The Spirit of Rebirth
Detroit’s story is one of persistence and evolution. In the 1700s, it was a strategic outpost, bringing together Native American traders and European explorers. In 1805, its first settlement was destroyed by fire, only to be rebuilt stronger than before—its resurgence celebrated in the contemporary landmark, The Spirit of Detroit. Before the Civil War, Detroit served as a terminus on the Underground Railroad, until the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 transformed it into an international gateway to freedom. In the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Americans flocked to the region as part of the Great Migration, and to participate in its industrial expansion.
Detroit’s impact on American society and global history is underscored by its simultaneous identities as the Arsenal of Democracy, the birthplace of Motown, and the hub of the U.S. automobile industry. Throughout its complex history, the face of Detroit transformed repeatedly as a mosaic of immigrating ethnic groups and nationalities redefined its citizenry.
Today, Detroit presents a model of post-industrialization in the United States. In the footnotes of its sweeping narrative lie twentieth-century subplots of economic disparity, racial disharmony, and political dysfunction. Overcoming these currents and forging a new course forced its citizens to negotiate the competing interests of the city’s past to reimagine a bold future. In doing so, the region is once again crafting a new identity.
Detroit’s story reflects our own. Collectively and individually, we are constantly evolving, embracing new opportunities, and reacting to forces beyond our control. Navigating these contemporary challenges, while facing an unpredictable future, requires periodically re-thinking our direction. In doing so, we rely on the past for context, examples, and inspiration. The role of a public historian is especially critical during times of transition.
Meanwhile, we must anticipate changes within our profession. The shifting demographics of our audiences and our offices; the increasing pressure on our finances and partnering organizations; and questions about the relevance of our work in a nation beset by discordant political dialogue all require self-reflection. We need to review the assumptions that have served us to this point, question old processes, and ponder outdated interpretations.
In the spirit of Detroit, we gather to celebrate our achievements, but with the courage to build new models for the road ahead.
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