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Black Bottom Archives

Telling the Stories of Detroit

BBA was founded in 2014 by Camille Johnson and Paige PG Watkins. It was made accessible to the public in January 2015. Over the last four years, BBA has represented our communities of intergenerational Black Detroiters. We collect content that ranges from oral histories and op-eds about present-day and historical Detroit experiences to recipes and records of local and regional Black-owned businesses, along with other media and content mediums centered around Black Detroit stories.

Black Bottom was a historical neighborhood in Detroit that was razed during the “urban renewal” of the 1940s-60s, displacing many Black, working-class families. Black Bottom Archives was started in order to connect the history of Black Bottom to the similar displacement taking place for Black Detroiters presently - water shutoffs, illegal foreclosures, school closings, divestment from resources that keep us well and safe. We started BBA in order to connect our present-day stories to larger narratives and histories. We want to keep Black Detroit stories sacred and catalogued as the narratives of the city continues to change.

We understand our work to be in the radical lineage of Community-Based Archives because of our commitment to collect, preserve and document our own histories outside of mainstream institutions and platforms. We see Black Bottom Archives as an alternative to these often oppressive, dominant narratives, providing an opportunity for nuance, to show the many complex truths of our experiences and to support our communities interconnectedness and legacy-building.

Our collections have been created and decided on by those to whom we are accountable. When we were founded, BBA was run by a collective of young, Black lifelong and longtime Detroiters who made the decisions about what stories we would curate and share, and how we would be accountable to our larger community of Black Detroiters digitally and physically. All of the people in this original collective were volunteers, and BBA brought in no revenue. We collected and sorted submissions from Black Detroiters on many different topics and made them accessible through our website. As we grew out our collections, there was asks from the community to learn more about the historic and presently open Black-owned businesses across Detroit and the Metropolitan area. There was also interest in multimedia archiving through video, photography and podcasting, which we highlighted on our website.

By 2017, the volunteer collective was burned out and the popularity and participation in BBA was growing faster than we had the capacity to hold it. We became a sponsored project of Allied Media Projects in order to build our internal organizational capacity and to begin fundraising for paid positions and other infrastructural needs. We created a community advisory board who represented an intergenerational group of Black Detroiters and supported our strategic planning process. Currently, we are working on building out our internal capacity, experimenting with new programs and initiatives and partnering with other organizations for community projects and events.