Some would agree that downtown Detroit is being rebranded to cater to younger white people. Others would disagree. But let us be real – stores like Lu Lu Lemon, Shinola, Warby Parker, Bonobos, and Madewell, among others, do not have black people flocking to shop with them.
Still, even with the “whiteout” that Detroit is going through, its black roots refuse to stay buried deep beneath the concrete sidewalks, black asphalt roads, and constant development over the last 200 years and some. Earlier this week, the new Shinola Hotel opened on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Grand River. The retail alley directly behind it was named “Parker’s Alley” after Thomas Parker, one of the first blacks to own land in the city in 1809, after the city of Detroit burned to the ground in 1805.
One block north is Club Bleu Detroit, a popular nightclub situated at 1540 Woodward. It was once land deeded to a man named Pompey, a black slave in Detroit as told by blogger Paul Sewick. A skilled sailor, Pompey was originally owned by a named you are sure to recognize, wealthy businessman Joseph Campau, who sold him in June of 1792 to prominent Judge James May for 38 pounds. October 19, 1794 May sold Pompey to merchant John Askin for 45 pounds, who sold Pompey to James Donaldson January 3, 1795 for 50 pounds.
Successful lawyer and merchant James A. Abbott Jr. then became the owner of Pompey. His father, James A. Abbott Sr., was a very wealthy fur trader and postmaster who died in 1800 and passed down his property and estate, including Pompey, to his children.
On the morning of June 11, 1805, a fire ravaged the small city of Detroit. The population of Detroit at the time was about six hundred and there was not an adequate fire department. No official cause was determined, but it was rumored that hot ashes from a pipe started the fire. To help rebuild Detroit, Judge Augustus Woodward was sent to plan a new city and every adult who lived within city limits during the fire was promised a lot in the new city regardless of socioeconomic status.
Pompey was one of those recipients, although he was a black slave. The deed was issued April 26, 1809 and conveyed the property to “Pompey Abbott” who lived in Detroit at the time of the fire. Pompey died in 1814, leaving his land up for grabs, having no heirs. Years later, Abbott would sell the land, claiming Pompey owed him money and that he was the rightful “guardian” and “administrator” of Pompey’s possessions.
Over the decades, the land at 1540 Woodward changed many hands and faces. In 1942, the Telenews Theatre opened at the site as a newsreel theater seating 465. It was designed by Cyril E. Schley, who was a partner of C. Howard Crane, who designed most of the major movie houses in Detroit’s Grand Circus Park. Built in the Streamline Morderne style, its original design still remains as the look of Bleu Detroit.
A few of the white men who owned Pompey and other slaves have streets and other landmarks named after them in Detroit, including Jos Campau, May Creek, Askin, and Abbott. Even the street Pompey’s land is situated in between, John R., is named after slave owner and Detroit’s first mayor John R. Williams. But Pompey’s name or memorial is nowhere to be found in the city.