Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow is Coming to Detroit!

I have been going back and forth to Detroit over the past few months preparing for our Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow as part of the Detroit Historical Society (DHS) Detroit 67 Project –  a citywide commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Detroit uprisings/riots. DDFR will be working with communities across the city to create an photographic celebration/investigation around the narratives of one of the greatest cities of the country – told through the photo albums of everyday Detroiters.

Detroit, 1960s. Photo by Albert S. Johnson, Jr.

Detroit, 1960s. Photo by Albert S. Johnson, Jr.

The Motor City has always loomed large in the imagination of country and world. Because of the auto industry and its economic opportunities, Detroit attracted people from all over seeking their version of the American dream – from the South, West, and across oceans & borders. Like many folks, this project has a deeply personal resonance for me. From the 1940s-1960s, my family would travel by car & bus back and forth from New York City to Detroit – trips that served to unite four siblings and their mother. My Grandfather, Albert S. Johnson, Jr., the eldest sibling, and my Great Uncle Philip, the youngest, lived in Harlem and later the Bronx, along with their wives, children and extended families. Their two middle sisters, my Great Aunts Tessie and Irene, lived in Detroit along with their families, having moved there from Albany, NY in the 1930s and early 40s. Later, they were joined by their mom, my great grandmother Evelyn, who lived between the two sisters after the passing of her husband who was 18-years her senior. The family was very tight.
Detroit, 1960s. Photo by Albert S. Johnson, Jr.

John C. Lodge Hwy, Detroit 1960s. Photo by Albert S. Johnson, Jr.

My Grandfather, a life-long amateur photographer, advanced his hobby considerably during the 50s & 60s when he began using kodachrome slide film. He took over 10,000 images mostly of the family and his church, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal on 132nd street in Harlem. Occasionally he shot images of neighborhoods such as the Detroit street scenes above, which was taken in 1964 during my first visit. This in fact was my only visit to the Motor City until Digital Diaspora Family Reunion brought me back.  I was an toddler at the time of this series of photos so I have no recollection of this city other than the plentiful family stories and relationships that always seem to lead back to Detroit.

Thomas Allen Harris' family in Detroit, 1960s. Photo by Albert S. Johnson, Jr.

Four generations of a Detroit – New York family. My great grandmother Evelyn on the couch flanked by her daughter in law (my grandmother) on the left and her daughter, my Great Aunt Tessie, on right. Great Aunt Irene (known as the beauty in the family) is on the carpet in floral dress surrounded by her four sons. My Mom is holding me as a toddler. My ex-marine dad is far left. 1960s, photo by Albert S. Johnson, Jr.

Sometime in the late 1960s, the ties between New York and Detroit frayed. Was it was precipitated by the Detroit 1967 rebellion/riots and the resulting aftermath? Or by the passing of my Great Grandmother? The roadshow trips were use to physically transport her between her Detroit and New York City offspring. She was the glue binding the New York-Detroit factions of the family together.
Detroit, 1960s

My dad in a sharp suit stands next to a Humber – originally British import and acquired by Chrysler in 1964 – the year this photo was taken.  Photo by Albert S. Johnson, Jr.

Somehow it seems that everything became unglued in the late 60’s – the assassination of Dr. King, the end of the civil rights & antipoverty movements (and the concordant intensification of policing and neglect of Black communities in the North), and my parents’ marriage. My great aunt Tessie moved back to Albany, New York leaving her sister behind in Detroit. Detroit cousins would come to visit us in New York City – some would stay and others return.  But I never recall as a child asking why we never went to visit them in Detroit.  Until now.

Young Thomas Allen Harris and family in Detroit, 1960s. Photo by Albert S. Johnson, Jr.

With Mom, Dad & Grandmother stopping to have lunch on the way to Detroit, 1960s. Photo by Albert S. Johnson, Jr.

We welcome you to share your own images and stories of the Motor City on our Facebook group.

Follow us on Facebook or twitter for updates on our upcoming Detroit DDFR Roadshow!

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