While the major civil rights struggles in the American South in the 1950s and ’60s were hundreds of miles away, segregation and racism still affected African Americans of Southwest Michigan. Here are a few of their stories:
former executive director of the Douglass Community Association, retired executive director of community relations for the Borgess Health Alliance and former Kalamazoo city commissioner
“My mother often said, ‘None of my sons will ever set foot in Mississippi.’ She had seen black men lynched there,” explains Walker, who obeyed — until he joined the U.S. Army in 1961. “We traveled in a large convoy from Kansas to South Carolina. When we stopped at public restaurants, the black soldiers weren’t allowed to go in, so some white soldiers brought food out to us.”
Walker applied for Officer Candidate School, passing qualifying exams with more than adequate scores, but was denied entrance. “There was a lot of overt racism and discrimination from the top down,” says Walker, who received only one promotion, to private first class, in more than two years of service. Returning to Kalamazoo, he continued his education and became a respected community leader.
Dr. Martha Warfield
vice president for diversity and inclusion at Western Michigan University
As a student in Dowagiac, War-field wasamong five black musicians in the high school band when it mar-ched at the 1955 Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Florida. Upon arrival, the black students were told they could not stay in the band’s designated hotel because it was owned by the segregated Dade County School District and used as a training facility for students in hotel management.
Black chaperones, including Martha’s parents, threatened to take the black musicians back to Michigan but didn’t because all five, including the lead drummer, were first-chair players. The local NAACP chapter arranged for the black musicians to stay in an integrated hotel in Miami Beach, where the Count Basie Band was performing. When the professionals learned of the students’ situation, they invited them to sit in on stage with the band.
Interestingly, when the entire Dowagiac band was together, the white students dutifully pointed out which bathrooms and drinking fountains the black students were to use. “They so easily fell into the ways of segregation even though we shared the same bathrooms and drinking fountains at home,” Warfield says.
Dr. Ben Wilson
professor emeritus and director of Africana Studies at Western Michigan University, author of African American heritage books and producer of educational programs on Michigan’s Black Experience
Born and raised in Florida, Wilson, in 1963, was among the first African Americans to desegregate Ft. Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas High School football and basketball teams. He was the first black person to play in a particular district basketball tournament in Arcadia, Florida.
On the court, Wilson was taunted by white spectators, including adults. “They began to catcall, ‘I thought Malcolm X was dead,’ (referring to the recent assassination of the black civil rights activist) and other nasty racial comments,” he says. Wilson’s participation in the tournament was so significant that it was featured in a local newspaper.
Dr. Lewis Walker
professor emeritus and chair of the Sociology Department at Western Michigan University and founder of WMU’s Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations
In 1966, Lewis Walker and three WMU faculty members flew to Jackson, Mississippi, to join the March Against Fear, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Seeking to connect with the rest of the marchers, the four stopped their rental car on a rural road and asked directions from two elderly black men. One looked at them and said, “Two black men, a white man and a white woman. You’re going to get yourselves killed.”
The four found the marchers gathered in a large tent for an evening meeting. They had to pass through numerous police officers armed with shotguns and rifles to enter the tent. After a while, tear gas forced everyone outside. The four ran for their car. A white reporter from New York City, afraid for his life, jumped in with them and refused to get out. The five then drove to a hotel very carefully because they could have been stopped and arrested for having too many people in the car.
Dr. Von Washington Sr.
founder of Washington Productions Inc.
Von Washington was in the Air Force in Montana in 1963 when the car he was driving was forced off the road by a carload of white thugs, apparently because the soldiers in Washington’s car were both black and white. A fight ensued, and Washington was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and intent to do bodily harm. Through the intervention of a white major, the charges were dropped and Washington was reinstated into his military job.
Desiring “to prove I was an American and deserved to be part of this society,” Washington volunteered for Vietnam. Later, as a playwright and thespian, he dedicated himself to educating others about the contributions of African Americans and about black historical and literary figures such as Shakespeare’s Othello. “The most important thing for every child is to have a knowledge of themselves,” Washington says.
coordinator of marketing and outreach for the Society for History and Racial Equity (SHARE)
Jacob Johnson’s grandfather, Mabry Johnson, was a member of the NAACP in Kalamazoo in the early 1960s, and his father, David, was part of the NAACP Youth Council. In 1963, the national NAACP suggested that youths attempt to get jobs in stores that had traditionally not hired blacks. David Johnson, Walter Jones II and Lois James went to Van Avery Drugstore, at 702 N. Burdick St. Even though blacks were the store’s primary patrons, owner Donald Van Avery had never hired a black employee.
The youths were denied an application, so the local NAACP chapter decided to boycott the store. Picketers included clergy, women, Eastern Star Masons in uniform and others. The boycott lasted several months. Van Avery sold the store in 1964, and it closed a few years later.
David Johnson and Walter Jones also served in Vietnam and represented what Jacob Johnson notes “is the great American contradiction of young black men not being able to get jobs in their own community but being sent into war against other brown people.”