NewsBlack History Month

Here's the story of Michigan's first Black legislator & his important role in Lansing

Posted at 6:31 PM, Feb 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-24 20:15:20-05

DETROIT, Mich. (WXYZ) — “It’s a marvelous story and people need to talk about his legacy and this true champion,” said Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley.

But to talk about William Webb Ferguson, one needs to know his life story — and the historic role he played in Michigan's history.

In 1889, Ferguson was denied service after refusing to sit in the “colored” section of the restaurant inside Gies’ European hotel, located on Monroe Street in Downtown Detroit.

“He sued the restaurant, and his case went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. It ended up becoming the first public accommodations lawsuit in the history of the State of Michigan,” said former State Sen. Buzz Thomas.

And he won! The court ruled that separation by race in public places was illegal.

“It was, I believe, a year after the court decision, and he ran for the Michigan Legislature and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1892,” said Thomas.

For Ferguson – it was another first – becoming the first African American to serve in our legislature.

Thomas said he learned more about Ferguson’s “firsts” when he decided to run for office himself.

“That was an important moment in Michigan history, obviously an important part of Black history in the state of Michigan,” said Thomas. “I’m sure that people within the Ferguson family of the 19th century challenged him to always be better so that he could just be equal and clearly, he took that to heart and lived a life of creating equal opportunity for people who look like him.”

In 2018, a portrait of Ferguson was unveiled in the Michigan State Capitol. Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley was chairperson of the Michigan Black Legislative Caucus at the time and had been pushing for representation.

“I did a lot of tours for children and children of color, and you cannot become what you cannot see as they looked at all the portraits in the Michigan Capitol, but no persons of color were on the walls of the Capitol, of great Americans and Michiganders,” said Neeley.

The portrait that was commissioned changed that and its placement was intentional.

“They put his portrait, William Webb Ferguson’s portrait, right outside the old Michigan Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol building and it’s really cool that the tour guides really supported that too, because when they take school kids on tours of our Capitol building, their plan is to stop at that painting and give a little explanation, description of who is hanging on the wall and why it’s so significant,” said former Democratic staffer for the Michigan Legislature Dennis Denno.

“We can talk about the other illnesses that we have, as far as discrimination or racism, but we also have to make sure we tell the stories of our successes and William Webb Ferguson was definitely that, a success story, for Michigan, for all of Michigan,” said Neeley.