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Detroit's Lost Heroes

Rosa Parks. Joe Louis. Coleman Young. You know who they are and what impact they had on Detroit. But there are so many more Black Detroiters who made their mark on this city. Discover the stories of six of our unsung heroes.

History books are filled with pictures of White people who helped shape our nation with a few standout exceptions like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. And Detroit history can have a similar slant. After all, among the most prominent statues immortalizing Detroit difference-makers, we’ve got one that stands out—the Joe Louis fist.

And yet we’ve been here far longer. We petitioned state government to organize our first church, Second Baptist, on March 5, 1836. We are a big part of the tapestry of this town, and it’s important to pay tribute to our people and our stories during Black History Month and always.

Throughout my career as a newspaper reporter and radio and television broadcaster, I’ve had the opportunity to share the stories of countless people who’ve made their mark—large and small—on Detroit. Some of these people, like Rosa Parks, are household names—and some should be. The following six people are among that group: exceptional but not well-known. Their stories, and those of many others, are preserved in the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection.

Ulysses Boykin

Without Ulysses Boykin's help, there might not have been a WGPR-TV 62.

Boykin served as vice president of civic affairs and public relations at the station, which became the nation's first Black-owned outlet in 1975. A well-connected member of the national Republican Party, Boykin played a key role in helping Dr. William V. Banks secure a license from the Federal Communications Commission to launch the station.

Born Oct. 17, 1914 in Knoxville, Tennessee, Boykin migrated to Detroit as a child with his family. He graduated from Northeastern High School in 1935.

Known as "Uly," he also studied at Wayne University and was an editor and an owner of the Detroit Tribune after serving as a columnist there. He also wrote for The Michigan Chronicle during the 1950s.

He married Cecil Whittaker in 1942. They had one child, Ulysses III, who is a Wayne County Circuit Court judge.

In 1943, Boykin authored A Handbook on the Detroit Negro.

In it, he wrote: "It is surprising the number of White people and Negroes too who are unaware of the part the Negro has played in Detroit, the problems that he has to face and the resulting situation."

Boykin died in 1987 at age 72. He was survived by his second wife, Nancy, and buried at Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery. The Chronicle wrote this about him in 1987: "He expended much of his energy in an attempt to have his Republican colleagues establish a more sensitive stance toward the plight of Blacks, particularly to advancement along the economic front."

Snow Flake Grigsby

Snow Flake Grigsby was an angel for Black folks caught up in a blizzard of racism. An activist dedicated to ensuring Black Detroiters had an opportunity to become government employees, he founded the Civic Rights Committee in 1933 to address disparities in hiring and employment.

One of 12 children, Grigsby was born and raised in Chappells, South Carolina. Word is that it snowed in Chappells the day he was born, which was rare in that neck of the country, and inspired his name. After moving to Detroit in 1923, he graduated from the Detroit Institute of Technology’s College of Pharmacy. In 1935, Grigsby blasted Detroit Mayor Frank Couzens for not hiring Black residents at city government institutions, including hospitals. He stated in a letter dated Aug. 20, 1935: "In the name of fairness and justice we present this brief and ask that you give it your careful consideration to the end that you may be influenced to use the power inherent in your position as chief executive of the City of Detroit to alleviate this gross injustice to our group."

A U.S. Postal Service employee, Grigsby was also an active member of Detroit's St. John’s United Presbyterian Church, serving as an elder and trustee there for many years. He unsuccessfully pursued a Detroit City Council seat in 1965.

Grigsby died in March 1981.

John Roxborough​

Roxborough was also a leading gambling racket boss who helped to operate a policy and numbers business, a form of illegal lottery that, because of redlining, often served as a community bank. A front-page scandal arose and centered on the $10 million annual business and led to the indictment, prosecution and prison sentences of street hustlers, police officers and brass as well as former Mayor Richard Reading. Roxborough, business associate Everett Watson and Reading were convicted on charges in connection with the gambling business and served prison time in Jackson during the 1940s.A cigar-smoking millionaire, John Roxborough co-managed world heavyweight champion Joe Louis, whom he met in 1931 when the "Brown Bomber" was a teenager learning the "sweet science" at the Brewster Recreation Center.

Roxborough doubled as an insurance executive and helped to found Great Lakes Mutual Insurance Company, a Black-owned firm. He was known to some as "Black Santa Claus" because of his philanthropy; in one instance, he wrote a check to the local NAACP for $2,500 in 1938—about $42,000 in today’s dollars. Roxborough later served as president of the Superior Life Insurance Society. He died in December 1975 at age 83.

"Without John Roxborough’s money, Joe (Louis) would have never have become the world-class fighter we know today," entertainment businessman Sunnie Wilson declared.

Fannie Peck

Its aim was similar to the Booker T. Washington Trade Association, which was created by William: To support Black businesses and professionals, buy Black-produced products and help to train young people for careers in business. In 1933, Peck reported that the group had organized 10,000 women in Detroit. She served as president until 1944. Additionally, the Fannie B. Peck Credit Union, conceived and organized by her, became the first Black credit union in America to secure state chartered status.Fannie Peck founded the Detroit Housewives' League on June 10, 1930 after her husband, William, was called to lead Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 1928.

In 1950, the Detroit Housewives League declared May 24 "Fannie B. Peck Day," a tribute to its founder. The Michigan Chronicle wrote, "A whole generation of youngsters in Detroit owe their improved position economically and their presence in a constantly improving community in part, if not entirely, to the efforts of Mrs. Peck and those who have been associated with her for the past 20 or more years."

Peck died in 1971 at age 91.

Charles Roxborough

Known around town as Charley, Roxborough served in the Michigan Senate for a single term after being elected in 1930—the first Black man to do. The 6-foot-tall fair-skinned Republican was a star basketball player at Eastern High School (now King High School) in 1905, and a learned scholar at the University of Detroit Law School, graduating on June 18, 1914. He holds the distinction of being the only Black man to participate in a state convention to repeal the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the 1933 action that ended the Prohibition era.

The North End resident wielded two unsuccessful campaigns for a U.S. House of Representatives seat during the 1930s, served on the City of Detroit Planning Commission and co-founded the Gamma Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. As a young man, he worked as a personal messenger for Gov. Chase S. Osborn. Two decades later, he was tapped to serve as an assistant state attorney by Gov. Frank Fitzgerald but turned it down. He did, however, accept an appointment to the state's unemployment compensation commission. Charley went into semi-retirement with his wife, Hazel, on their farm near Milford. He had four children and married three times. Roxborough died in October 1963 at age 75.

Rosa Gragg

When Detroit’s real estate industry carried out racist "restrictive covenant" practices that prevented Black residents and other minorities from purchasing and living in stately homes in certain neighborhoods and on certain streets like Ferry, Rosa Gragg and the Detroit Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, a resourceful group of Black women, found another way. They built a new front door on the side of the two-and one-half story Colonial Revival house facing Brush Street. They petitioned for an address change to 5461 Brush St. In fact, the organization burned its loan in only four years. They celebrated the feat on April 8, 1945.

A revered civic leader who was respected by three U.S. presidents, Gragg served on an alphabet soup of important boards, commissions and panels. She made history by earning several first achievements by a woman. Gragg visited the White House no fewer than 30 times during the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson presidencies.

Born in April 30, 1903 in Hampton, Georgia, Gragg was a summa cum laude graduate of Morris Brown College in Atlanta. She married James Robert Gragg in 1926. He operated a tailoring and laundry business on Ferry Street. They had one child, James Jr. He became an attorney and a probate judge.

During the 1940s, Gragg was a member and president of the City of Detroit’s welfare commission—a first for a Black woman. She held the distinction of being the only cocoa-skinned member on the National Volunteer’s Participation Committee of Civil Defense, which was impaneled during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Gragg also helped to open Detroit’s first Office of Civilian Defense, which was designed to coordinate state and federal efforts to protect civilians in case of war emergency.

Gragg died in 1989 at age 86.

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