Albion’s West Ward School: From Segregation to Civil Rights
Albion, Michigan is a small town with a rich history. In fact, it can be said that Albion’s story is America’s story. This narrative and our Heritage Grant project are focused on key racial dimensions of Albion’s history. West Ward School, an elementary school, is the epicenter of our project. Its history illuminates 20th century American values and reverberates still today.
Let us begin at the beginning. Albion had become an industrial town in the last half of the 19th century with iron foundries front and center. The industries were a magnet for European immigrants, but during World War I, European immigration was cut off and northern industries went south to recruit workers. The Albion Malleable Iron Company sent its labor recruiters to Pensacola, Florida, and in November, 1916, 64 African American men arrived by train at the Albion Michigan Central Depot. This marked Albion’s participation in the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North. Soon, the wives and children of the laborers followed. The question arose: where would the African American children go to school? At first, those children met in a church as Albion officials considered a longer term solution. “Michigan’s first civil rights legislation was adopted in 1867, when racial segregation in public education was banned in the state.” Albion’s leaders, no doubt, were aware of the Michigan ban on segregation in public education as reported in a 1917 Albion newspaper: “Planning a separate school for the colored children was one of the plans suggested, but it was pointed out that segregation of school children along color lines is prohibited by state laws.” Nonetheless, Albion’s resolution was recasting West Ward Elementary School as an all-Black school in 1918. How did this transpire? The only way that the African American children would have Black teachers was to have an all-Black school. Newly uprooted from the Jim Crow South where Black children were in segregated schools with Black teachers, the West Ward accommodation was favored by Albion African Americans in 1918. And so it would remain for 35 years.
In the aftermath of World War II, national attitudes regarding racial equity and justice were changing and Albion African American parents had come to view West Ward as “separate but unequal.” In the fall of 1953, those parents held their children out of school. The boycott and threats of legal action by the NAACP forced the Albion Board of Education to close West Ward School in October 1953, seven months before the fabled Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court ruling outlawed segregation in public education. This West Ward School story began in the era of segregation and concluded with an Albion Civil Rights movement.
After West Ward was closed, the school building was demolished and the school grounds became a city park. In 1975, the park was named for Robert Holland, Sr., one of the African American boycott leaders. The school and the park are in the center of the formerly segregated neighborhood and in close proximity to the iron foundries. The factories have closed and the neighborhood has experienced decline. The Holland Park Transformation Project is an initiative to revitalize the space that once was the site of the West Ward School. The West Ward Oral History Project includes original interviews with 22 alumni who attended West Ward. The interviews, conducted by Robert Wall, who attended West Ward, are the centerpiece for providing authentic voices. Through the interviews, one is reminded that many good things happened at West Ward where the teachers were an integral part of the neighborhood. Many West Ward graduates have fulfilled the best of the American Dream. However, the interviewees also confirm that segregation and racism in Albion were not confined to the West Ward School, but extended to movie theaters, the bowling alley, skating rink, and ice cream parlor.
The West Ward School story of segregation and civil rights will be told through nine photographic and textual panels on display on history hill in Holland Park. In addition, the interviews and elaboration of the panel themes will be made smartphone webpage accessible, including opportunity for community feedback.
Why is history important? Knowing community history can instill pride and respect for the accomplishments of those who came before us. History needs to be truthful and the truth sometimes includes racism, segregation, and racial inequity. History also can showcase people who worked hard and acted with courage, and whose dedication made a better world. While the dark side of history is depressing, the noble side is inspirational. The West Ward School story includes injustice, but we are elevated by the examples of those who fought for justice and by those who persevered and made the best of an inequitable situation. Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of the quotation: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” The West Ward School story reflects this sentiment.
The national need for conversations about race and racial history remains urgent. The recruitment of Black workers in 1916 set in motion continuing waves of the Great Migration to Albion. Today, Albion is thirty percent African American. Due to deindustrialization, schools of choice, and white flight, there is only one elementary school left in the community, a de facto segregated, predominantly African American school with almost all white teachers. The West Ward School Oral History Project, including its Holland Park display panels and website, aspires to make this history visible and interactive for young and old alike, to relate history to the present, and to inspire all of us to strive for fairness and justice. — Dr. Wesley Arden Dick