A short history (1)

I’ve been very touched reading all the comments about Detroit and different industrial cities in my intro post. As I mentioned in comments, I’m going to be doing a short background post on Detroit and Michigan to provide context for later discussions–but you should definitely read the comments on the intro post as well. They give a lot of background on so many of the issues I’ll be covering–and the great thing is, so many of those comments come from a place of deep love.

So let’s begin! As mentioned, I wanted to do a quick layout of the area I’ll be most centered on, Southeast Michigan. Please be forewarned, it is not in my capacity to do a culminative historical reading of the region. I am going to keep my perspective here narrowed down to what I feel are a few moments that still effect how the region works today.

First: Here is a picture of Michigan, a state located in the US. It has different regions highlighted. The area I’m most interested in are the ones in the Southeast (lower right hand side), or the areas highlighted yellow and red. A map of Michigan. It is mit shaped and has different regions of the mit highlighted in different colors.

Michigan is first and foremost, land that was stolen from Indigenous peoples, specifically the Fox and Sauk, the Kickapoo, the Menominee, the Miami, the Ojibwe, and the Potawatomi tribe. There are currently eleven federally recognized tribes in Michigan, here’s a link to information about seven of them.

The wars and politics that allowed for the the theft of Native land to happen are too intricate to deal with here, but the important things to note are that: 1. It was the French, English and US that all had a hand in the theft. And 2. These nation/states targeted the land they stole because of the rich resources it held and the strategic geographical location of Michigan in efficiently transporting the resources “back home.” The importance of those resources to these nation/states is demonstrated by the forts all up and down the eastern side of Michigan–forts that are not on the west side of the state. But of course, the West side shares a lake with other US states, not another nation/state.

It’s important to know about Michigan’s history of colonization because indigenous peoples in Michigan are still still struggling with the vestiges of colonization. They are also leaders in the fight against corporate violence against the land and the people. There is often a false idea that the violences of industrialization play out almost exclusively in urban areas. But those serene lakes and beautiful mountains we all like going to for our week vacation are the same places that keep the urban factories up and running.

Now, let’s jump forward a couple of hundred years to the 1950s and the construction of I-75. The I-75 corridor is an interstate freeway that runs from Sault St. Marie in the Upper Penninsula to somewhere in Florida. It should come as no surprise that Sault St. Marie is land stolen from Native peoples. And it is also no coincidence that it is a major shipping port that is home to the famous Soo Locks, a series of locks within a canal that allows heavy industry tankers to travel the difficult area of the Great Lakes. It should be no surprise that I-75 also connects all the major factory cities in Michigan together (Saginaw, Flint, Dearborn, Detroit).

Here is a close up map that highlights the 1-75 corridor in Southeast Michigan:

a map close up of the 1-75 corridor in Michigan. It has a pink highlighted line that follows the corridor.

So the question you should be asking yourself right now is why does I-75 seem to follow a straight line through all the industrial cities on the East side of Michigan–rather than, say, all the religious cities on the West side?

To get to that answer–so we need to jump back a few years to the 1930s and 40s in Detroit (bear with me, I’m almost done!).

The Big Three are a Very Big Deal in this area. Chrysler, General Motors, and Ford are who historically have supplied the majority of the jobs throughout the region, and even today after NAFTA and CAFTA and all the other free trade agreements the US has entered into, a huge population of the available jobs in the Michigan are connected to the Big Three. Usually these days it’s through the supply side. That is, rather than building the cars, the jobs across the state are related to piecing together *parts* of the cars–like: window panels, door handles, etc. I knew somebody who put herself through college making rear view mirrors. I know somebody else who spent his college years working at a factory that builds air filtration systems for the bigger factories.

But at one point, the majority of the jobs were in huge factories up and down the I-75 corridor. At one point, Buick City in Flint had over 27,000 workers alone. And those jobs were the major incentive behind what’s known as the Great Migration (which generally spanned from the 20s until the 50s). During the Great Migration, a vast majority of the migrating people (which were largely made up of black folks and poor white folks from the mining areas) settling in Michigan settled on the East side of the state–or, along the factory belt line where all the jobs were.

During that time, there was prosperity. But not all was well. For all intents and purposes, Flint and Detroit (among others) were not just factory towns, as in: there was a factory in the city, but were *factory* towns, as in: spies and threats of violence and corporate control over the government and police. There were unions, but with the organization of those unions came the real threat of death. There was money, but in especially Detroit, there were few places to spend it. There were jobs–but those jobs were segregated. Whites getting the less dangerous jobs, black men getting the most dangerous. There were unions, but men rarely fought for the concerns union women had.

It was the 40s that PalMD notes in comments was the peak era of the region. But it was also the era that marked the beginning of post-industrialization in the Rust Belt. I’m going to get in specific details of the 1940s Detroit (the Arsenal of Democracy) era in my next post. Because 1940s Detroit is the reason that we should all care about what is going on in Detroit right now–and I would argue that it’s the reason we should all care about post-industrialization, globalization, heavy industry, the Rust Belt–and what Detroiters specifically and Michiganders in general are doing to confront the mess the corporations left behind. It’s also exemplifies exactly how white supremacist heteropatriarchy is a function of capitalism and vise versa, and why gender justice will not happen, in fact, can not happen, without addressing the entire mess of it.

But for now, just notice how the different pieces of Michigan history intersect with each other: colonization, resource grabs, transportation of resources, and government complicity with corporations.

Ok–well, that’s it for the “short” history. :D

I’d love to hear from others what their geographical history looks like!

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24 Responses

  1. LC
    LC September 13, 2011 at 12:18 am |

    My short geographical history involves Quebec… which also is a whole post and a half just to do a proper overview of. Same three nation states, different set of First Nations, slightly less heavy industry and I suspect more heavy hand of the Church occupying a similar role.

    And the vast majority of the action runs along the St. Laurent water way, rather than the lakes.

  2. What do Michigan, Feminism, and White Supremacist Heteropatriarchy have in common? « hahayourefunny

    [...] this and find out. A short history (1) — Feministe: I’m going to get in specific details of the 1940s Detroit (the Arsenal of Democracy) era in my [...]

  3. elizabeth
    elizabeth September 13, 2011 at 2:17 am |

    I wish history were taught like this at the different levels of our educational system.

  4. La Lubu
    La Lubu September 13, 2011 at 6:28 am |

    I’d love to hear from others what their geographical history looks like!

    Same theft of native land (by the same players–the French, British and US) for the same reasons. Mostly, Illinois land belonged to the Illini (and some to the Chickasaw and Shawnee in the south, the Dakota and Miami to the north), but after more European land theft to the east, the Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, etc. moved into Illini land. There are no federally recognized tribes in Illinois today; they were forcibly moved to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears (and similar marches in central Illinois). Many cities and other places still have native names.

    In Illinois, it’s all about the rivers, and later, the railroads. Canals were built to give access to the Mississippi from the Great Lakes. Most of our highways follow the old railroad routes (like the Illinois Central. I-55 is the updated version of old Route 66 (well, as it runs through this state). Route 66 is a Big Deal in Illinois, with street festivals and road trips and stuff—there are historical markers so a person can follow what’s left of it.

    Manufacturing used to be a mainstay of the Illinois economy, and we had the same Great Migration (and massive immigration from Europe & the Mediterranean), but…NAFTA, CAFTA and the like have decimated the manufacturing base (and the communities that relied on it for their tax base—think: schools, infrastructure, etc.). Agriculture is still important here, but it never put as many people to work as manufacturing. The Chicago stockyards eventually disappeared after decentralization of the meatpacking industry made possible by interstate trucking (no more reliance on rail for shipping). And coal is still mined here, but powerhouses tend to prefer Western coal brought in by rail.

    What’s left is highly dependent on oil—and that’s not so cheap anymore, and will be getting less so. On the flipside, Illinois still has excellent soil, and many rivers, so after industrial collapse we may fare better than other areas.

  5. Rich
    Rich September 13, 2011 at 8:28 am |

    This has totally inspired me! I’m excited that there are so many people here that have a CLEAR understanding of history and social injustice.

    Massachusetts is rife with historical injustice on every level, especially the robbing of the land from the Native American tribes (Mashpee, etc.) I don’t know much about the tribes but I’m learning a lot just by going online and educating myself. Plymouth Rock is now a tourist attraction but every year, on Columbus Day, there are huge protests there.

    My background is Irish so I have been, in the past, most interested in the way Irish people were treated when they immigrated to MA in the mid-nineteenth century. Irish Americans today are aware of this history on a superficial level (I believe) but don’t realize the incredible HATRED that their ancestors endured so that they could escape Ireland. If you read anything about the Kennedy’s you will see that these prejudices by white Protestants didn’t just disappear but remained deep into the 20th century and are with us, to some degree, today. Joseph Kennedy could not join any frats at Harvard and was largely excluded from any social functions in Boston as a whole. His wife, Rose, was almost driven insane by the petty sniping that occurred when she attempted to relate to her neighbors in Brookline, MA. Add to this a history of alcoholism and lack of work and I think you can see where I’m going with this?

    In my own town, the Church was burned to the ground by the Know-Nothings in the 1860’s and had to be rebuilt by new immigrants in the 1880’s. When my father’s family came to this town they arrived in the 1920’s and were able to find some work as domestics or waiters, shitty jobs for low pay. When the Depression hit this was gone so my grandfather walked to Cambridge to find work because he had no money for the street car. Needless to say, he never found a steady job and spent much of his time drinking until his death from stomach cancer. How this lack of work and alcoholism affected his five children and wife is difficult to say, yet I assure you it wasn’t good.

    A book I’ve always wanted to read was: How the Irish Became White. Not sure of the author’s name, but our relations with other ethnic groups (especially African-Americans) has always been filled with misunderstanding and hatred. The Irish sought out steady, dependable jobs on the police and Fire dept. but would often band together to exclude other ethnic groups from enjoying the same benefits. I realize this is common to all ethnic groups but, as the Irish were the first “other” who happened to have white skin, it is particularly fierce among them. What do you think?

  6. FashionablyEvil
    FashionablyEvil September 13, 2011 at 8:39 am |

    Can I ask a (potentially stupid) question: Is there land in the United States that wasn’t taken from indigenous peoples?

  7. nilbogboh
    nilbogboh September 13, 2011 at 9:59 am |

    @Rich – the author of “How the Irish Became White” is Noel Ignatiev. I read it years ago in grad school and I remember liking it. It’s kind of a picky point, but I’m not sure that I would agree with you about the Irish being the first “Other” to be what we would now consider white. It doesn’t change the Irish story really, but Ashkenazi Jews, for example, would also fit into this category.

  8. llama
    llama September 13, 2011 at 10:21 am |

    It’s also exemplifies exactly how white supremacist heteropatriarchy is a function of capitalism and vise versa,

    I am interested to see where this goes. I blame most of the woes of the world on capitalism.

    Will we end up with some of the same arguments the CPUSA (Communist Party USA) were advancing in the 1940’s ?

  9. BHuesca
    BHuesca September 13, 2011 at 10:36 am |

    Comment: When I and my very nearsighted eyes click on your photos of Michigan in an attempt to enlarge (and therefore SEE) them, I get an error message. Am I doing something wrong? Or are they just not accessible?

    Main comment: I get that you’re not trying to do a total history of Michigan. Frankly that would be tens of hundreds of thousands of pages, totally not a blog post, and might just work like Ambien. :)

    But when you say “Michigan is first and foremost, land that was stolen from Indigenous peoples”, I really must object, because that does seem to be very much enhancing the “Noble Savage” meme/myth. People fought over, stole, lost, gained, etc. land, territory, resource-rich areas, resource-poor areas, sacred areas, etc. of land WAY WAY before there was even a concept of France or Great Britain or the United States. I get that the concept of a “Michigan” as a discrete entity and as a whole is a French/British/United States construct.

    I just don’t see how, being as the land contained with what we now call Michigan existed and was populated by homo sapiens long before homo sapiens came from other continents, a history of Michigan would start out almost giving the impression that the people here were universally peaceful (and the corollary, that the newER arrivals were universally plundering and never peaceful).

    The issue of Native Americans/First Nations/indigenous peoples actually having immigrated here themselves – yet nearly no one acknowledging this (thus the indigenous label) – fascinates me. Even plants that we now may consider indigenous to an area did come from somewhere, be it translocation or evolution. And the notion of Being British (the sun never sets on the British empire!) or Being French or Being a Native-Born US Citizen is a notion that has changed sooooo much – kind of like being a Michigan-residing Kickapoo tribe, I suspect.

  10. BHuesca
    BHuesca September 13, 2011 at 10:40 am |

    Rich:

    A book I’ve always wanted to read was: How the Irish Became White.Not sure of the author’s name, but our relations with other ethnic groups (especially African-Americans) has always been filled with misunderstanding and hatred.The Irish sought out steady, dependable jobs on the police and Fire dept. but would often band together to exclude other ethnic groups from enjoying the same benefits.I realize this is common to all ethnic groups but, as the Irish were the first “other” who happened to have white skin, it is particularly fierce among them.What do you think?

    I read this in undergrad for a class specifically about transformation/relabeling/migration/immigration. Other books also talked about the Chinese ‘immigrants’ (in quotes because there was so much enslavement by employers, especially out west) being considered Black and then White and then Black again.

    And of course Italians weren’t considered White for the longest time, and then they were, and now we have shows like Jersey Shore which apparently show people self-identifying as Italian-American with the emphasis on Italian.

  11. Kristen J.
    Kristen J. September 13, 2011 at 11:50 am |

    Fascinating! I talked a little about Hawaii’s history in my guest post. Its interesting as a point of contrast that the Ali’i seemed to accept capitalism and westernization to some extent which gained them international acknowledgement as an independent state but that still didn’t save them from U.S. military imperialism.

    Beyond that Hawaii’s culture is very much a blend of the different groups that came to work on the plantations on land stolen from Hawaiians. Even the language “pidgin” is a hodgepodge of words created by Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, etc laborers struggling against the language barrier. That struggle and the hardship experienced created a sense of family, ohana, that survives to this day as both a sense of collective support and also as xenophobia.

    All of which stands in sharp contrast to the industries in Hawaii: military and tourism. Its interesting to me that to some extent the geography of for example Oahu is as much about containing haoles as anything. For example, did you know Waikiki isn’t really a beach? Its naturally a swamp. The beautiful sandy beaches are created and sand is regularly brought in as the cross-currents drag the existing beach away. Its also separated from the rest of Honolulu by the Ala Wai Canal. Both symbolically and geographically it is isolated from the rest of Hawaii.

    But enough, I’m making myself homesick. I’m curious about whether people talk about these sorts of things in High School. Whether the history is taught?

  12. Verity Khat
    Verity Khat September 13, 2011 at 2:30 pm |

    @Kristen J. As someone who graduated from public high school in the Southern US within the last decade, no, this is NOT the history that is being taught, much to my dismay. Still lots of Big Sweeping Things That White Males Did With Other White Males. >_< It got better as we got older; some attention was finally paid to the culture of displaced native populations and the local doings of minorities.

    @BFP I have a friend that lives in Ann Arbor, so this is very interesting to read! Can't wait to read the rest!

  13. tigtog
    tigtog September 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm | *

    Hey bfp, I’ve fixed the image links to larger versions, so folks should be able to click through now. It’s an admin-y thing that I’ll email you about rather than cluttering up the blog.

  14. Rich
    Rich September 13, 2011 at 5:59 pm |

    nilbogboh:
    @Rich – the author of “How the Irish Became White” is Noel Ignatiev. I read it years ago in grad school and I remember liking it. It’s kind of a picky point, but I’m not sure that I would agree with you about the Irish being the first “Other” to be what we would now consider white. It doesn’t change the Irish story really, but Ashkenazi Jews, for example, would also fit into this category.

    Thanks! Now I can pick that one up at Borders or somewhere.

    I don’t think you’re being picky at all, I’m only writing from my perspective and I didn’t even realize Ashkenazi Jews came to the US. I’ve heard of “Sephardic” Jews but I don’t know where “Ashkenazi” Jews came from. Feel free to let me know anytime I’m being ignorant about historical stuff!

  15. BHuesca
    BHuesca September 13, 2011 at 6:12 pm |

    Bfp and tigtog – thanks for the visibility accomodation with the pictures! Much appreciated!!

  16. Rich
    Rich September 13, 2011 at 6:21 pm |

    BHuesca: I read this in undergrad for a class specifically about transformation/relabeling/migration/immigration. Other books also talked about the Chinese ‘immigrants’ (in quotes because there was so much enslavement by employers, especially out west) being considered Black and then White and then Black again.

    And of course Italians weren’t considered White for the longest time, and then they were, and now we have shows like Jersey Shore which apparently show people self-identifying as Italian-American with the emphasis on Italian.

    You know your US “History” (or at least the parts they don’t tell us!) I’ve seen those old cartoons of Chinese and Irish “immigrants” and cringe! The two groups were often at odds because they were competing for similar jobs but the Chinese usually got the shittier jobs because they were non-caucasian. Then the Irish were all pissed off and….well, you know the sad rest..

    I can’t stand “Jersey Shore” although, I will admit with shame, I did watch some of the first season!

  17. Rich
    Rich September 13, 2011 at 6:27 pm |

    Kristen J.:
    Fascinating!I talked a little about Hawaii’s history in my guest post.Its interesting as a point of contrast that the Ali’i seemed to accept capitalism and westernization to some extent which gained them international acknowledgement as an independent state but that still didn’t save them from U.S. military imperialism.

    Beyond that Hawaii’s culture is very much a blend of the different groups that came to work on the plantations on land stolen from Hawaiians.Even the language “pidgin” is a hodgepodge of words created by Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, etc laborers struggling against the language barrier.That struggle and the hardship experienced created a sense of family, ohana, that survives to this day as both a sense of collective support and also as xenophobia.

    All of which stands in sharp contrast to the industries in Hawaii:military and tourism.Its interesting to me that to some extent the geography of for example Oahu is as much about containing haoles as anything.For example, did you know Waikiki isn’t really a beach?Its naturally a swamp.The beautiful sandy beaches are created and sand is regularly brought in as the cross-currents drag the existing beach away.Its also separated from the rest of Honolulu by the Ala Wai Canal.Both symbolically and geographically it is isolated from the rest of Hawaii.

    But enough, I’m making myself homesick.I’m curious about whether people talk about these sorts of things in High School.Whether the history is taught?

    Your post about Hawaii makes me “homesick” too! I used to live there (for a very short while) a few years ago as I worked on a ship. The people are awesome! I am the palest haole there is too…..

    No, teachers do not really touch on these things in High School. It’s too “uncomfortable” for the school boards…..

  18. Linnaeus
    Linnaeus September 13, 2011 at 9:12 pm |

    I’m only writing from my perspective and I didn’t even realize Ashkenazi Jews came to the US. I’ve heard of “Sephardic” Jews but I don’t know where “Ashkenazi” Jews came from.

    I’m oversimplifying a bit here, but “Ashkenazi” generally refers to the Jews of and descended from the Jewish communities in central and eastern Europe.

  19. honeybadger
    honeybadger September 13, 2011 at 10:37 pm |

    Growing up in Saginaw everyone knew that everything of importance could be reached by going north or south on I-75. The auto industry leaving, as most people realize, pretty much killed that side of the state. The Big Three are so important to Detroit and much of the surrounding area. Even in the Thumb, there were lots of small factories making steering gears and other things for the auto industry. I lived in Grand Rapids on the west side, and it struck me how very different it was than Saginaw and Detroit. Very religious, and very conservative. Almost like it isn’t a part of the “real” Michigan. A lot of people in Grand Rapids (at least that I met when I lived there) who grew up on that side of the state seem to think of Saginaw, Flint, and Detroit as riddled with crime and basically the whole city as a “ghetto.”

  20. DownRiverPony
    DownRiverPony September 15, 2011 at 5:39 am |

    @ Honey badger

    It’s not just the west side of the state that thinks detroit/saginaw/flint is ghetto. It’s just about every other state as well.

    I go to school (2) out of state. In 2 different states in the midwest – nothing horribly far from Michigan. Even while traveling to other states/cities not in the mid-west, when I tell people I’m from detroit, the number one comment I get is…

    “….but you’re a white girl.”

    or just an astonished “oh”.

    I’ve also received other snide detroit-must-be-a-hell-hole comments/questions like;

    “…. so where’s your gun?”
    ” Have you ever been in a drive by?”
    “Have you ever been in a gang?”
    “oh so you know how to get the whole welfare/food stamp/WIC”
    “You don’t seem city enough, you’re into horses. How does someone from detroit like horses??”

    @ The author BFP
    Can I ask why you chose to write about detroit? Are you from detroit/the area? Or is what happened to/happens in detroit just that interesting?

  21. Rich
    Rich September 15, 2011 at 10:35 am |

    Linnaeus: I’m oversimplifying a bit here, but “Ashkenazi” generally refers to the Jews of and descended from the Jewish communities in central and eastern Europe.

    @Linnaeus Thanks! I never knew that and I live in a community with one of the oldest Temples in New England. I can be ignorant at times!

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