Detroit History

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Saturday, September 4, 1999
A traditional Polish peasant wedding in Detroit around 1920.

Michigan's greatest treasure -- its people

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News

Ethnically speaking, Michigan is more than just one state out of 50 --it's a snapshot of America's ethnic whole. A 1993 article in The Detroit News listed 146 different languages spoken in Michigan homes. Topping the list: Spanish, Polish, German, Arabic, French, Italian, Chinese, Greek, Dutch and Korean. The 1990 Census recorded more than 120 different ethnic groups among the state's 9.3 million citizens.

      Since the days when the British and French fought each other for the right to displace the native American Indians, scores of nationalities and races have moved in, attracted first by Michigan's abundance of fresh water and natural resources, and later by good-paying jobs.

The Old World atmosphere in many of Detroit's ethnic enclaves enriched life in the city.

      During the 19th century Michigan was an important stop on the Underground Railroad and many runaway slaves decided to make their homes here. Today, 14 percent of Michigan's population is African-American.

      The first sizeable black migration into Michigan began in the 1840s, and by 1850, 2,583 blacks lived in Detroit.

      The industrialization of Detroit and the rise of the auto industry in the 20th century lured southern blacks -- and whites as well -- from hard-scrabble Southern farms with the promise of a better life. Detroit's black population ballooned from 5,741 in 1910 to 200,000 by 1943.

      They first settled on the near east side in an area called Black Bottom because of its rich, dark soil. They set up stores, nightclubs and restaurants where blacks and whites mixed easily. The area thrived until the 1960s when it was wiped out by construction of the Chrysler Freeway, but not before a unique style of music developed that the city shared with a generation of Americans -- Motown.

      A fourth of the population in metro Detroit claims German heritage, a million in Michigan as a whole. During the middle of the 1800s Michigan needed farmers and settlers to help the state grow and hired promoters and printed pamphlets proclaiming the glories of the state. Representatives sent to New York and as far away as Germany and Bavaria sought to attract hardworking citizens to the state. Germans, who were viewed at the time as religious, well educated and prosperous, were heavily recruited and thousands came. These early German settlers played a large role in developing the state's education system.

      Many retained their German language and customs in the new world, creating problems for the community during the First World War. Laws were passed by suspicious legislators requiring their newspapers to be printed in English instead of German.

      In Detroit Germans settled on the east side along Gratiot.. A few settled along Michigan Avenue. Many later moved to Macomb County.


      About 850,000 ethnic Poles live near Detroit, centering around Hamtramck. One and a half million Michiganians claim Polish heritage, the largest group of all. A great wave came in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with many Poles attracted to Detroit by Henry Ford's offer of $5-a-day jobs in 1914. Many settled near Canfield and developed a strong Catholic heartland, constructing magnificent churches. Sweetest Heart of Mary, built in 1892, and St. Albertus, built in 1884, are only a block apart. Some later moved to the west side, near St. Hyacinth, then on to Dearborn. Others moved east to Warren, Sterling Heights and elsewhere in Macomb County.

      Detroit-area Poles proudly claim Pope John II as their own. He visited here once before becoming pope and again as pope in 1987. Two monuments proclaim his popularity here.

      The next largest groups, the Irish and the Italians, claim 500,000 and 400,000 respectively. The potato famine of the mid-1800s drove many Irish to seek a new life in America. In Detroit, they settled in the Corktown region just west of downtown, quickly assimilating and strengthening Detroit's Catholic underpinning. St. Patrick's Day is still a huge tradition in Detroit, and Michigan's political history is riddled by Irish names.

      Many Italians settled on the east side around Eastern Market near St. Elizabeth and Holy Family churches. Many later moved eastward and into Macomb County.

      The English claim about 300,000, but seem to be largely ignored as an ethnic group. Smaller numbers of Cornish and Welsh, along with about 110,000 Finns, found their way to the Upper Peninsula in the middle of the 19th century. Many were miners who left their homes when the ores were depleted. They came to the copper and iron areas of Upper Michigan around Houghton (named after Douglass Houghton who first discovered the copper) and Keweenaw counties, settling in Ishpeming, Iron River and Iron Mountain. Their arrival in the1840s rivaled the later California gold rush and made the beef "pastie" a staple of Upper Peninsula cuisine.

      The Finns, the last of the Upper Peninsula arrivals, perservered to become the most influential ethnic group in the U.P. Many initially took work as miners and lumberjacks, but quickly switched to farming. They became the largest Finnish group in the United States and fostered their own education and religious traditions. Suomi College was founded in Hancock in 1896 to train clergy, and it still serves the community.


      The 1800s also saw many Canadians, both English and French, cross into Michigan. These immigrants included farmers, fishermen, lumbermen, trappers and miners. About 60,000 in Michigan claimed French Canadian heritage in the 1990 census in addition to the 160,000 claiming European French heritage.

      Detroit and Michigan history is riddled with French names, including Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, founder of Detroit; Father Gabriel Richard, founder of the University of Michigan and St. Anne's; Robert Cavalier de la Salle, Great Lakes explorer, and Father Jacques Marquette, Michigan explorer and missionary.

      Hispanics in Michigan numbered 160,000 in the 1990 Census, and comprise the largest foreign language-speaking group in the state. In 1999, they accounted for 44 percent of new immigrants., many settling around what has become known as Mexicantown, a popular restaurant district west of Corktown.

      There are more than 150,000 in Michigan who claim Greek descent, 120,000 in the Detroit area. Well assimilated, they still maintain the best known ethnic enclave, Greektown, on Monroe just east of downtown.

      The first Greek immigrants settled in Detroit at the turn of the century and were followed soon after by a wave of immigrants who came in 1914 seeking Ford's $5 a day jobs. Many came to escape political persecution of Greeks in Turkey which began in 1912.

      The Dutch, more than 120,000 of them, settled on the west side of the state near Grand Rapids and Holland, where the tulip festivals are a popular tourist attraction.


      Immigration in Michigan slowed to a trickle in 1924, when the United States limited the influx of foreigners to only 164,000 per year, fewer than 20 percent from Southern Europe, and none from Asia. This quota system was not relaxed until 1968.,

      In the 1980s , established enclaves in the Detroit area offered asylum to Poles, Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Bulgarians, Romanians, and Slovaks seeking to escape the turmoil in eastern Europe as the old Soviet systems collapsed.

      In 1999, Asians accounted for 26 percent of new Michigan immigrants. In the 1990s, the Asian population around Detroit grew to more than 55,000. This group, including Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos, are generally well-educated and live in affluent communities in the metro area.

      Detroit had a Japanese presence as early as 1892, but Japanese started moving to Detroit in more significant numbers around 1946 as the notorious relocation camps were disbanded. About 5,000 Japanese live in Metro Detroit. At the end of the Vietnam war, significant numbers of Vietnamese, Cambocians and Laotians settled in and around Detroit.

      Arabs began settling in Detroit as early as the 1920s. They established a tight-knit community that welcomed arrivals pouring out of the Middle East to escape the turmoil following World War II. Estimates put the number of Arabs in the Detroit area, many of them in Dearborn, at more than 100,000. The community includes Chaldeans, Iraqi, Lebanese, Syrian and other Middle Easterners. Prominent Arab-Americans include Ed Deeb, president off the Eastern Market Merchant Association, who was honored by President George Bush with a Point of Light award for his service to the community, and U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham, of Michigan.

      According to historian Arthur Woodford, Detroit has "the largest multi-ethnic population of any city in the United States. Detroit has the largest Arabic-speaking population outside of the Middle East, the second largest Polish population in America (only Chicago has more), and the largest U.S. concentration of Belgians, Chaldeans and Maltese."


(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)

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