Last year while visiting the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History’s “And We Rise” exhibit, I got a chance to see a piece of Detroit Black history from long ago, which was something that I had always heard about from my mother & others. I am talking about Black Bottom, which was a district in Detroit where black migrants from the South were forced to live because of deed restrictions that made it illegal for them to own or rent property in most of the city.
Black Bottom was the cultural and economic heart of the Black community in Detroit from the 1920s through its demolition. Most of the residents, as a result of urban renewal, were displaced ended up in large public housing projects such as the Brewster Homes and Jeffries Homes. By 1920, African-Americans owned 350 businesses in Detroit, including a movie theater (The Paradise Theater on Woodward, now the Detroit Orchestra Hall), the only black-owned pawn shop in the United States, a co-op grocery and a bank. The community also had 17 physicians, 22 lawyers, 22 barber shops, 13 dentists, 12 cartage agencies, 11 tailors, 10 restaurants, 10 real estate dealers, eight grocers, six drug stores, five undertakers, four employment offices, a few garages and a candy maker.
Hastings Street, which ran north-south through Black Bottom, was the center of Eastern European Jewish settlement before World War I, but in the ensuing years it was transformed into a vibrant African-American community with business, sociability, night life, and underworld activity. It became nationally famous for its music scene: major blues singers, big bands, and jazz artists—such as like Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie—regularly performed in the bars and clubs of Paradise Valley entertainment district.
Before the Civil Rights Movement began to change Northern segregation in the 1960s, “Negroes” could be thrown in jail if they were seen by the police west of Woodward Avenue—Detroit’s main street, which divides the east and west sides of the city. Hastings Street had one of the highest concentrations of black-owned businesses in the United States, and the neighborhood was full of run-down and expensive apartments and multi-family homes owned by Caucasian landlords, with a mix of classes and backgrounds so typical to the urban Black communities of the time.
Most commentators describe the Black Bottom/Paradise Valley area both as a crime and poverty-ridden ghetto and as a vibrant center of racial and cultural identity. During the time of Black Bottom/Paradise Valley, many of our most famous entertainers were featured performer, such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, & Pearl Bailey. Notable residents of Black Bottom include, My grand parents, Edward & Essie Mae Stevenson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, poets Robert Hayden & Dudley Randall.
Black Bottom suffered more than most areas during the Great Depression since so many of the wage earners worked in the hard-hit auto factories of Detroit. During World War II both the economic activity and the physical decay of Black Bottom rapidly increased, and in the 1950s, the City of Detroit conducted an urban renewal program to combat what it called “urban blight” that bulldozed Black Bottom.
During the 1950s the white population of Detroit declined by 23%. Correspondingly, the percentage of non-whites rose from 16.1% to 29.1%. In sheer numbers the black population of Detroit increased from 303,000 to 487,000 during that decade. By 1967, the black population of Detroit stood at an estimated 40% of the total population.
Ok, Bringing it back home now::::::::
Next Months at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, Mosaic Youth Theatre will offer a performance of “Hastings Street.” the most popular show in its 13-year history. The production portrays life from a teens perspective in the 1940’s growing up in black bottom. Originally created for Detroit’s tri-centennial anniversary, the play brings to life the glamour and vibrant music of Paradise Valley and Hastings Street, as well as the harsh realities of the World War II and the 1943 race riots.
Mosaic has been featured, NPR’s All Things Considered last year & I consider this story to be one of my “drive Way Moments.” If you are a NPR listener, then you know what I am talking about. Check out the story here.
Before I go, I have one thing to say; When I thik about Black Bottom any other similar communities in the north, I thnk about the community as a whole, then factor in intergrattion & that fight & ponder on the negative impact of intergration on the Black community. Just a thought.