Monthly Archives: February 2012

Slavery in Michigan?

In the fall of 2010, I enrolled in a course at Rutgers University called “Jazz and Race.” The course focused on the sociopolitical aspects of race in jazz music, but it also explored the outlying areas more generally (slavery, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Obama’s book, etc.). In one of the classes there was a discussion about slavery in northern states, particularly ones on the east coast. I had heard about slave cemeteries in New York and the recent controversy over Rhode Island’s state name (which is actually Rhode Island and Providence Plantations; the state’s history of slavery and the negative connotations associated with “plantations” did not stop a 2009 vote to change the name). “Well sure slavery existed in New England, but in the Midwest as well?” I inquired. Professor Lewis Porter tasked me: “That sounds like a research project. Find out if slavery existed in your home state.”

As a young Michigander, I had always considered my state to have been on the right side of history: Michigan was part of the Underground Railroad network and Union soldiers from Flint, Michigan were described in Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. Michigan was a northern state after all! But, Michigan history reaches back much further than the mid-1800s.

The Frenchmen Étienne Brûlé was the first to arrive in 1620 and the French began colonizing the land with cities like Detroit. Michigan was under French control until 1763 (when the territory was lost to the British in the French and Indian War). It is known that the French had slaves, but there is no documentation to show how many were there. The ethnicities of the slaves are also unknown, but they are suspected to have been Native Americans (there is also a possibility of African-Americans too). The authorization for slave ownership in the territory came from the Catholic Church of New France.

After the British took control of the territory, they began collecting census data. A 1779 census shows that there were 141 slaves living in the territory (about 8% of the population recorded in this data). By 1782, a census of Detroit showed 78 male and 101 female slaves (179 total) living in Detroit alone. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 declared slavery illegal in that area by the United States. However, the land did not reach its slave population-peak until 300 slaves were recorded in 1796 when the British released control of the land to the United States (citation: Michigan’s Rich African American Past).

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery in the area but left a “grandfather clause” that allowed people owning slaves before the ordinance to keep those slaves.  Children, however, should be freed “immediately or no later than their 25th birthday.”  Canadian slaves began fleeing French control to come to Michigan for freedom.  When the Canadians started demanding that their slaves be returned, Territorial Justice Augustus Woodward retorted that any man “coming into this Territory is by law of the land a freeman.”  Despite these comments, an 1830 census shows that there were still 32 slaves in Michigan- 43 years after the ordinance.  It is amazing to think that former slaves were running to Michigan for freedom during a 50-year period where slavery still existed for others (citation: Slavery in the Northwest Territory).

Slave life in Michigan was much different than the stereotypically large plantation life of the south.  Most slave work was either done in the home or involved trapping, fur trading, and some small farming.  Most slaves did not have their own quarters and lived/worked alongside their owners.  Although historians generally say that slave life was less harsh in Michigan than the South, there are at least two cases where slaves killed their owners and there were many other slave-instigated court petitions for freedom.  Bill McGraw, a writer for the Detroit Free Press, has many documented articles on slavery in Michigan. One of McGraw’s articles reveals that many of the prominent historical figures in Detroit were slave owners (including Lewis Cass and William Macomb): Slavery is a Quiet Part of City’s Past.

Here is another link about Michigan Pulses of Resistance to Slavery.  This link has a map that shows the varying degrees to which each geographical location of Michigan had historically referenced anti-slavery or the Underground Railroad in events, newspapers, speeches, etc.


Curtis in the Age of Anxiety

Image“They dwelt at ease in their sown centers, sunny their minds, fine their features; their flesh was carried on beautiful bones; they bore themselves lightly through life; they loved their children and entertained with all their senses a world of detail.” –W.H. Auden

I made it out this past weekend to see The Curtis Symphony Orchestra perform at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.  The program included works by Danielpour and Prokofiev, but I was there for another reason- Leonard Bernstein.  The program included Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety,” which I had never had the opportunity to hear live.  Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety” is a programmatic work based on the long poem of the same name by W.H. Auden.  Each piece on the program featured a Curtis graduate, and the Curtis Symphony gladly boasts that Bernstein is one of their own (Class of ’41).

However, Bernstein and Curtis had a relationship that was a bit tumultuous.  Herein lays the paradox of this performance:  Bernstein was known to be a harsh critic of Curtis and was publicly despised by Mary Louis Curtis Bok, the founder of the Curtis Institute of Music.  Bernstein also had no problem acknowledging that he didn’t really enjoy his time at Curtis.  Bernstein sheds a little light on this in an interview that was reproduced for Bernstein by Joan Peyser:

“It was like walking into an alien land…Curtis was an island of musical enterprise; there seemed to be no one with whom I could share my Audenesque feelings…”

Indeed, Bernstein felt that Curtis represented the complete antithesis of “The Age of Anxiety.”  Bernstein continues:

“…others had entered the school in short pants years before, and were still totally immersed in hammering out the Etude in thirds faster than the nearest competitor; or perhaps it was a Paganini Caprice or a Puccini aria.  In any case, interdisciplinary it was not.  Philosophy, history, aesthetics- all irrelevant.  The school seemed to me like a virtuoso factory, turning out identical virtuosi like sausages.  I exaggerate, of course, but that’s how it seemed to me in September, 1939.”

Of course, Curtis has received these kinds of complaints more than once throughout the years.  On some levels Curtis has been rigid in their continuing conservatism.  The program from the concert asserts Curtis’s bold Deweyan philosophy: “A busy schedule of performances is at the heart of Curtis’s distinctive ‘learning by doing’ approach.”  Indeed, Curtis has proved its excellence by graduating the likes of Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, David Shifrin, Leonard Rose, and Reid Anderson of The Bad Plus.  Still, it is somewhat disheartening to look at the program notes and see Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1 labeled as “Kaddish,” (Symphony No. 1 was actually subtitled “Jeremiah.”  Symphony No. 3 was subtitled “Kaddish,” but there was no reference to Symphony No. 3 in the context of these notes).  I would think that an oversight like this would be embarrassing beyond belief to an institution like Curtis.  I know these kids can play a lot of notes, but they are also tomorrow’s music educators.  Do they actually know what they are talking about?

In Curtis’s defense, they have modernized their program and it is certainly not the same program that existed in the late 30s to early 40s.  Check out this: Day in the Life of a Curtis Student.  Their Musical Studies Department has 18 faculty members, their Liberal Arts (!) Department has 14 faculty members, 1 faculty member teaches Alexander Technique, and a Career Studies Department adds 4 more faculty members.  I wonder what Lenny would have to say about Curtis today?

In regards to the concert, the Curtis Symphony Orchestra performed Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 at a very high caliber for a student group (would you expect anything less from Curtis?).  I was particularly taken by the subtle artistry of the string and percussion sections.  There are many exposed and highly delicate moments in the music that these sections executed with firm control (not to mention the execution of that extremely bare passage of woodwinds in the “Prologue”).  I was also quite amazed at the rich tone that the brass players commanded at such a young age.

But as with any of Lenny’s works, there has to be some jazz, right?  The “Masque” in the second part of the symphony displays Bernstein’s love of Hollywood, Broadway, and Jazz.  This included a drum set-up that the man next to me described excitedly as “Buddy Rich Drums.”  For those outside of the classical world, we just call this a drum-set.  HA!  I also have to say, Curtis could really use a little help in this department though.  There is nothing jazzy about anything that happened in the “Masque.”  A Curtis Jazz Department might have helped, but I suppose I shouldn’t push my luck or ask for too much.

Although Curtis embodies the isolationism that sometimes overlooks the “Age of Anxiety,” the old saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” applies here.  Curtis does not excel at providing the world with historians, aestheticians, and philosophers; but it is still providing training to some of the best classical musicians in world.  The music in clubs, bars, and halls around Philadelphia are evolving yearly, but the strength of Curtis’s tradition seems intact.  After all, what does a bar have to with music?

“When the historical process breaks down and armies organize with their embossed debates the ensuing void which they can never consecrate, when necessity is associated with horror and freedom with boredom, then it looks good to the bar business.” –W.H. Auden

Welcome to Ruraltourban

Welcome to my blog- RURALTOURBAN.  Check out the tabs at the top of the page for my bio and information behind Ruraltourban.  Click the link at the bottom right of the page to follow my blog via RSS Feed.  Also, if you get a chance, check out my website:

My thoughts for this blog will largely be centered on MUSIC, POLITICS, and RACE.  Some of my posts will be dry and informational while others will be wet with subjective conjecture.  I am studying jazz history right now, so expect a good deal of writings on jazz.  It is also 2012 so you know what that means- It’s an election year!  So, expect a little bit of political badminton.  I would also ask that people make lots of comments whenever possible.  My main aim is just to stimulate discussion.  Enjoy!