- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2020

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) - Memories fade in time, and history can be subjective.

Which is why the Battle Creek Racial History Timeline Project exists. It’s an initiative of the Battle Creek Coalition for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation aimed at giving a voice to those underrepresented in Battle Creek’s history books.

“We want to invite members from throughout the community to contribute to a timeline we are creating that identifies stories, facts and events that have happened throughout the history of our country and our city, as it relates to different ethnic groups,” said Kimberly Holley, a facilitator with the coalition. “This goes back to the narrative change. We have a vision of creating a multiracial narrative for Battle Creek. And this particular project is a great start at that.”

The timeline begins with a document featuring seminal moments in the nation’s racial history, with a focus on black history. Community members are invited to share their own family history, which will be appended to the living document, the Battle Creek Enquirer reported.

“At the end, you’ll have this full timeline and a more complete understanding of what all communities in Battle Creek have been contributing over time,” said J.R. Reynolds, a facilitator with the coalition. “A lot more nuanced and it will function at a grass-roots level. Some high-level stuff and some personal stuff.”



Jill Anderson, a researcher spearheading the project, spoke of the importance of creating a mechanism for people to offer their personal histories to be documented as part of the community narrative.

“I think it’s a time where it’s important to be learning about each other so we can create a community instead of division within our close proximity,” she said. “A lot of what we’re talking about is not just migration. It’s about these moments that are important because they were at times awful and painful. We don’t want to repeat those. It’s important that we keep those memories alive.”

A separate project on a chapter of the city’s ethnic history has been revitalized by Holley and Anderson.

The Memories from Hamblin project, created by Heritage Battle Creek in 2004 in partnership with the University of Michigan Arts of Citizenship Program, sought to share the oral histories of former residents of The Bottoms.

The Bottoms was the local name for a neighborhood in a low-lying area also called The Flats, resting along the southern bank of the Kalamazoo River between the Washington Heights and Goguac Prairie neighborhoods. Though integrated, it developed into Battle Creek’s first predominately black neighborhood by the 1940s.

In 1947, a major flood hit the city, causing $785,400 in damages ($9 million by today’s standards). The majority of that damage was to the aging Bottoms neighborhood.

Families from nearly 400 homes in the working-class Bottoms neighborhood would be dislocated in the 1950s and 1960s through “slum clearance,” as houses were purchased and demolished in order to re-route the Kalamazoo River and create a “cement river” to control flooding.

For many former Bottoms residents, the Hamblin Community Center lay at the heart of the tight-knit community. A former U.S.O. club for black soldiers during World War II, the community center served as a hub for the city’s African-American community from 1945 until it closed in 1962.

“We used to have a lot of fun at the Hamblin Community Center. In fact, that’s where I met my husband,” Mary Broadnax said when she was interviewed for the project in 2004. “It was about the only place (my parents) let us go, because they knew they had chaperones there, elderly women on the sidelines making sure we weren’t dancing too close. That was one of the few places we could go as teenagers. We would go down there and play cards, dance and sit around and talk.”

More than 50 interviews were recorded on tape, while the website that once hosted the research has expired. So Holley and Anderson are leading an effort to digitize the oral histories in the hopes of making the story of the Bottoms more accessible.

“Looking at Battle Creek through the lens of the Bottoms, those are very interesting to listen to and I’m excited to get those out to the public,” Anderson said. “Our history in this town not only needs to be grown, but also needs to be preserved.”

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