Local historian, author explores University of Michigan's unique history in new book

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Author James Tobin has an eye for the obscure when it comes to University of Michigan history.

Tobin, a historian with deeps roots at  UM  — his parents met there, Tobin got his undergraduate and doctorate degrees there and both his daughters are now Michigan grads — has written more than 150 essays about unique parts of the university’s history. From how the university was founded to the elm trees that were planted on campus by a former professor, Andrew Dickson White, during the Civil War, Tobin has written about nearly evolution of the university's history.

Now, Tobin, a former Detroit News reporter who is a journalism professor at Miami University in Ohio, has compiled many of those essays into a new book, “Sing to the Colors: A Writer Explores Two Centuries at the University of Michigan” (University of Michigan Press). The book hits shelves Tuesday.

A fascinating look at sometimes overlooked parts of the university’s history, it delves into a range of topics: the Negro-Caucasian Club that started in the 1920s, the 1970 Black Action Movement strike, Earth Day, even a fight by a student and professor against building Michigan Stadium in the mid 1920s. They worried the obsession with football was to the university’s intellectual detriment.

“I learn so much myself,” said Tobin, who had to narrow his essays down to 23 for the book. “I just get fascinated about it.”

“Sing” also is an unflinching look at uncomfortable parts of the university’s history at times. In an essay about when women were finally allowed to attend the university in the early 1870s, Tobin includes portions of a letter from University of Michigan’s first president, Henry Philip Tappan, who was very against “co-education” with men and women in the 1860s.

Tappan said if women were allowed to learn alongside men, men would be “demasculated.”

“When we attempt to disturb God’s order we produce monstrosities,” Tappan wrote to a friend according to “Sing to the Colors.” Women were soon admitted under Tappan’s successor.

Culling much of his research from UM’s Bentley Historical Library, Tobin — who wrote many of the book’s essays first for a website created in honor of the university’s bicentennial called Heritage Today along with Michigan Today, an alumni magazine — said one idea for a story often leads to another.

“You hear a little something and you think, ‘That’s a story,’” said Tobin. “I teach narrative nonfiction at Miami. So I sit around all day helping students. In a way, most of these stories were an experiment for me. How can I take this obscure subject – and you might say UM history in general — and tell it as a real narrative and see if you can get invested and interested?”

One of those obscure topics is how the university’s original location was picked. When a selection committee of the university’s first Board of Regents met in the 1830s to decide where the university would be located, it had two properties in mind: One was a farm parcel that lay just east of the village along State Street; the second plot was on the heights overlooking the Huron River.

Originally, the selection committee recommended establishing the university on the site overlooking the Huron. But as Tobin writes, for some unknown reason, the regents then decided to select the other property. One regent was an owner of the Ann Arbor Land Company and stood to benefit from the university’s location. 

Putting the book together as the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Tobin, who also lives in Ann Arbor, said it felt even more important to share these stories. He said history is more than what we see on the surface.

“History is everything that’s underneath it,” he said. “It informs our life in ways every day.”

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

'Sing to the Colors'

A book of essays about University of Michigan history by James Tobin

University of Michigan Press

$24.95

Go to https://www.press.umich.edu/11721765/sing_to_the_colors