The history of black judges in Michigan arises from an occasion in 1890 when justice was being swept aside throughout the nation and in the state of Michigan by the swirling crosswinds of the doctrine of “separate but equal”. But on this one occasion, in the case of Ferguson v. Gies, justice prevailed in a unanimous 8-0 decision. The Michigan Supreme Court declared: “In Michigan there must be and is an absolute, unconditional equality of white and colored men before the law. The white man can have no rights or privileges under the laws that are denied to the black man.”
Two years later, D. Augustus Straker, the black attorney who successfully argued Ferguson, was elected as a county commissioner, becoming the first black judge in the state. Any scent, however, in the breeze of hope created by these two promising moments were quickly extinguished by the sudden and overpowering putrid odor of the “separate but equal” doctrine becoming the law of the land in 1896 by the U. S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.
So pungent the odor, so dark the clouds, so ferocious the winds of the doctrine that it stoked racial flames across the nation, Michigan and the city of Detroit. Fifty-eight years would pass before a patch of blue could be seen in the heavens and seeds of hope would sprinkle again upon the land. These first seeds enabled Charles W. Jones, a former assistant prosecutor, to be appointed in July 1950, permitting Detroit to at last be removed from the list of major American cities without a black judge.
Four years later, and more than 50 years after Plessy, the winds began to change. The sun began to break through the grey clouds and a few more seeds settled upon fertile soil. On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine. Wade H. McCree, Jr. became the first black judge appointed to the Wayne County Circuit Court. Judge McCree went on to become the first black judge to win a county wide election by winning not only in 1955 but again in 1959.
The following year more seeds germinated. Judge Elvin L. Davenport was appointed to the Common Pleas Court in December of 1956; he won election the following year and was later appointed to Detroit Recorders Court. That same year, Harry G. Hackett was appointed the first black bankruptcy referee in Michigan and thus the second in the United States. Two years later, John T. Letts became the first black judge elected by popular voted in Kent County; later he was elected to the Kent County Circuit Court.
By the beginning of the 1960s, seedlings of hope had begun to believe that they could one day be a tree of fulfilled promises when, in 1961, Otis M. Smith was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court. Justice Smith became the first black judge to sit on a state supreme court since Reconstruction. Nearly 25 years would pass before Dennis W. Archer would be appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1985.
Throughout the decades of long, darkened skies and seemingly unending pungent, malodorous breezes, not knowing where the days and nights would take us, it was the church that gave us hope; it was the church that held us to the bosom of our faith; it was the church that urged us to believe in things unseen; it was the church that counseled us to put our faith in the one who controls the wind and sea. Our faith was not misplaced.
Throughout the early 60’s the church, working arm in arm with unions and others, was able to reach into the souls of the black community to inspire our people to organize and vote. The results were plain for all to see. In 1966, George W. Crockett, Jr. and Geraldine V. Bledsoe Ford were elected to Recorders Court, Geraldine V. Bledsoe Ford becoming the first black woman judge in the state. On the federal court, Judge Wade H. McCree, Jr. was elevated to the United States 6th circuit Court of Appeals and Damon J. Keith was appointed to the Federal District Court.
In the 70’s the number of black judges taking the bench, either by appointment or election, quickened. Among them: Judge Damon J. Keith was elevated to the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit; Julian C. Cook and Anna Diggs Taylor were appointed to the Federal District Court; Harold Hood and Myron H. Whals were appointed to the Michigan Court of Appeals and Claudia H. Morcom and Lucile A. Watts to the Wayne County Circuit Court. By the end of the decade, issues affecting the black community galvanized black judges to form of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan (ABJM) to seek the eradication of racial and class bias from all aspects of the judicial process. Judge Harold Hood was elected by his peers to be its first president.
Three years later, an annual worship service was established, this year marking its 33rd year. The worship service enables us, as judges, to spiritually gird ourselves anew in our faith and to thank the church for demanding the legal system include African Americans as an integral part of the legal process. Without the church few if any African American judges, past and present, would ever have had the privilege to be on bench.
We, as judges, are forever indebted to the church and their pastors such as Rev. Charles A. Hill at Hartford Baptist Church, Malcolm Dade of Cyprian’ Episcopal and Reverends Horace A. White and Nicholas Hood, Sr. of Plymouth United Church of Christ, just to name a few, who in the early days of our struggle in Detroit, gave us the strength and courage to set sail knowing one day the steady breeze of justice would lead us home.
With faith and prayer, the black judiciary has come a long way since 1892, but we should not be satisfied with where we are. In the last 60 years there have been more than 230 black judges; while the number in some ways may appear to be unique and impressive, it is far less than .5% of the total number of available judgeships in that period.
History demonstrates what can be accomplished when our faith is put into action. In the wake of the social unrest of 2014, armed with our faith, for the sake of our sons and daughters and the generations to come, we should and must demand that we give more of ourselves in lasting memory of all those who were water-hosed, bludgeoned, burned and died for us to have the freedoms we enjoy today.
This is not just my hope; this is our hope. This is our faith. And in the words of Martin Luther King: “. . . With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
Terrance A. Keith, Former President, ABJM