Detroit's culture and growth shaped by immigrant communities

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By Neala Berkowski, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 1, 2015

As The Michigan Daily continues to watch and report on Detroit shaping its future, we want to reflect back on how the city got here. Our hope for this week’s Detroit History Series is that readers learn something new about the city and, in turn, better understand what’s to come.

Detroit is known for its rich past. Much of this richness can be attributed to its history of immigration and migration — movements that continue to shape the city today.

The French founded Detroit in 1701. Before their arrival, the region experienced a constant turnover of people, Joel Stone, senior curator of the Detroit Historical Society, said. Groups of Native Americans would occupy the area, then would move west or north as other tribes and clans came from the east.

“While there were many more Native Americans living around here, tens of thousands of them, as opposed to a few thousand French, it really remained a French town even as other groups started coming in,” Stone said. “That being said, it was pretty early on that we started to get a pretty multicultural group of folks of here, meaning mostly Western Europe.”

Early Detroit also attracted other populations. JoEllen Vinyard, a history professor at Eastern Michigan University who specializes in U.S. social and immigration history, said major groups such as the Germans, Irish and British immigrated to Detroit in the early 1800s due to factors including cheap land, affordable homes and better opportunities.

Vinyard said there is a general immigration theory that the “pull is stronger than the push,” meaning people often chose to immigrate to Detroit when its economy was strong, rather than because they were forced out by circumstances in their home country.

“You could come in pretty much at your skill level and move up because they needed workers,” Vinyard said. “It was a medium city and it was a family city where they could afford a home. For Catholics, like the Irish, for example, it was much more friendly than Boston or Philadelphia or New York because it was already a Catholic town with a French base.”

Vinyard added that not everyone moving to Detroit was “straight off the boat.” Between 1800 and 1830, many migrated to Detroit from New York and communities throughout New England. Some learned about opportunities in Detroit as they moved around, while others came to follow family that had already settled in the city.

Most often, people traveled to Detroit in small groups or on their own, Vinyard said. In some families, one brother would go first and then send money back for the others to come. Less frequently, people traveled in larger groups with people from their town, or in a group sponsored by a church.

Vinyard said many immigrants tried to straddle becoming Americanized and retaining their original culture.

“The immigrant generation didn’t want their children to become too Americanized because they were afraid they would lose them. They would move away from the culture and they wouldn’t be a part of the family,” Vinyard said. “But you could see in all of these groups they would say, ‘But we are the ones that are marching in the Fourth of July parade. We’re the ones who are celebrating the American holidays in visible ways. We’re teaching our children about George Washington.’”

Stone said the next wave of immigrants consisted predominantly of Polish, Italians, Greeks and Belgians by the 1870s. Prior to the turn of the century, Detroit started seeing people from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia.

“Before the Civil War, they were coming for the land, and after the Civil War, Detroit’s industrial economy really took off,” Stone said. “So that’s when they started coming for the jobs. Or maybe they thought they were coming for land but when they got here they realized that the factory jobs were so good.”

Vinyard said by the early 1900s, the Polish became one of the major groups that settled in Detroit. The Polish, along with people from Central and Eastern Europe, were often recruited to work in various industries and factories in Detroit. Many Polish moved to Poletown, and later to Hamtramck in 1910 after the Dodge Brothers opened a new automotive plant.

African American migration has also played a large role in Detroit’s diverse population. LaNesha DeBardelaben, the vice president of assessment and community engagement at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, explained that African Americans began migrating to Detroit in a sizable number as early as 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted, forcing people of color to leave the Deep South and seek freedom in northern states.

DeBardelaben said African Americans migrated to Detroit again in large numbers during World War I and World War II. Called the Great Migration, this movement was largely fueled by the availability of jobs, with men typically working in factories while women found domestic work.

“Detroit has had a long history of African Americans migrating into the city,” DeBardelaben said. “African Americans began to migrate in the teens during World War I when factory jobs opened up for African Americans as a part of the war effort. So there was a Great Migration into Detroit in the teen years, numbers skyrocketed, and then again during World War II. Until that time many African Americans still remained in the South.”

DeBardelaben said many African Americans also migrated to Detroit because of social reasons like racism and discrimination in the South.

“Their livelihood and quality of life was threatened with racism and discriminatory practices,” she said. “Blacks could not go to the schools they wanted. They could not even go to the public library in the South. So it was more than just an economic factor. There were social conditions that propelled them to leave the South and to settle in what they thought would be advantageous opportunities in the North.”

African Americans faced similar problems in Detroit. Blacks were prevented from purchasing homes in certain neighborhoods. Highly skilled African Americans were not given as many opportunities for work and were often left with less desirable work. Debardelaben said African Americans had to learn to rely on their own communities.

“African Americans who migrated here were able to find pretty much what they needed in those Black neighborhoods in terms of pharmacy and business and lawyer,” she said. “The Black community was self-serving.”

DeBardelaben added that African Americans have had a major impact on social change — an influence that continues today. In the 1850s, Detroit’s African American community drew the attention of national figures such as Frederick Douglass and John Brown. In the 1900s, they created their own agencies and centers.

“It was Detroit’s Black women who organized orphanages and homes for the elderly and community centers for young people because they were not allowed to go to the white YMCAs,” DeBardelaben said. “They created their own agencies and centers and petitioned for equal opportunity. Detroit is a strong city and it’s strong because the African Americans could not accept second class citizenship.”

Currently, Mexicans and Arabs are two of the city’s most notable immigrant groups, though both communities have been immigrating to Detroit for hundreds of years

Arab immigration to Michigan, which first began in 1898, has steadily increased in recent years, according to Sally Howell, assistant professor of history and Arab American Studies at the University’s Dearborn campus.

In 1921, the area’s first structure built specifically as a mosque opened in Highland Park, a block away from the entrance to Ford’s Model-T factory. It joined Detroit’s existing Greek Orthodox and Maronite Catholic churches, which were all built by Syrian-Lebanese migrants.

Howell said while many of the earlier immigrants came seeking economic opportunity, the Arab-Israeli Wars, civil wars in Lebanon and Yemen and more recent conflicts in Iraq brought many immigrants to Detroit seeking refuge.

In the 1950s, jobs in the auto industry caused the Chaldean and Palestinian populations to grow in the city, Howell said. A decade later, in the 1960s, the Arab-Israeli War and a war in Lebanon brought many refugees to Detroit. Howell said people emigrated from Arab countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan and Syria.

Howell added that those who come to Detroit with an education sometimes have trouble finding a job that fits the qualifications they earned in their home country, while those with low skills struggle to work their way up.

Between 2000 and 2010, Arab immigration increased by 35 percent, which means the population overall is still majority immigrant, Howell said. Yet, she said it is important to remember that the Arab community is an integral and integrated part of southeast Michigan, with the first immigrants having helped build the auto industry and the city itself, while second- and third- generation Arab Americans are dispersed throughout the economy.

Adam Thibodeau, staffer at Congress Communities of Southwest Detroit, a neighborhood board, said Mexicans and Latin Americans are immigrating to Detroit to seek refuge from danger in their homeland.

“You can really tell that by the churches,” Thibodeau said. “The churches have really had to suit themselves to expand events like Mass. Specifically in Lincoln Park, they have their own Mexicantown now too. Nothing compared to what southwest Detroit has, but it’s there.”

Thibodeau said some Latinos have difficulty finding jobs if their education from home isn’t recognized in the United States or if they are undocumented. In these cases, the Latino community has been able to support itself by establishing its own work.

“We have someone who came from Honduras recently and she was a teacher in Honduras, but obviously that’s not going to translate here in America,” Thibodeau said. “The Latino community does an awesome job with really creating their own economy, creating their own businesses. Usually it’s labor work: building up houses, fixing up houses, landscaping, they do a lot of work in the suburbs and surrounding areas.”

Southwest Detroit is also a cultural hub, which helps immigrants adjust to life in Detroit, Thibodeau said.

“It’s very possible to grocery shop, go to school, go to church, live in the community and be in this insulated cultural community,” he said.

Detroit’s 300-year legacy of immigration and migration to Detroit has contributed to the city’s culture and growth, but DeBardelaben, who moved to Detroit three years ago, said the city continues to provide opportunities for both newcomers and former residents deciding to return home.

“Those Detroiters who leave for college, they come back,” she said. “A lot of young professionals have options of going any and everywhere. They can go to L.A., New York, Philadelphia, but they want to come back to Detroit to work because it’s a place where they have a passion for and it’s in a period of transition and they want to be a part of that. People see the opportunity to shape a better future for Detroit.”