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The exterior of Lewis College of Business in Detroit. The facade is red brick with multiple windows and a green lawn in front.

Michigan Historical Markers in Detroit you never knew existed

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Of the 1,742 Michigan Historical Markers, 146 are located in Detroit—by far the most of any city in the state. With such important events and places as “Fort Wayne” and “Birthplace of Ford Automobile” commemorated with plaques, it’s not too surprising to learn that, at least by this unofficial statistical method, Detroit is the most important city to Michigan’s history.

The Michigan Historical Markers program began in 1955 and new plaques are dedicated every year. That’s because the markers matter—they educate residents about the state and often help preserve buildings and sites.

And ultimately, they contribute to creating a place’s identity. So it’s no surprise that almost all markers are sponsored by individuals or community groups. “We talk a lot about creating a sense of place and sense of community. This is a small way we build that,” says Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center, which administers the program.

There’s so many markers in Detroit that many get less recognition than they should. We worked with the center and the Michigan Historic Commission, which approves and drafts the markers, to identify 15 of the city’s lesser-known ones.

Note: Markers are ordered from north to south.

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Conant Gardens

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For decades, African Americans were denied the right to buy property in many Detroit neighborhoods in a practice known as redlining. Conant Gardens was an exception. The east side neighborhood just south of Seven Mile Road was often considered “the most prosperous black neighborhood” in Detroit.

First Mile of Concrete Highway

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Many automobile firsts took place in Detroit, including building the first mile of concrete road. In 1909, Wayne County laid concrete on Woodward Avenue between Six and Seven Mile roads at a cost $13,537.

An aerial view of Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Adjacent to a street are buildings and factories.
Woodward Avenue
Michelle Gerard

Lewis College of Business

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In 1941, the Detroit Chamber of Commerce recruited Violet T. Lewis to open up a similar school as the one she started in Indianapolis to train black women in business. Called the Lewis College of Business, it was located in this Colonial revival building on John R. The school educated tens of thousands of students and was named Michigan’s first Historically Black College in 1983. Unfortunately, after years of declining enrollment, it closed in 2013.

The exterior of Lewis College of Business in Detroit. The facade is red brick with multiple windows and a green lawn in front.

International Institute of Detroit

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Founded by volunteers at the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), this organization has worked in Detroit for just over 100 years helping immigrants adjust to new lives in America. It’s been located at this building, designed by O’Dell, Hewlett, and Luckenbach Associates, since 1951. Though the exterior has been extensively renovated from its original midcentury modern look.

Elijah McCoy Homesite

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A short street connecting Trumbull Avenue to the Lodge Service Drive in Northwest Goldberg, Elijah McCoy Drive is named after the important black inventor. McCoy was born free in Canada to fugitive slaves during the Antebellum period, but the family moved to Detroit when he was young. He was trained as a mechanical engineer and eventually invented, according to the marker, an “automatic lubricating cup which oiled the locomotive while the train was in motion, thus eliminating frequent stops for oiling.”

Orsel McGhee House

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Black Detroiters have faced incredible hardships finding stable housing in the city (see the Conant Gardens marker). The practice of redlining prevented many from buying in certain neighborhoods. And when they did, they often faced the wrath of their neighbors.

Many are familiar with the story of Ossian Sweet, who fought back against a hostile white crowd outside his home in 1925 (and where there is also a historic marker). A lesser-known, but equally important event involved the McGhees, who moved into an all-white neighborhood near Northwest Goldberg in 1944. Neighbors tried to revoke his title on the basis of restrictive covenants. According to the marker: “The McGhees, aided by the NAACP and represented by Thurgood Marshall, appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s 1948 decision in favor of the McGhees upheld the principle of freedom from discrimination in the enjoyment of property rights.”

The exterior of the Orsel McGhee House. The facade is red brick with a grey roof.
The McGhee home
Google Street View

Friendship Baptist Church

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This marker commemorates one of the first black Baptist churches in Detroit, but has a slightly bittersweet story. The Friendship Baptist Church, an African-American congregation, was founded in 1916 and grew to around 1,000 members in less than two decades. It finally found a long-term location on what is today Mack Avenue, but that building was leveled in 1963 as part of Detroit’s “urban renewal.” The church built a new, modernist home where the marker sits on Beaubien, designed by Wallace K. Kagawa, an architect with Minoru Yamasaki and Associates.

The exterior of the Friendship Baptist Church in Detroit. The facade is brown with stained glass windows.
Friendship Baptist Church
Google Street View

William Ferguson Homesite

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This marker sits at the site of one of Detroit’s most accomplished, but least recognized African Americans. William Ferguson was a successful businessman and lawyer when in 1889 he was expelled from a downtown hotel for refusing to eat in the colored section. He sued and won a decision in the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled that “separation by race in public places was illegal.” He would later go on to be Michigan’s first black legislator after being elected to the Michigan House of Representatives.

Police Radio Dispatch

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Located next to a decommissioned police station on Belle Isle built in the late 1800s, this marker commemorates the Detroit Police Department as the first in the nation to dispatch cars with radios. Some cars were equipped with radio in 1921, and by 1928, after much trial and error the department had its own dedicated frequency. “Reduced response times and increased arrest rates quickly made radio-dispatching standard police practice nationwide.”

Chapman Abraham/Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War

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This marker covers the history of the Jewish people in early Detroit. Chapman Abraham, considered Detroit’s first Jewish resident, was a trader who helped supply the British in the French and Indian War. He was captured by Native Americans and released to Detroit in 1763. By the time of the Civil War in 1861, around 150 Jewish families lived in Michigan. According to the marker, “The small population, made up mostly of recent immigrants, contributed an unusually high number of men to the Union army.”

Frederick Douglass–John Brown Meeting

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This is the site where the nation’s two most well-known abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and John Brown, met for the first time in 1859 to discuss tactics for ending slavery. A number of other prominent African-American Detroiters were present for the meeting.

University of Michigania

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The University of Michigan was not founded in its current home of Ann Arbor. Originally the pretentiously-named Catholepistemiad of Michigania, it was started in 1817 in Detroit by some of the city’s early leaders: Reverend John Monteith, Father Gabriel Richard, and Judge Augustus Woodward. The university relocated to Ann Arbor in 1837 and the Detroit building was demolished in 1858.

Sterns Telephone

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This site commemorates the first commercial use of a telephone in 1877, only 18 months after Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention. It connected a drugstore operated by Frederick Stearns to his laboratory a half-mile away. According to the marker: “A placard in the store window invited the public to drop in every hour on the hour to speak over the amazing new device. Other private lines followed, but it was a year before the first telephone exchange was constructed with fifteen or twenty subscribers on each party line.”

James A. Bailey

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One of the world’s premier circus entertainers was born in 1847 near this Detroit site. James A. Bailey, née McGinnis, bought the first elephant ever born in America and eventually partnered with Phineas T. Barnum to create the popular “Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.” He ran it until his death in 1906, where it was then sold to the Ringling Brothers.

Treaty of Springwells

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In many ways, the War of 1812 actually ended at Fort Wayne in Detroit. The Treaty of Springwells, signed between the United States, who was represented by General William Henry Harrison, and eight Native American tribes allied with England ended the conflict. The treaty ended hostilities and restored all Native American possessions, rights, and privileges prior to the war.

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Conant Gardens

For decades, African Americans were denied the right to buy property in many Detroit neighborhoods in a practice known as redlining. Conant Gardens was an exception. The east side neighborhood just south of Seven Mile Road was often considered “the most prosperous black neighborhood” in Detroit.

First Mile of Concrete Highway

Many automobile firsts took place in Detroit, including building the first mile of concrete road. In 1909, Wayne County laid concrete on Woodward Avenue between Six and Seven Mile roads at a cost $13,537.

An aerial view of Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Adjacent to a street are buildings and factories.
Woodward Avenue
Michelle Gerard

Lewis College of Business

In 1941, the Detroit Chamber of Commerce recruited Violet T. Lewis to open up a similar school as the one she started in Indianapolis to train black women in business. Called the Lewis College of Business, it was located in this Colonial revival building on John R. The school educated tens of thousands of students and was named Michigan’s first Historically Black College in 1983. Unfortunately, after years of declining enrollment, it closed in 2013.

The exterior of Lewis College of Business in Detroit. The facade is red brick with multiple windows and a green lawn in front.

International Institute of Detroit

Founded by volunteers at the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), this organization has worked in Detroit for just over 100 years helping immigrants adjust to new lives in America. It’s been located at this building, designed by O’Dell, Hewlett, and Luckenbach Associates, since 1951. Though the exterior has been extensively renovated from its original midcentury modern look.

Elijah McCoy Homesite

A short street connecting Trumbull Avenue to the Lodge Service Drive in Northwest Goldberg, Elijah McCoy Drive is named after the important black inventor. McCoy was born free in Canada to fugitive slaves during the Antebellum period, but the family moved to Detroit when he was young. He was trained as a mechanical engineer and eventually invented, according to the marker, an “automatic lubricating cup which oiled the locomotive while the train was in motion, thus eliminating frequent stops for oiling.”

Orsel McGhee House

Black Detroiters have faced incredible hardships finding stable housing in the city (see the Conant Gardens marker). The practice of redlining prevented many from buying in certain neighborhoods. And when they did, they often faced the wrath of their neighbors.

Many are familiar with the story of Ossian Sweet, who fought back against a hostile white crowd outside his home in 1925 (and where there is also a historic marker). A lesser-known, but equally important event involved the McGhees, who moved into an all-white neighborhood near Northwest Goldberg in 1944. Neighbors tried to revoke his title on the basis of restrictive covenants. According to the marker: “The McGhees, aided by the NAACP and represented by Thurgood Marshall, appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s 1948 decision in favor of the McGhees upheld the principle of freedom from discrimination in the enjoyment of property rights.”

The exterior of the Orsel McGhee House. The facade is red brick with a grey roof.
The McGhee home
Google Street View

Friendship Baptist Church

This marker commemorates one of the first black Baptist churches in Detroit, but has a slightly bittersweet story. The Friendship Baptist Church, an African-American congregation, was founded in 1916 and grew to around 1,000 members in less than two decades. It finally found a long-term location on what is today Mack Avenue, but that building was leveled in 1963 as part of Detroit’s “urban renewal.” The church built a new, modernist home where the marker sits on Beaubien, designed by Wallace K. Kagawa, an architect with Minoru Yamasaki and Associates.

The exterior of the Friendship Baptist Church in Detroit. The facade is brown with stained glass windows.
Friendship Baptist Church
Google Street View

William Ferguson Homesite

This marker sits at the site of one of Detroit’s most accomplished, but least recognized African Americans. William Ferguson was a successful businessman and lawyer when in 1889 he was expelled from a downtown hotel for refusing to eat in the colored section. He sued and won a decision in the Michigan Supreme Court, which ruled that “separation by race in public places was illegal.” He would later go on to be Michigan’s first black legislator after being elected to the Michigan House of Representatives.

Police Radio Dispatch

Located next to a decommissioned police station on Belle Isle built in the late 1800s, this marker commemorates the Detroit Police Department as the first in the nation to dispatch cars with radios. Some cars were equipped with radio in 1921, and by 1928, after much trial and error the department had its own dedicated frequency. “Reduced response times and increased arrest rates quickly made radio-dispatching standard police practice nationwide.”

Chapman Abraham/Jewish Soldiers in the Civil War

This marker covers the history of the Jewish people in early Detroit. Chapman Abraham, considered Detroit’s first Jewish resident, was a trader who helped supply the British in the French and Indian War. He was captured by Native Americans and released to Detroit in 1763. By the time of the Civil War in 1861, around 150 Jewish families lived in Michigan. According to the marker, “The small population, made up mostly of recent immigrants, contributed an unusually high number of men to the Union army.”

Frederick Douglass–John Brown Meeting

This is the site where the nation’s two most well-known abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and John Brown, met for the first time in 1859 to discuss tactics for ending slavery. A number of other prominent African-American Detroiters were present for the meeting.

University of Michigania

The University of Michigan was not founded in its current home of Ann Arbor. Originally the pretentiously-named Catholepistemiad of Michigania, it was started in 1817 in Detroit by some of the city’s early leaders: Reverend John Monteith, Father Gabriel Richard, and Judge Augustus Woodward. The university relocated to Ann Arbor in 1837 and the Detroit building was demolished in 1858.

Sterns Telephone

This site commemorates the first commercial use of a telephone in 1877, only 18 months after Alexander Graham Bell patented his invention. It connected a drugstore operated by Frederick Stearns to his laboratory a half-mile away. According to the marker: “A placard in the store window invited the public to drop in every hour on the hour to speak over the amazing new device. Other private lines followed, but it was a year before the first telephone exchange was constructed with fifteen or twenty subscribers on each party line.”

James A. Bailey

One of the world’s premier circus entertainers was born in 1847 near this Detroit site. James A. Bailey, née McGinnis, bought the first elephant ever born in America and eventually partnered with Phineas T. Barnum to create the popular “Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.” He ran it until his death in 1906, where it was then sold to the Ringling Brothers.

Treaty of Springwells

In many ways, the War of 1812 actually ended at Fort Wayne in Detroit. The Treaty of Springwells, signed between the United States, who was represented by General William Henry Harrison, and eight Native American tribes allied with England ended the conflict. The treaty ended hostilities and restored all Native American possessions, rights, and privileges prior to the war.