Esther Gordy Edwards: Far more than the founder of Motown Historical Museum

Whatever she did, it was with the highest standards, professionalism and an attention to detail that was legendary.”  Berry Gordy 

The late Esther Gordy Edwards has been greatly lauded for her role as the visionary founder and sustainer of the Motown Historical Museum.  However, prior to heading the international-loved museum, which she started in 1985Gordy Edwards served in many executive positions with Motown Records for almost three decades. 

Portrait of Berry Gordy

Yet, Edwards’ life achievements extended beyond Motown.  Edwards was an entrepreneur, business leader, mentor, champion for women in business, advocate for education, civic titan, social scientist, political activist, and philanthropist, whose indelible fingerprints remain attached to many Detroit and national organizations and institutions.  

As the Motown Historical Museum prepares for its annual Founder’s Day celebration on Sunday, May 19 (12:00 – 5:00 p.m.) at the record label’s original site (2648 W. Grand Blvd.), the following represents a “partial” timeline of Esther Gordy Edwards’ many endeavors.  The timeline is provided courtesy of Robin Terry, chairwoman and CEO of Motown Historical Museum, granddaughter of Esther Gordy Edwards, and great niece of Berry Gordy. 

April 25, 1920 – Esther Gordy was born in Oconee, Georgia. 

1922 – Moved to Detroit with her family, headed by her father, Berry “Pops” Gordy, Sr. and mother, Bertha Fuller Gordy. 

1939 – Attended Howard University and became a proud member of the Founding Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the oldest Greeklettered organization established by African American college educated women.  She later attended Wayne State University. 

1947 – Esther and her brothers – Fuller and George – started The Gordy Printing Company in Detroit.  

1951 – Married Michigan State Representative George Edwards. 

1959 – Motown Records was founded with an $800 loan secured by Berry Gordy from The Gordy Family Savings Club (The Ber-Berry Co-op).  Esther helped established the family co-op. 

Berry Gordy and Cholly Atkins

1960  Became the first African American womanelecteddelegate-at-large from Michigan to the 1960 Democratic National Convention.  She was the first African American ever appointed to Detroit Recorder’s Court Jury Commission, later becoming its chairperson.  

1961 to 1972 – Served as mentor, personal manager of artists, senior vice president, corporate secretary and director of international relations of Motown Records.  

1970 – First African American – and first woman – to serve on the 40-person board of the Central Business District Association., later becoming its vice president. 

1971 – The Detroit News named Esther Gordy Edwards one of Detroit’s ten “Big Wheels.” 

1972 – Motown Records moved to Los Angeles.  Esther remained and began running Motown’s Detroit Office, where she served as director of public affairs.  Subsequently, the Michigan State Legislature honored her with a special resolution for her accomplishments and service to the community. 

1973  Was chosen to sit on the Detroit Bank of the Commonwealth Board of Directors, which at the time, made her one of just a few women in America to sit on a major bank’s board. 

1973 – The first woman elected to the board of the greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce, where she was named treasurer.  Esther was named Woman of the Year by Current Top Study Club. 

1973 Was the only female owner of the Detroit Wheels football team of the World Football League.   

1974 – Received the National Community Service Award from the National Association of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, Inc. 

1975 – Received the Business Achievement Award from Chicago-based Operation PUSH.  She was also named and honored as “Builder of Detroit” by Wayne State University 

1980s – Served as a board member of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta and Detroit Metro Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. 

Berry Gordy and Stevie Wonder

1981 – Named president of the Wayne State Fund, a non-profit corporation administering private gifts to Wayne State University. 

1984 – Received the National Society of Fundraising Executives’ Outstanding Volunteer Award in Detroit.  Later named board member of Lawrence Institute of Technology. 

1985 – Preserved the original headquarters of Motown Records on Detroit’s west side by creating the Motown Historical Museum.  She later received a gubernatorial appointment to the Michigan Sesquicentennial Commission.  

1988 – Served on the Michigan Historical Commission. 

1994 – Recognized as a “Distinguished Warrior” by the Detroit Urban League. 

1995 – Chaired the board of the development company that built Trappers Alley in Detroit’s Greektown.  

August 24, 2011 – Esther Gordy Edwards died. 

“Esther Gordy Edwards was a loving and caring person whose dedication knew no bounds,” said Dave Bingwho as mayor of Detroit in 2011 issued a proclamation shortly after Edwards died.  “During her incredibly full life, she had the opportunity to compile a rich portfolio of experiences and accomplishments.” 

Robin Terry adds. 

My grandmother followed her ‘push up –pull up’ philosophy, which means as she was pushing for success as a trailblazer, she always make sure she was pulling someone through the doorway with her,” Terry said.  My grandmother really loved and cared about Detroit and its people.”  

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