WSW: A Book that Shows "What an Oppressed Group of People Were Able to Do"

Apr 17, 2018

The Let Us Be Friends Club of Kalamazoo was one of many organizations featured in the Michigan Manual of Freedmen's Progress. According to the book, the group's aim was to "promote the spirit of friendliness among the young colored women of the city."
Credit Western Michigan University libraries

In 1915, just fifty years after the end of slavery in the United States, a group of states convened a fair in Chicago they called the Lincoln Jubilee. The weeks-long event celebrated African-Americans’ achievements since the signing of the Thirteenth Amendment. Michigan’s delegation wrote a book for the occasion, and one historian says it belongs on everyone’s reading list.

The Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress had already become obscure when John Green, of Detroit, came across it in 1959. Green worked to get the book back in print, but he says the Manual still has not received the attention it deserves.

“This book could be such an inspiration - to the black community, but to all young people - seeing what an oppressed group of people were able to do,” Green said.

At least seventeen states, as well as several foreign countries participated 1915 Jubilee, according to one source. Michigan appointed a commission to prepare exhibits and to work on the Manual. In just a few months, the group created a panorama of African-American life in the state.

The Manual includes a statistical portrait of African-Americans in Michigan; biographies of professionals and other prominent residents; photos of black-owned homes, businesses and farms; and a catalog of contributions to the Jubilee exhibit. The Western Michigan University Libraries' complete digitized version is 371 pages long.

The book includes then-Michigan governor Woodbridge N. Ferris’ speech at the Lincoln Jubilee’s Michigan Day.

“When character presents itself there ought not to be any occasion to talk about races,” Ferris wrote, adding that the “ninety millions of whites” in the United States “cannot prosper in the highest and best sense without a corresponding prosperity of the ten or eleven millions of Afro-Americans.”

A photo from the 1915 Lincoln Jubilee.
Credit Wikimedia Commons/Internet Archive /

The exhibits of the Jubilee stood in contrast to popular notions of white supremacy, says Western Michigan University Adjunct Professor of African and African-American Studies Michelle Johnson.

She notes that “Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s movie that glorified and helped to revive the Ku Klux Klan, came out the same year.

The Jubilee constituted a "counter-argument, a counter-representation of black culture from D.W. Griffith's representation, that somehow as black people we are unable to govern ourselves," Johnson said.

In a West Southwest interview about the Manual’s place in history, Green and Johnson were joined by William Colden of Detroit. The book features his grandfather, physician Albert H. Johnson.