Bob Bruttell, chairman of the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit, tells the story of how a white Jesus statue at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit was painted black during the 1967 uprising, and a tradition was born.
At the corner of Chicago and Linwood in Detroit stands a black Jesus clothed in a white robe adorned with a red heart and gold rays, and his arms outstretched on both sides.
The statue was first erected 60 years ago at Sacred Heart Major Seminary but serves as one of the most iconic landmarks of 1967’s unrest.
That’s the year unknown suspects painted the once-white Jesus black, as a riot ensued just a few blocks away on 12th and Clairmount.
Dan Gallio, spokesman for Sacred Heart, said handwritten notes by a former seminary director say three unidentified black men were seen by seminary staff painting Jesus’ face, hands and feet on July 23, 1967 — the first day of the civil disobedience. The director described the paint color as brown, but others have referred to it as black.
Gallio said some community members believed a black Jesus showed more solidarity with the black families living in the Boston-Edison Historic District.
Black residents wanted to be fairly represented at a time when racial tensions were high, he said. During the unrest of 1967, black demonstrators expressed outrage with discrimination in jobs, education and housing.
“The general feeling is that they weren’t there to deface the statue,” Gallio said. “It was more so representation of ethnic pride. It wasn’t done haphazardly.”
Darrell Stewart, a longtime Boston Edison resident, grew up about four blocks away from the black Jesus statue. He said Boston Edison was diverse in 1967 but most neighborhoods surrounding it were predominately black.
Residents, Stewart said, were fed up with everything in America favoring the white race and wanted a black Jesus.
“The projections that America had was that everything good was white,” said Stewart, 63. “ When you look at it, it’s like you’re really not acknowledging us as a race or human being. Something had to change because it couldn’t continue to be that way.”
Some residents and priests also speculated the painting of black Jesus served as a signal to rioters that the statue should be left unharmed, Gallio said.
The seminary decided to leave the black paint on the statue. That decision proved controversial with some neighbors insisting Jesus should be white, Gallio said.
Gallio said old news articles told stories of a white woman who reportedly protested as the black men painted the statue. However, they escorted her back home, saying the streets were too dangerous to be out, Gallio said.
On the night of Sept. 14, 1967, someone painted Jesus white again.
Sacred Heart officials never found the person responsible but decided three days later to paint it black permanently.
Monsignor Todd Lajiness, rector at Sacred Heart, said the seminary was adamant about not allowing Jesus to become a “painting pawn.”
Today, it is a staple in this neighborhood comprised of modest two-story brick homes and mansions built between 1905 and 1925. Lajiness said the residents remain passionate about the black Jesus.
“This is what Jesus would want us to see is the beauty of each person and the beauty of each ethnicity and race,” Lajiness said.
There is also a biblical aspect to the darker skin on Jesus.
Bob Bruttell, who was a student at the seminary during the riots, said churches have depicted Jesus as a white European when many Christians believe he was a darker-skinned Middle Eastern man.
“It very well could have been somebody who understood that having a white Jesus was a mistake both symbolically and historically,” Bruttell said. “In these really racialized circumstances that we live in, many people are Christians who worship a Jesus that is depicted in ways that are more convenient and conventional to white folks.”
Over the years, the Jesus statue has gone through various restorations and chipped paint fixes, Gallio said. When work is being done on the statue, passerby will often stop to ask out of concern if the seminary is changing its color, he said.
“It’s really the only positive symbol of a very difficult time,” Gallio said. “It’s become an icon of multiracial harmony.”