Visiting the Statue of Ypsilanti in Michigan
on Martin Luther King Jr. Day
by Artemis Leontis
It’s 2021, the 200th Anniversary of the Greek War of Independence. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 18, I will drive from my home six miles east to visit the statue of Demetrius Ypsilanti at the Ypsilanti Water Tower.
Greek Americans make the pilgrimage to the statue annually on March 25, the day when they celebrate Greek Independence from the Ottoman Empire. A small group of community language teachers, students, parishioners, priests, and members of AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational and Progressive Association, the organization that donated the statue to the people of Ypsilanti) gather on the grassy knoll where the statue stands, a few blocks west of the Huron River. Someone steps forward to give a speech. General Demetrius Ypsilanti was a hero of the Greek War of Independence, they remind the audience. He took part in the successful siege of Tripolitsa in 1821. He was elected president of the national legislative assembly. In 1825, with just 350 Greek soldiers, he successfully defended the Mills of Lerna against the large invading Egyption army of Ibrahim Pasha, and so saved Nafplion. Likened by Americans to George Washington, Ypsilanti caught the attention of August Woodward, the first Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory. Judge Woodward was looking to rename the first American settlement in the area, called Woodruff’s Grove. He was a wordsmith who loved Greek letters. In 1817, he drafted a charter for the University of Michigan under the name of the Catholepistemiad. He named a new town on the site of Woodruff’s Grove “Ypsilanti” in 1825.
At the end of the annual March 25 pilgrimage, someone lays a wreath on Ypsilanti’s statue. The group sings the Greek national anthem. They celebrate the sympathy that Americans feel for Greeks as a cradle of civilization and the honor that a distinguished American judge conferred on living Greeks by naming this town after Ypsilanti. The pride they feel in this recognition neutralizes any lingering sense that Greek immigrants were not seen as equal to whites when they arrived in America but instead subjected to intense discrimination. A snapshot of the group shows their smiling faces. People leave Ypsilanti’s statue feeling proud, emotional, and at ease with being Greek and American. I know, I have been there.
When visiting Ypsilanti’s statue on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and not March 25, 2021, I will not feel joy, pride, ease, or satisfaction. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, unlike other national holidays, is a day of reflection, not celebration. It asks us to look more closely at familiar ground, to give an accounting of the dark founding moments of American history, to identify paths of history made crooked by racism, so that we may begin to eliminate racism and move the country in another direction.
King was ill at ease with the America he dwelled in. He observed the country’s many contradictions and disappointments, particularly the gap between the ideals of individual liberty and freedom that Americans embraced and the country’s founding acts of genocide, slavery, and racial hatred:
Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. … We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. (Martin Luther King, Why We Can’t Wait , New York: Signet Classic, 2000, 110, in the chapter, “The Summer of Our Discontent,” based on a lecture by that title given at the New School on February 6, 1964).
Around the area where the statue of Ypsilanti stands, four first nations used to live for hundreds of years before white settlers arrived. They were the people from the Odawa (Ottawa), Ojibwe (Chippewa), Potawatomi, and Wendot (Wyandot, Huron) tribes. They legally owned all the land after the British ceded the territory in 1793. Meanwhile smallpox and other epidemics were decimating their numbers. Along the Huron River, in 1809, three French explorers built one of the first non-native trading posts. Gabriel Godfrey gave it his name, Godfrey’s Post, and surveyed and claimed 2625 acres of land on the west bank of the Huron River. Between 1817 and 1825 the title of all the land passed by treaty from Native Americans, who were forced to quit their claims and relinquish all their property to the U.S. government. Godfrey sold his land to Judge August Woodward, a shrewd land developer. The land had extraordinary resources, and Judge Woodward saw an opportunity. Two major Native American trails, the St. Joseph and the Great Sauk, converged on the Huron River near Godfrey’s trading post. They were part of a system of trails so in tune with the land that they eventually formed the basis of the American highway network. The Great Sauk Trail would become Interstate 12, stretching from Detroit to Chicago in 1827 and eventually to the Pacific Ocean. Thus, while Judge Woodward was turning his attention to renaming Woodruff’s Grove in 1825, he was deeply involved in buying land and developing a town. His importation of a Greek name, Ypsilanti, into Michigan land politics to signify both America’s support for Greece’s liberation and the dream of turning Michigan towns into the “Athens of the West” sublimated a massive transferal of property and the eradication of native peoples, who were formally removed from Michigan in the 1830s.
Of course Demetrius Ypsilanti was not complicit in this dark history of broken treaties, expulsions, and genocide. Like so much of Greek culture, pieces of him were appropriated to support the American colonial settler project. As a contemporary Greek, he was so foreign to the American project that people living in Ypsilanti today are more likely to identify “Ypsilanti” as a Native American than a Greek Name. Historical irony aside, the naming of Ypsilanti, when received by Greek Americans too simply as a point of pride, is a story made crooked by racism.
On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as I contemplate the darker history of America and its entwinement with the Greek War of Independence, I will begin to explore—with an eye made keener by the global struggle against racism—the role Greeks have played as sometimes unwitting, often unreflective accomplices in settler colonialism. This is a step I must take to constructively contribute to my community’s efforts toward social justice.
Artemis Leontis is the C.P. Cavafy Professor of Modern Greek and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan and the author of several books, most recently Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins.