Second in a Friday series of oral histories by black Ypsilantians collected in 1980 and 1981 by former local historian and EMU professor A. P. Marshall (pictured), and reprinted 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. This interview was conducted by a Mr. Ingram for A. P. Marshall.
Kenneth Mashatt and Helen Mashatt Palmer discuss Hungry Hill, racism in the school system, and a black festival that predates the Heritage Fest.
Ingram: Where were you born?
Kenneth: I was born in Ann Arbor in September of 1939.
I: What were your parents' names?
K: My parents were Kenneth L. Mashatt and Helen Cole Mashatt. They came to Ypsilanti and built a home back in the early 1930s. In fact, the house that I'm living in now was built by my father and his brothers. Back then, they had moved blacks out of Depot Town because of the railroad tracks and they had put us up on the hill. They used to call it "Hungry Hill." [southwest corner of Ypsi, roughly within the Michigan Avenue/Hamilton/I-94 triangle and especially on Monroe, Madison, Jefferson, and Watling streets]. When my father was going to get a permit to build a house, he took the blueprints down to City Hall and they told him they didn't care what blacks built on the hill. This is what some of the attitudes were like back then.
I: Could you tell me something about your family's history?
K: As you know, blacks don't have any written history; it is mostly by word of mouth. I went to get birth and death certificates of father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. I could only get a death certificate of my great-grandfather because he was born in Springfield, Missouri.
I: What was his name?
K: I can't remember his name. My grandfather's name was Horace Mashatt. His father's father's father came from Louisiana. A lot of poeple say that Mashatt is fFrench-Canadian, but the French comes from Louisiana. My aunt has told me that the Mashatts were never slaves: they came to Louisiana as French. When my great-great-grandfather was in Missouri and the Civil War broke out, he was considered a slave, so he ran to Canada. Then he went to New York and married a white woman.
I: What year was that?
K: it had to be early in the 1800s. My great-great-grandmother was a white woman and only her first name (Charlotte) was on the certificate. I asked the lady at the Register's Office why and she said that back then, if a black married a white, the whites would disown her, so they would only put the first name on the certificate. That's how they knew she was white.
I: Did they live in Ann Arbor?
K: No. They lived in Ypsilanti. My great-grandfather was a well digger.
I: When did they come to Ypsilanti?
K: My father was born in 1894 and he was the oldest son of Horace Mashatt. They were both born in Ypsilanti. They were probably about 30 years apart, so my grandfather must have come here in the middle 1800s.
I: What was your grandfather's occupation?
K: He was a laborer at Ford Motor Company. He worked for Ford for fifty years. This was around 1915. My dad worked for Ford too. My father built the house and fell off of it. He went to the hospital and died of heart trouble because there was too much ether there. My grandfather was a well digger and he had a lot of land. From what I've been told, he had land from the water tower to Carpenter Road. [Note: The 1892 city directory shows Charles, Albert, and Louise Mashat living on the south side of Washtenaw just east of the city limits].
I: What was it like growing up as a black in Ypsilanti?
K: I attended Harriet School and Mr. Beatty was the principal. We had a very good atmosphere for lerning there. However, at the same time, there was more racism and prejudice in Ypsilanti as a whole. I didn't understand it as a child though. I lived in Ypsilanti before they had pavement or street lights. Horses, chickens, cows, and pigs used to run up and down the streets. It was a regular country life.
I: What kind of black leaders were there back then?
K: As I grew up, I found that there was racism in the school system. At Ypsilanti High, I was told that I couldn't be an architect because there weren't any black architects in the country. Opportunities to go into certain fields weren't there for blacks. The black leadership then was somewhat poor. However, the blacks in Ypsilanti at that time were the "get along, don't rock the boat" type.
I: Could you name some black ministers or teachers?
K: Dr. Perry was the first black to serve as a Board of Education member. Amos Washington was the first black Housing Commissioner. Ypsilanti was the first city to have a black mayor [John Burton]. We did have some profound leaders. Herbert Walker started the black Communist chapter. Ypsilanti was also the last point going north on the Underground Railroad.
I: Can you tell me more about Herbert Walker?
K: He was a dynamic leader, but I don't feel that the blacks in Ypsilanti were ready for his leadership back then. His family came from Illinois. The Church of God that is now on Jefferson Street started in his mother's living room. They wre quite religious. His father was a Baptist minister. His daughter, Ruth Walker Simpson, still lives in Ypsilanti. Herb lives in New York and is an engineer on the ocean liners.
I: In comparison with other places during that time, would you say that Ypsilanti was more liberal in its treatment of blacks?
K: I wouldn't say that it was more liberal, but it was just more covered up. I guess it depended on the way you carried yourself; I was born with a lot of pride. One time my other took in a young man who was a criminal and the police came looking for him. A policemen came to our house and my mother told him to remove his hat. He said that he didn't have to because it was part of his uniform, so my mother took a broomstick and knocked his hat clear across the room! We just never got messed with. The worst experience in my life was when I first found out that I was black. I was nineteen yers old and I had just joined the United States Army. On my way back home on leave, I stopped in Memphis, Tennessee at 2 a.m. I was hungry, but there wasn't anything open but a white grill. I went into the grill and asked the lady if I could get a sandwich. She said, "No, you can't get a sandwich. Get your black ass out of here!" I asked her why and she said that they didn't serve niggers there. I told her that I would leave if she gave me a sandwich. She called the manager and he said, "We don't serve blacks here. You've got to go." I said, "But I'm wearing a United States Army uniform." He said that they would give me a sandwich, but I would have to eat it outside. I had never been treated like that before.
I: Then you weren't really aware of your color in Ypsilanti.
K: That's right. There was no color awareness at that time. You knew that you were different, but you didn't really know that you were oppressed until things began to happen. One thing that I don't understand about blacks in Ypsilanti is that we have a poor conception about what we should accept from society as being a part of life (it's this man's world and we just live in it).
I: What were some black businesses that you remember when you were growing up?
K: When I was growing up, we had our own drug store. We also had a soda bar and two restaurants on Harriet Street. Amos Washington had a grocery store and there were also barber shops, a fish market, and a pool room.
I: What were the names of some of the owners?
K: Dickie Atkins owned a pool room. The Bennetts also owned a pool room that was on Monroe and Hamilton. Harbert [sic] Glover had a fish market down there too. He's a minister here in Ypsilanti.
I: What's the name of his church?
K: He doesn't have a church: he's an associate minister. Hall's Barber Shop was also down there. Mrs. Goodman (the mayor's mother) had a clothing store and Reverend Cartwright and the Fullers (James) both had restaurants too.
I: What were some of the reasons for these places closing down?
K: A lot of them died, but in many cases, there was no one to take up the slack. There is not that "get up and drive" in Ypsilanti either. I always say that the blacks in Ypsilanti are more passive than anyone I know. You have to kill somebody to get a riot started. Somebody has to die or burn down something before you can get the attention of masses of blacks and that is a very poor way! That's exactly what happened to the Youth on the Move and the Black Culture Festival. They have a Heritage Festival now that they claim is the first, but it isn't. The first festival was given in Parkway Park.
I: what year was that?
K: It was in 1971.
I: Were there many blacks in politics in Ypsilanti?
K: Yes. Herb Francois was a realtor, but he dealt in politics. John Burton and Mrs. Dorsey were also involved in politics. Mrs. Dorsey stands out in politics; she is a very educated woman.
I: What kind of influence did they have in decision-making in politics?
K: I think that it was minimal because they didn't take it to the streets. This has been my argument in Ypsilanti. They don't take it to the people. I remember when we got paved streets, sidewalks, and street lights. Mrs. Dorsey, John Burton, Amos Washington, and my mother had to petition to the people in the area to get these things. In every black community, there has always been poor communication. This is what has hurt the black politicians in ypsilanti. Dr. Clark was one of the most outstanding doctors that we had (black or white). Dr. Bass was another good doctor.
I: Can you remember anything that your father might have told you about what life was like for blacks when he first came here?
Helen: Back in those days, the black people stuck together. There were a lot of Masons in Ypsilanti, and if you were going to build a house, they would help.
K: My dad was a 33rd degree mason. It wasn't just the Masons that helped either. I've never been a Mason, but I've helped build at least eleven homes on Jefferson. My father died when I was three years old, so I don't know much about him.
H: If a man was going to do something in ypsilanti, the neighbors and everyone else would pitch in and help, moreso than they would do today.
K: They don't do that today. When I was young, my mother would send me to help brother Lewis after I got home from school. She told me to go down there and do whatever he told me to do without getting in his way.
H: My uncle was a licensed carpenter in Ypsilanti back then.
I: What was his name?
H: his name was Arden Kersey. He built a lot of houses. When we moved to Ypsilanti (around 1935), there were only three black families on Jefferson. Mr. Kersey had a mixed marriage. There have always been a lot of mixed marriages in Ypsilanti.
I: Did your uncle have a mixed marriage?
K: No, but we had two others (the Thompsons and the Duckets).
H: There's a lady named Hardy that lived on Jefferson. Their family has been here for a long time. She must be over 100 years old. My aunt, Edna Kersey, is about 90 years old. She was my mother's sister.
I: When do you think your family came here?
K: It was in the late 1700s or early 1800s. My grandfather lived to be 97 and he was born here.
I: Could you give me the names of your brothers and sisters?
H: Frank Mashatt, Helen Jade Mashatt, Thomas Cole Mashatt, Carolyn Ann Mashatt, Lilian Betty Mashatt, Shirley Mashatt Gray, Kenneth Albert Mashatt, Marvin Keith Mashatt, and Sharon E. Mashatt Newton.
I: How do you view black life in Ypsilanti in terms of race relations, education, and leadership? Have there been any significant advances on the part of black leadership in Ypsilanti today as compared to the past?
K: I used to deal in politics a little bit. I was County Youth Director from 1971-1974 and I dealt with a lot of different problems. The leadership in Ypsilanti is very passive. A lot of people dont believe in rocking the boat. I guess that I have been somewhat of a militant There are a lot more opportunities for blacks on the national level. I don't think that there are that many opportunities in this city. There are quite a few small factories or shops in Ypsilanti that are still all-white. If blacks are going to live in Ypsilanti and support the economic system, they should share in some of the profits. There should be at least five blacks working in those small factories that employ 20 or 25 people. I haven't seen any great changes in the labor structure. As far as education, we have a black mayor, a black principal, and a black education council. I guess that we just need a lesson in what blackness is. If you're a black principal who can't understand the needs of blacks, then being a black principal doesn't mean a thing.
I: What is the role of black ministers in Ypsilanti compared to what they did in the past?
K: In the past, black ministers played an important part in Ypsilanti as far as unity. There used to be a community chorus made up of Baptist, Methodist, and Holiness churches. One Sunday every month, there would be a community sing led by Olive Evans. Olive was an outstanding school teacher and the first black music director in Ypsilanti. She organized the community chorus, and the black ministers from all of the churches came together. The attitude today among the black ministers is "get it all for yourself." I don't think that there is unity among the black ministers.
I: Why do you think this is so?
K: We have become materialistic and very conscious of finance and status. The ministers are concerned with how many people they can get into their church and how much prestige they will have among these people. This is the role that they are playing. For years, they have been trying to get the black ministers together for a community sing at the Black Festival but the ministers won't cooperate. I don't think that it's because of poor organization; I think that there's something there that has separated minister from minister. It's not a false atmosphere either. There has been a lot of conflict between some of the Baptist churches and now the ministry is divided in its efforts as far as congregation.
I: Were the needs of youth provided for better in Ypsilanti when you were young or today?
H: They are provided for less now. When I was young, if there was a need, the people and the churches got together. Now they don't get together. Some of the churches don't even have missionaries anymore. Back then, a lot of ministers went beyond their church members. If you weren't a member, they'd still come to visit you. A lot of ministers now just visit their own flock. I feel that if a person is already saved and going to church, they should find someone else to save. They don't come to the people's rescue. There was a time when if someone died in a family, all the ministers from the churches would come and do what they could. If you don't belong to the church now, I understand that you even have to pay to have a church service when you're buried.
I: What did churches do for you when you were young compared to now?
H: The churches would have picnics. Sometimes we wouldn't go any farther than Recreation Park, but all of the churches would get together for it. It would be very well supervised. There weren't as many cars and buses back then, so we were limited as far as going different places, but they would always have get-togethers. They don't do that very much anymore. I used to sing with the acapella choir and that had young people in it from every church. We also had a baseball team that won the city championship in Ypsilanti. The older teenagers (18 or 19 years old) would rent bikes and go bike riding. It would all be very well supervised.
I: What kind of alternatives or solutions do you think might enhance community life among blacks in Ypsilanti?
H: I think that the people in Ypsilanti have become afraid of each other. When I was young, we could go anywhere we wanted. Nobody even bothered us. I'm older now and I wouldn't do it anymore and many young people won't either.
K: I think that it is a national breakdown of standards and morals. I hope that we never get like the Florence Society. There was a time when blacks had standards that they kept regardless of what the Florence Society said. there was a time at Harriet School when a teacher had to be a church member. Teachers were just like preachers.
I: What time period was that?
K: It was when I went there in the 1940s. We had to say the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer, and we also had scripture readings. There was a time when we respected people. It's a breakdown and we've become skeptical.
I: What suggestions could you offer for improvement?
K: I would start with the church. I would begin with the pastor and carry it to the streets.
I: What are your feelings about race relations in Ypsilanti?
K: I feel that love begins in the house and carries outdoors. I can't say that I'm going to love the man across town when I can't love you. Blacks have to learn to love each other before they worry about loving whites. Race relation has to begin in the black community before you can go across town.
I: What are some changes that might be needed to get more blacks involved in politics in Ypsilanti?
K: I think that the elite blacks talk above the head of the everyday factory man. Blacks in high positions have that "look down their nose" attitude. They have to get rid of that attitude and work for the good of everybody. It can be done.
H: As soon as the elite blacks get money, they move out.
I: Where do they move to?
H: They all move to the white neighborhoods. There was a time when the school teachers all lived down the street or around the corner. Now they all live in white neighborhoods and are secluded. they should bring up their own neighborhoods instead of building gorgeous in the white neighborhoods.
K: Black people need to be made aware that they're not going to be embarrassed because they don't understand terminology and policy making. At the same time, they can have an interest and input without being looked down on for not understanding the situation. There's a street language that blacks have to come back to in order to communicate.
I: Who were some important individuals that had an impact on your life when you were growing up?
K: My sixth grade teacher [Dubois Patton] had a great impact on me. We were always getting into trouble, but he always took the time to keep us after school and sit down to talk to us. He sat down with the four of us and told us that we were going to be something. We all turned out pretty good too. One man is a foreman at Ford's, another man is a UAW representative, and I was a pastor for twelve years before I retired.
I: Were you a minister in Ypsilanti?
K: No. I was a minister in Jackson, Inkster, and Detroit. Acie Green and Howard Glover also had a big influence on me. They were my big brothers. My mother had the greatest influence on my life.
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