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Memories From Hamblin:

The Making and Unmaking of Battle Creek's

African American Community

 

Ask one of Battle Creek's younger residents about “The Bottoms” and you may get a quizzical look or even a blank stare. The area, long erased from

the city's social geography, has been forgotten by many of its residents. Yet

for those who grew up there, The Bottoms and its rich cultural history continue

to survive in photographs, artifacts, stories and memories.

 

The Bottoms neighborhood was located at the confluence of the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek rivers, where flooding was a frequent problem. In April 1947 the area was inundated by a particularly disastrous flood, submerging the streets, cars, basements and first floors, and even many factories and warehouses.

 

The City of Battle Creek, in an effort to protect its industrial base and to provide a better standard of living for its residents, embarked on an ambitious program of flood control measures. A new river channel was constructed, the houses and businesses that comprised the heart of Battle Creek's African American community were razed and the residents were relocated.

 

In this process, The Bottoms went from a close-knit residential neighborhood to a mosaic of parking lots, discount stores and car dealerships.

 

The Bottoms

 

Former residents of The Bottoms agree that they lived in a community bound together by shared experiences and, now, by powerful memories. This community was shaped by transforming events like the 1947 flood, by iconic figures such as Julia Milner and by landmark institutions including the Hamblin Community Center, Chicken Charlie’s and the El Grotto Lounge.

 

The Bottoms was located in the low land on both sides of the Kalamazoo River between the northern heights of Advent Town and the Goguac Prairie to the south. Originally only the home of crisscrossing railroad tracks, it was one of the last sections of Battle Creek to be settled.  In the 1880s and 1890s large factories, including Advance Thresher and the Duplex Printing Press Company, were built in the area.  Then both white and black laborers who wanted to live close to their jobs moved to The Bottoms.

 

The expansion of industrial production during both world wars created additional employment opportunities and prompted a migration of workers into the Battle Creek area. In the 1940s many of these immigrants were African Americans from the South, who settled in The Bottoms. It was during this period that the population of the neighborhood became predominately African American.

 

The close community ties in The Bottoms were created, in part, by the extended families, often living along the same street. These family networks fostered a rich social and cultural life, especially for children. In a relatively safe environment, children could play street games such as stick ball and Kick the Can, visit neighborhood parks and playgrounds and each others’ houses. If they belonged to one of many small ad hoc children’s “gangs” – whose worst “crimes” amounted to mischief – they could engage in “dumpster diving” and junkyard scavenging.

 

The Hamblin Community Center, the Heart of The Bottoms

 

For over four decades, the wooden frame house at 242 Hamblin Avenue served as a center for social activities in The Bottoms. It was built in 1942 as a U.S.O. Club for African American soldiers stationed at Fort Custer. At the end of the war it became the Hamblin Community Center.

 

In 1948, the Battle Creek Civic Recreation Department incorporated the Center into the municipal recreation program. Under the leadership of Julia Milner, its second Director, and Clifton Woods, the Supervisor of Recreation and Social Activities, the Center quickly became a focal point of civic, social, and recreational activities in The Bottoms. In the mid 1950s, Don Sherrod joined the staff as the Boys’ Work Executive, directing athletic programs for boys.

 

The Center’s athletic program included a wide range of sporting activities for both boys and girls, including boxing, ping pong, basketball, and volleyball. During the 1950s, various clubs, including the Coterian Club and the Senior Pioneer Interracial Club, met at the Center. By the mid-1960s, the membership of the Hamblin Community Center declined and in 1964 it became a Senior Citizens’ Center, maintaining only limited activities for youth.

 

After Julia Milner retired in 1974 the Center closed and its activities were transferred to the Irving Park Recreation Building. From 1975 to 1980 the Cereal City Golf Club occupied the Center building. Former members of the Hamblin Community Center have organized several reunions, beginning in 1979.

 

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Center provided an anchor for a community in transition. As families relocated to Washington Heights and other areas, children and teenagers from the Bottoms often moved away from friends and resettled in new school districts. Given the forms of racial segregation and discrimination prevalent during these transitional years, the Center was often the only place where African American youth living in The Bottoms and the Heights could participate in sports, play music or attend dances.

 

Director Julia Milner promoted good behavior by instilling a respect for the Center’s rules, and by close but loving supervision, positive reinforcement and gentle encouragement. She earned the love and respect of the youth – and the confidence of their parents -- through the force of her personality and the clarity of her social vision.

 

The Flood of 1947

 

When the spring rains fell in torrents and the soggy ground could no longer absorb the deluge, the swollen river spilled over its banks and flooded the flats.  The first floods of 1854 and 1855 caused little damage to the vacant swamp land.  But by the 1880s and 1890s the rising waters found more victims.  Major floods devastated the flats in 1904, 1908, 1912 and again in 1916, forcing the evacuation of families, an interruption of business, and a suspension of rail services.

 

After a thirty-year reprieve, disaster struck again in 1947. At approximately noon on April 5, the day before Easter Sunday, the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo rivers spilled over their banks, inundating more than 1,000 homes and businesses. Over 7,500 people had to evacuate their homes, some by jumping into rowboats from second-floor windows.

 

Industrial production and business in the Bottoms came to a virtual standstill for almost a week. With the Michigan Central yards partially submerged and the Grand Trunk Railway surrounded by water, train service was infrequent at best.

 

Although the flooding caused little structural damage to businesses and homes, city officials and Bottoms residents faced daunting challenges in cleaning up after the flood. The flood created a number of public health and safety concerns and warnings were issued about the dangers of disease, electrocution and food contamination.

 

After the waters receded, city workers began draining basements, decontaminating streets with lye, and conducting house-by-house inspections of electrical wiring, heating and sanitation systems.

 

The Cement River Project

 

After the flood, city leaders began planning a comprehensive flood-prevention project.  Supported by a combination of federal, city, private and foundation funds, the Cement River Project included widening and relocating the channel of the Kalamazoo River, urban renewal clearance of substandard housing, railroad consolidation and highway construction.  As part of the ambitious plan to eliminate The Bottoms flood plain, South Washington Street was rerouted while Liberty, Ravine, Jewell, Court and Kirby streets were vacated.  Dickman Road was cut through the heart of the flats and many of the railroad grade crossings were eliminated.

 

City officials moved through The Bottoms, buying up properties. Over the course of the next several years, buildings were demolished and some of the land was rezoned and sold to industrial concerns. Other areas were simply razed and then abandoned. The residents of the Bottoms were forced to leave their family homes, and their tight-knit neighborhood, and to find new places to live.

 

Most of the Bottoms residents were relocated to Washington Heights, into the deteriorating homes of well-to-do families who used to work at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Located on a hill north of the flood plain, this neighborhood had gradually emptied after the Sanitarium downsized after the Depression. These homes were gradually turned into multi-family rental properties, occupied by former residents of The Bottoms.

 

Finally, on September 30, 1961, fourteen years after the great flood, water flowed through the new cement channel of the Kalamazoo River – and The Bottoms vanished.

 

As an unintended consequence of this ambitious and well-intentioned civic improvement plan, local schools, businesses and vital social institutions like the Hamblin Community Center disappeared and the residential fabric of a vibrant neighborhood was destroyed.

 

The Heritage Battle Creek Field School

 

The history of The Bottoms has been researched through the Heritage Battle Creek Field School Program, including more than 50 community residents, students, historians and college and university faculty -- researchers and individuals who shared their memories in oral history interviews.

 

The Memories from Hamblin program will result in a deeper understanding of this period of Battle Creek history and will help establish a permanent record of mid 20th century African American history in the area. 

 

A new website that documents the story has been created, to share photographs, oral history excerpts, timelines, maps, biographies and other interactive features.(see <memoriesfromhamblin.org>)

 

Heritage Battle Creek conducted the Memories from Hamblin project through its Field School Program, a three-year partnership with the Arts of Citizenship Program at the University of Michigan and Kellogg Community College, with assistance from Western Michigan University. This project was funded in part by the Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

 

If you have memories of The Bottoms, or would like to be involved in any aspect of this on-going project, you are invited to contact the Heritage Battle Creek Research Center at (269) 965-2613.