How Ypsi's past informs its present and shapes its future

Over the next five months, Concentrate will be conducting an embedded reporting project in Ypsi called On the Ground Ypsi. Before delving into the issues, people, and projects shaping Ypsi now, we're kicking off our reporting with a look back at the historical events that made Ypsi what it is today.


This feature doesn't presume to summarize Ypsi's entire rich history, but to instead identify a few of the broad trends that shaped Ypsi's diverse present as a Rust Belt city responding to the decline of the automotive industry. Local historians and scholars we spoke with all noted Ypsi's original settlement and the founding of the Michigan State Normal School, the presence of the Underground Railroad, and the industrialization brought on by World War II as formative events in the city's story.


Before the land where Ypsi is located was settled by white pioneers, it was home to several Native American tribes that traveled, camped, hunted, and buried their dead along the Huron River. The Native American villages in the area were made up of different multi-ethnic groups, but they were considered Potawatomi villages at the time, according to Ypsi historian Matt Siegfried, who focuses on Native American and African-American history.


French traders founded a trading post on the land around 1790 – not in the commonly cited year of 1809, according to James Mann, an Ypsi-based historian, author, and Ypsi Historical Society volunteer. The traders then established a small settlement named Woodruff's Grove about a mile south of the post in 1823.


Three speculators combined some of the land they owned to form a new settlement at the crossing of the Huron River and the Sauk Trail, a Native American trail that ran through three states, nearly a mile north of Woodruff's Grove in 1825. They named the settlement Ypsilanti after the Greek war hero Demetrius Ypsilanti.


Michigan State Normal School was founded in Ypsi not much later, in 1849. In 1959 the school was renamed to the more familiar Eastern Michigan University (EMU).


"The founding of the Normal School and the presence of EMU made Ypsi what it is today," Mann says. "There is the arrival of students every year with its change of people, some of whom stay and become part of the community."


A growing black population


Ypsi's black population tripled between 1850 and 1860 because so many black people, both free and enslaved, stopped in Ypsi while traveling on the Underground Railroad en route to Canada.


The parts of Washtenaw County that sit in what's today known as the I-94 corridor were "a pathway to freedom for many and for some ... a point of settlement," according to Ronald Woods, an African-American studies professor at EMU who served as board president of the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County.


Woods surmises that the escaped slaves who settled in northern states instead of going all the way to Canada stayed because they found comfort in distancing themselves far enough away from the south in areas where there was resistance to slavery's reach. He says those who came to Ypsi would have found that Michigan "clearly was not hostile to freed African-Americans, but it was not as embracing as one would like simply because of the presence of a racial hierarchy within this part of Michigan and throughout free states."


Siegfried believes there are many myths surrounding Ypsi's role in the Underground Railroad, including inaccurate views of "conductors" playing an active role and "passengers" playing a more passive role.


"We always want to place it with these rich, white benefactors and it literally obscures the people doing the actual work," he says.


He believes the most important Underground Railroad sites in Ypsi aren't the grand River Street homes often noted for sheltering escaped slaves. Instead, they're houses that escaped slaves built themselves on the city's south side both to live in and to help other escaped slaves.


According to Siegfried, Ypsi's black population doubled between 1920 and 1930, doubled again between 1930 and 1940, and doubled yet again during World War II as a result of the Great Migration.


"My understanding is that Ypsi, because it was more centrally located to the automotive plants, probably was a receiving point for more African-American migrants than was Ann Arbor," Woods says.


Industrial effects


The need for laborers and the availability of jobs drew many black people to the Ypsi area. Black people in Ypsi were able to make decent enough wages to purchase homes and pursue professions such as law and medicine during the Jim Crow era due to Ypsi's large population at the time, Woods says.


In 1941, Ford Motor Company built the Willow Run bomber plant in Ypsi Township. The facility's 42,000 workers were able to produce a B-24 bomber in less than an hour at peak production in early 1944 to aid in the war effort.


"The opening of the bomber plant at Willow Run caused a major change in the community of Ypsi, as a new wave of people came into the city in a short period of time," Mann says.


Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, purposely recruited workers from Kentucky and Tennessee because he thought they would be anti-communist and anti-union, Siegfried says.


But Ford wasn't able to keep the United Auto Workers (UAW) out of the bomber plant or his automotive plants in the Ypsi area. Ford only allowed the union to organize at his plants after the federal government essentially made him do so in 1941 because it didn't want strikes to happen during World War II, according to Siegfried.


The local UAW became a prominent organization in Ypsi by focusing on organizing for real social services in the community and convincing workers to vote on the basis of class. Siegfried says this led to "a huge transformation in politics" because it opened up industrial employment to black residents on a large scale and helped UAW leaders who fought segregation at local plants to get elected as Ypsi's first black city council members.


One of the main reasons Ford abandoned the bomber plant in 1945 was because those UAW leaders started to really influence local politics, according to Siegfried.


In 1946, the bomber plant was sold to automaker Kaiser-Frazer and then sold again in 1953 to General Motors Detroit Transmission Division, which eventually was renamed the GM Hydra-matic Division and later the GM Powertrain Division. The plant closed in 2010 as part of General Motors' bankruptcy restructuring.


"We've been going through this deindustrialization process since the beginning," Siegfried says. "It has been a fight to hold onto every job. From Willow Run to Kaiser-Frazer to GM to the Ford plant that got spun off to Visteon."


The site of the bomber plant is now home to the American Center for Mobility (ACM), an autonomous and connected vehicle testing facility that is currently under construction.


Looking forward


Ypsi mayor Amanda Edmonds says it's great to see a new facet of the auto industry in the area with ACM's arrival, but the local economy can no longer rely on a single industry.


"We have to accept that the plant's not coming back, so to speak," she says.


Edmonds thinks the strategy of attracting one big business is a model of the past and the focus should instead be on growing entrepreneurship and small businesses in Ypsi. She says the city needs to stabilize its existing businesses as the first approach in addressing economic development. Siegfried echoes those thoughts.


"When people come to you with promises of jobs and all of that, they're out to make money," he says. "So much of our landscape is unalterably changed because of the financial whims of certain groups of people."


Edmonds believes it's also important to consciously try to maintain and continue to improve the city's diversity, especially in terms of proactively embracing the growing Latino and Asian communities in the Ypsi area.


The mayor says Ypsi must remember it has always been a historically diverse place – albeit an imperfect one – "as we work to embrace new folks joining us and make sure that we make the space to amplify their strengths and their voices as part of our community narrative going forward."

Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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