Friday, February 19, 2021

Yooper Talk

 by Frank Boles

On February 11, Dr. Kathryn Remlinger from Grand Valley State University shared with us her research on Finnish accents in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Yooper Talk was based on her years of linguistic research in the western Upper Peninsula, the “Copper Country.”

Finnish has had a particular influence on speech in the Upper Peninsula because of two unusual characteristics of immigrants from Finland. The first was their language itself. Finnish is unrelated to other European languages. Thus, Finnish speakers could not easily “borrow” parts of their language patterns and apply them to English. Second, unlike most European immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth century, Finns had a very high literacy rate.

Most immigrant groups to the United Sates followed a very similar pattern regarding the loss of their native tongue. The Immigrants, or first generation, spoke the native tongue and would never really master English. They often learned some English words or phrases, enough to get by, but they would never rely on English as their basic way to communicate. Their children, the second generation, would usually be bi-lingual, speaking the native tongue to communicate with their parents, but English the rest of the time. The immigrant’s grandchildren, the third generation, usually only spoke English. Finns, however, because of their unusually high literacy rate, passed that reading skill to their children and grandchildren, and their continued reading of Finnish made the language more long-lasting within their community than most other immigrant tongues.

Dr. Remlinger also made the point that people who speak with an accent, Yooper or otherwise, often face discrimination. She recounted a story of a young woman who almost dropped out of college when a professor asked if anyone in the class was from the Upper Peninsula, and when no one admitted to such an uncouth heritage, breathed a visible sigh of relief, as “those people” always had difficulty with the oral presentation. As a result of this attitude, the student, who was from the Upper Peninsula (but wasn’t about to admit it that day!), felt like her chances of success in the class, and in college, were pretty much zero. Actually, Yooper talk, like most dialects, follows fairly precise rules, and one’s dialect rarely tells much about a person’s capabilities – just a bit about their background.

Finnish was not the only language to influence how Yoopers talk. Perhaps the most unexpected thing Professor Remlinger shared was that the ubiquitous “eh” that often ends a Yooper’s sentence does not come from Finnish. Rather, it most likely came into usage because of the linguistic nature of three other languages that influenced how English is spoken in the UP – Canadian French, Cornish English, and Ojibway.

That fact was a surprise, as was how the word “Yooper” got into the dictionary – a Scrabble game. Back in 2002, some Scrabble players, one a Yooper, got into an argument about whether Yooper was really a word. As Scrabble players do, they turned to the dictionary for a ruling, and “Yooper” wasn’t there. This setback led the defeated player to write the editors of the Merriam Webster dictionary asking that the word be included. They said no. This rejection began a more than decade-long correspondence, with examples of the word being used in printed sources regularly forwarded to the dictionary’s editors as proof that “Yooper” was a real word. Eventually, the editors relented and placed “Yooper” in the 2014 collegiate edition. Among the scrabble players, however, opinion was divided if the editors were really convinced about the validity of the word or if they were just tired of getting letters on the subject.

Our thanks to Dr. Remlinger for an informative and entertaining evening, and to the John and Audrey Cumming Endowment, which made the presentation possible.

A recording of the presentation is available on the Clarke Historical Library website.



Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Green Book

 by Frank Boles

 

Americans travel, a lot. It is part of our national character. But in the twentieth century not all travelers were treated equally. People of color faced rejection and hostility based on racism when they sought services or accommodations in places such as restaurants and hotels. The problem was national, but the experience was local, very personal, and very much a part of Michigan history. To document how people of color coped with the challenges of travel during the era of segregated accommodations, the Clarke Historical Library has recently acquired several annual editions of “the Green Book.”

 

“The Green Book” was a travel guide for people of color, based on the racism even the most elite members of the community suffered. In 1932, for example, Dr. B. Pirce Hurst, one of Washington D.C.’s leading Black citizens and a man of financial means, was arbitrarily denied a room in New York City’s Prince George Hotel despite having confirmed his reservation. This was not uncommon. Clerks in many hotels frequently “lost” a reservation when a person with a black face showed up to claim it. Hurst later explained how he was rejected by four New York City hotels that night, before finally finding a place to stay in New York City’s Black district of Harlem. Unusual for the day, and thus gaining considerable publicity, Hurst sued the Prince George for violating New York State’s then existing civil rights law and won his case.

 

But Hurst’s legal victory was something of a one-off. Time did little to change the problem. Civil rights leader John Lewis recalled how his family prepared for a trip in 1951:

There would be no restaurant for us to stop at until we were well out of the South, so we took our restaurant right in the car with us…. Stopping for gas and to use the bathroom took careful planning. Uncle Otis had made this trip before, and he knew which places along the way offered "colored" bathrooms and which were better just to pass on by. Our map was marked and our route was planned that way, by the distances between service stations where it would be safe for us to stop.”

Uncle Otis was an invaluable resource for the Lewis family. Black travelers not fortunate enough to have the advice of someone experienced along a particular route often had to carry buckets or portable toilets in the trunks of their cars because they were usually barred from bathrooms and rest areas in service stations and roadside stops. Travel essentials such as gasoline were difficult to purchase because of discrimination at gas stations.

Victor Hugo Green became the “Uncle Otis” for many people of color who were traveling by automobile. Beginning in 1936, Green published what was commonly called “the Green Book,” although its official title was The Negro Motorist Green Book. The book listed accommodations, such as restaurants and hotels, where Black people would be welcomed. It quickly added barber and beauty shops as well as other services.

 


Originally centered on New York, the book expanding to include listings throughout the United States, including Michigan. The guides were printed more or less annually between 1936 and 1966. In his memoir, A Colored Man’s Journey Through 20th Century Segregated America (2000), Earl Hutchinson, Sr. described purchasing a copy in preparation for a road trip he and his wife took from Chicago to California. “The ‘Green Book’ was the bible of every Negro highway traveler in the 1950s and early 1960s,” he wrote. “You literally didn’t dare leave home without it.”



What the 1962 guidebook said about Michigan makes Hutchinson’s point. Only nineteen cities were listed. The largest number of listings in a single location is Idlewild, the Black vacation resort in remote Lake County. In Detroit, with a Black population of nearly one-half million, only twelve accommodations are listed. The only other locations with more than one accommodation are Flint (3), Jackson (2) Lansing, (2) and the small communities of Bitely (2), on the Lake/Newaygo county line, and Vandalia (2) in Cass County. Vandalia, which in 1960 had only 367 residents, was near the junction of two major Underground Railroad “lines” that “conductors” had followed to lead enslaved people north prior to the Civil War, a fact that seems to have influenced the community more than a century later.

“The Green Book” did not directly challenge segregation or the white racism that underlies that segregation. But it also looked forward to a day when the book would be unneeded. As the introduction to the 1948 edition states:

There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.

Legally, that day came with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a Federal law that banned racial segregation in restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks, and other public spaces. The law did not end racism, but it made the overt implementation of racist beliefs in places of public accommodation punishable by law.

Three years later, “the Green Book” quietly ceased publication because it did “not have to be published” any longer. America’s era of legal segregation had ended.

“The Green Book” compliments many other resources in the Clarke Historical Library that document a wide range of experiences recording the history of racism, segregation, and de-segregation in Michigan.



Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The New Family in the Neighborhood

Frank Boles 

America has a long history of segregated housing. Whether accomplished by law, social custom, or economic factors, America’s neighborhoods were, in the past, and often remain today homogeneous. Despite these persistent patterns, Americans have slowly come to accept first the possibility and then the reality of multi-racial communities. One of the landmark moments in this transformation that most people do not know about was when a minority family moved into the book that taught first grade children to read. 



Ask anyone of “a certain age” who Dick and Jane are and they will tell you. They were two extraordinary well-behaved children who lived with their baby sister Sally and their two parents, and who were described in grade school reading books used across the nation. The children first appeared in print in 1930 and, although the books are still widely available in reprints today, the final “new” edition featuring the children appeared in 1965. In the 1950s, at the height of their popularity, approximately 80 percent of America’s first graders learned to read from these books. Some 
85 million grade school children are estimated to have used the book to learn reading between 1930 and 1970. Small wonder everybody “of a certain age” know these children. 



In the 1950s and early 1960s, critics of the Dick and Jane readers began to point out the volume’s many stereotypes and biases. Critics had many objections but one of them was that many first graders who lived in the United States could not relate to a white, nuclear family with two parents, three children, a dog named Spot, and a cat named Puff, and who enjoyed life in a house located in a prosperous and apparently all-white suburb.  


Responding to various criticisms, in the 1960s, publisher Scott Foresman heavily revised the book, and the series of readers for older children that built upon it. One of the biggest changes? In 1965, Scott Foresman became the first publisher to introduce a Black family as characters in a first-grade reader. The new family included two parents and their three children, Mike, and his twin sisters, Pam, and Penny. 

From the perspective of a half century later, this change might appear little more than tokenism, mixed with savvy marketing on the part of the publisher to retain a lucrative book market. But perhaps it would be wiser to view this change through the lens proposed by Ibram X. Kendi and his definition of antiracist 

One who is expressing the idea that racial groups are equals and none needs developing, and is supporting policy that reduces racial inequity. 

Using Kendi’s definition, Scott Foresman decision to place a Black family in their first-grade reader was anti-racist. The new family in the book certainly appears equal and has no need to “develop.” Mike, Pam, and Penny dressed as did Dick, Jane, and Sally. The parents of both families wore similar clothes and, as far as one can tell from a first-grade reader, enjoyed a similar income and a similar lifestyle. Furthermore, Scott Foresman’s change introduced into the perspective of every first grader who picked up the volume the anti-racist policy that people of every color could live anywhere and be welcomed everywhere, for example in Dick and Jane’s neighborhood.  



Mike, Pam, and Penny did not end racism in America, but they did represent a notable contribution toward changing attitudes about race in the United States. 

The Clarke Historical Library includes the Lucile Clarke Memorial Children’s Library, in which is found a large collection of historical K-6 textbooks. From this collection of books, insights about the values one generation has shared with the next can be learned. The collection includes Scott Foresman’s ubiquitous Dick and Jane volumes. 


Monday, January 11, 2021

An Archivist’s Friendship with a Former CMU President

by Bryan Whitledge

President Bill Boyd at podium
When I learned that Bill Boyd, former Central Michigan University President, passed away last month as a result of contracting COVID-19, I was truly saddened. I felt that I had lost a dear friend with whom I shared many important moments in Central’s history—occasions like the May 1970 takeover of the ROTC building, hosting the 1975 International Special Olympics Summer Games, and changing CMU’s policies to deem the children of migrant workers in-state residents for tuition purposes.

But when one looks at the facts of my life and when I crossed paths with President Boyd, a glaring gap is visible… when Bill Boyd left CMU to become president at the University of Oregon, I wasn’t yet born. In fact, I wasn’t yet out of elementary school when he retired from working life altogether. Even more, it wasn’t until I was 29 years old and President Boyd was nearly 90 years old and had been away from Central for 35 years that I first heard of him. And to cap it off, I never met the man and only on two occasions where I was in the room when he was on a telephone call with others did I get the chance to talk to him, asking him a brief matter-of-fact question each time to which he replied in a similar fashion… in total, we talked to each other for maybe 30 seconds in our lives. None of this is indicative of a personal relationship.

So why is it, with so much time between his tenure and my work at CMU, and having never met President Boyd and only very briefly talking to him, do I feel such a personal connection with this man? The simple answer is because of the power of archives.

I am not the first person, nor will I be the last, to feel this. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has talked about the intimate relationships she has formed with FDR, Abe Lincoln, and other US presidents, even though she never met them. French researcher Arlette Farge wrote a classic of archives literature in 1989, Le Goût de l’archive (The Allure of the Archives), in which she discusses how “she was seduced by the sensuality of old manuscripts and by the revelatory power of voices otherwise lost.” And it is common for budding archivists, while in graduate school, to get a little piece of advice from one of the veterans working with them when the graduate student gets their first assignment processing and arranging a collection: “Hopefully, you like Ms. X, because you are going to be spending a lot of time with her.”

President Boyd and Eunice Kennedy Shriver,
1974 Michigan Special Olympics State Summer Games

In my case, I first “met” President Boyd in 2011, when I joined the Clarke’s team and began researching the history of the university. I was new to CMU and I didn’t know a thing about the history of the university. So, I was advised to start with John Cumming’s book. I still remember reaching the last 50 pages of the book or so and reading about President Boyd. I was immediately intrigued by him. He seemed like a history-making figure and a decent person. I then dug into the Central Michigan Life student newspaper and the Centralight alumni magazine. When documenting events of the late 1960s to mid-1970s, President Boyd seemed to be at the center of all of the action – anti-Vietnam-War activism, the formation of the Faculty Association (one of the first collective bargaining units for faculty at a 4-year university in the country), CMU moving up to NCAA Division I in athletics, the liberalization of residence hall regulations that forced women students to observe an earlier curfew then men students, and more. And in each case, his actions always seemed wise and he often had something intelligent and reasonable to say.

With that research project, I also dug into the archives of previous university presidents—Anspach, Warriner, Able, and of course, Boyd. The folders of speeches, correspondence, and working files gave me an idea of how each of these people approached their job and what they valued. Working with the Boyd records, I began to really like the guy. By January of 2012, when I had wrapped up the research, I was impressed with President Boyd and thought he was a special person.

As time moved on, I learned more and more about him. In late 2012, I mentioned to a colleague in the History Department about President Boyd’s efforts to increase diversity at CMU by hiring Dr. Robert Thornton, a physicist from San Francisco State University, in June 1969. Dr. Thornton was brought on as a special assistant charged with increasing recruitment of Black students and faculty and providing guidance to incorporate Black Studies into CMU’s curriculum. My colleague said, “Do you realize that San Francisco State was the first school in the country with a Black Studies program and it started in March of 1969?” I had no idea! Just four months after SFSU started their program, Boyd was drawing on their experience to try to improve CMU. One more fact about President Boyd’s sense of decency and humanity was added to my knowledge of him.

President Bill Boyd and Professor Jean Mayhew,
"King and Queen of Gentle Friday," 1970

A couple years later, I was invited to listen to an oral history interview between Frank Boles, the director of the Clarke, and President Boyd. Over speakerphone, I listened to President Boyd say that he was most proud of making the Central campus more beautiful, and remark on the May 1970 unrest by saying, “I was surprised and pleased by the good nature of the Central student body.” After a couple years of digging into the archives and answering questions about the history of CMU, it wasn’t a stretch for me to imagine being there as he was making tough decisions during a stressful situation.

Two years after that, I spoke to a group of about fifteen alumni involved in the anti-Vietnam-War movement, and I listened as every single person had something complimentary to say about President Boyd. One of the members of the group contacted him via telephone and the conversation that ensued between the alumni and their former president were, to say the least, very touching. After the alumni expressed their gratitude for his leadership and the lessons they learned from his example some 45 years after those moments in history, President Boyd ended the phone call by saying that speaking with all of these former students that day was among one of the best moments of his life. By this point, I felt like I knew Central’s seventh president.

President Bill Boyd speaks to students
outside "Freedom Hall," May 1970

Over the years, I had many more of these moments in which I learned more about the decency and humanity of President Boyd: when I learned about the change to residency requirements for tuition purposes for the children of migrant workers (pages 6-10 of linked article); when I learned about his plans for his inauguration, which featured a rather subdued ceremony, cancelling classes for the afternoon, and hosting free concert for students featuring activist and folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie; when I learned about Earth Week. I felt proud to “know” the man behind these stories.

After President Boyd’s passing, I read many remembrances including two from Racine, Wisconsin, where he lived for nearly the last 40 years. Both remembrances (Journal Times and Wright in Racine) mentioned a great many things that I never knew about President Boyd—which makes perfect sense objectively because I really only have access to records from the seven years when he was president at Central. But I wasn’t surprised by these wonderful anecdotes because I “know” President Boyd and the stories match exactly the man I know. The same is true for all of the comments on the CMU Alumni Association Facebook page responding to the post announcing President Boyd’s death. In fact, I felt a sense of pride that all of these people respected and admired him—a man who is part of the Central Michigan University family.

The only things that connect me to Bill Boyd are the historical documents in the Clarke and the stories from people who knew him. But, like Arlette Farge and others can attest, those pieces of paper and statements, as seemingly mundane and innocuous as some might believe them to be, hold a great deal of power—enough power to form a relationship. And, knowing what I know about him, generations from now, there is likely to be someone else who digs into the Boyd Papers and forms a friendship with Central’s seventh president.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Miles Harvey on the Life of James Jesse Strang

 

by Frank Boles

Miles Harvey, author of The King of Confidence, a recently published biography of James Jesse Strang, spoke online on the evening of November 5.

James Jesse Strang was a nineteenth-century figure who, as a teenager, would write in his diary he wished to become “a Priest, a Lawyer, a Conqueror, and a Legislator.” His early life did little to suggest he would succeed in any of his ambitions. Charismatic and incredibly persuasive, he nevertheless failed as a lawyer, a newspaper owner, and as a real estate speculator. 

In 1844, however, his life changed when he traveled to Nauvoo, Illinois, talked into a trip by a friend who said he should hear the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, Joseph Smith, preach. Strang, in his own words, arrived “an inveterate unbeliever and opposer of the Mormon faith.” He left a professed Mormon.

As Harvey documents, Strang’s career from that point forward became one of increased complexity, great success that in many ways matched his teenage dreams, and great failure. Between 1844 and 1856, he lived an extraordinary life – among other accomplishments he led a break-away Mormon colony on Beaver Island where he was proclaimed an earthly king, he became a member of the Michigan legislature where he was an ardent proponent of abolition, and he persuaded a jury to find him innocent when tried in federal court. On June 16, 1856, James was shot and mortally wounded.

What to make of such a career? Harvey places Strang in the context of two nineteenth-century traits: a fluid sense of reality and the confidence man. America was rapidly changing in the 1830s and Americans were not always sure what to make of it. In this ambivalent situation, reality seemed to bend, and new ideas and ways of looking at the world were quickly, and often fervently, embraced. Individuals who could reshape reality, who had confidence in a vision of the future, could begin with seemingly nothing, yet swiftly rise to the highest levels of wealth and social standing.

Although this fluidity could lead to the best of results, it could also lead to disaster.

Con men radiate confidence and use any device they can to convince someone to see the world as they do and to persuade someone to give them what they want. Americans understood this, but nevertheless accepted the con man as embracing a positive aspect of American culture, a person who in the vocabulary of the day was “smart.”

Charles Dickens, who toured America, found himself both appalled and fascinated by Americans’ reaction to these individuals. Dickens would approach an American about a con man with the following words:

“Is it not a very disgraceful circumstance that such a man as So-and-so should be acquiring a large property by the most infamous and odious means, and not withstanding all the crimes of which he has been guilty should be tolerated and abetted by your Citizens? He is a public nuisance, is he not?” “Yes, sir.”

 “A convicted liar?” “Yes, sir.”

“He has been kicked, and cuffed, and caned?”  “Yes Sir.”

“And he is utterly dishonourable, debased and profligate?” “Yes, sir.”

“In the name of wonder then, what is his merit? “Well, sir, he is a smart man.”

Dickens claimed to have had a discussion like this a hundred times, and every time the American, admitting all of the confidence man’s sins, nevertheless admired his ability to shape reality and  succeed—to be a “smart man.” Harvey, in the end concluded that Strang lived in an era of fluid reality and that James Jesse Strang was one of those smart men who created a reality. To hear Harvey’s presentation, click here .