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A snapshot of daily life and a pioneering poet from African-American history in Michigan


An original copy of a manual exploring African-American life in early 20th century Michigan. Poetry from African-American literati printed on one-page broadsides by a pioneering Detroit publishing house. These are two of the treasures of Michigan’s African-American history housed at the Library of Michigan. 

Tim Gleisner and Kendel Darragh, with the Library of Michigan, joined Stateside to talk about the history behind the Michigan Manual of Freedman's Progress, and the Detroit-based publisher Broadside Press. 

The Michigan Manual of Freedman's Progress was published in 1915, 50 years after the 13th Amendment emancipated black Americans from slavery. The state of Michigan put together a commission to document the lives of African-Americans across the state. 

pictures of woman opera singer from freedmen's progress
Credit Public Domain
The Freedmen's Progress featured prominent African-American individuals, from singers to politicians, alongside snapshots of homes and businesses.

“They had field agents that went out and canvassed pictures and stories and documents, just showing the progress that African Americans had made in the state up until that time in 1915," said Gleisner.  

He says field agents went all over the state, from urban centers like Detroit to smaller towns like Adrian and Cassopolis. The book showcases various facets of African-American life at the time, including religious orders, secret societies, businesses, homes, and individuals. 

Another treasure of African-American history housed at the Library of Michigan are the archives of Broadside Press, a poetry publishing house founded by Dudley Randall. The librarian, and former auto worker and postal worker, founded the company in Detroit in1965.

Randall was a lifelong poet, who began publishing his poetry on one-sheet broadsides in the 1960s in an effort to copyright his work.

“In 1965, he took twelve bucks out of his paycheck and he published his own poem 'The Ballad of Birmingham' as a broadside,” said Darrah.

Broadsides are an older format of publishing. They are large sheets of paper that resemble a poster, and were meant to be posted around town. They were also a cheap way to get Randall's work into the hands of people who might not normally pick up a book of poems. 

cover of a Broadside Press collection of poetry
Credit Library of Michigan
Broadside Press allowed black poets to write what they wanted to, without pressure from mostly white-run publishing houses.

Eventually, Randall began printing the work of other poets, including giants of the literary world like Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, and Melvin B. Tolson. Broadside Press came along at a time, in the 1960s and 70s, when it was a struggle for black authors to be published by white publishers. 

"He [Randall] was able to provide them [black authors] a publishing format or platform where they really could write the poetry that they were writing, and not worry about interference from white editors," said Darrah. 

In 2015, Broadside merged with Lotus Press, becoming Broadside Lotus Press. The press remains active in Detroit, still publishing and focusing on fostering the work of black poets.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Katie Raymond.

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