By: - January 11, 2023 5:34 am

Bernadine Newsom Denning | Veteran Feminists of America photo

On Jan. 11, 2011, Bernadine Newsom Denning, longtime Detroit resident and community leader, died at age 80. She was living in Port St. Lucie, Fla., at the time of her death. 

Over the course of five decades, Denning earned a distinguished record as an educator, civil rights leader, and advocate for women. 

In 1951, she joined the Detroit Public Schools and later rose to the position of assistant superintendent for community relations by the mid 1980s. Between those years, she married Blaine Denning, a professional basketball player who played in the National Basketball Association as well as the famed Harlem Globetrotter. He also operated a milk and dairy distribution business in Detroit. 

Denning offered leadership at the federal government level, too. President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, recognized her ability when he appointed her director of the office of revenue sharing for the Department of the Treasury. It was during a period when urban cities like Detroit faced fiscal challenges, in part, because of corporate disinvestment as businesses bolted for suburban communities. 

Denning also served as city of Detroit Human Rights Department director under Mayor Coleman A. Young, Detroit’s first African American mayor. Her service in that role began in 1987. Denning also served as a Skillman Foundation trustee.  

On the issue of creating a strong public schools system in urban cities like Detroit, Denning was direct. 

“I’m a firm believer in education,” she told the Detroit Free Press in 1989. “We somehow have to get the systems to realize we have inequities in the funding of school districts in the state. We have to have some fiscal reform. We just have to keep plugging away at it.”

Appointed by Gov. William Milliken, Denning was a member of the Michigan Women’s Commission from 1975 to 1987. She also served as a Central Michigan University trustee. 

In 2001, the Detroit Urban League named she and her husband “Distinguished Warriors,” citing their community improvement efforts. Denning also is a member of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. 

“Bern’s strong points were her ability for collaboration with other groups and people with different interests,” her stepson, Blaine Denning Jr., told the Advance on Tuesday. “Also a great strength of hers was mentoring, especially Black women. There are still many women that refer to her as their mentor. There were too many to count.”

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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.