Book on Forgotten African American History Puts Author Anna-Lisa Cox ’94 in the Spotlight


Anna-Lisa Cox ’94

As a scholar of 19th-century U.S. history, Anna-Lisa Cox ’94 isn’t accustomed to being in the spotlight. With the forthcoming publication of her book The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality, however, she’s found herself the subject of numerous media interviews, recipient of multiple invitations to discuss her work and soon to begin a month-long book tour starting on the East Coast with a June 11 preview in Holland. Amazon named The Bone and Sinew of the Land a June Best Book of the Month in history, and well-known scholar Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University has described it as “a revelation of primary historical research that is written with the beauty and empathic powers of a novel.”

It’s all an adjustment, but she’s glad for the interest in her topic and the opportunity it presents to share a rich history long lost.

“I am a little stunned by the advance interest in my book,” said Anna-Lisa, who is a nonresident fellow with Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, “but I am relieved that the response has been warm.”

Focusing on the Northwest Territory (modern Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin) between 1800 and 1860, Anna-Lisa found that African Americans played a larger role in settling the frontier than previously believed. She identified more than 300 African American farming settlements that were home to land-owning farming families in the region, before the Civil War. There were tens of thousands of these free African American pioneers who came to settle this early American frontier in what was the nation’s first Great Migration.

“Loren Schweninger points out in Black Property Owners in the South, by the mid-1800s a farmer with property worth between $2,000 and $5,000 was in the top 13 percent of wealthy landowners in the United States at that time, regardless of skin color,” she said. “Many of these settlements included farmers with such wealth, and some were even wealthier.”

“It is amazing how these histories have been lost, but there is a lot of richness in the past for us still to learn,” she said. “From a local history perspective, Ottawa County had some very early African American settlers before the Civil War, including a successful blacksmith.”

Anna-Lisa, who is currently based in Michigan, has been conducting research on race relations in the 19th-century Midwest for several years. Her award-winning publications also include the 2007 book A Stronger Kinship: One Town’s Extraordinary Story of Hope and Faith (Little, Brown), which tells the history of the southwest Michigan community of Covert, which became integrated in the 1860s. She has also recently helped create two historical exhibits based on her original research at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, including one on black pioneers. She was back at Hope this past spring semester as a visiting faculty member, teaching a course on Michigan history.

She explains that the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided the impetus for thousands of African Americans to relocate to the wilderness lands in what she describes as the nation’s first Great Migration. It forbade slavery in the region, and offered equal voting rights to men regardless of their skin color. With the territory largely unsettled, it also meant that the African American pioneers could build new lives away from racial prejudice.

As the decades passed, Anna-Lisa noted, the opportunities for African Americans declined as the region became more heavily settled and they found themselves facing familiar biases as the frontier receded. As the publisher’s description of the book explains, “Though forgotten today, in their own time the success of these pioneers made them the targets of racist backlash. Political and even armed battles soon ensued, tearing apart families and communities.”

With the U.S. of the present day continuing to wrestle with <<equality>>, she feels that remembering is essential.

“The Northwest Frontier was the largest piece of land set aside as free from slavery in the New World,” she said. “This was a truly revolutionary frontier. What’s been lost is not only this first Great Migration, but all the settlements that were part of it.”

“These African American pioneers who came out to settle the frontier long before the Civil War are an integral part of our American past, but their history has been buried for far too long,” she said. “If we lose who helped settle the frontier, who was essential in these states’ histories, we lose a sense of who belongs.”

The book-tour events will provide multiple opportunities to learn more or to connect with Anna-Lisa. They include:

Monday, June 11: Maple Avenue Ministries, Holland, Michigan, 427 Maple Ave., 7 p.m.

Tuesday, June 19: Harvard Book Store, co-sponsored by the Hutchins Center; Boston, Massachusetts

Thursday, June 21: Politics & Prose; Washington, D.C.

Friday, June 22: Solid State Books; Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, June 26: Seminary Co-op; Chicago, Illinois

Wednesday, June 27: Anderson’s Bookshop; Naperville, Illinois

Sunday July 8, 2 p.m.: Allen County Public Library; Fort Wayne, Indiana

Monday, July 9: Literati Bookstore; Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tuesday, July 10: Pages Bookstore; Detroit, Michigan

Tuesday, July 24: Wisconsin Historical Society; Madison, Wisconsin

In addition, more about the book is available online at or .


Sufjan Stevens ’98 to Perform during Oscars

Although he’s had songs featured on other soundtracks, singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens ’98 had never written specifically for film before being asked to contribute work for Call Me by Your Name.

The result has earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for “Mystery of Love,” which he will also be performing during the 90th Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, March 4.

“Mystery of Love” is one of three songs that Stevens has in Call Me by Your Name. The others are “Visions of Gideon,” which he also wrote for the film, and a remix of “Futile Devices,” which is from his 2010 album The Age of Adz.

Through the years, his work has been featured in multiple films and television series, including Little Miss Sunshine, Veronica Mars, Demolition, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, The O.C., Nurse Jackie, iZombie and This Is Us.

Among the articles about “Mystery of Love’s” nomination is a Feb. 20 question-and-answer interview by Variety in which Stevens reflects on providing music for Call Me by Your Name. Here, also, is a link to a feature published in News from Hope College earlier in his career, in April 2006 (back cover, page 20), that includes reflections on his time at the college.

I’m incredibly honored that so many people appreciate and receive what I’m doing . . . but I also acknowledge that they are being moved not by me, but by my music. That’s what’s exciting about it – that it really has nothing to do with me.” -Sufjan Stevens ’98 in NfHC 2006

A total of five songs have been nominated for the best original song Oscar, and all will be featured during the ceremony. The other four are “Remember Me,” from Coco, which will be performed by Gael Garcia Bernal, Natalia LaFourcade and Miguel; “Mighty River,” from Mudbound, which will be performed by Mary J. Blige; “Stand Up for Something,” from Marshall, which will be performed by Common and Andra Day; and “This is Me,” from The Greatest Showman, which will be performed by Keala Settle.

Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, the 90th Oscars will be broadcast live on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern/5 p.m. Pacific on Sunday, March 4. The Oscars will also be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

The Hope Set Before Us

Greg Olgers ’87 is editor of News from Hope College and director of news media services at Hope. He has been writing about the college’s people, places and activities since joining the staff in October 1988.

It is a both rewarding and (for lack of a better word) strange experience, remaining at one’s alma mater some three decades after graduation.

I always think of generations at Hope lasting for four years, the time it takes for most of the student body to turn over completely. If that’s so, then I’m an artifact from an era long past, akin, perhaps, to having lived from the American Revolution to the present day. In any case, having graduated a decade before more than half of the college’s current students were even born, my frame of reference is clearly from an earlier epoch.

A Place Ever-Changing…

In some ways, particularly in terms of the physical plant, the college has changed immensely in that time. Where students “back in my day” talked of going to Peale or listened to the clatter of the photocopier from the open mezzanine of Van Zoeren Library, students today know the A. Paul Schaap Science Center (although they sometimes are still going to Peale, whether they realize it or not), and visit Van Zoeren as an office and classroom building. Long since, they’ve attended only a Hope graced with the Richard and Helen DeVos Fieldhouse and Martha Miller Center for Global Communication. For some, it already seems as if the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts has always been there; Nykerk Hall, now replaced by the magnificent new Jim and Martie Bultman Student Center, lives on only in legend and in the memory of those who experienced it.

At left during the 1984-85 school year is the main floor of Van Zoeren Library (Van Wylen Library was just four years away). At right is the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts during 2015-16 (the site formerly held a park and tennis courts/a skateboard park).

Then there’s student life. Completing term papers on a typewriter or (wonder of wonders!) the college’s Vax terminals? Now it’s laptops and wireless. Records and CDs? Now it’s iTunes and the like (unless in that I’m already out-of-date…). During my time as an undergraduate, every residence-hall room, cottage floor or apartment had a phone. By the time my son was a freshman in 2012, the college had removed the phones from the residence-hall rooms because students had their own. In the 1960s, Chapel was packed because it was mandatory. When I was at Hope it was less heavily attended (although very meaningful to those who went). Now it’s filled to standing-room-only by students who choose to be there. Yes, we had the Pull and Nykerk and Christmas Vespers, but Dance Marathon — itself legitimately a tradition at 18 annual installments and counting — wasn’t yet even a dream. When I was a student, downtown had a lot to offer but it wasn’t necessarily a mid-day destination. Today, students comfortably study and chat while enjoying multiple coffee shops’ sidewalk seating.

At left are hardwired Vax workstations circa 1984-85, truly things of wonder when the author was a student (no more completely retyping papers with EVERY DRAFT!). Today’s ubiquitous laptop computers allow students to work anywhere.

Ever-Changing, and Yet the Same…

So, that’s all part of the strangeness of hanging around like some sort of enduring sentinel, as the Hope of my undergraduate memory is ever morphing before my eyes. But, that transformation — and what doesn’t change — is also part of the wondrousness and the privilege in it, providing an opportunity to experience Hope as a continuum and to witness the on-going Hope story.

Sure, there have been tremendous changes in the past 30 years — and, indeed, in the past 151 — but the development of campus is what helps Hope serve new generations well (imagine if the Van Wylen Library, A. Paul Schaap Science Center or any number of other facilities had never been built). Of course as society, technology and the world change, students’ interests, experiences and needs reflect those changes, and Hope’s programs evolve to continue to best prepare the college’s graduates. In a way, the changes help enable Hope to be equivalent for new generations to what it was for those who attended before.

The March 17, 1986, groundbreaking for the Van Wylen Library, looking west toward Van Zoeren Hall. Pictured from left to right are Dr. Margaret and President Dr. Gordon Van Wylen with library director David Jensen (now retired).

There’s also constancy. Some of that’s due to enduring landmarks that we all have in common, like the Pine Grove and Van Vleck and Voorhees halls, and the traditions that serve as mileposts for each of us across the academic year. Some of it is because Hope remains, ever, committed to educating “students for lives of leadership and service in a global society through academic and co-curricular programs of recognized excellence in the liberal arts and in the context of the historic Christian faith.” Especially, though, it’s owed to the people who make the place what it is — and not only because some of the faculty have been here 35 years or more. As I’ve spoken with current students and recent and longer-ago graduates, all praise the faculty and staff who clearly care about them and invest in them as individuals. It’s also because of the students, who in 2017 to me seem to possess some of the same qualities as their parents in 1983-87: serious about doing well, yes, but not in a cutthroat way; they’re supportive of one another at the same time, and concerned with more than self.

Christmas Vespers, 1985 and 2013.

That ethos carries through year after year, perpetuating itself even as the faces and times change. There’s some self-selection involved in that, of course. So often through the years, students (and faculty and staff) have said something like this: “When I set foot on campus, I just knew. People I passed on the sidewalk said ‘Hello’ even though they didn’t know me.” Those who value an institution of higher education that combines academic excellence with a welcoming and supportive environment (which owes much to how Hope lives the Christian faith) tend to be drawn to the college. Crucially, those who are then in the Hope community preserve, model and inspire the character for those who follow.

May Day, 1985. Held on the last Friday before final exams, which for decades has actually been in April, the event is now called Spring Fling.


And so, when I’m visiting Lubbers Hall and I see a faculty member and student sharing a laugh as they walk by, when I watch a professor in the Martha Miller Center for Global Communication patiently answer a question from a student who’s stopped in because the door was open, or when I overhear the students working outside my office offer to help each other in solving a problem or just bantering good naturedly, I experience echoes of the past.

And sometimes, when I’m sitting with of one of my former professors, wave while walking through the Pine Grove to a classmate who’s also on staff, or hear Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” playing on the PA in Phelps Dining Hall, it doesn’t seem like it’s been all that long.

Phelps Dining Hall following the 2014 renovation: different (and better), but in important ways also the same. (Photography by GMB)