Former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young inspires Wayne State University course

For local history buffs curious about the development of famous Detroit landmarks like the People Mover, downtown riverfront and now-demolished Joe Louis Arena, a class will soon be offered on the man behind those projects–former Mayor Coleman Young. 

Wayne State University announced Friday that it will begin offering a course this spring on the city’s first Black and longest-running mayor titled: “Planning and Social Legacies of Coleman A. Young.” The three-credit spring/summer class and guest lecture series begins May 11 on the university’s main campus, and will continue each Thursday until July 27. It is open to Wayne State students, guest students and non-degree seeking professionals. 

The course will examine planning and social transformations pursued and completed by the politician. Enrollees will take a look at how Young’s childhood and early adult life shaped his two-decade reign as mayor, including the history of the Black Bottom neighborhood and his days as a labor organizer and senator. 

The class will also feature guest speakers such as Emmet Moten, the former Detroit community and economic development director for Young; Khary Turner, executive director of the Coleman A. Young Foundation as well as Emeritus Professor of Political Science Bryan Jones. 

Wayne State students can visit to enroll, while guest students can sign up at Non-degree seeking visitors can contact Wayne State’s educational outreach department at 313-577-4682. 

This is the third Detroit-centric planning course Wayne State has organized. The first was the guest lecture series “Detroit: Metropolis in Transition” in 2014 and “The 1967 Detroit Rebellion: Retrospect and Prospect” in 2017. 

Jeff Horner, associate professor of teaching in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, told BridgeDetroit that there’s an untold story in the way the former mayor imprinted the city, from his downtown developments to his attempts to lure casinos to the city. 

“He left a really big mark on the city and so, I put together this class that is much less of a class of me speaking, but I’ve lined up a good staple of guest speakers who are going to speak to different parts of what I intend to teach in the class,” he said. “I always thought that there was a big, untold urban planning story related to Coleman Young.” 

One person excited to hear about the class is Charlie Beckham, who served as director of the city’s Water and Sewerage Department under Young and most recently, director of neighborhoods under Mayor Mike Duggan. 

“As far as I’m concerned, he should go down as one of the great mayors for Detroit,” he said. “He came along at a transition time for the city that was very crucial. Anybody else wouldn’t have made it through those years as successfully as he did. He was just an outstanding mayor.”

Young’s involvement with Detroit-Hamtramck plant and more

Horner said some topics covered in the class will include Jones’ book, “The Sustaining Hand,” which looks at the development of the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant in the late 1970s and Young’s involvement with General Motors Co. on the project.

Construction of the plant was seen as controversial at the time because government officials razed a thriving Polish neighborhood with about 4,000 residents, more than 1,000 houses and more than 100 businesses, reported the Detroit Free Press. 

But it was a choice that had to be made during Detroit’s time of transition, Beckham said. Young wanted the plant in the middle of the city to bring in more jobs and for the tax base, he said. GM officials, he said, were initially against the idea, but eventually changed their minds. Beckham said the project started a trend of automakers building plants in cities again. 

“He didn’t mind taking the heat if it was going to be good for Detroit and Detroiters,” he said. 

In addition to Jones, Moten and Turner, the professor will bring in Eric Bettis, a recent Ph.D graduate in urban and regional planning from the University of Michigan. Horner said Bettis will discuss the history of the People Mover. 

The course will also cover Young’s integration of the Detroit Police Department, Horner said. He disbanded the special police task force STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) that was formed under his predecessor Roman Gribbs and hired the department’s first Black police chief William Hart in 1976, according to the Detroit Historical Society. 

Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon was a low-ranking sergeant when he began his career with DPD in the 1960s, and one of the few Black officers in the department at that time, he said. 

Racism was a common occurrence on the job, with incidents like name calling and having a supervisor who wouldn’t speak to him. Worst of all, McKinnon said he was headed home in full uniform when two white colleagues fired at him while McKinnon was in his car during the 1967 uprising. 

But when Young was elected into office, he said, things at DPD turned around for the better. McKinnon said he saw more Black people being hired and holding high-ranking positions, like Hart. 

“When Coleman Young truly integrated the department and brought minority people into the supervisory roles…it had a tremendous impact on the police department and the city,” he said. “And I was one of those people.” 

A polarizing figure in Detroit history

Young was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on May 24, 1918. His family moved to Detroit five years later and he went on to become one of the most controversial figures in the city’s history. 

Young’s political career began in 1962 when he ran for the Michigan House of Representatives. He was unsuccessful, but was elected to the Michigan State Senate two years later, becoming Michigan’s second Black state senator. In 1966, Young was elected Democratic minority floor leader and remained in Lansing for eight more years.

In 1973, Young declared his candidacy for Detroit mayor, going on to defeat former Police Commissioner John F. Nichols the following year. During that time, the city was almost 50% Black, with Young promising a better future for Black residents, reported the Michigan Chronicle. 

In this June 9, 1995, photo, former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young appears at the renaming of the main branch Detroit post office. (AP Photo/Jeff Kowalsky, File)

Young was known to speak his mind, which was evident from the start in his inaugural address when he said, “I issue a warning to all those pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers; it’s time to leave Detroit; hit Eight Mile. And I don’t give a damn if they are Black or white, or if they wear ‘Superfly’ suits or blue uniforms with silver badges. Hit the road.”

Young’s outspoken manner, often laced with profanity, brought its share of critics, many of whom lived in the suburbs. While the Black community largely celebrated Young, some white people believed he was a racist who led to Detroit’s downfall. 

Young served five consecutive terms as mayor, ushering in downtown developments like the Renaissance Center and overseeing the creation of the People Mover and Hart Plaza. 

Beckham, who originally worked as an engineer for GM, said he began working with the city after Young requested help from the company. Beckham eventually moved into his role with the water department. He said Young was a “no-nonsense” boss.

“One of his favorite phrases was, ‘I don’t like it when people are pissing in my boot and telling me it’s raining.’ You couldn’t (explicit) him and he read through that,” he said.

But Young’s 20 years in office weren’t always full of good times. Under Young, Detroit’s population declined by 400,000, its homicide rates went up and the auto industry was collapsing. 

In 1994, Young retired from public office. He died a few years later on Nov. 29, 1997, due to complications from emphysema. He was 79.

Young’s son, Coleman A. Young II, is currently serving as an at-large member of the Detroit City Council. He formerly served in the state House and Senate and evoked the legacy of his late father during a failed bid for Detroit mayor in 2017. Young II could not be reached Friday for comment.

McKinnon said the elder Young made a tremendous impact as mayor when it came to fighting for equality for Detroit’s Black community and his legacy lives on today. 

“He had the ability to see things that needed to be changed in the city,” he said. “That to me, was one of the most important things.

“The Black people in the city saw a person that they could relate to, who we felt had the best interests of all people in the city at heart.”

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