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Historical marker commemorates demolished Black Bottom neighborhood in Detroit

Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio

Harold McLemore grew up across the street from a new historical marker commemorating the neighborhood he grew up in.

The placard is the only testament left to what he remembers as a thriving neighborhood of Black families who moved to the city as part of the Great Migration along with European immigrants. The residents were pushed out beginning in the late 1950s to make way for redevelopment and a new highway. 

“Everybody got along,” McLemore said, adding that one of his friends, a recent immigrant from Greece, spent more time at his house than his own. “They ate our food and we ate their food.”  

The 93-year-old said his father was given $6,000 for the family’s house. McLemore was serving in the Korean War at the time. “When they tore down all these houses and these people who was in this place, they didn't have no place to go. Most of them went into projects,” he said. 

That’s what happened with his family, who moved into the Jeffries Homes. 

A new historical marker championed by the Black Bottom Group is now the only testament left to the old neighborhood in a stretch of land dominated by open green space and sleek, modern architecture. 

The new apartment buildings and storefronts were part of a redevelopment plan pushed as “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” by former Mayor Albert Cobo. 

Sharon Sexton, a local historian, said that Black Bottom wasn’t a slum. “It wasn't because they had nice houses,” she said. “Everybody who was anybody lived in Black Bottom if you were Black. So you had your doctors, your lawyers, your teachers, your factory workers, your street cleaners, your beauticians.” 

Jamon Jordan, a historian and founder of the Black Scroll Network, said that the policy was a plan to shift the majority Black community out of the central business district of the city. It was funded and justified, in part, by federal dollars for building I-75. The land near the freeway was then used to build housing like the Lafayette Park condos designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Many of the old Black Bottom residents couldn’t afford to live in the buildings that went up in the area they used to live in and many were denied financing for mortgages, he said, so the community dispersed. 

“The first working class structures or the first structures that housed working class people in what was in [what used to be] Black Bottom won't happen until the 1970s when Coleman Young is the mayor,” he said. 

Young himself grew up in Black Bottom. As did boxing champion Joe Lewis and the first Black Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Ralph Bunche. Their names are inscribed on the new plaque commemorating their old neighborhood. 

Ray Smith, who spearheaded the years-long effort to commemorate the site with a historical marker said the community was marked by a spirit of mutual uplift. 

“Nothing but the greatness and goodness and collective work and responsibility. That's the actual the narrative for me,” he said of what he heard about Black Bottom from former residents like his grandmother. “It was a community of caring and sharing.” 

“It was wonderful living down here. Everybody was so close,” Smith’s aunt, Ozella Woodard, who spent some of her early years in Black Bottom said. “We had all kinds of chefs, cleaners, grocery stores, shoe shops, all owned by black people. And it was so prosperous and next thing you know, it was all gone.” 

Jordan, the historian, said the commercial area near Black Bottom was seen as Detroit’s Black Wall Street. He said he hopes the marker will help keep history from repeating itself, but noted that some current efforts at what some might consider “urban renewal” remind him of the displacement of Black Bottom residents. 

“In some cases, it seems as if the city is not trying to duplicate what happened before,” Jordan said. “But then there's these missteps that we see some similar kinds of things happening where people are displaced, their businesses are destroyed, their homes are destroyed, and they're not given proper compensation."

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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