Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1930: Charles Roxborough becomes Michigan’s first Black state senator

By: - November 4, 2021 6:00 am

Laina G. Stebbins graphic

On Nov. 4, 1930, Charles Roxborough of Detroit was elected to the Michigan Senate. The Republican became the first African American to serve in the state Legislature’s upper chamber.

His father, also named Charles, moved his family to Detroit in 1899 from New Orleans, La. where he had been active in GOP politics. 

Charles Roxborough | Detroit Public Library photo

Detroit’s Black population numbered at 4,111 in 1900 was only 1.4% of the city’s overall population. It skyrocketed to 120,000 by 1930. 

As a 6-foot-tall young adult, Roxborough the younger was a star basketball player at Eastern High School in 1905, and a scholar at the University of Detroit Law School graduating on June 18, 1914. As a young man, he worked as a personal messenger for Gov. Chase S. Osborn. 

Fluent in French, Spanish and Polish, Roxborough served clients, both Black and white, in Detroit’s lower east side community where European immigrants were the area’s largest set of residents. 

The North End resident wielded two unsuccessful campaigns for a U.S. House of Representatives seat during the 1930s, served on the city of Detroit Planning Commission and was elected president of the body in 1938. He co-founded the Gamma Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. 

Roxborough was not afraid to challenge his political party if he thought that it was wrong. In fact, in 1948 he blasted GOP leaders for ignoring Blacks. In 1948, he threatened to bolt from the Michigan Republican Party because of its track record on civil rights and equal opportunity issues:

In a letter to Emmett J. Scott of the Republican National Committee, Roxborough declared that 90% of the Negroes of Michigan would vote Democratic because “nothing has been done in Michigan by our Republican Governor or the Republicans locally, to keep the Negro vote in the Republican column,” he wrote. “In all my years of politics I have never seen such a situation as exists today — white Republicans attempting to run Negro Republicans out of the Party and treating other like they do in the State of Mississippi.”

One of his children, playwright Elsie Roxborough, died of a drug overdose in New York City under unclear circumstances in 1949. Her death certificate identified her as white and was under the name Mona Manet. Some suggest that the racially discriminatory environment in America caused Elsie to pass for white. She was the first African American to reside in a University of Michigan dormitory. 

Charles Roxborough went into semi-retirement with his wife, Hazel, on their farm near Milford. He died on Oct. 8, 1963, at 75. 

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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.