2009 : Erma Henderson, Detroit Civil Rights Crusader, Dies

December 14, 2021 all-day

Erma Henderson was the first African American woman elected to the Detroit City Council and served as council president for many years. Born in Pensacola, Florida in 1917, her family moved to Detroit within a year, coming north during the Great Migration along with other African Americans looking for work and more tolerant living conditions.

She attended Detroit Public Schools and went on to earn an advanced degree in social work from Wayne State University.

At the beginning of her political career she ran Detroit Common Council campaigns for the Rev. Charles Hill in 1945, and in 1957 for William Patrick. Her success in Patrick’s election made him the first African American City Councilman. A year after the 1967 civil disturbance, she became Executive Director of the Equal Justice Council, charged with collecting data to evaluate the treatment of blacks by the judicial system.

In 1972, Henderson won her seat on the Detroit City Council by winning a runoff election to fill a vacancy, and became the first African American woman to sit on the Council. The event was a milestone for her career, and for her continuing efforts against racism. As councilwoman, Henderson lobbied for equal rights, especially targeting discriminatory loan and insurance practices, called redlining, in which minority recipients were given less favorable rates, terms and conditions. In 1975 she organized the Michigan Statewide Coalition Against Redlining, which led to comprehensive state legislation that outlawed the practice.

Her efforts and ability earned her respect within the Council chambers, and she was elected President of the Detroit City Council by fellow members in 1977, serving 12 years in that role. She was named a notable “Michiganian of the Year” by The Detroit News in 1978. Henderson’s popularity and success prompted a run for mayor in 1989 but she was defeated in the primary by the incumbent, Coleman Young.

Erma Henderson was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990, and remained an ardent advocate for Detroit and its citizens until her death on December 14, 2009. She is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit.


Encyclopedia of Detroit.

A Legend Overlooked Again“, Do Haeng Michael Kitchen Blog.