Michigan Sites Significant to Black History Given More than $1 Million in Restoration GrantsOctober 14, 2021
Michigan has a rich heritage when it comes to the Civil Rights movement and Black history, and current efforts are being made to ensure that it’s not forgotten.
Five Michigan projects were recently awarded over $1.4 million in federal grants through the National Park Service 2020 African American Civil Rights program to help restore sites and history related to the African American struggle for equality. Three of those projects are based in Detroit, the state’s majority black city.
“It’s a wonderful place to live with just so much history that people have so much pride and people know a lot about it,” said Melanie Markowicz, a preservationist and executive director of the Greektown Neighborhood Partnership. “We want to make sure that we have a lot more understanding, not only in our community but for everybody else, too.”
One of the preservation projects includes $425,959 awarded to the Second Baptist Church of Detroit. It was the final stop for many slaves and Black southerners on the underground railroad seeking refuge in Detroit before crossing the border to Canada, according to Markowicz.
“It certainly has this rich, rich heritage and legacy in this area,” Markowicz said.
The congregation at Second Baptist Church was formed in 1836. The original one-story structure was completed in 1851, an additional two-story structure in the 1880s and two more structures were added in 1926 and 1968.
In 2021, the building needs many repairs. It has a falling roof, leaks throughout the third floor, the stained glass has to be stabilized and congregation members currently have no access to hot water.
“There’s this threat to its existence, so this money was absolutely essential for the survival of Second Baptist Church,” Markowicz said.
The same can be said for the home of Albert Kahn, which is currently owned and operated by the Urban League of Detroit. The non-profit, which provides services and advocacy for communities of color, received $500,000 in grant funding.
“The biggest challenge we have right now is to use the grant to do roof restoration,” said N. Charles Anderson, president and CEO of the Urban League of Detroit.
Albert Kahn was a prolific architect known throughout Michigan and the country for his work. Aside from his home, a few notable buildings designed by Kahn include the Belle Isle Aquarium and Conservatory, the Addison Hotel and the Dodge Truck Plant.
Kahn passed away in December 1942. After being taken over by the Urban League of Detroit shortly thereafter, his home became significant in the community for hosting thousands of events in the home’s ballroom, according to Anderson.
However, the vibrant life that was once seen in the home has declined in recent years because of its worsening condition.
“We’ve tried to maintain it all these years and our goal is to restore it and the ongoing life as a resource for the Detroit Urban League and the community,” Anderson said.
The Michigan State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) of the Michigan Strategic Fund was another grant recipient, with a $50,000 grant to document the history of Black housing in the city of Inkster from 1920-1970.
SHPO will conduct a survey of the following sites to determine eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places: the Ford-Inkster homes, the George Washington Carver Homes public housing complex, the LeMoyne Gardens public housing complex and the subdivision of homes built east of Inkster Road on Lehigh and Hopkins Streets.
Listing in the National Register of Historic Places would qualify these properties for participation in historic preservation incentive programs, including the state’s new historic preservation state tax credit. This project will provide the necessary background information needed to complete National Register nominations.
The Ford-Inkster homes will be majority of the SHPO project, said Amy Arnold, a preservation planner with SHPO.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Inkster was home to African Americans working at the Ford River Rouge Plant. Unable to find housing in Detroit, Dearborn and other communities with discriminatory housing policies, they settled in a segregated area in southwest Inkster, living in overcrowded conditions.
In 1938, Henry Ford authorized the Ford-Inkster project to improve housing for Ford’s Black workers by building 500 homes, two schools and a medical center.
Ford stopped the aid in 1941 when Black workers supported the unionization of the Willow Run Bomber plant. The United Auto Workers (UAW) union then lobbied for the construction of a federal public housing complex in Inkster for Black defense workers, which was built in 1943. By 1957, Inkster had an all-Black housing commission.
Segregated housing was one of the main issues facing the Black population at this time. Segregated housing meant having to create businesses, public accommodations, restaurants, schools and more with not many resources available.
“They pretty much had to deal with things on their own,” Arnold said. “What we have to do is bring some reality to this, people always think of Black housing as the ghetto.”
The other two Michigan projects who received NPS grants were: Russell Woods – Sullivan Neighborhood in Detroit and the Malcolm X House in Inkster.
Arnold said it’s important for grants such as the ones from NPS to aid in completing these five projects.
“These are the kinds of programs that preservation can help support these black history resources,” Arnold said.
In 2020, the Second Baptist Church had a partial structural collapse of the modernist portion of the building. Markowicz said it was challenging for them to scrape together the money necessary to restore the damage on their own.
“Like so many nonprofits and places of worship, funding for capital improvements is very, very difficult,” Markowicz said.
The rise of gentrification has threatened the existence of sites meaningful to the Black community.
Albert Kahn’s home, located on the corner of Mack Ave. and John R. St., is walking distance to Tiger’s Stadium, Ford Field and Little Caesar’s Arena. A Whole Foods Market can be seen across the street and it was recently announced a Target will be built a short distance away.
“The goal is to maintain African American owned properties in midtown area that’s being redeveloped, just to help us maintain a presence being part of the visibility of this area,” Anderson said.
Markowicz believes that these projects will help highlight not only the Civil Rights movement but the issues the Black community continues to face.
“We intend to explore difficult histories because these histories are extremely difficult and the struggle for equality still continues today,” Markowicz said.