During 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 â€œcoloredâ€ 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 www.michiganhistorymagazine.com.