9 Experiences That Celebrate Black History in Michigan

Idlewild - A postcard depicting Idlewild cottages. Photo courtesy flickr.com/132386303@N02 (Public Domain)

By Lisa Green

February 2, 2022

For Black History Month, you can learn more about the state’s unique history and the enduring legacies of Black leaders here.

MICHIGAN—When it comes to Black history, Michigan has a bounty of stories to tell.

You might already be familiar with some of the state’s more well-known historical figures: Civil rights activists Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks all called Michigan home for a time. Motown singers like Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross were also famous Black Michiganders. But the legacy of Michigan’s African American history runs much deeper.

If you’ve heard of the Underground Railroad—the hidden network of paths, hiding spots, and people helping enslaved men, women, and children escape the country—then you are already aware of an important part of Michigan history. The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 mandated the seizure and return of enslaved people on the run, even in Michigan, which outlawed slavery. “Conductors” and “station masters” in the state, however, helped provide shelter and guidance for those seeking freedom: Because of its proximity to Canada, Michigan was home to an estimated 200 Underground Railroad stops between the 1820s and 1865, including stops in Detroit and Port Huron.

As history shows, location really is everything. Consider stopping at one of these Michigan landmarks to learn about and experience Michigan’s rich Black history.

Idlewild (Lake County)

Idlewild – The former Flamingo Club in Idlewild. Photo courtesy rossograph via Wikimedia Commons.

Historic & Cultural Center: 7025 Broadway Ave, Idlewild, MI 49642

This remote lakeside community in the Manistee National Forest may not seem like much, but it carries a hidden historical significance as the former “Black Eden.”

Idlewild was founded in 1912 as a resort for the Black community. During this era, Jim Crow laws pushed Black Americans to segregated communities, and vacation spots were no exception. In its heyday, Idlewild was one of the only places where Black Michiganders could buy land.

Shunned by white establishments, Black entertainers including Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, B.B. King, and Etta James found a home in the popular nightclubs of Idlewild. The resort town soon became a popular hub recreationally, culturally, and intellectually. Called “the Summer Apollo of Michigan,” Idlewild drew as many as 25,000 visitors in the 1950s. Influential people like W.E.B. Dubois and Madam C.J. Walker even owned property in Idlewild.

When legal segregation ended, so too did the demand in Idlewild, and the town shuttered and slowly fell into disrepair. In recent decades, however, the community has begun to rebuild. The Idlewild Historic & Cultural Center was built in 2003. During her tenure, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm established the Idlewild Centennial Commission and provided grant funding to revitalize the town as a historic site. New events, such as the Idlewild International Film Festival and Summer Oasis Music Festival, are also bringing a resurgence of interest.

The Museum and Gift Shop in the Idlewild Historic and Cultural Center contains artist renderings and informative pieces about the history of Idlewild. The center is open Memorial Day through Labor Day. Visitors can tour the historic landmarks of Idlewild year round, including the Flamingo Club, the Idlewild Post Office, historic homes of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Herman and Lela Wilson, Robert F. Williams, and more.

Visit the Idlewild Historic and Cultural Center website for more information.

Green Book Exhibit at Gilmore Car Museum (Barry County)

Gilmore Car Museum – Photo courtesy flickr.com/greggjerdingen
(License: Attribution 2.0 Generic)

6865 W Hickory Rd, Hickory Corners, MI 49060

The Gilmore Car Museum is the largest auto museum in North America, housing one of Michigan’s largest vintage car collections. Somewhat unexpectedly, it also holds a permanent exhibit that offers a reminder of the discrimination Black Americans have faced in their everyday lives.

Famously depicted in the 2018 Academy Award-winning biographical drama “Green Book,” the Green Book Exhibit at the Gilmore Car Museum is about “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook for Black travelers during the era of Jim Crow. Written by Victor Green, it offered readers safe locations to purchase gas, sleep, eat, and shop. Michigan’s Idlewild Chamber of Commerce used the guidebook in the 1950s and 1960s.

Along with a diorama, the Gilmore Car Museum includes a display copy of the 1956 Spring Edition of the Green Book in their 50s/60s gallery. Visitors can freely browse and read the entries, including one documenting Idlewild, Michigan.

The museum is open seven days a week with varied hours. General admission is $16/person, or $28 for a two-day pass. Children are $11, but children ages 10 and under, as well as active military, are free.

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (Detroit)

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History – Photo courtesy flickr.com/michaelbolden
(License: Attribution 2.0 Generic)

315 E Warren Ave, Detroit, MI 48201

This museum in Detroit’s Midtown boasts itself as the “world’s largest institution dedicated to the African American experience.” With over 30,000 items in its collection, the museum is perhaps the best place in Michigan to explore Black history and culture.

The centerpiece of the museum is the And Still We Rise exhibition, which contains over 20 galleries documenting a timeline of African and African American history. The galleries include glimpses into prehistoric and early modern civilizations in Africa, the ships of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, enslaved Africans in the United States, and African Americans through Emancipation and The Great Migration, especially in the motor vehicle manufacturing industry.

Another exhibition worth seeing is Detroit Performs!, a photo montage of famous Black creatives of Detroit, including musicians, dancers, and playwrights. The photo wall includes multiple contributors to multiple styles, such as classical, blues, jazz, hip hop, techno, and more. The exhibition explores how the art of these prominent Detroit residents became part of an ongoing conversation for social change.

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is open Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $25/person, with a discounted $19 rate for children and seniors. Members are $5/person. Children under 3 years of age are free. Visit their website for more information.

Motown Museum (Detroit)

Motown Museum – Photo courtesy flickr.com/32742728@N00
(License: Attribution 2.0 Generic)

2648 W Grand Blvd, Detroit, MI 48208

In 1959, Berry Gordy Jr. was a high school dropout and Korean War veteran just shy of his 30th birthday. He had enjoyed some modest success after writing a few songs for singer Jackie Wilson, and had aspirations of running his own record label after being encouraged to do so by Smokey Robinson of the Miracles. Gordy came to Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard with little more than his ambitions and $800 borrowed from his family to purchase what would become the Hitsville U.S.A. recording studio. In just seven short years, Motown Records was making profits of $20 million and employed over 450 employees. They weren’t just making records; they were making history.

The Motown label defined an entire genre of music, building the careers of stars such as the Jackson 5, Lionel Richie, the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Commodores, and many more. Through Gordy’s other labels, other artists’ careers came under the umbrella of the “Motown Sound,” such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Rick James, and the Temptations. This Black-owned and Black-centered business used music to achieve crossover success in an era of racial tension. Today, the Motown Museum operates to preserve the original Hitsville U.S.A. and the legacy of Motown Records and its artists.

Visitors to the Motown Museum witness the curated exhibits telling the story of Motown, as well as see the preserved historical locations of Berry Gordy’s apartment and Studio A, which recorded all of Motown’s hit singles of the 1960s. The exhibits hold multi-sensory memoribilia of music history, including music, photos, costumes, and artwork.

Although the museum is closed to the public until summer 2022, there are good things in the works. A $50 million expansion is under construction for the Motown Museum, including a new plaza for the entire museum campus, a pop-up performance space, and additional space for community programming. In the meantime, the virtual exhibit “Still Going On”—celebrating the 50th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On—is available for free online.

For more information, visit the Motown Museum’s website, Facebook page, or Instagram page.

First Congregational Church of Detroit and Second Baptist Church of Detroit (Detroit)

First Congregational Church of Detroit – Photo courtesy flickr.com/alaporte
(License: Attribution 2.0 Generic)

First Congregational Church: 33 E. Forest Ave, Detroit, MI 48201

Second Baptist Church: 441 Monroe St., Detroit, MI 48226

Detroit’s two most prominent Underground Railroad stations are found in two churches: the First Congressional Church in Midtown and the Second Baptist Church in Greektown.

The First Congregational Church of Detroit was established in 1844, though it was relocated in 1891. The church operated as a passage on the underground railroad, with a basement level tunnel in the older building being used for this purpose until 1863. Today, in the current structure, the entire lower level has been devoted to recreating the experience of the Underground Railroad through a reenactment. The Underground Railroad Living Museum’s “Flight to Freedom” tour takes visitors on a journey from the original slave ships to eventual freedom. In the tour, visitors become passengers on the Underground Railroad and must cross Ohio’s “Deep River,” hide in an Abolitionist house in Indiana, and eventually escape to freedom in Detroit.

The Second Baptist Church of Detroit was chartered in 1836 and is currently the oldest African American church in the Midwest. From 1836 to 1865, it was a station codenamed “Croghan Street Station.” An estimated 5,000 enslaved people were hosted in the Second Baptist Church as they made their way to Canada. It has also hosted speakers Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the State Convention of Colored Citizens.

For tour availability, call the First Congregational Church of Detroit at (313) 831-4080 and the Second Baptist Church of Detroit at (313) 961-0920.

Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum (Detroit)

6559 Grand River Ave, Detroit, MI 48208

Detroit’s African Bead Museum might not be what one would expect hearing the word “museum,” but it documents an important and beautiful part of African culture.

Founder Olayami Dabls worked as a museum curator between 1975 and 1985 at the present day Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. He was inspired to create the African Bead Museum when he realized the Civil Rights Movement was not one perspective, but an amalgam of millions of individual experiences. 

In a giant sculpture park spanning two entire city blocks, Dabls has used the four materials of iron, rock, wood, and mirrors to inspire emotions of the human condition using traditional African art forms. The sculptures also represent the African struggles and how they influence the current Black America. The sculpture park took 14 years of labor, finally reaching its completion in 2016.

The actual museum is a century-old rowhouse containing Dabls’ immense collection of African beads, which cover almost every square inch of the interior. The museum abandons traditional museum structure for equity and accessibility, removing the divide between displays and gift shops. To Dabls, the beads are an important part of African material culture, which defies the cultural interpretation of the colonizer.

The Bead Gallery and Store is open Monday through Saturday from noon until 5 p.m. Visit the Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum website for more information.

Rosa Parks Bus at Henry Ford Museum (Dearborn)

Rosa Parks Bus – Photo courtesy rmhermen via Wikimedia Commons.
(License: Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

20900 Oakwood Blvd, Dearborn, MI 48124

When Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, she was living in Montgomery, Alabama. In the years that followed, though, Parks joined her brother and sister-in-law in Detroit—the same city she eventually made her final resting place. It’s fitting, then, that the Montgomery city bus that played a historic role in the Civil Rights Movement is now only a short distance from the city she called home for over 40 years.

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn currently houses that bus in an exhibition titled With Liberty and Justice for All. Parks was a seamstress at the time she made her stand on Dec. 1, 1955. It would be several years, however, before the bus was retired, and several more before it was found in the interest of historic preservation.

The Henry Ford Museum bid $492,000 in an online auction to win ownership of the bus, even though it had been kept in a field for three decades and was in desperate need of restoration. After winning the auction, the museum staff painstakingly recreated the bus as it would have appeared in 1955. Today, museum visitors can walk inside the bus, and even sit in the same seat that Parks so vehemently refused to give up.

The Henry Ford Museum is open seven days a week from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. General admission tickets start at $27/person, with discounted prices for seniors and children. Children ages 4 and under are free. Visit their website for more details.

Dr. Nathan Thomas House (Kalamazoo County)

Dr. Nathan Thomas House – Photo courtesy Jim Roberts via Wikimedia Commons.
(License: Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)

613 E Cass St, Schoolcraft, MI 49087

This National Register of Historic Places designated site was not just an Underground Railroad stop, but also the home of one of Michigan’s most active families on the Underground Railroad. The home, built in 1835, was owned by Dr. Nathan Thomas (1803-1997), the first physician in Kalamazoo County and a Quaker Abolitionist. 

Historical estimates indicate as many as 1,500 enslaved people passed through the Thomas family’s doors, receiving shelter, food, and medical care. The Thomas House was a station on a route known as the Quaker Line, which ran through Indiana and toward Detroit. Travelers of the Underground Railroad were transported via wagon. Zachariah Shugart in Cass County escorted those seeking freedom to the Thomas House; afterward, Erastus Hussey of Battle Creek kept the travelers moving toward Detroit and Canada.

The home started as an office and didn’t expand until Dr. Thomas’s marriage to Pamela Brown in 1840. Dr. Thomas, though, had been assisting and protecting refugees of the slave trade since his bachelor days. The original structure was moved in 1860 by Thomas to its current location. Since its declaration as a historical site, the Schoolcraft Historical Society has preserved and restored the building; this includes the attic crawlspace, built in case of a slave patrol raid.

Tours are available by appointment via the Schoolcraft Historical Society. Contact them by mail at: Schoolcraft Historical Society, P.O. Box 638, Schoolcraft, Michigan 49087.

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