A Boston-Edison Tale: 65 Years, 4 Generations, 1 Home

As we prepare for our pilot episode for the Family Pictures: USA television series, we’ll be highlighting the untold stories of everyday Detroiters. Detroit native and artist, Michelle May shares her family story below about growing up in the historic neighborhood of Boston-Edison.

My mother, Mary Walton (back left), and Viola Davie, my great-aunt, on their way to historic Second Baptist Church in Greektown, Detroit, where we were members for many years. This picture was taken in front of our Boston-Edison House in 1959.

“Historic Boston-Edison is a 36-block neighborhood area of Detroit containing approximately 900 houses.  The District is bordered by Boston Boulevard on the North, Edison Avenue on the South, Woodward Avenue on the east and Linwood on the West.  It is one of the largest residential historic districts in the United States.  The first homes in the current Boston-Edison district were built and occupied in 1905.  In the late-1940’s, my great-grandmother had her eye on one of those houses, declaring,  ‘One day I’m going to have a house on the boulevard!'”

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Picture of my Great grandparents, Willie and Mary Spraggins, taken at their oldest daughter’s wedding here in our home in Boston-Edison in 1956.  Although they are holding hands and were cordial to each other, they are divorced in this picture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“My maternal great-grandmother, Mary Spraggins, had two daughters: her eldest, Viola (my great-aunt), and Willie May Walton (my grandmother). She and Viola migrated to Detroit from Memphis, Tennessee sometime in the early 1940’s, bringing with them Willie May’s daughter Mary Ella, my mother. Upon arriving in Detroit, the three of them settled in the North End area of Detroit, a “stone’s throw” east of the historic Boston-Edison area.  My great-aunt, Viola, was a master seamstress and also had her cosmetology license.  She worked for the B. Siegel women’s store in downtown Detroit, had private tailoring clients, produced her own fashion shows, and also did hair in a beauty shop.  She wore most of what she made:  fantastic coats, dresses and suits.  She also made most of my mother’s clothes.  When they were living on the North End on Westminster Street, they were renting part of a two-family flat.”

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The wedding party at my great-aunt Viola’s 1956 wedding at our home in Boston-Edison. From left to right: My father, Leon May; Viola’s new husband Charlie Davie; Viola Davie (maiden name Spraggins); Willie May Walton (my grandmother); and Willie Spraggins (great grandfather).

My mother, Mary and her mother (my grandmother) Willie May attending my great-aunt’s wedding in our home. The dresses they are wearing were handmade by my great-aunt, Viola Spraggins Davie, who was a master seamstress.

“In the mid-1940’s, the elder Mary convinced their landlord to sell the entire flat to them because the Black Detroit soldiers coming home from World War II needed lodging and she could rent one part of the flat and live in the other.  This eventually became lucrative for she and Viola, because with the money they were earning over the next two years, they were able to purchase two other flats and rent those, too.   Meanwhile, my mother completed her middle school and high school years here in Detroit (graduating from Northern High School on Woodward in Detroit) and spent summers in Memphis with her mother (Willie May) and her father, my grandfather Archie Walton.  One of those Black soldiers looking for somewhere to stay was my father, Leon May.  That’s how he and my mother met.

One day in the spring of 1952, Viola was walking down West Boston Blvd. after finishing up a day at the beauty shop and making her way home.  She passed a beautiful 4,000 square foot Georgian Colonial-Revival house and noticed there was a “For Sale” in the window.  Boston-Edison at the time was a largely Jewish neighborhood, but Jewish families were moving out of the area and heading north to the new suburbs of Southfield and Oak Park.”

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Picture of me at 2yrs old, during the summer of 1964 in the Boston-Edison neighborhood. A year after, my brother Leon Dale was born in 1965, my parents separated and my mother, I and my brother moved into the house.  My parents had a brief reconciliation, out of which my sister, Angela Celeste was born. That was the summer of 1967–right in the middle of the Detroit riot/rebellion happening less than an mile from our home.

“Many Black families were taking their place.  Boston-Edison was not a Detroit neighborhood with religious or racial covenants in place, as there were in some of the other areas of Detroit, so integration was pretty smooth.  A number of Black professionals and their families began moving into Boston-Edison at the end of the 1940’s. In May of 1952, Viola, Mary and Mary Ella moved into the beautiful home on West Boston Blvd for $21,000.

When my parents separated in the mid-1960’s (they married in June of 1960), my mother, a professional pianist and professor, brought myself and my two siblings, Leon Dale and Angela Celeste, to this home in Boston-Edison.  My grandmother Willie May came up from Memphis to help raise us.  In 1967, the great Detroit rebellion started less than a mile from our house.  These events, and others of the Civil Rights Movement, also shaped our views of race relations.  We were taught to see the good in everyone and to be empathetic to another’s situation as a way to reduce hatred. Our home became a mecca of sorts for others both in the neighborhood and throughout the metro-Detroit area.”

My mother, Mary Walton and father, Leon May, attending my aunt Viola and uncle Charlie’s wedding at our home in 1956. My parents were not married yet–just dating.

Picture of my Dad (center) with my brother, Leon Dale (l) and my sister, Angela Celeste (r) in the Boston-Edison neighborhood the summer of 1978. Although my parents were separated, our father continued to be an active presence in our lives. He worked as a skilled tradesman at Chevorlet and had an art education degree. He would often take us to the museums, parks and other activities on his weekends off.

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Celebrating my 16th birthday at our house in 1978.

“From as far back as the early 1960’s my mother would host music recitals in which she played piano and my father would sing. People would come from miles around to receive spiritual guidance and mentoring from both my mother and my grandmother, and generations of music students have come and gone for piano lessons from my mom, violin and flute lessons from me, and voice lessons from my sister.”

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We are all accomplished musicians. This is a picture of us gathered around my mother in our living room in the mid-1990’s. (l to r) Angela Celeste (singing), Mary Walton (piano), myself (violin) and Leon Dale (flute).

“We are proud to continue these traditions to this day. Countless wonderful celebrations have also happened in our home over the years, including Viola’s wedding in 1956, my parents’ wedding “after-reception” in 1960, and my husband Ronald Vincent James’ and my wedding reception following our ceremony in Barbados in 2001. My brother, sister and myself had our worldview shaped by growing up around a diverse neighborhood of people who valued education, respect and self-sufficiency. My siblings and I are all college-educated, we are professional musicians and educators (Angela is also a doctor of psychology and I am a licensed professional counselor) and we have always had friends of all backgrounds.  I met my closest and dearest friends living in Boston-Edison.”

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In June 2001, I married my childhood sweetheart, Ronald V. James, on the island of Barbados. In August of 2001, we had our wedding reception at our home in Boston-Edison.

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My new husband, Ron V. James and I sit in front of the very same fireplace where my great-aunt Viola married some 45 years earlier.

Our home in Boston-Edison. My great aunt, Viola, is stands behind two of her friends on their way to church. My mother, Mary Walton, is at the door.

“Today, I reside in this wonderful home with my mother, brother and husband. As the city of Detroit has suffered mainly from the changing economic landscape of Detroit, Boston-Edison, too, has had its challenges over the years.  There have been vacancies, vandalism and foreclosure.  But the neighborhood community has remained strong and Boston-Edison is once again thriving, with many new families moving in, just as they did back in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  It is my hope, as a Detroiter, that all areas of the city and its residents also get to participate in and have access to the city’s improvements.  For 65 + years, my family has committed to staying in the city, advocating and working for its betterment.  We are looking forward to the future of Boson-Edison and the City of Detroit.” – Michelle May

Michelle May is a sought-after teacher on both violin and flute. Her mission is to impart both musical knowledge and spiritual life wisdom to each student under her care. She has been a member of numerous classical, gospel, jazz, R&B and world music ensembles, as well as performing in orchestras and on recordings behind such nationally renowned performers as Aretha Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, Richard Smallwood, Fred Hammond, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, KEM and the late greats Natalie Cole, Donald Walden, Barry White, Joe Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, and Dr. Teddy Harris, to name a few. Michelle leads Musique Noire, a world jazz ensemble with veteran string and percussion players. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (L.P.C.) and is the Vice-President of A.M. May & Associates, Inc., a Detroit counseling and consulting firm (co-founded with her sister, Dr. Angela C. May), and a counselor at Oakland Community College. She is the founder and Music Director for the “Sounds of Music” House Concert series, presented by the Historic Boston-Edison Association in Detroit. Learn more about Michelle and her work here.


WE invite you to share your Detroit story with us by reserving a spot at one of our community photo sharing sessions. See schedule

Send an email to: 1World1Family.me(at)gmail(dot)com and mention: “My Detroit Story” in the subject line, or call us at: (212) 281 – 6002 and ask for: “Detroit Desk.”

You can also share your story on social media with hashtags #MyDetroit and #1world1family to be part of the Detroit Family Album.


We are delighted to work on our Detroit Digital Diaspora, in partnership with Detroit Historical Museum as part of it’s D67 commemoration project and working with Detroit Public TV along with our community partners: Detroit Historical Societythe Horace L. Sheffield, Jr. Center – Detroit Association of Black Organizations, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Arab American National Museum, and Church of the Messiah.

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9 Responses to A Boston-Edison Tale: 65 Years, 4 Generations, 1 Home

  1. Dr. Angela Celeste May June 18, 2017 at 5:35 pm #

    It was a pleasure to edit this piece that my sister wrote and to share our family legacy on Boston Blvd. with the world. This is an excellent project!

    Dr. Angela Celeste May

  2. Katrina June 18, 2017 at 11:06 pm #

    Michelle,

    Your piece is magnificent. Let me know what I can do to help.
    Love you Cuz,
    Katrina Lyn May

  3. Gwendolyn Esco Davis June 19, 2017 at 3:31 am #

    Michelle,
    What a wonderful historical journey of your family. Your history is indeed a story to be told. We should all honor our family history, no matter what it is – it is who we are!!!

    Peace & Continued Blessings,
    Gwendolyn Esco Davis

  4. LaShelle Lonodn June 19, 2017 at 4:06 pm #

    This piece is awesome, Michelle! All the times I’ve been to your home over the years and I had no idea! Thanks for sharing this important and enlightening part of your family history. Much love and continued blessings to you and your family.

  5. yvonne burton June 19, 2017 at 7:32 pm #

    beautiful story love it very much ,blessing to you and your family, yvonne burton (kevin and mrs thompson old housekeeper

  6. Carl Clendenning June 21, 2017 at 1:05 pm #

    Congratulations! This is a wonderful feature!! The photographs and the narrative are beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Karen Grizzard June 21, 2017 at 7:21 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this fabulous story.

  8. Margaret June 22, 2017 at 3:48 am #

    I loved reading this. Written with such heart, Michelle. Your mom’s beautiful grin was shining back then. The pictures reminded me of my mom’s reception at my grandparents home at 1951 Lawrence Avenue. Thanks for this.

  9. Imara Hyman June 26, 2017 at 2:10 pm #

    This is such a great contribution to the story of Blacks in Detroit! We rarely hear these tales in the media of the solidly middle class and upper class families that were an integral part of the elevation of the quality of life in Detroit. Thank you so much for sharing.

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