Op-Ed: Diversity and the University's bicentennial
Numerous buildings on campus honor presidents who created this university, including Henry Tappan, James Angell, Harlan Hatcher, Harold Shapiro and James Duderstadt. Others commemorate donors including William Cook, Horace Rackham, Stephen Ross and Alfred Taubman. More than a few are named for coaches or athletic directors, including Fielding Yost, Fritz Crisler, Ray Fisher and Bo Schemblecher. Others honor faculty members such as Emil Lorch and Mortimer Cooley. A few buildings bear the names of women including Stockwell Hall honoring the first woman to be admitted, Helen Newberry Hall, wife of benefactor John Newberry and Penny Stamps, a graduate and donor.
A student or professor strolling our campus might conclude that key figures in the development and funding of this institution were primarily men of European origin. That may be the case, but there is much more to the story. For a century and a half, women and people of color have earned degrees here and played a role in the University of Michigan’s growth. And many white men associated with the University took then-unpopular stands supporting the rights of minorities. As the University celebrates both diversity and its bicentennial, consideration might be given to commemorating women, minorities and those who promoted equitable opportunities. Prominent historical markers or plaques might highlight the accomplishments of some of the following:
Father Gabriel Richard — A key figure in the development of Detroit, he joined with Chief Justice Augusts Woodward to establish the Catholepistimead that became this University. In 1817, the Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi surrendered their land to Michigan territory with an agreement that their children be educated at the schools in Detroit Father Richard established. As a result, Michigan Native Americans are exempt from tuition at this university.
Amanda Sanford — became the first woman to graduate from the University’s medical school in 1871. She furthered her medical studies in London and Paris and then practiced in upstate New York.
Sarah Wertman — She graduated from the law school in 1871 and became the first woman in the United States to both earn a legal degree and be admitted to the bar in Michigan. In that era, many states refused to admit women to the bar. She was an early participant in the Equity Club, the first national organization of women lawyers and a group founded in Ann Arbor.
William Henry Fitzbutler — In 1872, he became the first African American to graduate from the Medical School. He practiced medicine in Louisville and obtained support from Kentucky to establish a medical school that would admit Blacks. He founded and then served as head of the National Medical College in Louisville, a school that graduated 150 Black physicians and was praised in the Flexner Report.
Moses Fleetwood Walker — While earning his law degree here, he was the catcher for the baseball team in 1882 hitting .308. He played professional baseball for six years and was the last African American to play for a minor league baseball team until the 1940s.
Branch Rickey — He was appointed baseball coach in 1910. He earned a law degree in his four years in Ann Arbor and then became a distinguished baseball executive. In the 1940s, baseball was the national pastime. Branch Rickey successfully overturned Jim Crow policies when he recruited Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. This was among the important changes of the post-World War II that laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement.
Jesse Owens — As a member of the Ohio State track team, Owens set three world records — and tied one — within 45 minutes at Ferry Field on May 25, 1935. This feat was never duplicated. His achievements in the Berlin Olympics made him the first African-American athlete to be seen as a national sports hero.
Raoul Wallenberg — This Swedish student enrolled in the architecture program at Michigan in the 1930s. After the Germans overran European nations, they sought to incarcerate Jews. Wallenberg is credited with saving thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.
James Earl Jones — Jones, from the Jackson area, came to Michigan in the 1950s intending to become a physician but discovered his talents in the performing arts. He enrolled in the School of Music and went on to became one of the nation’s most acclaimed actors, winning Tony Awards in 1969 and 1987 and a Golden Globe Award in 1970.
Jessye Norman — She earned a master’s degree from the School of Music, Theater & Dance in 1968 and then went to Europe to begin her illustrious career as an opera singer and recitalist. She has, perhaps, performed in more operas and in more venues than any of her peers and won great accolades for her voice, her theatrical accomplishments and her philanthropy.
Madonna (Louise Ciccone) — This artist enrolled as a student in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance in 1976. She left Michigan shortly thereafter to begin her extremely successful career as a singer, actress, composer and business woman.
Derek Jeter — This Kalamazoo resident enrolled as a student in 1992 but then opted for a career in professional baseball. For 20 years, he was the most talented and reliable shortstop in the Major Leagues while leading the New York Yankees to the World Series seven times.
Michigan historical markers are permanent, highly visible and easy to maintain. They provide space for an explanation of the person and could include a QR where additional information would be available. Without substantial cost or bureaucratic effort, historical markers could bring the diverse history of the University of Michigan to the attention of today’s students, staff and visitors — and to those who will be walking across this campus in forthcoming centuries.
Reynolds Farley is the Otis Dudley Duncan Professor Emeritus in LSA, a research scientist at the Population Studies Center and currently teaches courses about the history and future of Detroit in the Ford School of Public Policy.