Signage project hopes to educate on black history in Ypsilanti

With funding provided by the city of Ypsilanti and Eastern Michigan University’s Engage program, the signage project hopes to make 8-10 signs reflecting on black history in the city. 

“I think there’s already pride [for the black community] that exists but I would hope that there are people that are learning something that they never knew,” said Caroline Sanders, the assistant director of community relations and engagement at EMU. “I’ve lived in Ypsilanti township for 35 years and there’s information I had no idea about.” 

The program was first created in 2016, when the city of Ypsilanti, in partnership with the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, received a $10,000 grant to produce the signs. The project is part of the Community Tourism Action Plan (CTAP), with the money from the granting helping to create, build, and place the signs. The CVB has a branch specifically for Ypsilanti known as YpsiREAL

When the money turned out not to be enough for such a large project, EMU’s Office of Academic Service-Learning (now known as Engage@EMU) put up another $10,000 to bring the budget to $20,000 for 8-10 permanent signs sharing documented and recorded history of African-Americans in the community. 

Five of the signs have been completed, each documenting a particular local landmark or event related to black history. These events include black student protests on EMU’s campus, Ypsilanti civil war experiences, the first ward school, South Adams neighborhood and the Parkridge community. 

University of Michigan urban planning grad student, Christopher Corbett, works as a writer for the project. He expressed excitement for the message of the signs, looking forward particularly to the ones describing black history in the Ford generator plant and the black-owned businesses. 

“It’s a maximum of 300 words, just telling exactly what black businesses were, how they employed and how thriving it was, to remember and pay homage to them and to tell exactly why no more,” he said. “For the Ford generator plant my goal is to describe the first African-Americans who were hired by Ford and to really highlight the women who were hired.”

Corbett said he would like to see the history written in the signs inspire people of color. 

“I’m very passionate about this project and I understand it’s a tool of empowerment for the city of Ypsilanti.” He said. 

Thursdays have been set aside for meetings, with those who attend the meeting for the program can look over finished and work-in-progress signs. Voter slips are provided to elect the next immediate sign creation as well as the overall title of the project itself. Sticky notes are provided to stick to idea boards hosting various topics to get suggestions from the community on what to write. A few of the finished signs have notes asking for clarification on terms, such as one asking what ‘DPS’ was in the student protest sign. 

The original plans for the signs were met with some time management and resource issues. The original lead historian for the project, Matt Siegfried, left the project in November of 2017, and the scope of the project proved to be bigger than anticipated. However, the team that remains is determined to finish what was started. 

Sanders wasn’t an original member of the team working on the project, however, she came into it when she was given a newly-appointed position at Engage. 

“We [Engage] just thought it was an important project to recognize the black citizens of Ypsilanti and their contributions to Ypsilanti’s existence,” she said. 

EMU professor of Africology and African-American studies, Cassandra Turner, is another historian working on the project. She hopes the signs with speak to a strong and thriving community. 

“There’s a lot of history here, and people need to talk about it and know about it,” she said. “I hope that people understand there is a rich history of African-Americans in Ypsilanti, that is usually hidden – people just don’t know, and I think this project will give people a sense of pride.” 

Those who want to learn more about the project can contact Engage@EMU at The deadline for the project is by the end of March, 2018. 

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