Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1889: Pioneering Black lawmaker pushes back against racism

By: - August 15, 2021 5:33 am

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.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.