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
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
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
"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
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
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.