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AACHM Living Oral History Project

Welcome to the Living Oral History Project, presented in partnership between the African American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor District Library. These interviews serve as a road map illustrating what local African-Americans witnessed, experienced, and contributed to building the community we share today. Topics such as race; gender; education; equality; faith; housing; employment; community building activities; and social infrastructure were presented and discussed. Each topic providing a spectrum of perspectives relevant to the issues and concerns of the African-American community in the history of 20th century Washtenaw County.

Download Phase Five compilation video
Download Phase Four compilation video
Download Phase Three compilation video
Download Phase Two compilation video
Download Phase One compilation video
AACHM Living Oral History Project Exhibit Panels

Phase Five

Gwendolyn Calvert Baker Gwendolyn Calvert Baker was born in 1931. She talks about growing up in Ann Arbor where she began her distinguished career teaching at Wines Elementary and winning Teacher of the Year. She was also faculty at the University of Michigan’s School of Education; National Executive Director of the YWCA; a member of the New York School Board; and president and CEO of United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). 
Premail Freeman Premail Freeman was born in 1947 in Mississippi and later moved to Ypsilanti. He reminisces about his childhood in Ypsilanti and some of the jobs he had growing up. Inspired by friends who ran a successful hair salon, Premail studied cosmetology and eventually opened his own salon where he continues to work to this day. His wife helped him run the business in the early days and together they raised a family of three. 
Larry Hunter Larry Hunter was born in 1951 and has lived in both Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. He’s worked in public service for years, served on Ann Arbor City Council, and earned a Juris Doctor degree in law in 2000. Larry recalls how he became politically active as a young man, organizing walkouts at his high school as a leader in the Black Student Union, as well as his involvement with the Black Panthers.
Essie Shelton Essie Shelton was born in Mississippi in 1930 and moved to Ann Arbor with her father in 1946. She recalls her experience entering an integrated high school for the first time and how she came to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a licensed practical nurse at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital. Essie also met her husband at the hospital and together they raised three children.
Joetta Mial Joetta Mial was born in 1931 in Jackson, Michigan, and later moved to Ann Arbor. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and spent her career as an educator in the Ann Arbor Public Schools. In 1987, Joetta became principal of Huron High School after serving as a teacher, administrator, counselor, and class principal at Huron and Pioneer High Schools.

Phase Four

Fred Adams was born in 1934 and grew up in Ann Arbor. He recalls summers playing in the Huron River, youth activities with the Dunbar Center and Jones School, his work as a paperboy, and some of the black neighborhoods and businesses in the Ann St. area. Mr. Adams worked for Johnson Controls for 41 years and owned his own business as an Industrial Manager.
Nelson Freeman was born in 1939 and grew up in Ypsilanti. He remembers being one of the few black children at his elementary school and the transition to high school with white friends. He also recalls how his father made sure local African American children had a night of their own at the local rollerskating rink, where he became one of the best skaters, and other social and business activities in town. Mr. Freeman spent time in the Navy and had a long career as a dental technician.
Audrey Lucas was born in 1934 and raised in Ann Arbor where she fondly recalls her school days Jones School. She talks about activities at the Dunbar Center where she had the pleasure of singing at various city events, and some of Ann Arbor's black neighborhoods and businesses. Ms. Lucas worked for the University of Michigan Health System for 47 years, the last 35 before her retirement as a human resources consultant.
Charles Morris was born in 1938 and grew up in Ypsilanti where he attended Harriet Street Elementary School and Ypsilanti High School. He recalls Ypsilanti neighborhoods and businesses, the Willow Run Bomber plant and air raids during World War II, and the opening of Washtenaw Community College. Mr. Morris attended the Navy and retired from the Ann Arbor District Library where he worked as the bookmobile driver/trainer for many years.
Johnnie Rush was born in 1931 and was the only black person in his class at Ann Arbor High School. He recalls many fond memories of activities with the Second Baptist Church and his family, and he talks about the many challenges for African American businesses as Ann Arbor changed over the years. Mr. Rush is a licensed barber and has run his own barbershop for 55 years.
Janice Thompson was born in 1939 and grew up in Ypsilanti. She reminisces about visits from her Detroit relatives to her home in the "country," some of the prejudice she faced during her school years, and pranks she played with friends in Ypsilanti neighborhoods. Ms. Thompson received a master's degree in social work, working for a time at the Veteran's Administration hospital and running programs for public housing children.

Phase Three

Shirley Beckley was born on July 30, 1942. She was raised by her mother on Wall St. and attended Jones School, Mack School, and Bach Schools in Ann Arbor. Shirley started as a housing manager for the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, later becoming housing director in Lansing and Muskegon. She reminisces about working at Jacobson’s, dances at the Dunbar Center, businesses on Fourth Avenue and Ann Streets, and tense racial incidents in the schools. Shirley continues to be deeply involved in social justice issues at the local level.
Robert Fletcher was born on December 2, 1932. He worked for 15 years for the Veterans Administration, then Sears, eventually retiring from the City of Ann Arbor. Robert went into the service in 1950 and, after engaging in a police action in Korea, was captured and spent 33 months in a prison camp, an experience that deeply affected his personal life and work - eventually leading to his serving on an advisory board for former prisoners of war in Washington, D.C.
James Anderson, Jr. was born on October 23, 1937 and lived on Miner Street where he attended Mack School. James built a career in real estate and recalls the few blocks in the Mack school area where African Americans could live at that time, and how housing has changed over the years, from segregation through today. He remembers the bond drives during WWII and some of the businesses in town. James also worked on behalf of the JCs to establish Washtenaw Community College and was a trustee for 19 years.
Evelyn Payne was born on November 3, 1924, and although she was an only child, she went on to have 8 children, numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren. Evelyn grew up in Tennessee where she remembers segregation and walking 10 miles to school. In 1945, at 20 years of age, she moved to Ann Arbor where she is proud to have raised all her children while working as a nursing assistant - for 25 years at St. Joseph Mercy and 16 years at the University of Michigan.

Phase Two

Johnny W. Barfield was born February 8, 1927, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. As a child he sold soap house to house and, after tenth grade, joined the U.S. Army where he served in France and Germany. After leaving the Army in 1947, Mr. Barfield became a wall washer for the University of Michigan, where hard work, entrepreneurship, and innovation helped him build the largest cleaning business in Ann Arbor. Mr. Barfield is widely recognized for his philanthropic work and support of the African American and business communities.
Tessie Freeman was born June 19, 1924 in Alabama and has lived in Washtenaw County since 1947. An avid lover of poetry and spectator sports, Ms. Freeman raised three children while doing domestic work and dressing hair to supplement her family’s income. Ms. Freeman is proud of her children and encouraged them to get an education, even going so far as to enroll at Wayne State University at the same time her youngest son. Ms. Freeman has always spoken for herself and she’s proud to share her story. .
Barbara Meadows was born October 1, 1933, in Albion, Michigan, and spent her childhood in Inkster, Michigan, before moving to Ann Arbor in her youth. She attended Talladega College in Alabama, followed by Smith College, where she earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work. Ms. Meadows worked in the University of Michigan Neuropsychiatric Institute and worked for several years in the Ann Arbor Public Schools. She has been a leader or founder of several community-based organizations and served on numerous boards including the University Musical Society Board, Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, Washtenaw Community College, and the Peace Neighborhood Center. She was appointed to Ann Arbor’s Human Relations Committee in the 1960s..
Paul Wasson was born September 8, 1923, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. After leaving school in the tenth grade, Mr. Wasson joined the United States Army at the beginning of World War II. In 1943, Mr. Wasson left the Army and came to Detroit. Arriving on the heels of the Detroit Riots, he decided to head west to Ypsilanti. Mr. Wasson marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s; worked at the University of Michigan Hospital for seventeen years, and is most proud of his children. He encourages all young people to get an education.
Dorothy Wilson was born November 28, 1911, in Mount Vernon, New York. She grew up in New York, where she also met her husband, living for several years in Brooklyn. She became a Licensed Practical Nurse and worked at the Brooklyn State Hospital. After her husband’s death she retired and moved, in 1972, to Ypsilanti to be near her family where she became active in volunteer work for Church Women United through Brown Chapel AME Church in Ypsilanti, the Beyer Hospital Auxiliary, and the Ypsilanti Historical Society..

Phase One

Rosemarion Alexander Blake was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1923 to Jewel Alexander Price and Jacob Price. She was brought to Ann Arbor between two to four years of age by her great Aunt Hattie and Uncle Robert Alexander. Rosemarion attended Jones School Kindergarten through 9th grade and graduated from Ann Arbor High School in 1941. She held a number of jobs after graduating and in 1945 became the first African-American woman to work in city Hall in a non-custodial position. A number of years later, she worked in Publication Sales at the Institute for Social Research from 1970 until her retirement in 1987.
Russell Calvert is the Owner/Operator of Calvert’s Roll-Off Container, Inc. Calvert’s Roll-Off Container, Inc. has been in business since the early 1950s. Burgess Calvert, Russell’s father, started the company with one truck; Russell joined the company in 1976 and has greatly expanded the business to include government and commercial services. As the Owner and Operator, Russell oversees the daily operations, development, and implementation of all programs and operations.
Lydia B. (Cromwell) Morton was born in Ann Arbor in 1916. Her great-grandmother came to Ann Arbor with Judge Kenny’s family in 1867. Her grandmother Laura Bell Chester was born in Ann Arbor in 1874 and her mother was born in Ann Arbor in 1894. Mrs. Morton has one brother George Richard Cromwell. From her four children, she has 12 great grand children, 6 great, great, grand children; all but four were born in Ann Arbor. Seven generations have lived here in Ann Arbor.
Dr. Willis Patterson is a professor emeritus of the University of Michigan of Music and founder of the Willis Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale. Born in Ann Arbor in 1930, he attended Jones School and graduated from Ann Arbor High School. After serving in the air force, Patterson earned his bachelor’s degree and master’s of music degree from the University of Michigan. He received his doctorate from Wayne State University and was a Fulbright Fellow. Patterson joined the University of Michigan School of Music in 1968.
Johnnie Mae (Jackson) Seeley was raised in Sarepta, Louisiana and moved to Ann Arbor with her husband Howard M. Seeley in 1954. She joined the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor where she was later crowned a Deaconess, and soon she became known for her culinary skills and hospitality, which led to some of the community's largest gatherings, first at her farm on the outside of Ann Arbor and later on Beakes St. For years her garden provided food for Sunday communal meals and for the Human Service Project which donated food to homeless shelters.