Albion's Racial Tension in 1967, Today's Climate In Diverse City
Detroit wasn’t the only city in Michigan that experienced racial tension and violence during the turbulent summer of 1967. Disturbances ranging from shootings to broken windows were also reported in Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Mount Clemens, Benton Harbor and Pontiac.
In the Calhoun County city of Albion, the racially diverse population led some to call the town “Little Detroit.”
WKAR’s Scott Pohl went to Albion to talk with people who were there, and remain there today.
Scott grew up on a farm near Albion, and his older siblings went to Albion High School. As a boy, he remember talk about the possibility of the violence seen in Detroit coming to Albion. Almost everyone from Albion’s National Guard Batteries A and B went to Detroit as part of the federal force sent in to quell the violence of 1967. Albion Mayor Victor Burstein imposed a curfew and issued a statement vowing to take whatever action was necessary to preserve the peace. It seems to have worked, though there were some fire alarms and broken windows.
Bob Wall is an African-American who grew up in Albion, remembering the factory town of the 1950s as producing integrated labor unions and an integrated high school. Still, almost all of Albion’s black population lived on the west side of town, and the high school saw some tension over issues like the racial makeup of the homecoming court.
By 1967, Wall was living in Detroit, working at an auto plant and returning to Albion most weekends to see his girlfriend. He says awareness of racial issues was growing in Albion, as members of the Nation of Islam distributed newspapers and people began to learn about Malcolm X, but the town wasn’t as politically sophisticated as what he saw in Detroit. "I did not sense, like, if I go on the corner for a beer or something, there was not a whole lot of political hubbub going on there like it would be in a tavern on Woodward Avenue in Detroit," he explains. "It was the same stuff we'd always talk about."
Russ Spanniga has a somewhat different perspective on the Albion of 1967. As a white teacher and later a principal at the high school, he saw the racial divide. "They were seperate," he recalls, "the black community was on Superior Street west, and the white community was on Superior Street east. It was like an invisible plastic shield that went down the road between the two of them."
Spanniga intervened in some racial incidents at the school, and says he saw the races mixing primarily on sports teams.
Spanniga says today, Albion’s challenges are more economic than racial though he still sees some racial isolation. The factories and their jobs are gone, and the high school closed in 2013. In recent years, Spanniga says most of the development in the city has been spurred by Albion College. "For a long time, Albion College did little or nothing," he opines. "Now, maybe because they're afraid the college will be affected by the city or the city by the college, we don't know, but they have done a lot in the last four or five years, I'll tell you that. We always talked about the relationship between the college and the town, but now, the college is spending money."
Bob Wall sees abandoned homes and demolitions on the west side of Albion these days, signaling a new direction for the city. Like Spanniga, Wall credits Albion College for sparking some optimism about the future. "They have now crossed Superior Street and are on the west side of town with their new Ludington Center," he concludes, "and the new hotel that's coming in, there's a strong connection there. Those are great, positive signs."
The Ludington Center is adjacent to Albion city hall. It will house several Albion College and community operations.
Along with growth at the college, the town’s main business district along Superior Street is torn up for construction this summer. Businesses are struggling to be accessible to their patrons as a result. The town’s population has fallen in recent decades, but the racial makeup has stayed at about 30-percent African-American. Losing those factory jobs has certainly hurt; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Albion’s median household income in 2015 was less than $27,000. That needs to trend upward for Albion to thrive again.
WKAR would like to thank Albion College history professor Wesley Dick for his help on this story.