An excerpt from Keith Ellison
From the Black Bottom to Cane River
I have lived my adult life in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but I was born in Detroit, Michigan. My American journey actually began long before that. My story is best told through the people who raised me, because their history shaped the man I have become. Both of my parents grew up in a Jim Crow America where opportunities for people of color were limited. Both of them managed to fight through adversity to build success, but their paths were quite different.
My mother was nurtured and even cosseted by a strong family unit that provided the opportunity for her to grow. In fact, her nickname was Pet. My dad, however, had to fight a culture, a city, a nation, and sometimes his own family. His constant battles made him tough and callused enough to forge ahead to success but, at the same time, left him altered by the experience.
Leonard Ellison Sr. was born in Detroit in 1928. Today it is one of the most complex cities in the United States, filled with both great pride and serious challenges. It has some of the most culturally diverse neighborhoods in the country and also some of the most racially polarized. It has some of the most beautiful architecture surrounded by some of our most dilapidated communities. It is Burberry Factory Outlet the original home of Motown Records and General Motors. It brought the world everyone from Eminem to Madonna, from Dr. Ben Carson to Charles A. Lindbergh, from Henry Ford to Berry Gordy.
Though we were both born in Detroit, my dad and I grew up in different times and in different cities. I was raised on the West Side, which was relatively affluent and safe. It’s where my father wanted to live as an adult.
The Detroit of his childhood was best known for the Black Bottom, made famous in August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Many people think that the area got its name from the color of the people who settled there, but the real reason was its black soil.
Before World War I, the area was predominantly Jewish, but after the Great Migration of black Americans from the rural South to the northern industrial cities like Detroit, the color of its inhabitants began to match its soil. The Black Bottom evolved into Detroit’s central community of black owned businesses, lodges, churches, and nightclubs. It became renowned for music and entertainment: blues, swing, and jazz.
Every major urban area has a center of black culture, and certain streets have an iconic status. In D Burberry Factory Outlet etroit, it was Hastings Street, which was to the Black Bottom what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans, Beale Street is to Memphis, and 125th Street is to Harlem.
My dad loved to regale my brothers and me with stories about Paradise Valley, another name for the Black Bottom. As a teen, he would sneak into the nightclubs on Hastings to see Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, and Pearl Bailey. Aretha Franklin started her singing career in her father’s church, New Bethel Baptist, also on that street. By the time I was growing up in the 1970s, most of Hastings Street had long since been bulldozed to create the Chrysler Freeway segment of Interstate 75. But my father talked with pride about the hustlers who displayed such class and cachet that they almost had celebrity status on the streets. He made the era sound so thrilling and exciting that I could vividly imagine it.
This was my dad’s world during the height of segregation segregation northern style. There were no Whites Only signs per se, but you knew where you could and could not go. Blacks everyw Burberry Factory Outlet here faced structural isolation and denial. The silver lining of this oppression was social cohesion. The doctors, undertakers, and lawyers, as well as the pimps and the hustlers, all lived in the same segregated community and contributed to the tapestry of the Black Bottom. My dad was exposed not only to the greatest entertainers and most successful professionals but also to the worst of the criminal element, and he was influenced by it all. The Black Bottom contributed to my father’s character and soul as much as his unique upbringing.
My father was the son of a farmer turned factory worker turned entrepreneur. My grandfather Zollie Crawford Ellison, born in 1896, was a part of America’s Great Migration, detailed in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. He originally hailed from a farm near Sardis, in Burke County, Georgia. His father, Crawford Ellison, was born into slavery in 1862. And his grandfather Jacob Ellison lived and died a slave.
We knew all this family history because my father and his only brother, Uncle Bob, would sit around and talk about these men. They drilled those names and their stories into my four brothers and me. They gave us a sense of belonging and meaning and purpose. We knew we had a slave heritage, but it wasn’t given to us with shame. My dad always exuded pride and strength. For him, that heritage was a source of pride, a mark of perseverance, of survival over terrible odds.
As a young man, Grandpa Zollie left the farm and “went north” to work in Detroit’s factories. He wasn’t educated not in a classroom but he was a genius when it came to understanding how to succeed in this world. Grandpa Zollie was smart and industrious. In addition to working in the factory, he also saved his money and acquired several residential rental properties and opened a neighborhood store.
My grandfather was a driven man and not someone to mess with. I will never forget jumping in the car with my dad to check on Grandpa Zollie after we got a call that some guy had tried to rob his store. My grandpa, who stood just five foot four inches, had thrown the would be robber through the display window.
“A strong farm boy,” my dad joked, shaking his head as we stood surveying the broken glass on the sidewalk. Grandpa Zollie had a few scratches on his knuckles but otherwise was none the worse for wear.
I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. He would take my brother Brian and me to our Little League baseball practice, and to see the Detroit Tigers play at Tiger Stadium. We’d sit in the senior citizen seats for just fifty cents. On the weekends and during the summers, my brothers and I used to help cut the grass at his rental properties. He would ask us to make out the rent receipts while we were there.
“I can’t find my glasses,” he would say by way of an excuse for not doing it himself.
“But, Grandpa, your glasses are on your head,” I would point out.
“Boy, just fill out the receipts!” he’d fuss.
One day, after cutting the grass, as I was rummaging through the kitchen for something to eat, I asked my mother, “How come Grandpa always tells us to write out the rent receipts?”
My mother, who was usually mild mannered and patient, shot me a stern look. “What did you say to him?” she asked.
“Nothing, really. He said something about not being able to see, and I told him his glasses were on his head.”
“Don’t you ever embarrass your grandfather like that!” she said angrily.
“What?” I was confused. I didn’t think I had embarrassed Grandpa.
“You know Grandpa never had a chance to go to school like you.”
It had never occurred to me that my grandfather couldn’t read. He was one of the smartest men I knew. He seemed to know everything. Plus, everyone else in my family was educated. My father was a doctor: a psychiatrist. Uncle Bob was a dentist. My mother had her degree. My mother’s deceased father had been college educated, as was her mother. I just assumed that everyone knew how to read. I couldn’t imagine the times in which my grandfather was raised in Georgia, just a generation removed from slavery.
In such a hosti Burberry Factory Outlet le environment, choices were limited, especially for women. My paternal grandmother, Marian, married Grandpa Zollie when she was just nineteen and he was thirty. I never knew whether they fell in love or if they joined forces for convenience. Whatever the case, their marriage didn’t last long. You know it had to be bad, because hardly anyone got divorced back then.
After his parents split, my dad and his brother were raised by their grandmother, Marian’s mother. Grandpa Zollie had to work, and to the best of my knowledge, Grandma Marian started a new life.
My dad’s grandmother died when he was about ten. After that, he and Uncle Bob lived briefly with their mother, but that didn’t last long. My father was headstrong, willful, and boisterous. I imagine he was resentful about his broken family as well, although we’ve never talked about it. In any case, his mother couldn’t manage him, and he was sent to live with Grandpa Zollie’s sister, Carrie, who had moved up to Detroit and, like Grandpa Zollie, was quite enterprising. Aunt Carrie, according to family legend, operated an after hours establishment.