“Practices of Cultural Memory”: In Conversation with Marcia Black of Black Bottom Archives



Image c/o Walter P. Reuther Library

Black Bottom Archives (BBA) is a community-driven media platform dedicated to centering and amplifying the voices, experiences, and perspectives of Black Detroiters through digital storytelling, journalism, art, and community organizing with a focus on preserving local Black history & archiving our present.

We spoke with Black Bottom Archives Director Marcia Black about the organization’s history, mission, and the social and political responsibilities of archival work.

How did the Black Bottoms Archive come into existence and how would you describe its mission?

Black Bottom Archives was started in 2015 by a group of young Black Detroiters that wanted to have somewhere to share their stories and experiences. A part of what motivated them to start the platform was their observations about the changes that were happening in Detroit which didn’t necessarily feel reflective of the Black Detroiters that have been here, and they wanted to make sure that their history and stories wouldn’t be lost. We started out as a Tumblr page doing blogging about information about Black Bottom and had people submitting pieces that reflected on their experiences as Black Detroiters, and then we later launched officially as a digital publication. We’ve always been adaptable to what our community says that they want to see, so at different points we’ve had a Black business directory, we’ve had a podcast, we’ve had a bookclub, and in 2017/2018 is when we started more actively doing the work of preserving the history of Black Bottom through the oral history collection work that we do, and also through the creation of our digital archive. 2018 is also when we officially partnered with Emily Kutil, who created the Black Bottom Street View exhibit, which is now managed by us. That exhibit is one of the things that sparked the creation of the digital archive, our wanting to have a platform for when people interact with this exhibit and see these pictures of Black Bottom to also have a place to also hear from the people who lived there and made up that community.

I’m curious how the founders of the archive knew one another and what their respective backgrounds were? 

We were co-founded by P.G. Watkins and Camille Johnson, who are two young Black Detroiters that actually were living in Washington D.C. at the time. During that time they noticed during multiple interactions when they would tell people that they’re from Detroit people would have a lot of negative reactions and negative narratives about Detroit, and as people from the city they had a totally different perspective, and that was part of what prompted them to start Black Bottom Archives.

What is it about the history of the Black Bottom neighborhood specifically that is important to preserve and spread awareness of?

For us I think a part of the resonance with the Black Bottom community is related to the history and the connection it has had to Black people creating an identity and a community in Detroit. Black Bottom was one of the key settlement places for Black people traveling to Detroit during the Great Migration. It was a key place that was able to spark the existence of other historically Black communities. On the other end when we talk about the harm and the pattern of Black history being erased or misconstrued, Black Bottom is a great example of that, because as we’ve come to learn more about the history there are so many contributions and amazing people, businesses, and cultural institutions who come from that place, and for many years and even now there are many Black Detroiters who don’t know about that community. When they think about places where Black people have been successful in practicing community sufficiency often times are closest examples are like Tulsa, or if we’re talking about cultural impact Harlem. But to know that a place like that which had a similar impact is just within our history and is a story that hasn’t been well known— and a lot of why we know that today is because of the work that Black Detroiters have done, in all of these different non-institutional ways like being griots and making art and telling stories, that has made it so that this history is more and more known. It’s to the point now where we can put it in conversation with present day development.

What can the history of Black Bottom teach us today about contemporary development in Detroit?

One of the lessons we can take is the devastating and multi-generational impact that displacement has on communities. I’m hoping this can be a deterrent from continuously developing in a way that doesn’t involve the perspectives of people who are living there now. I think Black Bottom is a great example of how development happens usually not for the people who currently live there but for the people developers want to attract. In the case of Black Bottom, before it was Lafayette Park it was a majority Black community, and as a result of it being destroyed and Lafayette Park being created it meant that 3 out of 4 of the people that were living there were white. So we need to understand what the ramifications of that are, both in terms of the individual experience of being displaced, but also in the communal experience of being told that the place that you lived in was a slum and isn’t worth existing. It’s important to know that even today it’s happening, the mechanisms are not the same, we’re not dealing with racial covenants or dealing with blatant redlining, but there are still ways in which Black people and working class people are often limited in terms of their choices and excluded from taking part in envisioning the future of where they live. 

What do you see as the social and political responsibilities of the work you’re doing with historical preservation and archiving these experiences?

I’m an archivist, a lot of my motivation right now is directed towards redesigning our archive and becoming more of a resource for people who want to learn about Black Detroit history, and a part of the reason why we’ve named our current project Sankofa Community Research, Sankofa is a name for a West African symbol that means “going back to get it”, and a part of that meaning is that we go back and learn our history and study those tools so we can make a better future. So in the case of thinking about Black Bottom and other communities, they tell us a lesson about what happens when you exclude communities from being a part of planning for their future. If we have those stories and we have those lessons then there is no reason why we should have to replicate the same pattern of behavior that leads us to a point where people are being displaced. We’re seeing mass harm that folks are dealing with both in terms of themselves and also the impact it has on future generations. Because right now what we’re learning and experiencing is that Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were destroyed around seventy years ago, and the consequences of that community being displaced is still very present for people.

I think a part of why we’re studying this history and making sure to share these stories is to illustrate the consequences, to advocate for us to move differently, and for us to integrate the lessons that we’ve learned from the past. And then on a personal, inter-communal level there’s a level of healing and self-esteem building work that I think has also been part of the motivation around Black Bottom Archives. When a lot of the negative narratives that are circulated about Detroit are rooted in racism and with a particular focus on relating Black people to why the city is the way it is, and so it is so important to counteract that and be able to illustrate stories of how Black people have made major cultural impact that extend beyond what we know about Motown for instance, but to pull out these other stories that speak to the beautiful legacies of Black Detroiters that are often overlooked.

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