William Ferguson, Michigan House of Representatives’ first Black member | Ken Coleman
On Aug. 15, 1889, William Ferguson, an African-American man, entered a Detroit restaurant managed by Edward Gies, a white man.
After being seated, Ferguson was told by a waiter: “I can’t wait on you here.”
Ferguson, who in 1869 became the first Black child to attend the Detroit Public Schools and owned a printing company, replied: “What do you mean by that?”
The waiter responded: “We cannot serve your kind of people here.”
Later, Ferguson, through his attorney David Augustus Straker, who also was African American, challenged the restaurant’s racial discriminated policy. In 1890, Detroit had 205,876 residents, according to U.S. Census records. Only 1.67% of them 3,431 were Black. Ultimately, the Michigan Supreme Court sided with Ferguson and ruled in 1890 that separation by race in public places is illegal.
In 1892, Ferguson, a Republican, was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives, the first African American to accomplish that feat. He died in 1910 at age 52. More than 100 years after he was elected to state office, his nephew, Buzz Thomas, was elected to the state House in 1996 and later to the state Senate in 2002.
On Feb. 28, 2018, a portrait of Ferguson painted by Joshua Adam Risner was unveiled at the Michigan State Capitol by the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus. It is located outside the former Michigan Supreme Court room on the third floor of the Capitol.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.