Celebrating Albion’s preserver of its African-American history

Black History Month Series: Part 1

 

By MICHELLE MUELLER

Contributing Writer

©The Recorder February 6, 2015

Robert E. Wall, Historian

During his almost 30-year teaching career at Albion Senior High School, Robert Wall’s excitement about his own research of African-American history shone through to his many students. The local stories and experiences of the local community in which he’d grown up, many of whom named him as their favorite teacher in particular. Enough so that he received the W. K. Kellogg Excellence in Education Award twelve times.

Wall, who was born in Albion, attended the all-Black West Ward Elementary School and graduated from the Washington Gardner Junior-Senior High School in 1959. After that, he studied music at Youngstown University for three years, served in the army for another three, and worked in Detroit and Lansing, eventually earning a BA in History at Michigan State University.

In 1976, ‘Mr. Wall’ returned to his home-town’s high school to teach, created a research-based African-American History course and served as an administrator until his retirement in 2003. In addition to his public school teaching Wall also taught African-American History classes at Albion College, Olivet College, and Kellogg Community College. He has appeared numerous times as a guest lecturer/speaker in both the History Department and the Education Department at Albion College.

Quite simply, Robert Wall loves teaching – especially in the settings where he can impart the story of the Black experience in his own community, which started its vibrant growth in November 1916 with the Great Migration of African-Americans who moved up from the South for factory jobs in Albion, Michigan.

Then, in late 2014, retired teacher and city councilperson, Lenn Reid, launched a project to rejuvenate Albion’s Holland Park – built on the site of Wall’s former West Ward Elementary School – by securing $55,000 in grants from the FireKeepers Local Revenue Sharing Board and the Albion Community Foundation for site work and playground equipment.

History Hill in Holland Park, site of the former West Ward School.

When Wall learned in a chance encounter with Albionite Jerome Washington about the intention of developing a “History Hill” project in the center of the park to tell the West Ward story, he realized it was the perfect opportunity to play a major role in educating even more folks about the history of the school he’d attended, what led up to its creation, and what led to its closure and the integration of Albion Public Schools in 1953. So, he joined two other local historians, Dr. Wes Dick of Albion College, and Leslie Arden Dick in working out language for another grant request, this time for $25,000, from the Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. With help from the City of Albion and Greg Strand at Albion College, the grant was procured about two years ago, and the History Hill project began.

“I got into this literally by accident,” Wall recalls with a smile. “And it took on a life of its own!”

Having amassed a collection of photographs of the West Ward School, its pupils, and its environs, over the years, along with additional photos Wall himself had started taking of the Albion neighborhood in the 1970s, he had quite a collection to illustrate the project.

Next, Wall tracked down fellow West Ward alums, starting with names of “about 18 or 19 students I remembered. Some were deleted, and some were added, but I called every single one personally, because I knew them.” He ended up with 22 subjects who agreed to meet him for video-taped interviews – with his own interview among them. Except for his, Wall conducted the rest of the interviews, with Leslie Dick behind the camera. Twenty of the subjects still resided in Albion; Von Washington traveled from Kalamazoo for his taping, and Bill Holland filmed his while here on a visit.

“We wrote a set of questions that we asked every person,” Wall explains. Once he was through the set questions, he went off-script, and that gleaned new info for his research from the oral histories, some surprising, personal stories. Wes Dick, after brainstorming with his two fellow historians as they reviewed each interview, did all of the final writing for the project. He also waded through years of Albion Public Schools Board of Education minutes for more research information on the school.

Today, Wall says the whole History Hill oral history process was “affirming. What stood out for me was the confirmation of my own memory, the accuracy of my impressions of West Ward: that it was a very stable environment, virtually because of the Malleable [foundry]. I can’t tell you how stabilizing that was for the community. More than one person talked about having multiple ‘parents.’ It was an accepted norm that any parent could correct any child, and that was okay. We were poor, but many of the people said we were enjoying life, and we had good times.” Those times, Wall stressed, were when the ‘village’ really was raising the children.

“[The interviews] called to our attention how good we had it, despite the poverty. We were getting a fairly consistent message,” he said, explaining how they’d see their teachers during the school week, and then at church on Sunday. “[The message was], one, that work was honorable, and two, that life would be better if we were able to choose the factory, or not.”

Very pleased with the way the History Hill project turned out – viewers enjoy a series of annotated photographs, and can even hear additional information on their smart devices – as they walk around the circular setting, Wall comments: “While it’s the history of what used to be in that space, [the project] shines light on the fact that it’s the whole city’s history and a product of the Great Migration. Without the Great Migration, we wouldn’t have West Ward School or that surrounding community!”

The Black historian says he’d give History Hill 9.5 stars (out of 10). “I think it’s a fantastic project. It’s really peaceful to just sit there and contemplate the history of the area. We’re still working on other aspects, like a couple of inter-active kiosks to access the website. Also, I have full-size panels of all the photos, so we can literally ‘take the park to the people.’ We want to make sure the stuff gets utilized.” He’s hoping school field trips will visit Holland Park, or if they are not able to, a presentation can be done in their classroom.

“Besides Wes and Les Dick, I’d really like to say that the city workers gave 110 percent on the installation,” Wall said, explaining that they helped ready it in time by working late into the night before the project’s dedication on August 13, 2016. That crew was organized by Harry Longon, Larry Maynard, and Mike Riddle of the City of Albion.

After two years of intense work on the Black history project, Wall is happy doing things these days that just strike his fancy, and enjoying his beloved jazz music.

“This project allowed me to draw on all aspects of my personality, and as an authentic member of this community – I lived it! – and as an historian,” says Wall.

All 22 oral history interviews, lasting from 30 to 60 minutes, can be seen in their entirety at the project’s website, maintained by Leslie Dick, at www.albionwestward.net.


Above – video of Robert Wall describing his experience at West Ward School, a segregated school in Albion, on the site of the school in the current day Holland Park.  This was part of Labor Day – Walk the Trail, Albion, in 2019.


 

Michelle Mueller

Michelle Mueller

Michelle is the author of the book Mr. Bonner, that was released in 2019.   She has written for The Recorder, the Albion College Io Triumphe magazine, and she is an enthusiastic scrapbooker in her spare time.  See more articles by Michelle Mueller here: www.albionmich.net/writer-mueller/


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