Before I get into this assignment, I want to point out that Mr. Van Cleave has a YouTube channel in which he goes over all the submissions by presenting a slideshow of them (which allows you to read each one), then discusses each of them individually.
We all have someone in our lives who represents a story waiting to be told. That story could be uplifting, or not. But that’s the way true-to-life stories are; not all fairy tales and happily-ever-after and Prince (or Princess) Charming. But a story, waiting to be told, as a typed, one-page composition. It’s your story, to share with others.
For this assignment, I took my healed wrist to the 1951 Royal Quiet De Luxe, and tried to fit a single page in about Erma Henderson. Though there is a lot to her story, and a lot of it has been shared, I chose to revisit her for this assignment because August 20, 2017 would have been her 100th birthday.
One of the take-aways from this assignment is that I need to allow myself a little more time to either hand-write or rough draft it on the typewriter and re-type. One of the aesthetics of using a typewriter is the human error component of mistypes, misspellings, and rawness of thought. If I’m going to continue this and publish them here, I need to consider providing cleaner copy.
I was in her city
She was not there
or so I thought.
Saturday, I participated in a photo walk. Held semi-annually in the spring and fall, Bija, a Buddhist teacher from Still Point Zen Temple in Detroit, leads us through the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit, south of Wayne State University campus, armed with cameras to capture images of our world. It is, for me, a meditation. Sitting on the cushion, mindful of breath and the current of thoughts flowing through my mind is one way I meditate. This photo walk, and when I isolate images of the instant through photography in general, I find myself in that same, silent space. Aware of my surroundings, my chatting mind goes silent and I see the world differently.
Saturday was a beautiful day in Detroit. Sun and a moderate temperature where a t-shirt and light jacket was perfect attire. And as I had in the previous Buddhist photo walks I’ve taken, a number of interesting images were captured. These are but a few:
It was around 3:30 when we returned to the abbey. We flipped through our photos and added a few more from within the Buddhist temple.
Upon leaving, I felt calm and centered. On such a beautiful day, I didn’t want the feeling to end. I considered parking the car downtown then move about the city to shoot more images. But something didn’t feel right about it. It would have felt forced, almost touristy. Instead, my attention shifted to the book launch of my novel in a couple of days. My first published novel. But not my first published book. And the subject of the first book guided me.
On August 14, 2004, the book launch for Down Through the Years: The Memoirs of Detroit City Council President Emeritus Erma Henderson took place at the Detroit Public Library’s main branch. The five years leading up to this monumental moment passed too quickly. My only regret being that I was too busy with job, law school, and recording, researching and writing Erma’s story to journal my own observations and insights along the way. One of the things I did recall was Erma’s love of Belle Isle. This became my destination.
I had been on Belle Isle only two times previously: once when Erma asked me to drive her around the island in the early part of this century and once for the launch of an anthology which included three of my shorter pieces at the Detroit Yacht Club during a blizzard in February of this year. This would be my first solo adventure, and it did not disappoint.
I stopped at several points along the island where I then stepped out and took in the view. Like Erma and others have told me before, Belle Isle is a gem, with spectacular views of the Detroit and Windsor skylines and the glistening water, sparkling like a river of diamonds. I’d take a photo or two, then take in the sounds and sights silently. It was just like I was back in time, when Erma was alive and I in her home. And across the river stood The Jeffersonian, where her apartment was on the south end of the 28th floor.
I wanted to go back up there, to her apartment, tell her about my novel, listen to her stories and the affirmations she’d want to plant in my head. To do so, however, would seriously confuse the current resident of that apartment. So I got as close as I could. Next to The Jeffersonian is the Erma L. Henderson Park & Marina, where I made the final stop on my day’s photo walk.
The walk through her park from my car out to the sign on Jefferson Avenue is when I told her about the novel. I knew if she were here she would have had one of her many friends read her all 475 pages. Then she’d share her thoughts with me about it. It would have been a fun conversation.
A theme in The Y in Life is how a person’s life can change when someone who had an influence on him is no longer there. Standing in the park, looking up to that 28th floor apartment, I understood how Erma’s trust in me to write her memoirs gave me the confidence in myself to write this novel. I helped her write her story; she helped me write mine.
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-wroteDown 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).