News | Feb. 28, 2020

Event shares West Michigan’s African-American history

By Tim Hoyle DLA Disposition Services

Defense Logistics Agency employees and guests took time to observe Black History Month, focusing on people and events in West Michigan’s past that contributed to that history.

A Feb. 27 program at the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center noted the many contributions of African-Americans. William Jerome, DLA Installation Management’s site director at Battle Creek, provided opening remarks that reminded the audience of local contributors like Sojourner Truth who “inspire us with their courage and example.” He also discussed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who spoke in the Cereal City in 1960.

“I hope he would be pleased with what he would see at the Federal Center,” Jerome said. “I hope he could see us a place where people are working together, valued for who they are, judged by the color of their character and not the color of their skin.”

Guest speaker Benjamin Wilson, an emeritus professor and former director of Africana Studies at Western Michigan University, also offered insights from Calhoun County’s impact on African American heritage during his presentation, which included remarks on Perry Sanford, another former slave, like Truth, who became an abolitionist in Battle Creek.

“He was an interesting man,” Wilson said. “He was a runaway slave who got caught… he escaped and came to Battle Creek and later assisted people in running away.”

Wilson also talked of Eugene Ballard, who emigrated to France before World War I and, according to the Smithsonian, became the first black combat pilot, flying with the Aéronautique Militaire. Former Allegan resident Robert Chandler was also remembered as one the first Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.

Wilson’s remarks also include a pictorial view of the African American resort area Idlewild and stories about some of the more famous guests like Della Reese and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. According to Britannica’s online edition, some believe Williams performed the first recorded repair of the pericardium.

The Washington Post wrote that Idlewild was once a regular stop on the tours of entertainers like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie, but declined after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed black performers and vacationers access to mainstream resorts such as Miami Beach and Las Vegas.

Wilson earned a master’s degree in pre-colonial African history and a doctorate in American history, specializing in the antebellum black experience, from Michigan State University. During the presentation he mentioned serving as a historical consultant on the creation the Underground Railroad sculpture in Battle Creek. His scholarly work also includes writing or serving as co-author of three books and numerous articles on various aspects of the African American Heritage in Michigan.  He also produced 12 educational audio-visual modules on Michigan's black experience.