I returned to Michigan as a reporter after being away for nearly 20 years. When I was a boy, was taught almost nothing about the history of the African-American experience or the history of Detroit or even the history of my family for that matter.
Confronted by the hard realities of our time and our city, I went looking for my own story which is inextricably linked to the story of Detroit -- white, black and red. I was surprised by what I found.
In the spirit of Black History Month, this is the first of three essays on myFOXdetroit.com that will culminate in video form on FOX 2 in coming weeks. Portions of these essays will appear in my upcoming book, “ DETROIT: An American Autopsy,” due out this fall. -- Charlie LeDuff
PART 2 OF 3
Part 2 of 3 DETROIT -- My grandfather Royal LeDuff divorced his first wife – my grandmother Betty Zink -- five years before her sad and sudden death in 1951.
That year, grandpa went to dance it up at the Vanity Ballroom, a popular nightclub on Detroit's east side, a joint decorated with crystal chandeliers and Mayan kitsch that routinely featured the biggest headliners of the day like Tommy Dorsey. Even though this was Detroit – the North -- the place strictly off-limits to blacks, except for Monday nights which was named charmingly enough “colored night.” This was not a Monday night.
Grandpa, a postal worker, was there having a glass of whiskey most likely as that was his flavor, when he set eyes on Betsy Steele, a comely 35-year-old waitress with a round face and dark hair.
They began courting and she would become my other grandmother. Yes, my grandfather was at one time husband to both my grandmothers. Betsy, the waitress, was a divorcee with six children scattered to the wind. But Royal probably did not know her secret then. She had other secrets.
Betsy belonged to a rich and restless lineage stretching back to the founding days of the continent, a mixture of European and native peoples, frontiersmen and indomitable women who settled the new world.
Despite this beautiful lineage or because of it, Betsy called herself white, though some governmental records have her listed as “m” -- mulatto in Spanish or métis in French -- both meaning mixed blood.
Her family’s Detroit history begins with Joseph Chevalier, a Frenchman from Normandy who came to Montreal to carve a life out from the wilderness. He took as his wife Francoise-Marthe Barton, one of the filles du roi, or king's daughters, a group of 800 women or so who were sent under the sponsorship Louis XIV to marry settlers and populate New France.
The women mostly were poor, orphaned and recommended to the king by their parish priest. If they went to the New World and suitably married a man, they were given a dowry of 50 silver pieces. For their journey there were also provided by the crown a small hope chest in which to put 1 head dress, 1 taffeta handkerchief, 1 pair of shoe ribbons, 100 sewing needles, 1 comb, 1 spool of white thread, 1 pair of stockings, 1 pair of gloves, 1 pair of scissors, 2 knives, 1,000 pins, 1 bonnet, 4 lace braids and 2 silver coins.
And so Grandmother Barton arrived in Montreal sometime around 1670 with her hope chest, her dreams and her strong back. I imagine a hairy and whiskered Chevalier slathering on the docks of Montreal. She gave Chevalier 13 children and is considered a founding mother of Canada.
Among those children was Jean Chevalier, a coureur du bois, literally a runner of the woods. The coureur was a wild breed of man, a poacher more or less, who lived among the natives, drank and smoked heavily and thumbed his nose at the authority of the crown.
Chevalier arrived at the newly founded Fort Detroit in 1705, not four years before its founding by Antoine Cadillac.
It may have been that Chevalier did much business with Antoine Cadillac, who was founder and commandant of Fort Detroit. At any rate, it was a dangerous frontier town, with three bands of rival Indians living on its outskirts. In 1706, a priest and a soldier were killed in an Indian uprising, making Chevalier a witness to the first recorded murder in Detroit. And like tens of thousands of murders in Detroit since then, it remains unsolved. A cold case.
Jean returned to Montreal where he took a bride in 1709. Marie Francoise Alavoine, of French and Menominee blood.
In 1715, the French, taking an interest again in the upper lakes founded Fort Michillimackinac in the straits of Mackinac. Chevalier, smelling an opportunity, relocated his family there in 1717, siring 17 children. In and through blood and marriage Chevalier's family would go on to a hold a monopoly on the fur trade stretching from Detroit to Fort Michillimackinac.
So important was the clan that one member is made mention of in the Treaty of 1763, ending the French and Indian War and placing my ancestors under the British flag. Another, Chief Daniel Bourassa accompanied the Potawatomi on their Trail of Tears to Kansas, where his wife Marqueta Bertrand dies and he vanishes.
The British relocated the fort to the high bluffs of Mackinac Island and lost it to the Americans in the Revolutionary War. The British would not relinquish it for 15 years and would retake it during the War of 1812. Defeated again, the British turned the fort forever to the Americans in 1815.
Two years later, William McGulpin, a pioneer born in Fort Detroit made his way to the straits of Mackinac to find his fortune and purchased the first house ever built on the island. His wife was Madeline Bourassa, the descendant of Chevalier and Chief Daniel. There in the wilderness, they carved out a farm and bakery that would supply bread and hardtack to John Jacob Astor's American Fur Co., which did a booming trade in beaver pelts for the next three decades.
When the beaver trade went bust, so did the island, and so did the family.
This from the journal John Lewis Payton who visited in the summer of 1848:
"Mackinaw (ac) was a miserable fishing village, composed almost exclusively of timber houses, many of which were occupied by Indians, half-breeds, & a low class of whites. In the vicinity of the lakeshore there are also many half-naked Indians living in tents. Some of these tents were constructed of cotton cloth & others of wood covered with reeds. Driven from the neighboring shores by the mosquitoes, black gnats, & other venomous insects, the savages took refuge here, where there are no insects of any kind. At Mackinaw the Indians support themselves by fishing until the cold season made it possible to return to their homes on the northern peninsula."
Shortly after Payton's tour, William McGulpin's daughter Mariah was born. Mariah would marry Louis Beloungea– an Odawa of the same tribe as chief Pontiac who would lay siege to the white man's forts in 1763 and go on to be murdered in St. Louis by an Indian man paid for the deed with liquor.
My great-great grandparents were married Sept. 22, 1879 on Mackinac Island by justice of the peace Beloni Lechance and witnessed by his wife Mary and a Ojibway man Joseph S. Benjamin. Mariah disappeared into the wilds with Louis, eventually settling in the frontier town of Cross Village on the shores of Lake Michigan – or michi gami as the natives called it – its meaning in English simply the great lake.
Louis was enterprising man, a lighthouse keeper at Waugashonce and Skillagalee in the 1880's. He also worked as the assistant keeper at Scott Point, living in a 10x10 shack with Mariah and his children. This proved especially onerous as it was located next to the outhouse. He quit after a year as did his three successors.
Louis owned general store in Cross Village and was chief of the village headmen. By his position, Louis illegally got his wife on the Indian rolls so he could collect an extra share of allotment money paid to the Indians for their land.
He seemed to understand the value of multiple identities. When the white man's census taker came around in 1900, he was no where to be found. Mariah is listed as head of household and her 11 children are listed as white.
Meanwhile on the Durant Indian Census of 1907 was taken of all the native people and their descendants in the Mackinac region to straighten out the treaty payments. On that roll Louis and his children are listed as Indian, even Mariah, which creates a stir in Washington. Durante is sent back out to the village for an explanation. Louis says his wife was adopted into the tribe prior to 1870 and that by tribal custom she was an Indian and deserved the white man's money. Louis convened the village elders and had them sign an affidavit to that effect in his roll as Authority of Headmen in the village.
It was a nice try but Big Father did not buy it. Grandma Maria got nothing in the end. Maria kept a good house and it was a good house for a frontier house: whitewashed timber, two floors, shutters decorated cornices on the main road, From upstairs you could see the bluff and below the bluff could see the Straits of Mackinac. It was immaculate. Near the chamber pots in the bedrooms she kept bleached, pressed and folded cloths. They spoke French and Ojibwe but not English. She was the medicine woman of the village, keeping her remedies locked in an oak cabinet in the summer kitchen, She kept burdock, sweet grass and on the top shelf, well Laudlum, and opium-based pain killer.
Louis lived imperiously and his wife shaved him every morning. In January 1927, he sat in his summer kitchen by the wood stove and the oak cabinet as was his custom. His wife draped a towel around his shoulders and lathered his face. She went to get the razor and when she returned, Louis was sitting up in the chair quite dead. She wrote this story on the back of their marriage certificate.
Louis' most beautiful daughter Jennie returned to Mackinac Island as a young woman and married William, the son of William, a storied lighthouse keeper and the grandson of William, who according to family legend was the commandant of Fort Mackinac and a relation to the Presidents John and John Quincy Adams.
This too is stylized revisionism by a family of half-breeds whose fortunes steadily declined over the generations. William Marshall the Commandant was actually William Marshall the ordnance sergeant of the U.S. Army. An immigrant from England, Marshall enlisted in 1823 and fought in the Florida Mexican and Black Hawk wars. He came to Fort Mackinac on duty around April 8, 1848.
The fort was left empty during the Civil War, except for the Ol' Sarge who was left behind to mind the grounds. You can imagine what the locals must have said when they saw the beloved old man waddling around in his blues and yellow piping: "There goes the commandant."
The Sarge lived a penurious existence in a small cabin with a large family near the fort forcing him to work until his last breath. U.S. Sen. Thomas W. Ferry tried to reward Grandpa Marshall for his long and faithful service, by having him appointed a lieutenant and placed on the retired list. But again the powers in Washington refused my family a little extra butter.
He died at the age of 84, perhaps the oldest serving enlisted man in the history of the U.S. military. His death in 1884 even warranted an obituary in the New York Times.
Five of Marshall's sons went on to man the lighthouses of the Great Lakes, including William. In April 1883, he was scheduled to take command of the newly built Spectacle Reef lighthouse. The ice in the straits was still breaking up. Keeper Marshall, a sinewy and leather-faced man with a flowing white beard, chartered a steamboat to take him to his new assignment but the steamer was having mechanical troubles. Undeterred and possessed by his duties, Grandpa Marshall stuffed a small sail boat to the gunwales with provisions and his three assistants, which included his son James.
The men had not cleared Bois Blanc Island when a gale swept up and overturned the single mast boat. Grandpa Marshall watched as his son succumbed to the icy waters, his finger slipping from the boat's keel, his body claimed by the darkness of Lake Huron – karegnondi, the lake of the Huron. He lived to retell the story when he was saved by a family of fishermen.
When his youngest son William came to seek permission from his mother Matilda to marry Jennie, Matilda loudly objected. After all, Jennie was raised in the wilderness. She spoke English poorly and she was a half-breed. The marriage was below him and take him nowhere, Matilda warned. This was not the stuff befitting the descendants of a commandant.
William married her anyway and the bad feelings did not inhibit Jennie from performing her wifely duties, giving William 11 children. But Matilda's warnings of doom proved prescient. William would spend the rest of his life as an impoverished laborer doing odd jobs for others. Near the end of his life, his children remember William weeping when the man came to repossess the horse and wagon.
And Jennie lost one child at birth and three more in life.
Among them was little Stanley who fell ill at four years old. It was Christmas 1923 and Stanley was brought from of the bedroom, bundled in a blanket in his sister's arms to see the candles on the tree. Grandpa William was banging some tune on a toy drum and must have been doing it poorly because Jennie, annoyed, took a butcher knife to his rhythm hand. Little Stanley never got to play with the drum. Jennie prepared Stanley's body for his funeral on the ironing board.
The eldest child was Melvina. She married Dorman Wilson who worked at the ice house along with my grandfather. After exerting himself over a large piece of ice, Wilson reached into the cursed waters of Lake Huron for a dipper full of water. He drank and immediately dropped stone cold dead. William walked up to the house break his daughter the news. Melvina was holding Dorman Jr. and when informed she threw the baby in a fit of hysteria. Grandpa William caught him and the shrieking of Melvina is still recounted at family weddings and baptisms today.
Melvina became so unhinged at the death of her love that she developed a habit for morphine, an oddity for a rural island dweller of the '20s. She remarried a man named George Shine. When the Depression struck Shine moved his family to Saginaw and disappeared a few years later, leaving Melvina with five children and his mother. They lived in a boarding house, which Melvina burned to the ground after falling asleep with a lit cigarette, according to her obituary. She was 38. They buried her next to her first and true love Dorman Wilson back on Mackinac Island.
Death was just as cruel to Grandma Matilda, who had long before cursed her son's marriage. She is said to have died in the depths of blistering winter on Mackinac Island. Since the ground was frozen through, Matilda was taken to the basement of St. Anne's Church, where she would be stored until the spring thaw and a proper grave could be dug. Her casket was placed on a horse-drawn carriage to be lorried up the hill to the church. But when the carriage hit a rut, the casket fell off the buck board, sending the pine casket smashing to the ground. Grandma Matilda's corpse popped out and went rolling down the hill. I can imagine Grandma Jennie at the bottom of the hill to meet the corpse, wiping her hands on her apron with a smile of satisfaction.
The second youngest daughter of William and Jennie was my grandmother, Elizabeth or Betsy for speed.
Elizabeth was born Sept 4, 1916 on Mackinac Island and delivered by midwife Sophia Chapman, Louis Beloungea's sister and Elizabeth's great aunt.
In 1936 at the height of the Great Depression, she married a young white man Victor Steele, from the woodlands of Manistique who himself was orphaned when his father was cut in half while coupling railroad cars at a lumber mill.
Victor was a 16-year-old bartender and the Grand Hotel resort on Mackinac Island, when he met my grandmother, who was four years his elder and working as a waitress. She didn't know he was a teenager. He told her he was 20. They married quietly and moved to Detroit in search of work and an exciting life.
The war broke out shortly thereafter and Victor, a truck driver, went off to war leaving his wife and five children behind. Where he served, exactly, and when is a mystery. His war record was destroyed in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records in St. Louis. The only memento that exists from his service is a photograph of him dressed in his Army browns smiling with my grandmother.
Whenever it was that he returned home from duty, one thing is certain, he was surprised to find a new baby. But Grandfather Vic claimed the newborn couldn't have been his since he was overseas and bed-ridden with malaria. Outraged, Grandma Betsy hissed that he never went overseas and never had malaria and the child belonged to him.
The truth will rest with the dead.
But the truth does not matter really. What does matter is they divorced because of it at least in part and grandma was given custody of the brood – though Victor never put up a fight.
But unable to support six children, my grandmother placed the children in the Holy Family orphanage in Marquette. The abandonment wounded the children immeasurably, six little people wondering why no one loved them.
There exists a photograph at the orphanage with the three youngest, my mother and her younger brother and sister sitting on the sandstone steps with an old and plump and bespectacled nun whom the children called Sister Mercy. The orphanage would later be used to house Cuban refugees of Castro.
Three years would pass in the orphanage before Victor, now remarried, scooped them up and brought them to his home in Compton, CA. He took all but the youngest, claiming still that she was not his. This was the early 50's and the first black family had moved in the neighborhood in Compton. The children were instructed not to play with them, my mother recalls.
As it went with my family, my grandfather Victor's second marriage dissolved. Again my mother and her brothers and sisters were on the float, scattered among distant relatives, like so much thistledown in the wind.
And meanwhile, back in Detroit, their mother Betsy was enjoying the first sparks of romance with a handsome stranger named Royal LeDuff at the Vanity Ballroom. I can picture him now holding her softly. Holding his liquor well. And holding his own his own family secrets in his heart.