The Legacy of Erma L. Henderson, Detroit’s First Black City Councilwoman 

Former Detroit City Councilwoman Erma Henderson 

By Rasha Almulaiki

Once considered one of the most powerful Black women in Detroit’s history, Erma L. Henderson became the first Black woman elected to the city council in 1972, as well as the first Black president of the council. She served as for a total of 16 years, 12 of those years as council president.  

As a social worker, Henderson was a civil rights advocate for Black people to be treated fairly in the workplace, within criminal justice systems and in restaurants and hotels.  

The Michigan Chronicle spoke to Rev. JoAnn Watson, former Detroit city council member (2003-2013) and president of the NAACP- Detroit branch, about her tutelage under the esteemed “Mother Henderson.”  

“She was hard working, always well-prepared,” said Rev. Watson. “ She was truly a Servant-Leader; humble, very spiritual in her consciousness, a powerful orator, she was a visionary and unfailingly positive.” 

Educated in Detroit’s public schools, Henderson went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Wayne State University. Born in Pensacola, Fla., Henderson, and her family moved north like many other Black families during the Great Migration. She resided in Black Bottom during her early years and was mentored by the Labor Movement, the Elks, Black Churches, and was a frequent host of the legendary Paul Robeson. 

She was employed by the largest Black-owned insurance firm, and she managed the 1957 campaign of the first Black man elected to the Detroit City Council, William T. Patrick Jr. Henderson went on to win her council seat in a run-off election to fill a vacancy. The occasion served as a turning point in her career and for her ongoing fight against prejudice. As a councilwoman, Henderson advocated for equal rights, focusing on redlining, which is the practice of giving minority borrowers of loans and insurance less advantageous rates, terms and conditions. She founded the Michigan Statewide Committee Against Redlining in 1975, and as a result, the practice was completely banned by state legislation. 

Fifty years after Henderson’s tenure, the Detroit City Council is stewarded by another Black woman, President Mary Sheffield, who, in November 2013, was the youngest person to ever be elected to the body.  

When asked about the progress seen in fostering Black women in leadership since Henderson’s time, Rev. Watson said,“ The number of Black women in leadership positions is impressive, but still falls short of the demographics represented in the population. Detroit should have elected a Black woman as Mayor by now.” 

In 1990, Henderson was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and continued to dedicate her later years toward social justice advocacy for Detroiters. She joined the ancestors on December 14, 2009. 

“I believe a high school and college curriculum should be generated within Detroit-based educational institutions,” said Rev. Watson “which will allow students to study the life and examine the rich legacy of Erma L. Henderson, with required reading of her autobiography, ‘Down Through The Years.’ 

“If there was ever a woman who represented the manifestation of women’s empowerment in 20th century Detroit, it was the Honorable City Council President Emeritus, Erma Louise Henderson.” 


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