Nine decades ago, Vivian Deborah Wilson arrived at the University of Michigan with dreams of dedicating her life to teaching Latin.
That year, Wilson became part of the legacy of African-American students who attended U-M. At the time, Wilson was one of about a dozen African-American women enrolled at U-M.
Recently Bentley Historical Library archivists discovered Wilson did indeed spend her life after U-M teaching Latin and Spanish, marking a dream fulfilled.
Wilson’s journey from her Washington, D.C., home to U-M is just one of scores of stories the Bentley has unearthed as it works to uncover and collect the names and life stories of all the African-American students who attended U-M, starting from its founding to the Black Action Movement in 1970.
Along with shining a light on who these students were, the initiative has also illuminated the historical experiences of African-American students at U-M.
The project, which is part of the Bentley’s contributions to U-M’s bicentennial, began last summer.
Bentley Director Terrence J. McDonald said when he began teaching a course about the history of U-M, he wanted to be able to share lessons about the experiences of different underrepresented groups in the institution’s history, such as African-Americans, women and Jewish students.
He decided the Bentley should flesh out the story of the history of African-Americans at U-M and their experiences on campus once it was discovered there was little known and little published on the subject.
“One of the things that African-American alums have said, they are welcoming a project that’s aimed at identifying the normal student life, as opposed to either the pioneering people who were the first ones to come or the kind of stereotypical athlete, for example,” McDonald said.
Bentley Lead Bicentennial Archivist Brian Williams, who spearheads the project, said other goals include determining historic enrollment numbers of African-American students, as well as confirming some of the ‘firsts’ — like the first African-American student to attend U-M.
“We’ve often been asked the enrollment for African-Americans at various points in time,” Williams said. “And as we’ve searched for that, we found we didn’t know because that wasn’t tracked. And so part of this project is to answer that question.”
Because the university did not historically track race, Williams said his team has had to triangulate a variety of sources to confirm students were African-American.
At times, it started with what Williams calls a “crude” perusal of old yearbooks and class photos, a method undertaken for similar projects at other institutions of higher education.
During the research process, the Bentley team took the names of possible African-American students they discovered back to the library’s colossal collection of alumni records to help confirm racial identities. The students’ files often gave further biographical details, painting a more complete portrait of their lives and experiences.
Williams said their process to uncover the history of African-American students at U-M also has included a variety of other tools, such as searching through campus and national publication archives to find mentions of African-American students and organizations, and using resources like ancestry.com to look at census records.
Some sources included The Michigan Daily, the Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress, and The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. They have also interviewed African-American alumni and reached out to the historically African-American fraternities and sororities on campus.
So far, the undertaking has led researchers to a new area of focus: housing for African-American students.
In the early 1900s, Ann Arbor and U-M were marked by segregation, forcing many African-American students to live in a “colored section” of the city roughly bounded by Huron Street, Glen Avenue, Fourth Avenue and the Huron River and railroad tracks.
Some of the female students worked as domestic housemaids, while some African-American male students worked in white fraternities in exchange for housing.
Williams said as they have identified places where African-American students lived, his team has searched specific addresses in student and local directories, finding even more names of occupants that they then can go back and check in the alumni records.
“The other key thing for me has been we’re learning who these people are, not just names,” Williams said. “We’re learning more what it was like to live here. They were on the edge and marginalized. And so they really aren’t integrated socially into the university.”
To read the Bentley’s first story from this project, which centers on African-American female students at U-M and challenges they faced with housing options, visit tinyurl.com/ku4apac.
As of early April, the Bentley has uncovered the names of more than 1,700 African-American students, from 1853 to 1970, and the list is steadily growing.
The project is ongoing and Williams said they are working to complete similar projects with other historically underrepresented groups, such as Native American students.
The Bentley anticipates posting their findings from the African-American history project online, with viewers gaining the ability to provide feedback and assistance on the list.
McDonald said this work should have been completed a long time ago.
“Right now we’ve made a commitment as an institution to be in favor of diversity, equity and inclusion,” McDonald said. “It requires us to basically understand our past history there. And I think sometimes people may underestimate the amount of difficulty the institution has had in fulfilling that promise.”
Citing U-M’s first non-discrimination statement issued in 1959, McDonald added that public stance took place after the Brown v. Board of Education case and a few years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“We were not leading in this,” McDonald said. “So I think that’s important for people to understand. The front door was open but the idea of an affirmative effort to build a community that accepted diversity, that took a long time in the university’s history. And I think our information is fleshing that out.”
U-M Black Alumni Chairman Megan Davis said as an African-American alumna it’s a point of pride to be able to say African-Americans started attending U-M before integration.
“I do by all means hope that they uncover some people, whether big or small, that have gone on to do some significant things,” Davis said. “Wolverines do significant things. It doesn’t matter who you are. It is an elite institution for a reason, so it is bound to uncover some people who have hopefully contributed to society in a way that we would have never known.”