May Brenda Rosenberg’s family story inspire you to share your story of how you spilled the honey to make our world a better and sweeter place.
In 1960, my parents Belle and Herb Cohen (of blessed memory) opened the Raven: a gallery and coffee house on James Couzens in Detroit. Their dream was to have a beautiful space to showcase Michigan and Detroit artists, visual arts, musical arts and poetry readings.
They wanted to culturally enrich our community in a beautiful, intimate and non-intimidating setting. My parents loved the arts. Almost every week, our family went to the Detroit Institute of Arts. We attended concerts, ballets and had season tickets for the Detroit Symphony. Our small house was filled with books and paintings from local artists.
It seems extraordinary when I look back. My parents were unassuming. My mother, a part-time model at Saks Fifth Avenue, and my dad, a Linotype setter, were the first to create such an amazing space. They respected talent and lived to help aspiring artists. The headline of my father’s 1977 obituary read “Herb Cohen was dedicated to culturally enriching youth.”
My father created the Raven String and Raven Woodwind quartets, directed by Paul Paray, the conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. They performed weekly. I was mesmerized listening to their music.
My father was one of the first to showcase Black artists, both painters like Harold Neal and performers from folk music’s Josh White Sr. and Josh Jr. When they were in town, they were our house guests. We became close friends.
We also had the opportunity to hear unusual talents like Dorothy Ashby, who introduced the harp to jazz and was hailed as an accomplished modern jazz harpist. Dorothy attended Cass Tech and Wayne State University. The Dorothy Ashby Trio preformed monthly at the Raven, her husband on drums. Dorothy told me she carried a triple burden: a woman playing in male-dominated jazz, being a Black woman in the entertainment industry and the Black community’s lack of interest in the sound of harp music.
Because we were surrounded with love, and introduced to the beauty of art, inspirational stories in books and our parents’ friends from every cultural group, my brother Sanford Allen Cohen (who passed away Dec. 4, 2020) and I followed in their footsteps.
In 1968, as fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue, I was the first to hire Black models in Detroit. Bessie Woods worked in the stock room. I encouraged her to take to the runway.
When Bill Blass saw the beautiful Black model Billie Blair in his fashion show at the Saks Fifth Avenue Troy store, he invited her to be in his show in NYC and took her to Paris in 1973 for the historic Battle of Versailles Fashion Show that pitted French designers against American designers. The Black models stole the show for the Americans.
As the vice president of fashion marketing and merchandising for the J.L. Hudson Co., I also hired the first Black woman executive, Phyllis Johnson.
Detroit Chess Team
My brother, also inspired by our parents, created his unique path of “spilling the honey.” For 30 years, Sanford was a civics teacher at Southeastern High School in Detroit’s most impoverished neighborhood. He created a chess club as an afterschool activity to engage and empower the students to think in new ways. He took the chess team to the National Competition three times. Some 1,375 high school chess players from 200 high schools in 33 states participated. Southeastern High sophomore Martell Collins swept to a perfect 7-0 score in the tournaments and to a National Championship title.
Join me and my friend Dr. Shari Rodgers and Spill the Honey. May our family story inspire you to share your story of how you spill the honey on her website, www.spillthehoney.com. Let’s work together to make our world a better and sweeter place.
Brenda Naomi Rosenberg co-created the Tectonic Leadership program with Samia Moustapha Bahsoun “to make a more beautiful world by breaking barriers and reframing relationships, utilizing creativity to actualize change.”