Exclusive Interview: Detroit author ROCHELLE RILEY discusses her life, her new book, and a path forward
Dedicated and driven, Rochelle Riley is a talented author and advocate for creatives. She works on behalf of the arts and culture community in Detroit.
Author, journalist, Director of the City of Detroit’s ACE Office (Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship), Ms. Riley functions in several different roles simultaneously.
She also did an amazing job creating the Covid Memorial on Belle Isle, Detroit’s urban island park, to honor those lost during the pandemic. Fifteen funeral processions circled the island past more than 900 large portrait billboards of Detroiters.
Ms. Riley has a B.A. in Journalism from the UNC School of Media & Journalism, and she was a Knight Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan.
Locally here in Detroit, she is known for being a columnist at the Detroit Free Press from 2000-2019. Her first day in Detroit was 9-11-2000.
Prior to that she worked for a variety of newspapers, including The Washington Post, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, The Dallas Morning News and the Greensboro Daily News. Due to her achievements, she has been inducted into the Michigan and North Carolina journalism Halls of Fame.
Her new book “That They Lived: African Americans Who Changed the World,” is an inspiring and uplifting collection of twenty-one African Americans who changed the course of history.
Published by Wayne State University Press in February 2021, this book is the result of Ms. Riley criss-crossing the country in a multi-year journey to put the project together.
Genesis of the Idea for ‘That They Lived’
Ms. Riley wrote the biographical essays based on photos that Cristi Smith-Jones, a mom and amateur photographer in Kent, Washington, posted on social in 2017. Mrs. Smith-Jones wanted to teach her daughter, Lola, about African-American history, so she posted the photos of then 5-year-old Lola dressed as iconic African-American women. Ms. Riley saw the photos and asked to write the stories of the women as well as others featuring Ms. Riley’s grandson, Caleb, dressed as iconic African American men. Mrs. Smith Jones said yes.
“In February 2017, I was working on my previous book, ‘The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery,” and scrolling through Twitter, when I saw an amazing series of photos during Black History Month,” Ms. Riley said. “Then the same thing happened again in February 2018. I’m scrolling through and these lovely photos pop up featuring a little African-American girl named Lola dressed in meticulously researched attire. She was highlighting the accomplishments of historical African American women, and I thought I need to find the person doing this. And it led me to Lola’s mom, Cristi.”
“Cristi said she was teaching Lola about Black History. So, I explained to Cristi that I was a writer and that pictures are worth a thousand words and I had a thousand words for each of their photos. She was very shy and stunned. I flew to Seattle to meet with her personally, and she agreed to do the project. I wanted to represent the men too, so I flew to Dallas, got my 8-year-old grandson Caleb, and we flew back to Seattle.”
“Yes, some bribery was involved. We would do a 30 -minutes photo shoot, then fifteen minutes of Fortnite and cupcakes. Afterwards , when the project was done, would take him to the movies. He wanted to stay dressed as Frederick Douglass. I convinced him to go as Thurgood Marshall.”
Although geared towards young readers, ‘That They Lived’ is a book that can be enjoyed by anyone of every age.
The project was funded, in part, by a grant from the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan and the WSU Press endowment from the Arthur L. Johnson Fund for African American Studies.
“This is a book for young readers, for all readers,” Ms. Riley said. “I want them to understand that every great person was once a child. The book highlights 21 African Americans, but there are hundreds of African Americans who have invented and achieved, so it was definitely hard to choose. I tried selecting those who helped changed the views of other people about all African Americans, people who paved the way for others.”
“Previously, I had joined forces with WSU Press on The Burden. So I did it again.
Rochelle Riley on Her Love of Books & Writing
“I became a writer when I was 8 years old. I had no math skills, and I had learned a love of words from my mother, an English teacher. I was hooked.”
“When I was a columnist, I wrote constantly. Currently, I’m working on a novel and a sequel to The Burden. When I’m writing a book, I’m finally happy with it by about the 11th or 20th draft.”
“I write everywhere! Sitting on the couch, lying in bed, or sitting at my sturdy copper dining room table. I also work at my writing table, a glass desk where I’ve been writing for 20 years. But I can write anywhere. One time I was in the emergency room and had a column due. I snuck out to the waiting room and finished the column in my hospital gown.”
“Some of my favorite personal favorites books are: ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ (1943) Betty Smith and ‘The Color Purple’ (1982) Alice Walker. I like thrillers and mysteries. And I celebrate the brilliance of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison every year.”
Rochelle Riley grew up in Tarboro, North Carolina.
“My parents lived with their three kids in New York. My mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 27 years old, and my parents split up. We went to live with my mother’s parents in Tarboro, and I’ve forever grateful to them for making us into a new family.”
“Even as her MS progressed and she was confined to a wheelchair, my mother was an incredible inspiration to me. She taught English to my friends and me in the living room.”
“The town, like most towns back then, was segregated based on race. The Mason-Dixon line that split the nation also existed in our town. And I crossed that line every day to go work at the public library.”
“In Tarboro, the norm was what is was. Beyond the expected segregated norm I didn’t experience much racism there. When I got to high school, everybody got along. But I was always aware of it.”
“My great, great, great grandfather Bailum Pitt was enslaved in North Carolina. I was able to find and confirm this in the tax records and will of a white attorney whose papers I found at the North Carolina State Archives.”
“As for hobbies, I live to write. But I do occasionally make time for movies, television, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, reading and traveling. They aren’t hobbies like some people would consider hobbies. My only constant task is reading. It is a duty and a joy.”
“I don’t have any specific favorite local eateries, but I love pasta and Asian food. And I love Belle Isle on a sunny day and Comerica Park in a close ninth inning.”
Detroit’s ACE Office
In May 2019, Mayor Mike Duggan appointed Ms. Riley to head the City of Detroit’s newly created Office of Arts, Culture, and Entrepreneurship.
“I had decided to leave the newspaper (Detroit Free Press) to help keep others from being laid off, and the mayor needed an arts and culture director, so I was hired for the new role.”
“One thing we are going to be doing is a city-wide creative workforce census (which was launched in June). This project will measure the depth and breadth of Detroit’s creative workforce.”
Some parting thoughts for now
“Slavery didn’t end. It just moved from plantations to the board rooms, court rooms, newsrooms and classrooms of America. This country has spent centuries trying to hide a crime committed in plain sight. That is no longer possible.”
“The greatest honor any African American can achieve is the acknowledgement that he or she has been blocked from achieving great life, liberty and happiness, that America is sorry and that the achievements, inventions and genius of African Americans will be added to all textbooks forthwith.”
Keep your eye on Rochelle Riley and stay tuned for her upcoming books, articles, and ACE projects!
Letters to Black Girls project