Her passing is one of the biggest news events of the year in Michigan, where she was inducted into the Michigan Women Hall of Fame in 1990 and in Detroit where she worked tirelessly and fearlessly as a political pioneer from 1972 to 1989.
The woman who inspired generations of people not to be limited by their own circumstances, espoused the noble ideals of womanhood, breaking gender barriers and advocated for the underprivileged who are cut out of the dream of the pursuit of liberty, happiness and life succumbed to death early Monday morning at age 92.
Erma L. Henderson, the first Black woman to sit on the Detroit City Council as well as its first Black president, is being mourned today because of what she stood for.
Her passion for justice and equality for all people did not go unnoticed. Even when her cries seemed unpopular among the powerfully connected, she was guided by an abiding philosophy to care for the least among us and never wavered in doing so.
That philosophy, like that of her former colleague the late Maryann Mahaffey, was informed by her background as a social worker.
“She took her position on council very naturally and did not seem to be filled with self- importance. I always thought about her more as a social worker than a politician,” said Detroit historian Rev. Daniel Aldridge who was also Henderson’s neighbor. “She was extremely warm and friendly, approachable, always interested in the needs of ordinary people and was never overwhelmed by her political position.”
Aldridge said Henderson never took the party line and was less concerned about partisan politics and more focused on what needed to be done to help struggling Detroiters. He called her an independent thinker.
It is important to note that Henderson made her debut in Detroit politics in 1972, at a time when it was very unpopular for women to enter the political arena that was primarily the domain of White males. And for a Black woman who had to bear the burden of historical stereotypes, socioeconomic and political stumbling blocks, to progress her inclusion within the body politic of Detroit at the time was even more groundbreaking.
Her entrance in the political landscape was a piercing defiance against racism and sexism that relentlessly permeated every level of the community. It was a surgical operation performed on the maladies of those who psychologically wanted to hold hostage the progress of Blacks and women.
Born in Pensacola, Florida, Henderson was a liberating presence in the Detroit political scene.
Even as she aged she was very alert and kept abreast of the hot button issues in Detroit politics.
I recalled attending the signing of her book, “Down Through The Years: The Memoirs of Detroit City Council President Emeritus Erma Henderson,” in 2004 at the Detroit Public Library.
When it was my turn to interview her she had a message for Detroit politicians: Be truthful, honest, courageous and stand up for your convictions.
Clearly those attributes are hard to find these days when the opposite of those virtues tends to be the norm.
“She knew how to build coalitions and was able to bring people from all around the world to Detroit. She traveled extensively around the world promoting Detroit at an international level,” according to Betty Appleby of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
Appleby, who worked for Henderson on the council from 1982 to 1989 before she left to head the Michigan Office of International Trade in South Africa, said her former boss was a powerful woman.
“She opened the doors for women to begin to realize that they can run for higher office. She had that kind of vigorous voice and spoke to the issues,” Appleby said. “She was constantly promoting women and most of the women who are elected officials today, like Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Barbara Talley and many others came to seek her advice.”
In 1985, Henderson led a delegation from Detroit to take part in the United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi, Kenya.
“She spoke about the concerns of women in Nairobi. After she spoke the international media was seeking to interview her,” Appleby said. “She encouraged women to get ahead and helped them in preparing the tools to run for office or become an executive. She was quiet a voice within the Michigan Women Municipal League.”
Henderson founded the Women’s Conference of Concerns, a coalition of organizations and individuals representing 250,000 women that still meets regularly.
“She founded the Women’s Conference of Concerns because she saw that many people in the Detroit metropolitan area were frustrated about what was going on and did not know how to influence politics. She was concerned about the overall and personal development of people,” said Mary Robinson, who first met Henderson at Wayne State University in 1973 when the two were students completing their MA in social work.
Robinson said she enjoyed helping to organize the group because Henderson was always willing to work with people from various backgrounds and all walks of life.
Working with the women’s group, Robinson said, proved to be a good training ground for her as a social worker with the Detroit Public Schools.
“She was able to help people understand that there are things you can do to help yourself,” Robinson said about her friend.
Dr. Arthur Carter III, superintendent of the Highland Park Public School District, said Henderson was the “second person to see me in life. When my mother gave birth to me within a few minutes she was there.”
Carter said his mother and Henderson were very close friends. He also recalled celebrating his 14th birthday in 1954 with Henderson at her house. That celebration coincided with the visit of the legendary Paul Robeson who was invited by Henderson to celebrate his birthday at her home.
A mentor to so many people, Henderson, Carter said, coached him, leading to him winning his first oratorical contest as a youngster and, “I took my first plane ride with Henderson in 1958,” traveling to Washington, DC.
Carter would later serve as Henderson’s campaign manager for her second bid for city council. Henderson encouraged him to run for political office, which he did, for the Wayne County Commission, and eventually became chair of that body.
Henderson is credited with organizing the Michigan Statewide Coalition Against Redlining that took on the state’s banking and insurance industry. Those efforts were responsible for the state’s anti-redlining laws, one of the first in the nation.
Henderson was physically strong as well.
“She was a strict vegetarian. After she left office she opened her own health food store in Ferndale. She was a wholistic practitioner,” Appleby said.
Henderson’s personal physician Dr. Sylmara Chatman called her a “wonderful woman with a wealth of information.”
“She was very open and shared a lot of her political life,” Chatman said. “She talked about some of the struggles she went through as a woman and being the first in many arenas. I remember her talking about being on city council, not only how exciting that was but her interactions with (former mayor) Coleman Young and how volatile that was sometimes.”
Chatman said her patient was even-tempered and had a good sense of humor.
A very spiritual woman, Henderson attended the Divine Temple of Mental Science Church, the site of a private memorial on Friday.
“As Michigan’s own ambassador for peace and racial harmony, she does 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, touring the island country of Grenada, or leading a delegation of council colleagues to meet with sister-city counterparts in Germany, Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union,” was how Henderson was described in a 1990 citation when she was inducted into the Michigan Women Hall of Fame.
“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 effectuate trade packages. Henderson attended the historic installation of the Right Reverend Desmond Tutu as archbishop of South Africa in 1986.”
Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, U.S. Senator Carl Levin and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing are among civic leaders paying tribute.
“From her historic election to the Detroit Common Council in 1972, to becoming president in 1977, President Emeritus Henderson was an advocate for our city, and her voice for change will be missed,” said Bing. “My thoughts and prayers are with President Henderson’s family and close friends during this difficult time.”
Swanson Funeral Home is handling arrangements. Henderson will be cremated.
Digital Daily Signup
Sign up now for the Michigan Chronicle Digital Daily newsletter!