10 Historic Detroiters You Should Know

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The history of Detroit is complex and colorful, including people from different classes, nationalities, and races. You’ve probably heard names like Ford and Cadillac, but there are many more who make up the fabric of our past. Many of the people who influenced the city were born in other places, but they all shared one common trait: the desire to enhance Detroit, the city they chose to call home.

Whether they lived in the 1700s and helped the city flourish after its founding, or whether they strove to create equality in the 1900s, these Detroiters have left the city a lasting legacy.


1. Father Gabriel Richard (1767-1832)

Born in La Ville de Saintes, France, Father Richard didn’t arrive in Detroit and take his place as Saint Anne’s assistant pastor until 1798, but his presence in the city brought great change. Father Richard placed great importance on education, and in 1804, he opened his first school; however, it was destroyed in the fire of 1805. When he surveyed the destruction caused by the fire, Father Richard whispered the words that now mark the City of Detroit’s seal: Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. We hope for better days, it will rise again from the ashes. He knew the people of Detroit were in desperate need of strong leaders, so he stepped in and began organizing a relief effort. He gathered blankets and food for the displaced Detroiters and began helping them rebuild their city.

In 1809, Father Richard brought the first printing press to Detroit and established Michigan’s first, albeit short-lived, newspaper. Continuing his quest for better public education, he helped found the Catholepistemiad of Michigania, later named the University of Michigan, in 1817. He served as its vice president from 1817 to 1821.

In 1823, he was elected as a nonvoting delegate of the Michigan Territory to the U.S. House of Representatives for the 18th Congress. The most noticeable legacy of his political career is Michigan Avenue, the first road across Michigan that served to connect Detroit and Chicago. In 1832, a cholera epidemic swept through Detroit, and after caring for many victims, Father Richard finally succumbed to the disease on September 13, 1832.

Old Detroit Map

2. Peter Denison (C.1760-C.1815)

The first record of Peter Denison dates from 1784, when he was purchased by William Tucker. Denison and his wife, both slaves, worked on Tucker’s farm in present day Macomb County. Tucker allowed Denison more freedom of movement than most slave owners of the time; Denison often took the farm’s goods to market in Detroit.

When Tucker died, Denison and his wife learned that their former owner’s will emancipated them upon the death of his wife, Catherine Tucker. However, Denison’s four children were willed to Tucker’s sons. In 1807, one year before he and his wife were granted their freedom, Denison did the unthinkable; he sued for his children’s freedom. The legal basis for the suit was the fact that the federal laws establishing the Michigan Territory outlawed slavery.

Unfortunately, Denison lost his suit. Judge Augustus Woodward ruled that three of his four children had to remain enslaved for life, but one could be emancipated after his 25th birthday. Woodward later ruled that slaves who could establish their freedom in Canada couldn’t be taken back to the United States as slaves. Following this ruling, two of Denison’s children escaped to Canada and returned free United States citizens.

Though Denison lost his suit, it set a precedent for the limits of slavery. The suit also sparked a debate about gradual emancipation of slaves and the abolition of slavery in the Michigan Territory.

Augustus Woodward Detroit

3. Judge Augustus Woodward (1774-1827)

Downtown Detroit’s unique use of the spoke layout is the result of Judge Augustus Woodward’s influence. Arriving in Detroit just days after the 1805 fire, Judge Woodward proposed to rebuild the city using plans of Washington, D. C. as a model. He wanted Detroit to emulate D.C.’s spoke layout, with large public squares connected by avenues that branched out from them like spokes from a wheel. However, Detroit politics got in the way of Woodward’s plans, so only part of them were ever executed – the current area of Woodward Avenue from the Detroit River to Grand Circus Park.

In 1817, under the leadership of Judge Woodward, the Michigan territorial legislature met in Detroit and passed the legislation that established the Catholepistemiad of Michigania (today, known as the University of Michigan). Woodward, interested in the classical model of education, wanted to create a university that would follow his philosophies. In addition to the Catholepistemiad, Woodward also helped found several elementary schools in Detroit.

He left the city in 1824, headed for the Territory of Florida, where President James Monroe had appointed him as a judge, an office Woodward would hold until his death in 1827.

Fannie RIchards

4. Fannie Richards (1840-1922)

Before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Fannie Richards was fighting for desegregation in Detroit schools. Richards, always interested in learning, attended the Teachers Training School in Detroit. She made it her mission to educate the African-American community of Detroit, and in 1863, she opened a private school for Detroit’s African-American children. However, the Detroit Public School System opened a school for colored children a few years later, and when Richards learned the school board planned to open a second school, she applied for the teaching position. In 1869, she received the appointment she hoped for, and she became a teacher in Colored School #2.

When she began teaching at the school, Richards was appalled at the sub-standard education the children were receiving, so she and her family began advocating a desegregated school system. In 1871, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered the Board of Education to integrate schools. That same year, the school board transferred Richards to the newly desegregated Everett Elementary school, where she taught until she retired in 1922.

Hazen Pingree Detroit Statue

5. Hazen Pingree (1840-1901)

When discussing Hazen Pingree, the question isn’t “What did he do for Detroit?” … Instead, it’s “What didn’t he do for Detroit?”  In 1865, Pingree moved to Detroit and worked as a cobbler, later forming Pingree & Smith. His shoe-making business flourished, and Pingree enjoyed prestigious political connections.

In the 1880s, corruption ran rampant in Detroit politics. The city officials cared little about the plight of the working class, who often worked long hours for little pay. The citizens of Detroit, hoping to change their beloved city, turned to Pingree. They approached him, asking him to run for mayor in the 1889 election. At first, Pingree declined, but he at last gave in and changed the city forever.

The political machine in place at the time was loathe to allow any change to take place in Detroit’s political landscape. At a debate at the Larned Street auditorium, Pingree faced down an angry mob organized by the machine. His determination in the face of angry protestors impressed Detroiters, who turned out en masse to support him in the election.

Pingree’s three terms as Mayor of Detroit are marked by radical, progressive change not seen in many government positions during his time. He staunchly fought corruption and monopolies, forcing utilities to lower their rates. He also saved Detroiters money by lowering taxes and building a municipal power plant. Pingree formed Detroit’s Public Lighting Commission, which brought the streetlights under public control, and during the Panic of 1893, he created jobs to employ the men who had lost theirs. He pushed for use of vacant land for gardens and potato patches, which helped put an end to the widespread hunger in Detroit.

In 1896, Pingree ran for governor and beat Democrat Charles R. Sligh. He intended to remain Mayor of Detroit while serving as Governor of Michigan, but a Supreme Court decision ruled that he had to pick one office. Pingree resigned as mayor and moved to Lansing, where he served two rather uneventful terms a governor. When his second term ended, Pingree travelled to Africa, where he contracted jungle fever. He died in London on June 18, 1901.

Clarence Burton Detroit History

6. Clarence Burton (1853-1932)

One of Detroit’s most important historians, Clarence Burton attended the University of Michigan, where he graduated with a law degree. In 1874, he moved to Detroit and began working as a law clerk. In his spare time, he collected books about the city, a hobby that would eventually blossom into a full-time endeavor.

In 1885, Burton moved his family from their house in Corktown to a house on Brainard Street off Cass Avenue. Over the next few years, Burton’s business grew, and he hired a secretary to keep track of all his books. He regularly attended rare book auctions and constantly looked for invaluable historical documents to complete his collection.

In 1913, Burton built a new house in Boston-Edison, and in 1915 he left the Brainard Street house and its library to the Detroit Public Library. Over 40 years, Burton had collected about 30,000 books, 40,000 pamphlets, and 50,000 unpublished papers relating to Detroit, the old Northwest, the Michigan Territory, New France, and Canada. He also chaired the Detroit Historical Society, the Michigan Historical Commission, and the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society. In 1922, Burton published The City of Detroit, 1701-1922, a multi-volume work that helped form part of the canon of Detroit’s history.

Detroiters can still visit the Burton Historical Collection at the main branch (5201 Woodward Ave.) of the Detroit Public Library.


7. Laura Freele Osborn (1866-1955)

Laura Freele Osborn brought her education background to Detroit, where she made a lasting impact on the city’s public school system. She was born in Huntington, Indiana, where she taught school until her 1891 marriage to Detroit businessman Francis C. Osborn. In 1917, she became the first woman elected to the Detroit School Board and the first woman to hold elective office in Detroit.

Osborn remained on the board for a total of 38 years, 32 of which she spent as the only woman on the board. She was elected president of the Detroit School Board seven times, and she is responsible for many current practices in the school system.She advocated for advanced programs for talented students, special instruction for handicapped children, health education, and fire-proof classrooms. However, her influence spans more than educational reform. Osborn defended Detroit teachers in court when the school board refused to pay them back pay during the Great Depression, and she helped found Wayne State University in 1933.


8. Ossian Sweet (1895-1960)

In the Summer of 1925, when racial tensions were high, Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African-American physician, bought a home at 2905 Garland in an all-white middle-class neighborhood. He moved his family in on September 8. That night, a crowd gathered outside the house, but other than a short barrage of rocks, nothing happened.

The next night, fearing more violence, Sweet invited a few friends over. As expected, another crowd formed and began throwing rocks at the house. Shortly afterwards, shots rang out from Sweet’s house. One killed a man, and a second injured another. Six police officers arrived and arrested all 11 occupants of the house, taking them to the police station. There, the Sweets and their guests learned that a man had been killed and another wounded.

They were interviewed separately, and they all denied shooting anyone. Early the next morning, the Sweets and their friends were informed that they were to be charged with first degree murder. They were denied bail at their preliminary hearing, and the trial date was set for October 30.

The NAACP stepped in after hearing about the case and asked Arthur Garfield Hays and Clarence Darrow to take the case. Hays and Darrow agreed, and they arrived in Detroit to piece together the events of September 8 from the defendants. Darrow put up a good fight at the trial, and after 46 hours of deliberation, the all-white jury was unable to come to a decision.

Judge Frank Murphy declared a mistrial, and Ossian Sweet was free to go. His brother Henry, however, was tried separately the next year, but he was also acquitted. Dr. Ossian Sweet’s decision to defend his home and the resulting court case set a precedent for the rights of Detroit’s African-American community.

9. Esther Gordy Edwards (1920-2011)

Berry Gordy Edwards, Jr. may have been the visionary behind the Motown record label, but it was his older sister, Esther Gordy Edwards, who transformed the idea into a reality. In 1959, Gordy approached the family loan business to ask for an $800 loan to start a record label. Edwards was reluctant to agree to his project, but she finally gave in.

After the Motown record label was established, Edwards served as vice president and handled much of the label’s business side, maintaining the books and running the office. She also ran International Talent Management Inc. and was instrumental in cultivating an air of sophistication and polish in the singers Gordy found. Edwards ensured that the artists who signed with Motown would present themselves as upscale performers. However, she also protected the performers, especially the younger ones, from unsavory characters.

In 1972, when Gordy made the controversial move to Los Angeles, Edwards remained in Detroit and maintained the house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard that had the original studio, Hitsville USA. Nine years later, Edwards had the foresight to establish the Motown Historical Museum, and it’s become one of Detroit’s most popular tourist attractions. She carefully preserved or tracked down much of the studio’s original equipment, and she began displaying memorabilia that she’d kept.

In addition to her connection with Motown, Edwards was also the first woman elected to the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce and the first African-American appointed to the city’s court jury commission.

Olga Madar Detroit History Union UAW CLUW

10. Olga Madar (1915-1996)

Working men had a champion in Hazen Pingree, but working women had to wait until Olga Madar joined the United Auto Workers and used her respected position to advocate for women’s rights. Madar had worked on the assembly line at the Bowler Rolling Bearing plant and at Chrysler’s Kercheval plant during the summers in order to pay for her college education. However, she rose to prominence while working at the Ford plant.

There, Madar joined the newly formed UAW Local 50, and she was eventually hired by the organization to serve as director of social services, recreation, and women’s activities. In 1974, Madar was appointed director of the International Union’s Recreation Department. During her time in this position, she was able to successfully fight for the integration of the UAW bowling leagues.

In 1966, Madar became the fist woman to occupy one of the positions on the International Executive Board, and four years later, she was the first woman elected as vice president for the UAW. Her position held many responsibilities, including the departments of Recreation and Leisure-Time Activities, Conservation and Resource Development, and Consumer Affairs.

Madar used her influence in the organization to encourage the International Union to hire more women and provide them with better leadership training programs that would prepare them for more responsibilities in the organization. She also advocated support for the Equal Rights Amendment, and as a result of her influence, the UAW became the first national union to endorse the ERA in 1970. Madar also established several organizations outside the UAW, including the Michigan Women’s Political Caucus and the Network for Economic Rights.

How Will You Influence Detroit?

You don’t need to be born wealthy to influence an entire city. All you need is the vision, determination, and passion to make your goals reality. Detroit is ripe for new voices and innovative ideas. What will your contribution be?

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