Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

The Michigan Supreme Court and Black Rights 1850-1870

Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

The Michigan Supreme Court and Black Rights 1850-1870

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court of the State succeeded the Territorial Court through legislation enacted March 26, 1836. (1) Originally comprised of the three circuit court judges, in 1838, the court became a four-member bench, consisting of a chief justice and three associate justices. (2) In 1848, the number of judges was increased to five; the Constitution of 1850 changed the court to a bench of eight popularly elected circuit judges. (3) The court was again reorganized in 1857 to consist of four elected appellate judges, who no longer sat as circuit court judges. (4)

Between 1847 and 1890, the Michigan Supreme Court decided five cases that involved black claimants: three voting rights cases including the prominent People v. Dean (5) decision; a nationally significant public accommodations case; (6) and an important equal access to public schools case. (7)

A. The Right to Vote

From 1835 to the start of the Civil War in 1861, (8) blacks and their white supporters constantly attacked the "mainstay of caste" in Michigan--the denial of the right to vote. (9) However, as abolitionism intensified along with mounting North-South tensions, racism also heightened within an "already Negrophobic white majority." (10) By 1860, as a result of white anxiety over the consequences of complete emancipation, "the colored suffrage issue in Michigan had become almost the sole property of blacks." (11)

A primary reason for denying blacks the right to vote was the fear that it would encourage black migration to Michigan. (12) Inextricably interrelated with the broader migration issue was the concern that resident blacks would compete for jobs with whites, primarily European immigrants. (13) In contrast, immigrants were encouraged to settle in Michigan. (14) For example, state officials published foreign language pamphlets that explained the voting rights of non-citizen immigrants and emphasized the fact that blacks couldn't vote as an inducement for immigrants who did not want to live with blacks. (15) By 1900, 57% of Michigan's population was of foreign parentage. (16) Among the larger states, this percentage was exceeded only by New York and Massachusetts. (17)

White fears were clearly more inchoate or anticipatory than real. The actual presence of blacks in Michigan was relatively minuscule as efforts to exclude them were more successful in Michigan than in other Midwest states. (18) At no time during the entire nineteenth century did the percentage of blacks ever exceed 1% of the state's population. (19) In fact, between 1860 and 1910, the black population percentage in Michigan actually declined from 1% to 0.6%. (20)

In 1850, only about 2,583 blacks lived among 397,654 whites in Michigan. (21) In Detroit, however, the black population trebled between 1840 and 1850, but from only 193 to 587, which at the time was about one-quarter of the state's total black population. (22) The influx was attributed largely to the toughened enforcement of black codes in the South. (23) From 1850 to 1860, Detroit's black residents more than doubled to 1,403, while the city's white population had increased to approximately 44,000. (24)

Opponents of black suffrage often exploited popular sentiments and 19th century scientific racialism in blatantly vitriolic and demagogic attacks on black people. As a classic example, in 1850, Democratic leader and Detroit Free Press editor, John S. Bagg, openly linking black voting rights with the specter of interracial sex between black males and white females, stated:

[He would not] go to the zoophyte and trace up the numerous gradations in animal life to our noble selves, and say what rank the African holds in the chain." But if they vote the whole state would be "peopled by these dark bypeds--a species not equal to ourselves.... "What man would like to see his daughter encircled by one of these sable gentlemen, breathing in her ear the soft accents of love? …

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