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AACHM Oral History: Phase Ten of the Living Oral History Project

When: October 15, 2023

Compilation video from Phase Ten of the Living Oral History Project, in collaboration with the Ann Arbor District Library and the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County. With Carol Allen, Janie Lee Ross, Sandra Harris, Carl James Johnson, and Alice Brennan-Key.


  • [00:00:17] SANDRA HARRIS: At the time I moved to Ann Arbor, the Ann Arbor Community Center was operating there on North Main Street. I remember going down there as a child after school for various after-school activities. Also, one of the first things we did when we came to Ann Arbor was join a church. I joined Second Baptist Church of Ann Arbor where I'm still a member. I remember the pastor's wife had just such a devotion to children and she had youth groups that would meet. People ask me about my leadership skills, and I have to say I learned my leadership skills at my church through Saturday morning sessions with Mrs. Carpenter and other activities and things that were going on, there at the church, that's where I have to say I first learned how to be a leader.
  • [00:01:20] CARL JAMES JOHNSON: Growing up I remember going to the Island Park, Riverside Park, all the parks in Ann Arbor. Summit Park, playing baseball, ice skating, it was very mixed, it was white and Black.
  • [00:01:38] JANIE LEE ROSS: I remember being a little girl. [LAUGHTER] A little bad girl.
  • [00:01:45] CAROL ALLEN: A little girl about how old?
  • [00:01:49] JANIE LEE ROSS: Doing all kinds of stuff.
  • [00:01:51] CAROL ALLEN: How old were you that you remember?
  • [00:01:54] JANIE LEE ROSS: How old was I?
  • [00:01:58] CAROL ALLEN: Five, six, seven?
  • [00:02:01] JANIE LEE ROSS: I guess I was five [LAUGHTER] or I was six.
  • [00:02:07] CAROL ALLEN: She grew up in Jackson, Tennessee area called Fites Bottom. Fites Bottom had a flour mill and she used to get in trouble for playing in the flour mill. [LAUGHTER] My mother has always been very strong-willed.
  • [00:02:30] JANIE LEE ROSS: I liked to play in it.
  • [00:02:32] CAROL ALLEN: You liked to play it, she saying. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:02:35] JANIE LEE ROSS: I liked to stir it up.
  • [00:02:37] CAROL ALLEN: Stir it up. Yes.
  • [00:02:39] CAROL ALLEN: Some of my earliest memories was when we first came here, we lived with my great uncle over the Broadway Bridge, the three of us, three musketeers. What else? My other memories living on Fifth Ave on the house with the big porch. That was good memories. That was our neighborhood.
  • [00:03:08] JOYCE HUNTER: Talk to me a little bit about that neighborhood. We've interviewed other people that talked about living on Fifth Ave, Beakes, Fourth Ave, all in that area, so talk to me a little bit about that area.
  • [00:03:21] CAROL ALLEN: Well, that was pretty much our circle. We had Diroff's store over there, which you could see from our porch. Most of the ethnic food that Black people ate came from that store. They would come from all over to get the food they wanted, and he catered to them. Our church was on Fourth Ave, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Bethel was on Fourth Ave, so everything we needed was there. The Baptist Church was on Fourth Ave and Beakes. Then we had the farmer's market there. So pretty much everything you needed was there. It was a nice neighborhood. I thought all neighborhoods were like that.
  • [00:04:18] ALICE BRENNAN-KEY: Then they eventually got together, married, and then he came up here in the early 1940s and prepared a way for my mother and my four oldest siblings to come up here. We lived across the street from where our family home is right now. It was difficult, as I said, they told us that it was difficult for them to find a place for a husband and a wife and four children to live. Then I've also heard while growing up that even after they built the house next door, they also took in boarders. Now, the reason for that is I'm not sure, I can only surmise that it could be to help with the payment of the mortgage, but also probably just to give back. If people were having a hard time finding a place to live, we had people that lived with us that were not related to us.
  • [00:05:28] JOYCE HUNTER: Let's talk about accommodations. Some Blacks came to town with the hotels and places for them to stay. Where did visitors stay?
  • [00:05:38] CAROL ALLEN: That's a good question because I don't know. I think most people, they came stayed with family or relatives. My parents had the house, it was three stories, we had the bottom floor, the second floor they rented out, and the third floor they rented out. People stayed with families. When we first came here, I stayed with my great-uncle, Mr. Little, and we stayed there. Then after we left there, we stayed, that was on the north side of town by Northside School, then we stayed at Summit and Daniels. Mrs. Jones rented the upstairs of her house to us. I think most people that came here stayed with family because there was a lot of housing they have now, they didn't have then.
  • [00:06:36] CARL JAMES JOHNSON: We would go to Canada a lot with my family. The Freedom Day Parade, Buxton, Canada, we'd go roller skating in Toronto, Windsor. I had a very nice childhood. My mother had a stroke when I was seven, so that's why we moved to Ann Arbor. We moved right down by St. Joe Hospital, which is on Glen Street, which is 311 Glen, kitty-corner from Angelo's.
  • [00:07:17] SANDRA HARRIS: There was a Roy's Drive-In, I believe out on Michigan Ave in Ypsi. So sometimes a Friday evening treat might be going out there, and that's where you drive up and it used to be like A&W and they bring the tray out, set it on the window, that type of thing. That was a treat for us going out there and getting hot dogs and hamburgers maybe once or twice a month. But as a family, there were six children. We couldn't go to a restaurant and pull a sit down at a table, my parents just could not afford that.
  • [00:07:50] ALICE BRENNAN-KEY: In the summertime, we went up to Mackinac Island for vacation, mostly with a camper. When we stayed up there, we would go camp out for a week or so and then come back home, and I remember that being a very enjoyable time.
  • [00:08:12] CAROL ALLEN: The Green Book, I didn't know anything about the Green Book. We had reunions and we would go to the South and we'd go see our relatives, we'd go to southern Illinois, Tennessee. My dad always traveled at night. Well, that generation traveled at night because at night nobody could tell what you were. I used to wonder why my daddy liked to drive at night and that's why. My great-uncle drove at night. My uncle, my aunt's husband, not great-uncle, my aunt's husband, he would drive at night. The Green Book tells you about all the different places you could stay.
  • [00:09:04] SANDRA HARRIS: I came to Ann Arbor, there was a practice here that students who came from the South were just automatically put back a grade. I remember coming here and starting in second grade, and I remember being put in the lowest reading class and every day of the week I was moved up to a different reading group. That's when they had the birds and the bees and they had all these names for the reading groups. By the end of the week, I was in the highest reading group.
  • [00:09:31] CAROL ALLEN: All the kids went to school. But were you homeschooled mom or did you go to school? She had asthma really bad. Did you go to school?
  • [00:09:41] JANIE LEE ROSS: Yeah.
  • [00:09:41] CAROL ALLEN: Okay. You went to 11th grade? You didn't get to go to 12th grade? In 1951, when we came here, Mom was in school in Chicago to get her LPN. She almost finished, but she decided to come to Ann Arbor instead. Now she would have completed that. That was a big deal back then in 1951. Who were the teachers? Did you have Black teachers? Did you have Black teachers in Tennessee?
  • [00:10:27] JANIE LEE ROSS: Yeah. Miss Tinny.
  • [00:10:29] CAROL ALLEN: Miss Tinny.
  • [00:10:32] JANIE LEE ROSS: Miss Payne.
  • [00:10:35] CAROL ALLEN: Payne.
  • [00:10:35] JANIE LEE ROSS: Let me see, who else?
  • [00:10:38] CAROL ALLEN: Then I've got to tell you this, and I was hoping Joetta would be here. The first Black teacher I ever saw and ever met when I was in either third or fourth grade was Mr. Mial. That was the biggest thing I think that happened to me when I was at school. I'd never seen a Black teacher before, ever, till I met Mr. Mial. I remember that like it was yesterday.
  • [00:11:02] CARL JAMES JOHNSON: I remember Tappan very well. Tappan Junior High School, I had a lot of fun there. We did a lot of different activities. I learned to swim. Elementary school I went to Jones.
  • [00:11:17] SANDRA HARRIS: I always called myself an unofficial cheerleader because I'd have everybody going in the stands. I wasn't down on the floor, but I sure would have cheering going on up in the stands.
  • [00:11:27] JOYCE HUNTER: Let's talk a little bit about Tappan. You said you'd had some really good experiences at Tappan?
  • [00:11:32] CARL JAMES JOHNSON: At Tappan, I got involved with the Native American Indian. Boy Scouts did a jamboree, and they brought in a bunch of Native Americans and put up a tent, a teepee, and that's when I got involved and was talking to my mother about our Canadian heritage, about being Native American. I always related to being Tonto instead of the lone ranger. I was always for the Indian. Then I started going to powwows or gatherings way back.
  • [00:12:15] ALICE BRENNAN-KEY: I felt that I had a good experience. I went to school and I think I said this before, I floated through school. I went and I did what I was supposed to do. We were told at home that we're sending you to school, we're sending you to school to learn, not sending you to school to act up and none of that other stuff, so basically that's what I did. I went to school, I did what I was supposed to do, and that was that, and I came home. I really didn't engage in any after school activities, actually.
  • [00:12:53] SANDRA HARRIS: The other thing, Joyce, is that keep in mind, starting in 1968, that was the year that Dr. King was assassinated. Up until then, you didn't have Black students in a lot of extracurricular activities, you didn't have Black students in advanced placement classes, you didn't have Black cheerleaders, you didn't have Blacks on the homecoming court, those things just didn't happen.
  • [00:13:28] ALICE BRENNAN-KEY: One thing I do remember in high school was there was, I believe I was in 11th or 12th grade, and there was some really, at that time was a lot of racial unrest, racial tension. That was problematic at school.
  • [00:13:49] SANDRA HARRIS: What we did was we boycotted classes, and we marched to the Board of Education, which was over on Wells Street at that time, and demanded that Black students have those same opportunities as white students. After that, we got Black cheerleaders. I think there may have been one before then, but it wasn't, I'm not mistaken, Pat Manley may have been one, but it wasn't routine. If there was a Black on the cheerleading squad, that wasn't normal. That wasn't the way it usually was. I remember I was the second Black female on the homecoming court at Pioneer High School and there was one other Black student before me, Joanne Baker Gomez. She was, I believe, the first Black girl on the homecoming court, and I was the second.
  • [00:14:43] JANIE LEE ROSS: Yeah. I used to sing when I was a little girl.
  • [00:14:45] CAROL ALLEN: Okay. You didn't tell me about that.
  • [00:14:47] JANIE LEE ROSS: Sure. My daddy would take me.
  • [00:14:50] CAROL ALLEN: Yeah. My grandfather was a deacon in the church, so she probably did a lot of activities there.
  • [00:14:56] JANIE LEE ROSS: Yeah. I followed him everywhere he went. [LAUGHTER] That was my favorite, my dad.
  • [00:15:09] JOETTA MIAL: Do you know if your family had any special sayings, like family sometimes make up little things?
  • [00:15:20] JANIE LEE ROSS: I used to love to hear my brother sing. He used to sing so good.
  • [00:15:26] CAROL ALLEN: Who?
  • [00:15:28] JANIE LEE ROSS: Charlie.
  • [00:15:28] CAROL ALLEN: Oh, I didn't know that. She wants to know if you had any special sayings. Special sayings like the one you always tell me when I'm telling you you're old and you say, just keep living. She wants to know if your mom and dad ever said stuff like that.
  • [00:15:49] JANIE LEE ROSS: Yeah. [OVERLAPPING]
  • [00:15:50] CAROL ALLEN: What did the papa used to say?
  • [00:15:52] JANIE LEE ROSS: Yeah.
  • [00:15:53] CAROL ALLEN: My grandfather didn't talk a lot, but he could pray like nobody.
  • [00:16:00] CARL JAMES JOHNSON: Growing up in Ann Arbor, I felt I have been blessed. We had a strong Black community with the Elks. Even the Y helped out a lot.
  • [00:16:28] JOYCE HUNTER: Talk to me about the Elks, they helped out, how was that impactful?
  • [00:16:35] CARL JAMES JOHNSON: The Elks sponsored the French Dukes, which helped us to go to Canada, which helped us go to Boston. We raised money for our uniforms. Just kept us out of trouble, when you were a French Duke, everybody expected a little bit more.
  • [00:16:59] ALICE BRENNAN-KEY: My current spouse, which we've been together for 20 years, I met him at the Elks.
  • [00:17:09] JOETTA MIAL: At where?
  • [00:17:10] ALICE BRENNAN-KEY: The Elks Lodge. Because at one point in time, I don't know about now, but at one point in time, they had dancing and music on the weekends, every weekend. It was just a social outlet. When I first started going down there when I was in my early 20s, it was was predominantly Black. That was the only place that I knew of to go and where young adults can have a good time.
  • [00:17:56] JOYCE HUNTER: She wants to know if like you had reunions or parties or church.
  • [00:18:01] JANIE LEE ROSS: I liked to dance.
  • [00:18:01] CAROL ALLEN: She like dancing. And so do I. I got to tell the story. I never knew my mother could dance, so we had a party at Island Park. She must have been 90 years old or maybe older, and she out-danced me. I couldn't dance. I was just frozen. I just started laughing. I didn't know my mother could move like that. She was unbelievable.
  • [00:18:32] JOETTA MIAL: I heard about that. I heard about her dancing at the park.
  • [00:18:37] CAROL ALLEN: That was her 100th birthday she danced with her great nephew and kept step. It's unbelievable.
  • [00:18:47] JOETTA MIAL: Oh my.
  • [00:18:49] CAROL ALLEN: At Wheeler Park.
  • [00:18:51] JOETTA MIAL: Yes. That I heard about.
  • [00:18:56] CAROL ALLEN: It was beautiful.
  • [00:18:57] JOETTA MIAL: You're a famous celebrity for dancing at 100.
  • [00:19:01] JANIE LEE ROSS: Love to dance. That's my favorite thing.
  • [00:19:08] CARL JAMES JOHNSON: I went to Vietnam and I was attached to the Seabees, which is a mobile construction battalion. I was supposed to be there for eight months, come back for eight months, and go back again for eight months. But due to my experience being with the French Dukes, I was only there for six months, and they let me come back. For the whole period of my military service, I stayed on the drill team, which I was very fortunate.
  • [00:19:37] CAROL ALLEN: The first job I remember my mother having was a nurse's aide at the old St. Joe on Ingalls. She worked there about four or five years. Then she became a custodian through the school system, and she worked with lots of the schools, mostly the elementary and junior high school. I think the last one she worked at was Mack School. She was the head custodian at her last job.
  • [00:20:11] CAROL ALLEN: They want to know how long you worked as a custodian for the Ann Arbor school system.
  • [00:20:16] JANIE LEE ROSS: How long did I work?
  • [00:20:18] CAROL ALLEN: Yes, ma'am.
  • [00:20:21] JANIE LEE ROSS: Gee whiz. I can't remember.
  • [00:20:26] CAROL ALLEN: Twenty years, maybe?
  • [00:20:27] JANIE LEE ROSS: Something like that.
  • [00:20:29] CAROL ALLEN: We'll go with 20. I think my mother valued the kids. I have people tell me stories about how momma used to give them lunch money when she worked at the schools. And she would help the kids at Clague and the different junior highs. [OVERLAPPING]
  • [00:20:45] JANIE LEE ROSS: When I started working.
  • [00:20:46] CAROL ALLEN: She would help the kids out. I had one man tell me she let him drive her Lincoln to the store and back. He was at Bethel. She loved children and they loved her. Some of them still asked about it and they're as old as I am.
  • [00:21:05] CAROL ALLEN: First job I had was a dietary aide at U of M. Then I went back to school and I worked as an aide. After I finished high school, I wanted to just work full time. I started working as a nurse's aide at the old St Joe's, which is on Ingalls. That's how I got started. What I like most, I guess I have a place for people that are sick. I didn't realize. When I got married, I'd never seen anybody naked besides me or anything. I never thought I could think. But I have a compassion for people that are sick. That's what was the best thing about it, I really did, and I didn't realize it. My husband's cousin says, you've always the mom been to everybody. Anyway, I didn't realize I was such a momma. I guess I learned that from my mother.
  • [00:22:08] ALICE BRENNAN-KEY: I took a leave from the community center, went to school, got my master's, and then when I graduated, I went back and worked probably maybe a half a year at the most, and then I got a job at Washington County as a social worker with developmentally disabled and mentally ill adults.
  • [00:22:34] JOETTA MIAL: What do you value most about what you did for a living?
  • [00:22:38] ALICE BRENNAN-KEY: Just being able to help somebody else to either make it to develop to their full potential. And that really taught me a lot, it taught me a lot of patience and understanding. Even though you think at times that you're helping them, they're actually teaching you quite a bit as well. Because some of them they're really limited in what they can do, but they still have joy, and you see that. You can see it, and that teaches you a lot. I think that should teach you a lot and it did teach me quite a bit.
  • [00:23:44] SANDRA HARRIS: I never will forget. One day, one of the older white women who worked in the office came up to me and said, Sandy, would you run around to the coffee shop and get me whatever it was she wanted me to get. I looked at her and I said, when I started this job, my supervisor did not tell me that running errands to the coffee shop was part of my job description. She said, she won't mind, and I looked at her and very politely said yes, but I do. That just goes to show you the thinking that was in some of their minds, it's like we got this little Black girl here and her job is to run errands for us. That cut that out. That stopped that.
  • [00:24:38] CARL JAMES JOHNSON: That was at the Michigan League. I used to work for a lady named Wilma Steckedy. It was just nice. It was a fun place to work. I got to meet a lot of different people. I met Bo Schembechler, the basketball team, the Fab Five. I catered for the Fab Five. I catered for four presidents; Ford, Carter, Nixon, Duderstadt for the University of Michigan. It felt like a family, not just a hire. Then like I said, Bo Schembechler used to call me the big left-hander because I served from the left. I have met a lot of nice interesting people.
  • [00:25:31] JOYCE HUNTER: That's great. He said the big left-hander. I don't know much about catering, so serving from the left is not what you normally do?
  • [00:25:39] CARL JAMES JOHNSON: You serve from the right and you clear from the left, but when he seen my hand, it was so big, he made a question of it, and he asked me, can you play football? I said, yeah, but I can run but I can't catch.
  • [00:25:55] SANDRA HARRIS: I think there used to be a saying that if you could live in Ann Arbor, you can live anywhere. There are some good things about Ann Arbor, but of course we all know there are some things that need to be changed. Certainly, I feel that I got good education here, and I was exposed to a lot of cultural things. When you look at where Ann Arbor is situated, an hour from Lansing, an hour from Toledo, less than an hour from Detroit, less than an hour from Canada, there are so many opportunities and events and activities that are around that one could take part in.
  • [00:26:42] CARL JAMES JOHNSON: I have no bad feelings about growing up Black in Ann Arbor, except that dealing with my people, I was too white to be Black and too Black to be white, but I enjoyed growing up in Ann Arbor.
  • [00:27:05] ALICE BRENNAN-KEY: Ann Arbor was a nice place to raise your family, raise your children. I think it had a small town feel. Certainly when I was growing up it did, and even when I was raising Khyla, I think it had a small town feel which I appreciated. I know that there's racism even here in Ann Arbor where they want you to believe that it does not exist but it does in a lot of different in subtle ways.
  • [00:27:48] CAROL ALLEN: Ann Arbor has always been in transit because of the university. People would come in, they get their education and they leave. But now it seems to be more so, and I think people take a lot of stuff for granted. When I was growing up, I knew the different stores, I knew people in the stores. I find now that people don't try to get to know each other.
  • [00:28:16] ALICE BRENNAN-KEY: I didn't know anything about Water Hill until I heard that a few years ago. I didn't know we were living on Water Hill. We lived on Gott Street, and now we live in Water Hill. So I said, okay.
  • [00:28:36] CAROL ALLEN: The thing I'm most proud of since I've talked about the town I grew up in and it's been good to me is the diversity. It's one thing that's never changed in Ann Arbor. They have all kinds of people in Ann Arbor. If you learn how to gel with everybody, you can make it in Ann Arbor. That's what I'm most proud of.
  • [00:28:59] CAROL ALLEN: Yes, what are you most proud of in your life? Your children? Your grandchildren?
  • [00:29:11] JANIE LEE ROSS: I'm really proud of my grandchildren.
  • [00:29:13] CAROL ALLEN: God has been good to us. Her grandchildren, she said. And her great grands.
  • [00:29:26] JANIE LEE ROSS: Yeah, my great grands.
  • [00:29:27] CAROL ALLEN: And her great great grands.
  • [00:29:30] JANIE LEE ROSS: Yeah, the great great grands. [LAUGHTER]
  • [00:29:31] JOYCE HUNTER: The final question is, what advice would you give to the younger generation?
  • [00:29:45] CARL JAMES JOHNSON: I would say get your bucket list done early. Start off with going to the national parks, checking out mother nature, seeing what the world was like before man put his mark on the land, seeing how beautiful mother earth and the oceans are. Being respectful to mother nature and make your carbon footprint a little smaller. Don't be so wasteful.
  • [00:30:24] SANDRA HARRIS: Get an education. That is the key that is going to open doors, and if you want to do all the fads and different things that are going on, fine. But as an African American educator, the one thing that pains me is when I see our young African American students take on the mindset that if you carry a book around, you're acting white. If you go to class and get good grades, you're acting white. I feel like if there's a way that I can instill a sense of excellence--no, it's not that you're trying to be white, you're trying to be excellent. You're trying to learn. I wish they could have a crystal ball where they could see in the future of how that education is going to help them.
  • [00:31:30] ALICE BRENNAN-KEY: First and foremost, know your history. Be proud of who you are, what you are as an African American or Black or whatever you want to call yourself.
  • [00:31:46] CAROL ALLEN: The advice I would give to the younger generation is that if you know who you are and you have a good family, you can get the rest. I'll give that to anybody. Money, fame, all of that, you can get, but if you know yourself, you know who you are and you're loved, you can get the rest.
Graphic for audio posts


October 15, 2023

Length: 00:32:19

Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)

Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library


Oral Histories
Race & Ethnicity
AACHM Living Oral History