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Inkster, MI
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Inkster, Michigan USA


There was a job for a school superintendent in Inkster, Michigan. Slim had an appointment to have an interview with the school board. It was the summer of 1942 (sounds like a movie, doesn't it?), and Slim and Dorothy had decided it was time to leave Freeport... and that opportunity lay in the burgeoning "megalopolis" of Southeastern Michigan.

Inkster was a predominately Black community. It lay astride M-16, "Michigan Avenue," to the west of Detroit... separated from the big city only by the "lily-white" community of Dearborn. Knowing "where you were"... and "who you were with"... was important in those days. Slim would later recall that he had a tremendous naiveté about all of this. His upbringing as a "Northern Michigan Hillbilly" had not fully prepared him for the realities of urban life in the 1940's. He just knew how to treat "people"... and "racial matters" did not really figure into his way of thinking.

Still, Slim must have known his life could be taking a big turn as he drove from Freeport down to Inkster. As he approached the outskirts of the Detroit area he was confronted by military roadblocks. His first notion was that people in Detroit were taking the war "pretty seriously." What he quickly found out was that Detroit was embroiled in a race-riot... the worst in American history, still to this day.

As Slim explained himself to Michigan National Guardsmen manning the barricades he was initially told to "go home." After several further attempts to find a way on into Inkster Slim finally found an officer at a particular roadblock that took the time to listen. While he made it clear that he thought Slim was "nuts," the Guardsman did tell him how to go in sort of round-about fashion to arrive at the Inkster Public Schools administration building. He may have even given Slim some sort of a "pass."

Slim arrived for his appointment and was pleased that the entire school board had assembled to greet him. All but one of their members were Black... "Negroes," really, in the nomenclature of the day. They had a brief discussion about Slim, his family, and about Freeport. One of the board members then changed the conversation to a more somber tone. "Ardis," he said. "What kind of a name is that? Slim looked around the room and saw that every eye was focused directly on him. "Well, that's Irish... I guess," was his reply. The room was quiet... until the questioner let out a loud belly-laugh. "Irish?" he questioned. "Well, that's just one of us niggers turned inside-out!" The room erupted in laughter... while Slim turned red. The only white board member had a big smirk on his face. He would recall that "initiation day" to Slim many times over the coming years... with great fondness. 

When the room had settled down the board chairman turned to Slim and said, "Well, right now we've got some work to do." Slim had not been asked if he wanted the job... he never was asked... let alone if he wanted to accept it. Yet, somehow Slim and everyone else knew that the bond had been sealed... by a crude joke and the inspired laughter than ensued. Somehow, the "acceptance" did not have to be verbalized... it just hung in the air. Slim was "tagged"... he was "it"... there was no "getting away" from this one.

What Slim did not know, having come into Inkster by the "back way" was that the racial tension of Detroit was threatening to spill over into the western suburbs. As the group walked to the front door of the administration building, facing Michigan Avenue, Slim was somewhat dumb-struck to see literally thousands of people lining the side of the street. They were all Black on HIS side... and White on the other! As his eyes went up and down the line he was glad to see that there were no guns. But, there were a great number of ax handles, broomsticks, wooden stakes, rocks, and other implements in hand.

Slim was sort of swept along with the current as the entire school board went to the curb on the south side of the highway. The school board president called over a big Black man that was "working the crowd" from the street in front of them. They talked for a few minutes. It was somehow agreed that the three (3) of them would go attempt to "parlay" with the Whites on the other side. Slim would say later that he fully expected this would trigger a full-scale battle... that he would be beaten and possibly killed in the "war" that would ensue.

Instead, the three (3) men... two (2) Black and one White... found themselves standing in the grassy median of the divided "boulevard." Angry Whites shook their weapons at them, but to Slim's surprise no one "charged" them. Finally, a small group of Whites stepped out from the crowd... seemed to turn, as if to ask for "permission" from their fellows... and then finally walked out to the median.

Slim was amazed at how remarkably "civil" it all turned out to be. That's how racism was... it turned out... in the "big city." They all shook hands and introduced themselves. Slim was presented as "the new superintendent of schools." They talked back and forth about how they might "settle this thing." Finally, Slim was asked what he thought. "I don't know what's going on in Detroit," he said. "But, I don't know why WE would want to have any trouble out here."

The Whites kind of shuffled around, looked at each other, and then back at Slim and his group. The silence was rather uncomfortable. Slim realized the huge crowd had also grown silent... on both sides... and was simply watching them out there in the grassy median. Still, no one said a thing. "Why don't we all just go home... and forget it," asked Slim, somewhat out of desperation.

"I'll tell you what," said one of the Whites. "All you niggers go home... and we'll go home."

That was a deal! Slim would remark later on the essential "unfairness" of the White presumption that the Blacks would have to "back down." Still, no one had questioned it that day. The small group of Whites went back to their side... waving their arms. No one moved. It was a signal of "victory"... a celbration. Slim and his group rejoined the rest of the school board. The Balcks knew what to do... what had to happen. They had the unenviable task of convincing the crowd that a "deal" had been struck. It might not have been a fair deal... but, that was no surprise to this crowd. After some agitation, and a final wave of the ax handles... the Blacks broke their line and moved back into the school yard and headed for their neighborhoods. The  Whites broke rank shortly thereafter. In the coming days Detroit would burn and many would die in the worst U.S. race riot ever. There would be no further racial confrontation in Inkster, however.  

It would be the start of a wondrous adventure for Slim in Inkster. It would further hone the political and social skills that he had already shown. To some he would begin to appear as Odysseus... the man "never at a loss." Slim, himself, however would say that the experience in Inkster would make him know how Alice had felt... after she fell into the looking glass. Either way it would be a remarkable adventure... and one that would shape Slim for the rest of his life.

Slim would go on to build five (5) new schools in just seven (7) short years at Inkster... mostly with federal money. Blacks continued to flood into Inkster from all over the South to sustain the war effort. While to powerful Ford Rouge Plant was nearby, Inkster had almost no "tax base" at all. The streets were unpaved, many people lived in tarpaper shacks, and the schools had almost no way to generate any income locally at all. Slim reached out to local merchants for support for building an athletic field and to buy athletic and band uniforms. He appealed to the Ford Motor Company and eventually had several meetings with Henry Ford I. William Clay Ford became a personal friend and the primary contact for considerable support that was to come from the company. Still, Slim knew that this would never be enough.

It was in this period that Slim joined with about a dozen school superintendents, similarly affected, from around the country. They began descending on Washington for help... lobbying individual Congressman and Senators and testifying before Congressional committees on many occasions. The result was the series of "Lanham Acts" and the "Impacted Schools" legislation. Slim would continue this effort all the while he was in East Detroit and even into his early days in Ypsilanti. He would tell each school board, "This is something I do." He had made a commitment to his fellow superintendents, and they would have accept and support this if they wanted to have him as their superintendent. 

When Slim left Inkster it was with many friendships that would last a lifetime, and one (1) addition to the family... little "Tommy." A particular friend from Inkster that would continue to have a big impact on the family was William Payton. Bill Payton was a Korean was veteran that had come back to marry Slim's administrative assistant in the Inkster Public Schools. He became a maintenance man for the schools and later as a building contractor he would build homes for Slim's family in both East Detroit and Ypsilanti. A powerful Black man, but extremely gentle in his demeanor, Bill Payton would serve as an early role model for both Jim and Tom as they grew up. Although Bill Payton died in 2002, he remains "alive" for the boys for the way he took the time to teach them both the "manly arts"... of driving a nail, or pouring concrete.

In 1949, after seven (7) wondrous years, it was somehow time to leave Inkster... and head for East Detroit. Slim, and his largely Black school board, had built up the schools. They had started the first athletic program the community had ever had. They had integrated the restaurants along Michigan Avenue. They had started employment and job training programs with Ford Motor Company, and others. They had forced significant changes in Michigan state school funding... and they had helped to get the Federal government involved in public education for the first time. There was a lot to be proud of.




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Last modified: March 18, 2008