I was browsing a local book store recently and a title on the New Arrivals table caught my eye. It was one of the local history books published by Arcadia Publishing, titled Legendary Locals of Detroit by Paul Vachon. The cover is adorned with fifteen black & white portrait photographs of some of the locals revealed within. I settled down in the cafe area with a brownie and pop, and flipped through the book. By the time I reached the end, I was once again disappointed.
This is a rant. I’m not singling out this book, it just seems to have pushed me over the tipping point.
Let me preface by saying that I am biased in my opinion on this. I co-wrote Down Through the Years: The Memoirs of Detroit City Council President Emeritus Erma Henderson with her. And when I began working on the project in 1999, up through today, I can’t find the words to express my feelings about the lack of inclusion of Erma Henderson in books covering recent history of Detroit. When I saw Legendary Locals of Detroit, I was certain I’d find Erma mentioned within.
Chapter One is titled “Firsts” which covers pioneers who “were unsung heroes who advanced the causes of civil rights, often at risk to their own safety.” Included in this chapter is Mary Beck – the first woman elected to Detroit’s Common Council (City Council) – and Jennifer Granholm – Michigan’s first woman governor who was born in Canada, and has no connection to Detroit.
Chapter Two is titled “In The Public Square.” Included in this chapter are Detroit City Council members Maryann Mahaffey and Mel Ravitz, along with mayors, judges, governors and other social justice leaders.
The rest of the book depicts people in the fields of business, sports and art, with a final chapter on “Demagogues. Disrupters, and Dissidents” which includes gangsters and racists.
How is it that Erma Henderson is always overlooked in Detroit history books?
Erma Henderson was not the first woman on City Council, but she was the first African American – male or female – to be elected President of the Detroit City Council, by accumulating the most votes on election day. And she held the presidency for four straight terms! The election she won in 1972 to get on the Detroit City Council was in a head-to-head contest against Jack Kelly, an influential and popular white male. Kelly was elected to City Council the following year, 1973, along with Erma, when the entire council was up for election.
On Council, Erma took on the insurance and mortgage companies and banks, leading an anti-red lining campaign that challenged Michigan’s laws that allowed the practice of denying insurance and loans or charging exorbitant rates, to credit-worthy individuals and businesses simply because they were located in a particular area red-lined by financial institutions. Her crusade caused the Michigan legislature to enact the most comprehensive Anti-Redlining laws in the nation at that time. A woman thirty years ahead of the Occupy movement.
She fought for civil rights as early as her high school days, where she demanded that the high school senior class photo no longer place all the black graduates at the bottom of the photo – where they could be clipped off. The school changed the senior class photo and placed the students in alphabetical order. In 1938 she led a sit-in at the Pantland Hotel in downtown Grand Rapids where she was attending the Michigan Republican Convention as a delegate, but was denied a room at the hotel because the hotel refused to allow minorities accommodations.
She was named the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Council following the 1967 disturbance where she coordinated the monitoring of the courts and compiled data on judges, attorneys and defendants. The court watchers documented evidence of indifference towards poor and minority defendants. The data was analyzed and published by the University of Michigan School of Social Work, which was a major factor in (1) the elimination of some visiting judges, (2) permanent funding for full-time jail ministry, (3) and several new judgeship appointments to Detroit’s criminal courts. It was nationally recognized as being the most effective court-watch program in the nation in 1974.
She founded the Women’s Conference of Concerns which became a major coalition-building base of power for women’s organizations in Southeast Michigan.
Among the gallery of awards that she was honored with includes:
- The Detroit News’ “Michiganian of the Year”
- Michigan Education Association’s “Distinguished Service Award.”
- Salvation Army’s “Citizen of the Year Award”
- National Organization of Women’s “Feminist of the Year Award”
- Detroit Free Press “10 Most Influential Women in Detroit”
- Michigan Women’s Foundation’s Trillium Award (Lifetime Achievement).
And I’m just scratching the surface.
Yet, Erma Henderson is not a legendary local. Why not?
Her entire life was dedicated being a champion for the people of Detroit.
Detroit history writers – quit overlooking Erma Henderson.