What Lies Beneath: Stories of the Detroit River Emerge Through Schooner Voyages, Boat Building

Source: Michigan News

The schooner Inland Seas takes Detroit and other students on a sail along the Detroit River. Students, with the help of staff and volunteers, conduct scientific tests and learn about local history. Credit: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.

Helping to hoist the sail on the tall ship Inland Seas was a unique experience for Leya Phinisee, a sixth-grader from Flint. She and her father, Jason, participated in one of three field trips aboard the 77-foot Detroit River schooner that the University of Michigan is sponsoring for local nonprofit groups this summer.

“I learned about plankton in the water and I learned about climate change,” she said. “I went on a sailboat today, and it was super cool.”

Flint resident and Detroit River Story Lab participant Leya near the Detroit River after sailing on the Inland Seas schooner. Credit: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography.

Sailing trips, organized as part of a new Skiff and Schooner program piloted by UM’s Detroit River Story Lab, included learning stations devoted to the physics of ship construction and buoyancy, at river ecology, the carbon cycle and the role of the river in history. of the Underground Railroad. The lab has partnered with several community groups, including Communities First in Flint and Healthy Kidz in Detroit for the trips.

Staff of the The Inland Seas Education Association, based in Traverse City, taught the science lessons, while UM faculty and local community experts provided the historical content. Between hoisting plankton nets and testing the acidity of water samples, participants learned how to weigh anchor, steer the ship and exchange horns with passing cargo ships.

A second river-themed mini-course, held in partnership with the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Belle Isle, taught students how to build 12-foot wooden skiffs similar to those historically used on the river and in the Great Lakes. Lakes for fishing and transportation. The week-long workshop allowed local high school students to develop problem solving, teamwork and skills while immersing themselves in the environmental and cultural heritage of the Detroit River.

Detroit River Story Lab participants test the rowboats they build on the Detroit River from Belle Isle. Credit: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.

“The very first day when we first built the boat, it seemed so easy. But the measurements and cuts had to be perfect,” said Strawberry Burrell, 17, of Detroit. “It’s not that difficult to build a boat. … It’s just something you have to learn.

Bruce Ross

Bruce Ross, deputy director of the Green Door Initiative in Detroit and a former Department of Natural Resources employee who helped organize the workshop, said the boat-building exercise is brand new to the students, many of whom don’t have ever been on a boat.

“But the other key part of that as well is that they find out about the Detroit River,” Ross said. I think the key point with this is working with the University of Michigan and I’m all about relentless collaborative action to help these kids and improve their quality of life. By doing all this work that children do, I think it really helps to improve their quality of life, but also exposes them to new opportunities.

The Detroit River Story Lab began in fall 2020 with grant-funded partnerships and several multidisciplinary courses dedicated to amplifying the long and deep store of enduring stories, past and present, of the international waterway.

As expected by David Porter, a professor of English and comparative literature, the multi-year project spans both sides of the river and works with organizations including the Detroit Historical Society, the Detroit River Project, Planet Detroit and the State Department of Natural Resources, on projects that reconnect communities with the river and its stories.

David Porter

In addition to Porter, the Story Lab is led by faculty members representing several UM schools and colleges:

  • Maria Arquero de Alarcon, Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban and Regional Planning, Taubman College
  • Angela Dillard, Chair, Department of History and Richard A. Meisler Collegiate Professor of African American and African Studies, History, and at the Residential College
  • Melissa Duhaime, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, College of Letters, Science and the Arts
  • Rebecca Hardin, Associate Professor of Natural Resources and Director of the Michigan Sustainability Cases Initiative, School of Environment and Sustainability
  • Kristine Hass, associate professor of American culture and director of the Humanities Collaboratory, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
  • Chauncey Monte Sano, Professor of History and Social Science Education, School of Education

“More tangible, more real”

The Detroit River is saturated with stories. Designated a Heritage River by the US and Canadian governments, the river and its wetlands were once a vital habitat for fish and wildlife hunted by the Three Fires people and immortalized in their legends.

Over the past four centuries, the area has attracted fur traders seeking beaver, missionaries seeking passage to China, and slaves seeking passage to freedom. It has served as a battleground for empires, a theater of anti-colonialist revolts, a highway for commerce, and a sewer for the industries that have sustained our state’s economic fortunes. Its presence explains Detroit’s deep historical associations with the Underground Railroad, the automobile industry, Roosevelt’s arsenal of democracy, the Great Migration and the Clean Water Act, as well as the University of Michigan, which was established in the early 19th century a few blocks from its north shore.

Iconic sites along the city’s river, from Windmill Point to Fort Wayne, incorporate microcosms of these historic contexts that help shape the identity of adjacent communities to this day.

“The project aims to develop creative ways to leverage the resources of the university community to help research and amplify the stories of the Detroit River, and to render the rich history and current challenges facing the river and neighboring communities are more present, more palpable, more real,” Porter said. “For a long time, the importance of the river for the history and identity of our region has been ignored.

Kimberly Simmons.

He said the idea to create the UM project was inspired by the ongoing work of several local organizations. One caught his eye when he came across a story about Kimberly Simmons. She is executive director and president of the Detroit River Project, a public history nonprofit and local activist, historian, and Underground Railroad scion who became an early collaborator on the project.

“One of the most eye-catching goals of the Detroit River project is to gain UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for the river because of its role in the Underground Railroad,” Porter said. “As a vision, I find it incredibly compelling as a way to make the river’s story more accessible and meaningful to more people.”

Simmons shared some of her family history with students who went on one of the Inland Seas outings last summer. She contributed to the 2016 book “A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland.”

In partnership with the Story Lab, Michigan Engaging Community through the Classroom at Taubman College coordinated several courses focused on the history of the Detroit River. The MECC brings together UM students from different disciplines to work on community-based, stakeholder-driven projects.

Support for ongoing community projects

The Story Lab team has received several grants over the past year to help support the efforts of various organizations invested in the future of the 28 Mile River and its adjacent communities. Their long-term goal is to build a lasting bridge between UM’s research and teaching projects and these mission-driven organizations.

“The lab has a community-first orientation,” Porter said. “The idea is to serve as a shared resource center for faculty and students across the university who are drawn to history-amplifying efforts along the Detroit River and inspired to co-develop new models for research, teaching and public engagement activities. in this space.

As an example of its collaborative approach, the laboratory has partnered with regional scholars from the Detroit River Project and the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, curriculum development experts at the UM School of Education, and local teachers to develop an experiential curriculum about the history and lasting effects of role of the Detroit River in the Underground Railroad for middle and high school students in Michigan and Ontario.

It was flown as a 3.5-week unit via UM’s Wolverine Pathways in July; the development team plans to field test the program in middle schools in Detroit and Windsor next year.

Story Lab graduate student researchers have also worked with the Detroit River Project to advance the group’s longstanding efforts to gain UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for the Detroit River. The team helped prepare an overview of site designation protocols, an interactive digital map of 100 waterfront public heritage sites – many related to the Underground Railroad – and a resource guide to the regional history of the railroad. of Underground Iron, focusing on stories of freedom struggles in the Detroit River frontier.

Another kind of storytelling partnership, this one between the Story Lab and community journalism association BridgeDetroit, took shape through a series of conversations with editor Catherine Kelly. These resulted in a grant-sponsored appointment of a Ph.D. from UM. studying Surabhi Balachander as a summer intern with the magazine to research and produce long-form river-related media articles on topics related to social equity and environmental justice.

Strawberry Burrell

For Strawberry Burrell, a high school student from Detroit and a participant in one of the tall ship outings and the boat building workshop, the Story Lab efforts gave her the opportunity to learn more about her hometown. in a way she had never known before.

“I didn’t really think Detroit was that special at all. I really thought it was just an ordinary place, nothing special, no history for real,” she said. “But there’s a lot of history in Detroit. They need it in the community. More children need to be part of it.

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