The Rhythm of Memory: Commemorating Music and Migration in Detroit

Riley Linebaugh

More than 150 years after the founding of its first musical association, the city of Detroit erected an historical marker commemorating the German-American Harmonie Club in a broader effort to rehabilitate Detroit’s suffering reputation. The plaque did not connect the city’s German-American musical tradition with its better known African American musical scene, characterized by blues, jazz and later Motown. Twenty years later, in 2021, Detroit sponsored a public marker in honor of Black Bottom, an historically African American neighborhood that was previously inhabited by German-Americans and that played an important role in Detroit’s musical development. Despite geographic overlap and chronological continuity, the city has commemorated these histories in isolation from one another, raising the question: why do cities “remember” things differently and with what consequences?

Detroit at 300

In 2001, the city of Detroit celebrated its tricentennial. Legendary musician Stevie Wonder returned to his home state of Michigan to kick off a week-long celebration with a concert at Hart Plaza. Wonder stated, “We’ve got to do something to encourage people” to embrace the city. Wonder, whose family moved to Detroit in the late 1950s, had long recorded for the famous Detroit Motown Records, helping to put both his career and the birthplace of Motown on the map. However, the city Wonder greeted for the celebration was facing significant financial challenges and persistent racial inequalities.

Once an employment destination par excellence, the Auto City’s riches had largely abandoned Detroit through processes such as white flight and the suburbanization of manufacturing work. Other factors such as urban displacement and redlining, i.e., the refusal of loans on discriminatory grounds such as race or religion, compounded racial segregation that resulted in a financially poorer, demographically Blacker city and wealthier, Whiter suburbs. The celebration was meant to help revitalize a city that many viewed as past its heyday.

[ photo credit: Riley Linebaugh, August 2021]

From Deutsche Lieder to Detroit Jazz

As a part of the city’s commemorative celebrations, the German American Chapter of Commerce of the Midwest erected an historical marker in Downtown Detroit in front of the former Harmonie Club. The plaque, pictured above, describes the club as “Detroit’s oldest musical association,” which had been founded in 1849 by “German immigrants who wished to meet and sing Lieder [songs].” After the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Germans began immigrating to Detroit in the 1830s in order to flee from political instability in Europe. These immigrants settled in and around Gratiot Avenue, to the near east of Harmonie Hall in an area eventually called “Germantown”. In addition to concerts, the hall hosted other events important to the German community, for example during Easter and Karneval. The Harmonie Club’s membership dwindled in the 1950s and the association it sold the hall in 1974. 

While German migration to Detroit slowed, other groups moved to the city. The promise of work in Detroit’s auto industry attracted African American migrants from southern states from the early 20th century through the 1960s in a process called the Great Migration. As journalist Herb Boyd describes, between 1910 and 1920, “Detroit, with a 611 percent surge, was by far the fastest-growing African American urban center.” Many of these migrants settled around Germantown in an area known as Black Bottom from the 1920s through the 1950s. In its early days, Black Bottom was relatively diverse but soon prejudicial neighborhood associations and politically mandated redlining resulted in racially divided neighborhoods.

Despite lesser living conditions, Black Bottom and its many Black-owned clubs facilitated the rise of Detroit’s national musical significance, drawing blues singers, big bands and jazz artists such as Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. However, in the early 1960s, the city razed Black Bottom by constructing a freeway, permanently destroying a rare African American cultural space in a deeply segregated city. Without the Black Bottom music halls and clubs, the Detroit blues scene faded and eventually made way for the rise of Motown music, for which the city is perhaps most famous.

Desegregation and Public Commemoration

Stevie Wonder finished his 2001 set with “Happy Birthday,” a song he had written as tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. While Wonder ephemerally honored the long struggle for Civil Rights by Black Americans through his performance, the city of Detroit took the occasion to permanently commemorate the German-American contributions to Detroit’s musical history with the Harmonie Hall plaque. The marker states that while it was “organized and operated by Germans, the club hosted gatherings of people from many ethnic groups.” It does not elaborate further. Eight years after the city erected the plaque, in 2009, the Carr Center moved into Harmonie Hall. Dedicated to “preserve, present, promote, and develop African and African-American cultural arts traditions within our multicultural community,” the Carr Center once again provides a cultural space in central Detroit for African American artistic productions.

[photo credit: David Guralnick for The Detroit News, August 2021]

Twenty years after its tricentennial celebration, the city of Detroit erected another historical marker one mile away from Harmonie Hall in memory of Black Bottom. The plaque reads, “This street was once part of Black Bottom, a residential community that was largely African American during the first half of the twentieth century.” It goes on to explain how the Detroit government destroyed the neighborhood and how “many families were displaced and given no resources for relocation.” The marker thus makes visible the urban erasure caused by slum clearance that disproportionately affected already disadvantaged African American Detroit residents. However, neither plaque explicitly indicates the musical-migration entanglements of Detroit’s past, exemplified by the two stories they represent, thereby maintaining a Black & White historical understanding.

This example opens up more general questions regarding public commemoration, such as what could it look like to both identify and acknowledge historical processes of racial segregation without reproducing a segregated understanding of the past? What constitutes multicultural commemoration and what are its prerequisites?

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