Wayne State University Celebrates Women Past and Present at Ferry Street Event

DETROIT – The East Ferry Historic District, located at the eastern edge of Wayne State University’s campus, is lined with stately Victorian homes that reflect the legacy of its former residents, many of them women. In recognition of that special neighborhood, WSU hosted the second annual The Women of Ferry Street: Then & Now. Co-sponsored by WSU’s Division of Government and Community Affairs, Center for Gender and Sexuality, and the historic Freer House (home of the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute), the May 16 event honored six Detroit-area women whose achievements echo those of key historical women who visited, worked or lived on Ferry over the decades.

These esteemed women span varied backgrounds, passions and vocations: Josephine Harreld Love, Michi Nomura, Dr. Rosa Slade-Gragg, Lizzie Merrill Palmer, Violet Tucker Lewis, Eleanor Clay Ford, Judith Levin Cantor, Bertha Hansbury Phillips and Mary Chase Perry Stratton (see brief bios below).

“These and other women have played significant leadership, advocacy and entrepreneurship roles on East Ferry Street for decades,” said Stacie Clayton, WSU director of community affairs. “This event honored these historic women while celebrating current women who continue their legacies across Detroit. Our honorees represent high achievement in advancing our city’s opportunities, services, policies and equity.”

2024 honorees are:  Kimberly Andrews Espy, Angela Whitfield Calloway, Sonia Hassan Duggan, Liseann Gouin, Monique Marks and Jodee Raines. At the event, each honoree was asked what advice they wish they had given themselves at age 25, a reflective prompt that elicited serious and humor-filled responses.

Wayne State President Kimberly Andrews Espy, Ph.D., thanked the group for the warm welcome to “probably Detroit’s newest Detroiter” and said she had always worried as a young woman about “what comes next. If I do A, will that effect B, C and D? But sometimes you have to make a decision with the information you have right then, take that step, say yes and a different set of windows opens to you. There is never a perfect time, there is never a perfect way. Give yourself grace and license to own your own path.”

Liseann Gouin talked about the scramble many women face to find balance between work and family. “Today I know there is no magic formula and no assessment board. I would tell women starting out that meaningful engagement with the world and with family are both possible. I don’t talk about the old idea of having it all, but I do assure women that they have enough to offer.”

Self-care was a priority for Monique Marks, who said she spent much of her young life taking care of others. “I constantly put other people first,” she said, so much so that her siblings called her “Mom.” If she could go back, she Marks said would have prioritized herself. “Take really good care of yourself, believe in yourself and know it’s okay to put yourself first sometimes.”

Jodee Raines advised her younger self to relish and appreciate where she is. Raines married, completed law school and joined a firm in her 20s. “I lived in one of the greatest cities in the world and didn’t appreciate it – the people, the culture.” She was so busy that she missed a few years. Her own daughter is doing it better,  enjoying Chicago, where she lives. On a personal note, Raines added that she would tell her younger self, “You don’t have to straighten your hair!”

“Step beating yourself up in your 40s, 50s and 60s over mistakes you made in your 20s,” Angela Whitfield Calloway said. “Own it, but you don’t have to carry it through life like a piece of designer luggage. Let it go.” On the lighter side, she said she also wouldn’t have bought as many pairs of shoes – “How many black shoes does a woman need?” – but invested the money in the shoe manufacturer instead.

Dr. Sonia Hassan Duggan shared three life lessons: First, know that every challenge, issue, and obstacle you encounter has a purpose and leads you to where you need to be. Second, be in the moment and enjoy every moment. Lastly, she expressed wonder at where life can end up taking you. “My husband (Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan) is out of town, but he would enjoy this. I never thought I’d be wearing Aidan Hutchinson’s Lion’s football shirt or going to the NFL draft.” You never know.

About 80 people attended the Freer House awards ceremony and reception. “The historic Freer House was honored to co-create and co-host the Women of Ferry Street program,”, said William Colburn, Freer House director. “We are dedicated to promoting the preservation of the Freer House and the richly diverse history and buildings of the East Ferry Historic District. And we take pride in documenting, researching and celebrating the remarkable contributions women have made to Detroit and the nation from this very special historic street.”

Throughout the past 130 years, some of Detroit’s most prominent residents, civic groups, educational institutions, and arts and cultural organizations were established in the architecturally significant homes on East Ferry.  A diverse population ranging from white, gentile industrialists to middle-class Jewish and African American professionals occupied the homes on Ferry Street and created institutions there, with an unusually large number associated with very enterprising and visionary women.

Ferry Street’s Female Leaders of the Past: Inspiration for Today’s Honorees

Josephine Harreld Love (1914-2003), a Julliard graduate, musician and arts advocate and educator, founded Your Heritage House at 110 E. Ferry (today’s Bas Blue) from the 1970s to the 2000’s to nurture and mentor arts education for Detroit’s children, with a particular emphasis on African American art, artists and musicians. Your Heritage House was the first African American focused cultural institution in Detroit’s Cultural Center (1970s-90s). Love’s daughter’s enrollment broke the color barrier at the Merrill Palmer school and her wedding to her physician husband was held at the Detroit Association of Women’s Club house on East Ferry.

Michi Nomura (1875-1960) is one of the remarkable women friends of Charles L.  Freer, who helped develop and curate his extraordinary collection of Japanese and Asian Art. She and her husband operated the prominent Samurai Company in Yokohama, specialists in Japanese art and antiquities, of which Freer was a major client. Fluent in English and knowledgeable about art, she became the first Japanese woman to travel to Detroit and Ferry Street to visit Freer's home and art collection in 1908. Her memoir about her global travels became the first-known account written by a Japanese woman about Freer and early 20th century Detroit.  Nomura symbolizes the many international visitors from Asia, the Middle East and Europe, who came to Ferry Street to meet Freer and view his extraordinary global art collection.

Women’s and civil rights activist and pioneer, Dr. Rosa Slade-Gragg (1904-89) established Detroit’s first Black vocational school, the Slade-Gragg Academy, in 1947 in a triplex she and her husband owned on East Ferry. She financed the acquisition of another house on East Ferry and Brush in the 1940s to become the headquarters of the Detroit Association of Women’s Clubs, a service organization for the African American community that continues today in the same historic building. Slade-Gragg served as president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs based in Washington, D.C. She was also an esteemed advisor on women’s and civil rights issues to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Educator Violet Tucker Lewis (1897-1968) founded Detroit’s prominent Lewis College of Business on East Ferry in the 1940s through the1970s, training hundreds of African American women and men in the marketable skills needed to break through racial barriers and acquire competitive jobs in both Black businesses and white-owned industries. Violet Lewis and her family lived on the upper floor of the main Lewis Business College house on John R and Ferry Street. The institution expanded to other houses on Ferry and later became the only officially designated Historically Black College (HBCU) in Michigan.

Judith Levin Cantor’s (1928-2022) grandfather, Rabbi Levin, who lived on Ferry Street, was a highly respected leader in Detroit’s Jewish community as chief rabbi of Shaarey Zedek synagogue in the early 20th century.  Cantor became a respected historian, archivist and curator, who was dedicated to raising awareness of Michigan’s Jewish heritage. She served as the archivist for Shaarey Zedek and was president of the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan. Cantor also joined Preservation Wayne as a strong advocate for saving and restoring the East Ferry Street Historic District and preserving its Jewish heritage as part of the rich multicultural history of this remarkable street.

Bertha Hansbury Phillips (1888-1976) was one of the first African American graduates of the Detroit Conservatory of Music and received additional training in Berlin as a highly regarded classical pianist.  She and her accomplished staff taught hundreds of students at her Hansbury School of Music, the first Black music school in Michigan, located first on East Ferry and, later, nearby Frederick Street.

Other notable women associated with Ferry Street are Lizzie Merrill Palmer, founder of what is now the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute; Eleanor Clay Ford, an early childhood education and arts advocate, and one of Merrill Palmer’s primary board members and strongest supporters from 1927 to 1976; and Mary Chase Perry Stratton, artist and ceramist who founded the renowned Pewabic Pottery and became a close friend of Charles Lang Freer, who in turn became one of her and Pewabic’s major supporters. 


The Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child & Family Development promotes and improves the well-being of children and families across the lifespan through research, education and outreach. The institute is headquartered in the Freer House built in 1892 by Charles Lang Freer, a Detroit industrialist and renowned art collector whose collection of Asian and American art is now housed at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art, National Museum of Asian Art. MPSI is part of Wayne State University, a premier urban public research university.


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