Erma Henderson

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Erma Henderson

Erma Henderson (1917-2009), was arguably the most prominent African American woman politician in Detroit of the 20th century. Given the barriers to attain political power for African Americans, her accomplishments are all the more noteworthy. During her most active years, she would become Detroit's first African American Councilwoman and a vocal advocate for the rights of African Americans and women who faced discrimination.

Early life

Erma Henderson was born in Pensacola, Florida in 1917 and moved to Detroit a year later. Like thousands of African Americans, her family moved to Detroit in the midst of the Great Migration that would find African Americans of the South fleeing discrimination and seeking better opportunities in the North. She attended Detroit Public Schools as well as a number of colleges before completing her master's degree from Wayne State University's School of Social Work. A divorced mother of two, Henderson would exhibit an early enthusiasm for politics, which remains with her, even in her retirement.[1]


Erma Henderson was acclaimed as Detroit’s most powerful woman of her time. In 1972, she became the first black woman to serve on Detroit’s City Council. She went on to serve 16 years, 12 as council president. As a social worker, Erma Henderson’s true commitment to people was evident. Her many awards were indicative of her gifted leadership as a coalition builder. Beloved and respected, she was honored by education, civil rights, feminist, business, religious, and political groups across the state and nation. “She taught people,” said one of her Common Council colleagues. “She used the coalitions as a training basis for community people who felt powerless and showed them they were powerful.”

In 1975, Erma Henderson organized the Michigan Statewide Coalition Against Redlining, and she took on the state’s banking and insurance interests. These efforts were directly responsible for the state’s anti-redlining law, one of the most comprehensive in the nation.

Henderson also organized the Women’s Conference of Concerns, a coalition of individuals and organizations representing 250,000 women at its peak, who worked to improve the quality of city life for all people. She coordinated Women in Municipal Government in Michigan and nationally, bringing together women in city governments from all over the nation to work in unison.

As Michigan’s ambassador for peace and racial harmony, she "did not falter in the face of controversy, whether addressing the World Peace Council on disarmament in Helsinki, speaking out against apartheid at the United Nations, attending a presidential briefing on the Panama Canal, participating in international women’s conferences in Mexico City or Nairobi, or leading a delegation of Council colleagues to meet with sister-city counterparts in Germany, Yugoslavia, and the former Soviet Union.

In July 1982, Erma Henderson held an unprecedented four-day International Trade Conference for the Michigan Chapter of the Continental African Chamber of Commerce, bringing together ambassadors and ministers of finance from 23 African nations to work on trade packages. Henderson also attended the historic installation of the Right Reverend Desmond Tutu as archbishop of South Africa in 1986.[2]

American Youth for Democracy

The following officers and council members were elected at the June 1946 convention of the Communist Party USA youth wing American Youth for Democracy:

Michigan: Abel Lee Smith, Anabel Barahal, Rolf Cahn, John Gallo, Erma Henderson (State president), Bob Purdy, Phil Schatz, Robert Cummings (State secretary). [3]

Paul Robeson rally

The CIO saw to it that a broad base of union support was built within the Black community and on three occasion organized Detroit rallies with secret Communist Party USA member Paul Robeson.

According to Quill Pettway, the last rally, in Detroit's downtown Cadillac Square, drew 60,000 people. "Regardless of race, creed or color, they came to hear Robeson, Walter Reuther, former City Council President Erma Henderson," among others.[4]

National Negro Labor Council

The National Negro Labor Council, (1950-56) was a Communist Party USA front for black workers and labor officials.

Key leaders of the Council, included Coleman Young (national executive secretary), Charles Hayes (Chicago leader), Cleveland Robinson, and George Crockett, and Erma Henderson, from Detroit.[5]

Political career

Acknowledging her ability and enthusiasm to enlist support of varied people, Reverend Charles Hill in 1945 and William Patrick, in 1957 employed her as a campaign manager as they sought to gain a seat on the Detroit City Council. William Patrick would be the first African American of the 20th century to receive the necessary votes to win a seat on the Council. With experience, motivation and the necessary skills, she successfully ran for City Council herself in 1972 and received the necessary votes to become its president in 1977 and again in 1981. Her efforts to run for Mayor against Coleman Young in 1989, although unsuccessful, demonstrated the popularity she had assumed in her role as a member of City Council. Her efforts to ensure that African Americans gain admittance to hotels and restaurants in the 1950s, receive fair treatment in the criminal justice system in the wake of the 1967 Civil Disturbance, and secure mortgages and loans without the threat of discriminatory treatment, also known as redlining, are some of the more important issues for which she lent her voice of support.

Henderson is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Shaw College (1974) and the Detroit News' "Michiganian of the Year" (1978).[6]

Detroit City Council

Erma Henderson served on the Detroit City Council from 1972 to 1990.[7]

World Peace Council host

Erma Henderson center, Maryann Mahaffey, fourth from right, Clyde Cleveland, third from right

From September 29, to October 12, 1975 the Soviet front World Peace Council sent a delegation on a ten-day tour of the United States of America, where it was "warmly and enthusiastically received". In six of the ten cities visited, the delegation was officially welcomed by the mayors' offices and presented with "keys to the city", medals and proclamations.

The delegation was composed of Romesh Chandra, Secretary General of the World Peace Council; Josef Cyrankiewicz, former Premier of Poland, for many years a prisoner at the infamous Auschwitz prison camp, "outstanding anti-fascist fighter", and Chairman of the Polish Peace Committee; Ambassador Harald Edelstam, Swedish Ambassador to Algeria, formerly Ambassador to Chile during the Allende Presidency,"renowned for his rescue of hundreds of Chileans from the fascist junta"; Purabhi Mukherji, General Secretary of the Congress Party of India, member of Parliament and formerly a minister of the Indian government ~ for 15 years; James Lamond, Labour member of British Parliament, former Mayor of Aberdeen, Scotland, and active member of the Engineering Workers Union; Yacov Lomko, Editor-in-Chief of the Moscow News, leading member of the Soviet Peace Committee, and Communist Party USA member Karen Talbot, US member of the WPC Secretariat.

At Detroit's airport, the group was met by representatives of local peace organisations and trade unions. A sheriff's escort accompanied the delegates into Detroit where the "keys to the city" were presented to the delegation by Deputy Mayor Malcolm Dade, representing Mayor Coleman Young, and by Councilwoman Erma Henderson, member of the Detroit Common (City). Council.

The press, which was present during the presentation of the "keys", interviewed members of the delegation following the ceremony. The delegation was then taken to a meeting of the Detroit Common Council where the "Spirit of Detroit Award", signed by each member of the Council, was presented to each delegate by Council members Erma Henderson, Maryann Mahaffey and Clyde Cleveland. In addition to these Council members, the Michigan sponsors numbered 60 prominent local, state and national legislators, a Detroit judge, the presidents or vice presidents of 12 union locals including the United Auto Workers, Amalgamated Meatcutters, Transportation Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The sponsors also included the Bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Michigan, among other prominent members of the clergy, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Women for Peace, and representatives of peace, political and Black organisations.[8]

U. S. Peace Council sponsor

As at March, 1982, the published list of U.S. Peace Council sponsors included:[9]

Palestine Human Rights Campaign

A brochure came out in early 1978 announcing "A National Organizing Conference" sponsored by the Palestine Human Rights Campaign to be held on May 20-21, 1978, at American University, with the theme of "Palestinian Human Rights and Peace".

The list of "Sponsors" was a mix of a several groupings including the Communist Party USA and its sympathizers, the World Peace Council, the Hanoi Lobby, black extremists, mainly marxists, radical Christians, and Arab/Arab-American organizations, plus a few phone-booth sized pro-Palestinian Christian groups.

Individual sponsors of the event included Erma Henderson, President Detroit City Council.

Peace Links

During the 1980’s JoAnn Watson co-founded Peace Links in Detroit (with the Hon. Erma Henderson and the Hon. Maryann Mahaffey)..[10]

"Passing the Torch"

In celebration of Women’s History Month in March 2006, the Michigan Veteran Feminists of America presented the documentary Passing the Torch on March 25 on PBS (WTVS, Channel 56).

The documentary, narrated by Lily Tomlin, explored Michigan women’s motivations to participate in "one of the most profound social movements of the 20th Century."

Detroit-area feminists were active in the women’s movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and they joined the national VFA organization in the fall of 2000 to ensure the gains that they helped to make on behalf of women remain in place today. Through interviews and oral histories, the documentary recalls the struggles of these engaging activists to establish domestic violence shelters, pass legislation to promote more accessible child care and gain reproductive rights.

Luminaries such as former Michigan First Lady Helen Milliken, Erma Henderson, the first African American woman elected to the Detroit City Council, UAW executive Millie Jeffrey, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Governor Jennifer Granholm "reminisce about the protest marches, consciousness raising sessions and the excitement they felt when opening doors that had been closed to women."[11]



  1. Detroit African American History project bio, accessed Jan. 25, 2010
  2. {Michigan Women's Historical Center Hall of Fame bio, accessed June 25, 2012]
  3. [Testimony of Walter S. Steele regarding Communist activities in the United States. Hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, Eightieth Congress, first session, on H. R. 1884 and H. R. 2122, bills to curb or outlaw the Communist Party in the United States. Public law 601 (section 121, subsection Q (2) July 21, 1947, pages 75.76]]
  4. Peoples World, Black history, labor history intertwined in Detroit by: John Rummel March 1 2010
  5. PWW, Feb 20, 1993, page 12
  6. Detroit African American History project bio, accessed Jan. 25, 2010
  7. Detroit Public Library, Detroit City Council 1919 to present
  8. World peace council Tour USA. 1975, wpc information centre, Lonnrotinkatu 25 A 5 krs 00180 Helsinki 18 Finland
  9. War Called Peace
  10. [1] Joanne Watson, Detroit City Council bio, accessed June 1, 2010
  11. [2] News from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Fall 2006