The United States recently marked the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The newfound attention, including from the president, to the destruction of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” reminds us that thriving, dynamic black communities existed in America long before the War on Poverty or the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. But Greenwood was not the only African-American neighborhood that would be leveled: consider the DeSoto-Carr section of St. Louis, parts of Chicago’s Bronzeville, Cedar-Central in Cleveland—and Black Bottom in Detroit.
These neighborhoods, however, did not fall to racist mobs. They were the victims instead of progressive reforms: above all, urban renewal, as authorized by the National Housing Act of 1949, which provided funds to clear neighborhoods and replace them with public housing towers. The law made available “federal advances, loans, and grants to localities to assist slum clearance and urban redevelopment,” leading to the construction of 850,000 new public housing apartments. In Detroit’s Black Bottom, once home to 140,000 black residents, the process became known as “Negro removal”—as evoked by “Why I Sing the Blues” by Aretha Franklin, whose father, C. L. Franklin, ran the New Bethel Baptist Church, one of the Black Bottom buildings demolished.
Like the Greenwood Massacre, Black Bottom and its history have received fresh interest. In 2015, a young African-American community organizer, PG Watkins, established the Black Bottom Archives. Watkins is at work recording the oral histories of those who once lived in the neighborhood. A onetime social studies teacher at a charter school, Jamon Jordan, who heads the Detroit chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, has set up a successful business, the Black Scroll Network, which gives guided tours of the few remaining buildings. His clients include former Black Bottom residents as well as college students. He tells them a well-researched story of loss—of homes, businesses, churches, and mutual-aid groups.