Michigan's first African American legislator's portrait to adorn wall in State Capitol

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MICHIGAN (WJRT) - (02/27/18) - When William Webb Ferguson was told to eat in the colored section of a restaurant back in 1889, he refused, was thrown out of the restaurant and filed a lawsuit that would change Michigan forever.

William Webb Ferguson portrait by Joshua Adam Risner

Now his portrait will be placed on the wall outside the courtroom where his case was won.

"So he sued the owner of the restaurant in Wayne County Circuit Court and lost, but I now know if you're a Ferguson or Ferguson descendant, you never give up," said Dr. Lorna Thomas.

She is Ferguson's great-great-great-niece.

Ferguson, a successful Detroit businessman from a prominent family, appealed his case against restaurant owner Edward Gies to the Michigan Supreme Court. The landmark decision made it illegal to separate people in public places based on race.

"That was the first case of racial discrimination ever in the history of the state of Michigan and that was the late 1800s. It wasn't even 1900 yet," Thomas said.

Ferguson still wasn't done with history. A few short years after winning the lawsuit, he would achieve even more.

"Being elected to this House of Representatives in the 1800s is a marvelous story," said State Rep. Sheldon Neeley, a Democrat from Flint.

After his election in 1893, the Republican lawmaker was re-elected in 1895. He died in 1910.

Now Michigan's first black legislator is being honored by other lawmakers, including Neeley. He's chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, which had a key role in getting this done.

The process started three years ago with a $16,000 cost to commission the portrait, painted by Grand Rapids artist Joshua Risner.

"This is a large task and we were able to create this vision and this dream of having this picture hung, and we did it collectively as a team," Neeley said.

Thomas, an art lover and collector, appreciates their work.

"This is just so amazing and I will be eternally grateful for their forethought," she said.

Thomas also shared stories she had heard as a girl about the courageous Ferguson family.

"Some of the things they did, for example, our family home was one of the stops on the Underground Railway going to Canada," she said. "And that may not sound like much, except if you were caught harboring a fugitive slave in the 1800s, they shot you on sight or they hung you from a tree. There was no due process. You didn't get a trial."

More than 100,000 people enter the doors of the State Capitol each year for tours, many of them children. They look up, not just at the grandness of the building itself, but to the portraits of lawmakers, leaders, governors and a Michigan president.

The next time a group of kids tour the building the images they see will look a little different.

The portrait of Michigan's first elected black legislator will be unveiled inside the State Capitol building from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Neeley hopes to honor more people of color and women with portraits, too. Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm is the only woman whose portrait is hung in the Capitol.

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