With the help of a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, the Michigan Historical Center and SHARE plan to put together local black histories for select cities in Michigan, from about 1865 to 1915 - the end of slavery through the Great Migration.
This past Wednesday, southwestern partners of the Pre 1915 Michigan Black Communities/Exhibits for a New Century for the Michigan Historical Center, spent hours going through the civil war pension records of local African Americans. That might not sound exciting to you, but it certainly is to the state’s public historian on the 3-year Kellogg Foundation funded project, Michelle Johnson.
Let me explain: To receive their pensions, many African American veterans had to prove that they were injured in the Civil War. That claim had to be verified in first-hand accounts by other veterans, coworkers, or neighbors. As a result, these records are about as juicy as you can get. They have it all - anecdotes, medical histories, finances, and stuff you might see on your favorite soap opera.
“Because there was this whole…this movement on the part of the federal government to tell folks…to have women have to prove that they’ve been virtuous even after their husband had passed away. So if she had any experience with other men, co-habitated with men, was known to have had sexual relations with them - she could lose her pension,” says Johnson.
Why that era? Denise Miller of SHARE says African Americans of that time period faced some tough decisions. Should they try to get paid for the work they had been doing as slaves? Or should they build a different life somewhere else?
“It’s sort of our puberty and our coming of age in a way. You know what I mean? It’s that period where we’re just really beginning to say who we are in this country,” says Miller.
Miller says Southwest Michigan was a hub of activity during that time. Black Americans were finding jobs in new industries and the demographics were shifting. Patty Parker works at the Governor’s Mansion Museum in Marshall. She’s one of the historians working on local histories for Marshall and Albion.
“One of the things we’re looking at is the African American community in Marshall that used to be so vibrant and alive and then disappeared. And we’re looking to find out where they went to. Were they going to a place? Were they leaving Marshall on purpose? What caused that?” says Parker.
At the same time, African Americans were coming to Albion in waves. Parker wonders: Did they leave Marshall for Albion? Or is it a coincidence? She says it’s especially interesting now because the Marshall and Albion schools are merging together.
“So how fun for these students of these two communities to look at how their communities were a hundred years ago and see that change back in forth,” says Parker.
Jacob Johnson works for SHARE, formerly known as the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society. He’s also a fourth generation Kalamazoo resident. The house that his great, great grandfather built still stands on Pioneer Street. He says it's still in the family too.
Jacob Johnson says he’s hoping to find some of his ancestors in the pension records.
“There’s a little bit of hearsay or legend that one of my relatives was a Civil War veteran who did apply for a pension. I’m not sure. I don’t know much about it, but I’m just here to kind of support this effort and yeah, hopefully find some family history as well,” he says.
So what will these groups do with all of this information? First, they’ll give it to the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing. Then, they’ll brainstorm creative ways to bring these local stories to the cities they came from.
Denise Miller says in Kalamazoo, they’re planning to turn them into visual art, essays, poetry, and a three-act play. She says art allows people to open up about tough subjects like racism and equality.
“If they’re not really ready for this dialogue - but want to have it but don’t know how to - they’re able to talk about the creative pieces first and then go into a deeper dialogue,” says Miller.