Meet the ‘Sojourner Girls’: A friendship that grew from Detroit’s controversial housing project

Paula Love Washington-Donald recalls her first encounter with Lynnett Richardson-Brown after getting into a fight over a bicycle.

“We were poor, I didn't have a bike and I asked [Richardson-Brown] if I could ride her bicycle,” says Washington-Donald. “She told me no. I tried to push her off her bicycle but she beat me up, and we've been loving friends ever since.” 

For four women who grew up in the Jim Crow era of segregation and social unrest, the friendship they formed in a controversial housing project in Detroit has sustained them for over 65 years. The ‘Sojourner Truth Girls’ — Washington-Donald, Richardson-Brown, Diane Hotchkiss-Colman, and Linda Calhoun-Scott — all met in the Sojourner Truth Housing Project in 1955 and are still close friends, despite navigating the pressures of life since then. 

Lynnett Richardson-Brown holds a photo of younger herself as she shares the stories of growing up in the Sojourner Truth Housing Projects. Photo: Zaire Daniels.

The housing project still stands today at 4801 East Nevada Ave. but now goes by the name of the Detroit Housing Commission. Dwelling spaces are adorned with brick and brown siding, carbons copies of the houses next to it. Although the neighborhood has changed over time, the sense of community is still strong. Children and families can be seen riding bikes and playing basketball on the streets interweaving the projects, while older residents sit out on their porches to enjoy the breeze. Visiting journalists are even greeted as “nephew”, reflecting the figurative kin groups residents have developed in the diaspora. 

Though this community seems warm and inviting, it has a long history of race riots and discrimination associated with its earliest beginning. 

“To understand Detroit, during World War II, it's useful to understand that the Work Progress Administration (WPA) said Detroit in the 1930s had the most inhabited, uninhabitable buildings in the country,” says Karen Miller, Detroit historian and Oakland University professor. 

Detroit was an industrial hub in the early 1900s and auto manufactures saw an opportunity to capitalize on the war effort by galvanizing the industry to focus on producing armaments for the war. To do so, a dedicated staff of employees was needed. Workers from all over the United States, especially African American families looking to leave hostile Southern conditions, journeyed to Detroit to fill the void in production. 

As a result of the increase in laborers, the city knew that it would have to provide housing, but discriminatory laws forbade the sale of homes to non-whites, immigrants, or Jewish people. In 1941, the U.S. Housing Authority and Detroit Housing Commission negotiated terms to build the Sojourner Truth Project, 200 units on a lot located at Nevada Avenue and Fenelon Street, which was previously a rhubarb farm. White residents in the surrounding areas feared that their housing values would decrease with the influx of Black tenants, which sparked protests and picketing at the site. 

“Men with hammers, pieces of pipe, and rocks self-appointed themselves to keep people from moving into Sojourner,” says Miller. 

Despite violence erupting in early 1942, later identified as part of the lead-up to the 1943 Detroit race riot, federal government and local law enforcement saw that all tenants were moved into their new homes by April, but hostilities from neighbors caused tension and boilovers well into the post-war period. 

Following the end of the war, the Sojourner Truth Project was expanded to offer accommodation to low-income families, when previously it provided housing only for defense employees.

Diane Hotchkiss-Colman's met Lynnett Richardson-Brown when their families moved next door to each other in Detroit's Sojourner Truth Housing Project. Photo: Zaire Daniels.

Hotchkiss-Colman’s family was one of the first of the Sojourner Girls group to move into the projects in 1952. As the eldest of the group, she was a grade ahead of the other women, who would all meet formally in kindergarten at Atkinson Elementary school in 1955. Calhoun-Scott’s family first moved into the projects on the west side but as her family grew, they moved next door to Richardson-Brown’s family on the east side and soon after met the other girls around the neighborhood. 

Despite the racial tensions seen in the 1940s, the Sojourner Girls say they noticed inequalities but they never encountered direct violence, largely due to their mothers’ warnings about where they could, and couldn’t, play. 

“I noticed that the further north it was all white people,” says Calhoun-Scott. “But we knew not to go no further than 8 Mile. It was like a turf, you stay on your end we stay on our end.” 

One of the women’s favorite places to play when they were kids was the green hills just behind the factories located in the area. The women recall that the project was a warm and inviting community, with close-knit members helping to foster the bonds of sisterhood. 

“Every unit was a family of love,” says Washington-Donald. “Every day, it was, sure enough, a village that raised us. We didn't own a lot of things but we never knew we were poor. We danced in the street light at night, played pranks on our neighbors, kissed our boyfriends, there was so much love there.” 

They fondly remember other childhood activities such as playing hopscotch, baseball, and participating in play-pretend weddings with the other children in the neighborhood. 

As the women matured, the economic boom of the post-war period allowed new appliances to become available for more families. Washing machines and televisions helped to revolutionize the way American’s spent their money, and the women recall being eager to get into the workforce. 

Motown music, bell-bottom pants, and poodle skirts were in fashion as the women started high school and their parents emphasized the importance of working hard for the things they wanted. 

“I didn't have a lot of things, other girls, my age had, but I wasn't resentful of it,” says Hotchkiss-Colman. “It just made me, as I grew, to know that if I wanted something, I had to get it myself. I didn't look for somebody else to give it to me or buy it for me like these kids today.” 

Linda Calhoun-Scott has fond memories of the bonds she formed growing up in Detroit's Sojourner Truth Housing Project.

Hotchkiss-Colman and Calhoun-Scott started working as teenagers babysitting local children in the project while Washington-Donald worked as a cashier at her uncle's car wash and helped do chores around the house. They recount horror stories of getting their hands caught in washing machines with built-in wringers and the painful marks the appliance would leave on their skin. Richardson-Brown counts herself lucky for having older siblings.

“I had three older sisters so by the time it got to me, I didn't cook or clean anything if the chores were already done,” she says. “I felt that I was like the middle person and I kind of felt displaced a lot of times and my family.” 

She shares that the men in her family were expected to go to college and get jobs whereas the women were expected to find a husband and maybe a side job. Nonetheless, she graduated high school and found employment, finally landing with Michigan Bell, a subsidiary of AT&T, where she stayed for 22 years.

Work, marriage, and children shaped the women's lives, and some of them had moved out of the projects before the 1967 riots that devastated Detroit. Donald-Washington remembers being sick in hospital while seeing a large convoy of green army vehicles rolling down Woodward Avenue. Calhoun-Scott speaks about her cousins, who lived in an area targeted by arsonists, and Hotchkiss-Colman recalls seeing the city burning down like a “scene from the war in Vietnam”.

The women compare the social unrest from the riots to the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, saying that the social climate has escalated to a point where “no one has respect for one another”. 

“There aren't villages and communities anymore,” says Washington-Donald. “There aren't any places where the youth can learn morals and how to get along with each other in the world.” 

When the women had disagreements between them as children, they say they settled them with words but never held a grudge against each other. Unity was important to them because they had grown up in the same environment with similar struggles and knew that people need to come together in times of strife.

In a friendship that lasted over 65 years, they readily admit it’s “not all peaches and cream” but the Sojourner Truth Girls are thankful that they met each other and have been close for this long. They still regularly get together to don matching purple sisterhood shirts and stroll around Detroit, proudly showing off what it means to have lifelong friends. 
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