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Forgotten heritage

MLK Day talk highlights African-American settlers in U.P.

January 18, 2011
By CLAIRE ABENT Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE - For a brief time, the nearly forgotten Upper Peninsula town of Elmwood was home to a handful of African-Americans pursuing a dream.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, author Valerie Bradley-Holliday brought the memory of the 1920s African-American homestead and logging camp back to life. In a presentation Monday at the Peter White Public Library, Bradley-Holliday unearthed the history of Elmwood, once located near modern-day Iron River in Iron County.

The town was home to about 35 African-Americans from 1926-1930. Elmwood was settled with the promise that in exchange for harvesting wood pulp, the people would receive their own land.

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Unfortunately, Bradley-Holliday said, that wasn't the way it worked out.

Lumber companies took off with the wood and provided no wages. Local law enforcement systematically ran off the people living there. Many were arrested and put in jail for Prohibition violations but officials offered to drop charges in exchange for one-way tickets home.

And that wasn't the end of the discrimination residents of Elmwood faced, Bradley-Holliday said. Elmwood settlers had their horses shot and local newspaper wrote slanted articles about how the settlement was surviving.

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"They were just trying to make a living like everybody else and it was a tough time to make a living," she said.

Eventually, all the homesteaders were run out of town and the local game warden burned down all the homes and buildings, Bradley-Holliday said.

Elmwood, she said, is an example of one group of people using the law to oppress another a group of people who aren't wanted. The town's story may even hold lessons still relevant today.

"I think Elmwood allows us to see that new Jim Crow System by looking at the old Jim Crow system," she said.

Bradley-Holliday stumbled across the story of Elmwood while she was researching for other projects. She read three sentences describing Elmwood that were shown to her by Sue Sandy at the Peter White Public Library.

"It just mushroomed from there, my interest in that," she said.

She has since written a book of historical fiction about Elmwood, fleshing out with her imagination many of the unknown details about the everyday lives of the people who lived there. During her presentation, she used photographs of Elmwood artifacts that she found in the Michigan Tech archives. Those artifacts were discovered during road construction near Iron River.

Bradley-Holliday is also the author of "Northern Roots: African Descended Pioneers in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan."

Claire Abent can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her e-mail address is cabent@miningjournal. net.



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