“Our Assumed Literary Apathy”

William Wells Brown was unique among Black Abolitionists.  That he was of mixed blood, tracing his maternal grandfather to a famous name (Daniel Boone), was not too unusual for his time. He was also an escaped slave, which was also not that unusual for many Black Abolitionists.  But unlike many who devoted their lives to fighting this unjust institution, he was a self-educated writer, lecturer, and historian who became the first African American to publish a novel.

In 1863, William Wells Brown published his book,  The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius and His Achievements (now available online).  His own history is described in the first few pages under the heading, MEMOIR OF THE AUTHOR, and a portion of that is included here. The book itself was evidently received with mixed reviews.

        “I WAS born at Lexington, Kentucky. My father, as I was informed, was a member of the Wickliffe family; my mother was of mixed blood; her father, it was said, was the noted Daniel Boone, and her mother a negress. My early life on the plantation was such as generally falls to the lot of the young slave, till I arrived at the age of nine years, when my position was changed. My master’s brother lost his wife, she leaving an infant son a few months old, whom my mistress took to bring up. When this boy became old enough to need a playmate to watch over him, mistress called the young slaves together, to select one for the purpose. We were all ordered to run, jump, wrestle, turn somersets, walk on our hands, and go through the various gymnastic exercises that the imagination of our brain could invent, or the strength and activity of our limbs could endure. The selection was to be an important one, both to the mistress and the slave. Whoever should gain the place was in the future to become a house servant; the ask-cake thrown aside, that unmentionable garment that buttons around the neck, which we all wore, and nothing else, was to give way to the whole suit of tow linen.”

These things alone are remarkable. And knowing that anyone with access to the Internet now has easy access to this material is amazing considering the tumultuous years that followed the publication of Brown’s work.

But what isn’t known by many about the early response to this book is also available in the Black Abolitionist archive, and it sits quietly waiting to be discovered.  Written during the final years before the Emancipation Proclamation, the hope for a brighter future is felt even in these defensive words.

pacific_appeal_oct10-1863-2Pacific Appeal, October 10, 1863

 

The Age of Inquiry

In March, 1827, Freedom’s Journal, the first black-owned and operated newspaper was established with the goal of reaching the free black population in the northeastern part of the U.S.  A speech (delivered in July, 1830) by one of its founders, Peter Williams, is among some of the earliest speeches held in the Black Abolitionist archive.

Soon, other black-owned newspapers followed.  Among these was Frederick Douglass’ Paper (which had evolved from his previous newspapers), and among the editors of this paper was teacher, writer, and Black Abolitionist, William J. Watkins.

One of the things that makes the Black Abolitionist archive unique is the collection of editorials and speeches by writers who may not be as well known as men like Frederick Douglass.  William Watkins is one of them.  Although he wasn’t born into slavery, he identified strongly with the plight of those who were. He lived during one of the bleakest periods in American history, and, through sheer determination and a powerful intellect, he became a compelling voice for justice that guided an entire race of people through that horrible time.

“The Age We Live In” (included here) is a great example of Watkins’ work.  In it, he describes his generation as the “age of inquiry and investigation.”  He saw among his people a renewed interest in education, research, and betterment. He viewed his time as a “revolution” of progress and enlightenment; and so it was in many ways.

William J. Watkins lived between around 1803 to around 1858.  When historians speak of these years, they tend to focus on the horrors of slavery and the way the country’s economy grew on the backs of the enslaved portion of its population.  But behind the scenes progress was taking place, encouraged and inspired by writers, editors, and journalists working with the power of the written word for the cause of liberation for all.  These were the heroes of this time.  These were the men and women who fought tirelessly for the cause of freedom.  Among these, William J. Watkins stands out as one of the most eloquent and outspoken.  His name has slipped into the cover of history.  This current “age we live in,” however, may be the perfect the time to re-introducing him to the world.

Commencement

One of the highlights of any student’s experience at graduation is the celebration that marks the completion of all their hard work.  The pomp and circumstance of the event marks a formal recognition of accomplishment, and an end to all the worry, effort, and lost sleep they went through in order to realize this one goal. When the moment arrives to walk across the stage to receive that valued diploma, it’s as if they are walking across the finish line of a marathon they began in Grade School.  It’s done, completed, over, and Commencement testifies to that.

Commencement, however, can also be defined as the start of something, and not just the conclusion.  In fact, when it was first coined, the word “Commencement” was only used as indication of a beginning.  It wasn’t until the 1850s that the usage altered.  (dictionary.com)

With that well-earned degree in hand, each graduate walks out of the ceremony and into the future to put it into use.  (A new car begins to devalue the minute it is driven off the lot.  A degree will never lose its value.  This alone makes it a good investment in a bright future.)

The Introduction to our Digital Commencement Collection, explains the event in this way:
“A commencement exercise begins with a procession of the students, faculty, and administrators in academic regalia. The procession is most often led by the macebearer carrying the mace which symbolizes the authority granted by the Board of Trustees to the President of the University. A Grand Marshal (usually a professor) who presides over the ceremony follows the macebearer.
During the commencement ceremony, the deans present the degree candidates to the president of the university indicating the candidates have fulfilled the requirement for specific degrees. A very solemn moment of the commencement ceremony is when the president confers upon the candidates the degrees for which they were recommended and announces the graduates are forever alumni of the institution.”

Did you know that our Digital Commencement Collection contains digitized booklets from 1887, to the present?  You’ll find booklets from Commencements held for the Law School, the School of Dentistry, and Mercy College, as well as the University of Detroit (and later the University of Detroit Mercy). You can search through these to discover interesting bits of information such as the names of the university presidents over time, grand marshals, honorary degree recipients, speakers, etc.  Using the search options, you can also find out how many Commencements were held at the various locations such as the Memorial Building, Orchestra Hall, Calihan Hall, etc.  Even the degree titles offer a way of pinning down when certain degree programs were added or discontinued.

We invite you to spend some time with our Digital Commencement Collection to discover a bit of history, and rediscover a few memories was well.  Spring is the perfect time of year for this.  Commencement is just around the corner.
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Items of College History 1898

One of the best resources for information about the history of this university lies in the yellowing pages of the Tamarack.  Through the words of the students then, it’s easy for readers to put themselves into that year and that space, and feel the slow pace of that time.  The academic atmosphere of those hallowed university halls comes into sharper focus as visitors to the Tamarack archive linger with each issue.

Within most of the Tamarack publications is a section called, Items of College History.  It might be surprising to come across a column like this in the first few issues since, in 2015, the year 1898 is already historical.  To the writers then, however, “history” began with the first month of the term, and the “items” were the events of note that occurred from then until the end of the semester. This offers readers a “snapshot” of this period in diary form.

In 1898, we can pick up events from the previous issue and learn that the semester began on September 3rd that year.  The author gives us statistical information regarding enrollments, and a nice breakdown of their discipline preferences.

Commencement was held on June 25th that year at the Whitney Opera House.  Like the year before, seven graduates received their degrees before a “large audience.”

Shown here is page one of this section of the April, 1898, Tamarack.  The following two pages tell readers that Father M. P. Dowling, S. J. became a member of the faculty that year, beginning his teaching career as a professor of Humanities with the fall semester.  It goes on to describe the “Lake St. Claire region” before “…the advent of the electrician and the bicycle.”

We also learn about the death of Father John Baptist Miege, founding father of Detroit College.  The Tamarack notes that word of Father Miege’s death came during this year (1898) and that his death was a direct result of a “burn” he received.  Several sites throughout the Internet give conflicting information about this, and even Wikipedia says he died in 1883 of “paralysis.”

Want to learn more about this?  Why not visit the Tamarack archive?  Whether you are searching for poetry, prose, or history, some of the best places to find interesting reading are among the digitized volumes of the University of Detroit’s Tamarack.

The Assassination

Wikipedia tells the history of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in dry, textbook form.  Through accounts reported at the time, we learn that on Good Friday (April 14) 1865, John Wilkes Booth put a bullet into the head of Abraham Lincoln, while the president watched a play at Ford’s Theater.  The assassin then made his dramatic escape, and died at the hands of Union soldiers while hiding at a farm in Virginia.  We know the story.  This, along with other major historical events, is part of our education.  We’ve been eased into it since childhood through basic information, animated depictions, and colorful sketches. And while Wikipedia gives us a few more details than we may have had previously, all of it seems distant and impersonal.  We place ourselves as viewers of paintings and drawings of this terrible scene a few feet from the president’s back as the pistol at the end of John Wilkes Booth’s arm discharges.

The April 22, 1865, issue of the Black Republican newspaper offers us a different perspective. Through the eyes of the black population during this time, we are offered a closer witness to this crime from the public side of those who were there, those who lived through that time.  Through reading the account of this tragedy in the columns of the Black Republican newspaper, we’re able to learn the impact on a different segment of society during those turbulent days.  Through these words, we feel the freshness of the wound, the stinging clarity of awareness of something that was never supposed to happen.  We are able to put ourselves in that place, feel the trust and innocence of that age, and relate to the same shock that so many in this (current) generation felt while watching the planes enter the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.  History makes its impression when viewed not as a link to an event in the past, but as a type of conversation between what was and what is now.  Accounts such as this one offer that conversation a voice, one that forms a unique connection between that time and this.

In this eloquent account, the writer blames the mindset that resorts to this type of violence to solve problems on “… slavery, that for two hundred years has educated whole generations in cruelty and the spirit of murder … “  When we think about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln again, we have the opportunity to understand it in a new way.

Want to read more?  Visit the Black Abolitionist Archive on our Digital Special Collections section.

 

Goodbye Winter!

Goodbye winter!  Sorry you have to rush off.  Don’t let that remaining bit of snow bank stop you on your way out; it’s not going to be there for long.

One hundred years ago students at the University of Detroit were happy to see old winter’s exit too.  It’s likely that spring was welcomed then with the same enthusiasm as it is these days … maybe even more.  In April 1915, winter’s insistently bitter-cold grip wasn’t held at bay by fleece and Gortex as it is today.  The world wouldn’t know the “puffer jackets” or any of the lightweight waterproof clothing we take for granted these days for years.  Scratchy wool and fur were then the best protection from the cold for the average student, and heating the hallways and classrooms of the University of Detroit was challenging at best.

And what could one do anyway during the harsh winter months just before the spring of 1915, when the days were mostly filled with just trying to stay warm?  Ice skating on Belle Isle was one option, negotiating the mostly ice and snow covered sidewalks was another, and then there was driving … if that was even possible.  (If the cars back then didn’t fail you in winter, the roads would.)

Spring meant freedom, new life, just being comfortable outside again.  And this sense of renewed freedom was just as exciting then as it is now this time of year.  It’s enough to bring out the poetry in any student!  And for students at U of D, it did just that!

The Tamarack shares its dusty pages with many stories, anecdotes, observations, and humor.  Within its issues you’ll also find poetry, like the one below, inspired by the first few days of Spring.

So, good bye, winter!  Hello, spring!  Make yourself comfortable!  We’re all looking forward to spending a lot of time with you.

The Poetic Express Turns 30!

April marks the 30th anniversary of The Poetic Express, Maurice Greenia, Jr.’s publication offered free of charge to one and all.  It was 30 years ago that Maurice began working at Crowley’s Department store and decided to offer his unique perspective to the people of Detroit.  The first volume (available in 1985 and 1986) was the result.

Each issue of The Poetic Express combines drawings, poetry, and Maurice’s (aka Maugre’s) unique take on an ever changing and sometimes confusing world.  You can find these one of a kind creations in digital format in the Maurice Greenia, Jr.’s archive.

Maurice sums up the 30 year history of The Poetic Express this way:

“In 1976, I started to type up my writing and poetry, make copies and pass them around.  By April 1985, I’d decided to put out a monthly publication called, The Poetic Express.  Thirty years later, it’s still going strong.  I’ve never missed a month.  I usually put out two pages, one of which includes my comic strip Surreal Theatre.”  For a long time, I did a yearly “Emotional Digest” feature, with poems on emotions.

Usually in December, I do a “Dedications Issues,” with poems dedicated to some of my favorite people, both past and present.  These are mainly my “art heroes.” I’ve mailed out hundreds of pages by postal mail.  This has slowed down some, but I want to get back to it.  If anyone gets a stamped self-addressed envelope to me, I’ll mail them a sample issue.

Over the years, I’ve passed The Poetic Express out to people I run into.  This usually happens at events such as movies, concerts, art openings.  People who know me come up and request an issue or two.  People have told me that they appreciate, even treasure these.  The Poetic Express seems to have encouraged some sort of “underground cult following.” A few people have even told me that my poetry in these issues helped them through some bad times.

I’ve done various events and exhibitions for the other major Poetic Express anniversaries: 10 years, 20 years and 25 years.  My parents are fans, and my dad likes to read the new issues out loud to my mom.  Occasionally fans have given me detailed responses to specific poems, either orally or in writing.

I like The Poetic Express because it lights a fire under me to write poetry every month.”

(Find more information on Maurice’s blog site.)

The first page of the most recent volume of The Poetic Express is shown here.  But don’t stop at the first page!  The entire issue is a magical journey through art in a poetic way.  This is a trip you won’t want to miss!

The 1965 Campus

There are two great aerial photos of the campus in the beginning pages of the 1965 Tower Yearbook.  All the changes that have taken place on campus and the surrounding neighborhood since this time are easy to see from this vantage point.

Some readers might recognize the Dinan stadium in the first image.  What was once referred to as a stately “mission on the plains” when it was first built in 1923, came to a sad and deserted end just months before this photograph was taken.  And while it had graced the McNichols campus for almost 50 years, it was unceremoniously bulldozed in 1971 to make way for more parking and the Titan Track and Field area we enjoy now.

And speaking of parking, it’s interesting to see the creative solutions to the growing parking problem students encountered when this first photograph was taken. Back then, cars could drive through campus on a couple of small connecting streets.  Parking was at a premium and available spaces were scattered around the campus (as this photo shows).  In those days, finding a place to park was basically a matter of luck.  This was becoming a major problem and the razing of the stadium helped.

This photo also shows an empty section of the campus across from the Engineering building and clock tower that would one day hold the student center and ballroom.  The older buildings pictured here offer indicators to help imagine the newer ones.  It’s interesting too to realize how many of the surrounding homes would be completely gone in the fifty years that followed.

For one brief moment, the shutter on someone’s airborne camera, captured a slice of 1965 campus life. It’s unlikely that this lone photographer could have had any idea how important to campus history his (or her) photograph would become.

Want more?  Visit the Tower Yearbook digital collection and discover the treasures of the past waiting for you there.

The Digital Archive

Digital archives are a valuable resource.  Once online, digitized items are more accessible to researchers than non-digitized materials. Digitizing makes documents and images available to users from any computer with an Internet connection.  This helps reduce or eliminate the need to travel and/or spend time pouring through hard copy originals.

And making digitized materials available online helps reduce handling and potential damage to valuable and sometimes fragile original items, which helps protect their longevity and historical value.

So, what does it take to make a digital archive?  It’s not just a collection of scanned images.  There’s a lot of time, space, thought, and organization that goes into creating and maintaining an archived digital collection.  Mostly, though, it takes dedication and a desire to preserve the value of the transitory things in this world.  Paper doesn’t survive long; photographs dim and disappear over the years.  Even objects like clothing, medals, and trophies have a “shelf life” if left sitting on a shelf or closed inside boxes.  Things break down over time.  What lasts a lifetime is the value we hold for these items, these links to the past, and preserving an image of these items is one sharable way of reconnecting with what has gone before.

These days a lot of historians are realizing that one of the best ways to preserve the ideas, documentation, and treasures of the past is through digitization.  And while even those images won’t last forever, UDM is focused on preserving what we can of our past for the benefit of our future.  We scan the photograph or document, we title the resulting image to indicate the date and original location (whether it’s a catalog or speech, a yearbook or commencement book), and then add the finished product to a database location maintained within the library.  We then make a link to this finished product available on the Digital Special Collections pages of the library’s web site.  (The hard copy originals are returned to either our archive room within the library or to their owners.)

UDM’s Libraries and Instructional Design Studio is committed to preserving knowledge and learning, and part of this involves preserving the knowledge of the past through digital capture and storage.  And we offer access to this to you, our students and readers everywhere, in an effort to share how we got from then to now.  We learn from the past by repeating our successes and avoiding repeating our failures.  There is value in this and UDM is there to work to maintain that value by incorporating scanning and archiving technology.

 

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