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AADL Productions Podcast: Lola Jones and Carol Gibson

Thu, 06/04/2020 - 1:03pm

When: October 20, 2009

Lola Jones and Carol Gibson are well-known to anyone familiar with Ann Arbor history. Over the past 30 years they have sought out and documented the history of the African American experience in Ann Arbor through a series of projects under the moniker Another Ann Arbor; it is largely through their work that the Ann Arbor African American story is a part of our shared community identity. Lola and Carol stopped by the library to talk with us one day about the work they have done over the years and where they are headed next. They shared with us some of the interesting people and events they have learned about and brought to the community in their television program, their documentaries, and their book. You can now watch one of their documentaries online at aadl.org in our video collection. A Woman's Town was produced in 1991 and tells the story of Ann Arbor through the voices of prominent African American women.

Transcript

  • [00:00:02.88] ANDREW: This is Andrew.
  • [00:00:04.11] AMY: And this is Amy. And you're listening to the the AADL productions podcast.
  • [00:00:10.68] ANDREW: We recently spoke with Lola Jones and Carol Gibson of Another Ann Arbor. Lola and Carol talked about the history of African-Americans in Ann Arbor, which they've documented in a long-running television program, a book, and two documentaries.
  • [00:00:25.58] LOLA JONES: Another Ann Arbor is a phrase that was coined more than 20 years ago. When one thing says Ann Arbor, certain images come to mind quite quickly. The University of Michigan, football Saturdays, the farmer's market. This is true for all of us. But it occurred to me early on that there's another Ann Arbor which is less known, less visible. That is, the black community. Really, Ann Arbor history is also Bethel AME Church, Second Baptist Church. The Ann Arbor Community Center, the Underground Railroad. This is also the history of Ann Arbor.
  • [00:01:12.51] And so, in 1984, we invented another Ann Arbor, with a goal of preserving this important part of Ann Arbor history. With the help of, and cooperation of, many people, we were able to produce two documentaries. A Woman's Town, which relates the African-American experience in the early years, and A Change Was in the Air, which continues the story through the Civil Rights era. These videos were well-received and widely viewed on community access television. A Woman's Town was placed in the Library of Congress by Congressman Carl Pursell.
  • [00:01:54.81] ANDREW: Can you walk us through the steps of what led to really the start of this idea, of Another Ann Arbor, of creating the films and all of that?
  • [00:02:05.53] CAROL GIBSON: It was in the early `80s. And I was working in television. And, actually, to go back even farther, which I learned through the process of working with Lola, my mother, that she had begun a newspaper in Flint, with my father. So that's sort of where the journalism streak comes in. And, not knowing that, I got into journalism myself. And so I was working in television. And Mom started talking about things that she would really like to see on the air because we weren't seeing it on TV. When we first moved to Ann Arbor we weren't seeing it in the newspapers. Mom had done a lot of research about Ann Arbor when she moved here to go to school. And she was meeting people. But she just really wasn't seeing, reflected, what she knew about the community. So that sort of got the ideas going. And then, I guess, perhaps just her insight into what was needed in my skills in terms of journalism came together.
  • [00:03:19.75] AMY: So you produced a program for about 11 years, is that right?
  • [00:03:24.29] LOLA JONES: Roughly, yes.
  • [00:03:25.60] AMY: And who are some of the people that you interviewed?
  • [00:03:29.06] LOLA JONES: Oh, we had a lot of different amazing guests. Some names you would know, some you wouldn't. But, for example, we had Coleman Jewett on, who you know is an educator. Former schoolteacher here in Ann Arbor public schools. And a historian in his own right. Because his family dates back to the early days in Ann Arbor. And we had Letty Wickliffe on. Who is Coleman's aunt, I believe. They're related. And we had, and of course Letty Wickliffe was very involved in Ann Arbor politics at the time. Letty was a staunch Republican. However, and she was influential in the community. And when there was an idea of bringing an expressway through that would just demolish the African-American neighborhood, she fought that and was successful in preventing that from happening. We also have both of the Wheelers on. Each with their own purview. Mrs. Wheeler was very much dismayed about housing in Ann Arbor. And she was influential in getting the first --
  • [00:05:01.12] ANN: Fair housing act? Thing
  • [00:05:03.33] LOLA JONES: Fair housing act in the State of Michigan. And one of the ways that she did this is that when the wealthier community had their visits to various houses, she also had visits to the housing in the African-American neighborhood that had been neglected. It really brought the problem to the fore.
  • [00:05:32.17] ANDREW: You definitely knew that there was a lot of history that wasn't being documented. That's what led you to start this whole thing. But as you were interviewing people, were you surprised at the stories you heard that you had never heard before, at how rich the history was and all the different things that had happened that, not only that hadn't been documented, but that maybe no-one was really talking about anymore. Stories that weren't being told.
  • [00:05:53.92] LOLA JONES: There was quite a bit of controversy about school desegregation. The Jones school, which is now a community high school, was in the neighborhood on Division Street. And so naturally, most of the African-American children went there. And when Ann Arbor was about to lose its funding for desegregation, they got busy. To correct the situation. So they decided to bus all the black children to five different elementary schools in Ann Arbor. And this was quite controversial as a way to solve the problem. However, it was passed. And with varying results. Some of which, we have told in the book, I think. And some of which has been told on various interviews.
  • [00:07:06.72] AMY: A little bit more about just some of the interesting historical points in Ann Arbor. I understand, speaking specifically about the A Woman's Town. Women had a particular role, or a very strong role in Ann Arbor. African-American women were strong in the churches and other organizations. Can you just tell us a little bit about some of those organizations at the time, during the mid-century?
  • [00:07:33.60] CAROL GIBSON: Yeah, that was very surprising to me. And and mostly through consulting with Lola on the documentaries and hearing the history issues and covering it was that women came to Ann Arbor very early on, African-American women, to develop ancillary businesses. The men came to work on the railroad and for construction of the university and the beautiful homes that we all know and love in Ann Arbor. While women came to support the men through restaurants, and through just different services that the men would need. Laundry, or whatever. And through that base, then, community sprung up. And women were able to make good wages. So then by the time World War Two came, I'm advancing quite rapidly here, but Ann Arbor was known as a woman's town. A place where you could come and get a good job and make a decent living.
  • [00:08:47.82] LOLA JONES: The way that name came about was, that one of the women whom we interviewed said this was a woman's town. And it was so graphic we latched onto that and named it that. And many of the women worked at the university, and had to do housework. And there really wasn't a lot of opportunity for them, unless they had some background in keeping a store or something like that. So a woman's town is the way it was expressed by our one of our interviewees.
  • [00:09:33.39] ANDREW: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how your work on the television program and making the documentaries helped lead to the formation of the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum.
  • [00:09:43.92] LOLA JONES: Actually, I happen to be on the executive board of the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum. And also very involved with Another Ann Arbor. So that, I'm not sure that one led to the other. But there was a great interest in establishing a museum. And certainly, I was very interested in that, too. We worked hand in glove.
  • [00:10:14.67] AMY: I understand that the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum will soon have a new location.
  • [00:10:21.72] LOLA JONES: That's very true. We're very optimistic about that. In fact, that is a fact. We had a benefactor, who offered to make that house available to the museum. And of course we have to raise a considerable amount of funds to do our part in maintaining it. And that's moving along nicely. And our campaign is just beginning.
  • [00:10:53.75] AMY: Where will it be?
  • [00:10:54.56] LOLA JONES: At 1528 Pontiac Trail. Just really behind the Bethel A&E church. And we'll sure some facilities there. They've agreed to have us use their parking lot. At times when they're not in session and that kind of thing. The neighborhood has been very receptive. We started out at New Center, on North Main Street, with just a little closet of an office. And then we were able to move to the David Bird Center, with more space and accessibility. And now we're looking forward to our third location.
  • [00:11:38.83] AMY: Back to some of the work that Another Ann Arbor is doing, can you tell us about the public service projects that you've done in the schools?
  • [00:11:45.82] CAROL GIBSON: Well, yes. We've teamed up with middle schools, Clague and Forsythe. And we've run a science program out of that, those two buildings. And it was open to all, but we are particularly interested in increasing African-American and other minority children's interest in science and giving them extra enrichment in those areas. So it ended up being a nicely-integrated and well-attended program. And I think the students got a lot out of it.
  • [00:12:18.05] LOLA JONES: I'd just like to add that the university students volunteered their time to carry out that project. And that was really very generous of them. This was an after-school project, so the students really had to be interested in order to come.
  • [00:12:36.90] CAROL GIBSON: And we partnered with the University of Michigan's school of social work to put that on, through the Professor Larry Gant. And he helped us find interested students, social work students and others, who were willing to donate their time. We also did a summer enrichment program. We did some poetry with the students at the African-American Academy, which was housed at Clague at the time. So, we've had some good partnerships.
  • [00:13:03.82] ANDREW: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how, in what ways, this being a university town, and what ways the University of Michigan has colored the African-American experience and made it different from other communities in Michigan?
  • [00:13:22.26] LOLA JONES: The African-American presence predates the University of Michigan, actually. But once the university was founded, a lot of African-Americans came to work in the community. Certainly as opportunities opened up, more people attended the school. Certainly having opportunity to be amongst individuals who had attended the school enriched our community, brought a diversity to the African-American community. And, I think, really also provided opportunities for partnerships as the school progressed.
  • [00:14:00.45] AMY: I was wondering if you can tell us a little bit more about the importance of the Dunbar Community Center and some of those sorts of organizations.
  • [00:14:09.99] LOLA JONES: Well, that was one way, speaking of the University of Michigan, that was one way, I'm going to tell you a little bit of a roundabout story. The Dunbar started because there was a need for housing for the African-American male workers, who came to work on the railroad and to help build the university. The town was segregated. So, the workers, along with a local minister at Second Baptist, came together to put together this Dunbar, it wasn't a Dunbar center per se, but it was housing and then also provided an outlet for recreational activities for the men. So from that, as the community grew, it turned into a community center. And it changed locations several times. It was on Fourth Street for a long time. And it was really the hub of the community. Because families would come. Children would come for storytelling, or for it enrichment activities. The teens would come and dance. The parents would come and have fundraisers or dinners, or all different activities, all centered at Dunbar. And in a way, it was the forerunner for the Ann Arbor Community Center.
  • [00:15:33.53] AMY: I found that really fascinating in the book, how often you referred to the activities and the clubs that came out of there. Is the Golden Rule Club still around?
  • [00:15:44.70] LOLA JONES: I don't think so. Many of those clubs have given way over the years. The people who started them, maybe, were not, were beyond that time. However, the community has other, sometimes national, organizations. We have branches of the national organizations. For example, Jack and Jill is a national organization. There's a chapter here in Ann Arbor. And in Ypsilanti. Very child-centered and that kind of thing. The Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority was the first African-American sorority that was organized here. The chapter was organized here. They, too, did community service. And much of this came out of the Ann Arbor community center.
  • [00:16:47.49] CAROL GIBSON: Yes, the Delta Sigma Theta sorority also had an active chapter here. And still does. Letty Wickliffe. was a member. Going way back. And, some of the photos in our book capture the times, let's say, through the `40s, where you can see the club life and the social life. Some of it is still ongoing today. Much of it is still ongoing today. And I wanted to reference the B-house. Is that the name of it? The boarding house. There was a women's boarding house, the B-house, near Dunbar Community Center where the African-American female students would reside. Because they weren't allowed to reside at the University of Michigan at the time. Or there was very limited housing, or maybe a few people who could stay there. So, the B-house was a great place. And a lot of the sorority sisters, maybe, would stay there. And a lot of social life surrounded the home. They had the gentleman callers, who would come pick up their dates. And it was just a really, really great place to be, if you were African-American female at the University of Michigan.
  • [00:18:05.90] ANDREW: So after years of television work, and work in the community, what led you to finally write the book Another Ann Arbor?
  • [00:18:14.86] LOLA JONES: Well, it was Lola's idea. Still following in her footsteps. Gladly so. And so we came together to write this book as a way to capture the images and expand on the stories that we had started through the work with the documentary and the TV series. Wanted to put it in a more permanent form. And Lola began researching by talking with people in the community. Going to museums and libraries. And people were very generous in opening up their personal photographic collections. You know, their family treasures, to us. And that led us down different paths. And one person said, oh, you need to talk to so-and-so. And next thing you know, we've got this great book capturing some of the history.
  • [00:19:10.48] ANDREW: So even after all those years of working, documenting this community, you still found that there was new stuff out there that you'd never heard or seen before. LOLA JONES: Absolutely. one of my favorites was the Blockbuster, the Blockbuster gentleman who was the first African-American to get his real estate license in Ann Arbor. And because he did that, he was able to open up housing for African-Americans. Because it's one thing to have a law, it's another thing to have a practice. Because he had the tool to change the practice, he was able to open up housing. But I just love that name, the Blockbuster. He called himself that.
  • [00:19:52.51] AMY: So, what's next for the both of you?
  • [00:19:56.41] LOLA JONES: There may be other books in the making. Because it has just become a real interest of mine. And we also will be improving the website. And carrying through other goals as the website grows and becomes more a tool for the entire community. We've had a lot of help in producing the work that we've done here. And we have had help from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation. We've had help from the Kellogg --
  • [00:20:34.73] CAROL GIBSON: Kellogg Foundation. A lot of grants, as well as a lot of people just volunteering their time because they've believed in the project and the vision, and certainly the school of social work and Larry Gant's team over there. Been very helpful.
  • [00:20:54.94] ANDREW: How have you seen Ann Arbor change in the 25 years since you started documenting the community?
  • [00:21:00.59] CAROL GIBSON: You know, I think we're progressing as a community. I mean, we've had a head of the University of Michigan who was African-American. We've just had a lot of people who've had great success. I think the community has expanded since we've gotten here, really.
  • [00:21:17.80] LOLA JONES: That's very true. I think one of the major improvements is in housing. And I think it's true to say that anyone can buy a house anywhere, today. And that leads to all kinds of consequences of neighborhoods, schools, that kind of thing. University of Michigan has been attempting to increase the number of minorities at the school. And it has improved, although it's not where it should be as yet. So, the town has grown. I used to call it the town, but now it's a city.
  • [00:22:01.29] AMY: To learn more about Another Ann Arbor, visit the website at anotherannarbor.org.
  • [00:22:09.19] ANDREW: This has been the AADL productions podcast, from the Ann Arbor District Library.