ANN ARBOR, MI — Ann Arbor may soon add another house to the city’s vast list of protected historic properties.
It’s now up to City Council whether to grant historic status to the home at 1201 Gardner Ave. where the late Black poet Robert Hayden, the University of Michigan English department’s first Black faculty member, once lived with his wife Erma, who was a concert pianist and music teacher who joined her husband in breaking down racial barriers several decades ago.
The city’s Robert and Erma Hayden House Historic District Study Committee, which was formed by City Council last year to consider the historical significance of the house, issued its final report with its findings July 26.
The report — complete with old photos of the Hayden family and the typewriter Robert Hayden had in his upstairs office in the home — was recently presented to council for review ahead of voting on an ordinance to add the historic district to the city code, which could happen as soon as next month.
“It is one of the most interesting things I’ve worked on at the city,” said City Planner Jill Thacher, the city’s historic preservation coordinator.
The home in Ann Arbor’s Lower Burns Park neighborhood is where Robert Hayden made extraordinary contributions to American history, culture and poetry, writing some of the most powerful Black history poems in the English language, Thacher told council last year, calling him one of the most important Black American poets in history.
He wrote about historical Black figures such as Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman and about topics such as the Underground Railroad, Civil War and American slavery.
Born in Detroit in 1913, he attended Detroit City College and later the University of Michigan, where he won a prestigious Hopwood Award for aspiring writers. After finishing his degree in 1942, he taught at UM for several years, becoming the English department’s first Black faculty member.
He also taught at Fisk University for over 20 years, but he and his family returned to Ann Arbor — to Gardner Avenue — in 1969, where he taught at UM until his death in 1980.
In 1976, he accepted the position of poetry consultant — later called the poet laureate — to the Library of Congress, the first Black American to hold the position.
After his death, his wife Erma and daughter Maia continued to reside in the home, where Erma died in 1994, and Maia’s husband Patrick Patillo has asked the city to designate the property historic. Maia and Patrick Patillo still own the house, built in 1936.
Patrick Patillo was one of three citizens appointed to the historic district study committee, which was supported by city staff. Like the Haydens, Patillo also is a musician, playing saxophone, and a writer with degrees in English and history.
The one-and-one-half story, Cape Cod-style house remains largely unaltered since its period of significance of 1969-1980, the study committee stated in its report. The large living room serves as a library and music room, containing Erma Hayden’s grand piano, the report states, discussing her background having been born in Philadelphia in 1911 as Erma Morris, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and a father from Grenada and Honduras, and later raised in Detroit by her aunt and uncle.
She came from a family where everybody played piano and it was a love of theater, poetry and music that connected Morris and Hayden when they met in Detroit in the 1930s, the report states, noting the couple lived in Nashville after getting married and Erma was supervisor of music for the Nashville public school system, the first Black person to hold the position.
She taught music in Nashville, New York and Ann Arbor and around the world, the report states.
Located about a mile south of downtown, Ann Arbor’s Burns Park neighborhood was developed largely in the 1910s through the 1940s and racial segregation played a part in it, the report states, identifying Packard Street as an economic dividing line between the more affluent upper Burns Park area and the lower area.
“Although a small minority of African American households would have resided in Lower Burns Park from the time of its early development, the neighborhood has been largely white,” the report states, quoting a Black resident who recalled from moving into the area in the early 1960s, “We moved into a white neighborhood and we found out later on that the people who were renting to us took a poll of all the neighbors to see if it was alright that we moved in to that neighborhood.”
Read the full report.
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