Black History in Michigan | Michigan Radio
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Black History in Michigan

Have you ever heard of Ruth Ellis? What about Donald White? This month, Michigan Radio is highlighting the stories of African-Americans that may have been left out of your history book.

Every Monday in February, Morning Edition is featuring stories of pioneering black Michiganders - including Ellis and White. And every week, Stateside will be talking to artists, curators, and historians about how African American art has shaped life in Michigan and beyond.

a picture of a record that says Groovesville
Courtesy of Dan Austin

  

When you think of Detroit music in the 1960s, chances are the first thing that comes to mind is Motown Records. The iconic label produced some of that era's biggest hits.  But Detroit was full of plenty of other artists outside of the Motown label who were also deeply shaping the city's sound.  

Minnie Forbes sitting on a couch
Doug Tribou / Michigan Radio

Grand Rapids isn't a big-league baseball town, but a living part of baseball history calls it home. 

Minnie Forbes is the last surviving owner of a Negro Leagues baseball team. She owned the Detroit Stars from 1956 to 1958. She was also one of just a handful of female owners.

George N'Namdi, Davida Artis, and Anthony Artis smile in front of a brick wall
April Van Buren / Michigan Radio

For a long time, the work of African American artists didn't get much recognition in the world of fine art. That hasn't stopped art lovers from building impressive collections of pieces by black artists. We talked to two collectors about their approach to buying, and how the business of African American art has changed over the years.

portrait of Donald White
Bentley Historical Library

For architects, a groundbreaking ceremony is the beginning of a vision realized. But architect Donald White needed to break new ground in a much different way to get his career started.

In the early 1930s, White became the first African-American to earn a degree from the University of Michigan's School of Architecture. He went on to become the first licensed black architect in the state.

Caroline Cook standing on conrer talking to people
Bryce Huffman / Michigan Radio

Tour groups in Grand Rapids are braving the cold weather to learn about the city’s black history.

This tour focuses on civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks, and the works of famous black painters like Paul Collins.

Darryl DeAngelo Terrell sits in a wicker peacock chair with two men on either side of them
Courtesy of Darryl DeAngelo Terrell

We all have a version of ourselves that lives in our head. Your favorite self, your strongest self, the self this worldㅡ for whatever reasonㅡ doesn't want to let you be. For queer and gender non-binary artists, that self isn't just a daydream. It's someone who might get you through years of being made to feel like an outsider. It might also be a canvas for important ideas.

Sydney James stands in front of a mural she painted
Courtesy of Sydney James

The fine art world has not always been friendly to African American artists. But that’s starting to change, and black artists are now more visible than they’ve ever been. That includes prominent artists of the past, like Harlem Renaissance painters Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis, as well as more contemporary figures.

a group of children in front of a large portrait of a black woman lounging on a couch
Courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

When you walk into the African American art wing of the Detroit Institute of Arts, you see a large portrait of a woman on a couch. The portrait is covered in rhinestones, and the glittering woman has a regal air.

The painting, titled "Something You Can Feel," is by artist Mickalene Thomas. The woman is her mother, who was a runway model in the 1970’s. The portrait is filled with color and joy. Its celebration of black womanhood is an example of how African-American artists have reshaped the portrayal of black bodies in fine art. 

A photo from 1860 of a man and woman
Anna Lisa Cox

America’s Great Migration between World War I and II brought millions of Southerners, both black and white, to places like Michigan to escape the economic entrenchment of the former Confederate States. But this influx of black Michiganders was not the first group to settle in The Mitten. 

A worker handles finished auto parts on an assembly line
ADAC Automotive Muskegon operations

Today on Stateside, the coronavirus outbreak in China is beginning to have an effect on Michigan manufacturers. We hear from an executive at a west Michigan auto parts supplier about how the virus is affecting their business. Plus, we'll learn about Michigan's first African American settlers, as well as Enbridge's plan to replace a section of Line 5 under the St. Clair River.

Elijah McCoy
Bentley Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The U.S. Patent and Trademark office in Detroit bears the name of Elijah McCoy, a pioneering African-American inventor. McCoy was born in the mid-1840s, nearly 170 years before the office opened. McCoy had more than 50 patents to his name.

He’s best known for inventing an automatic lubricator that was used on trains.

A stringed orchestra with a choir behind them
Kevin Kennedy / Sphinx

This weekend, you may notice a surprising number of people toting violin cases around Detroit.

It’s time for the Sphinx Competition. Musician, composer, and educator Aaron Dworkin founded the organization in 1997.

Charles Gilpin sits shirtless on the stage in a performance of the emperor jones
New York Public Library Digital Collections

Charles S. Gilpin was one of Broadway’s first breakout stars. In the 1920s, the African-American actor received critical acclaim from both white and black audiences. His performance as the lead in Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones cemented his reputation as one of the best actors of the era. But after a falling out with the playwright, Gilpin faded into obscurity. So, what happened?

Kelli Morgan stands in front of a painting
April Baer / Michigan Radio

The Flint Institute of Art's exhibit Community draws attention to black spaces and black lives, in both quiet and dramatic ways. The pieces in the exhibition vary in medium and message, but the story they tell broadens our understanding of black history.

Ruth Ellis
Sarah Uhle

Ruth Ellis was one of the oldest openly gay black women in the world when she died at 101 years old in 2000. She was born in 1899, 36 years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and 15 years before the First World War started.

This was a time when our country was hostile to women, black people, and gay people. Ellis just happened to be all three.