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90 years before Brown v. Board, a Detroit teacher worked to desegregate schools

Michigan History Center

While teaching has long been considered a “feminine” job, with 76% of teachers being female in 2019, it hasn’t always been open to women of color. Not until the mid-1800s when Detroiter Fannie Richards changed education in Michigan forever.

Richards was born around 1840 in Fredericksburg, VA, and moved to Detroit after her father died in 1850. Around that time, Black Detroiters were primarily settled in the area that is now Lafayette Park and were staunchly middle class, Michigan History Center’s Rachel Clark described.

“If you look at census records, they are skilled trades, they’re shoe makers, and tailors, and carpenters, and cooks. You really don’t see general laborer as a job titled,” Clark said. “They are all skilled laborers and they’re living in that area and have middle class expectations.”

Richards’s early education took place in Virginia and Detroit but opportunities for Black females were limited, so she left the area for Toronto, Canada, in search of higher education. She then went on to Germany. There she studied the kindergarten model under Professor Wilhelm Forebel, which was a new concept at the time.

In 1868, Richards returned to the Detroit area and began teaching at Colored School #2. She quickly became aware of the stark differences between white and Black schools in terms of quality. Richards got to work making things better.

In 1867, the Michigan Legislature added desegregation to state school legislation. Detroit area schools were chartered differently, however, and didn’t feel the need to abide by these new rules. A court case, Workman v. Detroit Board of Education, quickly made its way up the Michigan Supreme Court. It began after a Black man, Joseph Workman, tried to enroll his son in the school near their home, a school which Workman’s taxes helped pay for. Richards was part of the efforts to bring the case up.

The Michigan Supreme court ruled in favor of school desegregation in this case, nearly 90 years before the United States’ landmark Brown v. Board of Education.

“They basically said ‘yes, when the legislature in 1867 made the move to desegregate schools, they were actually talking specifically about Detroit, so there’s no reason for Detroit Public Schools to see themselves as separate,’” Clark said. “So in 1869 that case came through and desegregated Detroit Public Schools.”

In 1871, Richards got a job at the first integrated school, Everett Elementary School, which was right in her neighborhood. She worked there for the rest of her career, for over 40 years.

“She introduced kindergarten, which she, again, learned about in Germany and that was, she was sort of the main teacher at that school and everybody knew her,” Clark said. “She really pushed for not only the integration of the schools but the equality of schools in Detroit at that time.”

While Richards was the apple of her community’s eye during her lifetime, her renown didn’t spread far outside the city. Beside her work with schools, she also founded a home for elderly ladies of color and worked within the suffragette movement. While she has become more well known, her memory serves as a reminder to Detroit and the wider education system. Clark, who worked as an educator for 12 years, sees Richards as a trailblazer in understanding “how to fix problems when you see them.”

“It is an imperfect system and across the board, from district to district it’s different. I think that people can really learn from Fannie Richards that when you see a problem, when you see inequality, when you see something that is unfair, and when you see something that is just plain wrong, that you can move to change it,” Clark said. “She did what was right because it was the right thing to do.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

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