The struggle for black history visibility within the Ann Arbor Bubble
Shirley Beckley’s fifth grade teacher told her to paint her classmate’s face black and call him the N word. It was payback for all the times her classmates at Bach Elementary School would throw racial slurs at her once the Ann Arbor Public School system was integrated.
While growing up in Ann Arbor, Beckley experienced racism from a young age like many other African Americans still do. After integration in the ‘60s, Pioneer High School’s administration was quick to interrogate Beckley and her black peers when a white child’s wallet would go missing. She and her friends would never get a spot on the school’s cheerleading team, no matter how hard they worked and how athletic they were. She found herself in the principal’s office often, simply for resisting the animosity she faced.
In segregated Ann Arbor, black kids were always given paper cups for their ice cream sundaes while the white kids got glass bowls. Even the local YMCA only allowed white people.
Although Ann Arbor was divided, black residents created their own tight-knit community on the city’s West Side
Now sometimes called Water Hill, the West Side was once a predominantly black community centered around unity. Growing up in the West Side, Beckley knew almost every family in the neighborhood. She and her friends would roller skate through the farmer’s market, attend Friday night dances at the Dunbar Community Center and ice skate at Wheeler Park in the winter.
The West Side community thrived on its own; large families knew each other, grew up together and, most importantly, looked out for one another.
Now integrated, Ann Arbor’s problems are far from being fixed. As home prices skyrocketed in the gentrifying West Side, many long-term black residents had no choice but to leave. Ann Arbor’s black community has dispersed, many residents now living in co-ops and public housing.
Legally and institutionally, the United States has made progress regarding race. But racism still operates systematically. Ann Arbor does not lie outside this racist system, though the myth of the “Ann Arbor Bubble” — the common misconception that Ann Arbor is a liberal and progressive haven — says differently. Feeding the Bubble Myth is the masking of Ann Arbor’s ugly, racist past.
The Ann Arbor Bubble grows with ignorance. Take, for instance, a book club supposedly centered on white privilege Beckley has attended for two years with older white women. She notices that most book club members will not acknowledge their privilege; they seem to believe racism started in and exists only in the South. One member even told Beckley that President Obama would have had a better time in office if he embraced his “white side.”
“White privilege is so prominent, you just don’t even know that you have it because you don’t have to deal with anything,” Beckley said. “[White people] don’t think about [privilege]. Sometimes, I don’t think they do it on purpose, it’s just what they’re used to.”
In the fall of 2017, Ciaeem Slaton, a black student attending Pathways to Success Academic Campus, was assaulted at the Blake Transit Center. Beckley watched the video of the incident with Slaton’s mother. In the video, the officer pushed Slaton against the wall of the transit center. He then forced Slaton to the ground, sitting with his knees in the young boys back and reached for his weapon.
The officer then placed Slaton in handcuffs. Throughout the incident, the video shows no resistance from the student.
In 2014, Aura Rosser, a black mother of three who struggled with mental health issues and substance abuse, got in an argument with her ex-boyfriend. As the argument escalated, her ex-boyfriend called the Ann Arbor Police Department, and many of the officers were already familiar with Rosser.
When the police entered Rosser’s apartment, she was holding a knife. As she started to approach the officers, Officer Mark Raab tazed Rosser, and at least one dart struck her above her waistline. Officer David Ried’s fatal gunshots were not far behind. According to Ann Arbor police reports, the whole incident lasted approximately five to ten seconds.
Officer Ried still resides on the task force to this day.
Before Rosser’s death, Beckley met with Ann Arbor police officers. It was around the time Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri by Officer Darren Wilson — a shooting that erupted national coverage and demonstrations. The Ann Arbor Police Department assured Beckley that there was never going to be a Ferguson in our city.
Two weeks later, Rosser was shot.
After the shooting, Beckley attended city hall meetings to protest Rosser’s death. However, the black community demanding justice for her death could not get a foothold in national coverage. At first, MLive and the Michigan Daily were the only publications that were providing coverage. Then, it was only the Michigan Daily. Beckley has raised over $4,000 for Rosser’s family to cover funeral expenses, and she still keeps in touch with them to continue the healing process.
Ann Arbor is now in the process of setting up a Community Police Oversight Commission. The commission is supposed to act like a gateway between the community and the police, where people can file complaints without going directly to the police or city administration. The commission, with its community based foundation, now consists of both city council members and citizens — picked from the pool of 62 applicants.
“You have to mend the community,” Beckley said. “And we have to mend over the killing of Aura, and we have to build trust. So we don’t trust right now. The only way I know to do that is for the police to get involved with the community more so they can know us and we can know them, and stop just grabbing our kids and throwing them in jail for a little of this and a little of that. Let’s work together so we can build trust back up.”
Along with the injustices Ann Arbor’s black community faces, they still fight for visibility even though they have always been in the city. Beckley has noticed that many residents, both white and black, do not know the history of Ann Arbor or even the current events that happen in the city. Rosser’s death was not largely covered and very few repercussions have been taken to receive justice for her shooting.
Beckley’s personal history has always been shielded from her. In her history class from her junior year at Pioneer High School, her teacher only asked her white peers where their families were from. When Beckley asked about her own family heritage, the teacher kicked her out of class for being a disruption.
The media and cosmetic industries have recently made steps towards inclusiveness and visibility. Beckley remembers her mother dying her newly purchased stocking in freshly brewed tea. This is how many black women would dye cream colored stockings since they weren’t made for dark complexions. Now, the cosmetic industry has started to create makeup and beauty products for wide ranges of skin tones, even though people of color have been vastly ignored in beauty before. Beckley notices, however, that the step forward has also come with a step back — many white women who claim they do not like black race pay lots of money to get lip injections, darker skin and braid their hair to mimic women of color.
Beckley uses activism to fight for justice and equality in Ann Arbor. She decided she wanted to be an activist in the summer of 1955. It was when Emmett Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi — a boy she had no connection to other than their shared age and skin color. Now, she regularly attends city council meetings and continues to fight for justice and equality in Ann Arbor.
“Most of the white community and black, they have no idea what’s going on underneath,” Beckley said. “They just think this is such a lovely place. And it is a lovely place, but there’s nasty stuff going on that people don’t know anything about.”
The city’s long history of racism, from segregation to racial slurs, continues to have long standing aftermath. As the Ann Arbor Bubble continues to grow from ignorance, Beckley works hard to pop it.