As you walk through the red double-doors to enter the rear of Detroit Northwestern High School, the walls are filled with old class group photos, showcasing the rich tradition there. Some greats have walked the halls of Northwestern, including former Detroit Tigers slugger Willie Horton, Temptations members Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams, Motown singer Mary Wells, and so many others.
The most prestigious of them all may have been federal judge and civil rights icon Damon J. Keith, who passed away Sunday morning at the age of 96. Keith dawned the scarlet and gray of Northwestern throughout his high school career, graduating in June of 1939. Upon his death, little was documented about his high school years. But one visit to the Northwestern High Alumni Association’s office inside the school reveals it all.
“He was a popular guy here during his time at Northwestern,” said Joseph J. Barber, Chairman of the Northwestern High Alumni Association. “He was in athletics, he took up the arts here, and he was a very good student academically.”
Keith was quite the athlete for the Colts of Northwestern. Barber and his staff sifted through decades of “Norwester” yearbooks to showcase the 1938 and ’39 editions where Keith appears. Often times, Keith was the only black student pictured in the clubs he participated in, since Detroit was predominately white at the time, including its schools.
In 1938, Keith was a high school junior and was pictured with his track and field teammates. He earned three letters running for the Colts. As a senior in 1939, he continued to run track, earning himself a spot on the “N” Club, which was a symbol of high athletic achievement. Keith was also a member of the band and concert orchestra.
The Northwestern High Alumni Association also had dozens of photos and newspaper clippings in its office documenting Keith’s life, and a video playing of his achievements over the last 60 years.
“Judge Keith was larger than life and he left a large legacy for all Northwestern alumni,” said Barber, who graduated from Northwestern in 1966. “We have a lot of prominent alumni and he was one of our better members. He wasn’t always in the public limelight and just did his job every day. If there was such a ranking of Northwestern alumni, he’d for sure be in the top ten.”
Barber and his wife, Jackie, attended the same church as Keith:Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, which sits just to the right of Northwestern High on the corner of West Grand Boulevard and Dexter. The current location of the church is where Northwestern’s first building was erected in 1911. The current building opened in 1980 and Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church was built in 2001.
“He would often get up in church and say that the church sat on sacred ground,” said Barber, who also graduated in 1966. “He was talking about Northwestern High School. He was very proud of his high school, even in church.”
The Northwestern High Alumni Association said they have not had a lot of traffic through its office from outsiders since Keith’s passing, but a number of students have passed through to learn more about their fellow Colt. Barber said as they get up in age, they hope the younger generation will continue being the record-keepers of their high school.
“It’s very important for us to be here in the school,” said James Evans, a 1988 graduate of Northwestern and volunteer in the alumni office. “The kids need to know their history and the names of the prominent people that have walked through the same halls as them. They need to know whose shoulders they are standing on and what they can accomplish as well.”
A public visitation will be held May 11 from 8-8 p.m. at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (315 E. Warren Avenue). Judge Keith’s homegoing celebration is scheduled for May 13 at 10 a.m. at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church (18700 James Couzens Freeway). The service will be simulcast at Wayne State’s Community Arts Auditorium, 450 Reuther Mall. He will be interred at Roseland Park Cemetery, 29001 N. Woodward Ave. in Berkley. The Swanson Funeral Home is handling the services.