Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Vivian Laws-Ritter says she didn’t know the extent to which people viewed her as a second-class citizen until she left her native Battle Creek for a job in Washington, D.C., in 1961.
Laws-Ritter, National Ambassador for the Sojourner Truth Institute founded by her twin sister Velma Laws-Clay, Ph.D., was back in her hometown recently for observances celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Looking back, Laws-Ritter, one of six children born into one of Battle Creek’s best-known African American families, says she thinks her parents made an intentional effort to insulate her and her siblings from the racial strife that was swirling around them throughout the United States when they were growing up. Her parents didn’t want the family to deal with negativity.
“Most of my extended family came from the South and we would take a trip down there every summer and my dad would have all five of us in the car with my mom and when we hit the South and he would go in to get gas there were signs that said “Black” and “White” and before he bought gas he would go into the store and quietly say, ‘My family needs to use the restrooms and we want to use all of the restrooms,” Laws-Ritter says. “If they said ‘no’, he didn’t argue and he got back into the car and we drove a little farther until he found a gas station that would let us use all the restrooms.
“That was the first time I noticed, but it didn’t settle in because we were in the South.”
Her real awakening to the widespread and pervasive discrimination faced by members of her race would happen when she was 19-years-old. Newly graduated from Kellogg Community College, she secured a clerical position with the United States Department of the Treasury and boarded a train bound for the nation’s capital.
“It was an all-black city and I wasn’t expecting that. I thought it would be similar to Battle Creek,” Laws-Ritter says. “When I arrived from the train there were streetcars with African Americans riding and hanging on them and nothing but African Americans that I saw and that shocked me. I didn’t know that we were then 80 percent of the representation of the city. Even the elected officials were African American and they were running the city.”
Vivian Laws Ritter at her home on Hubbard Street in Washington Heights.
But, she says she also noticed that whites held the majority of good-paying jobs and segregation existed. “There were stores in D.C. that I couldn’t go into, but I went in anyway,” Laws-Ritter says. “That was the first time I saw racism raising its ugly head.”
This is when she learned about slavery and the history of her people and how they were brought to America and settled in southern states.
“I was not taught any of that as a child in Battle Creek,” she says. “The lightbulb came on and I started joining groups and learning. I couldn’t believe my lack of knowledge.”
Her informal education continued to be shaped by events that transformed the nation, especially the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
She found refuge in a church in downtown Washington after the Kennedy assassination with others who had gathered there to pray.
“It was a long walk, but I couldn’t control my emotions. To me, Kennedy was the impetus of us coming together,” Laws-Ritter says. “When MLK was shot I went down to the church. I was nine-months pregnant with my daughter and prayed for MLK because he had been shot. There was a riot by the time I finished praying. People were burning the city because of his death.”
Unable to get herself home, she ran to a neighbor’s home near the church, got word to her husband, who was working at the Pentagon, and he was able to make his way to her.
A Community Where I Felt Loved and Connected
Laws-Ritter says and her siblings, which included her twin sister Velma Laws-Clay, and four brothers, enjoyed a normal and happy childhood in Battle Creek.
The Laws family’s first home was located on Parrish Street in an area of the city then known as “The Bottoms”. It encompassed an area from Hamblin Street to Upton Avenue and Kendall Street to Capital Avenue in close proximity to the Kalamazoo River. Laws-Ritter says The Bottoms was a mixed-race neighborhood where residents, the majority of whom were low-income, knew each other and got along well.
“I loved living there and didn’t think about it as The Bottoms,” Laws-Ritter says. “We lived in a time when it wasn’t necessary to lock our doors and we kids wandered into each other’s homes without knocking and the parents were not surprised to look down and see us standing next to them in the kitchen.”
Levi Timothy Laws, Sr. worked three jobs as he raised his children in Battle Creek.
The family’s time in The Bottoms came to an end soon after the Kalamazoo River flooded in 1947, causing water and structural damage to nearby homes.
Laws-Ritter’s brother, T. Roderick Laws, who died in 2011, remembered that the event redirected their lives profoundly. At the time, he says, his world consisted of his home, the school he attended, a restaurant called Mr. Don’s that sold fare such as hamburgers and hot dogs, the Hamblin Community Center, and Mount Zion AME and the Second Baptist churches.
In a written recollection by T. Roderick Laws, provided by his sister, he says the basement of their home flooded and other residents with homes on the riverside had water in their homes and yards. His father, Levi, had just completed work on an inside bathroom and a new bedroom for soon-be-born brother, Count, in addition to installing aluminum screens and storm windows
“I didn’t know life wasn’t supposed to be that way and I didn’t know we were ‘financially challenged,'” T. Roderick Laws says. “The city began relocating our family and others from The Bottoms. Our houses were bought at a flat rate regardless of improvements. We lost big time.”
In the last few years, there has been a renewed interest in The Bottoms from local historians and the Sojourner Truth Institute.
Urban renewal efforts in the mid-1950s offered six alternatives to address the flood damage, the last of which called for the relocation of families living in The Bottoms to other neighborhoods, which enabled 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.
Jody Owens, who serves as secretary of the Battle Creek Historical Society’s board of trustees, says many of these families relocated to Washington Heights into homes once occupied by physicians and employees with the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
The Laws were among those families.
“The only place to go was up, to the Washington Heights,” T. Roderick Laws says. “My father moved us out of The Bottoms and my mother moved The Bottoms out of us. We moved to the family home located on the corner of Hubbard and Grave streets.”
That house remains in the family and it is where Laws-Ritter stays on her frequent visits from Washington to Battle Creek. When the family first moved into the neighborhood was predominantly white.
“Being the first black family in the area, they embraced us,” Laws-Ritter says of neighbors at the time. “We knew all of the white families and they came into the house and we went to their houses and we just enjoyed one another.”
The two-story residence came into the possession of the family through John Epps, the original owner of the home who had developed a relationship with Laws-Ritter’s father who had always admired the house, but knew he couldn’t afford to purchase it outright. Her father, when he got out of the service, first took a job as a Federal Police Officer with the Hart-Doyle-Inouye Federal Center and later was employed as a police officer with the Battle Creek Police Department. He also was a barber, a job he held in addition to the full-time jobs he was working.
“Lots of people wanted that house, including Mr. Epps family. At that time my dad was the family’s sole financial support and when the house became available we would not have been able to afford it,” Laws-Ritter says. “Mr. Epps developed a trust for my father to become the owner of this house. The trust was set so that my dad could pay for the house incrementally.”
Laws-Ritter says her father was very involved in the community and his church and earned the respect of all he came into contact with. She credits her father and mother, Juanita, with bringing her and her siblings up to be good people.
“They would not allow us to feel like we were less than,” Laws-Ritter says.
Levi and Juanita Laws knew that education was the key to future success for their children and stressed this with each of them. Laws-Ritter credits her father with laying the groundwork for the first jobs she and her twin sister got.
At the time the Laws’ girls started attending Battle Creek Central High School, the school offered two curriculum options – college prep courses or courses in typing and office skills.
“My dad went to the school and talked to the principal and says, ‘My daughters will need to take a combination of these courses because they will need something to fall back on and they will need something to get a job,” Ritter says. “They were willing to make changes because my dad pointed out why it was so important. He was willing to go to the source.”
Her sister studied shorthand and typing and Ritter studied bookkeeping.
“I got that job in D.C. with the Treasury Department because of those clerical skills, the typing and stenography. Those were the things that opened the door to my career,” Ritter says.
She later earned a Bachelor’s degree through a college operated by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Tacoma Park, Md.
Leaving Her Mark
When Laws-Ritter first started at the Treasury Department she noticed that there weren’t many African Americans in leadership positions. She would be among the pioneers to change that. When she left the Treasury Department in 1968 she was a Check Claims Administrator. That job involved ensuring that the checks were processed correctly and sent out to the recipients.
Her next job was with the Justice Department’s Law Enforcement Assistance Administration where she worked in the Finance Department. Then she was offered a job with the Peace Corps as its Director of Financial Management.
“This was the best move I could have made because I was able to travel overseas and see my people working and walking around regally in Africa,” Laws-Ritter says of the Peace Corps
job she retired from in 1989. “I took it to heart and started studying and following African American history and events.”
But, even before this, she and her sister were amassing a collection of art created by African American artists that they named “Journey to Freedom.” That collection has been on exhibit in New York and Washington and Battle Creek. The pieces were collected during trips the sisters took.
“Learning and collecting that art spoke to our lives as African Americans,” Laws-Ritter says. “We didn’t want another child to be sheltered."
“I needed to find a way to share stories through art. I couldn’t draw anything more than stick people, but when I saw a painting by one of these artists, I knew what it was about.”
While Laws-Ritter remained in Washington, her sister continued to call Battle Creek home. Here she served in volunteer leadership positions on numerous boards focused on the city’s African American community and the city as a whole. She also served as Director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Office, Hart-Doyle-Inouye Federal Center.
Laws-Clay, who received a Doctorate in Public Administration in 1998 and died in 2016, also was the Chair of the Sojourner Truth 200th Birthday Anniversary Celebration in 1997 and was Chair of the Sojourner Truth Monument Project, unveiled in September of 1999. In 1996, she appointed her sister National Ambassador of the Sojourner Truth Institute which Laws-Clay founded.
Velma Laws Clay chaired the effort to create the statue of Sojourner Truth in downtown Battle Creek.
This is the work that now consumes the majority of Laws-Ritter’s time. Although she still splits her time between Battle Creek and Washington, she says she is making plans to sell the home she shared with her late husband, Martin, and move back to the community she has always called home.
“No matter where I am, I talk about Battle Creek,” Laws-Ritter says. “When my sister passed away, I had to be here to stay close to her.”
She and her brother, Count, the youngest of the six Laws children, are the only ones left. He lives in a house behind the family home and Hubbard Street and the two of them have bought up neighboring properties over the years as a way to maintain their family’s history and presence in the neighborhood.
“This is my way of carrying on the legacy that my father and mother left for us – whatever you do, do it well,” she says.
Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.