In 1941, Dr. Rosa Lee Slade Gragg mortgaged her home, furnishings, car, and her husband’s business to secure the $2,000 down payment needed to purchase a clubhouse for the Detroit Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (DWC). Dr. Gragg, the president of the club from 1941-1945, bought the old William Lenanne House at 326 East Ferry, located in an affluent subdivision that was predominately white prior to the 1940s. Blacks were not allowed to live on Ferry Street, so in order to circumvent the racially restrictive covenants in force at the time, Dr. Gragg petitioned for the home’s address to be moved to 5461 Brush Street, its current location. The club paid the home off in just five years.
For Dr. Gragg’s bravery and pioneerism, the corner of Brush and Ferry will be renamed “Dr. Rosa L. Gragg Boulevard.” The secondary street sign unveiling will take place Friday, October 11 at 2 p.m. in front of the DWC. Dr. Gragg’s granddaughter, Lauren Gragg, will be in town as a representative of the Gragg family, along with Detroit City Council President Pro Tempore Mary Sheffield, and David R. Jarrett Sr., pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church, where Dr. Gragg attended. A small reception inside of the clubhouse will follow.
“This is a significant moment and great honor for all of my grandmother’s hard work,” said Lauren Gragg, trying to hold back tears. “She was a Civil Rights trailblazer, and this is appropriate recognition for the contributions she made to the African American community. She impacted the area where the Detroit Association of Women’s Club is so much, and it is appropriate that that street be named after her.”
Born April 4, 1904 in Hampton, Georgia, Dr. Gragg was a revered civic leader who made contributions in the educational, social, and political arenas, making history with numerous first achievements by a woman. She was an educated woman, attending Morris Brown College (summa cum laude graduate), Tuskegee University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University.
Dr. Gragg was an advisor to three U.S. Presidents and visited the White House over 30 times in her lifetime. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she was the only Black person on the Board of the National Volunteer’s Participation Committee of Civil Defense, helping to open Detroit’s first Civilian Defense Office. For President John F. Kennedy, she served on the Status of Women’s Commission, the National Women’s Committee on Civil Rights, and the Commission on Employment of the Handicapped. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the Citizens Committee on Community Relations and the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.
She also founded the first Black vocational school in Detroit in 1947, the Slade-Gragg Academy of Practical Arts. It was known as the “Tuskegee Institute,” of the North, training over 2,000 women and returning veterans. It was the first Black-owned and operated business on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Later in her life, Dr. Gragg led the establishment of a youth center, library, and archives for Bethel A.M.E., the second oldest Black church in Michigan. Still, her story is not widespread.
“Very few people know about Rosa Lee Gragg right here in the City of Detroit,” said Angela Calloway, president of the Detroit Association of Women’s Clubs. “And it’s kind of disheartening, because she played a huge role on the international, national, and local levels in terms of uplifting the Black race, educationally, politically, and economically.”
“The street renaming is going to initiate some conversations about her, because we have a lot of people in that area who know nothing about her and don’t know the story of the home. So hopefully, when people ride past the intersection of Brush and Ferry, they see here name and will promote curiosity on who she was.”
Dr. Gragg’s decision and bravery to purchase the home on a street that only allowed Black people to enter through the back door of the home and prohibited them from walking down the street, spearheaded the movement of Blacks living and operating on Ferry Street between Woodward Avenue and Brush Street in the 1940s.
Despite opposition from white residents in the subdivision, in 1941, Dr. Violet T. Lewis relocated her school, the Lewis College of Business, from West Warren and McGraw to the old James Murphy House at 5460 John R. The first business school in the city to accept Black students, it also offered courses in secretarial work, typewriting, bookkeeping, stenography, penmanship, and office management. The school relocated to Detroit’s west side in 1976 and closed in 2013. In 1987, the Lewis College of Business was designated as an HBCU (Historically Black College and University), the only one in Michigan’s history.
The Nu Omega Chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity purchased the old William L. Barclay Home at 235 East Ferry in 1942. The chapter still owns the home, serving Wayne State University students.
The Fritz Funeral Home also moved on the block, in 1946, into the old Charles Steinberg home at 246 East Ferry. Nationally known Black religious leader Prophet Jones later lived in the same home.
Dr. Gragg was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1987. She passed away in February 19, 1989 after battling illness. Her husband, James R. Gragg Sr., died in 1956. He was a businessman who operated a laundry and tailoring business at their home on the other side of East Ferry Street. Their only child, James R. Gragg Jr., was a lawyer and a judge in Michigan.