Few people know just how closely tied the Upper Peninsula is to African-American history. Author Valerie Bradley-Holliday hopes to shed some light on this subject during her upcoming presentation at the Peter White Public Library. Specifically, she said that she will be telling the story of the Elmwood logging camp that was located along the Paint River, near the Iron River and Crystal Falls area.
Elmwood was an African-American homesteading community in the Upper Peninsula from 1926 to 1930. It was centered on harvesting pulp wood for a lumber company based in Marinette, Wisconsin in exchange for land and wages. Most of the residents had moved from the confines of Chicago, hoping to build a home of their own, after they had found the ad in the Chicago newspapers.
“I think that folklore speaks to people, but today’s fairytales are so watered down from their original intentions. I wanted to create a folktale for the Upper Peninsula because it gets people going in self-exploration and exploration of their own history,” said Holliday.
During the early 1900s, millions of African-Americans moved north from the southern states to escape tenant farming, share cropping and violent racism. This has come to be known as The Great Migration. Many families were headed to the bigger cities like Detroit and Chicago in hopes of finding an industrial job.
Holliday, who is a Northern alumna, has published two other books already; “Places to Be Blessed” and “Northern Roots.” She has also published a historical paper about the Elmwood communities, and is currently working on a historical-fiction book that highlights the daily struggles and triumphs of its inhabitants.
“I would love to write a purely historical book about the Elmwood communities, but there just is not enough written detail,” said Holliday. “There are pieces here and there like census reports that I find. I was able to get in touch with a daughter of one of the residents (of Elmwood), but what she was able to tell me was mostly anecdotal.”
Holliday said she hopes that those who attend her talk will walk away with a new appreciation of local history and an understanding of the African-American situation in the Upper Peninsula in the late 1920s.
“My grandma always said, ‘Don’t ever forget where you came from.’ I’m just getting to know what she meant by that.” Holliday said.
Margaret Boyle, the programming coordinator at the Peter White Public Library, said she scheduled the talk to be on Martin Luther King Jr. Day because of the rich ties to African American history.
“When you’re a student, you tend to think things happen elsewhere. (Holliday’s) talk will highlight local history and bring it home for most of us. Knowing the history of a place broadens your awareness of the world,” Boyle said.
The Upper Peninsula has been known as a very rural place to live. Boyle said people like her family have enjoyed being away from the busier cities like Detroit and Chicago.
“It’s good to know (the local history),” said Boyle. “This is a good family place and we need to appreciate the struggles people have gone through to settle here. It’s amazing how some things are so easily forgotten.”
Chelsea Ewaldt, a junior majoring in English writing and secondary education, said she hopes the event will expand her understanding of local and African-American history.
“It’s important to familiarize yourself with your own history and not distance yourself from it,” Ewaldt said.
On Monday, Jan. 17, at 7 p.m., students can listen free of charge to Holliday talk more in depth about the story of Elmwood and the African-American homesteading communities located there. It will take place in the Shiras Room in the upper level of the Peter White Public Library. For more information, call Margaret Boyle at (906) 226-4318 or visit www.pwpl.info.