Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation

Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation

Where Detroit's History Endures
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Erma Henderson

Erma Henderson
(1917 – 2009)

Erma Henderson was born in Pensacola, Florida in 1917 and moved to Detroit a year later.  Like thousands of African Americans, her family moved in the midst of the Great Migration that would find African Americans of the South fleeing discrimination and seeking better opportunities in the North.  She attended Detroit Public Schools as well as a number of colleges before completing her master's degree from Wayne State University's School of Social Work.  Henderson's true commitment to people was evident and continued to drive her throughout her life.  

Henderson was acclaimed as Detroit's most powerful woman of her time. She managed City Council campaigns for Rev. Charles Hill in 1945 and William Patrick in 1957, helping Patrick to become the first African American elected to City Council since the 1800s.  In an effort to aid the situation of African Americans in Detroit, she became the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Council a year after the civil disturbance of 1967. This organization collected judicial data in an attempt to monitor the treatment of blacks by the judicial system.

Her efforts helped ensure that African Americans gain admittance to hotels and restaurants in the 1950s, receive fair treatment in the criminal justice system in the wake of the 1967 Civil Disturbance, and secure mortgages and loans without the threat of discriminatory treatment, also known as redlining, in the 1970s.  She organized the Michigan Statewide Coalition Against Redlining to take on the state's banking and insurance interests and was directly responsible for the state's anti-redlining law, one of the most comprehensive in the nation.

Henderson also organized the Women's Conference of Concerns, a coalition of individuals and organizations representing 250,000 women at its peak, who worked to improve the quality of city life for all people.  She coordinated Women in Municipal Government in Michigan and nationally, bringing together women in city governments from all over the nation to work in unison.

In 1972, Henderson was elected to the Detroit City Council, becoming not only the first African American woman ever to sit on the Council, but also the first African American to win a head-to-head election against a white opponent.  She went on to serve 16 years, 12 as council president.  

As Michigan's ambassador for peace and racial harmony, she did not falter in the face of controversy, whether addressing the World Peace Council on disarmament in Helsinki, speaking out against apartheid at the United Nations, attending a presidential briefing on the Panama Canal, participating in international women's conferences in Mexico City or Nairobi, or leading a delegation of Council colleagues to meet with sister-city counterparts in Germany, Yugoslavia, and the former Soviet Union.

In July 1982, Erma Henderson held an unprecedented four-day International Trade Conference for the Michigan Chapter of the Continental African Chamber of Commerce, bringing together ambassadors and ministers of finance from 23 African nations to work on trade packages.

Her many awards were indicative of her gifted leadership as a coalition builder.  Beloved and respected, she was honored by education, civil rights, feminist, business, religious, and political groups across the state and nation.  “She taught people,” said one of her Common Council colleagues. “She used the coalitions as a training basis for community people who felt powerless and showed them they were powerful.”  Henderson’s numerous awards and honors include an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Shaw College in 1974 and the Detroit News' "Michiganian of the Year" in 1978.  Henderson was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990.  A park and marina in Detroit are named in her honor.

Henderson died in 2009 and is in Gallery A of the Mausoleum, Level E, and Niche 8.