Vaughn’s Bookstore: Axis of Black Consciousness

By Eric Thomas Campbell

During the height of the Black liberation movement in Detroit, neighborhoods on the northwest side, particularly between Dexter Avenue and 12th Street, provided several places where activists could unpack theory and put into practice programs for political empowerment. However, no single location was more vital to the emergence of Black consciousness politics in Detroit than Vaughn’s Bookstore. It provided both the venue in which to gather and the content to consume.

In early 1959, Ed Vaughn had returned to his Detroit post office job, just back from a two-year stint in the U.S. Army.  Vaughn’s co-workers were so impressed by the rare book titles in his possession, such as Alan Ginsburg’s 100 Years of Lynchings, that he responded by contacting the publisher and ordering copies to circulate.  He never imagined that his first book-selling venture, operated from the trunk of his car, would later evolve into a major focal point of Detroit’s revolutionary activity.

Ed Vaughn. Courtesy of Ed Vaughn.

In a recent phone interview from his birthplace and current home, Dothan, Alabama, Vaughn told Riverwise the enthusiastic reactions of his colleagues at the post office signified that folks had a longing for a history that had been hidden from them by a racist educational system. This realization led Vaughn to reflect on his years at the historic Fisk University, where he had majored in history and government as a source of intellectual inspiration.  

“I said, well, there’s a market for Black books. So I started rounding up whatever I could find, in no attempt to organize, but in an attempt to disseminate information about our history and our culture, because so much of it had been lost.”

At the end of 1959, Vaughn found an opportunity to purchase a building at 12123 Dexter, with the help of the building’s owner.  Having a space from which to work allowed Vaughn to make connections and create relationships with left wing publishers. Although the shelves began to fill up with titles found nowhere else in the city, the customer base remained small and dedicated during the first several years of operation.

“You’ve got to remember that this was before the explosion of new Black knowledge. We were just at the very prelude to all of this,” Vaughn told Riverwise.

Vaughn organized weekly meetings to discuss authors, books and Black History in general. They evolved into what the group called “forums” and grew in popularity throughout the early sixties. By 1964, the weekly forum had grown enough to consider organizing an event on a national scale, starting with Forum ’65.  Recently established Detroit publishers like Broadside Press became working partners.

“By the mid sixties the Black cultural revolution was on, and we were the centerpiece in Detroit—there was no other place to go,” Vaughn says. In addition to the patronage of residents and students from the neighborhood, scholars and educators began speaking and organizing at Vaughn’s Bookstore. Vaughn’s relationship with publishers kept the bookshelves filled with titles that were found nowhere else in the city.

Ed Vaughn. Courtesy of Ed Vaughn.

The exponential growth of the weekly forums culminated in the Forum ’66/Black Arts Convention of Unity, held at the Shrine of the Black Madonna. Forum ’66 was, among other things, an effort to include and pay homage to African American artists and their collective contribution to the Black liberation movement.

“There were a lot of artistic things happening—painters, poets—we were just beginning to get into the arts we had lost after the great Harlem Renaissance”, Vaughn says. “It’s often the artists that are creating new directions and uplifting the people, so the artist has always been there.”

The success of Forum ’66 brought together Black scholars, activists, and poets from all over the country, including Nikki Giovanni and Haki Madhubuti. The June 1966 issue of Negro Digest announced the Forum ’66/Black Arts Convention and its theme, “Toward a Greater Understanding of Our Heritage,” along with scheduled participants, John O. Killens, Ossie Davis, LeRoi Jones, Julian Bond, Max Roach, Charles P. Howard and “various African delegates to the United Nations.”

The attempt to organize a national Black conference, “something which had not been done since the days of Marcus Mosiah Garvey,” according to Vaughn, was largely successful.

Detroit native and longtime activist, Stuart House, lived on both Oakman Blvd. and Dexter Blvd. during his childhood. During the Civil Rights movement, House traveled South to work as a field secretary with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Greenwood, Mississippi and Selma, Alabama. He then returned to Detroit in 1967 to engage in a wide spectrum of Detroit politics for many years, from the Black Panther Party to Democratic electoral and legislative campaigns.

Speaking about Vaughn’s Bookstore from his current home in Orinda, California, House says that, “It was important, prominent, central and made an invaluable contribution to intellectual life and ideological development of all the people who were struggling for Black liberation, regardless of what their particular organization or movement was about. Vaughn’s bookstore was an important place to hone one’s Black intellectual skills.”

During the height of the Black Power movement, when trade agreements between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China allowed books and other goods to be exchanged, Ed Vaughn sold Mao Tse-Tung’s Red Book, “by the droves.”  The store also stocked all three English translations of the Koran. Vaughn estimates that there was no other bookstore like his in the nation at that time, except Lewis H. Michaux’s  African Memorial Bookstore in New York, where Malcolm X spoke regularly.

“Vaughn’s was where everybody in Detroit congregated. We were the only game in town specializing in Black history,” Vaughn said.

As Vaughn’s Bookstore grew in popularity, so did the attention he received from law enforcement officials, including the FBI.  Vaughn remembers Detroit police officers coming in under the guise of shopping for books. They always left with the cheapest books, if anything.

Ed Vaughn. Courtesy of Ed Vaughn.

“I never saw a Black cop come in to buy a book because there were only two or three on the force,” says Vaughn. “It would always be a White cop who came in and they would buy the cheap paperbacks. And they would always buy the Red Book ‘cause the Red Book was real cheap. I guess they were developing a case on us.”

During the Black liberation movement of the 1960’s many activist communities were established as a by-product of housing discrimination, which left potential revolutionaries living in close proximity. To call this an advantage may be an overstatement. Nonetheless, close proximity meant efficient organizing. More than any other area in Detroit, the one surrounding Vaughn’s Bookstore developed into a concentration of revolutionary activity. In addition to Vaughn’s Bookstore, the Republic of New Afrika, and the group’s magazine, set up two doors down in a space owned by Vaughn. The Friends of SNCC office was located directly across the street.  Artist Glanton Dowdell, whose work included the Shrine of the Black Madonna mural, set up a studio and gallery on Dexter. The Nation of Islam Temple No. 1 and the Shrine of the Black Madonna Church were located nearby on Linwood.

“It was like the axis, a centerpoint.  There were a lot of other things going on, other kinds of centers, but Vaughn’s was a place within the movement for everyone,” Stuart House says. “It spanned a lot of the ideological divisions, and there were many — between Marxists and Nationalists, Christian Nationalists and all the various factions; but it was a place that all of these people from all of these varied belief systems could find a common ground, which made it kind of a unifying force.”

Vaughn’s Bookstore suffered in sales during the end of the 1970’s for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was a general transition amongst many Black activists to electoral politics. Vaughn himself successfully ran for Michigan State Representative in 1979. He later served as a teacher of Black History in the Detroit Public School system and as an executive assistant to Mayor Coleman A. Young. After moving several times, Vaughn’s Bookstore closed in 1985.

Throughout this year, as people reflect on the 1967 uprising, it is important to recall the broader development of Black Liberation politics that emerged during the 1960s and its impact on current liberation movements in Detroit. Vaughn’s Bookstore provided one environment in which this movement could develop intellectually and artistically. It became a local and national mecca for activists developing revolutionary theory and projecting new visions for the future.

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