Fannie M. Richards: Detroit’s First Black School Teacher

Of all the years to move back to Detroit, Fannie M. Richards chose one of the city’s most tumultuous – 1863.

At its onset, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, upsetting many white troops in Michigan who had enlisted solely to save the Union, and nothing else. Then, on March 6th, a race riot the Detroit Free Press called, “the bloodiest day that ever dawned upon Detroit,” broke out after a black tavern owner, Thomas Faulkner, was accused and convicted of raping a young, white girl (allegations that later proved to be completely false).

Twenty-three-year-old Richards was literally descending on a city thick in the throes of escalating racial tension in a country still stuck in the bitter feuds of the Civil War. 

Even though Detroit was technically in the North, where most blacks were free, a large segment of its native white population, loyal to the Democractic party, still held stringent southern values that degraded and decimated the lives of its black citizens. 

Needless to say, moving to Detroit wasn’t for the faint of heart. Any African-American choosing to build roots there in 1863 would have to be tough, resilient, smart, and courageous. Fannie Richards was all that and more. 

Born into a free, upper class black family that belonged to the “Cultured Colored 40” (a group of prominent families from free black communities in Virginia that migrated to Detroit in the 1850s), education and a strong will was in her blood.

Richards mother, Maria Moore, a leading scholar of history during her years at school, tutored Fannie and the rest of her 14 children after marrying Adolph Richards in 1820. But when Adolph, a highly skilled carpenter, died when Fannie was just ten years old in 1851, her mother moved the family to Detroit, Michigan. There, Fannie joined a small private school run by Second Baptist Church before continuing her education at the Toronto Normal School where she earned her teaching credentials, graduating at the top of her class. Then, she took a quick sojourn to Germany to study the revolutionary methods of teaching kindergarten with Professor Wilhelm Forebel.

After her schooling was complete, she moved back to Detroit in 1863 to open a small, private elementary school in the black community. She taught there for five years before becoming the first black female teacher for Detroit’s public school system in 1868 at “Colored School No. 2.”

She thrived there, bringing her former 40 pupils from her first school in Detroit to join her alongside their new classmates. As her teaching with Detroit’s public schools continued, she, as well as many others in the community, were strongly opposed to its rigid segregation policy that forced black and white students to attend different schools.

Working with her brothers and local politician John Bagley, Fannie and her supporters led a protest against Detroit’s school board, advocating for the introduction of mixed race schools. Their fight started in the city courts and worked its way up to Michigan’s Supreme Court in Lansing, where their case was heard. And in 1871, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, ordering Detroit’s school board to abolish its segregation tactics.

Fannie’s ability to keep her job as a teacher with the Detroit school board after the Supreme Court ruling is a testament to her professional excellence. The only change that happened afterwards was her transition into teaching at Detroit’s Everett School. She taught there for forty-four years, instructing children of all different races as she incorporated the city’s first kindergarten class into its yearly programming.

She was so well-loved by her students that she was often stopped on the street by adults who recognized her, who also made sure their children were placed in her class.

In the early 1900’s, she told a reporter:

“I have never been made to feel in any way that my race has been a handicap to me. Neither my pupils nor the teachers have ever shown prejudice; I do not doubt that it exists; I shall be in Heaven long before it has all disappeared, but I say it is with a colored teacher as it is with a white one. Her work is the only thing that counts. I have never been called before the board for a reprimand in all my years of teaching. The methods have changed a good deal since the time that I started in and it would be easy to lag behind, but I try not to. It means continual reading and study to keep up with the modern way of doing things, but I manage to do it, and when the time comes that I cannot do my work in a satisfactory manner I want the Board of Education to discharge me and get some one else.”

After teaching for more than 50 years, Fannie finally retired in 1915. She died just seven years later, at 81-years-old, on February 13, 1922.

To learn more about the life of Fannie M. Richards, make sure to check out some of the sources I’ve listed below.


 Hopkins, Jr., David P. “‘ The Course Pursued by the President ‘ : Michigan Soldiers Respond to the Emancipation Proclamation (1863)”. Midland College, Midland, Texas.

 Foner, Philip S., and Ronald L. Lewis, editors. “THE NORTHERN BLACK WORKER DURING THE CIVIL WAR.”The Black Worker, Volume 1: The Black Worker to 1896,” Temple University Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1978, pp.267-314. JSTOR, Accessed 2 July 2020.

Reid, John B. “A Career to Build, a People to Serve, a Purpose to Accomplish”:Race, Class, Gender, and Detroit’s First Black Women Teachers, 1865-1916.” Michigan Historical Review, vol. 18, no.1, 1992, pp.1-27. JSTOR, Accessed 2 July 2020.

Hartgrove, W.B. “The Story of Maria Louise Moore and Fannie M. Richards.” The Journal of Negro History, vol. 1, no. 1, 1916, pp.22-33. JSTOR, Accessed 2 July 2020.

“Hall of Fame Timeline: Fannie M. Richards.” Michigan Women Forward.

Jackson, Harvey C. “Fannie M. Richards.” Negro History Bulletin, vol. 5, no. 8, 1942, pp. 177-177. JSTOR, Accessed 2 July 2020.

“Fannie Richards | Biographies. ” Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation.

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