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On this day in 1934: Bledsoe becomes first Black Michigander to serve as assistant attorney general

By: - July 19, 2022 4:53 am

Susan J. Demas graphic

On July 19, 1934, Harold Bledsoe of Detroit was appointed as an assistant state attorney general by Democratic Gov. William Comstock. Bledsoe was the first African American to serve in the post.

Bledsoe was born in 1896 in Marshall, Texas. He served in the U.S. Army during World War I and later became a leading lawyer in Detroit. He was known as “Mr. Black Democrat” and “Father of the Black Lawyer.”

He, fellow lawyer Joseph Craigen as well as Joe Coles and Charles Diggs Sr. recruited thousands of Black Michiganders to the Democratic Party during the Great Depression era. Prior to that, most Black voters were Republicans who were motivated into party politics after GOP President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865 freeing Black slaves.

“When we petitioned for highway jobs we were told by Governor [Wilbur] Brucker that hiring policy could not be changed under the existing contract, and we searched until we found ears willing to listen and a spirit ready to help us,” Bledsoe told the Michigan Chronicle in 1956. “[Murray] Pat Van Wagoner, a Democrat, vowed that if he became Highway Commissioner he would either provide those jobs or break that contract. So we took our cars — with tires literally in patches — and campaigned up and down this state — every nook and corner of it.”

Van Wagoner became state Highway Commissioner in 1933. In 1936, Bledsoe was selected by the Michigan Democratic Party to serve as a member of the state Electoral College and voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

In 1954, Bledsoe was elected president of the National Bar Association, an advocacy organization for Black lawyers. He was later elected as a delegate to the Michigan constitutional convention of 1961 to 1962. Bledsoe played a role in supporting the effort to create a civil rights commission through the two-year revision process. He died at 77 on March 26, 1974.

Bledsoe’s family has carried on his tradition of public service.

One of his daughters, Geraldine, became the first African-American woman elected to Detroit Recorder’s Court in 1966 and the first Black woman in Michigan to be elected to a judgeship without having been appointed first. His son, William Bledsoe, was a state District Court judge. His wife, Mamie, was a state official with the Michigan Unemployment Compensation Commission (later known as the Michigan Employment Security Commission). A granddaughter, Deborah Geraldine Bledsoe Ford, is a 36th District Court judge. 

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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.

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