Remembering the old neighborhood
From the June, 2021 issue
At the corner of N. Fourth Ave. and Beakes, Sharon Gillespie is dancing. While an Observer photographer clicks away, Gillespie, seventy-five, snaps her fingers, sways, and sings snatches of "Blue Moon" and "Under the Boardwalk."
She's remembering evenings sixty years ago, when neighborhood boys would gather to sing doo-wop while a teenaged Sharon Longmire listened from her window across the street. "That was so special!" she says.
She relishes her memories of the "old neighborhood," as she and others call the once predominantly black area north of Kerrytown. She remembers how it embraced her when, at age nine, she left her grandmother's house in Lawton, Oklahoma, to join the mother she hardly knew in Ann Arbor. (Her father also lived in Oklahoma.)
"I cried and cried," she recalls. Her mother, a nurse's aide, had recently remarried and gave birth to two more daughters in the next few years. When the marriage ended, the family moved briefly to Ypsilanti but, to Gillespie's relief, soon returned to the old neighborhood.
She felt blessed to live in a place where "everybody looked out for everybody else." She has happy memories of ice skating at what is now Wheeler Park, buying penny candy from nearby stores, and even the time when, showing off, she rode her bike hands-free and crashed into a tree.
Only her pride was hurt. "I was a little tomboy!" she says, laughing.
Retired from an administrative assistant job at U-M and living on the far west side, Gillespie is not impressed by the "big, ugly houses" that have replaced many of the small frame homes and bungalows of her youth. And "don't get me started on the 'Water Hill' thing!" she says. "Gentrification came to our neighborhood."
The beginning of the end came in the mid-1960s, when Ann Arbor banned racial discrimination in housing. The federal government caught up several years later, and over the decades, most black residents moved away or passed on. Gillespie sees the irony:
the end of segregation freed the neighborhood and then killed it. "You gain something, you lose something," she says.
In Oklahoma, she says, black children were taught "how to act around white people so we wouldn't get killed." Ann Arbor's integrated classrooms were safer, but at the end of the school day, the white students "went their way, and we went ours." Though Gillespie enjoyed her time at Ann Arbor High, she says that for many years after graduation in 1962, she and the other three dozen or so black grads that year didn't attend class reunions.
Then, as their fortieth reunion approached, Gillespie was invited to join the planning committee. "I was like a detective," she recalls. "I found all the black people in my class except for two." She and others have taken part ever since.
Pre-pandemic, she also enjoyed the annual Old Neighborhood Picnic with other former residents, and small get-togethers with "Mrs. Arnold's kids." When she was a girl, Summit St. neighbor Helen Arnold would spot her and her friends playing outside and summon them into her home for Bible study. No one dared say no.
Years later, Arnold invited them to a reunion. "We were all so happy to see each other again!" Gillespie remembers. Arnold passed on years ago, but "her" kids continue to meet.
Married at seventeen, she gave birth to a son, Kelly, and soon divorced. She worked at the National Bank and Trust employee cafeteria on Main St. (now Chase Bank) then took a job in the print shop of a nonprofit called the Commission on Professional and Hospital Activities. She was already a crackerjack typist, and CPHA paid for her to learn computer typesetting. She moved on to a couple of printing firms and often trained people at other companies.
After two more brief marriages, she found a life partner in Raymond Gillespie. They had twenty-one happy years together before he died suddenly of a heart attack in 2006. "I still miss him so much," she says. Kelly, her only child, died of cancer soon afterward.
She cared for her mother in her last years and, grateful for the help of Arbor Hospice, volunteered there after retirement. It's just one of a long list of commitments, from the Salvation Army to the Alpha House family shelter. Remembering how her husband died while she was at work, she a joined a hospice program called No One Dies Alone. She'd visit people nearing the end to sing with them, or, if they wished, pray together.
She's also very active in her church, St. Paul Missionary Baptist; an informal counselor to young women in rehab; and an honorary aunt to many young people. "I guess I'm a good listener," she says.
Gillespie recently dipped her toe back in the dating pool, but pulled back when she learned that several men who expressed interest hadn't been vaccinated against Covid-19. It was their loss, because Gillespie radiates exuberance.
She still works part-time, twice covering for Observer staffers on maternity leaves. When people here learned that she was being profiled, one sent a question: "Ask her if she still has Smokey Robinson's shoes!"
"Smokey! Yes!" she shouts when I ask.
Just before they hit it big, she explains, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles played the long-gone Como Club on Green St. Afterward, "they were headed out the door and me and my girlfriend asked them for an autograph. He had his [performance] shoes off and handed them to me. They were beige suede buck shoes." Robinson signed and left. "I had to go out and say 'Smokey, you forgot your shoes!'"
Gillespie is looking forward to Juneteenth, but this year, she won't be competing in the cakewalk at Wheeler Park--the NAACP's commemoration of the end of slavery has gone virtual (see Events, June 19). She'll also miss the African American Downtown Festival, canceled again by the pandemic.
She enjoys the street fair on Ann St. and N. Fourth Ave. as much as anyone, but wishes more people knew the history behind the concerts and barbecue. When she was was growing up, this was Ann Arbor's black business district.
"The restaurants, barbershops, the bars, the beauty parlors--that's where the black people met," she says. "That was our home."
This article has been edited since it was published in the June 2021 Ann Arbor Observer. The sponsor of the program No One Dies Alone has been corrected.
[Originally published in June, 2021.]
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