5 Minutes, 5 Questions With… Jeremy Williams, author of Detroit’s Black Bottom Community

by Joey Pinkney on July 21, 2009

JoeyPinkney.com Exclusive Interview
5 Minutes, 5 Questions With…
Jeremy Williams, author of Detroit’s Black Bottom Community
(Arcadia Publishing)


jeremy williams detroits black bottom community on amazondotcom

Local historian Jeremy Williams combines careful research with archived photographs for an insightful look at Black Bottom’s early beginnings, its racial transformation, the building of a socioeconomically solvent community through various processes of institution building and networking, and its ultimate demise and the dislocation of its residents.

Joey Pinkney: Where did you get the idea and inspiration to write Detroit’s Black Bottom Community?

Jeremy Williams: It started many years ago when, as a child growing up in Detroit, I often heard stories about the glorious days Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. I really took interest in learning about the history of this small black community when a friend took me to an Eastside neighborhood bar called Black Bottom.

When I entered college several years later, I took a Detroit African American history seminar with Dr. Richard Thomas where the idea took shape and form. I eventually entered graduate school hoping to turn my research essay into an MA thesis.

JP: What sets Detroit’s Black Bottom Community apart from other biographies of African-American communities of the past?

JW: I think it connects the history of black American struggle to the larger one (even at the diaspora level) rather than separate. There were many Black Bottom communities throughout the nation which were connected by origin, racial and economic structural similarities.

One of the interesting things I learned about Detroit’s Black Bottom community is that originally the name had nothing to do with color. The name was given by French settlers in relation to its rich soil, just as the many other Black Bottom communities were given their names under the same circumstances. That’s why I decided to dedicate the first chapter to the community’s first inhabitants – European immigrants.

The thing that might perhaps set this book aside from others is that it is the first book on Detroit’s Black Bottom community, and it is loaded with great archival photos depicting black and white life in Black Bottom. There certainly are other books on Detroit history that looks at black Detroit history from various angles. Richard Thomas, Elaine Latzman, Herbert Metoyer and Peggy Moore, Ernest Borden, Thomas Sugrue, and many others have written extensively on Detroit’s black history.

I think David M. Katzman’s book, Before the Ghetto: Black Detroit in the Nineteenth Century is perhaps the first critical work on black Detroit history, but I could be wrong. All of these books looked at the black community as a whole rather than study Black Bottom as a black community. I think that is what sets this book aside from other attempts.

JP: What did you learn as a historian that made you a better author while writing Detroit’s Black Bottom Community?

JW: Well, my old college professor, Dr. Christine Daniels, once told me, “If you want to understand history, follow the money.” To really understand what happened to Black Bottom and the constant shifts and changes occurring in the lives of those living in Black Bottom, I had to understand the complex economic interplay between race and politics. Even the violent Jim Crow racism that the Black Bottom community experienced was somehow inextricably tied to money.

JP: As an author, what is your writing process? How long did it take for you to start and finish Detroit’s Black Bottom Community?

JW: I researched this book for about 3-4 months. I wrote it in about 3 months. After spending about 2 months in Detroit conducting research, I went to Arizona and began the arduous task of sifting through notes, images, and notepad drafts. I found a nice little café, loaded up my laptop and went to work.

JP: What’s next for Jeremy Williams?

JW: I am going to finish writing a historical novel titled A Tunica Sunset, and I’m working on another novel tentatively titled, Denicio Barbier is a Lesbian. And I’m going to go to San Francisco!

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