Hearing the history of African American Ann Arbor

On Saturday, students in planning and several other UM programs joined native Ann Arborites Shirley Beckley, Jean Dixon, and Ophelia Brown to walk the neighborhood where Beckley and Dixon grew up РNorth Central, now more familiar to students  as Kerrytown.

UM Planners Network organized the event after learning about the “History of Ann Arbor’s Black Community” project in the Ann Arbor Observer. As the Black Descendants of Old Ann Arbor, Beckley, Dixon and Brown publish an annual calendar that commemorates the history of Ann Arbor’s African Americans, who were originally concentrated in a close-knit community north of downtown. The neighborhood successfully fought off a City demolition plan for “urban renewal”¬† in the late 1950s, but later gentrified in the 1970s and ’80s.

Ophelia Brown, Jean Dixon, and Shirley Beckley at the Second Baptist Church, now Annie's Children's Center.

Beckley grew up attending the Second Baptist Church at Beakes and Division, while Dixon and Brown went to Bethel AME just a stone’s throw away. Beckley and Brown attended Jones School, now Community, before Ann Arbor began busing to desegregate its schools. At that time, the city was hardly the progressive paragon some imagine it to be. As in most of the North, residential segregation prevailed, and many public establishments maintained strict color lines. When the girls went to movies at the two theaters just down Main Street, they had to sit in the balcony. Brown, the youngest of the three, helped picket the city’s Jim Crow stores as a student activist in the 1960s.

The community fought to have Summit Park renamed for Al Wheeler, NAACP leader and Ann Arbor's first black mayor (1975-77). At mid-century, the park was flooded each winter for skating, and the surrounding area was far more industrial. Blood flowed into the street from a hog slaughterhouse at one end of the park.

Despite stopping the urban renewal plan, and helping elect local NAACP leader Al Wheeler Mayor in 1975, the community was not always victorious in its fight for fair treatment. The Beckley family’s house and two others on West Kingsley were taken and razed by the City in the 1960s to make way for a road that was never constructed. After purchasing the house, the City even tried to charge the family rent for continuing to live there until its demolition. The site (shown in the first photo above) remains vacant to this day.

Beckley went on to work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development as a director of public housing in Ann Arbor, Okemos, and Muskegon. Dixon continues to work as a teacher. A few of the neighborhood’s longtime black families still live in the neighborhood today, but as Beckley observes sadly, most of Ann Arbor’s African American community has scattered towards Ypsilanti. While formal color lines may have faded, Ann Arbor’s increasingly high cost of housing has priced many people out.

Shirley Beckley meets a student resident inside the old Bethel AME Church, now converted to condominiums.

Since relatively few physical markers of the neighborhood’s history are visible today, it’s all the more important that these stories be heard, especially by planning students and young people. We’re very grateful to Shirley, Jean and Opie for taking the time to meet us, and we look forward to getting together again.

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