Battle Creek

History project to be revived to tell residents’ truth of relocation project in Battle Creek

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Metal shelving units in a room on the lower level of the Fieldstone Building hold box upon box of carefully preserved papers and photographs that tell the history of Battle Creek.

This is the storage room – one of two small rooms – that are home to the Historical Society of Battle Creek, an organization which is assisting with a project to give voice to an overlooked piece of the city’s history captured on 50 or so cassette tapes stored in that room. 

The tapes contain an oral history from residents forced in the mid-1950s to relocate from their homes in an area known as “The Bottoms.” Many were moved to the Washington Heights neighborhood. The Bottoms encompassed an area from Hamblin Street to Upton Avenue and Kendall Street to Capital Avenue.

Bottoms are another name for low-lying land, typically by a river that are subject to overflow during floods and flooding is part of what dispersed the neighborhood.

The audio project which was dubbed “Memories of Hamblin” occurred when members of the Historical Society trained volunteers to interview former residents of The Bottoms, most of whom were children at the time of the relocation effort, says Jody Owens, who serves as secretary of the Historical Society’s board of trustees.

“We got not even one-third of the way through transcribing the tapes and we ran out of money and the tapes have just been sitting there,” Owens says.

But, the project is now set to continue under the direction of Kimberly Holley, an independent consultant who serves as the Director of the Sojourner Truth Institute and co-coordinator for the Battle Creek Coalition for Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, an initiative through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Holley and Jill Anderson, also a local consultant, spoke with members of the Historical Society last week after learning about the “Memories of Hamblin” project and the existence of the cassette tapes. During their meeting, Owens says there was one comment in particular that really resonated with her.

“Kim said you can’t dispel stereotypes until you know the truth,” Owens says. “Their main goal is to tell the real story of Battle Creek.” That story, she says, would not be complete without sharing the story of The Bottoms.

“If you aren’t from here or didn’t grow up here, you’d never know about The Bottoms,” Holley says.

During the Great Migration of the 1900s, African Americans moved north in unprecedented numbers. Many of those who relocated to Battle Creek settled in The Bottoms where they established small businesses and thrived, according to an article written by Jacqueline Slaby, a community activist. 

Despite the business success, African Americans in Battle Creek continued to face racial segregation and a lack of access to services and resources. As new economic mobility allowed for the flight of many of the white working class families from The Bottoms to more affluent areas of the city, it opened up more opportunities for African American residents to create their own space inside the city.

Leaders in the city’s African American community established recreational facilities including the Hamblin Community Center which began operating on a membership basis after World War II and actively involved residents in events and programs.

Owens says Hamblin Community Center was literally the center of The Bottoms.

“The Bottoms was a mixed-race neighborhood,” Holley says. “There was harmony among residents and it was a like a village. The children all played together and race wasn’t an issue until they left the neighborhood. It was harmony in the truest sense of the word.”

But, a flood in 1947 would devastate The Bottoms. The recovery costs for the residential area was estimated at $444,200, according to Slaby’s article.

Jodi Owens, secretary of the Historical Society’s board of trustees, looks over the collection.“That flood really messed everything up,” says Melvin Evans, who lives in Washington Heights and was a resident of The Bottoms as a child. “When that happened all you could see was the rooftops of some of those houses.” 

Urban renewal efforts in the mid-1950s offered six alternatives, the last of which called for the relocation of families living in The Bottoms to other neighborhoods. Taking this option allowed the city to avoid the cost of building new homes for the displaced families. This was the alternative selected and homeowners received $200 per house in compensation.

Owens says many of these families relocated to Washington Heights into homes once occupied by physicians and employees with the Battle Creek Sanitarium.

“A lot of the houses in Washington Heights are large because they used to be single-family residences for people who worked at the Sanitarium,” Owens says. 

Both Holley and Owens say they have heard that residents of The Bottoms were steered into certain areas of the city during the relocation process. “I believe that race definitely played a role. Their whole sense of community was disrupted and that has an impact,” Holley says.

“The residents I’ve talked with, from what they recall, it wasn’t a choice. Many residents of The Bottoms were homeowners, but once they relocated they became renters. They were pushed out because of urban renewal.”

Holley says she is currently determining the best way to digitize the cassette tapes so that they can be made available for anyone to listen to. 

“We hope to have an interactive booth where people can listen to these oral histories. We would also invite residents who lived in The Bottoms to come and talk about their memories,” Holley says. “We’re hoping that by digitizing and putting them on a platform through digital and social media, it becomes that much more accessible. There are so many stories that haven’t been told or told in specific ways to specific individuals.”

Getting these stories out to community residents is part of the mission of the TRHT framework which consists of five areas, and the first two: Narrative Change and Racial Healing and Relationship Building, are foundational pillars for all TRHT work. The remaining three areas are Separation, the Law, and Economy.

In June 2017, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation committed approximately $24 million in 14 multi-sector collaborations in communities across the United States -- including Battle Creek -- to implement a TRHT process using the framework. Each community received a grant through a coordinating organization for implementing their TRHT and to establish a growth fund to sustain the work for the long-term. 

Transcribing the “Memories of Hamblin” tapes is part of the TRHT’s narrative change for Battle Creek.

Archives of the Historical Society of Battle CreekHolley says this narrative change design is about disrupting dominant narratives based in white supremacy. She says it rebukes stereotypes in order to tell the truth about local and national racial history and change the narrative of the United States.

“It’s Important work and difficult work,” Holley says. “It can be tough and it can trigger emotions because it involves difficult conversations where people are coming from two totally different perspectives.”

Despite the discomfort these dialogs may cause, Holley says these discussions are important to the work of racial healing, building authentic relationships, and transforming systems that have structural racism or policies that affect marginalized individuals. The basis for transformation, she says, is telling the truth, having those difficult conversations, and working through them together.

Owens says the importance of getting these overlooked truths and stories in front of people cannot be underestimated. She says when she was a student in the Lakeview schools, she learned all about Christopher Columbus, but never head the name of Sojourner Truth or much about native American Indians.

“Then I went to Hope and College and learned all of these things,” says Owens, who retired in 2009 from Athens High School where she taught English. But, history has been her passion and less than one year after she retired, she began volunteering with the Historical Society.

She says historical accuracy has been the victim of various ethnic groups who lobbied to get their famous historical figures represented, often leaving out the more unsavory acts committed by these individuals. As an example, she cites Italians who wanted to be represented and got Christopher Columbus into the history books with information that did not necessarily present a true picture of the explorer.

Holley says she doesn’t know if the dismantling of The Bottoms community was ever taught as part of the city’s history.

“It’s important because this is a part of Battle Creek’s history and there are so many stories and voices being left out of it,” Holley says. “We want to create a multi-racial narrative centered on compassion, inclusion, and justice.”

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh 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.