Sunday, February 28, 2016

Ypsilanti History: The Desegregation of Ypsilanti Schools

While it's still Black History Month I thought I would feature this interesting blog (and history of Ypsilanti schools) that I recently stumbled upon.

The information here comes from a blog about South Adams Street at the turn of the twentieth century. As the blog notes, "South Adams Street @ 1900 was created by Matthew Siegfried as a Masters project of Eastern Michigan University's Historic Preservation Program. Readers are encouraged to write with any questions or additions. Walking tours and presentations are available.
A special shout-out goes to the Ypsilanti Historical Society Archives, which provided a lot of the information Matthew Siegfried used. They welcome visitors, and I've done some research in them (particularly around Begole School). The archives have lots of great information. Find out more about them here
Today's topic is the First Ward School, and the full web site about it can be found here. [The author of the web site, Matthew Siegfried, has written about a lot more than just the First Ward School.]

The old First Ward School, on Adams Street, was built during the Civil War specifically for the purpose of educating black children. 

On September 10, 1897, the Ann Arbor Argus reported that "Ypsilanti has 1778 children of school age of which 155 are colored, a gain of three colored children and 10 white over last year."

Recorder, August 1916.
Photo by Matthew Siegfried.
Used under a Creative
Commons license.
As Siegfried characterizes it, "What began as a statement of support for black residents during the Civil War" became a symbol of segregation by the early 1900s, exclusively educating black students through sixth grade.

The school was not in good condition and things came to a head in 1916, when the black residents of Ypsilanti petitioned the prosecuting attorney, as taxpayers, for better schools. They objected to paying for the new Ypsilanti high school when their school was in such poor condition. 

The petition began:
We, the undersigned colored citizens of the city of Ypsilanti, residing in the First ward of said city, hereby petition you as an officer of the county to investigate the action of the school board of the city of Ypsilanti. We are paying a large tax for the building of a new school house. It is used for white to the exclusion of colored children. Our school, a ward school in the First ward, has no connection with the sewer, it is unsanitary and not healthful, but we are compelled, because we are colored and the board of education is white, to put up with whatever they hand us.
The school house is not sufficient or satisfactory. Do we get new? No, simply get an old discarded and poor building moved from another part of the city and placed out in the dusty street, or nearly so. It is within five feet of the street line, and thus cuts off our view down the street. Part of the time we have had undesirable teachers, part of that time poorly qualified, but we have to take it. 

Notes Siegfried, 

A bond was proposed by the [sic--but I think it was proposed by the school board and] voted down, with support of the black community, that would have rehabilitated the school while increasing the grades taught, effectively expanding segregation under the guise of aiding the school. The community was adamant; it wanted an end to segregation... Detroit attorney and NAACP leader Charles Mahoney, who later worked on the Ossian Sweet Case, led the legal challenge. The bond initiative was also opposed at the ballot box and defeated. The case was won in Judge Sample’s Circuit Court and Ypsilanti schools were formally desegregated in May, 1919. The First Ward school closed that year. 

The 1919 American School Board Journal explained things like this: 

The important question, in the court’s judgment, was whether the school was being conducted by the board for the children of negro parents of the ward In such a way as to compel the children, because they are colored, to attend the school, and at the same time to permit white children of the district to attend outside schools.The court maintained that the maintenance of the school was an act of discrimination against the colored children and that in view of the provisions of the Michigan law, it was a violation of the common law of the state and of the statutes of the state. The court cited a number of important decisions from Supreme Court cases to support its contention that all residents of a state have an equal right to attend any school and that they may not be discriminated against because of race or color.
The building is now the New Jerusalem Church.

Here are some more newspaper articles from the South Adams Street 1900 web site. 

Three additional notes:

1. Nearly one hundred years later, Ypsilanti Community Schools is a majority African-American district. Four years ago, I wrote: "It is important to remember that school segregation--though banished by law--still exists in many many schools around the nation." I wouldn't exactly call YCS a segregated district, but there are plenty of people who live in the district who send their children to schools--public, charter, or private--in other districts--and many of those families are white.

2. The First Ward School was referred to as the Adams Street School. This is not to be confused with the current Adams Elementary--which was originally named Prospect School. It was renamed in 1963 after Olive M. Adams, who was retiring from the school after being principal there for 29 years.

3. I knew about efforts to desegregate the Ann Arbor schools--in fact I've written extensively about them--but I never heard of this really significant (and successful!) lawsuit in Ypsilanti.

[And that, by the way, is in my opinion a signature of Ypsilanti--there's lots of super-interesting history, stores, museums, and parks in Ypsi--and unless you look closely, you might miss them.] For instance, do you know where this statue of  Harriet Tubman can be found? 
Sculpture by Jane DeDecker,
photograph by Dwight Burdette
[CC BY 3.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Consider subscribing to Ann Arbor Schools Musings by Email o

No comments:

Post a Comment