Column: Detroit's Historic Black Bottom -- a Case for Reparations

April 25, 2021, 11:27 PM

The authors are attorneys at the Ryles Firm in Palm Beach, Fla. Ryles was a law intern with the City of Detroit in 1989.

By Richard A. Ryles and Imani M. Williams

Detroit's Black Bottom (Photo: Knight Foundation)

Black Bottom was once a predominantly Black thriving neighborhood in Detroit. During its heyday, Black Bottom and the adjacent area known as Paradise Valley were overlapping neighborhoods.

Black Bottom was the residential area, while Paradise Valley was home to booming business and entertainment venues. Currently, the Lafayette Park residential district and I-75 and I-375 sit where the once-flourishing business district was located.

Notables from the Paradise Valley area include actor and singer Della Reese and Michigan’s first black congressman, Charles Diggs Jr.

Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

The entertainment was so captivating, even whites sat in a mixed audience to watch Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. 

Sadly, this would all end. The Depression brought physical decay and blight to the area as a result of jobs lost due to  automobile factory closings. To make matters worse, racial tensions grew, with deep-seat racism and deplorable living conditions triggering the Detroit Race Riot of 1943.

There was uproar from both blacks and whites, and Army troops with automatic weapons had to intervene. Many were injured, but Blacks were the only ones who died as a result of police violence.

Beginning in 1944, Mayor Edward Jeffries and the City Council proposed a plan to tear down “old structures” around the city. As a result, Black Bottom was demolished for redevelopment during the late 1950’s through the early 1960’s. The destruction of Black Bottom hit an apex in the mid 1950’s. This action was clearly urban revision before the process now known as urban renewal became the rage throughout the United States. 

For residents of the community, urban renewal was code for "Negro removal." Detroit, utilizing federal funds from the National Housing Act and National Highway Act, completed the taking of the property and displacement of blacks during the mid-1960s. Due to redlining, Jim Crow ordinances and statutes, former residents were displaced, most without full compensation. 

The question now arises: Are reparations a feasible remedy for these losses? Simply put, Yes.

Reparations are intended to redress egregious injustices as a result of government action. They can take numerous forms, including monetary payments, settlements, scholarships, help with housing, waiving fees and systematic initiatives to offset the injustice.

Illinois city takes the lead

Recently, the town of Evanston, Ill., became the first U.S. city to award reparations to Black residents for past discrimination and lingering effects of slavery. Its city council voted 8-1 to distribute $400,000 to eligible black households for home repairs or downpayments on property. Utlimately the city has pledged to distribute $10 million over 10 years.

The concept of reparations is not foreign nor unique. Japanese internment camp detainees, Holocaust survivors and Rosewood Massacre survivors all illustrate how governments, when faced with historical wrongs, can remedy those wrongs if political will exists.

One of us, Richard Ryles, represented survivors and descendants of the Rosewood Massacre in Florida. Reparations were achieved not by virtue of great legal arguments, but because of black political leverage in the state of Florida. 

Rosewood, a Northwest Florida Coastal Black town, was destroyed by white violence in 1923. Most of the Blacks were hanged or shot. After obtaining a forensic historical analysis, the Black Caucus of Florida legislators backed compensation for the living survivors and verified descendants of the massacre.

Influence of Black Caucus

At the time, the Florida House and governor were controlled by the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, Black Caucus members had become the deciding factors in all votes by leveraging their block vote.

In May 1994, Gov. Lawton Chiles signed the Rosewood Claims Bill to compensate victims with $1.5 million. Additionally, $500,000 was earmarked to cover property damage, plus a scholarship fund was established that exists today.

The same formula can now be employed to address the inverse condemnation that decimated Black Bottom to make way for I-75 and I-375. There is no prohibition to the city from correcting historic wrongs. It is now time for political might to meet political will.

The time has come for municipalities like Detroit to address the historic mistreatment and outright thefts perpetuated on Black citizens. A commission to determine eligible claimants and appropriate compensation are the first steps.

This political mechanism can energize a disengaged electorate by showing that voting power can produce tangible benefits. Strong leadership is necessary in times such as these, and where there is a will, there is a way. As the Mozambique warrior cry of determination goes: A luta continua (The struggle continues). 

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