“WE CAME TO ALBION TO FIND A HOME.”
Dedication of History Hill, Holland Park, Albion, Michigan
August 13, 2016
Dr. Wesley Arden Dick, Professor of History, Albion College
I want to take this opportunity to thank my partners in the West Ward School history project. My life partner, Leslie, is a published Albion historian and co-teacher of an Albion College first-year seminar entitled “A Sense of Place: Albion & the American Dream. She brought to our project skills in oral history and videography. She embodies a wonderful combination of personal engagement and technical proficiency in the digital age.
Robert Wall has been a friend for as long as I can remember. He is a master teacher who taught our children history at Albion High School and he continues to bless Albion College classrooms. As a former West Ward student, Robert was the perfect person for the West Ward School history project.
It has been a labor of love to work with Robert and Leslie. Our community is fortunate to continue to benefit, in their retirement years, from their passion for history.
And history matters!
To understand our community, we need to know its story.
A central part of that story is the story of Albion in Black & White.
In August, 2016, race and race relations are front page news all over America.
James Baldwin, revered African American writer, put it this way:
“’History … dos not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.’”
Thus, it behooves us to be as conscious of our history as possible. It behooves us to know our story. Albion has a rich history. Indeed, Albion’s story is America’s story.
Today, I want call attention to two interconnected parts of Albion’s story. First, let us contemplate how we came to be gathered here for this occasion. In the 19th century and early 20th century, there were a few African Americans living in Albion. We know that today approximately one third of Albion’s population is African American. That seismic population shift began in 1916, 100 years ago. Early in its history, Albion had become an industrial city and the factories attracted European immigrant laborers. World War I cut off the immigration flow from Europe and U.S. factories turned to the American South and particularly to African Americans as a source of manpower to pour iron and perform other chores. In November of 1916, the Albion Malleable Iron Company went south to Pensacola, Florida, and returned on a train with 64 Black men who went to work at The Malleable. Their families followed and, over the decades, more waves of African Americans, from all over the South, came to north to Albion. This movement of southern Blacks to the North is called the Great Migration. And, Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s writes in The Warmth of Other Suns, The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, that the exodus of six million people lasted from 1915-1970. Albion’s story is part of the legendary Great Migration.
When people pull up roots and settle elsewhere, there are usually push and pull factors. Southern Blacks were pulled to the factory jobs and better pay in the North. They were also pushed out of the South by Jim Crow segregation, a caste system of white supremacy, and its enforcement through violence, lynching, and terrorism. Knowing that some family members would be left behind, it took courage to leave the South, but the ancestors of many in this audience and some audience members themselves displayed such courage.
And so African Americans from the South began to put down new roots in Albion, where, very early, they celebrated their history with Emancipation Day celebrations.
On January 1st, 1918, an Albion Evening Recorder front page story was headlined: “Splendid Program For Emancipation.” “Anniversary Celebrated at A.M.E. Church—Largely Attended—Eloquent Tributes Are Paid to Progress Made by the Race.”
Because of time constraints, I want to skip ahead to August 1st, 1927.
The Albion Evening Recorder’s headline read: “EMANCIPATION DAY OBSERVED IN THIS CITY, Big Parade This Morning Opens Festivities; Many Visitors.”
“A big Emancipation Day program was inaugurated by Albion’s colored population this morning with a parade which was followed by a barbecue at noon….
“The parade, which formed on West Cass street, progressed through the business section, then up North Superior street to Austin avenue and thence to the grounds of the Booker T. Washington Community House association on Albion Street across from the Malleable Iron Company’s plant. It was headed by a car containing the city police. Elisha Cheetum of this city, who acted as marshal of the parade, followed on horseback. The colored Boy and Girl Scout organizations with their troop and patrol leaders were next in line, followed by automobiles suitably decorated for the occasion, two of which bore the members of the local G.A.R. chapter. A float bearing the architect’s drawing of the proposed community house was one of the features of the parade.
“A group of boys each carrying suitcases and carrying a placard which bore the date 1916, the year in which the colored people came to Albion, and bearing the inscription: ‘WE CAME TO ALBION TO FIND A HOME,’ was followed by eleven automobiles each bearing signs upon which slogans pertaining to their relations to the city of Albion and its citizens, were written and each carrying the date of a year from 1916 to 1927.
“Estis Howard, chairman of the celebration committee, estimated at noon today that close to 800 persons from out of the city were attending the festivities. Guests from Detroit and various other cities in Michigan, as well as from Chicago, were included in the list.”
On August 2, the Recorder reported on the full day’s activities in a story headlined: OBSERVANCE OF EMANCIPATION DAY A SUCCESS, Several Hundred Visitors Here Monday Have a Good Time.”
“Following the parade occurring yesterday morning the celebrators assembled at the association grounds where a barbecue was enjoyed, the women of the Green Cross attending to the serving.
“Frivolity was set aside in the early part of the afternoon when a program of speeches was heard. P. H. James as master of ceremonies first introduced Rev. David Ampey, pastor of the A.M.E. Church of Albion, who offered the prayer. Mayor F.W. Culver was the first speaker on the program, welcoming the guests on behalf of the citizens of Albion and extending an invitation to hold the celebration here again next year.
“The principal address of the day was delivered S.S. Harris of Benton Harbor, a prominent colored worker, who gave a very vivid and inspiring account of the life and works of Abraham Lincoln and concluded by urging the younger generation to emulate the example of one of American’s leading statesmen.
“The lovers of sport found ample source for enjoyment in a fast five-round boxing bout which followed the addresses and a fast baseball game. Charlie Simmons and Arthur Wright, two local boys, waged a good battle in the five rounds of boxing, the decision going to Simmons by a small margin.
“The Emancipation day ball held last evening in Herman hall over the Eckert market on South Superior street brought the day’s celebration to a closed. The dancing party was largely attended and proved to be a fitting climax to a day of merry making. Bohm’s orchestra of this city furnished the musical entertainment for the ball.
“Much credit for the success of the celebration is due Estis Howard, chairman, and the committee in charge, who devoted considerable time and expense to give the local colored people a big program of events.
“In the baseball attraction the Albion Service garage team defeated the Battle Creek Monarchs by a final count of 6-5. Wingate and Pearson led the attack of the Albionites with three hits in four times at bat each, the former collecting two triples in his assortment of blows. Reed of the Monarchs also annexed three hits in four trips to the plate.
“The locals took the lead in the first inning and successfully repulsed the efforts of the Food City representatives in the closing innings.”
1927! August 1st, 1927, Albion Emancipation Day. The newspaper commentary I have shared with you helps us imagine that wonderful day. If only we had a photograph that would further help us to envision August 1st, 1927 Emancipation Day?
Wait! We do have a photograph. It happens to be my favorite Albion photograph and I want to share with you this new enlargement of the August 1st, 1927 Albion Emancipation Day.
In the photo, you can sense the vibrancy of Albion’s African American community in 1927. The photo reminds us that these participants in the Great Migration did come to Albion to Find a Home. Having found a home, they created so much history.
Adero, Malaika. Up South, Stories, Studies, and Letters of This Century’s African-American Migrations. New York: The New Press, 1993.
Arnesen, Black Protest and the Great Migration, A Brief History With Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.
Crew, Spencer R. Field to Factory, Afro-American Migration, 1915-1940. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution, 1987.
Henri, Florette. Black Migration Movement North, 1900-1920, The Road From Myth to Man. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1976.
Turner, Elizabeth Hutton. Jacob Lawrence, The Immigration Series. Washington, D.C.: The Rappahannock Press, 1993.
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Sons, The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York: Random House, 2010.