Flint’s Prominent African American Leaders Past and Present

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Since the city’s beginning, African Americans have been an important part of Flint’s growth. They have made and continue to make significant contributions to the advancement of civil rights, education, culture, arts and the community as a whole for every citizen, regardless of color or national origin. In honor of Black History Month, My City Magazine would like to honor some of the many African American leaders and trailblazers, past and present, who have worked for the betterment of the city and its people.


Government

Past: Floyd McCree

McCree became the first African American mayor of Flint in 1966, selected by the Flint City Commission. Born in 1923 in Missouri, he was stationed with the Army in the South Pacific during World War II and rose to the rank of staff sergeant. After the war, he came to Flint and was hired to work at the Buick Foundry. He was elected to the Flint City Commission in 1958.

During his term as Mayor of Flint, McCree was prominent in the fight for open housing and equal opportunity. At the time, Flint was highly segregated due to discriminatory housing laws and redlining. When an open housing ordinance placed before the City Commission was rejected, Mayor McCree threatened to resign stating, “I’m not going to sit up here any longer and live an equal opportunity lie.” After a ten-day protest, the Commission re-voted on the ordinance and it was passed by a single vote. Afterward, a public referendum was held and, in 1968, Flint became the first U.S. city to pass a fair housing ordinance.

 

Present: Sheldon Neeley, Flint City Mayor

This longtime public servant was elected Mayor in November 2019. His pledge to Flint citizens was to bring transparency and fiscal responsibility to City Hall. Neeley brought to his position a commitment to public service which started in 2002 when he joined the Flint Civil Service Commission. He was the first African American elected to the Flint City Council from the 6th Ward. Re-elected in 2009, and 2013, he was elected to Michigan’s House of Representatives in 2014, serving the 34th District, and was re-elected in landslide victories in 2016 and 2018.

“My hope is for a united Flint,” Neeley said during an interview with MCM last year. “A unification of thinking and a unification of effort makes for a community of like-thinkers moving forward in a positive direction.” And in his first year, Neeley has accomplished much toward his goal of uniting the city. He highlighted some of his administration’s accomplishments in his recent (virtual) State of the City address, including the fight on blight, stopping water shutoffs, COVID-19 response, police and infrastructure.


Education

Past: Dr. T. Wendell Williams

The first African American man elected to the Flint Board of Education, Dr. Williams was a force for the community. He was born in 1922 in South Carolina, and his family relocated frequently as his father, a minister, attempted to find work during the Great Depression. They found their way to Michigan and after living in Battle Creek and Ypsilanti, Dr. Williams settled in Flint where he became an advocate for education and the rights of school children, as well as a respected pediatrician.

In 1963, Dr. Williams was elected to the Flint Board of Education and made significant contributions in the area of student welfare in Flint. He believed that the right answer in any situation was what was best for students. Williams-Edison Elementary School was named in his honor. He married Marion Coates (Flint’s first black school teacher) and their daughter, Karen Weaver, was elected Flint’s first female Mayor in 2015.

 

Present: Dr. Beverly Walker-Griffea, Ph.D.

In August 2014, Dr. Walker-Griffea became the first female and first African American president of Mott Community College. Under her leadership, MCC was selected by the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program as one of the nation’s top community colleges. Prior to joining the MCC family, Dr. Walker-Griffea served as senior vice president for student services at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD; vice president of student affairs at Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, VA; dean of student development at Houston Community College – Central Campus; and interim dean of health and environmental sciences at Spokane Community College.

Locally, she serves on the board of directors for the Greater Flint Health Coalition, McLaren-Flint, Carriage Town Ministries, Metro Community Development, and the Michigan Community College Association (MCCA). In addition, Dr. Walker-Griffea is a member of the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce Operating Board. She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., Flint Rotary Club and the Flint Chapter of the NAACP.


Medicine

Past: Dr. Jesse Leonidas Leach

Since arriving in Flint in 1920, Dr. Leach was a force in the medical profession and civil rights. Born in Nashville, TN in 1892, Leach found himself adopted by Dr. Paul Eve. He grew up with a love of education and graduated from Meharry Medical College in 1914. He volunteered as an Army medical officer in the first world war and upon his return, found his way to Flint. Once there, he was named the president of the Flint Chapter of the NAACP and would go on to serve on the organization’s national board for 18 years.

After setting up a successful medical practice, Leach organized Michigan’s first African American Legion Post. He was the first African American to serve on the staff of city physicians, the first elected to the Flint Board of Supervisors, the first to chair the Genesee County Board of Health and the first African American city medical examiner. He continued to press for civil rights and equality until his passing in 1981. A man of integrity, Dr. Leach was respected by blacks and whites, alike. His legacy is one of selflessness, brotherhood and equality for all.

 

Present: Dr. Lawrence Reynolds

Medical Advisor for the City of Flint, a pediatrician, former president and CEO of the Mott Children’s Health Center, Dr. Reynolds was one of the first doctors to raise the alarm on Flint’s water quality during the water crisis. He was recently bestowed the City of Flint Lifetime Achievement Award, honoring his work and commitment to serving Flint residents. Dr. Reynolds is a 1979 graduate of Howard University College of Medicine Medical School.


Community

Past: Olive Beasley

In the 1960s, race relations were a hot topic and the push for civil rights didn’t escape the streets of Flint. Olive Beasley, head of the Flint Civil Rights Commission, led the charge to obtain equal housing opportunities for African Americans. When the City Commission refused to grant an open housing ordinance, Beasley and the Civil Rights Commission organized a ten-day sleep-in protest on the lawn of Flint City Hall. The crowd on day one was sparse, but slowly grew to 1,000 by day two. In no time at all, the protest numbered over 5,000 Flint citizens, growing to include Governor George Romney and state Attorney General, Frank Kelley. Despite a counter-protest by the Ku Klux Klan, Beasley and her group remained firm and in 1968, Flint became the first U.S. city to pass a fair housing ordinance.

Beasley led the Civil Rights Commission for 16-years, helping advance the rights of minorities throughout the city with peace and dedication.

 

Present: Reta Stanley

The President/CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Flint for the past 14 years, Stanley is a prominent community leader. She was the first lady of Flint from 1991-2002, when her husband Woodrow served as mayor. Her service also extends to Girl Scouts, the Salvation Army, the Flint Public Library and the Woodrow Stanley Youth Foundation, and she was a founding member of the Boys and Girls Club of Flint. In September 2020, she received the Libby Award for serving as a role model for women and girls. “My shared vision with the BBBS Board and staff is to provide mentors to every child who needs and wants a Big Brother or Big Sister to change their lives for the better, forever,” she said during an interview with MCM. “Our community’s strength is in the people who live, work and volunteer to make a difference.”


Clergy

Past: Reverend Norman A. Dukette

As a young priest, Dukette established Flint’s only African American parish in 1929. Born in 1890 in Washington D.C., his father moved the family to Detroit to run a small grocery store. While there, the young Dukette met Pastor Joseph Wuest who needed help organizing the city’s first black mission. Dukette accepted and the experience propelled him to serve as a priest throughout his life. He applied and became the only black priest in the Diocese of Lansing and after graduating from Loras Academy in IA, he was asked to organize a mission in the City of Flint.

Dukette put his heart into his task and established Christ the King Catholic Church. What started as a membership of two grew into a force of worship in the city and in 1969, the current church was established on Seymour Avenue. Reverend Dukette retired in 1971 as head of the church but continued to say mass daily until his death in 1980. He served the people of Flint for over 50 years. After his passing, Dukette Catholic School was founded in his name.

 

Present: Pastor Chris Martin

The Senior Pastor at Cathedral of Faith Church, Martin is also a member of the Church of God in Christ National Board of Trustees. COF is a community outreach ministry aimed at assisting Flint area families with spiritual and natural needs. The church was the first to respond to the water crisis in Flint, stepping up to bring cases of water to Flint residents during the ongoing health crisis. Martin has a long history of leading his church to serve the community. In 2020, he was one of a coalition of pastors who announced a plan to curb violence, focusing on creating opportunities and putting an end to gun violence in their city.


Culture

Past: Jacky King

A hero to Beecher residents and a multitude of youth, Jacky King impacted lives with his community outreach and school of martial arts. Born in 1953 in Middletown, OH he moved to Flint in 1963 with his mother and brothers. While working at a Grand Blanc GM plant, King observed a fellow worker doing karate kicks. He was interested and began to learn the art, became a master and quit GM to open his own dojo on N. Saginaw Street – King Karate. There, they taught thousands of young students the importance of a healthy lifestyle, self-respect and love for community.

Soon, King Karate students were helping to clean up lots and remove blight as part of a community service requirement. King expanded that work to bring fresh and healthy food to the area. In 2013, King’s Harvesting Earth Educations Farm (HEEF) became the first urban farm in the county to be certified organic. HEEF was also recognized as Michigan Small Farmer of the Year for conservation efforts. Jacky King passed in 2018 after a year-long bout with brain cancer.

 

Present: Charles Winfrey

The Executive Director & Resident Playwright at “New” McCree Theatre for many years, Winfrey has produced most of the “New” McCree Theatre’s productions and wrote many of them. He compiled and edited the youth-driven musical, “Graffiti Chronicles.” His poem, “Neglect,” was an award-winner in the Ossie Davis/Ruby Dee sponsored contest for original works.

Winfrey has served as editor of several weekly newspapers, including the Flint Spokesman, the CPSA Courier, and as local editor of the Michigan Chronicle. A graduate of UM-Flint with dual degrees in Political Science and Africana Studies, he has served as a member of the Northridge Academy Board of Directors, Neighborhoods Without Borders, the Arts and Culture Action Committee of the Neighborhood Advisory Council, as board president of the Michigan Basketball Association, past president of the Universal Kidney Foundation Board of Directors, past president of the Ballenger Highway Neighborhood Association, and past member of the Beecher Board of Education where he held several offices during his six-year tenure. Winfrey was co-founder and former executive director of the Coalition for Positive Youth Development.


Arts

Past: Betty Carter

Born Lillie Mae Jones in Flint in 1929, Betty Carter created a voice all her own in the realm of jazz music. Her improvisational technique and penchant for “scatting” set her apart from her contemporaries. At a young age, she studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory of Music and began singing in Detroit jazz clubs at the age of 16. Throughout the years, she would perform with almost every jazz great including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Muddy Waters, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. After touring with Ray Charles in the mid-60s, she took a small hiatus from the scene until roaring back in 1970. In 1988, Carter won a Grammy for her album, “Look What I Got!”

Through the rest of her years, she pushed to increase the interest of jazz in younger people by starting an annual program called Jazz Ahead, which allowed 20 young musicians to spend a week training and composing with her. In 1992, the National Endowment for the Arts named her a jazz master and in 1997, she was awarded a National Medal of the Arts by President Bill Clinton.

 

Present: Davida Artis & Anthony Artis

Flint natives and pastors, Anthony and Davida have been collecting the works of African American artists since 2009. Their collection now includes over 70 pieces of fine African American artwork, each holding a personal meaning for the couple. Their collection is focused on three themes: faith, family and faces.

Their collection has been displayed at various venues, including the Flint Public Library, Kettering University and Flint Institute of Arts. Wonderfully Made: The Anthony and Davida Artis Collection of African-American Fine Art is currently on display at The Saginaw Art Museum through February 28.


Legal

Past: Ollie B. Bivins, Jr.

Flint’s first African American municipal judge, Bivins was born in 1923 in Americus, GA and moved with his family to Flint as a child. After graduating from Flint Northern High School, he served in the Navy during World War II. Upon his return, Bivins attended Fisk University and graduated from the Boston School of Law in 1953. He returned to his hometown and found success as a trial attorney. In 1969, he was appointed to the bench at Flint Municipal Court and then to the Genesee County Circuit Court in 1972, where he presided for a decade.

Ever a community supporter, Bivins was known for his fairness and compassion when dealing with citizens of Flint. He remained a steadfast opponent of the death penalty throughout his life stating, “To me, the death penalty is a conspicuous example of unfairness in the judicial system because it is used against the poor, minorities and the uneducated.” After leaving the circuit court, Bivins acted as a visiting judge in Macomb County.

 

Present: Honorable Celeste D. Bell

Appointed to the bench of the Genesee County 7th Circuit Court by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2018, Bell replaced retiring judge Archie Hayman. Her term will end on January 1, 2025. She came to the position highly recommended by the legal community and brought with her extensive knowledge and experience. She previously served in the Genesee County Office of Corporation Counsel as the Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney of the Civil Division, was legal advisor to the Genesee County Board of Commissioners and all County departments, and acted on behalf of the County on civil matters. She was the first African American woman to sit on the Genesee County Circuit Court.


Law Enforcement

Past: Archie Parks

In 1931, Flint was well on its way to being an automotive and manufacturing giant. People from all over the country were flocking to the city to find a lucrative job. Among them was Archie Parks, who would become Flint’s first African American police officer.

Parks entered law enforcement in a time when prejudice was high and equal opportunity for African Americans beyond emancipation was unheard of. Parks’ courage and perseverance was a harbinger of the future civil rights movement in Flint and beyond. He paved the way for professionalism and respect for African American individuals in Flint.

 

Present: Chief Terrence Green

Appointed chief of the Flint Police Department by Mayor Neeley in August 2020, Green brought decades of experience to the position. In 1992, he joined the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department as a corrections officer, became a sheriff’s deputy, was promoted to sergeant four years later and promoted to captain in 2009. While at the Sheriff’s Department, he served as commander of the drug enforcement team and also was assigned to drug enforcement details with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Flint Area Narcotics Group. In 2014, he became Mt. Morris Township Chief of Police.

“What is most important to me is that I and all of my fellow police officers are the very best examples we can be,” said the newly-appointed chief in an interview with MCM. “We must always do what’s right and nothing less can ever be acceptable. We need to acknowledge and enforce that unilaterally. This job is not easy, but we have to earn the public’s trust every day in everything we do.”


First Responders

Past: Joe Davis

When Davis was hired in 1961 as Flint’s first African American firefighter, racial tensions were running high. The harassment began almost immediately. “Some of the stories Davis told me made me surprised he stayed in the department,” said veteran firefighter, Rico Phillips, as he spoke about Davis during a history lecture at the Flint Public Library. Davis did stay and became a respected and often celebrated member of the department. He helped to open the fire department to future African Americans.

In honor of Davis’ accomplishment, the City of Flint Fire Department has set up the Davis-Dixon Scholarship Fund for area students. Named after Joe Davis and Sam Dixon, the first African American fire chief, the scholarship is given each year to high school seniors who apply for it and submit an essay.

 

Present: Chief Carrie Edwards-Clemons

As Flint Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief since November 2018, she has seen and done it all. She is the highest-ranking female in the Department’s history and the first female to be appointed deputy chief. Born and raised in Flint, Edwards-Clemons has been with the FFD since 1999. Growing up on Flint’s north side, she graduated from Northwestern High School and the UM-Flint, and earned a master’s degree from Southern Columbia University.

As Deputy Chief, Edwards-Clemons is responsible for overseeing and providing training at the Fire Department, as well as grant-writing. She is also in charge of community and Department programs. In August 2020, she became the first female president of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters.


Sports

Past: Grover Kirkland

The all-time winningest coach in Flint history, Kirkland led the Northwestern High School basketball team to a record of 518-148 during his tenure. He is the only coach to lead a team to 500 or more wins, suffering only one losing season.

From 1973 to 2001, Kirkland won state titles in 1984 and ’85, coached two Michigan Mr. Basketball winners (Glen Rice in 1985 and Kelvin Torbert in 2001) and experienced a 60-game win streak. He mentored hundreds of players to success in life and sport. Seven of his players made it to the NBA including Jeff Grayer, Trent Tucker, Glen Rice, Desmon Farmer, Cory Hightower and Morris Peterson. Upon his decision to retire, Kirkland said, “I’ve tried to instill this in all our ballplayers: Shoot for the stars, and if you fall among the clouds, you’re all right.”

 

Present: Claressa Shields

The Flint native made history recently when she was ranked the world’s best pound-for-pound female professional boxer by both ESPN and The Ring magazine. She holds an unbeaten record (10-0) with a pair of knockouts since turning pro in fall of 2016 after becoming the first American boxer, male or female, to win consecutive Olympic gold medals. Shields captured eight world title belts: four middleweight (WBA, IBF, WBO and WBA), three super middleweight (WBC, IBF, WBA) and one junior middleweight (WBO). She unified all four middleweight titles in 2019 by handing Christina Hammer (24-0) her first professional loss. She is one of only eight boxers in history, male or female, to hold all four major title belts in the same division at the same time.

Finishing her amateur boxing career with a 77-1 record, Shields turned pro in 2016 and finished a ten-bout career with a 10-0 record. In a quest to become the first woman to hold simultaneous titles in both mixed martial arts and boxing, she is expected to make her MMA debut this year.

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