Our Stories, Our Lives

Albion’s West Ward School: From Segregation to Civil Rights

Dr. Wesley Arden Dick, Professor of History at Albion College, specializes in civil rights history and co-teaches, with Leslie Dick, a first-year seminar entitled “A Sense of Place: Albion & the American Dream.” He is Second Vice President of the Albion Branch NAACP and is working on the West Ward School Oral History Project with historians Leslie Dick and Robert Wall.

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Albion, Michigan is a small town with a rich history.  In fact, it can be said that Albion’s story is America’s story.   This narrative and our Heritage Grant project are focused on key racial dimensions of Albion’s history.  West Ward School, an elementary school, is the epicenter of our project.

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Students at West Ward School, circa late 1940s – early 1950s

Albion had become an iron foundry industrial town in the last half of the 19th century.  During World War I, European immigration was cut off and northern industries went south to recruit workers.  In 1916, the Albion Malleable Iron Company sent labor recruiters to Pensacola, Florida.  The arrival of 64 African American men marked Albion’s participation in the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to the North.  The wives and children of the laborers followed.  Where would the African American children go to school?  Although aware of the Michigan ban on segregation in public education, local leaders re-purposed West Ward Elementary School as an all-Black school in 1918.  Although whites made the decision, the only way that the African American children would have Black teachers was to have an all-Black school.  Newly uprooted from the Jim Crow South where Black children were in segregated schools with Black teachers, the West Ward accommodation was favored by Albion African Americans in 1918.  And so it would remain for 35 years.

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West Ward School, circa late 1940s – early 1950s

In the aftermath of World War II, national attitudes regarding racial equity and justice were changing and Albion African American parents had come to view West Ward as “separate but unequal.”  In the fall of 1953, those parents held their children out of school.  The boycott and threats of legal action by the NAACP forced the Albion Board of Education to close West Ward School in October 1953.  This West Ward School story began in the era of segregation and concluded with an Albion Civil Rights movement.

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Students at West Ward School, circa late 1940s – early 1950s

After West Ward was closed, the site became a city park named for Robert Holland, Sr., one of the African American boycott leaders.  The Holland Park Transformation Project is an initiative to revitalize that space.  Citizens also wanted to save its history.  The West Ward Oral History Project includes original interviews with 22 alumni who attended West Ward.  The interviews, conducted by Robert Wall, who attended West Ward, are the centerpiece for providing authentic voices and they remind us that many good things happened at West Ward where the teachers were an integral part of the neighborhood.  Many West Ward graduates have fulfilled the best of the American Dream.  However, the interviewees also confirm that segregation and racism in Albion were not confined to the West Ward School, but extended to movie theaters, the bowling alley, skating rink, and ice cream parlor.

The West Ward School story of segregation and civil rights will be told through nine photographic and textual panels on display on history hill in Holland Park.  In addition, the interviews and the history will be made smartphone webpage accessible, including opportunity for community feedback.

In 2016, the national need for conversations about race and racial history is urgent.  This year also marks Albion’s centennial year for the initial recruitment of Black workers.  Today, Albion is almost one third African American.  Due to deindustrialization, schools of choice, and white flight, there is only one elementary school left in the community, a de facto segregated, predominantly African American school with an almost-all white teaching staff.  The West Ward School Oral History Project aspires to make this history visible and interactive for young and old alike, to relate history to the present, and to inspire all of us to strive for fairness and justice.

— By Dr. Wesley Dick. Photos courtesy of Robert Wall, West Ward alumnus and project historian.

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