Why should we care about the University's forgotten Detroit roots?

Tuesday, October 30, 2018 - 6:06pm

Should we care about the University's forgotten Detroit roots?

Should we care about the University's forgotten Detroit roots? Buy this photo
Design by Christine Jegarl

Through my childhood, I attended Père Gabriel Richard Elementary School in Grosse Pointe, and was taught the accomplishments of the school’s namesake. There are at least four schools in and around Detroit named after Richard, a person who was committed to the promotion of education in Michigan.

Richard was a humanitarian who spent much of his life promoting education on the frontier. He built schools for both white and Native American children — despite the area’s generally problematic history with Native Americans — helped the city of Detroit avoid a food crisis and potential ruin after the fire of 1805 and assisted cholera victims until he died in 1832.

But perhaps Richard’s most lasting legacy was the establishment of an overly-ambitious joint venture on the American frontier in 1817 which would ultimately become the University of Michigan. For its first 20 years, the University was only an idea, with no student ever enrolled at the university level. The school we know today wasn’t established in practice until 1837 when it moved from Detroit to the then-small settlement of Ann Arbor.

It was during the Detroit fire in 1805 that Richard also penned the official motto of Detroit: “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus,” or “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.” In many ways, this is also a metaphor for the University, which nearly faded into irrelevance leading up to 1837.

While I didn’t know Richard’s legacy completely as a young student, I could nonetheless appreciate his dedication to education. From a young age, his lesson was ingrained in me — helping teach me the importance of education.

This appreciation spread out of the confines of my elementary school building as well. Living minutes away from Detroit, I would often see Richard’s many memorials in the city. Whether it be driving past Pere Gabriel Richard Park on Jefferson Avenue or visiting his tomb and state historical marker at Ste. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church, I knew Richard helped build Detroit.

Yet, years later when I arrived at the University, the figure who was so ever-present in my hometown’s lore drew barely a mention in Ann Arbor — a town he was arguably even more instrumental in building.

Walking down State Street in 2017, it was impossible to miss the banners commemorating the University of Michigan’s Bicentennial. Our school’s 200th birthday instilled a sense of commonality for students, faculty and alumni alike, one in which we could take pride in our heritage. At least that’s what I was supposed to think.

When the banners were pulled down and the festivities faded, our school origins were once again difficult to find. Sure, we knew it was old and prestigious — but while many students (myself included) saw this history as distinctive, we failed to recognize the ones who founded the Catholepistemiad, or University of Michigania, in the first place.

I am only aware of our university’s founders’ legacies because I went to an elementary school named after one of them. When the University moved to Ann Arbor, new leaders emerged and, from their perspective, they started from scratch. Yet, since the 1930s, the University has proclaimed 1817 as its original founding date, prompting debate over whether or not the University may claim an extra 20 years of history.  

In recent years, the University strengthened its efforts to connect to its original home in Detroit, perhaps an attempt to fully recognize to its roots. Whether or not this commitment will be successful remains to be determined. Regardless, I now go to a school founded by –– yet not named after –– Richard. Why is this?

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A painting of Father Gabriel Richard.

A painting of Father Gabriel Richard. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

When the University was founded in 1817, there were fewer than 7,000 people (excluding Native Americans) living in the Michigan Territory. Three of these settlers were crucial in creating the idea of our University: Augustus Woodward, a chief federal judge who idealized the concept of free college-level education, Gabriel Richard, a teacher and Catholic missionary, and John Monteith, a minister, educator and the first president of the University of Michigan.

During this initial phase, Richard and Woodward wanted to create an institution for universal education. This included an ambitious curriculum with 13 subjects, modeled after the University of France. The curriculum was progressive and based on science, philosophy, mathematics and natural history, among other topics. Richard and Montieth were the two earliest professors appointed.

One of the first public universities in the United States, it was christened in Detroit on nearly 2,000 acres of land granted to the founders by local Native Americans through the Treaty of Fort Meigs. Despite many hostilities in the region, Richard was one of few Europeans at the time to engage in positive diplomatic relations with local Native American leaders and was able to negotiate this treaty as a result.

In 1821, territorial legislation officially changed the name of the establishment from Catholepistemiad to the University of Michigan and established a board of trustees. Its goal was progressive for its time: offer primary, secondary and college level education to everyone, on one campus. But in reality, it primarily educated children in Detroit. Without any university-level students and a lack of resources due to its remote location on the American frontier at the time, it was difficult to sustain the founders’ lofty goals.

By the late 1820s, the university was no longer holding any classes, according to Gary Krenz, director of Post-Bicentennial Planning at Bentley Historical Library and lecturer at the University.

“The original University had no college students,” Krenz said. “It was conceived as a whole system of education… The goal was to have primary, secondary, and college but they never got the college off the ground in Detroit.”

Richard struggled to maintain the University alone and faced opposition to continuing instruction. William Woodbridge, who was Secretary of the Michigan Territory, told Richard the practical realities of teaching on the frontier were too many. The University was ridiculed by then-Michigan Governor Lewis Cass as “pedantic and uncouth.” When Woodward and Richard took on roles in state politics, there was nobody capable of maintaining the University anymore.

If Michigan had not been incorporated as a state with an education plan promoting a University when it did, the University would have likely ceased to exist. When Michigan finally became a state in 1837 — after settling a territorial dispute with Ohio over the city of Toledo —  the University moved to a small town called Ann Arbor.

New leaders emerged, such as Henry Tappan — the first president of the Ann Arbor campus — who helped establish its curriculum and envisioned its role as a research institution, as well as former University President James Angell, also a president of the University who envisioned it as a place of education for all.

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A painting by Robert Thom that depicts freemasonry's role in the founding of the University.

A painting by Robert Thom that depicts freemasonry's role in the founding of the University. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

When the University first became a success in Ann Arbor, the Detroit founding became a thing of the past, and eventually, something forgotten. The move laid the foundation for a new history to be established, one where Tappan’s and Angell’s new bravado overshadowed Richard’s and Woodward’s.

The original founders became irrelevant to the new endeavor and pursued other careers, and the re-founders didn’t acknowledge 1817 as the founding date. For them, the history began in 1837 and Detroit was only a distant memory.

Krenz said it wasn’t until the University relocated to Ann Arbor when it could finally achieve its vision of offering elaborate higher education for Michigan citizens.

“One of the reasons to do with the relative lack of recognition of these three people is that for a long time the University didn’t think of 1817 as its founding date,” Krenz said. “They thought of 1837 as its founding date and tracked its history from there. 1817 wasn’t seen as being a strong part of the University’s history.”

The University would gain a reputation as one of the best public universities in the country over the next eight decades before finally acknowledging its founding in Detroit. It carried on its progressive vision, offering, as President Angell said, “an uncommon education for the common man.” It wasn’t until the 1930s that the University would retroactively claim 1817 as its founding date. This change came due to pressure from alumni, who believed that even though the University in its present sense wasn’t established until 1837, its corporate identity was legally traceable to 1817.

“The regents were convinced, under pressure of alumni, to reexamine the founding date of the University and concluded it was in fact more accurate to include 1817,” Krenz said. “The sense of community that that’s when we started takes time to take hold. Right? Even now in the lead up to the Bicentennial (there are those) who actually do believe that that (changing the founding date to 1817) was a mistake because they think 1837 is the date when we really started as a college-level institution.”

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But if the University is going to claim 1817 as its original founding date and Detroit as its original home, a casual visitor would be hard pressed to believe it. Right now, only a more diligent eye on campus would find the few things honoring the legacy of our founders. For example, before construction fences and machinery claimed some of our campus this year, there was a presidential gallery, including the portraits of the three founders, in the Michigan Union.

“In one of the main floor hallways, there was a gallery of all the U-M presidents,” Krenz said. “But they also had the three founders maybe 10 or 12 years ago. I don’t know what their plans are for that gallery when the Union reopens.”

There is a state historical marker, recognizing the treaty with Native Americans that gave the University its land in Detroit, normally between the Kraus Building and the Chemistry Building. The treaty was signed between Native American leaders and the U.S. It allowed for the foundation of the University of native land in exchange that they provided education for native youth as well.

However, the benefits for the Native Americans were ultimately few, as none of their descendants attended the University until 130 years later despite the guarantees in the treaty. The plaque was installed in 2002 and honors the land gift, but it has been temporarily removed due to construction. And the Bentley Historical Library houses the Gabriel Richard Library, which contains many of the founder’s documents.

There is also a Robert Thom painting, which shows the three founders presenting a bill to be signed by the acting governor of the territory to establish the University, in the stairwell between the fifth and sixth floors of Palmer Commons as well as some historical signage in the Detroit Observatory Building. But other than this, there isn’t much else to show for our Detroit origin on campus today.

If the Detroit roots were left in Detroit, then that explains why our original founders aren’t recognized on campus. Despite his renowned career as a humanitarian and educator, figures like Richard just aren’t viewed as important to the University anymore. For a time, neither was the city.

Krenz said there were courses offered about the University’s original founding during the Bicentennial and there also used to be a history course about the University’s early history. Despite strong enrollments, none of these courses are offered anymore. Krenz, who planned University activities during the Bicentennial, is now tasked with planning many of the University’s activities post-Bicentennial. His task is complex, serious and aims to address many challenges.

Though Krenz believes students were engaged with the Bicentennial activities and took pride in celebrating a common heritage, he said it meant many different things to different people.

“(The Bicentennial) was an opportunity to reflect on how we got to where we are, including the origins in Detroit,” Krenz said. “One of the things that struck me about the origins in Detroit was... the vision that the founders and the re-founders laid out was a very progressive vision about what a university should be … This makes U-M, I wouldn’t say unique, but certainly distinctive in the history of American higher education.”

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The Detroit Catholepistemiad in 1825.

The Detroit Catholepistemiad in 1825. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

As a campus community, we should be proud of how we got to where we are now. Measuring our distinctiveness and progressive nature boils down to narratives. How do we as a community wish to remember our collective heritage? For some of us, myself included, the founding in Detroit carries more weight.

I grew up learning about the history and legacy of these figures and their impact on the region. Without this upbringing, I might not have known that these figures, along with Woodward and Woodbridge, founded the University I now attend.

Without knowing the history, 1817 is merely a symbol of prestige bestowed on students and alumni by the University. But the University must strive to do more for its commitment to Detroit in a way that isn’t superficial.

Krenz believes the University should embrace the full legacies of our founders. Krenz added how the University’s founding could fall into the narrative of the United States land grab against Native Americans, for example. But he thinks the University’s future actions could go a long way in telling a fair and inclusive narrative of our history.

“I think it’s a community building thing that has to do with establishing heritage,” Krenz said. “Personally, I would like to see more recognition of the University’s roots in Detroit and I think that lines up with the current interests of the institution strengthening its engagement with Detroit. And maybe that in some way would be the greatest recognition, as the University’s activities in Detroit expand, we could think of it as returning to our roots in some ways.”

The Detroit Center is the University’s center for engagement in Detroit today. It brings together students, teachers, local government leaders and residents of Detroit in order to “work alongside partners to learn and serve in ways that create mutual benefits,” according to the Detroit Center website.

In a letter, University President Mark Schlissel said Detroit is the University’s “birthplace,” where its purpose to “serve society” was created.

“The centuries since have brought changes to the university and the city, but the public ethos of the university and its link to Detroit remain,” Schlissel wrote.

The center is also home to Semester in Detroit, an example of the University turning back to its roots. The program’s mission is to develop students “through reciprocal relationships with the people, organizations, and neighborhoods of Detroit.” Students live downtown and work with local leaders to learn and develop the “wider region.”

These programs ask the question, though: Will there ever be an official campus in Detroit? Or will the regents one day decide to rename campus buildings honoring the founders, such as when they renamed buildings in the 1960s to honor University presidents? Will the University fulfill its promises to its roots?

Whatever the University’s interests in Detroit are today and in the future, it is increasingly falling upon it to do more for the city in which it was founded. In September 2018, the University announced some new initiatives in Detroit. One includes a partnership with Marygrove College to the system of education. It also bought the Horace H. Rackham Education Memorial Building in Detroit, which has been the center of projects and classes in the past.

University alum Michael Chrzan, a Detroit native who teaches high school math, told The Daily in September that programs such as these are valuable, if they are developed well with the community.

“I’m a fan of large institutions doing work like this if it’s done in conscious ways, where there’s clear thought given on the impact on the community,” Chrzan said.

James Holloway, vice provost of Global Engagement and Interdisciplinary Academic Affairs, said in the same article that faculty and students must approach opportunities in Detroit carefully.

“How do opportunities in Detroit align with our mission to develop generalizable knowledge and to educate a new generation?” Holloway asked. “How do we do that in partnership and in ways building capacity and realizing opportunities for the various communities of Detroit?”

Planning our history and the narrative it tells ultimately falls within the hands of our most important asset: students. Our history is indeed rich, and the University seemed to acknowledge that during the Bicentennial. But now it’s over and we are left only with sparse remnants and symbols of our founding across campus. If we want the University to do its due diligence honoring our legacy to its fullest extent — whatever that means — then it’s our job to tell them.