February 3, 2009 - by Marvin Kusmierz
Updated: Nov. 25, 2009.
Bay City's Memorable Black History
African American History Month this year is being celebrated on the heals of a major historical mile stone, the election of President Barrack H. Obama, the first African American descendant to hold the country's highest office.
This seemed like an ideal time to reflect on the black pioneers who are a part of our local history. In preparing for this subject I soon realized that there isn't much written in old history books, and an intensive research effort would be required, which would couldn't been done if I wanted to publish this story now. Therefore, what I am presenting is limited to what was readily available.
Pioneers Against Slavery.
James G. Birney
Bay City's connection with black history began long before the first black settled here. It actually dates back to the city's earliest history when it was being established for a settlement by the Saginaw Bay Company known as Lower Saginaw in 1838. In 1842 James G. Birney, a nationally prominent abolitionist, move to this wilderness community from the comforts of good life living afforded him in New York. It is with him that Bay City's black history begins.
While living in the deprivations of a wilderness settlement, Birney remained an active leader in anti-slavery movement. Two years prior to his move here was the presidential candidate of the Liberty Party in the election of 1840. He was chosen again by them to run in 1844, while residing here, establishing unique link to Bay City's connection in the anti-slavery movement.
Bay City remained Birney's home until about 1853, when his failing health, due to a fall from his horse some years early, forced him to move back east where he could receive better treatment. Local historian, Dave Rogers, has found some interesting information showing Birney teamed up with his long-time friend, Gerrit Smith, in erecting a house in 1852, on the corner of Tenth and Adams Streets. As neither lived in the dwelling, this, we believe was intended as a way station of the underground railroad for temporarily boarding slaves to be transferred to Canada.
Decades latter, around the Civil War period, the home of Calvin C. C. Chillson (aka Chilson) at 300 Midland was also used to a temporary quarters for slaves. Members of the Chillson family were devoted Christians, who readily shared their wealth and time in helping the unfortunate.
Early Black Pioneers.
The Jones Family.
John Jones and his family appears to be the first blacks to take up permanent residence here some time around 1859. They settled on a farm in Hampton township, which in today's reference would be on acreage off the south east corner of Hampton and Jones road. This family enjoyed much success with their farm, and were very prominent of the township, to the extent of having Jones road and the first school house in the township named after them. The school house was located near their farm on the north west corner of Hampton and Jones Roads.
-- Local history enthusiast, Phil Draper, has spent the past two years researching this family, which he has shared on Bay-Journal. (See links at bottom of page.)
The Baker family.
The most documented black family are Bakers. James H. Baker came to Bay City in 1856, after serving with First Michigan Infantry during the Civil War. There were only six blacks living here when he arrived according to Les Arndt's , The Bay County Story – Footpaths to Freeways. Who they were is unknown at this time.
More information from Arndt's book, has James starting out as a barber, and later with the police department, and eventually own his own restaurant business. James and his wife, Mary Edwoods, had their residence on Van Buren Street, between 10th and 11th Streets.
Their eldest son, Oscar W., was the first black attorney in Bay City. He was a graduate of the University of Michigan, and married Mary Ida Harrison, of Ohio. Oscar had his own law practice in the Shearer building, and earned respect as an excellent attorney. His son, also named Oscar, followed in his foot steps, graduating from same university in 1935, and afterwards established a law office here. In 1951, his brother James repeated the process. Their sister, Elaine, was a talented singer, she ended living in Germany and performed at concerts throughout Europe.
Oscar W. Baker in Shearer Bldg. office.
The senior Ocar was also will known attorney around the state. In 1915 he was chosen to lead the Freedmen's Project Commission for the Lincoln Jubilee being celebrated in Chicago that year. A book on the this subject provides a wealth of names with the community they lived in, and many showing pictures of their homes. The follow are names I found listed as associated with Bay City:
Listed alphabetically by last name.
ALVORD, Henry H.; BAKER, James H.; BAKER, Mary F.; BAKER, Oscar W.; BASS, Fountain; CROSS, William; EDWARD, Cornelius; FARIFAX, Daniel; HARRISON, Charles; HENDRICKS, P. J.; HILL, W. H. (pastor); JACKSON, John B.; JACKSON, J.J.; JONES, John; KERSEY, John; MERRITT, John; MERRITT, John Early; MILLER, John; MILLER, William; PARKS, Taylor; POWELL, William; POWELL, William A.; POWELL, William J.; POWELL, William J. Mrs.; POWELL, Mary J; RICHARDSON, J. J.; RICHARDSON, Morris; ROMAN, Charles; ROMAN, James F.; SOOE, Joseph; STARKS, William; WADE, Mrs Wallace; WAGNER, Henry; WALKER, George C.; WALLACE, Mary Mrs.; WASHINGTON, Foster; WHITE, Charles T.
Progression of Time.
During my childhood years, my mother I lived la gypsy style of life, moving frequently from one apartment to another around Bay City. One was located in the city's First Ward, which in political terms was known as the ghetto area for blacks. I would still in grade school at the time and had the opportunity to develop many black friendships in school. I have very positive memories from that time. I was welcomed into the homes of my friends, invited to picnics, join in sing-a-long with them as they practice for choir, and even invited to attend their church, which I did on several occasions.
Back then, Tarzan and cowboys were popular idols, and we often emulated the role of these heroes when playing in vacant lots. We'd find a long rope which we would tie to an overhanging limb of a tree, then begin swinging as we yelled as loud as we could our Tarzan like scream. The lots were too small to play a scrub game of football or baseball, so we just found a street without too many parked cars, and played without too much concern about being ran over.
Mom and I were on the move again within a couple of year taking up residence in an apartment on Van Buren Street, which was not too far from the old YMCA on Washington Avenue. I would able to renew my friendship with these friends most every Saturday morning at YMCA, where we enjoyed a hotly contested game of spot ball in the small gymnasium, then afterwards cooled off in the basement swimming pool. Then we left the Y and head across the street to the Rocky theater were we spend the better part of the afternoon watch our idles on the big screen.
Growing up I never understood the terrible struggle that blacks had to deal with. Discrimination is beyond the conceptual mind of at most kids, they have to be educated by someone to understand, or participate in. It wasn't until after I graduated from high school, and had to survive in the adult world that I came to realize how rampant discrimination was. I recall vividly watching in disbelief the hatred of many whites was shockenly expose in the nightly TV news during the 1960s. My youthful idealist view of the world suddenly disappeared. However, much progress has been made in the past four decades, and nothing is more important evidence of this than President Barrack H. Obama.
More detailed references on local black history available on Bay Journal:
Some additional resources on other website are: