WMU News

New book series details Michigan's ethnic makeup

Aug. 1, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- What ethnic group has the largest population in Michigan?

Ask someone in Holland and they might tell you it's the Dutch. In parts of the Upper Peninsula, the reply might be the Finns. But in the Upper Peninsula city of Calumet, the guess would probably be Croatians, while in Greektown the most likely answer is obvious.

However, according to a Western Michigan University professor and co-editor of "Discovering the Peoples of Michigan," a new series of books detailing Michigan's ethnic makeup, the correct answer can probably be found in Frankenmuth: German.

Dr. Arthur Helweg, a WMU professor of anthropology, says that more Michiganders claim German as their ethnic heritage than any other.

Helweg and Dr. Linwood H. Cousins, a former WMU faculty member now at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, are editing "Discovering the Peoples of Michigan," a multivolume series published by Michigan State University Press. Six volumes were released this summer, and Helweg says the series may ultimately contain about 30 volumes.

Among those first releases is an introductory text, "Ethnicity of Michigan," in which Helweg and co-author Jack Glazier of Oberlin College, provide an overview of the more than 130 ethnic groups comprising the state's population. Each of the remaining volumes in the series focuses on an individual ethnic group in Michigan and is written by a member of that ethnic group whenever possible. The texts published so far focus on African Americans, Albanians, Jews, French Canadians and the Amish.

Michigan State University Press developed the series after Helweg approached them with a large collection of essays on Michigan's ethnicity.

"We saw this as a way to put together a collection of small books that could be used in many different ways to educate people about and celebrate Michigan's ethnic diversity," says Fred Bohm, director of Michigan State University Press. "We are really thrilled with this series. Because of the work Art and his colleagues have done and our great relationship with them, we ended up with something far more wonderful than any of us would have imagined."

The books are concise ­ usually less than 100 pages -- and sell for just under $10 a piece.

"The idea was to do readable, affordable books about the ethnic history of Michigan that can be used by the education lay readers as well as students at the high school and college levels," Helweg explains. "We found that this was an area that no one else had really explored or talked about. I liked the idea that we could make a contribution no one else had."

In "Ethnicity in Michigan," Helweg and Glazier outline the migration processes that brought various ethnic groups to Michigan and how those groups influenced historical and social change within the state. The book, which was selected in May as one of the State of Michigan's 14 "Read Michigan" selections for 2001, also provides a reference guide on the state's different ethnic groups,

including information about when they arrived, their occupations and where within Michigan they settled. Oftentimes, these groups chose to stick together, settling in small enclaves.

For example, Romanians arrived in Michigan in the 1920s and 30s and concentrated in Detroit and Flint where they worked in the auto and construction industries and as professionals in education, medicine and engineering. Michigan now boasts the largest Romanian community outside Romania.

"The ethnic map of Detroit is like a patchwork quilt," Helweg says. "There's the Greek population in Greektown and the Hungarians who settled in Delray, as well as the Russians, Poles, Italians and African Americans who developed their own communities within the city.

"Maintaining individual and group ethnicity is one of the most powerful forces influencing human behavior today," he says. "People live, die, fight and vote according to their identity."

A variety of scholars have been engaged to write the volumes on individual ethnic groups. Cousins co-authored "African Americans in Michigan" with Dr. Benjamin C. Wilson, director of WMU's Africana Studies program, and Dr. Lewis Walker, WMU professor emeritus of sociology. Other contributors include John P. Dulong, president of the Detroit chapter of the French Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan; Judith Levin Cantor, former editor of the journal Michigan Jewish History; Dr. Frances Trix, professor of anthropology at Wayne State University; and Dr. Larry ten Harmsel, WMU professor of English. Volumes on ethnic groups, including Italians, Hungarians, Asian Indians, Poles, the Dutch and Greeks are planned for release in the next year.

"This was a monumental project," Helweg says. "Piecing together the history of Michigan's ethnic groups was very hard to do and we are really just beginning to understand the multicultural make-up of this state."

A Michigan native who grew up in Watervliet, Helweg admits even he has learned much about Michigan's ethnic history.

"I didn't realize Germans played such a dominant role in the development of Michigan and that the lumber industry was such a mix of people," he says. "I also learned about an Irish resort on Lake Michigan I had never known about and that many African Americans were recruited to come to

Michigan as strikebreakers, which didn't get them off on a good footing here. The more I get into it, the more fascinating Michigan's ethnic history becomes."

And while German ethnicity is the most prevalent in Michigan now, Helweg says that is certain to change and cautions that those within the state will have to change as well.

"In the last five years, the immigration of Asians, especially of Asian Indians, has been tremendous," Helweg says. "But unlike immigrants in the past, these individuals are better educated and affluent. They also are not settling in enclaves but choosing to live in suburbs and assimilate into mainstream American culture.

"Michigan may be the most ethnically diverse state in the United States, and it is now going through momentous and sudden ethnic change," he says. "Changes are taking place rapidly and every institution has to be flexible and sensitive to the various ethnic populations if social unrest is to be avoided. Yet, the need to understand ethnic dynamics and develop suitable institutions and practices to deal with the new situations is being ignored in our educational institutions, work places and policy formulations."

The "Discovering the Peoples of Michigan" series is available through Michigan State University Press and is also being sold by Barnes and Noble Booksellers.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

Office of University Relations
Western Michigan University
1903 W Michigan Ave
Kalamazoo MI 49008-5433 USA
616 387-8400