Coleman A. Young (May 24, 1918 – November 29, 1997) was the first African American mayor of the city of Detroit, serving five terms from 1974-1993. Born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Young moved with his family to Detroit at age five. After graduating with honors from Detroit’s Eastern High School, Young held a number of jobs, including auto worker, postal worker and manager of a dry cleaners. Young served in World War II as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, part of the U.S. Army Air Corps, and the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces.
After the war, Young worked in the Post Office and was active in union organizing, eventually joining the Wayne County chapter of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), working for the United Auto Workers (UAW), and founding the National Negro Labor Council. This activity, and his support for Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, drew the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Young testified before the Committee but refused to name names, stating “I consider the activities of this Committee as un-American.” As a result, his Negro Labor Council was put on the Attorney General’s “subversive list” and the stigma would follow Young for the rest of his career.
In the late 1950s, Young joined the Democratic Party and ran unsuccessfully for Detroit city council. In 1961, he was elected as a delegate to the Michigan Constitutional Convention, which afforded him contact with many of the state’s political leaders. After the convention, Young took a position as an insurance executive for the Credit Union League before running unsuccessfully for the Michigan House of Representatives–losing by only seven votes. In 1964, he ran for the Michigan State Senate and won handily, serving in that capacity from 1964-1973 when he decided to run for mayor of Detroit.
In November 1973, Young defeated former Police Commissioner John F. Nichols to become Detroit’s first African American mayor. Young would win reelection four more times and over the next 20 years become a great advocate for federal funding for Detroit. Major construction projects completed under Young’s administration include the Renaissance Center, Detroit People Mover, and Joe Louis Arena. Young also negotiated two major deals with General Motors and Chrysler respectively to construct new factories in Detroit: GM’s “Poletown” plant and Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue Assembly Plant. The construction of the Poletown plant was especially controversial as it involved the use of eminent domain to relocate more than 4,000 residents from the neighborhood.
The Coleman A. Young Papers cover Young’s 20-year tenure as mayor of Detroit. Materials included in the collection consist largely of administrative files, speeches and official correspondence. Smaller collections of photographs, audio and video materials and publications collected during the time period illustrate Young’s personality, interests and commitment to the city of Detroit.
During Young’s long tenure as mayor he would come into contact with many major political leaders, including Presidents Jimmy Carter, with whom he had an especially strong relationship, and Bill Clinton, as well as presidential candidates like Hubert H. Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. This collection of photographs focuses on Young’s meetings with these, and other, political leaders and is organized in three parts:
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2010. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2010.
Harp, Andrea S. (2001). Coleman A. Young: Social and Political Powerbroker. Accessed from http://www.is.wayne.edu/mnissani/elephant/young.htm
Young, Coleman A. & Wheeler, L. (1994). Hard Stuff: The Autobiography of Mayor Coleman Young. New York: Viking Penguin.
Photo at top of page courtesy of The Detroit News.