Myrtle Thompson-Curtis was born and raised in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s. Growing up on the Eastside, she could walk to integrated schools in her neighborhood, but later had to take two buses to the majority-white Denby High School. By the time Myrtle graduated from Denby, the school was eighty percent black and the city had changed. White flight, which had begun in the 1950s, kicked into overdrive following the 1967 Rebellion, rapidly transforming the city by draining its population, businesses, tax base, and resources. “The only school that I went to that still remains is Denby High School, and it’s totally different from when I left there. The elementary school I went to is now an African-centered school in a very disinvested neighborhood.”
Growing up during the Black Power Movement, Myrtle was introduced to the Black Panther Party through her four older brothers. By the time she got to high school, though, the BPP had largely collapsed under the weight of state repression. Myrtle’s focus on activism gained significant steam with the birth of her children. “Honestly, I think I became active when I became a mom because then I started looking at life differently,” she reflected. Myrtle got involved in community organizing in 2008 when she and her family decided to start a garden “so that we could grow community” in their Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood. “And by grow community,” she explained, “I mean create a space where we eat healthy and be better neighbors and be involved on the forefront of what was happening.”
Myrtle and her husband, Baba Wayne Curtis, began the Manistique Street Community Garden on five adjacent empty lots. In many neighborhoods across the city, community gardens have sprung up on lots left vacant by the mortgage and tax foreclosure crises over the past 15 years. With the help of community partners and Myrtle’s childhood knowledge gained while helping her grandmother grow vegetables, Myrtle and Wayne started their journey to building a thriving urban farm. “I would say we went from just wanting to survive a season and produce a harvest festival to more art education, education nutrition, and cultural development in our neighborhood and our community.”
That garden grew into Feedom Freedom Growers, “an organization created to foster the principles of food sovereignty and to create a new center of work, of cooperation and interdependence, through growing food, nurturing creativity through art and education.” The Feedom Freedom website explains that “Creating healthy, productive, life affirming communities begins with a collective of people who are giving their work and time to make a difference.”
To combat the disinvestment in Detroit neighborhoods and the closing of vital resources such as grocery stores and markets, Myrtle works not only to grow her urban garden but also to educate members of her community on healthy eating and growing nutritious food. “I do a cooking and nutrition gardening workshop. So, I walk you through planting, and I walk you through harvesting. I walk you through prepping and creating a delicious meal out of what you actually grow.”
The Food Empowerment Project defines the term food desert as “geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.” Furthermore, food deserts “are most commonly found in black and brown communities and low-income areas (where many people don’t have cars),” with wealthier and whiter communities having an average of three times as many supermarkets as low income and black neighborhoods.
In addition to developing the urban garden and educating Detroiters on sustainable and healthy living, Myrtle also collaborates with a number of community organizations such as the Church of the Messiah, the Global Treehouse Initiative, and the Boggs Center. “Feedom Freedom has more found its niche in the education of political, social justice realm of ushering folks into a garden space where you can tap into the soil but also tap into your soul,” she explains. For Myrtle, the development and care that goes into the urban garden reflects the development and care that is needed between Detroiters.
From their base at Feedom Freedom Growers, Myrtle and Wayne have organized to protect their neighbors and city residents from the harms of gentrification and displacement. Detroiters like Myrtle have stayed and fought for the city amidst decades of disinvestment and abandonment. But over the last 20 years, white investors, speculators, and corporations that previously fled the city have set their sights on the city. “I remember my dad saying a long time ago that they were gonna take the city back,” Myrtle recalled. “They’re coming back,’ he said, ‘all the amenities and the water and everything is here. They’re coming back for the city.”
Tucked between Grosse Pointe and Downtown, her Eastside neighborhood has been the target of out-of-state and even out-of-country investors who want to make money off of the investment of certain neighborhoods in Detroit without living or visiting the city. Myrtle has seen her neighbors, family members, and friends be the targets of efforts to gentrify and change the city.
With those targeted efforts, Myrtle has seen the shame that comes with being pushed out of neighborhoods and homes that often keeps people from fighting. “It creates that shameful attitude that you are inadequate if you can’t meet all these rigorous, unrealistic demands that are placed on you,” she explained. “You don’t want to go around telling everybody you couldn’t make your bills,” she said, but “you need to tell folks. You know, a squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
In response, Myrtle and her community have organized to keep neighbors in their homes, taking on the city, courts, and banks that have been complicit in displacing Detroiters. Alongside Detroit Eviction Defense, the National Lawyers Guild, and “a big old array of community members” Myrtle helped to prevent the foreclosure of a neighbors home through flyering, fundraising, legal challenges, and direct action. Through her grassroots organizing to keep people in their homes, Myrtle has learned that “[i]t takes everybody. We cannot afford to be in silos…we need everybody in this fight today ‘cause the movement has to broaden itself. It has to be more broad.”
In conjunction with the Boggs Center and the Women Creating Caring Communities, Myrtle and Feedom Freedom organized against massive city and state tax incentives to expand the Fiat-Chrysler plant on the Eastside in 2018-19. To strengthen the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), they developed a community survey to better understand what the community needs and used that data to advocate for an equitable CBA. From those survey results, Myrtle saw that “people want change. People were excited about…almost everything that was on that list.”
In response to rising police violence and surveillance, Myrtle and FFG have also launched a campaign to create safe communities free from the harms of policing. Operating under the slogan of “return to front porches,” the Green Chairs, Not Green Lights campaign encourages people to think back to the days when neighbors sat on their front porches to look out for one another, keep an eye on the block, and create a strong social fabric in the community. Green Chairs envisions a city where people keep each other safe by dealing with harm at a neighborhood level instead of relying on surveillance and policing.
As Myrtle looks to the future, she hopes to see city officials and funders working with and investing in grassroots organizations in collaborative, equitable ways. “They keep having these meetings and inviting community members, and one day they’ll get it.” With all the change and development happening in the city, Myrtle wants the city’s rich traditions of grassroots organizing–not the big businesses and corporations–to be recognized as vital forms of community development that should be appreciated and uplifted.
“But, I don’t plan on going anywhere soon,” she notes. “I would love for a younger aspect of Feedom Freedom to…really drive the vehicle.”
- Annamarie Sysling, “Feedom Freedom Growers and Taproot Sanctuary Growing Community Care Through Gardening,” WDET, July 15, 2021.
- Rae Baker and Peter Blackmer, “Opinion: Detroit is at at crossroads about safety and surveillance, City Council must choose the right path,” Detroit MetroTimes, October 3, 2022.
Myrtle Thompson-Curtis, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, April 12, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.