Charlie LeDuff: My Detroit Story Part Three, Black Like Me - KMSP-TV

Charlie LeDuff: My Detroit Story Part Three, Black Like Me


I returned to Michigan as a reporter after being away for nearly 20 years. When I was a boy, was taught almost nothing about the history of the African-American experience or the history of Detroit or even the history of my family for that matter.

Confronted by the hard realities of our time and our city, I went looking for my own story which is inextricably linked to the story of Detroit -- white, black and red. I was surprised by what I found.

In the spirit of Black History Month, this is third part of three essays, this time including a full video report of my journey through time.

Portions of these essays will appear in my upcoming book, “ DETROIT: An American Autopsy,” due out this fall. -- Charlie LeDuff.

Special thanks to Wayne State University for the use of photos obtained from the web site: Virtual Motor City   Click on the link to take a wonderful, visual journey back in time.   It;s a great resource for Detroit history buffs.  CLICK HERE

Thanks to the Charles H. Wright Museum for the use of archival video.  Go to

The web site was used to help Charlie climb his family tree.  Try it, click here .


DETROIT -- My grandparents touched one another for the first time some evening in 1951, drinking and dancing and romancing.

The exact date of their rendezvous is lost in time but it is quite certain they did not meet on a Monday night. Monday night was “colored” night at the Vanity Ballroom; the only night blacks were allowed in the joint.

And Roy LeDuff, my grandfather, was not black. Not anymore.

I had always been told that LeDuff was a Cajun name, with its roots in the swamps of Louisiana. But the truth is that LeDuff is a Creole name -- a culture of people with mixed blood, black and white. In the racial arithmetic of the America, that means black.

Imagine my surprise when, peeling through old government documents, I found the 1920 U.S. Census, in which my grandfather, Roy, is listed as an 8-year-old "M" -- mulatto.

I could hardly believe it. Here I was, a 44-year-old man wandering about in a city where just about every major narrative since the Civil War had been played out in black and white, only to find out what I'd been told about my grandfather’s past was false.

I was told there may have been some mixing of the races in a distant wing of my family, and every LeDuff I had ever met was the color of caramel. But the fact that Grandpa himself was born black and died a white man blew me away. Not only did my blood track to the woodlands of the Great Lakes and the Celtic shores of France, but the Gold Coast of Africa, too. The African Diaspora could be traced through my own family, and it was written on paper.

I sat in my basement smoking cigarettes and looking at an old patina photograph of my great-grandmother I’d been given by a distant relative, wondering how the story of Detroit had come to this point, with General Motors bankrupt and my brother pulling out his sore tooth with a pair of pliers in a rental attic near I-275.

The name LeDuff, as far as it goes in the United States, can be traced to an 18th-century “free man of color” from New Orleans named Jacques LeDuff, whose forbears had come from Brittany, on the coast of France, and on the slave galleons from Africa.

In fact, Jacques, a man perpetually in trouble with the bill collectors, himself owned a slave named Claude, who was taken away and sold to satisfy a $100 debt in the early 19th Century.

His son Honoré -- the product of Jacques' marriage to a free black woman, or "negresse libre," named Josephine Dupar -- was a veteran of the War of 1812, who lacking much of an inheritance from his deadbeat dad, moved his family from New Orleans to Pointe Coupée Parish, about 25 miles northeast of Baton Rouge, between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers.

There, his clan lived along the Mississippi River as farmers, coopers and carpenters and spoke what over a couple generations evolved into a Creole French dialect.

Honoré had many children, including Honoré Jr. who sired Donatien, an illiterate sharecropper who himself fathered six boys and a girl. Among them was Henry, my great-grandfather. According to the 1900 census, he was a 10-year-old farm laborer, unable to read or write. Fair-skinned, Henry was listed as “M” -- mulatto.

By 1910, Henry had married Inez Porche, a privileged Creole who could read and write both English and French. According to his 1917 draft registration, Henry was employed as a carpenter by Inez's family. It appears Henry, something of a hustler, may have shown up to his registration appointment in a cast, making him unfit for war service. In any event, he did not sign his own draft card. The man who signed his name for Henry listed him as “Negro.”

At this point, Henry disappeared, leaving his wife and two sons in a boarding house at 110 Plum Street in East Baton Rouge with no visible means of support. Inez and her boys -- Earle and Royal, my grandfather -- were documented in the 1920 census as mulatto.

Meanwhile, Henry resurfaced in Detroit, one of the millions of blacks who would make their way north to the industrial yards to earn a new life and escape the Jim Crow South. Henry accomplished this in a most curious way.

In 1920, he was a lodger in the household of Alfred Ingersol, a machinist at a motor factory. Henry's occupation was listed as "carpentry - auto factory." And he went to work for Henry Ford. Now living a new life, he began constructing a new history. He lied to the census clerk that his mother was born in Paris and spoke only French. I found a photo of his mother. She was actually a homely mulatto about 4 feet tall and three feet wide. He also told the clerk the unimaginable -- that he was a white man, and the clerk dutifully wrote it down. “W.”

The Motor City was booming then, thanks to men like Henry Ford and the Dodge brothers. In 1925, Detroit's factories employed more than 300,000 people. And thanks to Prohibition and the city's proximity to the liquor distilleries of Canada, another 50,000 were employed in the illicit sale of alcohol. There was money everywhere, and people arrived by the trainload to get theirs. From 1900 to 1930, Detroit's population exploded from 300,000 to 1.6 million. Men and women from all over the world. Men and women with histories they were free to erase and reconstruct. How many truths were buried in those years? In Detroit, who really knows their story? Growing up in the suburbs, they taught us nothing except that one hot day in 1967, the blacks went crazy and burned down the most beautiful city in America.

The adults never told us why.

Of those new people in Detroit, 120,000 were black. They were mostly poor Southerners, an epic shift in American demographics known as the Great Migration.

In the Detroit factories, blacks got the worst jobs: the foundries and grinding tables and paint shops. Because he was white, Henry was able to work as a carpenter.

In 1924, the LeDuff family reunited in Detroit. Inez and her sons left Baton Rouge by train traveling in the segregated “colored” cars.

Henry gave his wife a new house on Birwood Street on the city’s west side. He also gave her a new child, a case of syphilis and a frying pan in the face when she complained about it.

He gave her one more thing. A new identity. The 1930 census shows the family living at 14103 Birwood St. in a Dutch colonial that Henry built with his own hands. The census also shows that the copper-skinned LeDuff clan, a family who had for nearly two centuries been recorded in American government records as either mulatto, negro or black, had magically been scrubbed "W" -- white -- hiding the secret among the hordes of swarthy Italians and Greeks and Southern Europeans who had also descended upon Detroit.

Henry went by the name Frenchy. It may seem outrageous from today's perspective that a man should dislike his lot so much that he would lie about his blood. But not to me. Consider Frenchy's time. Detroit was little better than the South for a man with African ancestry. If Henry would have admitted he were black, then restrictive -- and legal -- real estate covenants would have banned him from owning property on Birwood or renting outside the squalid ghettos like Black Bottom or Paradise Valley.

The year great-grandma got off the train -- 1924 -- a Ku Klux Klan-endorsed candidate was elected the mayor of Detroit. Charles Bowles could not take office, however, because it was a write-in campaign and so many of his supporters had misspelled his name that about 17,000 ballots were disallowed. During that campaign there were mass marches of Klan supporters -- 40,000 strong in the city. They even burned crosses on the steps of city hall.

A few months later, a black man, Dr. Ossian Sweet, had the temerity to move into a white neighborhood on the city’s east side. A mob set upon his house and the doctor fired into the crowd, killing a white man. Sweet was defended by noted attorney Clarence Darrow and acquitted of murder by an all-white jury. Still, Dr. Sweet knew better than to press his luck. He left the house. The Sweet incident was the stuff of national headlines and my great-grandmother -- much darker than her husband and able to read a newspaper -- must have known about the white mobs and the burning crosses.

Great-grandma LeDuff was said to have had few friends. She threw no parties and rarely came out of her house. She knew she did not belong there.

Looking back, I can't blame Great-Grandpa Henry or Great-Grandma Inez for passing themselves off as some sort of ethnic whites. Henry couldn't have made his life otherwise. A drop of African blood was enough to condemn a man to eternal poverty.

So am I black? White? Mulatto? How much of anything am I? When I tried telling black people in Detroit my discovery, most would simply wave me off with a go-away-white-boy smirk. White folks laughed and called me Tyrone and asked if I was now ahead of them on the fire department hiring list.

In Detroit, I was reminded, old habits die hard.

Henry's son, my grandfather Royal, excelled at mathematics, was considered an excellent dancer and was something of a dandy, with his straightened hair, pencil mustache and taste for expensive clothing. Roy hated his father Henry, who was surly and an angry drinker, and when he told his own narrative, my grandfather always began it in 1933, the year, I imagine, that he was emancipated from his father's shadow and began working at the post office.

Henry died in 1951, the same year his son Roy met Betsy Steele at the Vanity Ballroom. Roy and Betsy were married a year later. Royal brought his two children from his previous marriage, including my father. Betsy gathered up her six from a previous marriage, including my mother.

Roy gave Betsy's children a sturdy home and a serenity they had never known up to then. They attended Catholic schools and ate with silverware and lap linens. My grandfather -- black and white -- and my grandmother -- Native American and white -- reinvented themselves, creating new myths to cover their pasts and their olive skin.

They both knew their true heritage. My grandfather left Jim Crowe Baton Rouge as a teenager, after all. My grandmother’s mother was as red as the sunset. Nevertheless, they became paragons of clean white middle-class living. This was the 1950s. "Leave It to Beaver" was the top-rated show on television, and they did their best to live up to its example: a dining room decorated with Priscilla curtains and crystal wine glasses.

Grandpa was known as The Duke on Woodward Avenue and left the post office to become the morning odds maker at the Detroit Race Course -- a Teamsters track. He was good pals with Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. My grandmother once showed me a photo of the two men holding picket signs in front of the track gates in the late 60’s.

Their children tried to live up to the white linen fancy, but it was a little too late. They were too old to forget the pain of their scattered childhoods. Some got caught up in pregnancy, some with the law, some with alcohol.

Two years after his birth mother, Betty Zink, died alone in an upstairs apartment on the west side of Detroit, my father Roy Jr. went off to the Navy. And when Betsy Steele's daughter Evangeline became of age, she jumped on a train at the old Michigan Central Depot and met her stepbrother in San Diego, where she became his wife.

She gave him a daughter, Nicole. Two months later, Roy Jr. shipped out as part of the first U.S. combat troops into Vietnam.

When he returned, I was conceived. Our family returned to Detroit in May 1967, just in time for the riots and the landing of the 82nd Airborne into the heart of the city to quell the violence.

It was a terribly muggy and uncomfortable evening when the fires started. My parents were living with my grandparents on the west side in the home built by the hands of my great-grandfather, Henry, the sharecropper's son.

The riots officially started in the early hours of Sunday, July 23, when white cops began knocking black heads at an after-hours party. People started smashing things, but the real rampaging and looting did not begin until Sunday proper. The news media went out of its way to avoid reporting about the "disturbance," but the west side, where we lived, was already starting to burn. Even Willie Horton, the Tigers left fielder and a black man who had grown up near the ball park, couldn't sooth the mob when he drove into the middle of it and stood on top of his car, still dressed in his uniform from that afternoon's game. The city would burn for five days.

My father was working that Sunday night at the old Wonder Bread factory, which has since been replaced by the Motor City Casino. My grandfather Roy, my grandmother Betsy and my mother Evangeline, holding me in her arms, stood on the front lawn around dusk. The blacks were slowly moving out of their ghettos and setting up lives in the traditionally white areas of the city. If that weren't bad enough, at least in my grandmother's mind, now the blacks were burning the place down.

"Pa," she said to my grandfather. "We've got to get out of this neighborhood."

To which my grandfather, a black man who never revealed the fact to any of his relations, replied: "How many can there be?"

The following day, Grandpa got a gun.

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