House party at Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity (Epsilon chapter), May 1927
Cornerstone Project

African American Student Project

Project Origins

Because the University of Michigan didn’t keep track of race for much of its history, questions about the experience of U-M’s African American students have historically been difficult to answer. No official U-M records existed that could help researchers determine historic enrollment numbers prior to 1970.

In 2016 the Bentley Library began this project in order to provide more context and data about African Americans at U-M from 1817-1970, disclosing a full range of experiences including both achievements and struggle.

Bentley Assistant Director and Archivist for University History Brian Williams spearheaded the project, working with a team of researchers, volunteers, and collaborators in a fact- and story-finding effort that remains highly collaborative. The team consults with U-M alumni, members of African American fraternities and sororities, U-M faculty, MLibrary, and community members.

The African American Student Project Fall 2016 - Present

Beyond the Firsts

Picketers carry signs outside of Hill Auditorium at a Black Action Movement strike.

Black Action Movement: Picketing on Diag in front of Hill Auditorium, 1970 Jay Cassidy | University of Michigan Library Digital Collections | © 1970 Regents of the University of Michigan | This work is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

In the process of collecting and analyzing information from multiple sources, patterns and stories emerged from the data–of success and triumph, naturally, and also of discriminatory circumstances that made daily life a challenge for African American students, especially regarding housing. This project not only sheds light on the challenges faced by African American students but also highlights resilience and determination, celebration and connection, resulting in a more complete picture of African American life at U-M.

The project website also continues to elevate stories from African Americans in their own words. An entire section of the site is devoted to autobiographies and biographies about African Americans’ personal journeys, both at U-M and beyond. These stories build on the momentum of the project and reflect a commitment to digging deeper into U-M history.

More to Be Done

Now that the project’s initial findings are public in the form of a searchable database, additions and corrections are sought as more is added to the story. Moving forward, the goal is to continue to add to the database as more information becomes available. The project looks forward to strengthening existing collaborations and developing new ones with researchers, faculty, librarians, and others as the project progresses. For example, by working with visualization librarians in the University Library, an interactive map was created showing housing patterns that illuminate segregation.

Additionally, as the African American Student Project has developed, the team has recognized that the term “African American” is not fully representative of the students documented in the database. The database includes many students of African heritage who are not American. There are numerous students from both elsewhere in the Americas and Africa in the database. Regardless of their specific heritage, these students were subjected to the same limitations and housing discrimination. In collaboration with community members and stakeholders, the AASP team will give consideration to renaming the project in the future.

IHP support enables the AASP to continue to investigate new sources of information, expand existing data visualizations, and create new ways to present the data. Work is underway to develop a national map featuring home states and hometowns. Research supported by the IHP includes additional photographic research, recommendations for content to be digitized, and additional storytelling.

Group posed on front porch steps of Alpha Phi Alpha House at 1017 Catherine St, Ann Arbor, 1912 (ca.) Lyndon Photo (Ann Arbor) | University of Michigan Library Digital Collections | © Regents of the University of Michigan | This work is licensed under CC BY 4.0.


Brian Williams

Project Lead

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Caitlin Moriarty


University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Greg Kinney


University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Andrew Rutledge

Research Associate

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Margaret Leary

Volunteer Researcher

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Justin Joque

Visualization Librarian

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Partnering Units

Bentley Historical Library

University of Michigan Library