Fannie Richards and the Integration of the Detroit Public Schools - Background Reading
by Robin S. Peebles
© 1981 Michigan History Magazine
It was 12 May 1869. The young black teacher in Detroit's
Colored School No. 2 kept glancing toward the railroad tracks outside her
schoolroom window. A week had passed since H. M. Cheeve and D. E. & H. M.
Duffield argued before the Michigan Supreme Court that Joseph Workman's son, and
all other black children in Detroit, could not legally be segregated from whites
in the public schools. Finally the afternoon train passed by. Fannie Richards
and her pupils cheered as they saw John Bagley's white handkerchief waving from
the train window. The prearranged signal meant the court had abolished
segregated public schools in Detroit.
Fannie Richards was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, about
1840 and moved to Detroit as a young girl with her family during the 1850s. She
received her early education in the public schools of Detroit, then went to
Toronto, where she studied English, history, drawing and needlework. She later
returned to Detroit to attend the Teachers Training School. In 1863 she opened a
private school for black children. Her appointment to segregated Colored School
No. 2, administered by the Detroit Board of Education, came two years later.
born in 1832, was a wealthy tobacco manufacturer. He was involved in mining, banking
and insurance corporations in the city. He also served as a member of the Detroit Board of Education.
Two other major forces behind the integration of the Detroit schools were Second Baptist Church, located on Monroe, and Michigan's
fifteenth governor, John J. Bagley (above).
In 1869, the year the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified,
Richards and Bagley were two of several liberal-minded citizens who helped
finance a lawsuit against Detroit's racially segregated school system. The case,
Joseph Workman v.
The Board of Education of Detroit, was the first
supreme court case in Michigan dealing with segregation in the public schools.
Workman's attorneys based their case on Act No. 34, Laws of
Michigan (1867): "All residents of any district shall have an equal right
to attend any school therein: Provided that this shall not prevent the grading
of schools according to the intellectual progress of the pupils, to be taught in
separate places when deemed expedient."
The school board argued that the 1867 law did not pertain to
the city of Detroit since there was but one district in the city. The board
further argued that the city schools were governed by a separate charter, which
exempted them from Act 34 and allowed them to establish separate schools for
Counsel for the board stated: "There exists among a
large majority of the white population of Detroit a strong prejudice or
animosity against colored people, which is largely transmitted to the children
in the schools, and that this feeling would engender quarrels and contention if
colored children were admitted to the white schools."
A major force supporting Workman was the Second Baptist
Church, where Fannie Richards taught Sunday School. Since its organization in
1836, Second Baptist had been an influential force in the social, political and
educational development of Detroit's black community. The church assisted
escaping slaves along the Underground Railroad prior to the Civil War and helped
form the Amherstburg Baptist Association through which Baptist churches in
Detroit and Canada aided fugitive slaves.
Bagley went on to become Michigan's fifteenth governor,
serving from 1873 to 1876. In 1871 Richards became the first black teacher in
Detroit's newly integrated school system. She taught at the Everett School for
forty-four years. In 1872 she was assigned to implement the Froebel Kindergarten
System of Instruction, named for Germany's Friedrich Wilhelm Froebel
(1782-1852). His elementary education innovations included kindergarten, play
ideas and handwork.
Richards's experimental kindergarten was a success. The
School Report of 1873 recommended that it be included as a permanent part of the
curriculum of the city schools, noting that "the early withdrawal of pupils
from school makes it desirable to have them begin earlier than age six, and that
kindergarten work seems to adapt to the needs of children preparatory to
entering regular schools."
Richards also continued to work at Second Baptist. In 1897
she and several other church women founded and financed the Phillis Wheatley
Home to care for Detroit's elderly and poor black citizens. Richards was the
home's first president.
In 1915 Fannie Richards retired from Everett. When
interviewed by a local newspaper, she remarked: "I loved my boys and girls,
Negro, Jew and German, as they came to me in the many changes that forty-four
years in one district will bring. The mixture was interesting to watch in the
classroom, for while the Jewish children led in arithmetic, and the German
children were the best thinkers, the colored children were the best readers,
almost orators, I might say. The colored boys and girls had the feeling and
voices for expressive reading and no one takes keener pleasure in the progress
that Negroes have made in an educational way in Detroit than I have."
She died in Detroit in 1922.
Contact the Michigan Historical Museum.