BONUS: Ferndale, Michigan’s Secret Segregationist History

In 1968, the Ferndale, MI school district became the first northern district to be sued by federal officials for operating segregated schools. The district fought integration for 13 years, using the same tactics as Southern schools—and other schools across the north—as if from a playbook.

1920: Testimony from a 1969 deposition of Anna Thomas, a Black resident of Royal Oak Township, showing that white officials always intended for Grant Elementary to be a segregated school:

“They told me I was to turn it in to the School Board when it was filled out and I told them how I felt about it and I said, ‘I am not going to segregate the children. We ahve never had that and we can’t accept the school.’ They had selected the site, it was to be at Bethlawn and Eight Mile Road and that was the site they had selected. Well, we had no lights, we had no water, we didn’t have anything. It was snakes and such as that, a lot of unpleasant things.
“So Mrs. Johnson and I went the next morning and got the petition and there was a certain date set for me to turn the petition in to the School Board and Mrs. Terry told me they were told to take mine in and I didn’t let her know the day until the petition was to be turned in and I sent word. In fact, I asked some friends to come in. I wanted them to know that it just wasn’t me along that was turning this proposition down.”

1944: Memo from then-superintendent of Ferndale schools about Grant Elementary

Provides context as to what Grant was like before the district’s prolonged refusal to integrate the all-Black elementary school. 

September 20, 1967: Memo from Ira Polley

Notice of Michigan’s new state-level policy to eliminate school segregation, and includes a list of questions for districts. 

September 21, 1967: Response from Ferndale Superintendent to Ira Polley

Response from Ferndale regarding the state’s new policy to eliminate school segregation. Mentions Grant elementary. 

December 30, 1968: Letter from Equal Opportunity in Education Committee

Chairman of a Black parent group in Ferndale, the Equal Opportunity in Education Committee, laying out a list of demands for the district, particularly at Grant Elementary. 

1968-1971: Timeline of Ferndale vs. H.E.W. Correspondence

Lists all correspondence between the school district and United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare regarding compliance with school desegregation and withholding of federal funding for the district. 

February 5, 1969: Letter from Ira Polley

Letter informing Ferndale School Superintendent that the Office of Civil Rights, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare found Grant Elementary “racially segregated as a result of decisions and policies which are attributable to the Board (Ferndale) of Education.” 

February 6, 1969: Memo from Ferndale Superintendent to Ira Polley

Denies that the school did discriminate.

February 7, 1969: Memo from Ira Polley

Alerting the district to the possibility that federal funding could be withheld and offering assistance with desegregation plans.

February 11, 1969: Response from Ferndale to Ira Polley

Lawyer for the Ferndale school board denies any segregation of students by race.

April 18, 1969: Memo from Ira Polley

Once again offering assistance in creating a desegregation plan, after Ferndale was formally for failure to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

August 12, 1969: Memo from Ira Polley

Memo from Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction laying out the timeline of investigation into Ferndale school district’s failure to desegregate from 1966 to 1969.

1970: The Findings of Fact document by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare

on the matter of Ferndale School District’s failure to integrate.

January 26, 1975: “State Fights U.S. Plan To Deny $90 Million”

Detroit Free Press reports on the federal funding being withheld from Ferndale  schools as the district continued to maintain “that Grant [the all-Black school in the district] is not purposely segregated, but is all black only because it is in an all-black neighborhood.”

A February 26, 1975: “Ferndale Plan Rejected”

Lansing State Journal reports all four plans submitted by the Ferndale School Board for voluntary desegregation of the all-Black elementary school were rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice. The letter rejecting the plans says, “While we do not reject ‘freedom-of-choice’ or voluntary plans as inadequate on their face, our experience in circumstances similar to Ferndale has been that such plans do not work.”

September 4, 1975: “Ferndale Pulls Whites to Black School”

Detroit Free Press reports that a magnet “open classroom” program was started at Grant Elementary, as the “Ferndale board…was looking for a way out of its battle with HEW over Grant Elementary.”

January 31, 1980: “Ferndale schools must desegregate, appeals court says”

Detroit Free Press reports that the “three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the district opened an all-black elementary school in 1926— Grant School, near Eight Mile Road and Wyoming— specifically for the purpose of separating students by race. The court also ruled that past discriminatory practices, such as maintaining a black faculty and all-black enrollment at Grant for a half-century, continue to deprive students of educational opportunities.” This overturns a 1978 ruling.

October 9, 1980: “Ferndale Busing Will Begin Jan. 5 for 350 Students”

Detroit Free Press reports that “after 12 years of court battles…Ferndale schools will begin busing more than 350 elementary school students beginning Jan. 5 under a desegregation plan approved Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Horace Gilmore”

June 12, 1981: “Busing Gets an A”

Detroit Free Press reports that the first year of Ferndale’s desegregation was a success, and that the district was estimated to have lost $2 million in federal funding over the course of the years the district refused to integrate.

December 10, 1981: “Ferndale gets federal money”

Detroit Free Press reports federal money allowed again after Grant Elementary was desegregated in January 1981.

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