A Chorus of Unsung Black Voices
WITH her book ``Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit's African American Community, 1918-1967,'' Elaine Latzman Moon has written a different kind of history. Instead of being limited to the elites, Moon's book includes ordinary people who made history in Detroit during a 50-year period.
Open-ended interviews with individuals in education, housing, employment, religion, and politics make up the most of this volume. Common to all these people is their struggle for racial equality at a time when the ideology of white supremacy was widespread in Detroit.
``Untold Tales'' covers several important periods. Among them are black migration to Detroit, which increased rapidly after 1918; the Great Depression of the 1930s; and civil unrest beginning in 1948. The author is a Detroit native with strong ties to the Detroit Urban League. Her purpose is to tell the story of those in the black community whose experiences have been ignored.
These unsung heroes present a vivid account of life in ``Black Bottom,'' an area near the central business district on the east side where most blacks lived, isolated economically and geographically.
Blacks arrived in Black Bottom from a variety of Southern states, because they heard there was ``big'' money in Detroit. Employment discrimination was common, however, even against highly educated black professionals.
When blacks did find work, most were employed in the foundry at the Ford Motor Company making $25 a week. But they were put lower-level classifications in a separate section of the plant.
In spite of this discrimination (or perhaps because of it), some blacks succeeded in the world of business. Several respondents cited the famous black-owned Gotham Hotel, which is said to have ``surpassed all black-owned businesses at the time as the number one hotel in America....''
As in most American cities, black-owned businesses in Detroit declined after 1940 as barriers to racial integration were lowered and competition with white-owned businesses for the African-American consumer market increased.
There is much to be learned from this oral history. But conspicuously absent from its pages is the testimony of such famous black Detroiters as former Mayor Coleman Young and Secretary of State Richard Austin.
A more accurate title for Moon's work might have been ``Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes and Heroines'' as about a third of the book's 118 interviewee's are women. A small number of white men are also included, among them are George Romney, former Governor of Michigan, and Mel Ravitz, Detroit City Council member. These individuals, according to the author, contributed to the black struggle for civil rights in Detroit.
``Untold Tales'' is an interesting and stimulating volume that reveals the emotional and human side of black life in Detroit. It is a much needed contribution to black history.