Detroit’s significant role in the rise of the civil rights movement was recently recognized by the National Park Service with the listing of five historic local sites linked to the fight for equal rights and the Black community in the 20th century, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation announced.
The Detroit sites include:
- Birwood Wall, located along the alleyway between Birwood Avenue and Mendota Street from Eight Mile Road to Pembroke Avenue. Constructed in 1941 as a physical barrier between two neighborhoods, the 6-foot concrete wall is a symbol of redlining that ensured neighborhoods would remain racially segregated.
- New Bethel Baptist Church, 8430 Linwood St. Known as the venue that launched Aretha Franklin’s musical career, New Bethel Baptist Church is significant for its association with the Rev. C. L. Franklin and the leadership the church demonstrated during the 1960s. A gifted and influential pastor whose radio show and recordings drew a national following, he was a supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was the originator of the Walk to Freedom march held in Detroit in 1963, the first major civil rights march in the nation’s history.
- Rosa L. and Raymond Parks Flat, 3201-3203 Virginia Park St. (now a private residence). After Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, she and her husband, Raymond, moved north to escape the harassment she faced in Alabama. The couple settled in Detroit and moved into the ground floor flat of this duplex in 1961, where they lived until 1988. During this time, Parks continued her activism and the flat became a place for meetings and discussions on civil rights.
- Shrine of the Black Madonna of the Pan African Orthodox Christian Church, 7625 Linwood St. This church is significant for its association with the Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr. (later Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman), a civil rights leader, champion of the Black Nationalism Movement, and community organizer. The Shrine became one of the largest and most influential Black Nationalist churches in the country. On Easter Sunday 1967, Cleage rechristened Central Congregational Church as the Shrine of the Black Madonna, and unveiled an 18-foot mural of a Black Madonna and child commissioned from Black artist Glanton Dowdell. The mural became an iconic symbol of the civil rights movement.
- WGPR-TV Studio, 3146 E. Jefferson Ave. Debuting in 1975, a decade after African Americans challenged the FCC on the lack of Black programming, WGPR-TV was the first Black-owned and operated television station in the country. WGPR-TV aired an Afro-centric focused newscast, a dance show, and public affairs features. In addition to providing an African American perspective on news and current affairs, it also provided career and training opportunities behind the camera for Black students and professionals. The station was eventually sold to CBS in 1995 when it transitioned to general programming and changed its call sign to WWJ. It has since been transformed into the William V. Banks Broadcast Museum, which chronicles the origins and influence of WGPR.
Nominated by Michigan’s Sate Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), these five sites join nearly 2,000 others in the state that have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1966.
“These places are associated with both the struggles and successes of the African American community in Detroit during the volatile mid-20th century. The Civil Rights Movement sought to demand equality for African Americans in the North as much as in the South,” said Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Martha MacFarlane-Faes in a statement. “By listing these sites, the National Register recognizes Detroit’s significant role in the growth of the movement. They embody the wide range of issues the Black community encountered as it worked toward empowerment during this period.”
The nominations were part of a competitive African American Civil Rights program grant awarded by NPS to the Michigan SHPO. The sites were selected by a 14-person Civil Rights Advisory Committee that included local historians familiar with the city’s Black history and staff members from SHPO and City of Detroit Historic Designation Advisory Board. Quinn Evans Architects of Ann Arbor was selected to research and prepare the nominations for each of the five sites along with a context document that more broadly discusses the movement during the 20th century in Detroit.
“On behalf of the officers and members of the Shrine of the Black Madonna in Detroit, Atlanta, Houston, Calhoun Falls, S.C. Monrovia and Ganta City, Liberia we are honored to receive this national historical landmark designation,” said Shrine of the Black Madonna Bishop Mbiyu Chui in a statement. “We continue to build and expand upon the legacy of our beloved founder, Rev. Albert B. Cleage Jr. who devoted his life and ministry to the mission of transforming urban ghettoes into Christian communities to bring about equality, justice and freedom for his people at home and abroad.”
To be considered for National Register listing, a property must be at least 50 years old, possess historic integrity, and be significant for its association with important people, events, or architecture/design at the local, state, or national level.