Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1975: Detroit’s first Black teacher is honored by historic committee

By: - October 5, 2022 4:18 am

Fannie Richards Michigan Historical Marker in Detroit | Ken Coleman

On this day in 1975, a ceremony was hosted by the Black Historic Sites Committee to celebrate the unveiling of the Fannie Richards Michigan Historical Marker. In 1871, Richards became Detroit Public Schools’ first Black teacher.

Richards had been born in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1840. In 1869, the African-American Second Baptist Church member was appointed instructor of Colored School No. 2, a private school. 

However, Richards became an advocate for having Black children taught in city public schools that were racially segregated. At that time, under the leadership of John Bagley, a white Detroit Board of Education member, Richards and many fellow congregation members protested against the segregated school system. Bagley later served as Michigan governor from 1873 to 1877. 

Fannie Richards | Michigan Women Forward

“I have never been made to feel in any way that my race has been a handicap to me,” Richards was quoted as saying many years later in The Journal of Negro History in 1916. “Neither my pupils nor the teachers have ever shown prejudice; I do not doubt that it exists; I shall be in Heaven long before it has all disappeared, but I say it is with a colored teacher as it is with a white one. Her work is the only thing that counts.”

In 1869, the Michigan Supreme Court in the case Joseph Workman v. Detroit Board of Education ordered the school district to abolish separate schools for Black and white students. At the time, African Americans made up 2.8% or 2,235 of the city’s 79,577 residents, according to U.S. Census records.

Richards taught in Detroit schools until 1915, including a tenure at Everett School located at Hastings near Fort Street in the Black Bottom community.

Terrence Martin, Detroit Federation of Teachers president, told the Advance that about 70% of the Detroit Public Schools’ workforce are Black women. 

“She has paved the way for hundreds of thousands of Black women who have had the opportunity to serve the students of Detroit,” said Martin about Richards. 

Richards died in 1922. A Michigan Historical Marker identifies her homesite in Detroit’s Lafayette Park neighborhood. Richards is a 1990 inductee into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. 

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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 Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.