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Longtime former Detroit City Council President Erma Henderson has died at the age of 92, the Free Press has learned.

Ms. Henderson was the first African-American female elected to the council, in 1972. She served as the first African-American female council president for 12 years, leaving in 1989.

“There is no one – no one – who has done more for the defense of the innocent and for the advocacy of Detroit’s citizens,” said Ron Scott, a Detroit activist who has known Henderson for nearly 50 years. “She was truly a servant of the people, and I loved her as much as I loved my own mother.”

Ms. Henderson has long been considered one of Detroit’s most powerful female political forces, yet over the years she balanced her authority with a gentle maternal influence.

Aside from city politics, Ms. Henderson accomplished a myriad of firsts, including becoming the first African-American port secretary on the Great Lakes and the first female trustee of Wayne County Community College.

State Sen. Irma Clark-Coleman, a Detroit Democrat, said Henderson was a role model for aspiring female politicians in the Detroit area. Clark-Coleman, who worked for Wayne County in the 1980s and was elected to the Detroit School Board in 1991, said: “She is one of the real heroes. … Everybody knew Erma Henderson. She’s the reason many people sought elective office. She allowed us to know you could do it.”

Ann Smith, Ms. Henderson’s grand niece, said Ms. Henderson passed away around 8 a.m. today at Detroit’s Receiving Hospital. She did not have details about her death, but said Ms. Henderson’s health had been declining with age.

Ms. Henderson had been blind for years and she was confined to a wheelchair.

“She has been a fighter all the way through to the end,” Smith said. “She was going to women’s leadership conferences up until a couple weeks ago.”

Ms. Henderson founded numerous organizations, including Women in Municipal Government in both the Michigan Municipal League and the National League of Cities. In 1999, she was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers was hosting a hearing on protecting the legal rights of the indigent today at Wayne State University when City Council member JoAnn Watson came in to say Henderson had died.

“I was disappointed but she lived a beautiful and full life for 92 years,” said Conyers, a Detroit Democrat. “She left a legacy and that’s how you measure people. Her leadership as an activist and progressive combined to make her someone everybody had to contend with.”


Staff writers Dawson Bell and Todd Spangler contributed to this report.

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