Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 2009: Detroit’s first African-American City Council president dies

By: - December 14, 2021 8:24 am

Laina G. Stebbins graphic

On Dec.14, 2009, Erma Henderson, the first African American to serve as City Council president, died at age 92. 

Henderson was elected to the city’s nine-member legislative body in a special election in 1972 to replace Robert Tindal, who died the previous year. She also was the first Black person to serve on the body and rose to leadership in 1978. Henderson held the position of council president until 1989. 

Born in Pensacola, Fla., on Aug. 20, 1917, she moved to Detroit as a child and grew up on Maple Street in the city’s Black Bottom section. Henderson attended Eastern High School and later earned a degree from Wayne State University. A social worker by profession, she had tirelessly led efforts to strengthen her community since the 1940s, a decade in which the city’s African-American community doubled in size. 

Erma Henderson | Michigan Women Forward photo

In 1957, she served as campaign manager to William T. Patrick Jr., the first African American elected to the Detroit Common Council since 1882. During the 1960s and prior to her election to city office, Henderson was executive director of Equal Justice Council Inc, a court watchdog group. 

In 1981, Henderson ripped the state’s Financial Institutions Bureau commissioner for failing to analyze and release information that showed Michigan mortgage lenders are guilty of redlining. Henderson, who was chair of the statewide anti-redlining coalition, accused Martha Seger, who was appointed by GOP Gov. William Milliken, of “deliberately violating the state’s redlining law by refusing to analyze data concerning mortgage practices,” according to the Detroit News. Michigan’s anti-redlining law of 1977 required that the state’s 550 mortgage lenders reveal how many loans they make each year, where those loans were made, where they were denied and why.

In 1989, Henderson unsuccessfully challenged Coleman A. Young, a long-time friend and political ally, for Detroit mayor. Henderson felt that Young, then his fourth term, needed to make way for new leadership. At one point, she publicly considered leading an effort to revise the city charter to include a two-term limit for the office of mayor. Henderson did not go through with the idea, however. 

During the 1990s, she remained active in city politics even after she suffered the physical challenge of losing her eyesight by mid-decade. 

“I will never be quiet,” the Detroit Free Press reported her as saying in 1989. 

She authored, “Down Through the Years: The Memoirs of Detroit City Council President Emeritus Erma Henderson,” and earned many honors, including her 1990 induction into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

“Erma Henderson was a trailblazer in the civil rights and women’s rights movement,” said then Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm at the time of Henderson’s death. “Her strength and her fight for justice will be remembered.” 

A Detroit school and a city park is named in Erma Henderson’s honor. So is the City Hall’s auditorium. 

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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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