Friday, February 25, 2011

Black Ypsilantian Oran Histories

Last 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.

Marshall: What is your name?

Richardson: Samuel Asa Richardson. I was named after both of my grandfathers. My mother's father was named Samuel and my father's father was named Asa.

M: Can you tell me something about your mother's father?

R: His name was Samuel Bass. Some white people brought him to Maine from the south and used him for a houseboy. They didn't treat him as a slave though; he was treated like one of the family. He met a girl from Scotland named Margaret McGinnis. They moved to Chatham, Ontario and that's where my mother was born. The town where she was actually born was called Charing Cross, which was in Chatham Township. My father was born in Dresden, Ontario. His name was Joseph Henry Richardson. I had a lot of relatives in that area. They put all of their belongings on a wagon and got on the ferry along with their cows and horses. At that time, there were no visas you could go across the border anytime you wanted. They moved to Ypsilanti and rented a place on Second Avenue, but they were farmers, so they bought a farm on Merritt and Hitchingham Roads. Mr. Merritt lived on one corner and my grandfather lived on the other corner (the southwest side). They kept that farm until Mr. Merritt wanted to buy it from the so he could expand. They sold it to him and bought another place on Judd and Hitchingham Roads. My Uncle Dick bought another stretch of about 20 acres that had a log cabin on it. My grandfather lived about 200 feet away and that's where he stayed until he died. My grandmother came to town and lived in a little place that he bought for her.

M: Then you've lived in Ypsilanti almost your whole life.

R: Yes. I was a baby when they brought me here. My father built a house on Monroe Street. I heard him tell about how much it cost him to dig his basement. he paid a fellow $5 to dig it and he and his brother-in-law did it in one day. The fellow's name was Dick Morton. The Mortons were related to the Kerseys. Mr. Morton was the finest carpenter you could ever find. He taught his sons the trade, but they weren't as good as him. He was known for building beautiful stairways. He and my father were quite good friends. my father was a plasterer and he would plaster the houses after Mr. Morton was finished. He plastered almost all of the houses in Ypsilanti. Jerry Mahaley and my father used to help each other. If one of them didn't have a job, they would switch back and forth. That's how people lived in those days.

M: Do you have any brothers or sisters?

R: I had a sister named Mildred Theoral. She died at a young age. There was a flu epidemic at the end of the war.

M: What year were you born?

R: I was born on February 17, 1900.

M: Can you tell me about your school days growing up in Ypsilanti?

R: We went to the Adams Street School next to the Methodist Church. They had four grades there. A black woman named Mrs. Wise taught first and second grades and Miss Alexander taught third and fourth grades. Mrs. Wise wasn't there at first, so Miss Alexander taught all four grades. When we finished there, we went to Woodruff School. We spent three years there. In seventh grade, we went to the Central School (the old high school). After high school, I went to Michigan State Normal College for almost two years. I quit school because I had a chance to take an apprenticeship. When I finished my apprenticeship, I spent a summer at the University of Michigan taking classes for Mortuary Science. We had almost all of the classes that a doctor would have only on a smaller scale.

M: When you decided to take up Mortuary Science, were there any other Negro morticians around?

R: No. A fellow in Flint and myself were the first two Negros in this part of the state. There were a lot of them in Detroit though. Before that, white folks took care of the Negroes.

M: What year did you open your business?

R: I opened it in 1924. In 1974, they gave me a recognition ceremony in Grand Rapids for my 50th year. I've taken it on for another six years too.

M: Were you already in business when you married?

R: Yes.

M: Then your wife came into the business with you.

R: Yes.

M: What happened after your break-up?

R: Judge Breakey told her that she could operate in my place. Before that, when I'd get a call, she'd insult the people if she couldn't get the business and talk sweet to them if she could. She was just terrible. We couldn't live like that, so she applied for a divorce. There was a minister here that was pushing her. He was helping her to get the business from me. She got me in court, but I wouldn't sign for a divorce for five years. She used a total lie to get the divorce. He just let her stay there and it got so people didn't even know me anymore. They had lost track of me. We had to move her out of there. She tried to get the place but couldn't. The just would have let her stay there for another five years, but she lost to him under son's conditions. She took it to the Michigan Supreme Court, but they threw her out on the third day. She moved around from place to place and was building a place at the same time. People started dying like flies and she was doing a wonderful business. She didn't have any competition and I wouldn't compete against her. I moved to Detroit and opened up a place down there. I had a partner that didn't have a license. He worked at the morgue and could get all of those cases. I thought it was a pretty good opportunity to join with him, but he started putting his name down as funeral director and they could have me put in jail for that.

M: Was your wife married to someone else before you?

R: She was married to Terrance Davis. She had four children by him: Bud, Nonnie, Paul, & Clarence. Clarence was killed in Puerto Rico.

M: Did you and she have any children?

R: We had two children. My son Joe has a liquor store where Washington and Harriet meet at the top of the hill. Clement, my other son, died 12 or 15 years ago.

M: After you and your wife divorced, did she marry again?

R: Yes. She married Clement Mills from Detroit. He's a postal man.

M: During this time, I'm sure there were several efforts by Negroes to start businesses.

R: Yes. Harry Newton had a grocery store and he did a fine business. It was a meat market, an ice cream parlor, and a grocery store.

M: What street was that on?

R: It was on Monroe and Huron. I worked for him when he was in business, and then when he went out of business, he worked for me! I had a large apaprtment house that I renovated. Harry had a son named Ensie that is living now.

M: Did you know Solomon Bow? He was in the house moving business.

R: I knew him. He also had two tobacco houses, one of each side of the driveway where I lived. He had a barn for the horses too.

M: Solomon Bow also had a grocery store back around 1880.

R: That's what I heard. I know that they had a bakery shop in the house where I lived. Solomon lived there until he died. His son in Buffalo, his Uncle Egbert, and my father bought the house from him. They also bought all of his equipment and Egbert and my father went into the house moving business. My father bought a number of lots on Jefferson nd Madison. People were building new homes, so my father would buy their old homes and move them to his lots. He was in the real estate business before that, but he didn't have a license. George Hayes, who had a grocery store and was a mayor here at one time, told him that he should get his liecense, so my father got his license.

M: hHe was probably the first black in Ypsilanti to practice.

R: Yes he was. There was another man named Al Anderson who came along a little bit later.

M: What were the barber businesses that you remember?

R: There was a barber named Isiah Norris. His shop was in the alley behind Michigan Avenue.

M: Were his clients white or black?

R: They were black. Ann Arbor was different though. There were three or four black barbers that had white clients.

M: Did you know James Clark?

R: He was the richest Negro in Ypsilanti. He owned a saloon downtown.

M: Do you remember any businesses downtown?

R: John White had a cobbler shop under the Ypsilanti Savings Bank [now City Hall]. On the other side of Michigan Avenue, Sledge had a tailoring shop. Across the street, Lee Freeman had a pool room. It used to be a restaurant called the Greasy Spoon. John's Liquor Store was on the corner right across from the bank. Barn Tanner had a secondhand store on Huron Street. Dr. Dickson and Dr. Perry both had offices on Huron Street too.

M: Did you know Barney Jakes?

R: He was a white man, but he had a black wife.

M: As far back as before the Civil War, there have been mixed couples living in Ypsilanti.

R: Yes. Will Long had a white wife. My gradndfather Bass had a white wife too. His wife was from England. Alfred Davis' wife had mixed parents too.

M: I get the impression that Ypsilanti was not a bad place for Negroes in comparison with other places just past the turn of the century.

R: Yes, but it was still segregated.

M: From World War One to World War Two, things seemed to get a little bit worse.

R: Yes. It wasn't good there for a while.

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Lisele said...

I really enjoyed this series, DD. I had no idea there was so much intermarriage -- not just one or two isolated couples. That's interesting.

Dusty D said...

I'm glad you did. It was hard to choose which ones to include--there is so much information in the histories as a whole.

Meg said...

Thanks for this. I didn't realize there was someone who did most of the plastering in Ypsi. I'll bet he did my house! And my staircase!