North Fourth Avenue building was the meeting ground of Ann Arbor's black community
The building at 209-211 North Fourth Avenue has played a unique role in the history of Ann Arbor's black community. Now J. D. Hall's barbershop and Birkenstock Shoes, the brick building with the sunburst-topped windows has been a hotel, provided commercial space for black businesses and meeting rooms for black groups, and served as low-income housing. Many of its uses testify to the black community's longtime commitment to helping each other and to having a good time, despite the low wages and de facto segregation that prevailed during its heyday in the 1930's and 1940's.
The three-story structure was built in 1899 by Charles Kayser. It was used as a hotel through World War I, run by a long series of managers. At least eight are named in the city directory, most of them listed as "colored"--a designation the publisher seemed to feel necessary at the time. The frequent changes in management imply that no one was making a go of the business.
In 1921, the Colored Welfare League bought the building. In a 1978 interview, John Ragland (1905-1981), lawyer for the CWL and sometime tenant of the building, recalled how the purchase came about. "In World War I, black men called into the army felt they were not getting the same recognition accorded to white recruits," recalled Ragland, a 1938 U-M law grad who was for a time the only black lawyer in town. "A group of local black leaders therefore raised money for send-off parties. When the war ended, the money left was used to purchase 209-211 North Fourth."
The CWL hoped to pay for the building by renting out rooms. Many black workers were coming to town to work on U-M buildings and on roads and were having trouble finding places to stay. Since the building was in bad shape and needed more extensive repairs than the CWL could afford, the Reverend Ralph M. Gilbert, then pastor of the Second Baptist Church, persuaded the Community Fund (forerunner of United Way) to help pay for rejuvenating the dilapidated building.
The CWL raised additional operating money by renting their street-level space to commercial businesses. By 1930 two long-term businesses were in place on the north side of the building--a beauty shop and a barbershop, both run by blacks and catering to black customers. The barbershop, which continues to this day, was originally in the back of the building; it was run by Samuel Elliott, also a member of the CWL. The beauty shop, "Ever-ready," was run by Olive Lowery in the 1930's and by Sadie Harmon, now Sadie Fondren, in the 1940's. The storefront on the south side (209) was used as a restaurant.
Room on the second floor was saved for club meetings and social events for the black community. One of the first groups to take advantage of the meeting space was the newly formed Dunbar Center, later to evolve into the Ann Arbor Community Center, now on Main Street. The Black Elks and their women's auxiliary, Daisy Chain Temple No. 212, met there until they bought their own building on Sunset. Other black fraternal groups that met there included the Masons, St. Mary's Lodge No. 4, the Odd Fellows, the Household of Ruth Lodge, Eastern Star, and Isis.
The Wild Goose Country Club met there, too. It was made up of black families who owned land on Wild Goose Lake in Lyndon Township. Maids' Night Out, which met every Thursday evening, was open to women employed as servants. Member Edna Williams remembers that they played cards and enjoyed refreshments while exchanging information and lining up rides, especially to Ypsilanti, where they liked to go square dancing.
Another group that reflected the limited job options open to blacks was Alpha Sigma Omega, whose name is made up of a letter from each of the three national black fraternities. It was made up of men who worked for white fraternities on the U-M campus. They did charity work for children and the elderly, and they hosted a big party every year--"always at a different lake," Edna Williams recalls, "with a banquet, good music and dancing, and of course, drinking. You'd go prepared to stay all night."
In 1937, after many groups moved on to places of their own, part of the upstairs was converted into Josephine's Tea Room, run by a widow named Josephine Williams. She was assisted by another widow, Julia Smith, who took over the business from 1939 to 1943, renaming it Julia's Tea Room.
Nellie Monamus, a longtime Ann Arbor resident, remembers the tearoom as "very nice," with good Southern-style food and simple breakfasts. Edna Williams remembers it sponsoring seances as fund-raisers. She says no one took them seriously, but they were a lot of fun. After the tearoom closed, the second floor was made into additional apartments, one the home of Jim Crawford, now the head of the Black Elks.
The Colored Welfare League became less of a force in the community as the original members aged or died. By 1966 the Fourth Avenue building was in disrepair and losing money, and J. D. Hall, a young barber in town, offered to buy it. When he discovered that the CWL owed back taxes, and that lots of repairs were needed to bring the building back to code before he could start renting rooms again, Hall remembers, he almost got cold feet--especially since he and his wife were expecting a child.
But Hall went ahead, and today he is glad he stayed with it. He has continued to run the building a lot like it was in CWL days. The third floor has six reasonably priced rooms for rent, while the second floor is still used by community groups. (The Platt Road Baptist Church began there.) Recent occupants include Model Cities and the Women's Crisis Center. Currently, it houses the offices of the Community Leaning Post, run by Hall's sister, Lucille Porter. A nonprofit organization, the Leaning Post is best known as a tutoring service for youth with academic problems. It also helps hard-to-place adults find homes and jobs. Hall himself is still chief barber in his shop on the first floor.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: According to the late John Ragland, the Colored Welfare League was formed to give black soldiers a proper send-off in World War I; after the war, the CWL purchased 209-211 North Fourth for housing and meeting space. (In the 1940's photo at upper left, you can just make out the sign for Ragland's own law office upstairs). Barber J. D. Hall owns the building today (above).