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Former Black Bottom resident, historians talk legacy of 'Detroit's forgotten neighborhood'

Posted at 5:45 AM, Feb 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-25 07:03:15-05

(WXYZ) — It's described by some historians as one of Detroit's "forgotten neighborhoods," a victim of post-war urban renewal.

But for people like Jacqueline Thomas, it was her childhood home, her community.

“It was seven of us, I’m the youngest of seven," the former Black Bottom resident told 7 Action News. “I didn’t feel poor you know. I didn’t feel poor at all. I look back at some pictures and I realize how much we didn’t have.”

Thomas lived on Jay Street while in Black Bottom, a neighborhood that was a residential hub of Detroit's Black community between the 1920s and 1950s. It was bounded by Gratiot to the North, Brush to the West, St. Aubin to the East, and Congress to the South, although historians still debate exact borders.

“We knew everybody, we helped. If someone was in need, we were there," Thomas, who now lives in Virginia, told Action News.

Many notable figures hailed from Black Bottom, including Charles Diggs Jr., the first Black member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Michigan, and actress Della Reese to name just a couple.

Both Black Bottom and its adjacent north-bordering business district called Paradise Valley were razed under the guise of urban renewal, or so-called slum clearance.

“What you’ll see now are the I-75 Freeway, the 375 Freeway. Those actually ran right through the neighborhoods that were Paradise Valley/Black Bottom," explained Jonathan Jones, Museum Educator with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, which has an exhibit dedicated to the history of Black Bottom.

“By the time the freeway was being under construction Black Bottom was essentially gone," Detroit Historian Ken Coleman told Action News. The Chrysler Freeway broke ground in 1959.

Coleman noted the City of Detroit began condemning parts of Black Bottom in the late 1940s, in favor of new development in what we now call Lafayette Park.

This was at a time when Black people often struggled to find affordable housing and fairly-priced lending options for those seeking homeownership.

The demolition of Black Bottom came with the promise of "progress."

“Blacks uniformly understood what it meant. It was taking Black poor people and moving them someplace else so middle-class folks, largely white, mainly white, could live just outside of downtown Detroit," Coleman said.

Thomas and her family left Black Bottom before it was demolished. Other families moved to nearby public housing projects or left the city.

“I believe they tore down some history that’s in me that was greater than they portray it to be," Thomas said.

To know where Black Bottom began, we go back further in history.

“The name itself comes from the color of the soil. The fertile soil on the lower east side of Detroit," Coleman explained. "The French settlers when they came here in the 1700s actually began to use the term.”

Fast forward to the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when an influx of African Americans moved North to seek jobs and opportunities not afforded to them in the Jim Crow south. In Detroit, they established not only Black Bottom but also Paradise Valley.

“It was a beautiful experience that really set a precedent for not just Detroit but for a lot of other communities as well," Jones said of Paradise Valley.

"It was a self-contained community where those that made their money put it back into the community to help build it up," he continued. "It was their homes, it was their businesses, it was their progress."

Some of the area's landmarks still remain today; like the old Paradise Theatre on Woodward, now the Detroit Orchestra Hall.

Thomas, who now lives out-of-state, hasn't been back to her old neighborhood in 40 years.

“We didn’t have iPhones, so I couldn’t go back and take this picture and take that picture and by me being younger I lost that. I lost it all," she said.

"We've done a lot on paper," said Coleman on policies to avoid a future Black Bottom-like demolition. "State and local government has over time put some policies in place... that would stop that type of development, that type of transition from happening without creating moderate and low-income housing as a part of that," he said.

But he also notes there's evidence today of redevelopment projects not fulfilling promises to surrounding communities.

"It's not enough to just put these policies on paper in local and county and state government," Coleman said. "It's up to people who live in these communities to fight for what they want to see."