Jamon Jordan was named the first official historian for the City of Detroit in October 2021. Credit: Courtney Wise Randolph
Every time I see Jamon Jordan when it’s cold and the wind is blowing, he’s geared in a hip-length black leather jacket, zip front, and a skull cap emblazoned with the word “Detroit.” That’s my favorite thing about the city’s first official historian, an honor he received from Mayor Mike Duggan last month — he looks like he could be one of my cousins. He’s a child of hip hop without having to say so; and even in nameless jeans, a t-shirt and a pair of walking boots, his Detroit swagger is through the roof.
He’s familiar, unlike many prominent historians I’ve seen, and his scholarship feels designed for me.
Though a speaker in the upcoming Starz docuseries on Detroit drug trafficking organization Black Mafia Family, a consultant on the 2021 Steven Soderbergh film “No Sudden Move” starring Don Cheadle and a professor of foundational Detroit history at the University of Michigan, he still makes time to provide tours to us — neighbors from his Detroit — before our cookouts and family reunions.
Hear more from Jamon Jordan on an episode of the Detroit Free Press podcast “On the Line,” featuring Detour reporter Courtney Wise Randolph.
Through his company, Black Scroll Network, History and Tours, he shares the history of Black Detroit in a style that hits every beat, even for audiences who already know what’s coming, just like my uncles when they tell stories. Confident but unassuming, when he steps to the stage, it’s impossible to forget him.
Jordan, in his early 50s, grew up like my cousins and me on the westside of Detroit at the border of Highland Park, in a neighborhood filled with families, on a block where all the kids knew each other.
“Every house had a porch, a big porch, too,” he said. “And so there’s adults on porches. Everywhere you walk, people are looking at you, they see you. So you’re always being watched whether you know it or not, by the adults in the neighborhood. And all the adults know each other. We didn’t know it then, but they really knew each other because of us. It was the children that connected the adults.”
That’s a bit how this new role of city historian unfolded for Jordan; the children connected him to adults.
It makes sense: to scores of Detroiters, Jordan is Baba Jamon, the educator who lit up their love of learning, teaching students in elementary and middle school for 16 years. These days, rather than teach from the classroom, he uses his gift as a natural storyteller alongside his built expertise as an educator on the streets of Detroit, sharing a well-rounded narrative of the city with as many as will hear him.
He didn’t plan for this new role as official historian for the City of Detroit as much as he naturally prepared for the role nearly his entire life. He paid attention to the environment and world around him. When he entered the field of education, he reached back to what he knew mattered to him as a student, and what he learned from Mrs. Mims, his fifth-grade teacher.
“She bought us these books, some of them were fiction, some of them were nonfiction, but they were all about aspects of Black people, history and culture that are not always talked about,” he said. “They were about Black people’s spiritual ideas when they were enslaved, about how they held onto their culture. She bought books that talked about African kings and queens. I didn’t know [she was going above and beyond] then, I just thought this was normal school.”
Like Mrs. Mims, Jordan gave himself the responsibility of filling the African and African American history gap left untouched by school curriculums. As a social studies teacher at the Wayne County Juvenile Detention Facility, that meant providing general African and African American history where it was always missing. But in the African-centered Nsoroma Institute, where the social studies curriculum covered Black people across the diaspora, he took a different turn.
There, he created lessons about Detroit’s Black history, so his students could learn of people who once lived where they did.
These Detroit-focused lessons sometimes took place during field trips to locations around the city. Parents who chaperoned began reporting back to him, “Hey, I lived here my whole 40 years, and I never knew this,” Jordan recalled. In some instances, he said, parents stood alongside their children in places right around the corner from their homes. They began seeing their communities with new eyes. And then the special requests started.
“People [started] calling me and saying, ‘I hear you got a field trip with the students on Friday. Can I come?’ And I’m like, ‘Hold on — these are children. You just can’t come on field trips with children. That ain’t how it works.’”
But never one to miss an opportunity to teach when a student wants to learn, Jordan opened up his weekends and summers to share lessons with adults who weren’t already parents of children in his class. That grew into Black Scroll Network, History and Tours. From there, his profile has increasingly grown. Since 2016, he’s been a full-time public historian.
One of his most significant accomplishments is his expansion of the historical narrative about Detroit. Jordan’s appointment as the city’s official historian speaks to a reckoning with how history is told, and by whom — it means it is no longer acceptable to begin our tale with the arrival of the French and leave out that the Ojibwe and Odawa were already here for generations. Nor is it fine to talk about the wealth of William Macomb and John R. Williams without referencing that it was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. And it must be known that those Black people who were enslaved resisted slavery at all times. Black people led the Underground Railroad and, according to Jordan, it’s that resistance to slavery, that fight and that struggle that is the foundation of the Black community in Detroit.
Jordan’s goal in his new job is to connect our shared histories.
“I want to connect the telling of our story. We’re talking about Detroit history, but we want to talk about it in a way that does not exclude other people’s histories besides white people,” he said. “I want to work with Indigenous historians, Latinx historians and Latinx activists who are telling the story of Southwest Detroit and the Indigenous settlements that were in Detroit prior to the French arriving. I want to work with institutions like the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Second Baptist Church, the Detroit Historical Society, the Motown Museum, and tell those stories with Detroit at the center of the narrative.”
Despite taking on a history-making new role, Jordan prefers to teach history rather than make it. But, “if history doesn’t make you uncomfortable,” he said, “then it’s not really history.”