By JONATHAN TILOVE
Feburary 21, 2006
c.2006 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Historian Anna-Lisa Cox is a scholar-in-residence at the Newberry Library in Chicago and the author of a new book, “A Stronger Kinship: One Town’s Extraordinary Story of Hope and Faith.” It tells the story of Covert, a township in southwestern Michigan that beginning in the 1860s produced a racially integrated community where, in defiance of the laws and conventions of the day, blacks and whites lived as equal citizens.
Q: To create an integrated community, Covert had to defy its times.
A: The Midwest had very harsh Black Codes, which made it very, very difficult for blacks to settle in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. In the state of Michigan in 1820, if you were a free black migrating from someplace like South Carolina or Virginia and wanted to settle on the American frontier _ which was your right _ you would have to bring documented proof you were free to the local justice of the peace and give them a bond of $500, at that time an enormous sum of money.
Q: Were you surprised by the depth of anti-black sentiment on the Midwestern frontier?
A: What surprised me was that by the 1850s, most all of the indigenous people had been forcibly driven out, so this was largely an unpeopled land. And yet you would have these white settlers on the frontier absolutely unwilling to compromise on the notion that they should not have black neighbors.
Whenever a state brought up the idea that maybe they get rid of the Black Codes or allow black suffrage … these white frontiersmen and women, who may never have seen a black person before _ and that may have been part of the problem _ would vote against allowing any civil rights.
Q: What made Covert possible?
A: While what happened in Covert initially began with some strongly held beliefs and some very strong and big decisions by both the African-Americans and whites in the township, after the first big push this culture of equality really kept going through small, daily decisions that people made.
Particularly in the post-1960 civil rights era, there’s a sense that the only reason things change is if you bring in the federal government or if a major federal law is enacted. What happened in Covert was more a groundswell thing, more of a lot of personal decisions.
It wasn’t a group of paternalistic whites patting African-American persons on the head and saying, “we’ll let you do this.” The African-American community was constantly pushing the boundaries.
Even after they created this unusual culture by running for and winning office and integrating the schools, they took a further step. They not only wanted to be integrated, they also wanted to be celebrated, they wanted their unique heritage to be recognized.
Q: The black community in Covert did not simply amalgamate with the white majority and disappear.
A: That actually was the thing that intrigued me the most about Covert. As an academic, I always had the theoretical question running around in my head: If you have a minority group that is almost completely integrated into a community and equal across economic, religious, educational, political and social realms, can they still retain a unique identity?
What moved me was watching the African-Americans in Covert struggling with that very problem and coming up with answers, and seeing them in the late 1870s creating an all-black Masonic lodge, and starting the Emancipation Festival, which was remembered as one of the major holidays that the entire town shut down for.
Q: You write, “Our puzzlement over Covert reveals a hidden assumption that racism is the norm.”
A: When people say, “Why did Covert happen?” I ask, in a very serious way, “Why not?” It is a very sad question to ask, of course.
What many people feel after reading the book is a sense of hope and being inspired. After living with it all these years, one of the things I feel is a very, very deep sense of sorrow for the very fact that this was a possibility but so many people chose a different path, and it was a choice, it was absolutely a choice. That makes in some ways, the story of Covert very bittersweet.
Q: Why the name, Covert?
A: Originally it was called Deerfield, but there were so many Deerfields that they were asked to change their name. By the time they changed the name in 1876, Covert was a very established integrated community that in 1875 had elected the state of Michigan’s first black justice of the peace. There are myriad stories about why it was renamed Covert. There are some beautiful passages in the Old Testament, “I shall be a covert from the storm for my people” _ the idea of “covert” being a safe hiding place from the tempest.
Q: Was Covert covert?
A: Starting in the 1870s, Covert was not particularly secretive about what it did. It would advertise its Emancipation festival in the South Haven paper, and its integrated Grand Army of the Republic Union veteran’s organization would travel down to the encampments in Indiana and Ohio. I think they did very little to hide what they were doing. I think they were very proud of what they were doing.
Q: You credit your parents with influencing your ideas about race and integration. How?
A: My mother was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago in the late ’60s and early ’70s and both of my parents are deeply rooted in that movement and made us constantly aware of some of the more subtle examples of racism. And they also always made sure that we attended an integrated church growing up, which wasn’t always easy in Michigan.
Q: What denomination?
A: It didn’t really matter as long as they felt the church had its heart in the right place, so I think they switched denominations three or four times in their adult life. It was always whether they were going to find a diverse community there.
Q: What is your take on Black History Month?
A: At first I was really worried about my book being released during Black History Month because I’m a firm believer that African-American history is American history and there is something a little big segregated about having this month that is just set apart as if it’s not generally a part of American history.
But, you know, it would be one thing if we still had emancipation festivals as a way of celebrating this unique group with their unique heritage. Then, I think, we wouldn’t need Black History Month. But we don’t live in a perfect world and in some odd ways we have slid backwards.