June Manning Thomas
Planning a better Detroit
From the December, 2015 issue
When June Manning Thomas started high school in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in 1965, her classmates either ignored her completely or stared at her in stony silence. When grades were distributed--she was an academic whiz--many kids stuck their tongues out. Once a male classmate shoved her against a locker so hard her legs bled.
The fifteen-year-old cleaned up at home but never told her parents. "They were already feeling so badly about the whole situation," explains the soft-spoken U-M urban planning professor. "They were going to send me to boarding school. Under no circumstances would I go."
Thomas was one of about a dozen black students who desegregated the formerly all-white school. Though president Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act a year earlier, they suffered what she calls "years of systematic harassment."
A few teachers were kind to the gifted daughter of the president of the local, all-black Claflin University. But Thomas found some measure of relief only when, as a senior, a black student from South Carolina State University introduced her to the Baha'i faith. Although her father was an ordained Methodist minister, Thomas was troubled that all the churches in Orangeburg were segregated. Baha'i, she says, teaches "that all human beings are of the same roots."
"A lot of people who go through that kind of trauma are suspicious," says Margaret Dewar, a U-M colleague and friend. "I think that faith helped her overcome the bitterness she might have felt."
Gathered around a long table inside the capacious Art and Architecture Building, Thomas and seven urban planning grad students listen while an eighth conducts a speakerphone interview with a representative of the Detroit-area Arab American and Chaldean Council. As the young man asks questions--"What boundaries do you serve?" "Do you have relationships with the police?"--another student furiously types the replies.
The students in this seminar jointly research and make recommendations for improving a Detroit-area neighborhood, business or organization. ACC is exploring both physical improvements to its Detroit facilities and
improved community outreach.
The interview ends, and Thomas, who has short hair, dangling earrings, and a serious expression, praises the students with a "nice job, guys." She tells the typist, "That was incredibly good note-taking." Afterwards, she comments on Detroit's recent popularity among young people. "All of my students, especially the white ones, want to move there. They see it as the new frontier."
Thomas believes planners should not just sit in an office but "actually have to do field work." In 2014, her students wrote a 140-page report on employment in the industrial district along Mt. Elliott and Van Dyke roads on Detroit's east side. It concluded, Thomas explains, that "employers were out there," but many residents weren't aware of the job opportunities. The class was thrilled when the city drew on its research to win a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to "rejuvenate" the area.
Thomas jokes that she "more or less married Detroit" when she met native Detroiter Richard Thomas. Also an African American Baha'i, Thomas grew up in the notorious Brewster-Douglass housing projects (same building as singer Diana Ross, different time) and has family still living in the city. She was just twenty when they married as MSU undergrads.
June Thomas began researching Detroit as a PhD student at Michigan and never stopped. In 1987, she and her husband, by then an MSU history prof, helped write Detroit: Race and Uneven Development; this spring, she co-edited Mapping Detroit, which combines essays and photography to trace Detroit's economic fortunes through land use.
Though the prevailing view is that the 1967 race riots precipitated the city's decline, Thomas emphasizes problems that brewed much earlier. "Putting in so many highways without mass transit," she says. "Decisions in terms of Michigan keeping its very strong home rule, so the city could not expand its boundaries ... Decisions made in terms of industries moving out of Detroit." And some of those decisions, she adds, were "based, quite frankly, on race."
Often, they were also based on the advice of urban planners who advocated "urban renewal"--an approach that cleared low-income, largely black neighborhoods and moved their residents into massive housing projects. In hindsight, says Dewar, urban renewal "was a dark period for planners." To Thomas, its failure underscores the need for more minority planners, to make sure that groups that have traditionally been powerless in America are heard.
Although Thomas has lived only briefly in Detroit, she visits often, with her students and with Dewar. The U-M profs have been following the struggles of East English Village, a racially mixed neighborhood where residents have united to fight crime and blight.
I once accompanied Thomas and Dewar to a potluck dinner in East English Village. Afterward, we drove around, and they pointed out how neighbors took care of vacant houses so they wouldn't look abandoned; lawns were mowed, porch lights were on.
That the neighborhood is holding on cheers the visiting profs. "I don't hold great value in institutions to solve the problems," Thomas says. "I think it's going to be small groups building ties between race and class. That's where I see success."
Thomas and her husband, now retired, are active in the Baha'i Center in Ypsilanti Township. She believes that the faith helped their children navigate their own high school years (daughter Kemba Braynon is now an architect at Quinn Evans; son Ali is a physician in Seattle). She follows closely the precarious situation of Baha'i followers in Iran and has met some of the staff of the "underground" Baha'i college there. (Though the religion originated in Iran, its followers are barred from Iranian universities.)
Thomas considers herself fortunate that, after her traumatic high school years, she's built a life rich in career, family, and friends. When a former Orangeburg classmate reached out, through her parents, to apologize for how he'd treated her in high school, she sent a friendly response.
Looking back, she believes there were a few people who would have liked to help the beleaguered black students but were afraid. And she did have the satisfaction, as a senior, of being selected as a presidential scholar and going to Washington to meet President Johnson.
Later, she realized the high school's principal must have recommended her. She says, "I think it was his way of apologizing."
[Originally published in December, 2015.]
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