Civil Rights workers discuss history of segregation in Ann Arbor
Thursday night, about 70 students and members of the Ann Arbor community gathered in the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library to listen to 1960s civil rights workers discuss past and present segregation in Detroit and Ann Arbor. The event focused on how the 1967 Detroit riots in Ann Arbor and the impact they had on the segregation present in Ann Arbor at the time. The event was held in tandem with the Reverberations of Rebellion exhibit currently on display in the library to better explain this connection.
The discussion was organized by Taubman student Joel Batterman to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots of 1967. Batterman, a Ph.D. candidate, designed the discussion to explain the history of segregation in Ann Arbor — something he believes a large number of people do not understand.
“Because a lot of people don’t know about that,” Batterman said. “They don’t know the history of segregation and inequality in Ann Arbor or of the efforts to fight it.”
To help explain this history, Batterman worked to gather the leaders of the civil rights movement in Ann Arbor together to explain the important work they had led in the fight for equality. The panel included Shirley Beckley, Walter “Trey” Greene, Anna Holden and Alma Wheeler Smith, who all worked on desegregation efforts in the 1960s and ’70s.
Moderated by History professor Matt Lassiter, the panel opened with statements by each panelist on their personal histories in the civil rights movement and moved to discussions of segregation in Ann Arbor.
Shirley Beckley, a former staff member on the Ann Arbor Human Relations Commission, spoke about growing up in segregated Ann Arbor and what being Black meant at that time.
“The other thing was that we had certain places we could go and certain places on Main Street that we weren’t allowed to go in to different restaurants here,” Beckley said.
She also described the experience of being forced to sit in the balcony of the Michigan Theater and the State Theater, as Black patrons were not permitted to sit close to the front.
After Beckley concluded her remarks, former state Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith spoke on housing segregation in Ann Arbor.
“Ann Arbor, in many respects, was as bad as the South,” Wheeler Smith said. “It was just not done by law, it was done by agreements and codes and boundaries.”
Wheeler Smith, the daughter of Albert Wheeler, the first Black mayor of Ann Arbor and the first tenured Black professor at the University of Michigan, went on to discuss the segregation that existed within the University at the time.
“The University itself was a very segregated place,” she said. “We had a population in the late ’50s, early ’60s, when I was coming into a college of about 3 percent Black, and we had one Black faculty member at the medical school.”
The final two panelists, Anna Holden and Trey Greene, spoke on civil rights-oriented student organizations on campus in the 1960s. Holden helped lead and found the Ann Arbor Congress of Racial Equality. Along with the NAACP and other organizations, she led protests against segregated housing to the Ann Arbor City Council and was eventually arrested for her activism.
Greene spoke of his role as a lead negotiator in the sit-in of 1968, when members of the Black Student Union chained themselves inside what is now the LSA building to demand more funding for African-American studies and programs. His actions helped lead to the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies in 1970.
After the panel concluded, students expressed their support for this kind of dialogue being hosted on campus.
LSA sophomore Ruby Schneider commented on how little some things have changed since the times of the civil rights movement.
“I think it was particularly interesting to hear the statistic that … like 3 percent of the University was Black in … the 1960s and now we're at 4 percent,” she said. “You would hope that there was like a greater increase in the number of people of color on campus, but sadly that’s not the case.”