The Michigan Pages: History: Black History

Women’s Suffrage in Michigan

A War Worth Waging - HFM by MikeRyu
A War Worth Waging – HFM by MikeRyu

Today is International Womens Day and March is Women’s History Month in Michigan. While we aren’t down with the idea that half the population’s heritage can be relegated to a single month, it seems like a good day to look at the long road that women took to secure the right to vote.

Michiganders can feel good that Michigan was one of the first 3 states to ratify the nineteenth amendment in 1919, the fact that it this struggle spanned at least seven decades remains a shame.

In 1846, a woman named Ernestine Rose spoke to the Michigan legislature about the need for women’s suffrage. This was a full two years before the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. In 1849, a Michigan state Senate committee proposed a “universal suffrage” amendment to the Michigan constitution which would have granted voting rights to both women and African Americans, but no action was taken on the proposal. The H-Net Chronology of Michigan Women’s History:

1849 A Senate committee, led by Senator Rix Robinson of Ada, proposes a universal suffrage amendment but it is not acted upon because of the “unusualness” and “needlessness” of the franchise for women.

1866 The state’s first bill on woman suffrage is defeated by one vote.

1867 The Michigan Legislature grants women taxpayers the right to vote for school trustees but rejects total woman suffrage.

Woman Suffrage Tent, 1912 Michigan State Fair (Archives of Michigan)

1912 Governor Charles S. Osborn successfully urges the Michigan State Legislature to put the suffrage question before the all-male electorate in November. Clara B. Arthur of Detroit leads the campaign and the proposal appears to win. However, the opposition steals the election under suspicious circumstances.

1917 Governor Albert E. Sleeper signs a bill on May 8, granting Michigan women the right to vote in presidential elections.

1918 Michigan male voters approve a state constitutional amendment granting suffrage to Michigan women.

1919 Michigan women vote for statewide offices for the first time.

1920 The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting the vote to women, becomes law on August 26. Women vote for the first time in the presidential election on November 2.

The H-Net Chronology has a ton of cool non-suffrage facts too from Marie-Therese Guyon Cadillac and Anne Picote de Belestre de Tonti joining their husbands at Fort Pontchartrain in Detroit and becoming the first two European women settlers in Michigan in 1702 and Madeline LaFramboise founding the first permanent trading post in Michigan near present-day Ada with her husband Joseph in 1804 to Ruth Thompson of Muskegon becoming the first Michigan woman elected to Congress in 1950.

The coal mines of the Saginaw Valley

driver boy by j3net
driver boy by j3net

What lies beneath: A look at Saginaw’s coal mining past from yesterday’s Saginaw News says that the new “Mining for Prosperity: Coal in the Saginaw Valley” exhibit at the Castle Museum identifies 29 coal mines in Saginaw County and notes that In the early part of the 20th century, more than 1,000 people made their living working in Saginaw’s coal mines.

An excellent article on The Coal Fields of Bay County explains that:

The first discovery of coal in the valley was made simultaneously with the discovery of salt. Through the influence of the late Dr. George A. Lathrop, the East Saginaw Salt Manufacturing Company was organized in 1859, and the first well was completed in May 1860. While the work was in progress Dr. Lathrop, who was a geologist, made a drawing giving an analysis of the mineral deposits through which the drill passed. This map shows that coal was struck in two places at a depth of over two hundred feet. The doctor then made the remark that the time was coming when coal would be drilled for all over the valley…

(Saginaw Mine director) Mr. Chappell said recently: “I have drilled a great deal and can safely say that Saginaw Valley coal is far superior to any coal in Michigan. It is a free coal that burns up to a light ash without leaving clinkers, and is a coal of almost complete combustion, throwing out but very little soot, making it a first-class domestic soft coal. For steam purposes it compares very favorably with the Ohio product, more especially that from the Hocking Valley. There is a large area of the Saginaw Valley under laid with this coal; just how much will not be determined until the territory is drilled up, but enough has been shown already to make it a splendid inducement for manufacturers to locate here on account of this advantage.”

Read on for information about many of the mines in the region. The Saginaw News notes that the Federal Government is pretty concerned about many of the old mine shafts.

About the photo: Janet writes: This young miner is carrying the braided whip he uses to drive his mule. I bought this card on ebay where it was described as coming from a collection of cards from St. Louis, Michigan. Real photo card, divided back, unused. AZO stamp box dates it to between 1904 and 1918.

Michigan’s Rich African American Past

For years, February has been recognized as Black History Month. In nearly 250 years of living in Michigan, African Americans have made many important-and often overlooked–contributions to our state’s past. One of the earliest records of African Americans living in Michigan came in the early 1760s when the British replaced the French at Detroit. Two decades later, a British census showed than nearly 200 African American slaves were living in British Detroit. The number of slaves declined after the Americans arrived in 1796. Although a census in 1830 indicated that 30 slaves lived in the territory, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned human slavery and it never thrived in Michigan.

Conversely, opposition to slavery did grow. Michigan was an active participant of the Underground Railroad even before it became a state. In 1836, thirteen former slaves organized the Second Baptist Church in Detroit. Besides allowing African Americans to worship without discrimination, the church also opened Michigan’s first school for black children and it was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Michigan’s black population grew slowly but steadily during the years before the Civil War. Famed black abolitionist Sojourner Truth made Battle Creek her home in 1857. At a time when women, especially black women, did not give speeches, Truth used her remarkable speaking skills to promote equality and the need to end slavery. Truth stood six feet tall and had a deep voice. Her listeners were “melted into tears by her touching stories.”

As automobiles became Michigan’s central focus, tens of thousands of African American moved north, seeking employment in the auto factories. During the twentieth century, the list of African Americans who had an impact on Michigan – and the world – includes world champion boxer Joe Louis, political scientist Ralph Bunche (the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), Motown Records’ founder Berry Gordy Jr., actor James Earl Jones, Congressman John Conyers Jr. and activist Rosa Parks.

For a massive listing of happenings check out: “Black History Month events: February is full of music, exhibits and cultural events celebrating African-American achievement” – via

Photo Credit: Visual Materials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records (Library of Congress)

Michigan History: Hollywood’s First African-American Cowboy

Harlem Rides the Range

Herbert Jeffries has acted, sung, even ridden–his way to the top of the entertaining world.

In the 1930s, when white singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers carved out names for themselves, Jeffries decided there should be black cowboy films* especially since there had been many African American cowboys in the American west.

Born in Detroit in 1911, Jeffries raised money for his first feature film. Playing the part of Bob Blake, a fearless singing cowboy, Jeffries became this country’s first African American film hero when Harlem on the Prairie opened in 1936. Nicknamed the “Bronze Buckaroo,” Jeffries did all his own riding and performed all his own stunts. After starring in three more cowboy movies, Jeffries left movies to start singing with Duke Ellington’s orchestra. With that band as his backup, he recorded “Flamingo,” which sold fourteen million copies and propelled him to the top of the jazz world.

After running a club in France for a decade following World War II, Jeffries returned to the United States where he continues to perform. In 1995, at the age of eighty-three, Jeffries recorded a Nashville album of songs entitled, The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again).

Among his many awards and recognitions, Jeffries earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and induction into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. According to one observer in 2004, "The man is a marvel. In appearance and in voice, he seems a person half his age. . . . His voice sounds stronger now than it has ever been."

Here’s Herb Jeffries singing Happy Cowboy in the 1938 movie “Two Gun Man From Harlem”:

For more about Jeffries, check out To learn more about other important African Americans in Michigan, order the book African Americans You Need to Know or subscribe to Michigan History or Michigan History for Kids by calling (800) 366-3703 or visiting

“I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land” Free Lecture and Book Signing – Feb. 8, 2009 Lansing, MI

I've Got A Home In Glory LandIn celebration of Black History Month, the Michigan Freedom Trail Commission is sponsoring a free, public lecture by Dr. Karolyn Smardz Frost, author of “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land” – an account of the experiences of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, two Kentucky slaves who made a daring escape, only to be recaptured in Michigan. Just before the Blackburns were to be returned to Kentucky, the local black community in southeastern Michigan rallied to their cause. The Blackburn Riots of 1833 were the first racial uprising in Detroit history.

Dr. Frost will speak about her book, particularly bout the Blackburns’ experience of freedom and re-capture in Michigan. She will explain the legal debate in Canada that resulted in a refusal to extradite the Blackburns to all but certain re-enslavement. The Blackburn case was the first serious legal dispute between Canada and the United States regarding the Underground Railroad. The impassioned defense of the Blackburns by Canada’s lieutenant governor set precedents for all future fugitive-slave cases.

Mark Harvey and the Archives staff have assembled a collection of legal documents from the Blackburn case that will be on display on the first floor of the Michigan Historical Museum all weekend, Feb. 7-8. These items include copies of affidavits sworn in Louisville by those seeking to regain custody of the couple; copies of warrants issued in Wayne County for the arrest of the Blackburns under the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1793; and documents sent to Territorial Governor Porter explaining why they were refusing Michigan’s request for extradition. This case helped to establish Canada as the ultimate haven for men, women and children who escaped slavery in the American South.

Copies of “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land” will be on sale in the Museum Store and Dr. Frost will be available to sign copies of her book following the presentation.

The Lansing City Pulse has a feature interview article with Dr. Frost in the Feb. 4, 2009 edition.

Black History Month: Michigan’s Own James Earl Jones

He has one of the most recognizable voices in the entertainment business and it all began with a grapefruit and a dedicated teacher. James Earl Jones was born in Mississippi in 1931. His parents separated before his birth and his grandparents raised him. When Jones was five, his family moved to Michigan and settled in the small town of Dublin, in Manistee County.

James Earl JonesThe trauma of his young life left Jones with a serious – almost incapacitating – stuttering problem. For years, he refused to speak more than a few words-even to his family. In school, Jones pretended to be mute and communicated by writing. That was until Donald Crouch, a Manistee High School English teacher, helped him overcome his debilitating problem. Crouch challenged his students to write a poem. Jones wrote his “Ode to Grapefruit” in the epic meter of Henry Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.” Crouch then challenged Jones to read the poem before his classmates. He read it flawlessly. With Crouch’s encouragement, Jones competed in debates and oratorical contests. As a senior, he won a public-speaking contest and earned a scholarship to the University of Michigan.

Jones planned to study medicine, but he was attracted to the theatre. After graduating in 1953 with a degree in drama, he arrived in New York City to pursue an acting career. It wasn’t easy. Jones scrubbed floors, lived on $19 a month and sought the few opportunities available to black actors.

After a series of lesser roles, Jones won acclaim in the mid-1960s for his lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello. In 1964, director Stanley Kubrick cast Jones in Dr. Strangelove, his first movie. In 1968, Jones won a Tony award for his Broadway performance of The Great White Hope, a story based on Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion. Two years later, the film version won Jones an Oscar nomination.

Jones has appeared in more than fifty films, returns regularly to the live theatre and provided the voice of villain Darth Vader in Star Wars and Mufasa in The Lion King. Today, James Earl Jones is one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors and one of its most distinctive voices.

To learn more about other important African Americans in Michigan, order the book African Americans You Need to Know or subscribe to Michigan History or Michigan History for Kids by calling (800) 366-3703 or visiting

James Earl Jones photo courtesy Wikipedia/Wikimedia.

Black History Month: Discover Detroit’s Important Role

Mask by pinehurst19475

As we continue to celebrate Black History Month in Michigan, it wouldn’t be fitting for us to unravel the past without a trip to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.

The museum’s main exhibit, And We Still Rise!, is all about the significant role that Detroit played in African American History. There’s a special twist to the exhibit this month only.

The stories of African American southerners migrating to Detroit, Michigan are personified as costumed interpreters interact with guests experiencing the exhibit And Still We Rise! Their reenactments detail what it was like working at the Ford factory, living in Black Bottom and experiencing the urban crisis of 1943.

The exhibit is open Tuesdays, and Thursdays through Saturday. Check the website for times and other information.

This Wednesday through Saturday, the Museum will be offering a special exhibit History of the Nation of Islam: Returning to Our Roots.

Since 1930, The Nation of Islam (NOI) has become a major influence in revitalizing black lives across the country, and has expanded its influence to communities internationally. The organization will celebrate its 77th Anniversary in Detroit, the city of its birth… The first of its kind, this exhibition features rare photographs, documents, and artifacts, which include personal items belonging to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan.

The Museum also offers free screenings in their International Film Series, a free lecture series, live performances, and special workshops and activities.

Black History Month: Fighting for Equality in Michigan

Fannie Richards & William FergusonDuring the mid-nineteenth century, Michigan’s African American population was quite small in number. In 1860, about 7,000 blacks lived in Michigan-less than 1 percent of the state’s population. Although white Michiganians supported the destruction of slavery that came with the end of the Civil War, most were unenthusiastic about giving blacks equal rights. Three years after the war had ended, Michigan voters rejected the idea of giving blacks the right to vote by an overwhelming margin. (Black males received the right to vote a few years later with the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment.) Despite being relegated to second-class citizens, Fannie Richards and William Ferguson, among other African Americans, fought for equal rights.Born in Virginia about 1840, Fannie M. Richards moved to Detroit with her family in the 1850s. She received her early education in the Detroit public schools before going to Toronto, Ontario, where she studied English, history and drawing. Returning to Detroit, Richards opened a private school for African Americans in 1863. Two years later, she was appointed to teach in Detroit’s segregated Colored School No. 2. In 1869, Richards and others, including future Republican governor John Bagley, filed suit with the Michigan Supreme Court, arguing that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. The court agreed, and in 1871 Richards became the first African American teacher in Detroit’s newly integrated school system.

Born in 1857 and the son of one of Detroit’s earliest African American doctors, William Ferguson attended Detroit public schools and successfully pursued careers in printing, real estate and law. After being kicked out of a Detroit restaurant for refusing to sit in the “colored” section, Ferguson filed a discrimination suit. He lost, but appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court. In 1890 the court ruled segregation by race in public facilities was illegal. A few years later, Ferguson won election to the Michigan House of Representatives-the first African American to serve in the Michigan legislature. A Republican, Ferguson was reelected to a second term where he was instrumental in having legislation adopted that made discrimination in selling life insurance illegal.

PHOTO CREDIT: Archives of Michigan.
To learn more about other African Americans in Michigan, order the book 25 African Americans You Need to Know and subscribe to Michigan History or Michigan History for Kids by calling (800) 366-3703 or visiting

Slavery in the Northwest Territory

As the Continental Congress discussed the Northwest Ordinance, a Massachusetts delegate suggested adding a provision banning slavery in the Northwest Territory, which included the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. The Ordinance, including this measure, was adopted on July 13, 1787. It was the first time the federal government set limits on the expansion of slavery. However, despite this ban, a small number of slaves continued to live in the Northwest Territory,

As more people settled the Northwest Territory, some areas tried to get around the ban on slavery. This was particularly true in Indiana and Illinois, but less so in Michigan.

Slavery in Michigan began with the arrival of the French. When the British took control of the Great Lakes in 1761 they discovered Native American and African slaves in Detroit. A 1782 census showed 78 male and 101 female slaves living in Detroit. The number of slaves declined after the British left Detroit in 1796. Only 15 African Americans lived in Detroit in 1805, and it is unclear how many were slaves.

Few Michiganians ever owned slaves and most disapproved of what became known in America as “the peculiar institution.” In 1807 a Canadian living in Windsor demanded that his two escaped African American slaves-then living in Michigan-be returned to him. Territorial Justice Augustus Woodward denied the request, declaring that every “man coming into this Territory is by law of the land a freeman.”

The 1830 census showed 32 slaves living in the Michigan Territory, but these numbers dwindled quickly. Michiganians also grew openly critical of human slavery. As the Civil War neared, Michiganians spoke out against this southern institution; many others worked along the Underground Railroad to assist people escaping slavery in the southern states.
For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit

PHOTO CREDIT: The Library of Congress: Sojourner Truth, three-quarter length portrait, standing, wearing spectacles, shawl, and peaked cap, right hand resting on cane (LC-USZ62-119343)

The Brown Bomber Strikes

Hours before his second fight with Germany’s Max Schmeling, Joe Louis was asked how he felt. “I’m scared,” he said.
“Scared?” asked his trainer.
“Yes, I’m scared I might kill Schmeling tonight,” Louis declared.

Two years earlier, Schmeling had beaten Louis. This rematch was more than a fight between two boxers. Schmeling came from Germany and German dictator Adolph Hitler believed that Schmeling would easily win the fight because Louis represented “an inferior race and country.” As Louis later said, “Schmeling represented everything that Americans disliked, and they wanted him beat, and beat good.”

Born in Alabama, Louis moved to Detroit with his family in 1926. As a teenager, he took an interest in boxing. “I looked at the ring, the punching bag, pulleys, the exercise mat, and it was love at first sight,” he later admitted.

Louis entered the ring in 1934 at the age of 22. When he fought Schmeling for the first time, Louis had 27 straight victories, 23 by knockout. But it was Schmeling who knocked out Louis in the twelfth round. A year after losing to Schmeling, Louis won the world heavyweight championship. But Louis wasn’t satisfied. “I don’t want nobody to call me champ until I beat Schmeling,” he declared.

The rematch was set for June 22, 1938, at Yankee Stadium in New York City. Louis trained hard for the fight and was confident. A sportswriter predicted that Louis would win in six rounds. Louis said he would win in one round.

He was right.

At opening bell, Louis attacked. He pounded the German, dropping Schmeling to the canvas three times before the referee stopped the fight. It took only two minutes and four seconds.

A few years later when the United States and Germany went to war, both Louis and Schmeling joined their country’s army. They never saw each other on the battlefield, and after the war, they became good friends.

Nicknamed the “Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis defended his heavyweight crown for twelve years. But none of his fights was as important as the one when, as an observer noted, “Joe Louis knocked out Adolph Hitler.”

For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit

Photo Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit

‘Brown Bomber’ was a hero to all