Berman: Library lifts the lid on Coleman Young papers

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Almost two decades after his death, Coleman Young remains an object of fascination in Detroit: Reviled by some. Beloved by others.

"It's a measure of the impact he had that so many years later, people not only remember him, but are still arguing about him," says Bob Berg, who served as Young's press secretary and remains an admirer of Young's.

Photos of a youthful, vibrant Young in the collection vividly summon memories of his humor, intelligence and charisma

An array of new evidence that might be used pro or con in this lasting debate is now being unveiled at the Detroit Public Library. Stored on solid oak shelves in 328 archival boxes, Young's mayoral papers await the perusal of academic scholars — or anyone with a keen interest in Young's four terms.

Even you or I, provided we use sanitizing wipes and wait patiently for a Burton Historical Collection librarian to bring the items, one manila folder at a time.

It's taken the library almost a decade to find the necessary funding to index the thousands of papers, now neatly arrayed in folders. In contrast, the mayoral papers of Dennis Archer's eight years in office have been available for years — a function of generous self-financing by the former Detroit mayor and State Supreme Court justice.

With the help of the Detroit Public Library Friends Foundation, the library won an $87,500 grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation that enabled it to rescue the papers from an off-site warehouse where they had been stored before 2008. Although the warehouse boxes were a little limp ("It's like storing boxes in your basement," says Mark Bowden, DPL special collections coordinator), the papers remained pristine.

The paper processing of 19 of his 20 years in office was slow and old-fashioned, as two graduate student interns worked 20 hours a week for years, cataloging the papers and creating an index that's available online and at the Burton Historical Collection. They also created a blog, documenting some offbeat items, from the former official who became a noted bandit to the donation of a Siberian tiger. See:

Mark Bowden, the Detroit Public Library’s coordinator of special collections, said Young’s papers remained pristine even though the boxes they had been stored in were a little limp.

Young's boxes include reams of official reports, financial records, memos from department heads and other bureaucratic shuffling, along with evidence of Young's vision: One of the cornerstones of his first 1973 campaign was a promise to make the Detroit Police Department racially representative of the city.

They include official and candid photos of Young with national and local luminaries, from Stevie Wonder to Sonny Eliot to Gloria Steinem. It's the photographs of a youthful, vibrant Young that vividly summon memories of his humor, intelligence and charisma.

This year, the Burton Historical Collection is celebrating its 100th anniversary and the library's sesquicentennial with a special Young retrospective on May 21 at 5 p.m. Channel 7's Chuck Stokes will moderate a panel that includes Berg, Archer, the historian and writer Kevin Boyle, former mayoral official Shahida Mausi and journalist Bill McGraw, who compiled the little red book, "Quotations of Coleman A. Young."

The archives may prove invaluable to these and other historians and Young followers. If they have not yet resolved the dispute about Young's legacy, my bet is that they burnish his record.

Note to Young detractors: No gold coins were found. Note to admirers: Among the letters was one from Lori Ennis of Livonia who praised the mayor in poetry from a 10-year-old's perspective: "There are mayors, mayors all over the state," and concluding that one day she'd like to be a mayor "here, as nice and kind and dear."

The papers of Coleman Young, third from right, fill 328 archival boxes in the Burton Historical Collection.