Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Young, Coleman A.

Coleman Alexander Young was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on May 24, 1918. Five years later his family moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he would go on to become one of the most noted leaders in the city’s history. Young graduated from Eastern High School and was offered a scholarship to the University of Michigan. However, he was forced to decline when the Eastern High School Alumni Association failed to arrange a job that would assist him with his costs beyond tuition – an effort that was generally extended to white graduates of the high school.

Upon his graduation from Eastern, he joined an apprentice school for electricians through Ford Motor Company. However a less qualified white apprentice was given the available electrician’s position so Young was assigned to Ford’s assembly line and quickly became involved in underground labor activities. After several run-ins with company management, Young was fired.

In 1942, Young joined the U.S. Army, where he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He served as a bombardier and navigator in the prestigious Tuskegee Airmen unit, but never lost his passion for demonstrating against injustice, leading a successful protest against the exclusion of blacks from segregated officer’s clubs.

Returning to Detroit after the war, Young became a union activist for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and became active within the Democratic Party. During the early 1950s, he and numerous other union leaders were called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in Detroit and Young was one of few people who stood up to the committee, saying “I consider the activities of this Committee as un-American.”

In 1962, he ran for the Michigan House of Representatives but lost by only a few votes. He was successful two years later when he was elected to the Michigan State Senate, winning by a 2-1 margin to become Michigan’s second black state senator. By 1966, he had proven himself as a leader and was elected Democratic minority floor leader. He spent ten years in Lansing before declaring his candidacy for mayor of the City of Detroit in 1973.

After a hotly contested battle, Young became Detroit’s first African-American mayor, defeating John F. Nichols. Over the next 20 years, he was re-elected four times and solidified the political power of Detroit’s African American community. Although hailed as a great leader in the black community, his critics, many of whom lived in Detroit’s white suburbs, saw him as a crude and often profane power broker who used racial divisiveness to solidify his power base.

However, as mayor, Young was successful in creating coalitions among Detroit corporate leaders and securing federal funding for many of Detroit’s major projects. During his tenure, Detroit completed several impressive projects, including the opening of the Renaissance Center, the creation of the Detroit People Mover and the construction of Joe Louis Arena.

Young was married and divorced twice, and fathered a son through another relationship. That son, Coleman A. Young II, was elected to the Michigan Legislature in 2006 and in 2016 made an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Detroit against incumbent Mike Duggan.

After finishing his fifth mayoral term, Young retreated from public life and published his autobiography, Hard Stuff in 1994. He died on November 29, 1997 due to complications from emphysema and is buried in Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery.



Coleman A. Young, 1975 - 2014.002.362

Coleman A. Young holding the tape at the reopening of Boblo Island, 1983 - 2012.022.200

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