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Highlighting CMU's History

History professor Dr. Jay Martin worked with the Old Settlers community in Michigan to discover CMU’s earliest known African American graduate. The Old Settlers first came to the attention of Dr. Martin, Director of the CMU Museum of Cultural and Natural History and Museum Studies, in 2010. His interest in the Old Settlers and collaboration with community members ultimately led to the identification and acknowledgment of CMU’s first African American graduate, Emma Norman Todd.

 The Old Settlers of Mecosta, Isabella, and Montcalm Counties date back to 1860, the year African American Dorvil Whitney settled first in Broomfield Township. The following year, black families arrived and occupied land that was transferred from the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe by treaty. Dr. Martin notes the unique heritage of the Old Settlers, many of whom escaped slavery before coming to Michigan. The Old Settler families were multi-racial, including a mixture of black, Native American, and white lineages. These families shared an unusual openness to interaction with other ethnicities and a cohesiveness which ultimately led to the annual Old Settlers Reunion which began in 1934.

 Under Dr. Martin’s mentorship, students of his Public History class (HST 580) researched potential historic sites at which the unique diversity of the Mecosta, Isabella, and Montcalm area may be commemorated. Dr. Martin and his class learned family history from Old Settlers Diana Green, Deonna Green, Carol Norman, and Denver Norman, who helped them connect the Norman family back to Basil Norman, who was born into a mixed-race family. After serving in the American War of Independence, Basil was granted land in Ohio for his service. Before the Civil War, members of the Norman family left Ohio and moved to Isabella County, Michigan, to escape racial discrimination. Emma Norman Todd was the great-great-granddaughter of Basil Norman. 

 With help from members of the Old Settlers, including direct descendants of Emma Norman Todd, Dr. Martin and his class conclude that Todd was the earliest known African American graduate of CMU. Todd attended Central Michigan Normal School, now known as Central Michigan University, to become a teacher in 1907. Dr. Martin describes the challenges he and his class faced while conducting the research: “In its earliest decades, CMU did not keep records that identified the race or ethnicity of its students. This made identifying early African American students very difficult.” He notes that the relationship built with members of the Old Settlers and the resulting research demonstrates that CMU welcomed students of color four decades earlier than originally believed. This research helps clarify the university’s role in supporting diversity in Michigan. Dr. Martin hopes that projects like this one will inspire students to use history to reinterpret the world in meaningful ways. He concludes with:  “...creating a clearer understanding of the past helps us better understand our present and chart a course toward a better future.”

At CMU We Do Research, We Do Real World

Story by ORGS intern Hailey Nelson

February 2021