These old photos show important moments in Detroit’s history.
Detroit is a beacon of Black history, culture, and impact that carries over into today. From the beginnings of countless talented musicians at the infamous studio at Motown Records, to the last stop in the Underground Railroad before freedom, to a house that stood before a white angry mob when an African-American family, The Sweet family, attempted to move in. Check out these old photos of these impactful places as we take you through a tour of historical landmarks in Detroit for Black History Month.
1. Dunbar Hospital
Let’s start by taking a trip down back to 1892 where the story of Dunbar Hospital came to be an impactful part of Black history, so much so that it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places as of 1979. This 19th-century historical building was originally built as a home to a real estate developer. In came the influential doctor, James W. Ames, one of Detroit’s first Black doctors, looking to buy it. He was living in Detroit during a time where less than 600 Black residents lived in Detroit. This changed after World War I where more than 30,000 Black residents lived there. During this time, the U.S. was still participating in segregation, and Black patients were often denied care. Ames petitioned with 30 other Black doctors to create the Allied Medical Society, and they purchased this home, opened a non-profit in the building, and became the first Black Hospital In Detroit.
Where: 580 Frederick Street, MI, 48202
2. Elmwood Cemetery
Elmwood Cemetery stands as one of the most important cemeteries in Detroit as many many impactful Detroiters have been buried there. Michigan even designed it as a State Historical Site in 1975. Some of its most prominent burials include William Webb Ferguson, the first Black man elected to the House of Representatives, Mother Charleszetta Waddles, an important African-American activist who is listed in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, the abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor, George DeBaptiste, and pivotal elementary school teacher, Fannie Richards.
Where: 1200 Elmwood St, Detroit, MI 48207
3. Ossian Sweet House
This privately owned house was bought by its second owner, the Black physician Ossian Sweet and his family. The house, located on 2605 Garland Street, was situated in an all-white neighborhood, prompting the community to create an organized mob against Sweet’s family upon moving in. The Sweet family had heard of the mob beforehand and his family and friends came prepared to protect themselves no matter the cost. The mob threw rocks and bottles and broke through windows. The tense attack resulted in one fatality of a white man and Sweet and his family were charged for murder, though ultimately acquitted. The incident set a precedent in racial tensions in Detroit as well as in the court system, and stands as a historical landmark today.
Where: 2605 Garland Street MI 48214
4. Sugar Hill Historic District
The Sugar Hill District was recognized on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 for being one of the first neighborhoods that Black residents settled and in turn, expanded the community from a quiet neighborhood to a bustling entertainment center. The purchase of the Gotham Hotel by Ernest White set a precedent for more Black community members to purchase homes and businesses in the area. The 1950s saw the district build into a thriving community with Black-owned businesses and bars with an emphasis on jazz music. The jazz scene in Detroit grew with famous performers like Billie Holiday and Al Green performing at various clubs. Unfortunately, a lot of the old buildings here were demolished to make room for the expansion of the Detroit Medical Center, but there’s been recent interest in renovating the area.
5. First Congregational Church
The first congregational church was established in 1844 and remains a significant part of the Underground Railroad route. Refugees were hidden in the basement as they traveled towards boats that would eventually lead them to freedom in Canada. The church, in order to preserver the legacy of its history for researchers and educators, created the Living Museum, a storytelling simulation of the story of the Underground Railroad, where guests can experience and see first-hand the history of this significant time in history.
Where: 33 E Forest Ave, Detroit, MI 48201
Have you ever heard of “Hitsville U.S.A.?” That’s the nickname given to Motown Records’ first headquarters, and it resides here in the Motown Museum. Opened by Esther Gordy Edwards, the original Motown Records executive and sister of founder Berry Gordon, Motown Museum is a homage to the legacy and talent of many Black musicians that emerged in Detroit. The Supremes, Marvin Gay, Aretha Franklin, and The Jackson 5 just to name a few. The museum will reopen to the public on Thursday, February 18th, and you can book a tour here.
Where: 2648 W Grand Blvd, Detroit, MI 48208
The Plowshares Theater Company amplifies the African American voice through plays, performances, and stories. It established in 1989 as one of the first African-American theaters in Detroit and is recognized as the only one professional African-American theater house in Michigan. Experience a theater that nurtures established and rising artists that’ll make you feel like you’re on Broadway.
Where: 440 Burroughs St #185, Detroit, MI 48202
This museum can tell the story of its impact just through its name. A place that details the innovation and impact of America through its foreword thinking. Rosa Parks’ impact is memorialized here through the renovated 1955 bus that she sat in that historical day. Ford also offered Black Detroiters economic opportunities through his automobile factory, boosting the abilities for Black members to gain better jobs during this time, making this one of Detroit’s best stops on a historical tour around Detroit. Book your tickets for a tour here.
Where: 20900 Oakwood Blvd, Dearborn, MI 48124
[featured image via Wikipedia Commons]