Black Like Me: Growing up a person of color in Leelanau County

Marshall Collins, Jr., shared his personal experiences with a crowd of 2,000 at the June 6 Black Lives Matter demonstration at the Open Space in Traverse City. Photo by Lisa Wamsley

By Marshall Collins, Jr.

As told to Sun editor Jacob Wheeler

Northport native and Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District educator Marshall Collins, Jr., has a unique story to tell as an African-American in Leelanau County. Collins was the only black member of his graduating class in 1995, and despite struggling with being one of very few people of color, he returned to the County after college to be near his family and out of love for this region. Following the gruesome murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day, Collins helped organize recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Traverse City, including an upbeat and peaceful rally at the Open Space on June 6 that drew a diverse crowd of approximately 2,000 mask-wearing and social distancing activists and allies. 

Inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement—which is provoking conversations nationwide about racial inequities and the need for police reform—the Glen Arbor Sun will publish a series of stories by, and about, people of color in Leelanau County, and how their skin color affects how they are treated here.

Growing up here, there weren’t many people I could tell my story to, who could understand what I was going through. So I want to make sure I give people that opportunity. Many times since the June 6 Black Lives Matter rally, people have reached out wanting to have a conversation, even some of my [white] buddies. 

I grew up in Northport in a black family. My dad, Marshall Collins, Sr., was a pastor, and we were migrant workers. I picked in the fields until I was 14. My parents would come back and forth between here and Mount Dora, Florida, 30 miles north of Orlando, until my freshman year of high school when I was 15. I’m the youngest of eight kids. We would come up in mid-May after school in Florida got out early, then leave at the end of September. Sometimes we’d stay for apple season. Our whole family was picking. And my dad would pastor on Sundays. We also had the Petoskey stone rock shop in Northport.

Mount Dora, Florida, was way more diverse than here. It was segregated on its own. Black people lived here, lower class white people lived there, upper class people lived by the water. The trips back and forth changed me. After we had been here for 4-5 months, I’d have a northern tone. In Florida they’d ask “Why you talk so proper?” It’s not acceptable for a black man to speak proper English there. When I came back here I’d have a southern drawl and people would ask “Why you sound like a country boy?” In Florida, my friends were all African-American. I felt more accepted. Friends there listened to the same music, wore the same clothes, had the same culture. If something happened racially toned, they’d understand. 

When I was young, my sister Crystal and I were home. My brother Ronnie got word that the Ku Klux Klan was marching through Mount Dora. My other sister was at a track meet. My other brother was into ninja and karate. He put on all the stuff that he had collected, and he said, “You guys get under the bed and don’t come out until I get home! I’m going to get your sister.” We both hid until he got back. 

When we decided to stay in Northport year-round I was initially heartbroken. He told me he had just been offered the church position full time. “I’m gonna accept it and we’re gonna stay,” he said. We’ve been here ever since. I only went back to Mount Dora when I was 16. One of my buddies was like, “Marshall, is that you? … Let me give you a hint of advice. Never come back.” The town was a drug trafficking area. “You got out, don’t come back,” my buddy said. I took that to heart.

But I was upset we were staying. I was deflated. I wanted my people, my culture, people that listened to the same music, wore the same clothes. I don’t like tight clothing. My pants would be a little baggy, and my Dad said, “You need to pull your pants up.” He was strict about not giving people the wrong impression. I’m different. I’m like, if that’s the way you judge me, that’s your problem. If you don’t want to get to know me, that’s on you.

In my family we’re loud, fun, we play with one another, jab with one another. Up here people sometimes say, “You hurt my feelings.” I had to adjust to the sensitivity level. It still is hard. If you rag on me, I’m gonna rag on you, and expect you to rag on me back so we can laugh together. I’m just joking with you, just messing with you. 

High school wasn’t good, wasn’t bad. At first I was a B and C student. I was disruptive in class, but I toed the line. After my sophomore year I realized I had to get my act together. I did a 180. I worked on myself.

Photo: Marshall Collins, Jr.’s senior class at Northport High School in 1995.

I started reading a lot of James Baldwin’s books and Black Like Me when I was in the 10th grade. I started connecting more to my culture, because I missed it. I loved hip hop, rhythm and blues, and gospel music. To keep up with the times, I watched the TV show “In Living Color” or I’d go to the Grand Traverse Mall and I’d look at the top 10 R&B albums. There was a little section in the Northport high school library for black history books. That’s where it all started. I started doing well in school, almost straight A’s. They were offering Advanced Placement classes. The teacher said, “They’re offered in the morning. Good luck getting here.” … My mom made sure I was there every day before anyone else. 

By the time I graduated, my class had become like my family. They still are. But there are certain things you need that that family couldn’t give you. We had one Hispanic girl, and one Native American. I’m easy to pick out in our senior picture, and they shot it in black & white. 

I did encounter some overt racism during those years. A couple times coaches would say things about me to other people. I’d hear about them from teammates. I’d bring them up to the coaches, and they’d deny they said it. On the soccer field and basketball courts, I’d hear things from other teams. When I first started playing basketball up here, I could jump but I couldn’t shoot. I could barely make a layup, but I could grab a rebound. My freshman year, the opposing side was like “Oh man, they’ve got a brother on their team. We’re in trouble!” At the layup line during warm-ups I’d jump as high as I could to show off. Then we’d get on the court, and I had no jump shot or anything. My coaches worked with me to improve.

The N word was said on the field at least once. That happened in Frankfort. I turned around and said, “Who said it?” It was in the crowd. One time after we played soccer against Forest Area I was walking to my car. A kid walked by me and said “bucket of chicken, KFC”.  I got on the opposing team’s bus and said “Be a man! Who said it?” My teammates pulled me off the bus. No one owned up to it. … Things like that always happen, and we’re labeled as “the angry black man”. Yeah, I’ll turn into an angry black man if you say that.

As for subtle racism, adults say “Well, I’m not racist.” I’d ask, “How would you feel if I came home with your daughter?” No answer. And I say, “Exactly.” That’s the silent racism that I’m talking about. I was dating a [white] girl in high school, and her parents wanted her to stop dating me. They liked me, but I overheard the dad talking with her about finding a good Norwegian person. My girlfriend said she was thinking, “If we had kids I’d never have kids that had blonde hair and blue eyes.” I remember it to this day. We had been dating going on two years.

I went to college at Concordia University Ann Arbor, a small Lutheran school with a lot of white people there, but I wasn’t the only black person. They put me in the basketball dorm where I made a lot of friends. My roommate was white, and we became best friends. When he first came into our dorm room he put up a picture of his brother with a blue truck and a Confederate flag. I said “You know what, I’m not sure we can have that in here. That’s offensive.” He looked me dead in the eye and said, “I’m sorry. I’ll take it down.” A lot of people that wave [the rebel flag] think it’s just a style, a way of life. They don’t think about slavery. I became good friends with my roommate’s family in Ida, Michigan, even his brother with the Confederate flag. I’ve never seen him fly that on his truck. Maybe knowing me stopped him from flying it.

After Concordia I came right back up here. I wanted to be up near my parents. I love this area. My Dad was up in age. I wanted to be around him and my mom. Even as the only black person, I love this community, and I wanted to be around my parents because you never know. My dad, Marshall Collins, Sr., passed away in 2012. My Mom, Mary, has dementia, she’s at Traverse City MediLodge. I haven’t seen her since March 12 [due to COVID-19]. 

At Northport High School I was a tutor with the Native American community. Then I got the teaching position at the Intermediate School District, where I’ve been for 9 years. In Northport there were a few people of color, some biracial students, many Native American students, more Hispanic students. They could talk to me easier. They know if someone’s being prejudiced toward them, I step in. I taught a class at Northport I put together about cultural awareness, for juniors and seniors. My push to the school board was that “We have to better prepare our students for the real world.” Some students hadn’t been outside the area other than playing sports. We read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I wanted the students to learn how Malcolm X changed over time, how what happened to him growing up gave him the tenacity he had, and the anger he had against white people.

The racism I experience is when I see someone just looking at me, looking at my [white] wife Tricia, just staring. I stare back. I haven’t said anything. You can feel the stare. It happens often. Honestly, I may have become numb to it by now. My kids— Trae, 15, and Jaiden, 13— are starting to notice. I hate to say it, but you get used to it. When I walk around Traverse City, I shouldn’t have to worry about looking different.

The one that gets me all the time is when people ask, “Where are you from? Detroit?” I’m like, “No, actually, I’m from Northport, Michigan, which is 30 miles further north [from Traverse City].” I have a shirt that says “No, I’m not from Detroit,” with the Leelanau peninsula on it and a star where Northport is. I had that shirt made just for me. 

My dad used what God gave him to get across to people. If you were to say something to him, he’d talk to you to help you get through it. Once at the church in Northport one of the members came up to him mad and yelling. She yelled out “You’re a N—” three or four times. Then my dad said one of the most powerful things that you could say to anybody. He turned around and said “You know what, I’m gonna pray for you.” And he walked away. She was in church the next Sunday: she would always go. I saw that he was pretty angry, pretty hurt. But he had to be more than that for me. Because he looked right at me before he turned around and said to her, “I’ll pray for you”. He could see that I was getting worked up about it. I was probably 17. Then we drove home. We didn’t talk about what had happened. We didn’t need to. I saw what I needed to see from my Dad.

In November 2016 at a Traverse City protest against Trump just after the election, an off-duty city cop showed up at the demonstration sporting a Confederate flag. That triggered bad memories from growing up in Mount Dora. Down there trucks with that flag flying would try to run you off the road. When my sister Crystal heard the guy revving his engines and she saw the Confederate flag, she broke down. She said, “Marshall, I thought we had escaped that stuff.” … That’s when I said “no more”. I had to say something. We learned later that he was an off-duty city cop [who was fired within days]. That was a turning point in me speaking out against racism. It was the first time in front of a crowd that I called someone out on it. I was mad, frustrated. My family moved up here to escape that hate. … But sometimes it feels like Michigan is becoming the new South.

When George Floyd was killed, I saw the picture, but I couldn’t watch the video. When I finally watched it last week on CNN, I lost it mentally. I don’t know how anyone can watch that and not see anything wrong with it. Close your eyes for a minute and think, “How would you feel if this was me [suffocating under the police officer’s boot]?”

Grand Traverse County commissioner Betsy Coffia organized a few of us through a Zoom call the next Friday. I told them to count on me for whatever. Our big #BlackLivesMatter rally on June 6 in Traverse City was pretty amazing. I’m still overwhelmed. I woke up the next day with a big smile on my face. But reality kicked in that our work isn’t done yet. We gotta get right back to work. The pessimism going forward is that it could just die off again. The civil rights movement was huge for our nation and for the world. We got the right to vote. We got complacent. Things are still going on against people of color. People see this is still going on. 

As for my teenage boys, I try to let them find their own way, just like my dad gave me space. Trey just watched the movie The Hate U Give. There’s a scene about a dad teaching his kids how to act when you’re black and you get pulled over by a cop. Sure, I got pulled over in Northport when I was 23. The cop said he saw my vehicle too many times around town. He took my license and registration and ran it. “Lucky for you, it came back clean,” he told me. “But I could have given you a ticket for having a crystal prism hanging from your windshield.” I responded, “I need your name and badge number. I’m gonna call [then Leelanau sheriff] Oltersdorf.” But my dad wouldn’t let me call the sheriff. He was like, “Don’t rock the boat.” I got pulled over in my 30s on Woodmere in Traverse City. The cop said I was speeding—going 45 in a 35. He let me off without a ticket. The next day I made the same drive and rechecked the signs. The speed limit there was 45.

I respect the American flag. My dad was in the Navy. My father in law was in Vietnam. But if you can’t understand why [NFL quarterback] Colin Kaepernick is kneeling [during the national anthem], then the problem is you. We need systemic change. I’m proud we have people working in our community for it. I say to my Leelanau County community, “Stop acting like racism doesn’t exist. Stop acting like you don’t look at people and judge them.” You can be for Trump or against Trump, but that doesn’t stop you from being a nice person. It’s hard for people to just be nice.

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