African American Builder Broke Racial Barriers
Michigan’s Manual of Freedman’s Progress, edited by John Green, 1968.
Albert White was an African American building contractor who lived and worked in Kalamazoo from the 1870s until his death in 1930. He and his men helped build a number of well known structures in Kalamazoo history.
White and his workers built an addition to the original Borgess Hospital, which at that time was in a house on Portage Street. He also constructed the third Kalamazoo Central High School in 1898, and supervised the masonry work in the construction of the Administration Building (East Hall) which was the first building of the original campus of Western Michigan University (then called Western State Normal School). It was built in 1905 and still stands. White achieved a level of success unusual for that time.
White was born in Canton, Indiana on February 6, 1861. According to family legend, his parents were freed slaves who settled in Indiana after walking there from South Carolina. White’s father was killed when he was a young boy, and his mother faced financial hardships that made it difficult to keep Albert and his siblings together. At seven years of age, Albert White was sent to work for a farmer. He worked on this farm until he was fifteen. He moved to Michigan to work for another farm for a year.
White Learns his Trade and Builds a Business
At this point he moved to Kalamazoo and began working for a mason. He pleaded with his employer to teach him the trade but was initially rebuffed. His employer finally consented after White offered to work for free for several months in exchange for learning the trade. This agreement eventually evolved into an apprenticeship that lasted for seven years, followed by two years of working as a journeyman.
Albert White was 25 years old when he started his own construction contracting business. Over the next 30 years he would be involved in many important projects, including building the third Kalamazoo Central High School, as well as additions to the Kalamazoo Paper Mill, Plainwell High School, and the first Borgess Hospital on Portage Street. He also built the Illinois Envelope Company, the Hawthorne Mill, Riverview Paper Mills, part of Bryant Paper Mill, part of Nazareth Academy (now Nazareth College), Villa St. Anthony’s Home, and four businesses in Hastings, Michigan.
White was described as “absolutely reliable as to integrity, and one of the most highly respected citizens of Kalamazoo county.” He was a deacon of the Second Baptist Church for 30 years. Employee Herbert Bush remembered White as a nice man. Bush recalled that White paid his employees by leaving money on top of a mortarboard and placing a brick on top to hold it down. Employees simply took out their pay. During the early 1900s he had about 50 employees, both black and white.
Albert White was not the only member of his family who was active in the Kalamazoo community. His wife Fannie was a member of many organizations, such as the Women’s Temperance Society, the Civic Improvement League, and the Needlework Guild. D.D. Buck, author of The Progression of the Race in the United States and Canada, indicated that the Civic Improvement League was “a strong organization of noted white ladies of the city.” She was also the vice president of the National Colored Baptist Women’s Convention. After her death in 1943, the
Kalamazoo Gazette noted that she was “a leader among the Negro people of Kalamazoo.” Legacy Hurt by New Construction
Albert White died in 1930. White is not one of the better remembered builders of Kalamazoo. Perhaps this is because many of the structures that White built were torn down long ago. Regardless, Albert White was an influential figure in the construction of several of Kalamazoo’s most important early buildings.
Decades before the Civil Rights era, Albert and Fannie White played an important role in the community life of Kalamazoo.Albert White’s determination led him to a level of success and status in the community not traditionally available to African Americans in that era.
Written by Jerry Marshall, Kalamazoo Public Library Intern, December 2009.
“Albert White: Prolific Builder of Kalamazoo”
Museography. Winter/Spring 2008: 008 “Black builder forged solid reputation”
Kalamazoo Gazette. February 7, 1982, p.A1. “Brown and Golden Memories II”
Encore, Feb. 2003, p.30. “Family remembers contractor’s legacy”
Kalamazoo Gazette. April 3,1999, p.S5 “Southwestern Michigan abounds in black history”
Kalamazoo Gazette. February 1, 1998, p.G1.
Local History Room Files
Name File: White, Albert J.