In Another Lifetime – A Love Letter to Five Great Detroit Women

I have become fascinated with the women in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and especially the women who have a Detroit connection either through birth, living in the city or working in the city.

Though they have departed, the more I learn about them, the more they grow closer to my heart.  I have read several essays and books about them since moving to Detroit.

These women’s lives “jump off the page.”  Their “performances” in life were so far above average, you wonder if magic was involved and if they knew a secret that enabled them to forge ahead.

They are worth knowing.  In order of their birth, may I introduce you to:

  • Fannie Richards, Educator, born 1840 – died 1922
  • Bertha Van Hoosen, Doctor, born 1863 – died 1952
  • Sippee Wallace, Singer & Songwriter, born 1898 – died 1986
  • Charleszetta (Mother) Waddles, Activist & Ordained Minister, born 1912 – died 2001
  • Dorothy Comstock Riley, Lawyer & Judge, born 1924 – died 2004

Before I write a bit about each, I’m going to digress and say that in addition to everything else about them, I just love their names – Fannie, Bertha, Sippee, Charleszetta and Dorothy.

Mothers-to-be take note.  These are names that leave legacies!

 

Fannie was Detroit’s first black school teacher

Fannie Richards, highly educated and her own woman

Born in Virginia of free parents,  Fannie Richards was educated in Canada and Germany where she learned about the concept of kindergarten. Settling in Detroit, she was “allowed” to teach here because of her outstanding scholastic skills.

She and her relatives lobbied for the elimination of segregated schools and won when they were abolished by the Michigan Supreme Court.  Remember this was in the 1800’s.  She established the first kindergarten in Michigan and didn’t retire from teaching until she was 74.

Questions to ponder:  After all she accomplished, what would Fannie think of the Detroit Public School System today more than 90 years after her death? 

Would she shed some tears or think that we were at last on the road to making it right?

 

 

Bertha graduated from the University of Michigan in 1888

A female doctor before the turn of the 20th century

Though her family was well-to-do, Bertha Van Hoosen had to work her way through school because there was a disagreement over how she was to be educated.  Just picture her getting a job and going to school back in that era.

She spent part of her career at Detroit Women’s Hospital but mainly practiced in Chicago. She performed her last operation in Pontiac at the age of 88!  At a time when female doctors were beyond rare, she not only had a private practice but was a Professor of Medicine.

She founded the American Women’s Medical Association in direct contrast to the male dominated AMA.  She wrote her autobiography Petticoat Surgeon in 1949.  It’s still being sold.

I think Bertha would be very happy to see the number of female doctors practicing in Detroit today.  In fact, she would probably be overjoyed. We have truly come a long way in the area of medicine.

 

 

One of the things I most like about Sippie, is that she had a “second act” 

“Reinvented” herself in an era when the term was not yet invented

In the 1920’s, Sippee Wallace was a force to be reckoned with in the world of blues vocalists.  She recorded over 40 songs many of which she wrote herself.  One of her accompanists was none other than Louis Armstrong.

In the 30’s, she left show business and gave back to Detroit by becoming her church’s organist and choir director through the 60’s.

After decades away, Sippie reignited her career in a huge way.  She performed live and toured the world with the greats even being nominated for a Grammy in the 80’s.  She shared a stage in France with B.B. King and was recording boogie woogie albums in Germany in 1984.  By this time, she was 86 years old!  Everyone wanted to play and sing with Sippie.

What would Sippie think of Detroit’s music scene today?  I’ll bet she would be hopping on a stage with the best of them.  Music in Detroit is thriving.  No other city can touch us and Sippie would be proud.

 

Charleszetta or Mother Waddles, as she was fondly called, was the mother of ten children

Truly showed that one woman could make a difference

At the age of 36, Charleszetta Waddles declared her own war on poverty to aid the poor of Detroit.

She started in the 40’s holding prayer meetings in her home and asking people to bring one can of food for someone else, moved to opening the Helping Hand Restaurant and then establishing the Mother Waddles Perpetual Mission in 1956.  Those who could not pay could eat for free; others paid what they could afford.  At first she did all of the cooking, dishes and laundry herself until volunteers started to help her.

Mother was a whiz at talking landlords into letting her have spaces for free in order to continue her mission for people who needed assistance.  She was also adept at giving hope and confidence to others so they could find their inner strengths and learn practical skills like typing, machining, upholstery, and cooking, at her many centers.

Through the decades, she received dozens of humanitarian awards but her shining glory was that she identified with those she helped.  This is the thing I most admire about her. Mother’s mission lives on.

What would Mother Waddles think of the homeless and disenfranchised situation in Detroit today?

I have a feeling that she wouldn’t analyze it or criticize it. Rather she would just pitch right in and start to do what she always did.

 

Dorothy was born in Detroit and attended Wayne State University and Wayne State Law School graduating in 1949

Had the last laugh and the highest honor

There were very few female lawyers at the time and as the story goes, when Dorothy Comstock applied for jobs, the interviewers mostly wanted to know how fast she could type.

Instead she started her own practice going on to become the first Hispanic woman to be elected to the Supreme Court of any state.

But it was a wild ride to get there.  Governor Milliken first appointed Dorothy due to a vacancy caused by the death of one of the justices.  But incoming Governor Blanchard decided that he should be allowed to make the appointment himself and Dorothy was booted off and replaced.

There was a bitter partisan controversy but did she go off into the night?

No, she ran for the Supreme Court the next year, won, and was re-elected again.  This always makes me smile.  Dorothy rocked.  She didn’t retire until many years later.

It’s only been eight years since Dorothy passed away so she did live to see many women “take up the law” in Detroit and elsewhere including female appointments to the United States Supreme Court.  I’ll bet I’m not the first one to call her a groundbreaker.

 

And so, my dear Fannie, Bertha, Sippee, Charleszetta and Dorothy, this is my love letter to you.  I count you in my circle of friends.  You were icons of Detroit, of Michigan and elsewhere.  You will live on always.

Thanks for blazing the trail.

 

Photo Credits:

Fannie – www.michiganwomen.org

Bertha – www.theta.mit.edu

Sippee – www.blues145.com

Charleszetta – www.encyclopedia.com

Dorothy – www.michiganwomen.org

Homepage slider: Ryan Vaarsi

Joanne

About Joanne

Joanne McNary qualifies as having a full-on case of “Detroit-itis,” a condition characterized by swooning at the sight of new business openings, cheering on women leaders and going gaga over local theatre. She grew up in the city and found her way back four years ago - now dwelling in downtown. Joanne's "Deeply Detroit" blog highlights Detroit's crazy patchwork of neighborhoods percolating with the miracles that are breathing new life into the city. She revels always in the warmth of her family. Her children, their spouses and one spectacular granddaughter are her treasures. In Joanne's mind, Twitter rules. Follow her on @DetroitRocks.

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