Members of the Afro American Club of Ross Beatty Junior/Senior High School portrayed historical figures such as Lena Horne, Arthur Ashe, Duke Ellington and Muhammad Ali, who owned property in Calvin Township in the 1970s.

Archived Story

Cass black history heroes highlighted

Published 9:10pm Tuesday, February 21, 2012

CASSOPOLIS — When Booker T. Washington visited in 1903, he came away impressed by Negro landowners and public officials such as William Allen, who rented some of his 700 acres in Porter Township to whites.
Allen’s holdings included 50 cattle, horses, 300 sheep and 25 hogs.
Washington wrote extensively about Cassopolis in his diaries.
Allen became the justice of the peace for Calvin Township.
Cass County had a black official leading the board of supervisors in 1899, heard an audience that included Chair Minnie Warren of the Board of Commissioners, County Commissioner Roseann Marchetti of Edwardsburg and Ruth Crawley, who is enshrined in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in Lansing.
African-Americans had been voting since 1855.
After Dynisha Hackworth, Sam Adams fifth-grader, read her award-winning Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. essay, Sonya Bernard-Hollins, managing editor of Kalamazoo’s Community Voices, told the Minority Coalition of Cass County’s annual Black History Breakfast Tuesday morning, “Our children should also be recognizing and talking about during Black History Month people right in the community.”
People like former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer, a 1959 Cassopolis graduate, and Dr. Theodore K. Lawless, the Chicago dermatologist and namesake of the county’s largest park southeast of Vandalia, educator Merze Tate, Cornelius Williams Jr., The Blueberry Man of Vandalia Gardens, and 1904 Decatur graduate and 1943 commencement speaker Charles Mahoney, named by President Eisenhower to the United Nations General Assembly. Mahoney served as Michigan labor commissioner in the 1930s.
“Everybody here knows about the awesome history of the Kentucky Slave Raid, which helped put Cass County on the map,  not only in Michigan, but in the United States. People came here to be free and to live their lives without bondage,” Hollins said. “Kids say, ‘We don’t have anyone famous from Cass County. Beyonce isn’t from Cass County; Barack Obama’s not from here.’ But African-Americans have influenced Cassopolis, so let’s start talking about them at these annual events. We all know Dr. King and Rosa Parks, but there are people here who have done amazing things to learn about. People don’t know about what Cass County has unless somebody writes about it and the outside world sees it. Reach out.”
Merze Tate, born in 1905 in Blanchard near Grand Rapids, came to Calvin Center to teach after graduating from Western Michigan in 1927 with almost all A’s.
When Crispus Attucks High School (named for the slave who was the first casualty of the American Revolution) opened in Indianapolis, she was on the inaugural faculty.
To expose her students to the wider world, Tate organized trips to Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Niagara Falls, traveling by train with more than 40 kids.
“She was very controversial,” Hollins said. “There were articles in newspapers asking why she was taking colored kids around the country who were just going to be servants and maids.”
Tate became the first African-American woman to graduate from Oxford University in 1935, the first African-American female to receive a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University and left millions to Western Michigan University, Harvard, Radcliffe and Howard University.
She wrote five political books, was fluent in five languages and a national bridge champion.
Dr. Lawless was one of three Chicago doctors who bought land in hopes of creating an Idlewild here.
“Paradise Lake had a hotel and stores,” Hollins said.
Lawless was born in 1892 in Louisiana. He never married or had children, so the multimillionaire focused his resources on philanthropy until his 1971 death.
Clients, including many white actors, lined up around the block to see him.
“He established the first medical laboratory at Northwestern University,” Hollins said.
An NAACP award he received in 1954 had also been won by George Washington Carver and Thurgood Marshall.
She recalled 1968 rumors which swept the county of black Muslims buying up farmland to establish training camps.
“There were newspaper articles from Kalamazoo to Tuscaloosa,” Hollins said. Williams, “a 1957 graduate of Chicago high school and a Future Farmers of America award winner, denied all the charges. He had applied for a loan at their bank after being denied a $5,000 loan at a local bank in Cass. It was his lifelong dream to own his own farm.”
There was one actual Muslim landowner, however. Muhammad Ali owned property at Paradise Lake in Calvin Township for boxing training in the 1970s.
Archer, who followed Coleman Young as mayor, moved back to Detroit to attend Wayne State University to become a pharmacist, but graduated from Western as a special education teacher.
When he went to work on his master’s degree to become a principal, his future wife encouraged him to try law school because “you always have an opinion.”
Gov. James Blanchard appointed Archer to the state Supreme Court in 1985.
Archer became the first person of color elected president of the American Bar Association.

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