U-M professor breaks down Detroit's racist history in 'New York Times' op-ed


In recent weeks, a cast of metro Detroiters have begun to call into question offensive names of local restaurants and convention centers. Some have gone so far as to demand the city remove a bust of Christopher Columbus.

But in a New York Times op-ed published today, University of Michigan professor of American culture and history Tiya Miles breaks down the very real, very racist history of Detroit — and it runs deep.

Miles, who is the author of the soon-to-be-published The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits, uses the piece to skim the surface of the racist undertones of some of the area's well-known names.

Names like Macomb, Campau, Beaubien, McDougall, Abbott, Brush, Cass, Hamtramck, Gouin, Meldrum, Dequindre, Beaufait, Groesbeck, Livernois, Rivard, and Belle Isle all have a hum of intolerance, although some more than others.

In the piece, Miles specifically elucidates the Macomb name, which comes from Scots-Irish brothers William and Alexander Macomb. The brothers illegally took control of the downriver island city of Grosse Isle, which was once inhabited by the indigenous Potawatomi people, and for a time also held Belle Isle. They used these islands, among others, as a place to hold their slaves — at least 26 black men, women, and children — around the time of the Revolutionary War.

The Macomb brothers were among the largest slave holders in Detroit in the 1700s, according to Miles, and when Williams Macomb died, his wife Sarah and their sons inherited his money and slaves. They later became trustees during the founding of the University of Michigan.

"The embedded racism of our streetscapes and landscapes is made perhaps more dangerous because we cannot see it upon a first glance," Miles writes. "In Detroit and across the country, slaveholder names plastered about commemorate a social order in which elite white people exerted inexorable power over black and indigenous bodies and lives. Places named after slaveholders who sold people, raped people, chained people, beat people and orchestrated sexual pairings to further their financial ends slip off our tongues without pause or forethought."

Detroit, a city with over 80 percent black residents, still feels the aftershocks of systemic racism and white supremacy. In a Detroit Future City report released in August, the organization found the unemployment rate is 150 percent higher for African-American residents and a third of residents live off less than $15,000 per year.

And despite the fact that the Supreme Court deemed segregation illegal in 1954, the metro Detroit area remains highly segregated.

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