This month, my grandmother would have been 81 years old, had she not lost a third, courageous round with cancer back in 2001. I’ve been reflecting on what she and her siblings left behind, and their place in Detroit history.
I grew up hearing stories and gazing at photos of glamorous African-American life – before Motown, but after the height of the Great Migration – in 1940s and 1950s Detroit, when one of my grandmother’s older sisters was a popular seamstress and dressmakers, with a mile-long client roster.
Back in those days, my great-aunt’s fashions were featured in the Michigan Chronicle – the only media outlet where black-owned businesses could get regular play, an issue we still grapple with in 2014, as national media frequently spotlights young, white entrepreneurs as the city’s saviors. My aunt would put on fashion shows and enlist all of her sisters and their friends as models; a young, then-unknown Lou Rawls once sang at one of the shows, and my grandmother had to kick him out her dressing room because he was in her way. (She’d later regret this as he became a star.)
Alongside my fashionable aunt, my grandmother became a nurse, another sister earned a PhD and oversaw the nursing unit at Harper Hospital, another brother became a doctor and two brothers became postal workers. Good, well-paying jobs that may not have been an option to their parents, who came to Detroit from a whistle-stop town in South Carolina.
I’d imagine my grandmother and her siblings’ desire to succeed came with the burden of something to prove in their surroundings. When they were young, my great-grandmother suffered a heart attack. When emergency responders were dispatched to the home on the city’s east side (which is still in the family), they left her there to die, not knowing black families had lived in that neighborhood. By the time my great-grandmother was taken to the “colored” hospital further away, she had passed.
That’s a somber story that’s told often at family gatherings, but always a necessary reminder. If you wonder why a black Detroiter, especially an older one, constantly feels the need to talk about race or feels slighted because of it, it may be because they have had a similar experience.
But too often Detroit’s history, particularly as younger historians and numbers crunchers stand at our podium to tell us (repeatedly) about life after 1967, points to the struggles of blacks in Detroit rather than their successes. We talk more about the things blacks lost rather than the things blacks built.
Somehow my family would weather outside forces in Detroit over the decades, though personal setbacks like divorce and sinful vices would take their respective tolls. (That’s every family, right?)
But while my family was not the Fords, the Cadillacs, the Gordys or hell, even the Morouns, they, like countless other Detroit families, have and continue to have impact on Detroit, whether their stories are told or not. I think their stories should be told, though.
To be clear, this is not to prop my family up over the next one. It’s just to acknowledge that all of us matter, that we all contributed and that we all wanted better.