Connecting Clues on the Trail of a Century-Old Black Women’s Club
07 May 2019 – Tiya Miles
There are multiple paths to the collaborations we value as historical interpreters and practitioners. Sometimes we bring our burning questions to those eye-witnesses and local researchers who know a topic from the ground up, seeking their input or partnership. At other times, professionals located in schools, museums, or community organizations extend invitations for engagement that we accept although the topic may be far afield from our areas of expertise. And once in a blue moon, community members put forward a project that lights up our imagination.
This is how it was when I received an invitation in 2017 to attend a meeting of the Detroit Study Club and present on my book, The Dawn of Detroit, a history of black and Native American enslavement in the urban Midwest.
The Detroit Study Club, I learned from their graceful invitation, was a group of African American women in Detroit whose progenitors had been meeting together for over a hundred years to broaden their minds and aid their community. No less a figure than historian Darlene Clark Hine, the National Humanities Medal winner and pathbreaking scholar of African American women’s history, had written an overview essay in the Club’s 100th Anniversary booklet. Founded in 1898, the Study Club first met in the living room of musician and teacher Gabrielle Pelham. The Club’s black middle-class women members met to cultivate their minds, pondering the work of British poet Robert Browning (1812-1889). They continued to convene regularly, passing down values and traditions to daughters, granddaughters, and new members even as they broadened their topics of interest to include current events and African American studies.
When I accepted the invitation to speak at their meeting in a beautiful hotel ballroom, I was inspired to share in an intellectual space created by one of the original black women’s clubs from that great era of reform. The Detroit Study Club women of today stressed how they honor and continue traditions (preferring, for instance, handwritten letters and rules of decorum as modeled by their forebears) of yesterday, but they also revealed their desire for one modern thing: a Wikipedia entry about the history of their club. I was eager to offer what I could for this enterprise, most importantly, the talent of my students. I was planning to teach a first-year seminar at the University of Michigan on representations of African American women the following semester. The black women’s club movement was already on our syllabus. I only needed to refashion the final paper assignment into a group research and writing project in order to lead my students in an original production of historical writing about the club.
Of course, you will spot my folly immediately. This “just update the syllabus” approach was much easier said than done. I wish now that I had consulted commentary and how-to guides on classroom writing for Wikipedia before beginning. The kind of writing we expect students to accomplish in humanities courses revolves around the strength of argumentation and interpretation. It is perspectival, layered in terms of sourcing (primary and secondary), and often lengthy. I added relevant secondary source reading on the black women’s club movement, the history of black Detroit, and respectability politics in African American history to the syllabus, a list to which the students added as they did their work for the project. Broad reading to build context was important for our classroom work but an over-reach for Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a platform seeking straight forward reportage based on secondary sources only. The students produced smartly analytical essays bringing in the history of the Underground Railroad in Detroit, black business history in the city, black women’s club development at the national level in relation to white women’s clubs, and so on.
The actual work of shortening, compiling, rearranging, fact-checking, revising, and polishing the students’ writing took multiple hours outside of class time. Part-way through the project, I hired a former student (a recent prize-winning graduate of the UM History Department) to help wrestle the undergraduates’ pieces into Wikipedia shape over the summer and into the next fall. Wikipedia required two sets of onerous revisions to eliminate the essay-like quality of the students’ writing, whittling our submission down to a nub by the end. And all of this editorial work was paid for by personal research funds that are not always accessible to faculty members and instructors.
Each community engaged project, I find, is a new learning experience—for the teacher as well as the students. My lesson for next time (and I do plan on crafting a Wikipedia assignment again because of the sheer energy it generated and positive contribution it made to a local community) is to start the work earlier in the semester, build in an extra term’s worth of completion time for the project, and, if the material requires more space than Wikipedia will grant it, to share the research on additional platforms that offer greater flexibility.
Our research process in the classroom and outside of it was exhilarating. The students bonded with each other by teaming up in small groups charged with different tasks. They expressed feeling energized by the immediacy of the project, which mattered to real people in the world and might be read by thousands. A subset of the students interviewed members of the Study Club to gather oral history and spent a weekend delving into the club’s papers housed at the Detroit Public Library. Together, our class made discoveries that were wondrous. You know those heady moments when you see a student’s face light up with the recognition of a worthy challenge or joy of discovery. I had the chance to bask in such pedagogical satisfactions. One student (from Detroit herself) followed a money trail across several early account books leading the class to realize members of the club had founded and supported a home for aged women in Detroit for decades. Another team (a black woman and white man) realized Study Club members had corresponded with W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) (a fact that contemporary members of the club were thrilled to learn), and two students (both Jewish) discovered that a Michigan Jewish women’s club had been on the Detroit Study Club’s invitee list for a tea with Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). These were all moving revelations that helped students connect personally to this history and see the local, regional, and national threads that tied this single organization to a larger fabric of reform efforts, even as they honed their critical analysis (gleaned from the secondary literature we read) of class privilege in the black women’s club movement.
The finding that most amazed me had emerged in a short line of the club members’ writings. They noted the Club’s sale of spoons for the Frederick Douglass home. This action was, at first, a mystery. But I soon realized it might be linked to a journal manuscript I had read about black historic preservation (which would later appear in a special issue of The Public Historian, published in August of 2018). In it, preservationist Brent Leggs explained that in 1917 the National Association of Colored Women had launched a major effort to purchase and preserve Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass (1838-1882), outside of Washington, DC. And to their forward-thinking campaign, credit is due for our enjoyment of that National Park Service site today. The women of the Detroit Study Club had participated in this national fundraiser by selling flatware—the strongest evidence our class found of the Club’s ties to national black women’s associations.
The class also saw, through this enlarged window of perception, how Detroit Study Club members used domestic spaces, such as the private living room where the Detroit Study Club first met, to advance their political, social, and intellectual goals in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Detroit Study Club’s most enduring community projects were both houses: the Frederick Douglass home in Virginia and the Phyllis Wheatley Home for elderly black women in Detroit, which was founded by Study Club members and operated through the mid-twentieth century with partial funding from the club. While the Douglass Home still stands and serves as a stage for the telling of multiple important stories, the Wheatley Home is no longer identifiable on city maps and was likely demolished. This speaks to the urgency of preserving buildings from the black past that stalwarts in the struggle for change invested in so heavily.
To sample the work of our class, see the Detroit Study Club Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detroit_Study_Club. You can also read a longer version of that article at: http://tiyamiles.com/detroit-study-club/.
~Tiya Miles is a professor of history at Harvard University and co-president of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians.
 The Detroit Study Club 100th Anniversary Celebration [booklet] (Detroit, MI: The Detroit Study Club, 1999), Detroit Public Library, Detroit, MI.
 See, for instance, Anya Kamenetz, “What Students Can Learn by Writing for Wikipedia,” NPREd, February 22, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/02/22/515244025/what-students-can-learn-by-writing-for-wikipedia; Robert E. Cummings, “Are We Ready to Use Wikipedia to Teach Writing?” Inside Higher Ed, March 12, 2009, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2009/03/12/are-we-ready-use-wikipedia-teach-writing; and Brian W. Carver, Rochelle Davis, Robin T. Kelley, Jonathan A. Obar, Lianna L. Davis, “Assigning Students to Edit Wikipedia: Four Case Studies,” E-Learning and Digital Media 9, no. 3 (2012), 273-283, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.2304/elea.2012.9.3.273. Wikipedia.org posts guidelines and directions for classroom assignments, as does Wikimedia.org.
 See, for instance: Brittney C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 25-26; Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); John B. Reid, “A Career to Build, a People to Serve, a Purpose to Accomplish,” in Darlene Clark Hine ed., We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: A Reader in Black Women’s History (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1995), 312.
 Brent Leggs, “Growth of Historic Sites: Teaching Public Historians to Advance Preservation Practice,” The Public Historian 40, no. 3 (August 2018), 90-92.