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.