On February 28th, Justice Kurtis Wilder was at the Capitol Rotunda in Lansing and offered remarks at the unveiling of the Portrait of William Webb Ferguson (R-Detroit), the first African American elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 1893.

If you aren’t familiar with the story of William Webb Ferguson, keep reading.

After being kicked out of a Detroit restaurant for refusing to sit in the “colored” section, William Ferguson filed a discrimination suit. He lost, but appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court. In 1890 the court ruled segregation by race in public facilities was illegal. A few years later, in 1893, Ferguson won election to the Michigan House of Representatives — the first African American to serve in the Michigan legislature.  A Republican, Ferguson was reelected to a second term in 1895 where he was instrumental in having legislation adopted that made discrimination in selling life insurance illegal.

Augustus Straker served as William Ferguson’s lawyer. In doing so, Straker became the first African-American attorney to appear before the Michigan Supreme Court. In Ferguson v Gies, 82 Mich 358 (1890), Straker successfully argued that the “separate but equal” doctrine violated Michigan’s public accommodation law. The unanimous decision was remarkable given the doctrine’s rapidly rising tide which reached its epic three years later in the United States Supreme Court decision in Plessey v Ferguson, 163 US 537 (1893). Gies has come to be known as Michigan’s “Great Civil Rights Case.”

Gies, which was decided on October 10, 1890, actually preceded by some 64 years the landmark United States Supreme Court decision in Brown v Board of Education which ushered in the modern civil rights era. A few years after the Gies decision, Straker was elected the first African-American jurist in Michigan. In 1892, he became a Wayne County Circuit Court Commissioner. He served two terms.

William Ferguson State Historical Marker in Detroit.

For more information about D. Augustus Straker, see D. Augustus Straker Bar Association

Click here here for powerpoint presentations which discuss Michigan cases involving civil rights, including the rights of indigenous peoples and the rights of African Americans.