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Sixty-four years before Brown v. Board of Education catapulted the country into the modern civil rights era, a landmark decision in Michigan pushed the state to the forefront of progress in 19th-century America. In Ferguson v. Gies the Michigan Supreme Court declared that all people are entitled to equal protection under the law regardless of race. D. Augustus Straker, lead attorney for the case, was the first African American to argue before the Michigan Supreme Court. His pioneering success marked an active advance in civil rights for the state of Michigan.

A Case of Discrimination

In the late 1880s William Ferguson entered a Detroit restaurant and refused to sit in the “colored” section. The restaurant’s staff then declined to offer him service. Ferguson’s subsequent discrimination suit reached the Michigan Supreme Court in 1890. It was there that D. Augustus Straker held up the idea of “separate but equal” for the state’s examination.

Michigan Radio Stateside sat down to discuss Straker’s legacy and the significance of Ferguson v. Gies with Kimberley Ann Ward, president of the D. Augustus Straker Bar Association, and Terrance A. Keith, a founding member of the bar association and a judge on the Wayne County Probate Court.

Unpacking the Significance

Judge Keith outlined some important historical context for the case: “In 1857 you had the Dred Scott decision saying that blacks had no rights that a white man need recognize.” After the Civil War the 15th amendment specified the constitutional rights of black people. Then in 1885 the state of Michigan adopted an equal protection revision, which was meant to guarantee equal protection to all races under the law. The Gies case is “really the first case, and the first major statement, of the supreme court adopting and recognizing the equal protection revision,” explained Keith.

With the Gies case Michigan set the pace for other supreme courts around the country, according to Ward. “One thing that our supreme court justice mentioned in his ruling was that there must be absolute, unconditional equality of white and colored men before the law. That was the language that he used.”

After the Ferguson v. Gies decision, William Ferguson went on to become the first African American to serve in Michigan’s legislature. D. Augustus Straker became the first African American jurist in Michigan and served two terms as Wayne County Circuit Court commissioner. He stayed politically active in the civil rights arena for the remainder of his life.

Listen to the Michigan Radio segment here. Read the transcript here.

A studio photograph of David Augustus Straker sitting in a chair.
David Augustus Straker [New York Public Library]

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