Hi I’m Bryce Huffman. It’s been a crazy month here at BridgeDetroit. From stories about election workers being harassed by protesters, to several attempts by the GOP to discount thousands of Detroit votes, we’ve been busy with the drama surrounding the election.
But now that the election news is slowing down, we wanted to take some time to honor three Black Detroiters who passed away recently: poet Naomi Long Madgett, activist and former Black Panther Wendell Lumumba Calloway and Judge Dalton Roberson Sr.
These people were all inspirational in their own way, so please take a few minutes and listen to people who were close to them reflect on and celebrate their lives.
This is Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett at a poetry reading in Grand Rapids in 2017. She’s reading from her book “Connected Islands”.
Long Madgett was born in Virginia in 1923, but moved to Detroit in 1946. By then she was already writing and publishing poetry. Over the next several decades she worked in Detroit Public Schools, taught at Eastern Michigan University, and published nearly a dozen books of her poetry.
Long Madgett liked writing about everyday life for Black people, civil rights issues, and God. She also started Lotus Press here in Detroit to give Black poets and writers a way to get their work out there.
jessica Care moore is a longtime Detroit poet. She spoke with BridgeDetroit about getting her start in the city’s poetry scene in the mid-1990s.
“I got to meet Naomi Long Madgett. She would be there for the Broadside Open Workshop, and I would go to it and she was amazing,” Moore said.
Moore says Long Madgett would always school her and other young poets.
“She pulled me to the side actually, I remember being in a workshop with her and she told me, ‘if you ever decide to publish a book, make sure that it competes with the other books in the store,” she said.
Moore was inspired by the way Long Madgett continued reading her work on stage even as she got into her mid and late 90s.
“I never knew her to stop reading poetry, she might like be sitting with her cane, but I never saw her not get up, stand up to read,” she said.
Moore says if she could speak to Long Madgett one last time, she’d ask to record a poetry album with her.
Long Madgett passed away earlier this month. She was 97 years old.
The next person we want to honor wasn’t a poet, but he did have an affinity for being on stage.
Wendell Lumumba Calloway was born in 1950 and was raised in Ecorse, downriver from Detroit. During his childhood he spent a lot of time singing and playing music.
Stan Childress, a childhood friend of Lumumba Calloway says the two were actually in a doo wop quartet in high school called The Four C’s. Unfortunately there are no recordings of their music, but Childress says his good friend was a naturally talented singer with a beautiful voice.
Childress says by the late 1960s though, Lumumba Calloway began getting more into politics and activism.
“At about age 19, he got involved with the Black Panther Party here in Detroit,” Childress said.
Lumumba Calloway began focusing all his time and energy towards making things better for the Black community. He later took to the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and joined the Nation of Islam. Around this time he got close with Darlene Calloway. She says he and other activists were always in the community teaching people about different social issues.
“I remember sitting there listening to him teach at my sister’s house, my eldest sister’s house, and then I’d go to my cousin’s house and he’d be teaching over there; anywhere I went he was always popping up. So that’s how I kind of knew him in the community, and then later on, like I say, we came together as family,” Calloway said.
They got married in 1972 and headed out west to California for 10 years. There Lumumba Calloway created the group Lima – the Learning Institute for Middle America. Calloway says the group had a big emphasis on getting Black people to eat healthy and exercise.
When they came back to Detroit in the 1980s, they had left the Nation of Islam, but Lumumba Calloway kept promoting the importance of health and education to his community. He continued that work for the rest of his life.
He passed away in his sleep last month at the age of 70. He died of natural causes but Calloway says she was surprised by his passing.
“What takes some of the sting out of it is that he enriched our lives so much. He didn’t leave us a weak family emotionally, spiritually. He left us very strong,” she said.
Last but not least, we want to honor former Detroit Judge Dalton Roberson Sr.
Roberson was born in rural Alabama in 1937, but moved up north to Detroit after he left the Air Force. Given his upbringing, he was never expected to finish middle school or high school. But Roberson eventually got his law degree from what was then called the Detroit College of Law.
Roberson wasn’t the first Black judge in Detroit, but some Black lawyers say he was one of the few who truly was committed to helping younger Black lawyers get their start.
He even got named Judge of the Year by the National Conference of Black Lawyers in 1992, according to The Detroit News.
But his kids remember him for more than just his career as a judge.
Dalton Roberson Jr. says he remembers his dad as a huge golf fanatic.
“He had these green golf pants that have white golf, they were parallel white check golf pads, that for some, some reason always come flooding back to mind, they were so somewhat emblematic of what his passion was,” Roberson Jr. said.
Portia Roberson took after her dad and went into law.
“I can remember at a very young age saying I wanted to be a lawyer and I didn’t even know what a lawyer was,” Roberson said.
Both of his kids gave some words that they thought captured what Roberson’s life was about. Words like classy, determined and perseverance came up. But Dalton Jr.’s wife might have found the best description: Exceptional.
“The reason she thought that that was an appropriate term is because, someone born in those conditions in 1937, to eventually get to the point that he had gotten to become a judge, you know, was not a very common or very regular occurrence. It took some real dedication and perseverance and commitment to whatever that goal was,” Roberson Jr. said.
Roberson died a week after Election Day, shortly after being diagnosed with COVID-19. He was 83 years old.
In a year where so many Detroiters have died, it’s important to take time to remember these people. Naomi Long Madgett, Wendell Lumumba Calloway and Dalton Roberson Sr. all worked hard to truly make life better for the Black and Brown people who came up after them. Rest in peace!
For BridgeDetroit, I’m Bryce Huffman.
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