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New Signs Will Highlight African-American History In Ypsilanti

Feb 15, 2018

As part of our Black History Month coverage, we’re taking a closer look at a project in Ypsilanti, that once completed, will highlight African-American history in that area.


Four inches of snow completely cover the streets of Depot Town in Ypsilanti.  But underneath that blanket of snow is a story that will soon be unveiled to the public.

"We are standing at, pretty close to the intersection of the railroad and East Cross Street," says City of Ypsilanti Planner Bonnie Wessler.

That’s where I met her on a snowy and cold February morning.  She’s helping to launch the Black Ypsilanti Signage Project.  Between eight and 10 permanent signs will be installed around the city to showcase the local African-American history.

"This was chosen as the location for our Civil War sign mainly because noted abolitionist Sojourner Truth and others came to Ypsilanti in December of 1863 to encourage local black and African-American people to join the Civil War effort," says Wessler.

The exact location of where the sign will be placed is still being decided, but as we take a few steps closer to the train tracks, Wessler continues to explain why this area is important.    

"This building right here, just across the tracks where we are standing, its brick, you can see two chimneys, that’s the former Ypsilanti Train Depot.  So that’s where people boarded and de-boarded," says Wessler.

Local artist Jermaine Dickerson has joined us.  Standing in 10-degree weather, he recaps his goal for designing five of the signs for the project.  It includes the Civil War sign that depicts black soldiers fighting while a white soldier holds an American flag.  This, like the others, will measure 2 feet by 3 feet. Wessler holds up the rendering as Dickerson explains.

"Essentially, we wanted to figure out a way to tie in Pan-Africanism or Afro-Centric themes.  Starting with the colors, black and gold, while also creating text that was bold.  A logo that reflects the mission of the project, which is all about the inclusivity of Ypsilanti’s black culture, its black history," Dickerson says.

The low temperatures have created an empty feel to Depot Town today.  But William Griffin, who is shoveling snow across the street outside of Sidetrack Bar and Grill, breaks the silence.  I ask him what he thinks of the new signs that will go up in April.

"I think it’s great, we put up signs for everything else.  There’s a lot of history right here, that’s the old Civil War hospital right there," Griffin says.

Griffin refers to the Thompson Block Building near the train tracks. 

Destination Ann Arbor provided the City of Ypsilanti with a $10,000 grant for the project, but after realizing that more funds were needed to pay for historians and designers, Eastern Michigan University stepped in.  With the help of the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development, another $10,000 in grants were awarded. 

Decky Alexander is the Director of Academic Engagement Programs at Eastern. 

"Eastern believes in its responsibility to not just be a regional partner but a real local collaborative partner in projects large or small," says Alexander.

One sign is earmarked for the EMU campus near College Park and West Forest Avenue.  It will honor black student protests held on campus during the last fifty years, including a protest in 1969 when students staged a sit-in at Pierce Hall and later in 1970 when protests throughout campus lead to over 150 arrests over eight days. 

Rasheed Atwater is a historian for the Black Ypsilanti Signage Project and a student at Eastern.  He says the issues students have been fighting for have been the same for decades.

"Lack of seeing themselves on campus, lack of black faculty, lack of black studies, lack of black resources for funding for college," Atwater says.

The Parkridge affordable housing community, the South Adams neighborhood, and the First Ward Schoolhouse, which served as the first school to educate Ypsilanti’s black children in 1864, will also get signs.  Still standing near the train tracks in Depot Town, city planner Bonnie Wessler says you can’t speak about Ypsilanti’s history without including the African-American community.

"During slavery, we had quite a bit of people come up to Ypsilanti during slavery, we had another wave of African-Americans actually come down from Canada after the Civil War and after slavery was abolished.  We had the 1920’s, it was basically a white population boom, I think that coincided with Eastern Michigan expanding.  In the 1940’s, we had the population boom again, both black and white, people coming up from the south in order to work in the factories, also some post war expansion.  And in the 1970’s, with the introduction of the GI Bill we actually had a student expansion too," says Wessler.     

Designer Jermaine Dickerson says the signs will do more than educate the community on African-American history.  They will play a role in the current race climate that’s being felt in Washtenaw County and across the country. 

"It’s absolutely essential because we live in an era where a white supremacy, even though this has been prevalent for a long time, but white nationalism is trying to come up with a resurgence to sort of use the political platform with the administration that’s here right now, to gain more power.  And what we want to do is say no, we have our voice, we have our history, we are not going anywhere and despite your efforts to erase us, to silence us, we’re here to stay and we have a statement to make and we’re not going to back down," says Dickerson.

Some of the other sites that are being considered for signs include the Brown Chapel AME Church on South Adams Street and stops along the Underground Railroad.

Once the project is completed, those interested in visiting the different sites will be able to access a digital map for a tour.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu