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On this day in 1969: ‘Sesame Street’ debuts with Paw Paw native in the cast

By: - November 10, 2021 12:00 pm

Loretta Long

On Nov. 10, 1969 the children’s series “Sesame Street” premiered on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). One of the “Sesame Street” characters, Susan Robinson, was played by Paw Paw, Michigan-born educator Loretta Long.

It came at a time when Black and Brown civic and political leadership and grassroots parents were fighting for more equity and inclusion in cities like Detroit, Flint and Lansing. Yet, there were rays of light. Michigan State University’s board of trustees had just voted to have its first African American president.

Long had studied at Western Michigan University during the late 1950s and taught briefly at Detroit’s Sherrard Junior High School in 1961. She decided to move to New York City in an effort to earn more money, according to a 1975 Detroit Free Press report. While working as a substitute teacher in the South Bronx, she learned about the PBS broadcast audition for the broadcast.

“It was the children who really hired me,” Long recalled.  

She later earned a doctorate in Urban Education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Lisa Williams

“Sesame Street” has been one of the most successful and long-standing broadcasts in American TV history. It is known for its images communicated through the use of Jim Henson’s Muppets. It has included short films, coupled with humor and cultural references. A 1996 survey found that 95% of all American preschoolers had watched the show by the time they were three years old. In 2018, it was estimated that 86 million Americans had watched the series as children.

Lisa Williams, a principal at the Detroit Public Schools Community District’s Randolph Career and Technical Center, attended Western Michigan University during the 1990s. She is proud of Long’s connection to her alma mater and recalls watching the series as a child.

“Western produces some outstanding graduates,” said Williams, who is vice president of the university’s alumni association. “There are so many untold stories and gems from the university.”

After her experience on “Sesame Street,” Long, now 83, has worked as a consultant and public speaker on issues of multiculturalism and education.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history 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.