Capitol portrait paints a picture of a traiblazer


Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

His portrait adorns a wall just outside the old Michigan Supreme Court chambers in the state Capitol, where he served as a member of the House of Representatives 1893-96.

The placement of the portrait is symbolic, signifying the legal journey that William Webb Ferguson traveled to cement his legacy as the first African-American legislator in state history.

Ferguson’s story was told in rich detail during a tour of the Capitol that was part of the annual Michigan Press Association Conference in Lansing on October 13.

A Detroit native, Ferguson was the son of Martha and Joseph Ferguson. His father was a doctor, helping to afford Ferguson the opportunity to become the first African-American child to attend public high school in Detroit. Seven years after graduating with honors from Detroit High School, he founded the Ferguson Printing Co., successfully operating the business before reaching a crossroads in his life in 1889.

That year, while attempting to dine at a downtown Detroit restaurant, Ferguson encountered Jim Crow-like treatment in the North, when he was denied service after refusing to sit in the “colored” section of the eating establishment.

Disturbed by the restaurant’s blatant segregation policy and its attempt to further marginalize African-American residents of Detroit, Ferguson filed suit in Wayne County Circuit Court, aiming to right a legal wrong in post-Civil War society.

Not surprisingly, he lost in the Wayne County Court, eventually appealing the matter to the Michigan Supreme Court where he hoped the highest appellate court in the state would be in a landmark decision-making mood.

It was, ruling in an 1890 decision that public policies that discriminated by race were inherently illegal in Michigan.

Emboldened by the decision, Ferguson embarked on a new chapter in his life, opting to run for a seat in the State House of Representatives, earning the nod from voters in the 1892 election as a Republican candidate.

His victory was yet another momentous event for Ferguson, who became a trailblazer as the first African-American to serve in the state legislature.

While relatively short, Ferguson’s four-year legislative career made a lasting impact on state legislators to come, including Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley, who served as chairperson of the Michigan Legislative Caucus in 2018 when a portrait of Ferguson was unveiled in the Capitol.

“I did a lot of tours for children and children of color, and you cannot become what you cannot see as they looked at all the portraits in the Michigan Capitol, but no persons of color were on the walls of the Capitol, of great Americans and Michiganders,” Neeley said in a February 2022 story appearing on WXYZ News.

Neeley, who in November was re-elected as Flint mayor, was instrumental in the push to have Ferguson’s legacy ensured at the Capitol, which is toured by some 115,000 visitors each year. The former state legislator, who served in the House of Representatives from 2015-19, introduced a bill that prompted the portrait painted by artist Joshua Risner. The painting of Ferguson, who is depicted wearing a top hat, is a fitting addition to a story that for more than a century begged to be told.

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