WMU News

Third book in Alexander Trilogy examines area social change

Dec. 23, 1997

KALAMAZOO -- Sixty years of social change are examined through the words of prominent Kalamazoo citizens in a new book that is the final volume of an oral history project begun by the area's first black surgeon.

Kalamazoo public school desegregation, the tribulations of recent immigrants trying to fit into Midwestern society and community controversies such as the VanAvery Drug Store incident are among the topics explored in "Social Changes in Western Michigan, 1930 to 1990." The book is a new publication by Western Michigan University's Department of History.

Edited by Dr. Henry V. Davis, a former faculty member at WMU, and Dr. Paul L. Maier, WMU professor of history, the book features interviews conducted by the late Dr. C. Allen Alexander, who spent his retirement years recording his own memoirs as well as interviews with area residents who could provide insight into the social and medical changes that occurred in Kalamazoo in this century. Published with the support of the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation of Kalamazoo, the two earlier volumes are "C. Allen Alexander, M.D. -- An Autobiography" and "Progress in the Practice of Medicine, 1930 to 1990."

"The latest volume is a treasure trove of information on the progress in social relations during the latter half of this century," says Maier, who also is director of the Alexander Oral History Project, which involved preparing more than 150 hours of taped interviews for publication. "Transcribing all the interviews and then editing the transcripts took an incredible amount of time, but it was certainly worth it."

Among area residents whose memories are recounted in the latest volume are: former Kalamazoo mayor Beverly Moore; Pauline Byrd Johnson, who was Kalamazoo's first black school teacher; community activists Duane Roberts and Arthur Washington; Charles Pratt, former judge of the Eighth District Court in Kalamazoo County; and Eugene Thompson, an attorney who orchestrated the desegregation of Kalamazoo schools in the 1970s.

Interviews with other prominent minority and immigrant residents cover business and civic activities, religious life and education in both the public schools and institutions of higher education. The history of Kalamazoo's black community is told through the words of people such as Dolly Brown Davis, who traces her roots in the community back to 1856. The experiences of those who came from Albania, Argentina, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Poland also are explored through the words of first- and second-generation immigrants.

According to Henry Davis, Alexander hoped these interviews would prove valuable for younger generations. He hoped to share with them experiences that they may never have to encounter.

"The turbulent '60s jump like a chained watchdog from the pages time and time again, snarling at Dr. Alexander's conscious as well as that of many of his interviewees," Davis observes in the book's forward. The issues in Kalamazoo's black community mirrored the nation, he notes.

Alexander, who died in 1995, lived just long enough to see his autobiography published as the first of the three books in the series. He arrived in Kalamazoo in 1931 after completing his medical education in Chicago. For the next 50 years, he practiced general medicine and surgery and became an active participant in the civic and cultural life of southwestern Michigan.

Upon his retirement in 1977, he embarked on an ambitious oral history project. His aim was to trace the vast changes he had witnessed in his lifetime, which exactly spanned the 20th century. He taped his own memoirs as well as interviews with colleagues in the medical profession and representatives of the various ethnic groups he had encountered in his practice.

As outlined by Alexander in his introduction to the latest volume, the time he spent in Kalamazoo was one of enormous change -- particularly in the employment and housing opportunities for minorities. When he arrived in the city, there were no blacks who were city employees, public school teachers, dentists, lawyers, nurses or business owners. By the time of his death, those professions had good minority representation and the housing market had opened up to minority residents. Just knowing such facts and how those changes occurred is important to all readers, he maintained.

"It is important to the young because they have no past to compare with the present," Alexander wrote. "It is important to the old because they may have forgotten parts of the past. It is important to whites because it helps them understand our history."

A complete set of taped interviews in the Alexander Oral History Project is available at the Kalamazoo Public Library and the Archives and Regional History Collections of WMU's Waldo Library. All three volumes of the Alexander trilogy are available in area bookstores for $24.95 each.

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