Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1955: First African American joins the Detroit Board of Education

By: - April 12, 2022 4:50 am

Detroit Board of Education members Remus Robinson and Louise Grace | Detroit Federation of Teachers

On April 12, 1955, Remus Robinson became the first African American to serve on the Detroit Board of Education, the governing body of the Detroit Public Schools, Michigan’s largest school district. 

It was a historic move carried out after the resignation of U.S. Sen. Patrick V. McNamara (D-Detroit), a union-backed Detroit school board member. Robinson was appointed to fill McNamara’s seat.

The effort was designed to place Robinson, Detroit Parkside Hospital’s chief surgeon, into a school board seat 10 weeks earlier. He had been elected on April 4 to the school board and his six-year term was set to begin on July 1, 1955. 

McNamara, who had been serving as Michigan’s junior U.S. senator since January, said the move provided an opportunity for Robinson to “take part in current and vital budget sessions.” 

For several years, Robinson was the only Black member on the seven-member body. The school district made strides toward increasing the number of Black educators and support staff during his tenure. 

In 1961, Harold Harrison, principal of the predominantly Black Miller Junior High School, was appointed to supervise 22 schools, the highest administrative post ever held by an African American. Black students became the majority of school district pupils in 1963. 

Given that development, there was considerable racial tension at several schools during Robinson’s tenure, including a massive student protest at Northern High School in April 1966, resulting in Black students walking out of school citing “deplorable” conditions. They called for their white principal, Arthur Carty, to be replaced. 

In 1969, Black students at McMichael Middle School and Northwestern High School demanded that their institutions be named after Malcolm X, the activist and religious leader who was killed in 1965.    

By early 1966, McNamara announced that he would not seek re-election to the U.S. Senate. He died on April 30, 1966, setting up a fall election between former Michigan Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Robert Griffin (R-Traverse City), who won. 

In 1976, a Detroit federal building was named in McNamara’s honor. 

Remus Robinson was Detroit Board of Education president when he died in 1970. A city school was named in his honor. 

“Dr. Robinson’s contribution and leadership to the cultural and democratic values of our city will be cherished by all who knew him,” said Norman Drachler, Detroit Public Schools superintendent at the time of Robinson’s death. 

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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.