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Week of June 6, 2011

Semester in Detroit students’ 
research supports historical play

In April 1966 students from Detroit’s Northern High School walked out of class over issues of disrespect, lack of educational resources and race, in an action that divided the community.

But today the incident is bringing together history students — trained in research through U-M Semester in Detroit — with high school students who perform with Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit.

Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit performers present the world premiere of the play “Northern Lights 1966” at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Photo by Ian Tadashi Moore.

The play that resulted from their collaboration, “Northern Lights 1966,” was performed by the Mosaic troupe over two weekends in May at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It also was the focus of a May 19 report on the national morning radio program “The Takeaway.”

“The play generated the most passionate word of mouth, blogs and emails. Young people need to see this to understand that they can stand up can have a role in changing things for the better,” says Rick Sperling, Mosaic Youth Theatre founder. “We’re exploring with groups maybe a video version that can live on.”

Sperling praised the dedication to historical research and overall participation of the U-M students. “The depth of the experience for our young people and for the audience exponentially increased because of Semester in Detroit,” he says.

The U-M program allows undergraduates to live in Detroit for a semester, taking regular courses taught at the Detroit Center by U-M professors and doing an internship, for credit, with community organizations in the city.

Diana Flora, a dual degree master’s student in urban planning and public policy, helped research the Northern incident with Semester in Detroit. “It was a fantastic experience to be able to engage with history and to see our research materialize on the stage. The story of these students’ determination is an inspiring one, not only for the young people of their generation but also for young people today,” she says.

The roots of U-M’s association with Mosaic Theatre go back to 2001. That’s when the university collaborated with the theatre group to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Detroit.

“We learned how to do oral histories, capture stories and how to work with high school kids to produce a meaningful play,” says Charles Bright, director of the Residential College (RC), and faculty director of the Semester in Detroit program run by RC. He also led the collaboration in 2001.

As the Semester in Detroit program started in 2009, Bright happened to get a call from the Mosaic’s Sperling, saying he a great idea for a new play that would benefit from U-M students’ ability to perform research.

Spinning a tale down I-75

Leaving a conference in Mackinaw City, Sperling was settling in for a five-hour car ride home with Oakland University Professor Emeritus Karl Gregory, when Gregory began telling the story of the 1966 Northern High walkout. A Wayne State University economics professor in 1966, Gregory had a role in the real-life event, as he served as principal of the “freedom school” that striking students and their supporters established in a church near Northern High School during the walkout.

“We’re always looking for stories about young people, that’s the purpose of our plays. By the time I got out of the car I knew had to do this play,” Sperling says.

Stephen Ward, associate professor of Afroamerican and African studies and associate professor in the RC, who is a historian of the period and knew about the story, decided to use the incident to instruct students in his inaugural 2009 Semester in Detroit history class. To provide source material for the play, students researched materials including telegrams, letters, newspaper clippings and school board meeting records, available in the Walter Reuther Library in the Archives of Urban and Labor Affairs at Wayne State University. The research project was aided by a project grant from U-M’s Arts of Citizenship program.

“What happened is the students walked out over quality education, over having a voice, over students being disrespected. One of the main grievances was they wanted to get rid of the principal,” Ward says.

The spark that ignited the walkout was a column written for the school newspaper. The writer derided the poor quality of education, the lack of advanced placement courses at Northern compared to those available in Detroit schools with predominantly white students, a lack of books, and physical harassment, among other grievances. Soon, the students presented the Board of Education with demands for change.

U-M Semester in Detroit students’ research was essential to the creation of the play “Northern Lights 1966,” performed by Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit. Photo by Ian Tadashi Moore.

Ward says the research showed that much of the community supported the school board over the students. This was revealed in letters and telegrams to the board. “Many of them were derisive of the students, saying they were just trying to play hooky, that they should stay in class and that a walkout was not the proper way to state their grievances. There were a lot of expressions of support for the principal, and that the school board should not give in to the students,” Ward says. Meanwhile, 23 Northern teachers showed support by signing a telegram backing the students’ actions.

Ward says that after two weeks, many student demands were met including the removal of the principal.

Preparing the play

Most of the research for the play was completed by Ward’s history class in Winter 2009 and the material they assembled was turned over to the playwright — Michael Dinwidde, a Detroit native and associate professor of individualized study at New York University. With a draft script in hand, Sperling began refining the text and collecting stories from participants in Fall 2010.

During Winter 2011, students in the required core course for Semester in Detroit were assigned topics to research that would flesh out the historical context of the play for the young people in the Mosaic cast. The university students developed a study guide and ran workshops “to give them a deep understanding of the materials in their play,” Ward says. 

The current spring class of 12 Semester in Detroit students plus alumni and faculty attended the May 20 play performance at the DIA, says Craig Regester, associate director of Semester in Detroit. 

Funded by the Office of the Provost, Semester in Detroit — a program open to all U-M undergraduate sophomores and older — also receives support from LSA and the Edward Ginsberg Center for Community and Service-Learning. Its mission is to engage U-M undergraduates in substantive, sustained and reciprocal relationships with the people and communities of the City of Detroit by combining a semester-long residence in the city with rigorous academic study and a comprehensive community-based internship. Semester in Detroit will accept applications for the winter 2012 semester in September. Learn more at:  



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