5 women who shaped Detroit’s past and present &#...

5 women who shaped Detroit’s past and present — and where to find their history

Get to know the stories of these strong women who left a legacy in Detroit.

five women who shaped detroit history

If you’re at all skeptical about girls running the world, then look no further than Detroit. Since the 1700s, women have stepped up — especially when the odds were stacked against them. So, let’s zoom in on a handful of women who have shaped Detroit’s past and present — from fighting for equal rights and taking risks, to building community hubs and making education a priority for all.

On March 18, Detour partnered with Detroit Experience Factory to celebrate Women’s History Month — and more than a dozen “Matriarchs of the Motor City,” getting to know their stories in a virtual tour of hallmark spaces that commemorate historical women from our past and present. 

One of the biggest takeaways during the hour-long experience was this overarching theme: our city is a special place where you can make your mark. 

“Detroit is big enough to matter in the world and small enough for you to matter in it,” said Detroit Experience Factory founder and Matriarchs of the Motor City tour guide Jeanette Pierce said. 

These five inspiring Detroit women made it happen — and you can, too.

Elizabeth (Lisette) Denison Forth

Denison was born into slavery in the 1780s in Detroit — but in 1807, she was able to cross into Canada to freedom along with her parents and siblings. She later came back to Detroit around 1812. Soon after, she became the first Black property owner in Oakland County, purchasing 48 acres of land in what is now known as Pontiac. She used the money from her estate to develop St. James Episcopal Church on Grosse Isle, which she created so that people from all walks of life could worship together, which remains true to this day. You can find Denison’s historical marker on land that she formerly owned, now known as Oak Hill Cemetery. Not surprisingly, made it into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.  Learn more.

Laura Smith Haviland

Haviland, who was a Quaker, first made her mark by developing the first anti-slavery organization in Michigan, the Logan Female Anti-Slavery Society. Five years later, she developed the Raisin Institute, which became a safe space for African American freedom seekers and attracted Black settlers in Michigan. In 1845, when Haviland was 36, she became a widow with seven children after her husband, parents and youngest child died in an epidemic Despite this tragedy, she continued with her abolitionist work, and became known as the “Superintendent of the Underground Railroad in Detroit.” In the 1850s, she traveled around Michigan, Ohio and Canada to help enslaved people escape, taught African American students and made public anti-slavery speeches. After the Civil War, the Raisin Institute was renamed the Haviland Home and became an orphanage for African American children. Learn more.

Fannie M. Richards

Richards was the first Black school teacher in Detroit. She also first brought the kindergarten educational program to Michigan schools after studying in Germany with Friedrich Fröbel, who helped pioneer the concept. She was one of many Detroit leaders who opposed segregated public schools. When segregation later became illegal in 1869, Richards taught at a newly-integrated school, Everett Elementary, where she stayed for 44 years. When she retired in 1915, she helped finance the Phyllis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Ladies and taught Sunday school at the historic Second Baptist Church. In 1990, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. You can find Richards’ historical marker on Rivard Street, where her home once stood. Learn more.

Ruth Ellis 

It’s arguable that Ellis, born in 1899, became a LGBTQ+ rights activist at a young age, but when she moved to Detroit in 1937, she really got to work. Ellis was a successful entrepreneur and an openly gay woman who inspired her community. Her home became a safe spot for primarily Black, LBGTQ+ people in the city. She died at 101, but her legacy remains through her namesake organization, The Ruth Ellis Center, which was created in 1995 as a trauma-informed center for homeless and at-risk LGBTQ+ youth. Learn more.

Grace Lee Boggs

Boggs was a Chinese-American human rights activist. After earning her doctorate at Bryn Mawr College in the 1940s, she moved to Chicago and got her first taste of activism when she began protesting poor living conditions for Black tenants in her neighborhood. In 1953, she married James Boggs, a prominent Black activist and organizer from Detroit. As scholar Brian Doucet wrote, “living in Detroit influenced the Boggs’ thinking on the role of automation, capital flight and racism.” Throughout her life, she was active in the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement. She died at the age of 100 — and her impact still lives on. Learn more.

Allison Jacobs is the digital producer and lifestyle reporter for Detour Detroit. She was the former digital editor at The Detroit Jewish News, where she helped oversee their digital strategy and produced a four-part video series called “Bubbie’s Kitchen.” Over the years, she has contributed articles for The Detroit Jewish News and SEEN Magazine. She’s a stickler for honest reporting and creating content that educates, entertains and inspires. Follow her on Twitter: @ajacobs114