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All-America City

Conflict in Albion reached its apex during the summer of 1957. A small group of 20 black men began to create trouble in a predominantly black area. They were later turned in for their actions by the black community in Albion. There were significant problems enforcing the discipline code at Albion High School as well. Albion historian Frank Passic recounts how:

As a student during the late 1960’s, this author [Frank Passic] vividly remembers numerous times when the high school was closed, and police or other enforcement authorities patrolled the sidewalks and buildings  bomb scares became increasingly frequent, and students were sent home as the school and lockers were searched.

The strained conditions in the community are likely what inspired community leaders to enter Albion into the All-America City competition in 1973. Victor Burnstein was the Mayor at the time. He was also the son-in-law of Norman Weiner who proved to be such a formidable force in Albion before.

The application required communities to provide three programs to show how they confronted and overcame their challenges.

The Melting Pot was one of the programs chosen to represent Albion in the All America City competition, and one of the best examples of a program to overcome racial tension and discrimination in Albion. Barbara Gladney, wife of Albion police sergeant Tom Gladney, and Sandy and Paul Pimentel founded the Melting Pot, in 1969. According to the AAC application, “In 1969 racial tension in Albion was definitely existent and was probably a factor in most decision made relative to community activities.” The Melting Pot leaders believed that some kind of organization needed to serve as a vehicle to encourage social interaction between whites, blacks, and Mexican-Americans in Albion. These first four citizens enlisted the help of six other couples in the cause, and then held parties throughout the community to gain support for an organization to bring people together. The result of this activity was the Melting Pot, an organization that planned four major social events each year, brought people of different races together. By October 1970, 40 couples formed the nucleus of this organization. They planned the social events, developed a constitution, and elected officers. Two year later, 95 couples were members, and attendance at social affairs reached 300 people, with most events usually sold out.

Another program, “Earn, Learn, and Play” was started by Elkin Isaac, then the Athletic Director at Albion College. Three hundred and fifty young people between the ages of ten and fifteen were given six weeks of summer activities which combine a work ethic, education, and recreation. Richard M. Nixon, when learning of the program, congratulated Mr. Isaac for his efforts in person. After being launched in 1968, the program received a Michigan Community Pride Award in 1969. The program continued to be citizen-run and was financed almost entirely through donations from local organizations.

One last program that was highlighted was a program led by a school bus driver, Truman Barnes, to improve the local environment. He along with others started the Albion Beautification Committee in 1965. They proceeded to clear several acres along river banks. On Earth Day in 1970, five-hundred people cleared brush and removed tons fo refuse from the water. Walter Cronkite and Hughes Rudd covered this citizen-led effort on national television. A spin-off group was formed called Youth for Ecology, that established a Recycle Center serving the whole community. Over three-hundred tons of paper and glass were collected and recycled, and the profits direct to a special city fund for mill pond dredging.

Albion’s application was selected from over 400 other cities as a finalist in the AAC competition. A delegation from Albion was then invited to make a presentation in November 1973 to a panel of judges in Dallas, Texas. The presentation began with a description of Albion.

Maps will tell you the City of Albion is located in Southern Michigan, midway between Detroit and Benton Harbor. A census report will tell you we have a population of 12,000. Our local Chamber of Commerce will say Albion has an excellent industrial base, including Corning Class, Hayes-Albion, Union Steel, McGraw Edison, and Marchand Toys. Educators will tell you Albion is the home of two fine institutions, Starr Commonwealth for Boys and Albion College. On the other hand, Albion is often described by its detractors as simply a small town with big city problems.

The last line perhaps has been the most powerful and enduring, with people repeating the phrase to this day. At the time, blacks and Hispanics comprised 25 percent of Albion’s population, and unemployment was seven percent. Albion faced the problems of an antiquated housing stock and a booming population. This created an explosive mixture. The AAC presentation recognized this. The racial riots which spread across the country in 1967, affected Albion, too. Many felt the city was unable to improve the conditions responsible for the racial problems, and for other problems facing Albion. A lack of faith in Albion’s future was further compounded by the local government’s inability to finance problem-solving programs. Here the presentation broke from the negative tone, and began describing the change that happened. A significant change took place in Albion during the late 1960’s, a change that continues today. Although there was constructive citizen action before this time, truly massive human involvement has become a reality in only the past few years. This referred to the Melting Pot, Earn Learn and Play, and the Albion Beautification committee, that were included in the All America City application. Other programs included creation of the Albion Historical Society, founding Johnson Day Care from private support, and founding of the Albion Community Foundation to improve the quality of life in Albion. The conclusion of the All America City presentation was perhaps most powerful.

Today Albion faces the future with a new innovative awareness of our fellow man through social interaction, and a hard-hitting practical approach to seemingly insurmountable problems. But the community has fought and defeated the strongest opposition of all – apathy. We are organizing today to meet our problems of the future.

In a letter dated March 13, 1974, City Manager Godby was confidentially informed that Albion was named an All-America City. “The National Municipal League salutes the citizens of Albion whose effective action has won this award, and sincerely hope they will view this honor as a further incentive to play a positive role in the affairs of their community.” While he was told to keep this news confidential, the first thing he did was call leaders of the programs that helped Albion with the All-America City designation, and had them gather that day at City Hall where he shared the good news with them. It would be nearly a month before press releases were sent out, and the news of the victory could be made public though. Once this announcement was made, congratulatory letters began pouring into City Hall. Among these, was one from Thomas C. MacAvoy, the President of Corning Glass Works. MacAvoy commented, “I think it is particularly noteworthy that Albion has been able to pull its citizens together in a wide variety of constructive programs, and that Albion has been particularly successful in the improvement of social relationship between the races, and a steady improvement in the quality of life.” He then expressed how proud he was to have Corning Glass Works located in Albion.

An All-America City Ball was held at the Albion Armory on May 11, 1974. A few days later the entire community came out to celebrate winning the award on May 15, 1974.

In the extensive press coverage of the event, a unique mention was made in the Battle Creek Enquirer and News on April 10, 1974. The article summarized the accomplishments which helped Albion to win the award. Then it claimed, “they signify the classic blend of citizens and government in facing problems through direct action, rather than by just talking about them.” The article then concluded, “Like many Michigan cities, Albion has worked to preserve the buildings and lore of its historic past. In naming it All-America City, though, judges must have been aware that Albion’s greatest goal is to become a city geared to meet the challenges of the 1970’s.”

Efforts to preserve Albion’s history, and to “meet the challenges of the 1970’s” would be tested just a few months after winning the All-America City Award when Corning Glass Works closed after 25 years of operations. One-thousand jobs were lost overnight, setting into motion a process of economic change and population flight that extends to present day.

Go to Deindustrialization

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