in Battle Creek, is a high school and college friend of mine. A couple weeks back, during his homily, John posed the question:

“How many times do we practice what we preach when it comes to racial equality? … How often have we, in a prayer or (while attending an event, heard) someone (invoking) the names of Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King, or here in Battle Creek, Sojourner Truth and others? But when that event is over, somehow deep down we are saying to ourselves ‘Got that taken care of. I’ve mentioned the names. Now everyone knows that I’m on the right side.’”

He went on to speak of African Americans less well-known to us. Names like Pierre Toussaint (a slave who gained his freedom and became a noted Catholic philanthropist to the poor of New York City, buried underneath the high altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral) or Fr. Augustus Tolton (the first ordained African-American Catholic priest). Even some canonized saints like St. Perpetua and Felicity, or St. Augustine, scholars believe came from African descent. I didn’t know that about Augustine, and I went to a school that bears his name.

As John preached his homily, it raised the question in my mind, who are some of Michigan’s notable African Americans who should be celebrated during Black History Month?

They include actor James Earl Jones, Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. These are the more well-known folks. How many of us have heard of Enoch Harris, Charles Buck, Albert Cleage or Eugene Marshall?

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about them until I started writing this article.

Enoch Harris was among the first settlers of Oshtemo Township and was the first African American farmer in Kalamazoo County. Born in November 1784, his family first established themselves on an 80-acre farm near where the village of Schoolcraft is now located. Several years later, they moved north to what is now Oshtemo Township. The property he owned was in the Genesee Prairie and records show he brought apple seed with him and raised an orchard on the land. Enoch died in 1870 and is buried in the Genesee Prairie Cemetery alongside his wife Deborah who died 11 years later.

Charles Buck came to Kalamazoo in 1858, the beneficiary of one of the white churches in the area that gave him clothes and food. He started saving money and buying property and became a successful farmer and real-estate broker. By 1915, he owned seven tenement houses and a store, along with three farms and other properties in Schoolcraft and Three Rivers.

Albert Cleage earned his medical degree from the Indiana School of Medicine in 1910. He came to Kalamazoo in 1912 and served as the city’s first African American doctor. Eugene Marshall graduated from the University of Michigan with his law degree. He became a noted orator and lived and practiced law in Kalamazoo on Ransom Street. The Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society is an invaluable source of information.

We’re in the last week of Black History Month now. I urge you to take the time this week to find out and celebrate the little known African-American pioneers from our state. Learn about University of Michigan computer-science PhD Kyla McMullen. When the weather breaks, drive up to Lake County and visit Idlewild. Make this last week of February your strongest push to embrace the greatest strength Michigan has – people of all races, creeds, colors and backgrounds.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Sat, 02/21/2015 - 2:46am
I am concerned that when we link individuals to a single group their efforts/successes are being segragated from the rest of society. Ms. Rosa Parks seems to be such a person. My understanding is that she was tired and saw no reason to move because of who others were. The lesson to me was how one person can, with an everyday activity, facilitate a change that we all benefit from. She didn't seem to have the purpose to change the world, she did with what was at hand to change her moment in time. Her actions not who she was is where we learn the lesson. Is that only a history or lesson for a single ethnic group or is it something we should all learn from and apply it to ourselves? Is it American history or history that is to be mentioned only one month a year? Mr. Worthams mentioned many people that seemed much like Ms. Parks, who were simply trying to affect their lives and their small part of the world. I think they show each of us that we have a choice, that we can make a difference in our lives, and we don't have to be to change the world to have an impact. I also believe there are many others from other ethnic groups that we could learn similar lessons from. The disappointing things is few of us will ever hear of them. As Mr. Worthams mentions it is one group once a year that have their names mentioned, why isn't part of something we all learn and apply. Ms. Parks and the others are people we should all want to learn from, not because of who they are, because of what they did. Not in one article, once a year, but as regular lessons that include Americans irregardless of their ethnicity. Thank you Mr. Worthams, this is a good article that caused me to pause and think. I would encourage you to regularly write an article about each of the people you mentioned and do articles on people with different ethnicity whose actions teach similar messages, about what one person can do inspite of what others say and do.
Sun, 02/22/2015 - 2:44am
I agree with your comments, and would add that the whole notion of setting aside a month of the year to "honor one ethnic group" is a form of reverse segregation. How hard is it to spend 11 months of the year preparing for this one period of acknowledgement for an ethnic group while racial status quos persist all year long. You are right, people like Rosa Park and many others including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn't set out with some noble quest to change the world they were simply being what and who we all are most of the time, simply people living our live to the best of our ability.
Mark H
Sun, 02/22/2015 - 8:31am
The idea that Rosa Parks was merely "tired" and impulsively decided not to give up her seat to a white person, is a myth. Mrs. Parks was a Civil Rights activist before she was arrested on that bus in December 1955 -- and had been for decades. She had, in fact, been arrested once before, on that same bus route by the same driver, ten years before! She knew she'd be arrested, and she did so as part of a life-long desire to fight against white supremacy. Read the great book "At the Dark End of the Street" by Wayne State historian Danielle McGuire, to learn more about Mrs. Parks' activism and the long struggle against racist sexual violence.
Mon, 02/23/2015 - 12:23am
Mark, I am disappointed that you seem to only see an icon and not an individual, not a person who is driven by personal motivation. I disagree with you calling what she did as impulsive. I believe that she had been dealing with that situation all of her life, she had thought about it all of her life. Even you say she had been dealing with it for over 10 years. It seems that she, in that moment, had become so weary of what she had to deal with that it was the tipping point for Ms. Parks. I am concerned you have never wonder about individual tipping points, even community tipping points, those that come from within the person and the community not the outside agitated actions. I must admit I am not so interested in grandiose schemes to save the ‘world’, I am more interest in the individuals that will make choices and take actions in their small part of the world. I see Ms. Parks will and ability to take her own actions to address her situation just like those in the article as a message I believe is relevant to kids in school today rather than her being mentioned once a year for an event that happened 60 years ago. I would be disappointed if Ms. Parks’ actions were a planned event rather than her tipping point and acting against that she was no longer willing to accommodate. I accept we will disagree on the point of icon vs. individual. However, with your passion, you have caused me to wonder if Ms. Parks was acting as an individual or at the direction of others. Please clarify for me. Based on what you say I will, on Bridge, acknowledge my error, rescind my comments about Ms. Parks, and credit you with the correction.
Jimm Greene
Sun, 02/22/2015 - 7:55am
Excellent comments and you hit it out the park...guilty as charged though I did know about 2 of the 3 you mentioned :)