Exploring Ypsilanti’s place on the Underground Railroad: part one

On the evening of December 1, our friend Matt Siegfried, who I interviewed here not too long ago about Ypsilanti’s Native American past, will be at the downtown branch of the Ypsilanti District Library, presenting his research on the role Ypsilantians played on the Underground Railroad. In hopes that it might inspire a few of you to go and hear Matt’s presentation, here’s a not-so-brief discussion between the two of us on the subject of slavery, the fight for emancipation, and the role played by Ypsilantians in that struggle. [Part 2 of our discussion will be posted later in December.]

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MARK: I’ve heard it said several times since moving here that Ypsilanti was a somewhat significant stop on the Underground Railroad (UGRR), but I’ve never done the research to see what evidence, if any, exists… So I’m curious as to what you may have found in your research to support the claim that large numbers of escaped slaves made their way through Ypsilanti. Are there diary entries? Do interviews exist with people who were actively involved, or their descendants?

MATT: Yes, there is evidence. When you get right down it to it, though, the fact that a thriving black community existed in Ypsilanti prior to the Civil War is the single best piece of evidence we have.

MARK: So, if I’m interpreting your response correctly, you’re saying that all the evidence we really need to prove that Ypsilanti was a significant part of the Underground Railroad is the fact that we had a relatively significant black population during the period of time that the Underground Railroad was operating… the implication being that almost all black families at the time would have been engaged in the struggle to help get runaway slaves to freedom. Is that right?

MATT: Something like that. Given the context and history of the period, the fact that Ypsilanti had a large black population at the time is pretty compelling evidence that this area had strong associations with the black freedom struggle, yes. We are accustomed to view the Underground Railroad as the activity of heroic whites, so we tend to look for the evidence of the UGRR in the basements of well-heeled 19th century social reformers, rather than in the communities built by the actual passengers on that Railroad. (And why is it that it’s always basements that we’re looking in? Did no one hide in an attic?) But the stories of those white reformers doesn’t even scratch the surface.

MARK: As it’s white people who have been writing the history books, that’s not terribly surprising, is it?

MATT: No, and here’s a good example of historic whitewashing… In 1923, at the centennial anniversary of the founding of Ypsilanti, the heritage folks of their time, Daughters of the American Revolution-types, celebrated Ypsilanti’s role in the Underground Railroad by dressing a white family up in blackface and having them pretend to be slaves escaping to freedom. [See image below.] Meanwhile, the actual people who had escaped from bondage, and their descendants, lived just blocks away, on Ypsilanti’s segregated southside. To me, that says so much about the City’s past inability to recognize Ypsi’s black citizens and the circumstances that brought them here. It’s a genuine part of Ypsilanti’s history, and it should be known. I should add that Ypsi is not alone in this.

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MARK: OK, so let’s talk about those early black families of Ypsilanti, and what we know about their involvement in the Underground Railroad.

MATT: Nearly every black family in Ypsilanti at that time would have been connected in some way to the UGRR and the movement against slavery, whether as passengers, activists, or as people who came to Ypsi from black refuge communities in either Canada or the Ohio River Valley.

MARK: These were black communities that grew up along the Underground Railroad?

MATT: Yes. Any number of settlements in the region were founded as a result of the flight from slavery, and many Ypsilantians from that time, even if never fugitives themselves, would have spent time in these settlements. We know that through obituaries, newspaper accounts, census and death records, and the stories handed down by dozens of local families. [Pictured below is the November, 17, 1883 obituary of William Moore, who lived in the Stony Creek settlement of Randolph County, Indiana, and in Chatham, Ontario, before settling in Ypsilanti.]

nov171883commMARK: So, we know that black Ypsilantians of the mid to late 1800’s often made their way here by way of these settlements that had evolved in concert with the Underground Railroad, as runaway slaves made their way northward…

MATT: Here’s what we know… In 1860, nearly two-thirds of all black people in Ypsilanti claimed to have been born either in Canada or in a slave state. (For comparison, the majority of whites at that time not born in Michigan would have come from New York State.) The 1860 census is also full of single, young black men working on area farms claiming that they were born either in Canada or places “unknown.” In 1870, these same men will claim birth in places like Kentucky (the largest place of origin of early black Ypsilantians) or Missouri. I think it’s safe to assume that these men were hiding the fact that they’d come from slave states, only admitting later, after the war, that they had been fugitives from slavery.

LambertLands2And, when I researched the histories of those black Ypsilantians who claimed to have been born in the north, mainly in Ohio and Indiana, I saw that nearly all were born in communities associated with the UGRR, like the Weaver or Lost Creek settlements in Indiana, or the Lambert Lands or Mt. Pleasant in Ohio. [Pictured right is the Lambert Lands historic marker.]

MARK: I know you’ve spent a great deal of time specifically looking into the ancestry of those black families living along South Adams Street at the turn of the century. Have you found that they lived in communities like the ones you’ve just mentioned, before settling here?

MATT: Of the twenty-two families living on South Adams Street, the center of black Ypsilanti for generations, in 1900, twenty-one were connected to the settlements set up in Canada for refugees. (These communities welcomed both fugitives from slavery and “free blacks” who were fugitives from racism.) Families routinely travelled from Ypsilanti to Buxton, and other Canadian settlements, for homecomings until well after World War II. In fact, some still do.

MARK: I’m curious as to what we know about specific individuals in Ypsilanti who were involved in the Underground Railroad. Can you give us a few examples?

MATT: Well, there’s the compelling story of “Brother Ray” (Asher Aray), a black farmer living southwest of Ypsi, who led fugitives through Ypsi to Detroit, but most of the references are general. You’ll see phrases like, “through Ypsilanti,” “to Detroit through Washtenaw County,” and the like. [Seen here is an excerpt from The Underground Railroad (1898) by Wilbur Henry Siebert, which notes Aray’s work.]

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MARK: As I’ve heard it mentioned so often, I suspect there’s also documentation of George McCoy’s work in this area, correct?

MATT: Yes. We know, through interviews with his daughter Anna, that George McCoy transported freedom seekers in a hidden compartment in his waggon from his Ypsilanti farm to Detroit and Wyandotte, beneath loads of cigars that he was taking to market.

MARK: Do any other specific examples come to mind of slaves who made their way through Ypsilanti, or the men and women who may have helped them here?

MATT: We know the story of Isaac Berry. A couple of years ago, I was honored to write the State Historical Marker for him and his wife Lucy, an interracial couple who ended up in Mecosta County. While writing the marker I was thrilled to see this reference to Isaac’s journey to freedom through Ypsilanti.

The following is from Negro Folktales in Michigan (1954) by Richard M. Dorson.

…Berry’s child related: He walked to Ypsilanti on the railroad. His shoes was all wore out, and his socks, and his feet got all swelled up, and his legs all swelled up. Sometimes when I think about it I want to cry, a human being getting treated that way. When he got to Ypsilanti he met a colored man going to work; he had his dinner pail with him. And he asked my father, “Are you a runaway slave?” And my father said, “It’s none of your business what I am.” He was wore out with people asking him questions. The other man said, “I can see from your shoes that you’ve come a long way. You see that house up the railroad a ways—that’s where I live. You go there and tell my wife to give you breakfast, and then you go to bed and stay there till I come home. I’ll be home at six o’clock.”

So he went on to the house, and the old lady took care of him, and he went to bed and slept all day—he said his feet and legs were so sore. He was walking three weeks. That night the house couldn’t hold all the colored people that came there. And they gave him carpet slippers and socks and took up a collection and gave him quite a lot of money. In the morning one old fellow took him down to the railroad and said, “You get a ticket for Detroit, and when you get there take a ferry to Canada, just about a mile across the lake, and then you’ll be under the lion’s paw.”

MARK: You’ve mentioned a few books by name, but I’m curious as to what other documentation is available to you and other researchers. Are there, for instance, local church records, or collections of firsthand narratives that mention Ypsilanti explicitly?

MATT: Abolitionist newspapers from the time, like the Signal of Liberty, the Anti-Slavery Bugle, and the Liberator all mention Ypsilanti and Ypsilantians. While not as important as nearby Adrian and Ann Arbor, white abolitionist activity in Ypsi is also recognized in dozens of clippings from the time which note meetings and speeches here. [The following clip comes from the June 30, 1893 Ypsilanti Commercial.]

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MARK: What about organized efforts after the war to collect oral histories and the like?

MATT: In the 1850s, a number of abolitionist went on fact-finding trips to Canada. While there, they interviewed several people directly related to Ypsilantians, even a few people who lived in Ypsilanti themselves, and those stories are invaluable in tracing these stories.

Other works on fugitives in Canada, like Bound for Canaan, From Midnight to Dawn, I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land, and numerous local historical publications in Canada, mention families with Ypsilanti connections. It’s all a part of the same story… Even some of the men who sat with John Brown at his famous Chatham Convention before the raid on Harper’s Ferry had relatives in Ypsilanti.

And there are thousands of hints in the obituaries and the stories that I’ve found through research. The same names and places keep coming up. In this case, the woods are easier to see than the trees, but you can still see the woods. [Seen below is the obituary of Washington Hawkins (August 7, 1915).]

7aug1915pressMARK: Just to clarify, when you say that Ypsilantians were “connected to” these settlements that arose along the Underground Railroad, do you mean that they had family members in the settlements, or that they themselves had lived in these communities prior to arriving in Ypsilanti?

MATT: In many instances they themselves had lived in these settlements before moving to Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti would have been an integral part of a single cross-border community for ninety miles or so on either side of the Detroit River. Families would have moved back and forth for decades, and Michigan and Ontario would have shared social organizations, churches, newspapers and cultural scene. In some ways, they still do.

Many of these families were free before the Civil War, and living in rural black enclaves like those in Gallia County, Ohio, or north of Madison. I’ve found several examples of families that lived next to each other in these settlements, like the Kersey and Artis families in Indiana, or the Richardson and Travis families in “Liberia,” Pennsylvania, then again living next to each other in Canada, only to be living next to each other again in Ypsilanti decades later.

MARK: What can you tell us about Kerseys, for example, and the journey that brought them here?

kersey1870sMATT: The Kersey family’s journey is telling, and would be similar to so many who came to Ypsilanti. It starts in a slave-state, then to settlements north of the Ohio River, then to Canada after 1850, and finally to Ypsilanti in the decades after the Civil War. Dozens and dozens of individuals and families made the same journey. [James H. Kersey pictured right, circa 1870.]

The Kersey family would have been, at least partially, free before the Civil War, and living in Georgia. By 1830 they had come to an abolitionist stronghold north of the Ohio River called Richland, which is in Jennings County, Indiana. There they lived in the same community as future leading Detroit black abolitionist George DeBaptiste. In the early 1850s the family moved to Canada and the refugee settlement in Colchester, before settling in Buxton (founded in the 1840s by the emancipated slaves of William King) in the 1860s. The Kerseys then came to Ypsilanti around 1880.

The Kersey family would have played a leading role in Buxton, Ontario. They were church deacons and built many of the homes there. In Ypsilanti, they would do the same. A number of homes still standing on on First Avenue and Second Avenue were built by James H. Kersey and family. Rolanda Kersey, now nearly 100 years old, still lives at the Kersey homestead on First Avenue, which has now in the family for over 120 years. Brown Chapel AME was said to be designed in the kitchen of the Kersey home. Built in 1904, the present church is the third AME church to be on the corner of Buffalo and Adams.

berniceBernice and Herman Kersey, siblings and children of James, would go on to lead the Ypsilanti schools desegregation campaign of the the 1910s. (This, by the way, would be reversed in the 1920s) and help found the city’s NAACP chapter in 1916. And Theron Kersey, great grandson of the generation that first fled the south before the Civil War helped found Eastern Michigan University’s AFSCME Local 1666. Today, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Kersey descendants in the area. Do you see what I mean by connections? [Bernice Kersey can be seen to the right teaching at the South Adams Street School in February 1919. This the last class picture taken before the school closed.]

If you look at how the community came together and developed, a compelling picture is painted. One of the oldest black institutions in Michigan is Ypsilanti’s Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded 170 years ago by a number of people who escaped from slavery, including Isa Stewart, who fled bondage in Virginia in the 1830s. She would donate the land on Buffalo and Adams where the church now stands. Second Baptist was also founded before the Civil War, largely by people who had fled bondage to Ypsilanti. In a very real sense, these churches are the legacy of the UGRR in Ypsilanti. [A November 12, 1903 column from the Ypsilanti Daily Press on Isa Stewart’s escape from slavery can be found below.]

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MARK: I probably should have started with this, but what was the operational structure of the Underground Railroad? Just how decentralized was it?

MATT: There was no single Underground Railroad, but many little railroads, each with their own particular story and dynamics. Which, in large part, is what made it so strong. There wasn’t one cohesive political group that could be targeted and destroyed. Most of the work was done ad-hoc, and often the people involved would have no idea of the work of other “lines” in the area. Many of the routes were based on personal relationships and were in a constant state of flux. Some were more established than others… Whole communities, as we’ve been discussing, were created in the environs of the Ohio River with the expressed purpose of helping fugitives. And many Ypsilantians, like those we’ve been talking about, came from those communities.

By and large, it was a hodgepodge of different activities directed against slavery, at many different levels, without anything like an overall operation or goals… As with any movement, it was beset by disagreements over strategy and tactics. There were many different trends, and those in the movement held different positions. And this was true on both the black and white sides of the movement.

isaslavedaysMARK: What do we know about the individual routes that ran through the area?

MATT: Again, routes would have come and gone. Some were well-connected and relatively public, like those of Levi Coffin and John Rankin. Others would have been the tightest held secret, long since lost to the grave. The routes certainly grew larger and more organized in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Detroit was, for obvious reasons, one of the most important routes to freedom in Canada and was teeming with secret black organizations like the African American Mysteries: Order of the Men of Oppression led by the remarkable William Lambert. I am sure that many of these organizations had relationships with black Ypsilanti at the time. Certainly the Prince Hall Masons were involved and they had an early chapter, Hart Lodge #10, here in Ypsilanti. (They’ve been in Ypsi 160 years, and on the same corner for at least 140 of those.)

They would not miss a beat and got right into organizing blacks to join the Union army in Michigan during the Civil War, which for many was simply a continuation of the struggle they had been engaged in for decades.

MARK: So, if there’s one big takeaway from today’s discussion, it’s that the black freedom movement was something that largely happened independent of white society…

MATT: Yes, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a black freedom movement would, overwhelmingly, be the concern of black people. It involved, primarily, black participation in the freeing and shepherding of fugitives to freedom, mainly from states in the upper and border south to the north and, increasingly, to Canada.

Some fugitives got to freedom without any help at all. Indeed, the most important decisions, from that of whether and how to escape onwards, were made by the “passenger”. Passengers on the Railroad, contrary to the popular image of the fugitive shepherded from safe place to safe place, head down and silently being guided to freedom, were nearly always active participants in their own freedom.

Both ends of the railroad, the start and the finish, were embedded in the world of African America, and many of the “stops” and “conductors” along the way would have been folks most trusted by those fleeing, other black people with their own stories of slavery and freedom.

Conductors were often black, but whites, because of their obvious privileges, would often be of best aid on the UGRR playing that role. “Stations” were often in black communities, including rural hamlets. For some, the only station they ever slept in was their own camp.

Black Detroit was among the most organized northern African-American communities and the UGRR there was led by such people as George DeBaptiste, Rev. William Munro, and William Lambert. These men had both public and secret roles in the anti-slavery movement and would have been the most important activists, white or black, in the clandestine movement of people to Canada. Churches, like Second Baptist and fraternal organizations like the Masons in the city were also centers of organizing. Eventually, the operations run by the likes of Lambert would become well developed and rival any in the country. Ypsilanti’s large black community would naturally have been in their orbit.

And finally, and this is what most don’t tend to think about when they think about the UGRR, but the terminals, the end of the line, invariably ended in a black community peopled by others who had made a similar journey. Without these towns, villages and homesteads there would have been no possibility of an Underground Railroad. Place like Chatham, Dresden, Colchester, Queen’s Bush, Buxton, Amherstburg, all places with deep associations with Ypsilanti. One can imagine how alive they would have been, with the freedom to self-organize in a way never they had before, with the debates of the time and the needs of the movement. [Below is a map of the Canadian West, showing the historically black communities being discussed.]

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MARK: What were the politics like in these Canadian settlements?

MATT: In Canada, the debate was what kind of relationship to have with whites, if at all. There weren’t the “constitutional” versus “moral” divisions that cleaved white abolitionism. In some of the Canadian settlements, nothing short of a revolution was being called for. The idea of a slave revolt was appealing. It’s no accident that John Brown was drawn there in the hope of recruiting combatants for Harper’s Ferry.

Speaking of Brown, who was exceptional in many ways, I don’t want to diminish the role of white abolitionists. I hope I would have been one of them. But I think the generally held view of who was and was not an abolitionist has been far too skewed to white heros when the reality was very different. When we imagine an abolitionist, why do we almost never imagine the escaping slaves and the communities they created? Aren’t they practically abolishing their own slavery, and undermining the whole institution by doing so?

libertywashJames Birney, Liberty Party leader and one of those white heroes, wrote in the late 1830s of what was not yet commonly known as the Underground Railroad, that “such matters are almost uniformly managed by the colored people.” [To the right is a September 17, 1842 clipping from the Liberty Party’s Signal of Liberty, announcing an anti-slavery convention to be held in Ypsilanti.]

It should also be added that whites, always active in above-ground abolitionism, became increasingly active in the activities of the Underground Railroad as the crisis over slavery became widespread in the run-up to the Civil War. Ann Arbor had a host of public white activists, like the Beckleys and Richard Glazier, who would have been involved.

MARK: How did you get involved doing this kind of research, and what do you consider to be your most interesting discovery to date?

MATT: I’ve been studying local history through two degrees at EMU and there could be nothing more compelling to a local historian than Ypsi’s black history. It touches on all the crucibles on the 19th century… slavery and the fight against it, Reconstruction and its reverses. All that history is all around us, so it was natural for me to gravitate to it. I also have an interest as a historian in challenging national myths and conventional notions of the past, and, in America, that means race. So I think this story is significant for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the importance to the descendants of those historic black freedom fighters who now make up about a third of Ypsi’s people.

The most interesting discovery has been connecting the dots and seeing large historical movements embedded in the personal stories of folks. For example, when I find a family like the Ropers, I find them in Ypsilanti leading the struggle to desegregate the City’s Weurth Theater, which is still there, across from the Michigan Avenue Library, in the 1910s. And, in the 1880s, I find them living in Chatham, Ontario, the largest and most active refuge community in western Ontario, and the home of many Ypsilanti families. Before coming to Canada, the Ropers were living in a small Indiana community famous for being the home of one of the most active white UGRR activists of his day, Levi Coffin, who we discussed earlier. And before that, they were in the slave state of Virginia. A whole string of broad historical movements are embedded in their movements around the continent, and in their lives.

I also take some satisfaction in being able to trace families back into bondage. It’s very hard to find the history of most black families in the U.S. before emancipation, and I’ve been able to do that with a number of people. That journey has been illuminating and frustrating.

anderson2I also felt thrilled that a little historical justice was done when I found what happened to the Stephen Sullivan family, namesakes of Sullivan, Missouri, and “owners” of John Anderson. John lived at 303 South Adams in Ypsilanti for decades, having escaped slavery on the spur of the moment in the 1850s, when he thought he was going to be “sold down the river”. [John Anderson pictured right.]

In his account, he was running as fast as he could, and could hear the bullets whizzing by him, but he wasn’t afraid, because he was worth “a thousand dollar to them and they wouldn’t dare shoot to kill.” They tried to get John back, but the Civil War intervened. Missouri was a border state and the Sullivans had their property confiscated because of their active support for Confederate guerillas in the war. That property included all their slaves. (Remember, the Emancipation Proclamation did not pertain to states, like Missouri, that were still in the Union.) Two of the Sullivan boys, who were fighting with pro-slavery guerillas, were killed by Union cavalry after refusing to surrender. And Anderson’s owner, Stephen Sullivan, died impoverished, a traitor, and bereft of children immediately after the War.

John, who made it to Ypsi before the war, and with a bounty on his head, lived through the war to be well into his seventies and saw many grandchildren born. He joined the 102nd USCT during the Civil War and his son Alfred would become the first leader of the NAACP in Ypsi in 1916. Yet another legacy of the Underground Railroad here in Ypsi. He is buried with a veterans marker in Highland Cemetery. The site of his grave is one of the stops I always make when giving tours of the cemetery.

[Following is John Anderson’s firsthand account of escaping slavery. It, according to Matt, is the only first person account he’s ever found of an Ypsilantian relating their escape from bondage. It ran in the Ypsilanti Commercial on January 25, 1901.]

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UPDATE: Part II of this interview is now available.

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Fuck Small Business Saturday

SmallBusinessSatrudayToday is Small Business Saturday. According to executives at American Express, who dreamed the whole thing up in 2010, it’s a day when Americans should eschew big box chains and fast food franchises, and spend their money closer to home, at independent shops owned and operated by people in their own communities. While I’ll acknowledge that the campaign is probably a net-positive, as it brings attention to the fact that people should be supporting businesses in their communities, I can’t help but think that American Express may not have the most pure of motivations.

I ran this suspicion of mine by my fried Dan, who runs an awesome retail business in Austin, Texas, and he responded with the following. “Visa and MasterCard are far cheaper for the merchants to accept (than American Express),” he said. “And I’ve become convinced that Small Business Saturday is really just an attempt to get all the small businesses who only take Visa and MasterCard to accept the punishing rates of American Express.”

It’s an interesting theory… American Express spends millions of dollars encouraging their cardholders to go into their communities and shop at locally owned stores, knowing full well that many, if not most, of these stores won’t be able to accept the cards handed to them… at least that first year. (My guess, and it would be interesting to check this out, is that American Express has seen a big growth in their non-corporate business since the launch of the Small Business Saturday campaign.)

Personally, that’s not what bothers me about Small Business Saturday, though. What bothers me is the inference that people should just support their local businesses one day out of the year. I find that offensive. (It’s like creating a holiday called Treat Women Like Your Equals Day.) People should be supporting their local businesses every day, and not just feeling good about themselves for doing it one day a year. And, even worse, the good folks at American Express have decided to schedule Small Business Saturday for the day after Black Friday, once everyone’s money has already been spent at those big box retailers. I understand, of course, why they’ve set it up this way. It’s an opportunity to create one more big shopping day, and, as it’s after Black Friday, it’s not likely to upset the Targets and the Walmarts of the world, who probably need a day to recover from Black Friday anyway, and restock their shelves. And they’re appealing to folks who may not otherwise indulge in post-Thanksgiving shopping… It’s pretty brilliant when you think about it.

All of this, of course, isn’t to say that I think any less of the downtown businesses that hung up AmEx banners in their windows and participated in today’s Small Business Saturday event. Buying local is awesome, regardless of corporate sponsorship. And it’s especially awesome around the holidays. This is why, for several years, Linette and I ran a “Shop Ypsi for the Holidays” campaign. I just don’t like that AmEx is glomming onto the buy local movement. It reminds me of when Walmart decided to get into organic produce. On one hand it was great, as it was introducing the concept to people, and making them aware of the fact that it really matters how, where, and by whom their food is grown. At the same time, though, once corporations like Walmart got on the organic bandwagon, it was just a matter of time before the term was watered down to the point of being meaningless. And, when I see big companies jump on the “buy local” campaign, I can’t help but feel the same thing is happening. It’s like the new ad campaign for Walgreens that positions them as our “neighborhood” pharmacy, without referencing the fact that they’re a multi-national corporation, or, more importantly, that they likely caused our real neighborhood pharmacy to go out of business.

But, like I said up front, I suspect, in the case of Small Business Saturday, that the good outweighs the bad. I just like to rant.

I should also add at this point that several friends of mine who accept American Express cards at their businesses do so because their cardholders typically spend more than those of us who carry MaterCard and Visa cards. So there really does appear to be a legitimate business reason to accept AmEx, in spite of the rates that they charge merchants.

One last thing… If you really want to help out your local business owners, don’t just make it a point to shop with them whenever possible, but try to pay with cash when you can. That 3.5%, or whatever it is, that they’re handing over to AmEx every time you use the card, could really make a big difference for a local shop owner operating on razor thin margins. I know it’s not always practical, but I know it’s very much appreciated when you can do it.

[If you’re interested in knowing why local business ecosystems are important, I’d encourage you to read my most recent post about the work of Michael Shuman. It’s really worth the time. I promise.]

Posted in Local Business, Locally Owned Business, Marketing, Rants, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

In spite of it all, there really is a lot to be thankful for

The world we live in is harsh and ugly at times. And it’s easy to give in to despair. This, sadly, is doubly true for those of us, like me, who expend a good deal of their time and energy trying to avoid the grasp of depression, even in the best of times. It’s hard to look objectively at our planet, as it exists today, and not feel completely overwhelmed with sadness.

Our elected leaders, beholden to corporate America, are increasingly making decisions that are putting the future of humanity at risk. Our public schools are being systematically dismantled. Our cities are being taken over and sold for scrap. Our elections are being gamed by way of gerrymandering and other forms of trickery, so that those in power stay in power. Our increasingly militarized police forces are killing us in unprecedented numbers. All of our actions are being watched and recorded. Religious extremism is on the rise. Science is under attack. Reproductive rights are being curtailed. And those of us who aren’t in the top 1% are sliding ever more rapidly toward poverty, working harder for less, just to stay alive. And, on top of all of this, far too many of us, at this very moment, are struggling to navigate the American health care system without losing everything we own, instead of just focusing our energies on getting well.

In spite of this, though, there are still things to be thankful for. I know it’s hard to bring that fact to the forefront of one’s mind, but it’s true.

Where there’s life, there is hope. And we can’t afford to think otherwise. That, I’m convinced, is what kept people from the polls earlier this month, and we cannot allow it to continue. People feel hopeless. No matter what we do, it just doesn’t seem to matter. And that’s easy to understand. Here in Michigan, we busted our asses to to overturn an unjust Emergency Manager law, only to have it come right back again within days, despite the overwhelming vote against it. It feels as though the deck is stacked against us, and that, no matter what we do, nothing will change. But that’s a trap. That’s what they want for us to think.

They want for us to accept that the non-wealthy have no voice whatsoever in American politics. They want for us to just give in, and stop fighting back. They want for us to retrench into our homes, and just focus on feeding and protecting our families. They want for us to fear our neighbors, and start hoarding arms, gold coins and food. Instead of fighting back against the system, they want us to turn against one another. They want us to complain about the teacher down the street who makes a living wage instead of demanding that everyone should have a living wage. They want us divided along lines of race, sex and class. They want a world where people instinctively look the other way, whether it’s when pollutants are being dumped into Lake Michigan, immigrants are being attacked in our communities, or prisoners are being being fed maggots. They want us to think, “At least my water is pretty clean. At least no one is sending my children back to a violent country. At least I’m not in jail.” They want for us to stop empathizing… to stop being human.

But there are things, in spite of it all, that are going well. There are numerous instance of people coming together at the local level, and making positive things happen. Here are just a few examples that come immediately to mind.

No matter how much you may dislike your fellow Ypsilantians, at least we no longer have to contend with the likes of Harry Bennet and Tom Monaghan. And, in spite of all the shit we’re dealing with, at least we no longer have to contend with local cross burnings.

We live in a community where people care. We live in a community where cool and interesting people want to put down roots and contribute. We live in a community where people are talking about forming a cooperative bookstore. We live in a community full of artists and makers. We live in a community where our local waters are getting cleaner. We live in a community rich with history. We live in a community full of thriving locally-owned businesses. We live in a community where people came together to activate vacant public land and create a commons. We live in a community where kick-ass librarians keep fighting to make life better. We live in a community where people like Paul Saginaw are leading the national debate on higher wages. We live in a community where companies are pushing to increase employee ownership. We live in a community where people are exploring new models to bring healthy food to our tables. I could go on…

The point is, in spite of what I rant about here on a daily basis, and what we all talk about over beer and coffee, the truth is, there’s more to life than the threat of people carrying assault weapons in our grocery stores and that fact that we’re being forced to purchase rape insurance.

And, in addition too all of the stuff that we’ve got to be thankful for on the community level, we’ve all got things to be thankful for in our personal lives. Here are just a few of mine.

[note: What follows is my annual Thanksgiving post, which has been running on this site for the past several years.]

I probably don’t say it here as often as I should, but I’m incredibly thankful for my friends and family. Without my family, I wouldn’t be here. And, without my friends, I wouldn’t be the person that am today… Sure, I might be a better, more successful, and more productive version of myself without them, but I wouldn’t be the same person that I am today. So, before I get started with this post, I’d just like to note that I’m incredibly thankful for everyone that I’m related to, from my grandmother in Kentucky, to my kids, who are now in the other room, looking at our enormous turkey through the little glass porthole in the oven. There have been some bad times, and we’ve lost some people over the years, but, all in all, I’d say that we’ve been really fortunate as a family. As far as I know, all of us who are alive at the moment, are healthy, happy, employed and have roofs over our heads, which is quite an accomplishment in today’s world. As for friends, the same, for the most part, goes for them. A few are temporarily without partners, or between jobs, but, as far as I know, the people in my friendship network (“tribe” sounded too new age) are doing pretty well, and I’m thankful for that.

I’m thankful that my friends Dan and Matt, when they’d graduated from college, moved to Ann Arbor to live with me. If they hadn’t, I might never have had the misdirected encouragement I needed to start a band. And, if the three of us hadn’t formed a band, I probably wouldn’t have ever ventured into Ypsilanti, where I met my wife, Linette. There are others that played a role as well, like Ward Tomich, who booked us to play at Cross Street Station that fateful night. Without all of these folks, I’d likely be living in the forest today, sucking nutrients from moss-covered rocks.

I’m thankful for the car crash that my dad had in the late 60’s, which almost tore his arm from his body. If it hadn’t happened, my dad surely would shipped off to fight in Vietnam, with the other men that he’d been training with. Of the dozen or so men in his group, only two returned alive. I cannot imagine growing up without a father.

I’m thankful that my mother encouraged my father to apply for job at AT&T after he was released from the Navy. (He worked at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital after recovering from his accident.) He’d been working highway construction jobs when she talked him into applying for a position at a remote audio relay station of some kind near Monticello, Kentucky. He got that job, flipping switches and listening in on people’s private phone calls, and the rest is history. He steadily climbed up through the ranks, ending his career at the company headquarters in New Jersey – probably one of the few people without a college degree to do so. If this hadn’t happened, I would likely still be in the same small town in Kentucky today, instead of in the worldly sophisticated metropolis of Ypsilanti, Michigan.

While my parents never graduated from college, they did both attend classes as they could, which wasn’t easy with full-time jobs and two kids to raise. I remember pretty clearly my mom studying Spanish late at night at the kitchen table. And I remember them proof-reading class assignments for one another. It made an impression on me, and I’m forever thankful for it. It’ll probably make my mom cry to hear it, but I’m also thankful that they stopped taking me to church at a young age.

I’m thankful that my parents valued education enough to settle our family in a decent school district, instead of closer to where my father was going to be working. My dad, most days, left for work at 5:00 AM to catch the bus, and didn’t return until 7:00 PM or so at night. He did that for over a dozen years straight, and, because of that, I got to attend a great public school, where I met people like Dan and Matt – the guys I mentioned above who moved to Ann Arbor to make noise, drink $1 pitchers of beer, and publish zines with me.

Speaking of sacrifice, I’m also thankful that my distant relatives made the decision to come to America when they did. They did so without knowing if they’d ever see their homelands again. They left everything they knew in England, Sweden, Scotland, and Poland, in order to make a better life for their families. And, it’s because of their sacrifices that I’m here today, not having to work in the fields from sun up to sun down as they did.

Oh, and I’m thankful that, of all the mental illnesses in the world, I got OCD, which kind of has its up-side.

And, of course, I’m thankful that it wasn’t a heart attack the other day.

OK, there’a whole lot more I’d like to say, but that’ll have to be it for now, as the buzzer on the oven is ringing.

Happy holidays.

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One last thing… Here’s hoping that, in the coming year, we get even further above the snake line.

In the words of Reverend Dr. William Barber II:

…My son is an environmental physicist, and every now and then he tells me things about nature. And he told me one day, he said, “Daddy, if you ever get lost in mountainous territory and you have to walk out, don’t walk out through the valley, but climb up the mountain, to higher ground.”

I said, “Why must I climb up the mountain to higher ground?”

He said, “Daddy, snakes live in the lowland. But if you go up the mountain there’s something in biology and environmental studies called a snake line. Snakes can’t live above it. Because they asphyxiate. They suffocate. They’re cold blooded animals and they die.”

Well, in America we’ve got to get our politics above the snake line.

Have mercy, Jesus. Yeah, there are some snakes out here.

There’s some low down policies out here.

There’s some poison out here.

Going backwards on voting rights, that’s below the snake line.

Going backwards on civil rights, that’s below the snake line.

Hurting people just because they have a different sexuality, that’s below the snake line.

Stomping on poor people just because you got power, that’s below the snake line.

Denying health care to the sick and keeping children from opportunity, that’s below the snake line.

But I stopped by to tell you there’s got to be somebody that’s willing to go to higher ground.

Higher ground, where every child is educated.

Higher ground, where the sick receive health care.

Higher ground, where the poor are lifted.

Higher ground, where voting rights are secure.

…And when I go up in the spirit, and I listen to the Lord, sometimes I’m reminded that the moral arc of the universe, it might be long, but it bends toward justice.

Posted in Ann Arbor, Mark's Life, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

No Indictment in Ferguson… Local protests planned for Tuesday

As expected, the St. Louis County grand jury that we’ve all been waiting to hear from these past several weeks has decided not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri this summer, setting in motion weeks of tense protest that would captivate the country and bring the world’s attention to the epidemic of lethal force we’re experiencing at the hands of police in the United States. [WATCH THE ANNOUNCEMENT.]

So, now, like everyone else, I’m just holding my breath, and waiting to see what happens in Ferguson, where people are beginning to take to the streets in protest. One just hopes that no more lives are lost.

For those of you who are interested, there will be a number of events around the country tomorrow, which you can find listed on the Ferguson Response Tumblr page.

In Ypsilanti, people will be gathering at 4:30 PM, at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and South Adams, in front of the downtown library. And, in Ann Arbor, people will be gathering on the University of Michigan Diag at 6:00. In both instances, people are advised to dress warmly and bring signs and banners with them.

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Regardless of what happened in the case of Michael Brown, or in the case of the Aura Rosser, who was shot and killed by police earlier this fall in Ann Arbor, or in the case of 12 year old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed in Cleveland by police this past weekend who apparently mistook his toy gun for a real one, I think it’s hard to deny at this point that we have a very real problem in this country when it comes to our police, and what we’ve come to expect as normal, acceptable behavior on their part. Even if all three of these cases were justified, which I seriously doubt, what about the hundreds of other killings at the hands of police that have been documented this year alone? Just read through the entries in the Fatal Encounters database, the recently created Gun Violence Archive, or the new database created by Deadspin, and tell me that there’s not a pattern that we should be concerned about.

I’m not sure what the answer is. We live in a violent society in which, for hundreds of years, the gun has been fetishized, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Maybe, however, there are a few tangible things that we can do now to move things in the right direction, like introducing legislation to demilitarize our police and make sure that every cop with a gun also has a body camera, a simple change that has been shown in test cases to dramatically decrease the use of force. And, while we’re at it, maybe we could also address the fundamental inequality in our educational system, and get the money out of politics, which, when you really get right down to it, are probably the two main things keeping us from having the true representative democracy that the people of America so desperately need.

update: Live stream from the streets of Ferguson shows police car on fire.

update: Charlie LeDuff is also live streaming. Here he is interviewing a protestor in front of a burning police car.

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Posted in Ann Arbor, Civil Liberties, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 76 Comments

My day in the Ann Arbor drunk tank… with chest pains

I spent all day yesterday, and much of today, at the University of Michigan hospital. I’d gone in at about 10:00 AM on Saturday with chest pains, and, after putting me through the standard battery of tests, the folks in charge told me that I’d need to stay the night and talk with someone from the cardiology team the following morning. “They’ll probably want to give you a stress test,” one of the many nurses I’d come in contact with told me as she wheeled my bed down to an open nook in the far west corner of the emergency wing. “This area,” she said, “is typically reserved for patients who have been put on the cardiac protocol.” Today, though, given that it was a football Saturday in Ann Arbor, I was told that the mix of patients might be “a little different” from what a person in my condition might normally expect.

And thus began my day in the drunk tank.

MMdrunktankFirst, by way of background, it’s my understanding that Ann Arbor has a public intoxication ordinance which requires that individuals be brought to the hospital when they’re thought to be inebriated to the point where they might be of harm to themselves or others. In other jurisdictions, as I understand it, people in this situation might be taken to the police station, taken home, or just left to their own devices, depending on their level of intoxication. In Ann Arbor, though, they’re sent to the hospital, which, I suppose you could argue, in some less life-threatening instances, could result in a misallocation of resources, given that some number of these people probably don’t require hospital beds. This isn’t, of course, to say that they shouldn’t be taken to the hospital. Having spent a good deal of time in the ER on Saturday, though, I’m just curious as to what the polices are, and where the bar is set. For instance, I got the impression that every inebraited student is taken immediately to the ER, and given a bed in accordance with hospital protocol, avoiding the waiting room altogether. And I’d be curious to know how it was that this policy came about. I understand, of course, that if they aren’t taken directly in, many of these people would likely try to get out, but I’m curious as to how this policy effects others waiting to see a doctor, and whether or not other municipals handle the “drunk but not life-threatening” cases any differently. For instance, I’m wondering if any other university hospitals employ game day clinic areas for cases like these.

By the way, they apparently refer to this section of the emergency room that I was in, at least unofficially, as the “drunk tank.” I heard the term used at least twice during my stay. I heard one person use the phrase about an hour into my visit, I think in reference to the man to my right, who I’m pretty sure I could hear relieving himself on the floor. And I heard it used again a few hours later by a nurse who, apologizing profusely for what had been going on around me, had taken the initiative to find me a room of my own somewhere else. (I should add that the nurses and doctors were awesome, and, as far as I could tell, didn’t use the term “drunk tank” within earshot of their inebriated patients, to whom they were nothing but respectful, even when being criticized and talked down to, as I could hear happen on a few occasions. I should also add that I didn’t ask to be moved, as I found it to be extremely interesting watching the ER staff work. (I was incredibly impressed by them.) Nonetheless, they moved me away for approximately four hours, only to bring me back after all of the drunk students on the wing had settled down and gone to sleep.)

If you ever find yourself tempted to think that binge drinking isn’t a significant issue in Ann Arbor, I’d encourage you to spend a football Saturday in the University of Michigan ER.

Yesterday’s football game, the last home game of the season, was scheduled to begin at 4:30, and, by 2:00, the students were already beginning to make their way in, escorted by EMTs. Given the way my bed was situated, I couldn’t see a great deal, but I did pick up on several distinct conversations, most all of which began with students being asked, “Do you know where you are?” (They rarely did.)

For the purposes of this post, I’d like to just share one example… that of a young woman who came in nearly comatose, having been found covered in vomit in an Ann Arbor alley. Of all the folks I’d hear that day, it was her that I was most worried about.

I could see her come in. The EMTs brought her down the corridor, strapped to a board, telling the hospital staff where she’d been found. Her head was hanging to one side, like her neck couldn’t support the weight of it. One of the nurses, I remember, commented to one of his coworkers that the human head weights 13 pounds, and it takes a lot of muscle control to hold it up. When she first came in, before I realized that her admission was alcohol related, I honestly thought that she had an advanced neuromuscular disease of some kind. As the conversation between nurses continued, though, I put the pieces together… Within a few minutes of arriving, and being told that she was at a hospital, she began vomiting.

“Is that jello shots or daiquiris?”, I heard one nurse ask.

Shortly after the vomiting, they told her that they would have to get her out of her wet clothes. It was at this point that she first began speaking words that I could understand, instead of just groaning incomprehensibly. The word she said, and repeated, was “No.” It began when the nurses started to remove her clothes. She was saying “No” and thrashing around in her bed. It only lasted for a moment. I assume that she eventually began to understand that she was, indeed, in a hospital, but, in that moment when she was fighting back, I truly did think that she felt as though she was going to be sexually assaulted, and it broke my heart. (From what I could tell, the nurses did everything possible to explain to her what they were going to do before doing it, and why it was necessary, but I just don’t think she was able to comprehend what was happening once it began.)

After getting her dry, and putting her on an IV, I think she must have slept for a while. Or at least it sounded like she was sleeping. Eventually, though, a doctor came around and woke her up, asking again if she knew where she was. She responded clearly this time, with the name of a University of Michigan fraternity.

An hour or so later, she’d get out of her bed, stumble into the corridor, and ask where the bathroom was. A nurse came to her aid with a gown, and took her to the restroom. And, walking back from the restroom, I’d hear the young woman say two things very clearly to the nurse. “I wanted to get into a sorority so bad,” she said, followed by, “They have more rights than everyone else.” I wanted to get the quote right, so I picked up my phone and typed in the words.

I don’t know what her situation was, whether she was in a sorority, or thinking about joining one, or just talking nonsense, but I’d spend the rest of my night thinking about frat culture, Michigan football, the privilege afforded the affluent and the business of binge drinking.

They moved me to another room, to get me away from the intoxicated students, but I kept thinking about it, and all of my conversations with hospital staff were colored by the experience. People would come into my room to poke and prod at me, and we’d invariably start talking about what it’s like to work at the hospital on a football Saturday. Someone told me that it’s always this way. Someone else said that it’s gotten worse since we started having night games. Yet someone else told me that another student was found passed out, nearly nude, “by the railroad tracks” before the game had even started. The clear message I took away is that young people in Ann Arbor, or at least the ones who make it to the hospital, are incredibly lucky.

So, with all this running through my head, I spent a lot of time thinking about my own daughter, who, I hope, is still several years away from having to make choices about frat parties and alcohol. I thought about this young woman in the bed next to me, and what, if anything, I should share about her experience. I don’t want to scare my daughter, but I’d like for her to know that actions have consequences, and that often the guys at the frat party may not have your best interests in mind. Furthermore, I’d like for her to know that it’s important who you associate yourself with, and that women who you choose to be with because you want “more rights than everyone else” may not be the kind of women who will watch your back when you’re in harm’s way. (And how telling is that line about wanting to be in a sorority because you want “more rights than everyone else”?)

As for me, I’m OK. Having experienced some tightness in my chest on Friday night, and again on Saturday morning, I’d decided to call my doctor’s office, and it was suggested that I go in to the emergency room, just to be sure that nothing was wrong. I was expecting that they’d just do a few tests and let me go, but apparently something that I said made them think that I should be observed, in spite of the fact that my blood work, EKG and x-rays all looked good. According to the first doctor who saw me, “Even though you don’t have a family history of heart disease, this heart pain that you’re experiencing could be a warning sign that, without intervention, there may be issues ahead.” So the decision was made to have me stay the day, see a cardiologist the next morning, and have a stress test, during which, I expected, they’d try to trigger a cardiac episode.

So I sat in bed for a day, watching documentaries on the Kennedy assassination, which had taken place exactly 51 years previously, and worrying about what my kids might be thinking, as the last person they knew to be admitted to the hospital never came home. I tried, by way of text message, to downplay the seriousness of the situation, but I know that it must have been bothering them.

The stress test, by the way, never happened. After meeting with the cardiac team this morning, it was decided that it wouldn’t effect their diagnosis, which was that I have very bad acid reflux. Apparently the acid in my stomach has been traveling up my esophagus, spilling into my airway, and making its way into my lungs, triggering coughing fits, which, in turn, have led to muscular skeletal damage in my chest, explaining the pain. I was given medication, told to lose some weight, and cautioned to stay away from caffeine and spicy foods. The pain is still pretty bad, but I’m relieved that it’s not heart-related… So, don’t worry about me. It looks like I’ll still be around for a while.

As for binge drinking at U-M, a nurse put it to me this way, “These are wealthy kids in dorms, and this is what they do.” I know that, every few years or so, when a student drinks himself or herself to death on a nearby campus, we begin to take the subject seriously, but, given what I saw last night, I’m wondering if it might make sense to be more proactive. I know, given privacy issues, that you couldn’t really film in the emergency room, but one wonders if it might make sense, at the very least, to embed a reporter or two on football Saturdays, in order to share the stories (without names) of those who wind up here. Maybe it wouldn’t help all that much, as people at that age are probably just going to do what they’re going to do, but I don’t see as how it would hurt for young people to, if only for a few minutes, put themselves in the shoes of a freshman, abandoned by her friends, and found collapsed in an alley. As kids are inundated with media glorifying binge drinking, shouldn’t there at least be a channel or two sharing the consequences of said behavior in an interesting, compelling, non-moralizing way? For instance, what if the Michigan Daily embedded a reporter or two the night of the next Michigan home game and then attempted to interview people anonymously upon their release? I think that could be a pretty powerful series that might actually help a few students.

Oh, and if you ever find yourself in the hospital, be sure to order the vanilla pudding. They serve Kozy Shack.

[note: I should add that I struggled with whether or not to post this. Even though I didn’t share any specifics about the patients I’d encountered during my stay, it still felt as though I was walking a line. In the end, I think I did the right thing, in that I think that an open, honest discussion on binge drinking is a good thing, and I don’t think that I could have illustrated that necessity without sharing at least a glimpse of what I saw. So, I chose to focus on one story, and strip out all of the details. I did not mention this person’s name, what she looked like, where she was found, what fraternity she named when asked if she knew where she was, or any number of other specifics that I was aware of. As I do not think it’s possible for someone to identify this person based upon what I’ve written, my hope is that no lines were crossed. And, if I did get close to a line, my hope is that the positive to come from this conversation will outweigh any negative.]

Posted in Ann Arbor, Mark's Life, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 38 Comments

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