Here are 10 places to discover Detroit’s storied Black history
These sites influenced the civil rights movement in Michigan’s Motown and far beyond.
Before she was the Queen of Soul and a social justice crusader, Aretha Franklin was the songbird of New Bethel Baptist Church, located in Detroit’s 12th Street neighborhood.
“She was a very quiet kid, and she always liked to sing,” says Fannie Tyler, who worked as personal secretary for Aretha’s father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, and as Aretha’s secretary coordinator for her gospel program.
“She grew up with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. They were young kids together, Smokey, Levi Stubbs, Mary Wilson, and Jackie Wilson,” Tyler continues. Franklin’s father would invite gospel legends including Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, and Ruth Davis of the Davis sisters to their home for jam sessions. “Aretha would call all her friends and say, ‘Guess who’s here?’”
Franklin would go on to sell more than 75 million records worldwide over a career that spanned six decades. Her voice and legacy continue to inspire new generations. Genius: Aretha, the third season of the National Geographic Channel’s Emmy Award-nominated series Genius, premiers March 21.
But Franklin is hardly the only star of the Motor City’s Black narrative. The city has nurtured generations of civil rights legends and the city’s long struggle for social justice is visible in many places, from a half-mile segregation wall to the freedom point of the Underground Railroad.
(Detroit’s winning spirit helps it fight back against COVID-19.)
Here are 10 destinations that influenced the civil rights movement and continue to create conversations for a more inclusive future.
First, honor the Queen
Under the leadership of Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, New Bethel was a central location for the civil rights fight in Detroit. Rev. Franklin organized the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom, the largest civil rights demonstration in history at the time. Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded the march with a portion of his “I Have a Dream” speech, which he would go on to deliver at the historic March on Washington two months later. The church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on February 12, 2021. Make an appointment to visit the church’s museum room to learn more about its role in the civil rights movement.
See Detroit’s segregation wall
The Birwood Wall—also known as Detroit’s Berlin Wall—existed as a physical and psychological barrier between the region’s Black and white residents. In 1940, a white land developer envisioned building an all-white neighborhood near a primarily Black community. However, banks were not issuing loans in majority-Black neighborhoods, a practice known as redlining and described by architectural historian Ruth Mills as “enshrined segregation.”
The Federal Housing Authority rejected the developer’s plans until a compromise was made: a six-foot-high, half-mile-long block wall along Birwood Avenue to separate Black families living in the area from the white residents expected to move in. On January 27, 2021, eighty years after its creation, the wall—now decorated with murals of community leaders, historical scenes, and laughing children—was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to shed a light on the country’s troubled history with housing rights equality.
Explore the Underground Railroad
Venture down to Hart Plaza, along Detroit’s revitalized riverfront, to visit the Gateway to Freedom International Underground Railroad Memorial. The memorial stands at the approximate location where escaped enslaved people made their final push to freedom across the U.S. border into Canada on the T. Whitney riverboat.
The 12,000-pound bronze sculpture, which depicts a group of African Americans looking across the river alongside George DeBaptiste—a Black man who hired a white captain to helm the T. Whitney, as Blacks weren’t allowed to captain a boat—toward a companion sculpture in Windsor, Canada. “It was a joint venture between the U.S. and Canada. It’s one memorial in two places,” says Ed Dwight, the memorial’s creator and the first African-American astronaut trainee.
Climb aboard a slave ship
Walk the decks of a replica slave ship inside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History’s “And Still We Rise” exhibit. The sounds of muffled screams, drums, and clattering chains audibly immerse visitors as they learn about the transatlantic slave trade. A vignette of a branding station, tiered wooden shelves holding mannequins of shackled Africans, and interactive panels provide “a comprehensive look at the history of African-American resilience,” according to the museum.
Other permanent exhibits depict the road to emancipation, the fight for voting rights, the era of Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, and Black-owned businesses, as well as Black entertainment.
Visit the site that started a rebellion
In 1967, two soldiers were celebrating their return from Vietnam at a “blind pig,” a term used to describe an illegal, after-hours bar. Jamon Jordan, owner of Black Scroll Network Tours says, “the bar,” located in a strip of unauthorized businesses along Clairmont Avenue and Twelfth Street (renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard), “was also the United Community League for Civic Action, a community political organization that was involved in registering people in this neighborhood to vote and finding people to run for different offices.”
With longstanding accusations of police brutality against Blacks, and unemployment, poverty, and systemic racism running high, a July 23, 1967 police raid on the bar was the spark that set off an agonizing five-day riot in the streets of Detroit. When the smoke cleared a few days after 7,000 National Guard troops were deployed, 43 people were dead, 342 injured, and 1,400 buildings burned.
(2020 is not 1968: To understand today’s protests, you must look further back.)
Most experts agree that the rebellion was a catalyst for increased fair-housing laws, additional equal opportunities in the job force, and energized community efforts to work for change. The flashpoint, located in what is now Gordon Park, is memorialized by a green historical marker telling the story of those dark days. There are also plans to open the Karasi Education and Cultural Center, a mixed-use development that will tell the history of the area from voices within the community.
Sit in Rosa Parks’ seat
Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama, but did you know she lived most of her life in Detroit? In 1957, Parks and her husband Raymond moved to Detroit, where they eventually settled into the ground floor of a rented bungalow at 3201 Virginia Park Street.
(Take a road trip through Alabama’s civil rights history.)
While living here, Parks worked as a secretary for Representative John Conyers and continued fighting for civil rights, traveling to support the Selma to Montgomery Marches, the Freedom Now Party, and the Black Panthers. She convinced Martin Luther King to appear with John Conyers on the election trail and befriended Malcolm X. On February 5, 2021, the house was listed on the National Register for Historic Places. After seeing her home, take a drive to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan to sit on the bus where Parks protested.
Meet the good doctor
Ossian Sweet, a wealthy Black doctor, and his wife Gladys moved into a two-story brick house in an all-white neighborhood on September 8, 1925. The following night, a mob of white people arrived, throwing rocks and bottles at the house, breaking windows, and terrifying those inside. Bullets were fired from inside the home, leaving one white person injured and another killed.
All adults in the house, including Sweet, were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. The doctor’s brother, Henry, was the only one put on trial, as he alone admitted to firing shots. The NAACP hired celebrated attorney Clarence Darrow to defend Henry, who was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. The presiding judge, Frank Murphy, later became the governor of Michigan and a Supreme Court Justice.
The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and, after receiving a $500,000 grant from the Historic Preservation Fund of the National Park Service, the current owner is restoring the home to its original 1920s design and building an interactive learning center to share its important story. The destination is set to debut in 2022.
Experience television history
On September 29, 1975, WGPR-TV hit the airwaves and became the first Black-owned and operated TV station in the U.S. Its iconic dance show, The Scene, featured live performances from artists, including George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, and the Four Tops; the latest dance moves of the time; and showed off the hottest fashions of the time, often featuring clothes from neighborhood shops, until 1987. It had a “great impact on the young community, both the African American and the general young community,” says Joe Spencer, former programming manager for WGPR-TV and WGPR-FM. “Much of what happened culturally came through those programs.”
Big City News, the network’s twice-daily news show, focused on stories about the Black community locally, nationally, and internationally. Other shows included Rocky & His Friends, Spirit of Detroit, and Strictly Speaking.
The William V. Banks Broadcast Museum, housed in the original home of WGPR-TV and the current home to WGPR-FM—the building was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places—is free to visit. Inside, visitors learn about these pioneers in Black media ownership and watch some of the original programming geared towards Black viewers.
Listen to the blues
Detroit’s booming auto industry inspired thousands of African Americans to migrate from the rural south to the urban north during the 1900s. With them, came the blues.
Many of these new residents settled in the former Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods, and Hastings Street, which ran through both, became a cultural hub for the blues and jazz.
Most of the businesses were razed in the 50s to make room for a freeway, but travelers can still hear notes of the past just a few blocks away at the Raven Lounge and Restaurant, Michigan’s oldest continuously operating blues club.
(These are America’s most musical cities.)
Opened in 1966, the club was created “to give up-and-coming Motown [talent] a place to play. It’s where stars came to listen to the blues,” says current owner Tommy Stephens. Some of those stars included B.B. King, Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, and Smokey Robinson. Be sure to wear your finest attire—well, at least an ironed shirt and a pair of slacks—as Stephens says, “It’s a place where people dress up to listen to the blues.”
Get your Motown on
While Hastings Street may have brought blues and jazz to the Motor City for a couple of decades, the Motown Sound, created by Berry Gordy and his Motown Records, is Detroit’s musical legacy.
The Motown Museum, located in the house Gordy bought in 1959 to serve as both a studio and his home, invites visitors to view rotating exhibits and its permanent gallery, which includes Michael Jackson’s famed sequined glove and black fedora; the candy machine where 11-year-old Stevie Wonder bought his much-loved Baby Ruth candy bars—always in the slot, fourth from the left, so he could find them—and sequined dresses worn by the Supremes.
In Studio A, you’ll see a restored 1877 Steinway piano used to make Motown records (restoration was partially paid for by Paul McCartney) along with the control room used to create the signature Motown Sound of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, and The Jackson 5.
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel. When planning a trip, be sure to research your destination and take safety precautions before, during, and after your journey. Click here for National Geographic reporting on the pandemic.