Saturday, November 7, 2015

Detroit Welcomes the Envoys

I’m dreadfully behind on the blog at this point, but trying to catch up! Blogging has had to take a back seat, as it were, to travel, research, visiting with old friends and family, and planning the celebration in DC. I’m in Boston right now, staying with daughter Emma, who has been helped me with website and blog design. Back to Detroit…

I’ve spent decades working in affordable housing and community revitalization so I was eager to see Detroit, which has been struggling to manage a city footprint that is far larger than its shrinking population and tax base will support. In community development circles Detroit’s housing vacancy woes are legendary, as is its solution; to simply demolish blocks of housing and turn them into fields. We stayed in the Jacob Arms, less than a mile from the city center and a stone’s throw from the Comerica Park. In just about any other city the view from our 6th floor window would have been rooftops; instead, we looked down on quite a bit of open space.
Photo from our rental unit in Detroit, courtesy of Rick Leavitt

Still, I found myself more upbeat about Detroit than I had expected. There were lots of signs of new development going on. Much of the remaining housing in the neighborhood we stayed in was gorgeous and many units had been restored. All the open space has supported a new locavore movement and we ate at a great restaurant on Cass Street with delicious food at reasonable prices. And you can’t beat the street art! I know lots of challenges remain for Detroit but it seems as if it’s moving in the right direction. If I was looking to homestead somewhere, that’s where I’d go.
Beautifully restored Victorian house a block from where
we stayed in Detroit. Photo courtesy of Rick Leavitt.

Sara had grown up in Detroit though she’d left in 1900, when she married her first husband Albert. But her parents were still there and I thought perhaps there’d be a big celebration for her homecoming. On a Saturday evening 40 autos, decorated with lanterns flags, yellow balloons and the CU colors of yellow, white and gold, assembled at the corner of Woodward Avenue and Edmunds and Place. Led by the little black car and the envoys, they sped to the steps of the county building.[1] There they were met by a number of local dignitaries, including Detroit Mayor Ira W. Jayne and Mrs. Jennie Law Hardy, the local CU president. During the event beautiful young women kept red lights burning in 4 urns on the building’s steps (might be hard to pull that off today.) The Detroit Times described the effect as being “like pictures of Rome in the time of the Caesars.” Those suffragists surely knew how to stage a mass meeting…

Unusually, at the event the envoys were also presented with 4,000 signatures for the petition. I’m not sure what prompted this, since no other city had done gathered signatures in advance. Perhaps that was their way of welcoming their prodigal daughter.
If Sara had a moment to visit with her parents there’s no record of it. She was somewhat estranged from her father, but had remained close to her mother.  

The street she’d grown up on was about a half mile from where Rick and I were staying, so we walked over to see if we could find her house. In her oral history Sara spoke glowingly of her childhood home. “No one who knew Detroit as I knew it could dream of it now. It was so lovely. It was half-city, half-town. Every street was tree-lined…” The street was paved with cedar blocks for the horses, which sent a nice fragrance into the air. Their house on Charlotte Avenue had a porch that to her childish eyes had seemed like the “great prow of a ship.”[2] It was then a quiet side street that met Woodward Avenue at one end, which was a bustling thoroughfare. When she’d gone back after her father died to help her mother move, she was shocked at the changes and never returned. The street had been widened and paved for cars, the trees had been cut down and an ill-kept boarding house had been constructed in the yard next to her house. That was pretty much the state we found the street in. Her home had been torn down and the few that remained looked in need of some TLC.

In the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan I was delighted to find the papers of Lucia Isabelle Voorhees Grimes. I’ve had difficulty finding collections of papers from women who had been active in the Congressional Union. My theory is that when the vote was finally won, NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt directed all the local affiliates to preserve their histories and write them up. Alice Paul didn’t do that, so most of the women who were involved in the CU just moved on to whatever they wanted to work on next.
From the Lucia Isabelle Voorhees Grimes Papers,
Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan
But Grimes had been active in the Republican Party for decades, and had even run for the state legislature in 1924, so her family must have felt her papers were worth preserving. I couldn’t find any mention of the 1915 visit from the envoys; I think it’s because she was in DC, putting together the system the CU used to track and record every member of Congress’ stance on suffrage and getting ready for the envoys’ arrival there. She’d brought her six-year old daughter Emily with her; I loved this photo of Emily outside of CU headquarters in DC holding signs advertising the mass meeting that would feature the suffrage envoys.

Grimes’ collection at the Bentley was rich in all sorts of material, but I was also thrilled to find a couple of old NWP sashes that hadn’t seen the light of day too much. They retained their bright colors of purple, white, and gold.

 
Sash from the Lucia Isabelle Voorhees Grimes Papers, 
Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan 






[1] “Women Voters Envoys Reach the East”, The Suffragist, November 20, 1915, p. 3; also “Suffrage Party Reaches the East,” Detroit Free Press, Nov. 13, 1915, p. 9
[2] Sara Bard Field, Oral History 

2 comments:

  1. I'm way, way behind in commenting on your wonderful posts and your amazing trip (I think you and Sara are in New York even as we speak!). But I'll jump in anyway: I love reading about you, and Sara, in Detroit. She grew up there in the 1880s and '90s, when it was indeed a lovely place, "half-city and half-town."

    Sara also remembered seeing the first horseless carriage to be powered by an internal combustion engine making its noisy way up Detroit's Woodward Avenue one chilly March night in 1896 at the record-breaking speed of 7 mph. Her father, who was the pessimistic type, declared (like a lot of people) that a horrible contraption like that would never replace a beautiful thing like a horse.

    Detroit before the automobile may have been a very different place, as it is today, but it has, as they say, "good bones." So I feel like you: I'm rooting for a big Detroit comeback, and believe they'll make it.

    Going back to your post about how shocked many people were that women were getting up on their hind legs about the vote: when Sara was in Detroit, a nasty anonymous letter was sent around to members of the local women's clubs (an important demographic for the Western suffragists). Someone showed it to the divorced Sara's mother--"in the interests of *pure* womanhood," Sara said bitterly. Jeering male onlookers weren't the only thing suffragists had to contend with.

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