A Boston-Edison Tale

65 Years, 4 Generations, 1 Home

By Michelle May

Historic Boston-Edison is a 36-block neighborhood area of Detroit containing approximately 900 houses.  The District is bordered by Boston Boulevard on the North, Edison Avenue on the South, Woodward Avenue on the east and Linwood on the West.  It is one of the largest residential historic districts in the United States.  The first homes in the current Boston-Edison district were built and occupied in 1905.  In the late-1940’s, my great-grandmother had her eye on one of those houses, declaring,  ‘One day I’m going to have a house on the boulevard!’

My maternal great-grandmother, Mary Spraggins, had two daughters: her eldest, Viola (my great-aunt), and Willie May Walton (my grandmother). She and Viola migrated to Detroit from Memphis, Tennessee sometime in the early 1940’s, bringing with them Willie May’s daughter Mary Ella, my mother. Upon arriving in Detroit, the three of them settled in the North End area of Detroit, a “stone’s throw” east of the historic Boston-Edison area.  My great-aunt, Viola, was a master seamstress and also had her cosmetology license.  She worked for the B. Siegel women’s store in downtown Detroit, had private tailoring clients, produced her own fashion shows, and also did hair in a beauty shop.  She wore most of what she made:  fantastic coats, dresses, and suits.  She also made most of my mother’s clothes.  When they were living on the North End on Westminster Street, they were renting part of a two-family flat.

Group of men and women stand together dressed in evening atire in front of fire place. Black and White photo
The wedding party at my great-aunt Viola’s 1956 wedding at our home in Boston-Edison. From left to right: My father, Leon May; Viola’s new husband Charlie Davie; Viola Davie (maiden name Spraggins); Willie May Walton (my grandmother); and Willie Spraggins (great grandfather).

In the mid-1940’s, the elder Mary convinced their landlord to sell the entire flat to them because the Black Detroit soldiers coming home from World War II needed lodging and she could rent one part of the flat and live in the other.  This eventually became lucrative for she and Viola, because with the money they were earning over the next two years, they were able to purchase two other flats and rent those, too.   Meanwhile, my mother completed her middle school and high school years here in Detroit (graduating from Northern High School on Woodward in Detroit) and spent summers in Memphis with her mother (Willie May) and her father, my grandfather Archie Walton.  One of those Black soldiers looking for somewhere to stay was my father, Leon May.  That’s how he and my mother met.

One day in the spring of 1952, Viola was walking down West Boston Blvd. after finishing up a day at the beauty shop and making her way home.  She passed a beautiful 4,000 square foot Georgian Colonial-Revival house and noticed there was a “For Sale” in the window.  Boston-Edison at the time was a largely Jewish neighborhood, but Jewish families were moving out of the area and heading north to the new suburbs of Southfield and Oak Park.

Many Black families were taking their place.  Boston-Edison was not a Detroit neighborhood with religious or racial covenants in place, as there were in some of the other areas of Detroit, so integration was pretty smooth.  A number of Black professionals and their families began moving into Boston-Edison at the end of the 1940’s. In May of 1952, Viola, Mary, and Mary Ella moved into the beautiful home on West Boston Blvd for $21,000.

When my parents separated in the mid-1960’s (they married in June of 1960), my mother, a professional pianist, and professor, brought myself and my two siblings, Leon Dale and Angela Celeste, to this home in Boston-Edison.  My grandmother Willie May came up from Memphis to help raise us.  In 1967, the great Detroit rebellion started less than a mile from our house.  These events, and others of the Civil Rights Movement, also shaped our views of race relations.  We were taught to see the good in everyone and to be empathetic to another’s situation as a way to reduce hatred. Our home became a mecca of sorts for others both in the neighborhood and throughout the metro-Detroit area.

From as far back as the early 1960’s my mother would host music recitals in which she played piano and my father would sing. People would come from miles around to receive spiritual guidance and mentoring from both my mother and my grandmother, and generations of music students have come and gone for piano lessons from my mom, violin and flute lessons from me, and voice lessons from my sister.

We are proud to continue these traditions to this day. Countless wonderful celebrations have also happened in our home over the years, including Viola’s wedding in 1956, my parents’ wedding “after-reception” in 1960, and my husband Ronald Vincent James’ and my wedding reception following our ceremony in Barbados in 2001. My brother, sister and myself had our worldview shaped by growing up around a diverse neighborhood of people who valued education, respect and self-sufficiency. My siblings and I are all college-educated, we are professional musicians and educators (Angela is also a doctor of psychology and I am a licensed professional counselor) and we have always had friends of all backgrounds.  I met my closest and dearest friends living in Boston-Edison.

Today, I reside in this wonderful home with my mother, brother and husband. As the city of Detroit has suffered mainly from the changing economic landscape of Detroit, Boston-Edison, too, has had its challenges over the years.  There have been vacancies, vandalism and foreclosure.  But the neighborhood community has remained strong and Boston-Edison is once again thriving, with many new families moving in, just as they did back in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  It is my hope, as a Detroiter, that all areas of the city and its residents also get to participate in and have access to the city’s improvements.  For 65 + years, my family has committed to staying in the city, advocating and working for its betterment.  We are looking forward to the future of Boson-Edison and the City of Detroit.

  • Ronald stands behind Michelle as they cut into the cate at the same time. He wears all white and she wears a yellow dress. Color Photo.
  • Ronald and Michelle sit opposite each other, the fireplace between them. Black and White photo

Michelle May is a sought-after teacher on both violin and flute. Her mission is to impart both musical knowledge and spiritual life wisdom to each student under her care. She has been a member of numerous classical, gospel, jazz, R&B and world music ensembles, as well as performing in orchestras and on recordings behind such nationally renowned performers as Aretha Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, Richard Smallwood, Fred Hammond, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, KEM and the late greats Natalie Cole, Donald Walden, Barry White, Joe Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, and Dr. Teddy Harris, to name a few. Michelle leads Musique Noire, a world jazz ensemble with veteran string and percussion players. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor (L.P.C.) and is the Vice-President of A.M. May & Associates, Inc., a Detroit counseling and consulting firm (co-founded with her sister, Dr. Angela C. May), and a counselor at Oakland Community College. She is the founder and Music Director for the “Sounds of Music” House Concert series, presented by the Historic Boston-Edison Association in Detroit. Learn more about Michelle and her work here.

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