Eighty years ago, between July 8 and 14, high temperatures in the Motor City soared between 100 and 104 degrees coupled with pressure-cooker like humidity. Men and women without ventilating air and electricity were struck with cardiac arrest and collapsed.
One of the 364 who died during that week was Isaac Irvin of Winder Street in Brush Park.
He, like many other east-siders, took to the cool-watered Detroit River for relief. The African-American boy, however, was simply no match for the current that can be strong and choppy even on a hot day. He drowned near the Naval Amory and Belle Isle Bridge.
Isaac was only 10 years old.
Development in the Brush Park area is a good thing, but it must incorporate as much history of African-American in the project. Between Brush Park’s grandeur of the late 1880s and its revival of the last 15 years rests several decades where African-Americans lived there and built strong institutions.
From the 1860s until the start of the 20th century, Brush Park was home to well-to-do Detroiters who made their money in lumber, ship-building and other commerce. The boundaries of the community are considered to be Mack to the north; Woodward to the west; Beaubien to the east; the Fisher Freeway to the south. The spacious homes were later sliced and diced into units for people who were moving to Detroit to work in automobile factories.
Blacks have history in Brush Park as well as in Paradise Valley, the entertainment district located to the immediate south, and Black Bottom, the residential community immediate south of “The Valley.” Both of those districts, however, don’t exist today. They were razed during the so-called “slum clearance” era of the late 1940s and ’50s.
Brush Park’s history includes:
■Mercy Hospital founded by Dr. David Northcross and located first at 248 Winder and 668 Winder. It holds the distinction of being the city’s first black hospital.
■The Most Worshipful Mt. Sinai Grand Lodge, a black masonic lodge, located at 312 Watson near Brush Street, operated during the 1930s and early 1940s. A marker is etched on the small Victorian-style home, which sits at the corner of Watson and Brush today. The King David Grand Lodge located at 114 Erskine was a popular social meeting place during that era and continues to operate today.
■In 1939, DeWitt T. Burton and Chester Ames, black doctors, founded Wayne Diagnostic Hospital (later called Burton Mercy Hospital). Located at 271 Eliot, the institution had nearly 100 beds and was one of the several black-owned hospitals on the lower east side of the city where most blacks lived.
■In 1941, Samuel H. Russell, a black man, was appointed the superintendent of the Alfred Street U.S. Post Office located at 60 Alfred between Woodward and Brush.
■That same year, Beulah Whitby, a University of Michigan-trained social worker, was tapped to lead the Alfred Street district of the Detroit Department of Public Welfare. Whitby was the city’s first black to serve as an administrative supervisor, according to Ulysses W. Boykin in his book “A Handbook of the Detroit Negro,” published in 1943.
■King Solomon’s Barber Shop on John R, owned by Richard Devan McCants, was a popular establishment during the 1940s and ‘50s.
■During the 1940s, the Michigan Chronicle operated in an office located at 208 Eliot.
Gentrification is a movement that we’ve seen before in Detroit, but the neighborhood in which Isaac lrvin lived is gone and forgotten by many.
And that’s a shame.
Ken Coleman is an author and historian who has chronicled black life in Detroit.