Robert Wall gives Black History Month talk at AAUW meeting

Black History Month Series 2020: Part 3 


Contributing Writer

©The Recorder February 27, 2020

Robert Wall, often called “Bob” or “Bobbie,” and well-known locally as a retired history teacher and assistant high school principal at the former Albion High School, has long been the go-to guy to glean information on the history of African Americans in the city of Albion – he has, in fact, made it his life’s work. On February 20, Wall shared some of that story with Albion’s chapter of the American Association of University Women in a presentation at the downtown Ludington Building, aided by poster-mounted reproductions of the information about West Ward School that is displayed in Holland Park.

In his presentation, Wall chose to accentuate the sense of community that developed amongst the African American population that grew and thrived in Albion. He first introduced the audience to Solomon Hurst (1851 to 1883), the most successful Black businessman, who owned a barbershop on Superior Street. After becoming disabled, Hurst was moved to a county care facility, where he died and was buried. Wanting his remains back in the city he loved, his family had him disinterred and reburied in Albion’s Riverside Cemetery. Wall also told the group about John Watson, the only Black man from Albion to serve in the Civil War.

By sharing some census data, the historian described how that played out: 1850 was the first year that Blacks showed up in the U.S. Census. The count averaged 35 African Americans throughout the late 1800’s; in 1900 23 Blacks were counted, in 1910 8 Blacks, and in 1920 the number of Blacks had jumped to 696. That, he explained, was due to the Great Migration which occurred in the Fall of 1916, when three clever local industrialists – knowing that transportation was the huge barricade to African American relocation – sent a special train and representatives to Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida, to hire 64 Southern Blacks and bring them to Albion where jobs were waiting for them.

During the Migration, nationally, six million Blacks left the South and went west or north for jobs, escaping the Jim Crow world of … anti-voting practices, the convict-lease system, restrictive rules, and basically, no hope.

“Albion has a fascinating story. It’s just amazing,” Wall commented. “That transportation offer was the key to getting Blacks to move north.” During the Migration, nationally, six million Blacks left the South and went west or north for jobs, escaping the Jim Crow world of lynchings, rapes of African American women, anti-voting practices, the convict-lease system, restrictive rules, and basically, no hope.

“The Albion Malleable represents the best example of corporate patrimony,” said Wall. He went on to explain that although those 64 men had left their families behind, thanks to the forward-thinking local factory owners, they earned good wages and reasonable mortgage arrangements were made available for houses the factory owners built for employees, they had a church to call their own, and schooling was organized so that they were able to send for their wives and children and bring them to Albion over the next few years.

“Because of its demographics, for a time Albion was known as ‘Little Detroit.’”

“And the Blacks were not unseen [in Albion],” Wall explained. “They were involved in all aspects of the community. There was a Young Men’s Business League, and 12 fraternal organizations with a total of 60 members, both men and women. Grand titles were bestowed. In 1918 there was a huge Emancipation Day celebration in Albion, and that August, Albion participated in another Emancipation celebration in Battle Creek. Because of its demographics, for a time Albion was known as ‘Little Detroit.’”

In Albion’s African American community, a thriving economy developed – Blacks had stores and barber shops, dry cleaners, butcher shops, and sold hair products. They had in common with Detroit an “underground economy” as well: betting.

Wall recalled that as a boy, when he was at one particular barber getting his hair cut, the man would interrupt the trim multiple times to answer his phone, repeat some numbers, and hang up before resuming his work on young Bobbie. The barber was a “numbers man,” part of a thriving numbers-betting network (that predated the legal lottery system) here in Albion – and in a much larger scale, in Detroit. But one difference from the future lottery system was that the Black numbers men would reinvest much of their proceeds back into the African American community, by starting new businesses, for instance.

“Growing up in Albion we always had more than one set of parents,” Wall explained to the audience. “I had three mothers!” Wall, whose father died when he was only three months old, moved with his family nine times in the 18 years they lived in Albion. And he says, besides their jobs working at the Malleable or Gale Manufacturing, “the Black men of Albion had pretty full lives. And the women were critical as ‘home managers.’ People were really doing many things!”

According to the speaker, the Black churches were for “more than Sunday things.” Wall recalled that he learned things from how to repair toys to distribute to the needy, to public speaking and taking meeting minutes in church groups, and also how to accept criticism, all adding to his life skills.

Students of West Ward School. Bob Wall is the young man in the bottom row on the right with the big smile.

Wall described the West Ward School saga, which started out as a demand by Albion’s African American community for a place where their kids could become acclimated to northern society, then became a place for Black teachers to ply their trade and for the children to “become enculturated” for six years before moving along to the integrated middle and high schools. But eventually, because of the poor quality of the building and the teaching materials, West Ward School needed to be done away with – and was, thanks to a movement spearheaded by Robert Holland, in 1953 (7-8 months before the Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision).

…in 1854, census data indicated that there were only six African Americans living in Albion, and 90 living in Marshall.

One audience member, who was familiar with the historical Crosswhite family incident in Marshall – an escaped slave family, who had taken up residence in Marshall, were the targets of slave catchers trying to capture them but were protected by Marshall’s White community – asked Wall if he knew the racial population data of both Albion and Marshall at that time, suspecting some irony. He did: in 1854, census data indicated that there were only six African American’s living in Albion, and 90 living in Marshall.

Robert Wall stressed the importance of preserving the oral histories of Albion’s Black community. “People think we got amnesia when we moved north. But if you grew up in the South and you moved to the North, you bring all of your memories with you.”




Michelle Mueller

Michelle Mueller

Michelle is the author of the book Mr. Bonner: The Story of a Mentoring Journey, which 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:

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