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A Woman's Town (1991)

Tue, 01/10/2006 - 10:50pm

When: 1991

This film, produced in 1991 by Lola Jones of Another Ann Arbor, chronicles the history of African American women in Ann Arbor from the mid-nineteenth century to the late nineteenth century. The film uses interviews with prominent African American women of Ann Arbor and historical photographs to illustrate the complex history of Ann Arbor from the Abolitionist Era to Desegregation. Another Ann Arbor is an organization founded by Lola Jones and Carol Gibson to document the history of African Americans in Ann Arbor. Through two documentaries, a long-running television series, and a book, Another Ann Arbor has brought the story of African Americans forward and made that story a conscious part of Ann Arbor's identity. Another Ann Arbor continues their work today with their website and work in the community and schools.

Transcript

  • [00:00:05.16] NARRATOR: The pages of history are sometimes written in invisible ink. African Americans have been present in Ann Arbor throughout the history of the city. But little has been recorded about this distinct segment of the population. This documentary brings into focus the lives of African American women in Ann Arbor between 1850 and 1950.
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  • [00:00:28.13] We will learn about the hardships they faced, the determination and grace with which they ordered their lives and laid the groundwork for those to come. This is a picture of the community through the voices of everyday people who raised families, fought for homes, worked through their churches and their clubs to help the less fortunate. They made a difference.
  •  
  • [00:00:56.42] Ann Arbor was founded in 1824 when John Allen and Elisha Rumsey registered their claim for 480 acres. By coincidence, both their wives were named Ann and the town was called Ann's Arbor, later changed to Ann Arbor. As the town developed in the mid 19th century, blacks were attracted here. There was a strong liberation movement in Michigan often led by the Quakers. The Michigan Antislavery Society was established in Ann Arbor in 1836. This historic marker stands in front of the Ann Arbor News on Heron Street today.
  •  
  • [00:01:36.45] The city was located along the route to Canada. Many African Americans sought refuge in Canada and returned to Ann Arbor to live after the Civil War. Historians A. P. Marshall, Frank Ferguson, and others, have established the existence of stations on the Underground Railroad along Pontiac Trail. The Jewett family is one of the earliest African American families to have settled here. Mary Jewett, a daughter in that family, married a man named Wickliffe, an ex-slave who served in the Civil War. Their daughter, Letty Wickliffe, was born in Ann Arbor in 1902.
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  • [00:02:16.85] LETTY WICKLIFFE: My mother was born here. And on my father's side, my father was a slave, and went to the Army, ran away at 14 and went to the Army. When the Army was over he came north. I was born in 1902 on January 25, 1902. It was very near the campus, about two blocks from the campus. There was no really ghetto, black ghetto, blacks lived all over the town. And where I lived there were only three or four black families. Right off of East University, not far from the old medical school.
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  • [00:03:16.55] In those times you could walk all over town and not be afraid. And I remember going out to the Williamses house, that's Ethel Williams Scott, she's still living. And we went out there to parties, and we used to have a good time. I can't remember what we did at the parties, we just danced. And we would walk back, that was out on Gott Street, walk all the way back, it might have been 12 o'clock, back to 14th Street where I live.
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  • [00:03:49.78] And in those days people looked after the children. If you were doing something you didn't have any business doing your parents knew it. Because somebody would call and tell it, before you even got home. And there weren't any attacks on children or anything like that, so we didn't have the fear that children have now.
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  • [00:04:16.47] NARRATOR: Just a few blocks away, Ruby Baker, a contemporary of Letty Wickliffe, remembers life in early Ann Arbor.
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  • [00:04:23.61] RUBY BAKER: In the wintertime then we used to get on some bobsleighs, way up on Broadway Hill, would end up way down here on Main Street. We couldn't do it without Troy Stewart in the evening, because it's a long walk to get back up to Broadway.
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  • [00:04:53.92] Before we got married, of course, my husband used to rent this horse and buggy and we'd go for a ride around. It didn't take long to go through Ann Arbor them days because it wasn't very large.
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  • [00:05:08.30] NARRATOR: Lucille Porter recalls a different Ann Arbor of the 1920s.
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  • [00:05:13.21] LUCILLE PORTER: But I did have two aunts living here. They told me that Ann Arbor had very few blacks. They loved it though. Said that it was a woman's town. That's what they have led us to believe. You could always find some type of work here to do. But it was more or less for women. I believe my Aunt Mattie found a place, had a room in house downtown there over one of those buildings, like on Main Street. I don't know which building it was. But people lived in those buildings at that time, there was apartments upstairs.
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  • [00:05:57.10] Well, it was small but more of a family type of community. Everyone, all the black people, knew each other. Everyone if they weren't living up on North 4th, 5th, and Summit, they had lived there. They didn't get very far away from there. And we were all like one big family. If anyone got sick or died and you weren't there, say why weren't you there. That's the way we were. Somebody died, why weren't you there? Was you sick? So that's the way we were. Everybody took care of everybody else.
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  • [00:06:33.94] NARRATOR: Unlike schools in Detroit and Ypsilanti, schools in Ann Arbor were not segregated.
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  • [00:06:41.08] LETTY WICKLIFFE: I went to the first Tappan School, which was located on, I think it was Church Street, between Church and maybe East University. It was the first Tappan School. And the children who went there were mostly the professors' children or business people children. And there were several black students, children, who went there because they lived in the neighborhood. There were the Popes that lived in the neighborhood. And the Joneses, as I said, lived in the neighborhood originally.
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  • [00:07:32.71] From there I went to high school, the old Ann Arbor High School which is now the Frieze Building on State Street. Well, in those times they didn't have the eighth grade in the elementary school. Everybody went to the eighth grade at the Ann Arbor High School, which is in the basement of Ann Arbor High School. The library, the city library, was in that building too. And they only taught three things: English, grammar, and arithmetic. And you had to be good in order to get through that. If we didn't get through that, you dropped out of school and got a job of some kind.
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  • [00:08:26.63] I was admitted to the university, University of Michigan, and I got my degree in '24. And they weren't hiring blacks in Ann Arbor. They told me that I might be able to get a job in Detroit teaching elementary school. But I didn't want to teach elementary school. And so I got a job in Dallas, Texas, teaching English.
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  • [00:08:56.54] NARRATOR: By 1930 the black population had increased to about 1,000. Martha Washington recalls her arrival in Ann Arbor.
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  • [00:09:06.11] MARTHA WASHINGTON: My mother, my sister, and I came to Ann Arbor in 1934. I can remember when we arrived here, it was sort of late in the afternoon. And I was busy looking out, and I saw all of these trees. It was a lovely sort of street with the red bricks of different hues. We had black families living on both sides of us. And across the street from us was a white family. And I used to sit out on the curb as such, it wasn't really a curb, but it was more grassy without the concrete there, and we used to throw pieces of coal at one another. It was not an unfriendly thing. We had coal because that's the way most of the houses were heated at that time.
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  • [00:10:05.78] NARRATOR: Despite its benign appearance and its early liberal tradition, blacks in Ann Arbor faced blatant prejudice.
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  • [00:10:12.73] LETTY WICKLIFFE: Forever forget the Red Cross. Those women in the Red Cross were as prejudice as they could be. And I went there as a child just to wrap bandages and the women didn't want me. And I came home and told my mother. And she said that it doesn't make any difference whether they want you or not, you go back. And then I found out from these soldiers that came back that the Red Cross would not serve blacks. In the war they were there fighting and they could not get any coffee or donuts from the Red Cross. The Salvation Army served everybody.
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  • [00:10:59.79] MARTHA WASHINGTON: If you owned your own home-- now true enough you didn't get that home by going to the bank and inquiring into how they would loan you money to get this house, or they would carry a mortgage on the house, black people didn't have that privilege at that time. There may have been exceptions, but for the most part the husband, the father in the family, was able to buy a house because some white person in the community spoke for him, sort of told the bank that you were a good, honest, hardworking person and they would back you up.
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  • [00:11:55.29] All of our teachers were white. And I could say really as far as my public school education, I never had a black teacher. And I don't think we even thought about having a black teacher. We were really ignorant about race relations, and races, and who we were, and who they were. We grew up in a very abnormal situation.
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  • [00:12:28.26] We had a building. It was really a big house on the corner of North 4th Avenue and Kingsley, that was a community center. It was called the Dunbar Community Center. And that was where the teenagers would go to learn certain crafts, to hold their little dances, and so forth. And this center, they called it the Dunbar Community Center, after the great black activist, well he was an activist, Paul Laurence Dunbar, but he also was an outstanding writer and poet. But that is where we would go to play and, of course, the white students would go someplace else. They could go to the YMCA, the YWCA, they were separated at that time.
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  • [00:13:37.54] And when I stop to think about it I really was uninformed, because I would go to the craft classes at the Dunbar Center and other things there, the reading periods, and so forth. But I went up to the YWCA because they had a cooking class and I wanted to learn how to cook. Why, I really have to stop and question now. But at that time I knew they had cooking classes. And so I went up to the YWCA to join the cooking class. Well, it became obvious to me, and I don't remember the exact situation or what, but I was not wanted at the cooking class there. And I was very upset. And I was really demanding why, I can remember that. And the answer came out just clearly, because I was different, I was not white. And YWCA was built for white children.
  •  
  • [00:14:55.25] Well, I really was upset. And when I came back to the Dunbar Center, and also told my parents. I told them about the fact that I couldn't go there and why, and I told the lady there at the Dunbar Center, what was her name, Mrs. Morton was one of people, about it. And the next thing I know before another season as such came, we ended up getting a cooking class at the Dunbar Community Center.
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  • [00:15:38.98] NARRATOR: Ironically, 50 years later, Dr. Gwendolyn Baker, a native of Ann Arbor and perhaps one of those children unwelcome at the Y, is today executive director of the YWCA of the USA. Douglas Williams became executive director of the Dunbar Center in 1934. It became an important focal point for young people in the community. His wife, Catherine Williams, and Virginia Ellis, were among the women who provided leadership, training, and recreation for the youngsters.
  •  
  • [00:16:13.89] In her book Black Women in the Midwest: The Michigan Experience, Darlene Clark Hine notes that, "Virtually every community of Black Women across the state found its special organizations to ameliorate the suffering of the aged and the poor. In the absence of welfare, these Black matrons reached out to poorer blacks through voluntary associations." Ann Arbor was no exception to this. In Ann Arbor, six black women's clubs were founded between 1900 and 1925. As early as 1900, a small group of women founded the Ann Arbor Women's Federation with the motto, "Uplift our race morally, spiritually, and physically."
  •  
  • [00:17:03.55] In 1923, the Daisy Chain Temple, an auxiliary of the all-male Elks Club, was established. Through the years the club has assisted families in distress. Each year they provide Thanksgiving dinners for the elderly and scholarships for the young.
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  • [00:17:21.73] LUCILLE PORTER: When I came here there was the Elks, there were lots of clubs. Oh, this was the clubbenist place you ever saw. That was the Ann Arbor Civic Club. Of course, the Golden Rule, and-- what is that older club? There's one just a little older than the Golden Rule Club. But the Golden Rule was the club.
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  • [00:17:50.91] SPEAKER 1: The Golden Rule.
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  • [00:17:51.72] LUCILLE PORTER: Was the club when you were--
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  • [00:17:53.70] SPEAKER 1: All right, I want to hear about the Golden Rule club.
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  • [00:17:54.97] LUCILLE PORTER: And I can talk about that one because I was a member of it, and still a member. Golden Rule is one of the clubs, one of the older clubs, that's still going. We're still meeting, and we enjoy it. The Golden Rule club they tell me was organized in 1913. And from what I've been told it was organized, I believe, to knit socks for the World War veterans I believe, World War I veterans or something like that.
  •  
  • [00:18:30.41] But bring it up to more recent years from what I know about it, they've got lots of very fine things, good things in Ann Arbor. As I told you, with Ann Arbor being a small family size community, when people got sick they received flowers from the club, cards, visits, they really took care of each other. We had teas, most beautiful teas.
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  • [00:19:06.03] Ann Arbor Federation Club, that was the older club, little older than the Golden Rule. And what we did having these lovely teas, and it was an honor to be asked to pour tea, you know. And there's beautiful tea tables set up at the community center, and sometime it's church, but most of the time at the center. And, of course, you put on your finery and you pour tea. And we had people from all over that came to these teas. It was really nice. It was really nice.
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  • [00:19:37.67] NARRATOR: In 1947 a group of college educated black women established the first black Greek-letter organization in the city, the Delta Psi Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. These women raised funds and established scholarships for local students to attend college. Of far greater importance than the secular clubs were the emergence of two major black churches in Ann Arbor: the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Second Baptist Church.
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  • [00:20:07.67] MARTHA WASHINGTON: The two churches were the center of the social life, I would say, of the black community. I was Catholic. But I would go to mass as early as I possibly could because I wanted to get back to the Methodist church where my friends were, and where the black people were. I don't think it was a particular concern about whether the people were black or white, but the church was a place where I could meet with my friends.
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  • [00:20:45.24] NARRATOR: The Second Baptist Church was organized in 1865. Its first location was at Elizabeth and High Street. By the 1930s, the church had moved to 5th and Beakes. Women of the church organized several clubs to help the poor and instruct the young. The Reverend and Mrs. Charles Carpenter led the congregation from 1929 to 1965. Nearby, on North 4th, was Bethel AME Church, founded in 1857. Mrs. Hicks explains what the church meant to her.
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  • [00:21:19.79] THELMA HICKS: But Bethel was kind of a beacon. It was kind of thing that you held in the back of your mind, but you didn't run too far afield of what you had been raised.
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  • [00:21:38.56] NARRATOR: During the depression of the 1930s the church faced difficult times.
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  • [00:21:43.67] THELMA HICKS: I remember at an early age Bethel was at kind of a low ebb. And we used to go on the railroad track and pick up lumped coal. Or we'd go in our own basement and try to find the biggest lump of coal there was to take to church so we can have a hot fire.
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  • [00:22:05.38] NARRATOR: In subsequent years the church prospered and built a beautiful edifice on what is now John A. Woods Drive. To understand fully the development of the black community in Ann Arbor, one must take into account the influence of the University of Michigan. Established in 1833 it became a bastion of white male dominance. A few women, including a few black women, earned degrees in the 19th century. The University of Michigan provided few jobs for blacks before 1940.
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  • [00:22:37.96] MARTHA WASHINGTON: The University of Michigan, it was the employer of most of the people in Ann Arbor. At least it became that way after the war into the '50s as such. The university provided jobs, although really at the end of the war as such those jobs were menial positions for black people. Occasionally you would see a black secretary or sub-secretary, she certainly would not be the one you'd see sitting in the office when you came there.
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  • [00:23:30.21] NARRATOR: There were talented women in Ann Arbor who often did not have an opportunity to exploit those talents fully. Isabel Fox, a talented artist, operated the elevator at Goodyear's Department Store for years. After retiring, she began a small academy where she taught painting to friends and neighbors. In Bethel AME Church today her best known work is displayed.
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  • [00:23:55.41] In the early days the university did not provide housing for its students so it was common for women in Ann Arbor to run boarding houses. Later, when the dormitories were built, black women were excluded. Roberta Britt established a residence for young black university women on the corner of Ann and Gwen. Britt was a mother, a counselor, and protector to the young women who stayed at the B house. With the advent of World War II things began to change. There were new job opportunities both at the Willow Run Bomber Plant and at the university.
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  • [00:24:30.76] MARTHA WASHINGTON: There was a shortage of qualified white people due to the war. And so they were forced to start hiring black people to fill important positions. Now these people who became educated as such earned a little bit more money. And I think that one of the things we would have to say about this group, and I'm thinking now the latter 40s into the 50s, is that they became, in many ways, a role model.
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  • [00:25:12.90] Because the young people would see the nurses in their uniforms, and the women dressed up going to the houses, coming to the schools. Because many times, they came to the school for specific things, requested information, or to see a particular person. But they wore high heels and silk stockings. And, gee, the teenagers wanted to do that. They wanted to be able to dress up, and put on stockings and shoes, and go to work.
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  • [00:25:49.15] LETTY WICKLIFFE: I think World War II did affect the population in Ann Arbor because of the Bomber Plant. And that brought a lot of blacks up from the south. And, of course, that increases the black population. And the real estate people then begin to have bright eyes, and thinking about how much money they're going to make, and where they can place the people. And so they began to control the area where the blacks live. And so they decided that the blacks were going to live in a certain area, near the downtown, Beakes, 4th Avenue, 5th Avenue. There were a lot of blacks that moved in there, out Main Street.
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  • [00:26:42.38] We're one of the few cities where urban renewal didn't get a foothold. I felt that there should be no black community, that it should be totally integrated. And our philosophy now for this area is that all kind of people live together. Color has nothing to do with it. And, of course, I've always been that way.
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  • [00:27:09.78] NARRATOR: At age 89, Letty Wickliffe continues to be active in the community. She serves on the Ann Arbor Planning Commission. Upon retirement, Lucille Porter established an organization, The Community Leaning Post, which helps young offenders find jobs and reestablish themselves in society. Through the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Martha Graham, also in retirement, develops a black history video for schools and community groups. These women have shared their memories of Ann Arbor as it was then. Through their stories we increase our knowledge of the past.
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  • [00:27:58.24] Later will come postwar Ann Arbor, the civil rights struggle, and a new wave of migration to the city. But in the 1940s and 1950s, it was a family type community. That generation of women faced discrimination in employment, in housing, and services. In spite of this, they created a lifestyle of grace and culture, centered around family, church, and social clubs. That generation of women laid the foundation for the community that we see today. Ann Arbor, a woman's town.
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Media

1991

Length: 0:30:00

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

Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library

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Subjects
Ann Arbor
Local History
Race & Ethnicity