When I think back to my youth, I recall various automobiles that were own by my father, uncles and friends. Their cars were American made and typically products of General Motors. Buick, Pontiac and Cadillac were the cars of choice and hardly anyone then owned a foreign car. If you owned a Cadillac, it meant status and success in the America. Detroit became Motor City and its dominance over the U.S. auto industry remained in place for several decades until automakers from Japan and Germany stormed into the American market. The city has an extensive past, beginning with French explorer Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac (1658-1730) for whom the luxury automobile is named after. In 1701, he established what is now Detroit before eventually returning to France where he lived out the rest of his days. The evolution of Detroit is one of America’s greatest success stories and also one of its greatest tragedies. Throughout all, its black citizens have always remained firm in their dedication to seeing Detroit become a city to be envied. Herb Boyd takes another look at his city and the role of black men and women in the development of a famed city.
Boyd starts at the beginning, when Detroit is under French rule and North America is an open plain upon which Native Americans, white settlers, slaves and the wild call home. A new nation known as the United States was established in 1776 and over the next few years, slavery was been abolished in the majority of norther states. In 1701, Detroit entered the Union as part of Michican and although slavery was abolished, it was still practice in many parts of the country. Detroit became a gateway to freedom as many slaves escaped into Canada before returning free men and women due to loopholes in U.S. laws at the time regarding slavery in particular fugitive slaves. The case of Peter Denison is revisited and I feel many readers will find this section regarding the methods of freedom for slaves to be quite interesting. However, not every story has a happy ending and the racial tension discussed by the author highlights how far as a nation we have come. In what could be called race wars, we witness episodes of violence that will send a chill down the spine of many readers.
The Civil War marked a turning point in United States History. Thousands of African-American troops took part in the conflict but the battle for freedom was far from over. Racism was still prevalent and slavery died a slow and agonizing death. However, years prior to the emancipation proclamation, the abolitionist made it their goal to erase slavery from the entire United States. Boyd discusses the lives and actions of the legendary John Brown (1800-1859) and others who sought freedom through armed resistance. Those of the more peaceful approach were responsible for the founding of the Second Baptist Church and Dunbar Hospital. Yet they could not escape racism and Detroit would have its many ugly incidents between white and black citizens that nearly caused its destruction and will make readers wonder why humans treat each other in the ways that they do.
Similar to many American cities post-Civil War, Detroit continued to undergo significant change. In 1914, the world went to war as Europe became ground zero. Thirty years later a second world war began and Detroit sent some of its best which included many of its black citizens who returned home from war energized to defeat Jim Crow. It is at this point in the book that the story picks up considerable pace and descent of Detroit into the ghost town it became takes center stage. As Berry Gordy’s Motown Records were turning out hits, white flight was in full swing, changing the demographics of many neighborhoods which saw an increase in the number of black residents. The landscape of Detroit was being remade and the effects would reverberate for decades.
Throughout the book it seems as if Detroit is where who’s who of important figures can be found. However, their presence is offset by the rise in violence that spared no one, including the late Rosa Parks (1913-2005) and Rev. C.L. Franklin (1915-1984). Detroit had earned a reputation as a dangerous city that threatened all who entered. But within its borders there were those working to change it for the better and that has never changed. The story of former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young (1918-1997) is highlighted as well as the rise and fall of future Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Despite their best efforts, the image of a violent city stuck to Detroit and the gun violence increased. And shootings by law enforcement officers of civilians had placed Detroit at the top of the list of police related shootings in America. The police unit STRESS, an acronym for Stop the Robberies and Enjoy Safe Streets, had become infamous and in May, 2010, the murder of seven-year-old Aiyana Jones provided the ultimate proof of a police department in need of upheaval.
Currently, Mike Duggan serves as the Mayor of Detroit. Time will tell if he will have ultimate success in rehabilitating a city that was once one of America’s brightest. The bailout of the auto industry by the administration of President Barack Obama marked a low point in the history of Motor City. It was sobering experience that taught American automakers many painful truths and showcased Detroit’s fall from the position of ruler of the U.S. auto industry. There are many bright spots and if there is anything we can take from Boyd’s book, it is that the people of Detroit never give up and have always found ways to survive. The future is bright for Detroit but only if all hands are on deck. I have no doubt that they will be. But what is imperative to remember through Boyd’s work, are the stories of the people of color who helped build the City of Detroit. Good read.
“Detroit turned out to be heaven, but it also turned out to be hell.” – Marvin Gaye (1938-1984)