Civil Rights Rosa Gragg will now have her name on a Detroit street

Despite not being able to purchase property on the street in the 1940's, the renaming of it is a testament of how far the city has come

Civil Rights activist Rosa Gragg should be a household name in Detroit, and thanks to a street naming ceremony this week, she finally will be.

Detroit Skyline
The city of Detroit's skyline is shown July 18, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Rosa Gragg should be a household name in Detroit, and thanks to a street naming ceremony this week, she finally will be.

According to The Detroit Free Press, Friday, city officials and members of the Detroit Association of Colored Women’s Clubs will hold a ceremony to unveil a secondary street sign that will identify the intersection of Brush and Ferry streets as Rosa L. Gragg Blvd.

As history would have it, back in 1941, Gragg and several members of the Women’s Clubs pooled their money and put down a $2,000 deposit to purchase the house at 326 Ferry, which was to serve as a headquarters for the association.

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But in those days there was a law on the books stating that deeds attached to the grander homes west of Brush Street had restrictions that would preclude them from being sold to “negroes.” As a result, when the Association of Colored Women’s Clubs took title, several white neighbors not only complained but also threatened to sue.

It seemed like all hope was lost for these women, until Gragg, the first woman to graduate summa cum laude from Morris Brown College in Atlanta, came up with a simple but brilliant idea. She had a door built on the side of the house and then had its address formally changed to Brush Street, which had no restrictions based on race.

Seventy-eight years later, the association still owns the structure on Brush Street and conducts its business there.

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“The street should be named after her because she was told she couldn’t walk through a door so she made her own door,” said Lauren Gragg, the honoree’s granddaughter. “Those are the kind of people we want to recognize: The people who built their own doors to walk through.”

“Ever since I heard her story, I’ve been telling people about her,” admits Detroit Councilman James Tate. “It’s a story about equity and people fighting against the grain and facing obstacles and figuring out how to still move forward. Her life is just a perfect example of that story.”

After that stroke of genius in 1941, Gragg went on to be an adviser to three U.S. presidents, serving on committees for Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1947 she founded the Slade Gragg Academy of Practical Arts, a trade school for Black women and veterans who were returning from World War II. And then a year later was appointed the president of the Detroit Welfare Commission, a city department that had a $20 million budget and nearly 2,000 employees.

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In 1958 Gragg became the president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and then successfully lobbied President John F. Kennedy to sign legislation to make the estate on Brush street a national historic site.

“Without Rosa, that history would have been lost,” explains history buff Angela Calloway.

As for what this pioneering woman would think today, as her family and community gather to see her name ironically adorn the very same street where she once couldn’t even own a house – her granddaughter suspects she’d be proud.

“I see her looking down and saying ‘yes, this is appropriate,’” Gragg said. “But she wouldn’t be boastful. She would be graceful and grateful that she made a difference.”

Gragg died in 1989 and was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1987.