International House Residents Discover and Explore African-American History in Detroit
Through the generosity of the Fund II Foundation, 21 Residents from International House representing Africa, Europe, Asia, North and South America were given the opportunity to travel to Detroit, Michigan, to learn about the African-Americans experience in that city. As a Resident from Nigeria who had always been curious about the specifics of African-American history, so I was so happy to be among those participating in this special trip, which took place October 13-15, 2017.
The motto of the Fund II Foundation is “to preserve the African-American experience; safeguard human rights; provide music education; preserve the environment while promoting the benefits of the outdoors; and sustain critical American values such as entrepreneurlism.” This phrase resonated completely with the purpose of this trip, which was to change or alter the Resident’s view about not only Detroit, as well as the role and contributions of African-Americans to US history and the building of this country. In a time when one is witnessing firsthand how history can be rewritten, misrepresented and exploited for political gain, it behooves us to see firsthand alternative views and to do some research and make self-adjourned decisions about not only history, but also the players in that history.
Our first stop was the Charles H. Wright Museum’s “Still I Rise” exhibition, which was cited as a realistic demonstration of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and how African-American were brought to this country in an inhumane way. The struggle to end slavery was also demonstrated through illustrations of the events like the underground railroad and was commemorated in symbols like the ankle chains on the Statue of Liberty as a reference to the African-American journey to the land of the free. The museum’s mission, “to open minds and change lives through the exploration and celebration of African-American history and culture,” was met in the eyes of I-House Residents like Natalie Keretho from Thailand. She described the exhibition as giving her a, “realistic understanding of the history of the African-American experience in America and how the African-American community was built on the foundation of fighting for freedom.” This museum opened Residents’ eyes about “man’s inhumanity against mankind,” as described by Mama Jato, the tour guide at the museum.
Jamon Jordan, our Detroit city tour guide and a former school teacher, exuded with pride and passion as he showed us how Detroit was once a, “social and economic Mecca for African Americans.” On the Five Miles for Freedom tour with Jordan the Residents learned about the Underground Railroad, as well as the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods.
I-House Residents were amazed at how these communities could create opportunities for themselves when systematic racism inhibited them. Eduardo Granizo from Nicaragua noted, “In Detroit, they managed to create opportunities for themselves in Paradise Valley that allowed them to become business owners and create economic development for their own community.”
The beautiful story of the Gotham Hotel, a five-star hotel built for and by black people, was particularly inspiring. Jordan also taught I-House Residents about the unfortunate downturn of black economic system in Detroit post de-segregation, where well established businesses like the Gotham Hotel have been demolished, and the once thriving African-American middle class is now slowly matriculating down the poverty line.
Other highlights of the trip included visits to the Motown and Ford museums. Residents found inspiration in the story of Berry Gordy Jr., who received a loan from his family started a small record label in his attic that he grew to be one of the influential labels in the country. Prominent black artists such as the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes and Marvin Gaye were all discovered by Motown in Detroit, a fact that amazed some Residents unfamiliar with the musical legacy of the city.
The Ford Museum illustrated how Ford Motors became the first major company to pay black workers the same wage as white workers.
On Saturday night, the group went to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to see “Ella and Louis,” a musical review starring Byron Stripling and Carmen Bradford and featuring songs made famous by jazz’s legends Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. I-House Residents found the concert to be an immersive experience into the riches of Jazz music. Fitzgerald and Armstrong were able to surpass all of the bias against African Americans and people just saw their art for what is was: beautiful.
For the final day of the I-House Residents trip, we visited the Detroit institute of Arts, which was stimulating in a different. The Institute’s motto, “the town square of our community, a gathering place for everybody,” was personified in the diversity of the exhibitions with special emphasis on capturing the unique experiences of different groups. Special sections were dedicated to African American, Asian, Native American, Oceanic, Islamic and Ancient Art. I-House Residents were especially taken by an exhibit featuring a fascinating combination of a dress created from feathers and a mural while a contemporary dance was being performed.
Observations and learnings from the weekend experience were discussed at length on the trip back to New York. As Saumya Deva from the USA observed, “The trip gave [all of us] a historical perspective of how much injustice was experienced by African-Americans, who once had their own businesses and was able to economically advance themselves but were unjustly required to move out their businesses due to government development of Detroit.” Several others pointed to strong lessons on how resilient African-Americans are, how many unrecognized women contributed to development of the Detroit African American community, and how Detroit influenced slavery law in Canada. All participants found the trip had increased their knowledge of African-American history and current issues.
The Residents with whom I shared this journey with truly represent the diverse environment of International House. Both Americans and non-Americans talked about how Detroit history is relatable to that of their home countries or home towns.
Saumya Deva from Los Angeles found, “Detroit’s history of forced settlement to be very similar to the LA gentrification and removal of African-Americans from their business due to urban development.” As Sepideh Behzadpour from Seattle noted, “Henry Ford’s contributions to Detroit as similar to Jeff Bezos’ contribution to his home town in Seattle, Washington.”
International students from a variety of countries and saw an great of similarities between their home countries and the African-American struggle. “The strategies African Americans used to fight for their freedom were quite similar to what people have done in Haiti,” observed Evans Atis about his native country. Eduardo Granizo from Nicaragua and Luz Zamora from Venezuela saw how the class issues in Detroit reflected the same systemic issues that poor people in their homelands face: a lack of proper education and good economic opportunities. Nastassia Sidarto from Indonesia spoke about how the colonization of the Dutch created a great divide in ethnic groups in Indonesia and, like the African Americans post slavery, the post-Colonial Indonesia still has a lot of work to do to restore civic harmony.
I-House Residents also all agreed that the lessons were all valuable, enlightening and inspiring and the trip will be remembered fondly as part of their I-House Experience for years to come.
Resident Emmanuel Akpan (far right) is originally from Nigeria and came to International House in 2016. He is currently completing studies in Chemical Engineering at Columbia University's Fu Foundation School of Applied Science and Engineering.