Inequities and disparities are toxins planted with intention and inattention into the souls, soil, and systems within our communities. Our ‘strategies of choice’ in addressing inequities and disparities too often prioritize the comfort of the oppressor over and above the liberation of the oppressed.
Detroit, MI is known for being an important stop on the Underground Railroad. You may not know that people were also enslaved in Detroit and surrounding areas. Many roads, schools, and places are named after wealthy slave-owning families. If you live in or near Detroit, you will recognize these names, Macomb, Campau, Beaubien, McDougall, Brush, Cass, Hamtramck, Dequindre, and Groesbeck Livernois, Rivard, and many others. From its founding in 1750, slavery existed during Detroit’s existence as a French, British, and then American settlement. The Burton Collection of the Detroit Public Library has an original ledger book of William Macomb. The ledger lists his property and includes over 20 enslaved individuals. The first mayor of Detroit, John R. Williams (two streets bear his name), also owned slaves along with priests of the Catholic Church in Detroit. The men who financed the Detroit Free Press were also former slave owners. The Free Press used its platform to support slavery prior to the Civil War.
People of African and Native/Indigenous descent were both enslaved in Detroit. Enslavement of native peoples occurred first. Slavery played an integral role in the relationship between European settlers and Native tribes. The Native system of enslavement involved taking captives to settle conflicts or build alliances. This would occur by women and children of rival factions being exchanged or given to confirm an alliance or settle a dispute. When the French arrived, they also adopted this practice to establish trade alliances with Native peoples as well. Native women were victims of labor trafficking and sexual violence. The enslaved were used as pawns to help bolster trading alliances between European settlers and Native tribes. Slavery continued to exist in the Northwest Territory (which included Michigan) even though it was abolished in 1787. Slave owners used loopholes or flat out ignored the law to maintain their ownership of the enslaved.
Robert Robinson Taylor (1858 – 1942) is recognized as the first academically trained Black architect in the U.S. Taylor grew up in North Carolina, where he worked for his father (Henry Taylor) as a carpenter and foreman. Henry Taylor was a successful builder. Robert Taylor’s mother was Emilie Taylor. Both Henry Taylor and Emilie Taylor were reported to be of mixed race.
Robert Taylor graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The final project he completed for his bachelor’s degree in Architecture was “Design for a Soldier’s Home.” The project examined suggested a design to provide housing for aging civil war veterans. He graduated from MIT in 1892 at the top of his class with a bachelor of science degree in architecture. Taylor was the first black person to graduate from MIT with an architectural degree.
Esteban Hotesse (1919 – 1946) is the only known Latinx member of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen was a black military unit that saw combat during World War II. Hotesse was born in Moca, Dominican Republic and immigrated to the U.S. with his mother and younger sister in 1923. The family settled in Manhattan. Hotesse enlisted into the Army Air Corp in 1942. He was first assigned to the 619th Bombadier Squadron, which later merged with the 477th Bomdadier Group M in 1944. The 477th was one of the Tuskegee Airmen squadrons that remained stationed in the U.S. and did not see combat overseas. The 477th did, however have to combat racism and discrimination on U.S. soil. The 477th and 619th merged after the military leaders began receiving pressure to provide more opportunities for black soldiers to fill key positions in the air corp.
McKissack & McKissack is the oldest black-owned architecture, construction, and engineering company in the U.S. The company was started in 1905 by brothers Moses McKissack III (l879-1952) and Calvin Lunsford McKissack (1890-1968). Their knowledge of the construction trade was passed down from their father (Gabriel Moses II) and enslaved grandfather (Moses McKissack I). Calvin and Moses III were educated at Pulaski Colored High School and attended Fisk University, a historically black college. They started the company in Pulaski, TN, and then relocated the business to Nashville, TN.
State requirements for architects changed in 1922, requiring all architects to be licensed and registered. The McKissack brothers took correspondence courses and obtained architectural degrees to meet the licensing requirements. When the brothers passed the state licensing exam in 1922, they were some of the state’s first registered architects. Some of their most well known projects were several public schools in the 1930’s and the Tennessee State University Library in 1927. McKissack & McKissack architects was awarded its largest contract in 1942, a $5-$7 million contract with the U.S. government to design and build Tuskegee Army Airfield. The airfield was the training site for the Tuskegee Airmen. The firm attend greater notoriety as a result of this project and by 1945 were licensed to work in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, and Mississippi.
Madeline M. Turner invented Turner’s Fruit Press. Her invention is believed to be the original blueprint and design on which many modern juicers are based. Turner was inspired to create her juice press one morning when she struggled to hand squeeze a cup of orange juice.
Turner’s invention helped pave the way for “juicing” to become a lucrative business endeavor. She was granted a patent for her fruit press machine on April 25, 1916 (U.S. Patent #: 1,180,959). Her invention was praised as “ingenious” due to its ease of use and its easy to clean design. Norman Walker, a white businessman, is credited with inventing the first mechanical juice maker in the 1930s. However, Turner’s invention preceded his by nearly 20 years! The invention was first debuted in San Diego, CA. From 1948 to 2014, seven other patents have referenced her invention and patent. In 2020, the juice and smoothie industry boasted a revenue of $2.6 billion!
Journalist Charles Blow’s 6/7/20 New York Times article, Allies Don’t Fail Us Againshares a thought provoking quote. With recent protests, nationally and internationally calling for reform following the death of George Floyd, “This is not the social justice Coachella. This is not systemic racism Woodstock. This has to be a forever commitment, even after protest eventually subsides.” Power to his pen!
On March 5, 2020, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) highlighted the difference in treatment that he experienced in 2012 when he wore a hoodie and sunglasses on the house floor to protest the death of Trayvon Martin. Rush was forcibly removed from the house floor by the seargent-at-arms for violating its decorum code. Fast forward to 2020. Republican Rep. Matthew Gaetz came onto the floor with a full gas mask to call attention to the COVID-19 virus. While he was asked to remove the gas mask, he was not removed. Gaetz is white and Rush is African American.
In response to the difference in treatment, Rush tweeted, “In 2012, I wore a hoodie on the House Floor to make a statement about the deadly consequences of racial profiling. On Wednesday, @RepMattGaetz wore a gas mask in the chamber, making light of an epidemic that has killed 14 Americans.Guess which one of us was forcibly removed.” Gaetz defended his actions by saying that the gas mask was “medically necessary”. However, gas masks are not normally considered to be medically necessary.