Forrest M. Hill
The name Forrest Hill won’t likely conjure a collection of grand biographical accomplishments for most residents, but Hill’s influential contributions to life in Kalamazoo during the late 19th and early 20th century are deserving of chronicling, for they fit into the kind of ordinary community impact that too often becomes relegated to the margins of history. Shining a light upon both the extraordinary and the ordinary life of a community renders a more accurate, richer picture of a time and its shades and subtleties. It is with this broadening of the historical lens that we can better understand the past’s political, social and cultural complexities.
Pauline Byrd Johnson, the granddaughter of Forest Hill, and first black teacher in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, cited her grandfather as a significant influence on her career success, suggesting that he instilled in her the belief in the power of individual self-determination, industriousness and moral character.
“Speaking of manliness and strength of character brings to mind Forrest M. Hill, a Michigan pioneer whose quick wit, ready use of words, and sturdy self-respect did much to carry forward the battle for citizenship of the freed slave and his progeny.
Although the women in the Hill family were never taught physical fighting, they were instructed and encouraged to stand for principle at all costs and always to insist upon their rights as American citizens.”
–Kalamazoo Gazette, 18 February 1981
Forrest M. Hill was born in Niles, Michigan on 11 October 1852, and was raised until he was twelve by his grandparents. He told Pauline that the Hill family had always been free, and that despite the social limitations enforced upon blacks, he always strove to be fiercely independent, a full citizen of his community. In 1872, he married Flora Bradley and the pair began their life together as farmers on Grand Prairie. In 1900, the two relocated to the Vine Neighborhood, believing that Forrest’s budding teamster business would find greater access to contracts and building projects within the city. It isn’t known how many local construction projects Hill was involved in, but Judge Charles A. Pratt recalled working for Hill as a teenager on the construction of Long Road. Pauline remembered Hill’s connection to the building of Kalamazoo College’s Bowen Hall.
“Grandpa retired about the time when trucks began to be used for work like that. He never owned a truck, but he would have if he had stayed in business.”
“He believed in us using our mentality and whatever talents we had, and all of his children went to school. And when he wasn’t doing something else, he always had a book.”
–from Emancipated Spirits, p.208
The Frederick Douglass Community Association
Due to WWI, more and more black soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Custer began to visit Kalamazoo in 1918. Because of racial attitudes of the time, Hill worried that the presence of a large number of black soldiers could possibly lead to conflict with police or local businesses. Hill took it upon himself to galvanize interest in the establishment of a place where soldiers could assemble for connection, relaxation and entertainment. Because of Hill’s standing with influential local businessmen, he along with Otis Pratt, Joe Pettiford, and Joe Small were able to find local support for the creation of such a facility. Hill’s efforts led to the opening of the Frederick Douglass Community Association, which was originally housed in the 200 block of N. Burdick Street, on the third floor of the old Turn Verein Hall. More than 100 years later, the fruits of Hill’s plan to secure a safe refuge for black soldiers to congregate continues to provide valuable services to the African American community.
Written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, October 2023