When Shahida Mausi says her roots are in Detroit, she can make that claim with more authority than many Detroiters; her family has been in the Motor City for 100 years this year. Meaning since before the Motor City was even the Motor City.
June is Black Music Month, and as the woman who has singularly been the most influential guiding force of Chene Park Amphitheater since its founding, one of the city’s live music venue jewels, it seemed only appropriate to give Ms. Mausi her just due as someone who comes from a family of businesspeople and entrepreneurs who has most certainly done more than her part to continue the legacy. However, “I could not possibly run Chene Park without my four sons [Dorian, Sulaiman, Rashid, and Malik]. Each of them has a different gift that they bring to bear here. And I never knew I was gonna give birth to a workforce.”
Mausi’s company, The Right Productions, has managed and operated Chene Park for the past 14 years.
“My great grandmother, Mary Felicia Chavous Griffin came to Detroit in 1918 with her three small children, [two girls and a boy], from Aiken, SC. She came here leaving an abusive relationship. As a woman alone with three children to take care of she came to Detroit and she made her way and established her family here” even though she knew no one in town when she made the move.
“When she came, she needed help, so she went to a church and asked for help. The church said they couldn’t help her, so she played the number, and the number fell. And she was able to do what she needed to put on foot in front of the other from that point on.”
But just to set the record straight, Mausi emphasized that Ms. Chavous did not survive the rest of her life solely from a lucky number. She also worked as a seamstress, a cook, and a housekeeper.
“All the things a woman needed to do to survive,” she said. “I don’t want her to get up and slap me” for leaving that out, she said with a laugh.
Mausi’s grandmother was Mary Elsie Fleming, and she had an “interesting life”. Fleming liked athletics, and especially liked to golf. Eventually she owned a restaurant on the corner of Buena Vista and Linwood named ‘Sweetie’s’ across the street from the Hobby Bar.
“She said it was named after me but I don’t know about that.”
Bill Fleming, her grandfather, owned a haberdashery next door to the restaurant that may – or may not -have been named after Mausi. Whatever the case, it’s clear the roots of this family are anchored deep into Detroit earth. Mausi’s great aunt, her grandmother’s sister, was named Ann Roane.
“She was married to Irving Roane. And Irving Roane was half owner in the Gotham Hotel. They bought a house on East Ferry that is still in my family, that we still own” near Brush and Beaubien.
“So owning a piece of the Gotham, or having a legacy that’s associated with that, is something that I care about.”
Mausi’s great uncle and a man named John White purchased the Gotham together.
“I think it was for $243,000 cash and that was in 1943. Something like that. That’s a lot of money.”
Indeed it was. In 2017 that would be the equivalent of roughly $3.4 million. And equally as important as the value of the transaction conducted by black businessmen for a valuable piece of property in Detroit’s black neighborhood, is the value in cultural capital.
“In segregation we weren’t allowed to stay in white hotels, but that didn’t mean we didn’t have fine hotels. In Detroit that fine hotel was the Gotham. And that’s where all the celebrities of note stayed. That’s where MLK stayed. White tablecloth, fine dining.”
Mausi’s mother, Joyce F. Garrett, was actually raised by an aunt and uncle in Cleveland. She went to Smith College.
“She was the first African American female in the foreign service of the US. And she was trilingual. French and Spanish. She also had her Masters from Wayne State University. She was deputy director of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, I believe in 1967.”
“I believe it was during that time she was working a lot in Lansing where she met then Senator Coleman Young. Whereupon they struck up a relationship that lasted for a long time. She was very active in helping him get elected mayor. And served in various capacities in his administration.”
“She was a very cultured woman, and was very active with the major cultural institutions in town. …You will find her name on the Joe Louis sculpture in Cobo Hall, because she was the person responsible for getting that sculpture commissioned and raised the money for it.”
Mausi later developed her own relationship with Y0ung, which eventually led to her involvement with – and ultimate control over – Chene Park.
“I started doing events when I was in college, but not long after college I got the job of being director of the Detroit Council of the Arts. I was a Mayor Young appointee. I was maybe the second to the youngest appointee. And while I served in that capacity the Recreation Department built Chene Park, but I had the opportunity to do the first three years of programming.”
Mausi started the Wednesday night jazz concert series which began 32 years ago. She has a picture on her wall of one of the early jazz concerts showing how much more sparse Chene Park used to look. Not that it mattered to the crowds.
“We did Carmen McCrae, and it was raining, and 6,000 people came and put up umbrellas and sat on the hill to wait to see Ms. McCrae hit the stage. And the mayor decided, well, maybe we need to do a little bit more with this and built it out some more. And then other folks did programming for a long time. But then the city put it out for bid and I won the bid.”
Mausi also won another major contract in 1998 granting her to provide the entertainment for the MGM Grand Casino, an opportunity which held a special significance for her. She held that position for the next 10 years, which for a time overlapped with her responsibilities at Chene Park which began in 2003.
“My uncle in Cleveland was a numbers banker when it was legal, That used to be the case. You used to be able to buy a revenue stamp from the federal government as long as you paid your taxes, and it was legal. So it wasn’t until the states changed the laws that it became a crime. I think that was in the early ‘30s.”
“So for me to win the contract to provide entertainment and production services for the MGM Grand Detroit Casino, which was the first casino to open in the city of Detroit, and to be standing in a legal gambling house, when they opened the doors for the first day, and the customers started coming up the elevator, it felt very connected to my history.”
Mausi’s responsibility was to hire local acts, which meant they were hiring nearly 100 musicians a month. This tapping into Detroit’s deep levels of local talent was in keeping with Detroit’s history as a major music industry. A history that sadly has not translated so much into present day.
“That’s an important fact that Detroit had an industry of music. Our schools trained musicians who worked in the industry. When we fail to educate young people in music and in design and in the arts, we’re neglecting the creative industries. So when I was hiring 100 musicians, and providing good wages thru MGM Grand, increasingly I was having to hire non-Detroiters to fill those spaces because the industry was not being fed with new trained people.
“One of the things that we used to be able to do was to give young people opportunities to train and work in the arts over the summer and get paid for doing that. But they had to audition or bring portfolio. And we had maybe 125 slots back in the day for that program. We had over 1,000 applicants that came and auditioned to try and get in. This was in the ‘80s.
“Now, some of the people who went through that program continue to be entrepreneurs and professionals in the arts. People who are making, designing and constructing the actual sets and touring the country came through that program. Actors that are working in NY and LA came through that program. Singers, musicians, who are working and touring the world came through that program. It was where Detroit artists trained the next generation of artists. It gave the young people money, but it also gave them a craft that helped to undergird the creative industries. So while we’re talking in Detroit about jobs for the summer? We need to talk about where are the creative jobs for the summer as well.”
But there is still no shortage of music fans in the Motor City.
“Detroit has always been in the top echelons of attendance records for the arts in the country. Way above our stature in terms of population. One of the things that Detroiters who may not travel or just haven’t thought about it is that the performance venues in Detroit are larger than the theaters in New York City. Broadway houses are 800 seats, 1,200 seats tops. The Fox is 5,000. The Fischer is about 3,000. The Opera House, same. Masonic Temple is 5,000. Chene Park is 6,000, OK? We are waaaaay bigger. Detroiters take it for granted. We think this is normal. It’s not. It’s unique. It’s unique in the country.”