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Published: Friday, 9/10/2010

Detroiter aims to bridge racial gap with tours to past

He's been at this for 25 years now, explaining black history to white and black citizens; explaining Detroit's rich and complex history to those who know nothing about it, and to those who think they understand it better than he does. And he enjoys every minute of it.

Meet Stewart McMillin of McMillin Tours, founder, proprietor, president, and the world's most cheerfully knowledgeable tour guide. And sole employee.

"I do it because I keep learning something from the people who sign up for my trips," said Mr. McMillin, a bushy-browed retired schoolteacher who shows off his passion to anyone who pays a nominal fee for the privilege and occasionally sneaks off for a trip around the world.

"What I want to do is open up people's minds." he said. "I want them to understand Detroit. And I want them to understand as much as they can the amazing story of slavery in this country - what these people endured, how they suffered, the acts of heroism so many performed."

How did he become a one-man Detroit tourist agency? "Well, you know, race is really what started it," he said.

He came of age with the modern civil rights movement. He'd grown up in mainly white neighborhoods in Wisconsin, where he lived until he was a teenager, and then Grosse Pointe, when his dad was transferred. He first became aware of discrimination in the early 1960s, when his fraternity at Michigan State University blackballed someone because he was a Native American.

When Mr. McMillin became a history teacher in the all-white suburb of East Detroit, he started daylong exchanges with mostly black Detroit schools. Soon, he was taking students to see black history sites in Detroit. When he retired after 29 years, he decided to take his hobby to the masses and has conducted nearly 1,000 tours since.

Last month, he led an all-day African-American history and culture tour of Detroit. On Sept. 23, he plans to take a group through historic Eastern Market. He's scheduled a three-day tour beginning Oct. 22 of Underground Railroad sites in Ohio and Kentucky.

"We've still got some seats left if anyone wants to join us," he said. "This is one of my favorite trips."

Then he'll conduct a tour of Arab and Islamic sites in the Detroit area on Nov. 11. On Nov. 20 and 30, he will conduct his popular "Hootch, Hoodlums, and Hoods" tour, which combines visits to Prohibition and Purple Gang sites with automobile "hoods," as in former factories, and some of Detroit's oldest neighborhoods.

Through it all, he is relentlessly cheerful, informative, and upbeat. His business card says simply: "Stewart McMillin: Since 1940." That is literally correct: Though he seems younger, he turned 70 this year. Many of his tours end with a free beer and pizza party at his home, on Seminole in Detroit's historic Indian Village.

The house, like the city he loves, has seen better days. Magnificent from the outside, the interior is a bit chaotic. It is more a museum of Mr. McMillin's round-the-world travels, with piles of books and videotapes everywhere and rooms dedicated to different countries and continents. There's a large 1946 map in the dining room, and a few large holes in the kitchen ceiling; some damage from ruptured pipes has yet to be repaired.

All this is easier to get away with if you are a bachelor. Mr. McMillin was married twice. Now he has a girlfriend, Diane Moskaluk, who is also a retired teacher.

"Sometimes she comes along; sometimes she doesn't," he said. She joined him for a month of his last three-month, round-the-world tour, almost two years ago.

He isn't getting rich off his adventures. He has been losing a little money, especially since he started renting air-conditioned coaches for his tours. The recession forced him to postpone a grand tour of Canadian Underground Railroad sites and a Detroit church tour.

But he's a cheerful optimist whose biggest problem, a friend and frequent traveler said, is to "try to avoid telling you everything he knows in one sentence."

What he knows is that racially divided Detroit's only hope is through understanding, and that "you can't know where you are going 'til you know where you've been."

Information about Stewart McMillin's tours is available online at www.mcmillintours.com, or by calling 313-922-1990.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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