To Wax Nostalgic

How the area known as Detroit’s Black Bottom or just “The Bottom”received its name, is not really known.  Some claim it was because black Detroiters and other dark haired minorities were forced to live in the area.

Others claim it was named after the dance, “Black Bottom” that became a scandalous rave throughout the country during the Jazz Age in the 1920s.  The dance was created by blacksin New Orleans.On January 2, 1927, the Detroit Free Press noted, “Like so many other dances from the United States, the steps and the movements generally have been borrowed from the colored population…” When it hit mainstream America it caused quite a stir.  Many communities called for it to be banned because the moves were thought to be savage, animalistic and too much like bestial African dances.  No father or husband wanted their child or spouse to be caught doing such an unholy dance.  This sense of taboo only seemed to make it more popular and liberating for women.  It eventually became so popular that reluctantly it was “accepted” by high society.  Once this occurred it was no longer considered a savage dance of blacks but the claim was made that the dance originally came to the new world 300 years prior by French colonists!

During this time, in 1926, Jelly Roll Morton, a jazz pianist and composer, wrote “Black Bottom Stomp” which allegedly referred to Detroit’s Black Bottom.

Finally others claim the name came not from the race of its last occupants, rather it was called Black Bottom by early French settlers because of its rich, fertile soil.  In 1969, a former 55 year resident told the Detroit Free Press that he like everyone else, “…thought Black Bottom got its name because so many black people lived there, most in or just over the edge of poverty.  Then he met an Ottawa Indian who told him it had nothing to do with Negroes, that it was called Black Bottom by the Ottawas, who once lived there, because the soil was so dark and fertile.”  The area at one-point was part of the River Savoyard riverbed, before it was buried as a sewer around 1827.

Black Bottom was first settled by European immigrants who included Greeks, Polish, and Eastern European Jews, before eventually being occupied by blacks migrating from the south searching for a better life.  Black Bottom was located on Detroit’s near east side, and was bounded by Gratiot Avenue, Brush Street, the Detroit River, and the Grand Trunk railroad.  Black Bottom became the forced residential tract for black Detroiters, and its boundaries changed over time to accommodate the growing black population, who by the thousands were lured to the city in the early 1900s with dreams of making good money in the automotive industry.

For years, former residents recalled all of the good that came with living in The Bottom or in The Valley.  Although the area was overflowing with black, poor, and struggling, southern refugees, it was a community filled with hope.  It was a community of people struggling who relied on each other and were each other’s family.  The community cared and shared.  Although some called it raggedy, a slum area, or a ghetto, for the people who lived there, it was home.  It was the community that set strict rules and respected values.  Many of the adult residents were just a few generations from being slaves or sharecroppers, and they expected their children to do better than them, to take advantage of a good education, and decent wages in the city.

It is worth noting that from 1910 to 1930 Detroit’s black population went from 6,000 to 120,000 with many being forced to live in Black Bottom because of segregation.

In the September 30, 1933 edition of the Detroit Tribune, Editor J. Edward McCall printed on page 8 the following poem about Hastings Street, which was considered the lifeline of the area:

 

Hastings Street

 

There’s a colorful street in the Motor Town,

Where people of all races meet –

Black and white and yellow and brown,

Prince and peasant and priest and clown –

We meet them all on Hastings Street.

The street is narrow, the buildings old;

The pavements, traffic – worn and rough.

The stores on Hastings are manifold,

Where Jews wax rich on Negro gold,

And Shylock struts his stuff.

Above the clamor of trolley gong,

And the noise of thundering motor van,

We hear the Negro’s voice in song,

And the barking guns of coppers strong,

Who kill because they can.

On Hastings Street we sing and dance,

Despite the ills and wrongs we bear.

We whirl the dizzy wheel of chance.

We laugh at bitter circumstance,

But our stout hearts shed no tear.

 

By 1950, Detroit’s black population was approximately 300,000 out of 1.8 million.  Segregation meant doctors lived next to factory workers.  Your occupation or social economic status did not dictate where you lived…your race did.

Former Black Bottom residents feel that they are the best example of being forfeited in steel.  As one former resident said in 1998, “We’ve overcome the odds.  Many of us came from the South, poor.  There was this stigma, the perception that we were lazy, dumb, slick.  That there were limitations to what we could do.  It’s true we didn’t, most of us, have the best of homes physically.  But inwardly we had the best because we were taught faith and wisdom and accountability.  That we could become anything we wanted to.  We were taught we were somebody long before Rev. Jackson started saying it.  You never know how strong your faith is until it’s been tested.  And you never know how strong you are until you’re tested.  People from Black Bottom were tested.”

Paradise Valley was the business and entertainment district for black Detroiters and was located to the north of Black Bottom.  The Valley, as it was commonly shortened, received its name from theatrical/booking agent and theatrical writer, Rollo Vest in approximately 1935/1936.  He came up with the name to support the Valley’s mayoral contest.  Several prominent men ran for the honorary title of Paradise Valley mayor, and the first mayor was B & C nightclub owner Roy Lightfoot. The name/area became famous throughout the country for great black entertainment.  Paradise Valley’s boundaries at one point were Gratiot to its south, Riopelle to the east, Medbury on the north, and John R to the west.  Like Black Bottom, as the population grew, Paradise Valley’s boundaries grew as well.

Paradise Valley was famous for its restaurants and soulful nightclubs that featured McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstine, Della Reese, and Alberta Adams to name a few.

As drug store owner Sidney Barthwell noted, “Negroes had it made in Detroit until World War II.  We had everything we needed in the Black community.  Discrimination gave us tremendous economic power because we had been compacted in one small area.”