"Covert" Revives the Voices of Kalamazoo's Civil Rights Movement

Jun 12, 2015

The Douglass Community Association's Youth Advisory Council Interviews Dr. Lewis Walker
Credit Courtesy Stephanie Moore

On June 18th,  the Douglass Community Association’s Youth Advisory Council will premiere its original production of "Covert" at Kalamazoo College's Dalton Theatre. It's the culmination of more than a year of chronicling the lives of Kalamazoo's civil rights leaders, then combining them with poetry, music, and dance to create a simultaneously original and historical production.

"Covert" tells the story of Kalamazoo's civil rights movement through the words of local leaders, like Dr. Lewis Walker, a retired civil rights scholar from Western Michigan University. 

"Kalamazoo then was very much a segregated community, city," says Walker. "We used to say that if you want to find black people, you go across the railroad tracks."

Walker remembers the segregation and discrimination here like it happened yesterday.

"As a young professor, I was looking for housing for my wife and myself, and we were never shown any area in the city other than the North Side," he explains. "As a matter of fact, when I came to town there were racial covenants people signed for people who purchased homes, not to rent or sell to 'Negros.' I have a copy of such an agreement.

On a sticky afternoon inside the group’s hollow rehearsal space, the nine actors in "Covert" line up along the wall, scripts in hand. One by one, each student gets up and recites a story.

One recites the words of Von Washington Sr., the Western Michigan University professor and playwright. After that come stories from educator Anna Whitten and community leader Sid Ellis. Each history is different – different times, different places, different obstacles. But the one thing tying everything together is the urge for change.

Up front, Doreisha Reed, the chair of the Douglass Youth Advisory Council, reads the recollections of Juanita Goodwin, one of Kalamazoo’s first African-American teachers. As Reed tells the story of Goodwin’s first time going to a restaurant – and getting denied service – in Kalamazoo, it’s tough to listen to at points.

"Now, three or four people had come in behind us and were immediately served," the story goes. "So I said to two college kids, we're not going to let these people do this to us! Well I guess these people weren't used to challenging people. Because they didn't say anything. I don't know if they were afraid of what. Finally, they said, 'Oh, let's go.'"

“When I got back I told my mother," the story continues. “Something must be wrong with this city.”

"I’ve been discriminated so much I don’t even talk about it," says Juanita Goodwin, in person this time. Talking with her for just five minutes, you feel the frustration that’s built up over so many years. But she also talks about one moment that really changed race relations in the city – The Van Avery Drugstore protests, back in 1963.

The Van Avery Drugstore was unique because of its location on Kalamazoo’s North Side, where the African-American population was growing rapidly in the sixties. And yet the owner of the drug store treated black men and women like second-class citizens, refusing to hire them and serving white patrons first.

"They had a way of only wanting you to sit in certain booths if you were coming in for refreshments, not sit up at the counter," Goodwin says. "They decided they were not going to be discriminated. So they sat at the counter and all over the place. So then when the Van Avery's decided they were going to still segregate them, that’s when they boycotted. And they did a good job!"

With enough protest, change did happen. The drug store agreed to hire African-Americans. And Goodwin says it sparked real change in Kalamazoo. Suddenly, other businesses who excluded black men and women started to employ them and let them in.

Goodwin says she wants the city’s youth to hear these stories, so they understand the years of hard-fought change that led to today.

"They might not know how hard we had to work. How we were discriminated against! They might just think ‘Pshhh, you just have these degrees! These houses, these cars,' she says. "No, we had to work very hard for it."

Douglass Youth Advisory Council Chair Reed says that just recording and listening to these stories has already changed how she looks at herself and the city around her.

"This might be the first opportunity to say this is what they went through," she says. "It’s really powerful to hear their way of thinking and the way they saw life when they were my age, or when they were doing what they were doing." 

Reed says it actually empowered her and the others in the group to create their own legacy in the performance – with poems, dances, and their own original song. You can see “Covert” on June 18th at 6 p.m. at the Dalton Theatre at Kalamazoo College.