Friday, February 4, 2011

Black Ypsilantian Oral Histories

In 1980 and 1981, former local historian A. P. Marshall conducted a number of oral histories of black Ypsilantians, now collected in the Archives. I'll feature one each Friday in honor of Black History Month. Taken as a whole, the histories show a different and sometimes unpleasant side of the city, as experienced by some residents.

Today's oral history is from Hazen King. He discusses whites-only establishments in town, racism in the police force, and his mother opening the first black-owned restaurant in the city.

Photos: 1. Early Hazen King family home. Hazen's father (also named Hazen) in picture. 2. King family home at 417 South Hamilton; Hazen was born and raised here. The building was torn down c. 1957 or '58. 3. L to R: Walter Roberson (Hazen's brother-in-law), Leo Johnson, and Hazen's brother Merlin King.

Marshall: What is your full name?

King: Hazen A. King.

M: Were you born here in Ypsilanti?

K: Yes. I live on the same street I was born on.

M: What year were you born?

K: I was born on November 23, 1918.

M: Then you have lived here all your life.

K: I married my first wife in 1938 and we lived in Detroit for 4 or 5 years.

M: Did you have any children from that wife?

K: We had a son that was prematurely born, but no other children besides that.

M: How long were you married?

K: We were married for about five years. My wife was Harold Carter's first cousin (Evelyn Hughes). Harold's mother, who lived on Whittaker, was Nellie Hughes' sister. I was cutting a lawn on Pleasant Drive for Dr. Williamson one day when my friend Floyd Boswell came over and said that he and his girlfriend were going to get married. Floyd had brought his girlfriend's sister and Evelyn along too. On the way over, they talked me into getting married to Evelyn and making it a double wedding. I had only known Evelyn for 6 or 8 months, but I've never been able to say no, so we got married. The date was June 30, 1938.

M: Then you moved to Detroit.

K: Yes. We first lived on Bangor and Hancock. Then Floyd and his wife Martha and Evelyn and I moved into an apartment on 4875 Roosevelt in Detroit. I missed Ypsilanti the whole time that I was there.

M: When did you come back to Ypsilanti?

K: I came back to Ypsilanti in around 1945 or 1946. I had been coming to Ypsilanti every week to give my mother money. I liked to play cards, and I was in and out of the places downtown quite regularly.

M: Did you ever live with your father?

K: They have told me that my father used to hold me on his lap when I was about two years old. He wanted to make me a boxer. I tried to become one, too. I joined the Golden Gloves and I used to run up and down West Grand Boulevard.

M: When did you marry Gertie, your second wife?

K: It was in 1946, but I'm not sure about the date.

M: What was Gertie's maiden name?

K: It was Kennedy. Her brothers are Pete and James Kennedy. James is married to one of the Richison girls and lives out in West Willow.

M: Is your wife a native of Ypsilanti?

K: No. They came here from South Carolina. I think that Gerrie's oldest brother came here around 1942. The rest of them came around 1944 or 1945.

M: When did you and Gertie move here?

K: We lived at 417 S. Hamilton, which was property that Aunt Ida and Uncle Dick Morton gave us. We lived in a small house that was set off to the back (like a garage) but still on the same lot. We moved to this house in March of 1956.

M: Where were your fathers parents living when he was born?

K: They were living at 417 S. Hamilton. My grandmother moved out here and brought her three daughters.

M: Did you ever go into the service?

K: No. I didn't want to fight, but they might have treated me better over there than I was being treated here. At that time, I couldn't go into the Huron Hotel or very many of the restaurants. In one restaurant, they told us that they liked us kids a lot and they liked us to come in, but they didn't want us to sit down. We had to take our ice cream cones and go outside.

M: What restaurant was that?

K: A fellow named Ernie had a little ice cream parlor on Michigan Avenue. I was asked by my stepfather to put in an application to join the police force because people were concerned about no blacks being on it. I went down and took the exam along with seven others, but Jimmy and I were the only ones that passed. We passed the oral, written, and physical exams and were sent to be interviewed by Dan Patch at the police station. By the questions that he asked, I guess you might say that racism was involved. I would be patrolling Harriet Street and I wouldn't be riding in a car.

M: Then you wouldn't join the police force under his conditions.

K: No. He told me that I was going to be alone and asked me if I was afraid. I said that I wasn't afraid, but if any disturbance came up, how could I make an arrest? He said that they were going to put call boxes on the corners of Monroe and Harriet and I would have to hold the person while I called the scout car. He said that at some tie, if I ever had to ride in a scout car, I couldn't go into any of the bars downtown. I asked him if there was any certain percentage of arrests that had to be made. He said that they made an average of thirty arrests per month on the south side. That scared me to death! He also told me that there might be some people on the force that wouldn't be too crazy about working with me. That bothered me, because I thought that I would be an officer just like they were. He also said that people might call me "nigger" and I wouldn't be able to get mad or fight about that. I got bawled out when I went home because they said that he told me all of those things so that i would fall into the trap and turn the job down. However, trap or no trap, I couldn't take the job if that's the kind of person that he was. I couldn't work for that type of person.

M: Can you tell me about your mother?

K: She was a cateress who was well-known and well-liked. She worked at the Country Club. She was a marvelous cook. Whenever she had the Palm Leaf Club* here, she had 100% turn-out. She made the best rolls, and nobody ever got the recipe. She was known throughout Ypsilanti for her cooking. She only had a fifth grade education, but she was very good with money. She could really make a dime stretch.

M: Can you tell me about the other children in your family?

K: My oldest sister is Marguerite. She lives on Eight Mile and Wyoming in Royal Oak.

M: What is her married name?

K: She's had three or four husbands. The name she presently goes by is Marguerite.
Marshall: Who are the other children in your family?

K: There is Merlin, who just passed away, and Audrey, Roberson's wife. She was born when my mother was married to Ben Neely.

M: Does Audrey have any children?

K: She has two children named Dawn and Gregory. Dawn has a little girl, so Audrey is also a grandmother.

M: How old were you when your mother married Ben Neely?

K: I must have been about 8 or 9 years old.

M: Then you grew up under him.

K: Yes. I liked him then and I still do. He lives on Ferris Street in Louise Mahaley's house. When I was young, I'd come home late and try to slip into the house, but I could never get by him because he'd be sitting in the chair reading a book. He was very well-versed and concerned, but very militant.

M: What is the relationship between Ben Neely and Mrs. Neely that lives down the street and goes to our church?

K: She married Howard Neely, his brother. By the way, my mother had the first black restaurant in Ypsilanti on the corner of Adams and Harriet. [218 Harriet, between S. Washington and S. Adams, in 1924 city directory].

M: What year was that?

K: I was still a child. It was before she married Ben Neely.

M: Were you friends with Dr. Perry?

K: Yes. I used to go over there on his days off and he would trap birds. That was before his children were born or when they were very young. I spent a lot of time over in his yard. Before Dr. Perry's death, I had broken my leg while painting for the Ypsilanti Public Schools and was off of work for a while. I went down to the river every day when they were looking for him. It was hard for me to get up and down the banks on crutches, and they one day that I didn't go, they found him. I idolized Dr. Perry. He was always immaculate. His wife used to stay home and cook his meals and starch his shirts so that he was presentable.

M: Did you know Dr. Clark?

K: Yes. I went to him occasionally at his house on Hawkins Street. I also knew his daughter, Clemah, and his sons, Leo and Sam.

M: Earlier in this conversation, you spoke of someone named Morton. Is that the same Morton that lives in ANn Arbor?

K: There was a Bill Morton from Ann Arbor. His brother, John, lived down here next to the Baptist Church. There is also a Robert Morton from Ann Arbor. He is the son of Bill Morton.

M: The Mortons were one of the first two black families to move to Ypsilanti.

K: I'm sure that my uncle Dick Morton was here before John Morton. He was no relation to the other Mortons.

M: Are any of them still living?

K: No. The last person that was still a relative died when I was still in high school. IdaMorton's sister lived in Portland, maine and had a seaside summer resort. That property, along with two homes in the downtown area, was willed to us.

M: How are you related to the Mortons?

K: Ida Morton, Dick Morton's wife, was my grandmother's sister. She was my father's aunt. Ida's sister was my father's mother. When his mother died, Ida raised him. The Mortons also gave us the property on Hamilton Street. Ida's sister, Evadore, lived in Maine. I remember her coming here once when either Ida or my father died. My father died when he was 25 years old in May of 1922. I was about four years old then.

M: Do you remember the Days?

K: Yes. Minnie Day lived on the corner of Hamilton, right across from the doctor's office. There was another sister too, and they were both old maids. There are also some Days in Saline, but I don't know if they are related.

*Organized in 1904, the Palm Leaf Club was a group of around 20 (in 1933) black Ypsilanti women who held tea party socials and other events to raise money for the church and for relief of the poor. The group still exists today.

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