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Detroit, you are not alone

MADAM PRESIDENT: Detroit City Council President Erma Henderson in her office, Dec. 7, 1978. WIEDELMAN PHOTO, DETROIT NEWS COLL./REUTHER LIBRARY, WAYNE STATE UNIV.

A message from Detroit City Council President Emeritus Erma L. Henderson

On Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009, Detroit City Council President Emeritus Erma L. Henderson celebrated her 92nd birthday. In 1977, she was the first African American and the first woman to be elected president of the city council and the first to serve three consecutive terms in that office.

The Rev. Patrya A. Smith, Ms. Henderson’s daughter, organized the intimate commemoration at the Divine Temple of Mental Science, 7401 Mack Ave., which was established in 1942 by Dr. Ann Ryan.

The celebration was attended and addressed by family members, friends, caregivers, admirers and former aides, including Betty Appleby and Louis Pettiway.

Additionally, several educational and political leaders paid homage to Ms. Henderson’s life and contributions, including Highland Park Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Arthur M. Carter III, who is also Ms. Henderson’s godson; State Sen. Hansen Clarke; State Rep. Coleman A. Young II, and his mother, Annivory Calvert, who presented Ms. Henderson with a plaque and read her a poem, respectively; and Detroit City Council Member JoAnn Watson.

Following is an edited transcript of the impromptu remarks made by Ms. Henderson, which were tape-recorded and transcribed by Michigan Citizen historical features writer Paul Lee and approved by Ms. Henderson.

See next week’s issue of The Michigan Citizen for a follow-up article on Ms. Henderson’s role in organizing the controversial visit to Detroit by famed African American singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson in October 1949. — Ed.

My job

When I was running, at the very beginning of my campaign to run for the City Council {in 1972}, I stayed up until three o’clock in the morning to appear on a woman’s show, a radio show. A black woman had a radio show, but it was out in the suburbs.

And guess who came to the telephone to talk to me? All night long, there were white old ladies, so old and so infirmed, they were eating dog food and cat food out of the cans. And I promised them that if I got elected down in Detroit that I would not forget them.

And I gave them [my assistant] Louis Pettiway, who drove [chuckles] out to nowhere, down in the boondocks, and rescued these women with some real food. These old ladies who were eating dog food and cat food, and they were white old ladies. They were not black ladies, they were white.

I didn’t care what color they were. If their stomach was empty, it was my job, no matter where they were, to see that they had food. …

Birthday memories

Down through the years, I’ve only had one birthday party in a church. This is the second birthday party in a church. The first one was held out to Betty Appleby’s church before — I forget what year it was, but I invited people from all over to come to Hartford Avenue [Memorial] Baptist church because Hartford Avenue church has a history for me as a child because I knew their first pastor [the Rev. Charles A. Hill], and this pastor they have now [the Rev. Charles G. Adams] was still a little boy.

And the [Detroit] Free Press writer published a picture on the back page of the paper one day showing me up on the platform giving some kind of a lecture with [future Detroit Mayor] Coleman Young at my back [chuckles] and Hartford Avenue church’s pastor [is the] little boy sitting on the floor. [Chuckles] So they’re sort of special to me. …

Unique things

There are some things about our people that are so unique, like the Underground Railroad at Second Baptist church. There are some things about our people that are so unknown. I mean, people kept them as a dark secret.

But I would like to see — and this is my word to you — I would like to see the Underground Railroad at Second Baptist come up to par, with Dr. Carter as one of the leaders of that movement.

I would like to see the remnants of the people who left Second Baptist and went to Hartford, the remnants of those people, I would like to see those people brought into conversation with all the churches of the city because when I left the Equal Justice Council, the present pastor [the Reverend Adams] took over my prison ministry and sat on the board for awhile. I had to remind him he does so much that he belonged to me.

More to do

So all of us have some memory, and I think if you write a book of memories, you each have something to say. Because whatever you say you did, I may not have a memory of it, but I know you would not lie to me, so you would tell me what we did together and we can publish it. I don’t mean publish by book form, but we can publish it by leaflet form, we can talk about it as a newspaper article, we can develop our own thing.

You know, I got a few more years left. [Chuckles] I don’t plan to go anywhere. This is a birthday celebration; it’s not a going-away celebration. [Applause] It’s true that I won’t be leaping and running to meetings and speaking and dot-da-dot-da-dot-da-dot. But there are a lot of things I still can do. And if I can’t do them, you can do them and I can tell you what they are.

Let’s get busy

So let’s get busy. We’ve got a whole lot of work to do. We’ve got so much work to do, there’s no hands big enough, there’s no heart large enough, there’s no mind strong enough to hold the treasures that we have inside of us that will make a new world out of the city of Detroit. A new world.

You can do anything you want to do. You can do anything you want to do. You know, most of us talk a good fight and go home and go to sleep and think we’ve already fought it. [Chuckles] You know?

But if you’re really willing to fight it, then join the Women’s Conference of Concerns. Join something else, even join my church.

Divine Temple of Mental Science

The FBI thinks this church is something strange, you see, because my pastor, Dr. Ryan, who was a healer, could say to you what she wanted you to know and it would be indelible. So she designed the words of the Divine Temple of Mental Science and, of course, that’s what it meant to her. She was talking about her mind in God.

But mental meant something else to the FBI. You know? It means somebody over here is teaching something to do with your mind, and we can’t have that. So I don’t know whether they’ve been inside the church or not, but they certainly have been on the outside of the church.

The reason I know it is because they told me so. Because, see, they hang out with people, politicians, that they think are their friends. [Chuckles] You know?

You are not alone

You are not alone in the city of Detroit. You are not alone in the city of Detroit. You are not alone in the city of Detroit. As long as you walk, as long as you talk, there’s somebody watching you and looking after everything you say and do.

But if you’re strong enough, if you’re bold enough, if you’re believing enough, if you’re holy ghost-filled enough, you can do anything you want to do. Do you hear me? You can do anything that you want to do. [Applause]

‘I can do all things…’

Jesus said it better than I can say it. He said, [leading the audience in reciting Philippians 4:13] “I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me.” Oh, wow. Ooh, do you hear yourself? Do you hear yourself?

So, go where you have to go, do what you have to do. You don’t have to come back to the church, but you have to come back in memory. You have to come back where you heard that so you can everyday say to yourself, “I can do all things — [leading the audience] I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me.”

We haven’t got time

But now you can’t do that if you’re holding evil. You know, sometimes we shout and say a good word and feel so good, everything’s all right, everything’s all right, but you know so-and-so-and-so-and-so. … Do you hear me? Do you hear me? I don’t believe you hear me. [Audience: “Yes!”]

So we haven’t got time to lie; we haven’t got time to steal; we haven’t got time to — [chuckles]. Never mind, we haven’t got time. [Laughter] We haven’t got time.

But, you know, if you’ve got time to do anything, let’s do it together. The word together is the word that strengthens us. If you have something going on on your side of town and I can’t get there, let’s send a friend. You know, whatever we can do to make this world a better place.

Vote for my friend

You know, I shudder to think about this new election coming up. I’m not going to go into that. But I just want to tell you that Jo Ann Watson ain’t here for fun and frolic, and however she does it, that’s her business.

But my business with her is: Elect Jo Ann Watson back to City Council, but that eighth place or seventh place or whatever the heck that place is, it’s not good enough. You know? If they’re going to dig into anybody, let them dig into some of their own crooks. They’ve got enough crooks out there. You know?

Because we don’t own the newspapers. We don’t own the radios and we don’t own the televisions. So, wherever we can peephole through, let’s peephole through; let’s fight back; let’s get the right people in. I’m not telling you who to vote for, I’m just telling you to vote and to get people ready to vote, and to vote for Jo Ann Watson if you don’t vote for nobody else. [Laughter]

Well, everybody has a right to say, “Vote for my friend.” So you’ve got a right to say, “Vote for my friend,” whoever that is. But that’s my friend.

So I’m asking you to think with me. [Leading the audience] “I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me.” Say it again. [Leading the audience] “I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me.” [Leading the audience] “I can — do all things — through Christ — that strengthens me.”

Snapshot of the life and legacy of Erma L. Henderson
Compiled by Paul lee

The following is not intended to be a comprehensive account of the rich, nearly century-long life of Erma L. Henderson, but rather a snapshot to suggest the scope and depth of her work and legacy. — PL.

– Born at Pensacola, Fla., Aug. 20, 1917; came to Detroit the following year. From early on, displayed what would become a lifelong interest in social justice, public service and world — particularly African — affairs.

– Attended Detroit Pubic Schools, Detroit Institute of Technology, Wayne County Community College, University of Michigan and Wayne State University School of Social Work (Master’s degree).

– Member, Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

– Life member, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

– Founder, Lady Camille Temple, Improved and Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the World (I. B. P. O. E. of W.), 1943.

– First black port secretary, National Maritime Union (NMU), Detroit, late 1940s.

– Helped break down racial barriers at several Michigan hotels, including the Barlum at Detroit and the Pantlind at Grand Rapids.

– Founder, Women’s Auxiliary of the Appomattox Republican Club; later became a Democrat.

– “[V]olunteer supporter,” Council on African Affairs (CAA), a mostly black group formed in 1937 to give concrete support to the struggles of the African masses, disseminate accurate information concerning Africa and its people and influence the adoption of governmental policies that would promote African advancement and freedom and preserve international peace.

Paul Robeson, Sr., the internationally famous African American singer, motion picture star and political activist, was the group’s chairman and Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, the famed African American scholar, its vice-chairman. The CAA’s motto was: “Africa’s Problems Are Your Problems.”

– Candidate, presidential elector for Michigan for the unsuccessful bid of former U. S. Vice President Henry A. Wallace on the Progressive party ticket, 1948.

– Executive secretary, Detroit Committee to Welcome Robeson, organized by the Michigan Civil Rights Congress (MCRC), Sept. – Oct. 1949.

– Arranged for Paul Robeson to celebrate his birthday with her godson, Arthur M. Carter III, and his brother Raymond at her home, April 1954. Robeson would later refer to it as his “Special Birthday Party.” The boys’ mother, Alberta Carter, was a high school classmate and lifelong friend of Ms. Henderson’s.

– Became national director of public relations, Grand Temple of Daughters of Elks, 1955.

– Manager, successful Detroit Common [later City] Council campaign of William T. Patrick, Jr., 1957. Patrick became the first African American to serve on that body.

– Candidate, Detroit Common Council, 1967; narrowly defeated.

– Executive director, Equal Justice Council (EJC), 1968, born out of the Detroit Rebellion the year before. Recommended by Michigan Circuit Court Judge Arthur M. Bowman. The Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr. (later Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman), founder of the Shrine of the Black Madonna, was a board member.

– Elected to Detroit City Council, 1972, the first black person in Detroit history to win against a white opponent in a one-on-one, citywide, non-partisan election and the first black woman to serve on that body.

– Founder, Women’s Conference of Concerns (WCOC), Jan. 18, 1973.

– Delegate, International Women’s Year Conference, Mexico City, July 1975; appointed by President Jimmy Carter.

– Elected president, Detroit City Council, 1977, the first black person and the first woman to hold that office and the first to serve three consecutive terms in that position.

– Organized Michigan Statewide Coalition Against Redlining to combat the practice of denying insurance and loans or charging exorbitant rates to credit-worthy individuals and businesses because they lived or were located in a particular neighborhood.

– Ordained, along with her daughter, Patrya A. Smith, as a minister, Divine Temple of Mental Science, founded in 1942 by Dr. Ann Ryan.

– Head, Michigan chapter, Continental Africa Chamber of Commerce (CACC), which sponsored four-day conference at Cobo Hall, July 1982, to promote African commerce, trade, development, tourism and investment, bringing together ambassadors and ministers of finance from 23 African nations. (Northwest Airlines brought the latter to U. S. at its expense.)

– Organizer, 40-person Detroit delegation, Third World Conference on Women, Nairobi, Kenya, July 1985.

– Declined to seek reelection for a fourth term on the Detroit City Council to run for mayor of Detroit, mostly “to give women the idea that they could run for mayor,” 1989; finished fourth in primary. Retired from the council after 17 years of service.

– Mayor Young proposed to the Detroit City Council that Memorial Park at East Jefferson and Burns, which includes a marina, be renamed Erma Henderson Park for her “outstanding” service; he dedicated it at a public ceremony, 1989.

– Published her autobiography, Down Through the Years: The Memoirs of Detroit City Council President Erma Henderson (Bloomington, Ind.: Authorhouse), 2004.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lee


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