Battle Creek

Do you know who Henry Willis is and why Willis Commons bears his name?

Without Henry Willis intervention Sojourner Truth might never have been a part of Battle Creek's history.

A tribute to the man responsible for bringing Sojourner Truth to Battle Creek sits at the corner of Hubbard Street and Graves Avenue.

The planning for Willis Commons, named for Henry Willis, started in February 1996, according to Vivian Laws-Ritter who along with her twin sister Velma Laws-Clay spearheaded the effort to ensure that Willis’ legacy would not be forgotten.

Henry Willis "was responsible for bringing Sojourner Truth to the Quaker Meeting House in Battle Creek,” Laws-Ritter says. After visiting Battle Creek at Willis’s request in 1856, Truth bought a home at Harmonia, which is now part of the Fort Custer Industrial Park. 

The land now occupied by Willis Commons -- an area from Hubbard Street to Michigan Avenue to Parkway Drive -- was originally owned by Willis and was eventually purchased by Laws-Ritter and other members of her family who were the first African Americans to live in the predominantly white neighborhood. In addition to the Willis property, the Laws family purchased several other properties surrounding the family’s home on Hubbard Street as a way to preserve the neighborhood.

Laws-Clay was the founder of the Sojourner Truth Institute in Battle Creek.  She appointed her twin sister, Laws-Ritter, National Ambassador of the Institute in 1996.

“This is one of the first areas of Battle Creek that really opened up to African American residents and we decided to see what we could do to enhance the neighborhood,” Laws-Ritter says.

Their efforts were supported by Neighborhoods, Inc., the City of Battle Creek, and Leila Arboretum, who worked together with neighborhoods in the city on restoration and improvement efforts.

Laws-Ritter says she and her sister knocked on doors at each house in the neighborhood to let residents know about the improvement project. Their outreach efforts resulted in a group of about 20 residents who gathered each month to work on the improvement project.

A sign at the corner of Hubbard and Graves bears the words “Willis Commons” along with a rendering of the Liberty Bell.

“Commons relates to the community as a whole,” Laws-Ritter says. “The Liberty Bell was chosen because of Mr. Willis’s efforts to help slaves escape and achieve freedom for all.”

The corner lot bearing the sign was once the site of numerous neighborhood gatherings. Laws-Ritter says those gatherings dwindled over the years as children grew up and left and leadership in the neighborhood dwindled.

Even so, the importance of Willard Commons remains.

“We are still very proud of Willis Commons and what it represents,” Laws-Ritter says.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.
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