This Day in History

May 12, 1869: Detroit Educator Fannie Richards Helps to Desegregate Michigan Schools

Time Periods: Reconstruction Period: 1865 - 1876
Themes: African American, Reconstruction, Education

On May 12, 1869, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favor of school desegregation in the case of Joseph Workman v. the Detroit Board of Education, almost 90 years before the United States’ landmark Brown v. Board of Education.

portrait of Detroit educator Fannie Richards

Fannie Richards. Source: Michigan History Center

Desegregation was added to the Michigan State school legislation in 1867, though Detroit schools were chartered differently and did not think that they needed to heed this new legislation. This began to change when Joseph Workman, a Black man, tried to enroll his son in a school near their home. Workman’s taxes helped to fund this school, so he believed his son should be able to attend.

Fannie Richards, an esteemed local educator, helped to successfully promote the case of Joseph Workman v. the Detroit Board of Education.

For several years prior to this case, Detroit educator Richards studied in Canada and Germany, returning to Detroit to ensure that the Black population benefited from her education. Richards was a staunch advocate for school desegregation, and in 1871, she began teaching at the first integrated school in Detroit, Everett Elementary School, where she remained for over 40 years.

According to Rachel Clark at the Michigan History Center,

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. She did what was right because it was the right thing to do.

Learn more about Fannie Richards at Heroines of History.

Learn more about Reconstruction era history in the Zinn Education Project national report, “Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction.”