Historic Niles Black community poised to be added to federal register 

By: - April 21, 2022 5:14 am

The Ferry Street School | Michigan Economic Development Corporation

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) announced this week that the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has been awarded a $50,000 grant to support an effort that could result in the Ferry Street District in Niles being added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The funds come from the Underrepresented Community Grant program administered by the National Park Service. The grant funds will pay for a preservation consultant to complete a document to support the community, which was established around 1846. 

Niles is located in Michigan’s southwest corner about 10 miles north of South Bend, Ind., 100 miles east of Chicago and 193 miles south of Grand Rapids. 

“The African American community in Niles is among the oldest in the state. The neighborhood continues to be a home and gathering place for this community, anchored by two churches, a masonic lodge and the Ferry Street School,” said Mark Rodman, SHPO officer. “This cultural history will resonate as part of the National Register nomination, which in turn will enable other benefits such as access to the new State Historic Preservation Tax Credit program.”

The Ferry Street neighborhood consists of an eight-block area. It was the site of Michigan’s first African American Freemason Society lodge (Harrison Lodge No. 6) founded in 1857. Historically, about 10% percent of the city’s residents have been Black. 

Today, it includes the Ferry Street School, a one-room schoolhouse constructed in 1867 for African American children, the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge building, and is home to two church congregations, the Second Baptist Church (today the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church), founded at the corner of Sixth and Ferry Streets in 1849, and the Franklin AME Church on Sycamore Street established in 1888. 

Lucius Vassar photo

Lucius Vassar, a Niles native, likes the idea of the federal government recognizing a set of historic institutions in his hometown but told the Advance that more needs to be done.

“While I appreciate the recognition and I appreciate the interest in the history, reconciliation needs to be part of any conversation of the history of Blacks in any part of this country,” said Vassar, corporate counsel and executive vice president at Cinnaire, a Detroit-based community development firm. 

“Yes, we’ve always been here but yes we’ve also experienced the things that have led to us having to turn to ourselves for our ability to thrive within this community that otherwise did not present opportunities for us.”

The Ferry Street District was home to a number of African American families that made significant contributions to Michigan’s history. The Niles History Center, under the leadership of Director Christina Arseneau, has been working to document oral histories of families that lived in the neighborhood and recently held an exhibit related to the neighborhood’s history.

“The Ferry Street area is rich in history and remains an active neighborhood with a church and resource center. The city’s Master Plan emphasizes history as a tool for revitalization,” said Arseneau. “Documenting the untold stories here will contribute to pride of place for local residents and enhance placemaking efforts throughout the city of Niles.”

Chuck Sams, National Park Service director, said “endless American stories yet to be recognized on a national stage.”

“The Underrepresented Community Grant program provides our state, Tribal, and Certified Local Government partners the means to identify and nominate their most significant places and stories for the benefit of all.”

In recent months National Park Service grants have supported other Michigan sites, including Vaughn’s Bookstore, Historic King Solomon Baptist Churr and Ossian Sweet home in Detroit. Earlier this month, a pair of Michigan burial sites in Birmingham were among the new National Park Service’s 16 listings to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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