Standing on the shoulders of Judge Geraldine Bledsoe Ford
Today, the first black female Supreme Court Associate Justice, Ketanji Brown Jackson, will hear her first case as the Supreme Court opens its new term. This is a historic moment and I want to take the time to acknowledge one of Detroit’s own, Judge Geraldine Bledsoe Ford whose shoulders others have stood on.
Judge Geraldine Bledsoe Ford earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Michigan in 1948 and a law degree from Wayne State University in 1951. Her whole career was one of firsts. She was the first black woman to serve as an assistant U.S. Attorney in 1962 in the Eastern District of Michigan and became the first black female judge in Michigan when she took the bench in 1966 as a Recorder’s Court judge in Detroit. She sat on the bench for more than 30 years before retiring in 1999.
Judge Bledsoe Ford kept a portrait of her grandfather, William Bledsoe Sr., wearing a graduation cap and gown in her office. Her grandfather was a former slave who despite that graduated from college. Judge Geraldine Bledsoe Ford recalled in a Detroit Free Press interview from 1998, “My grandpa symbolized everything we stood for, a solid belief in striving for educational excellence no matter what.” She gave credit for her success to her parents who planted her dreams and to the North End community who helped nurture those dreams. When asked how she accomplished so much, she stated, “It’s really quite simple. My daddy was a lawyer, and I was crazy about my daddy.”
Judge Bledsoe Ford wanted to be a lawyer from the time she was four or five and showed she had what it took at the tender age of 13. One day she and some friends were walking home from the Detroit Institute of Arts, and she suggested they stop at an ice cream parlor for ice cream. One of her friends told her that particular establishment did not serve blacks. Determined and knowing otherwise, she told her friends that she overheard her father say the “Diggs Civil Rights Law” (Diggs, Hailwood, Dunckel, Palmer Civil Rights Bill of 1937 which allowed for equal accommodations at food establishments in Michigan) had passed. Armed with this knowledge she entered the store and was refused service.
Once again, she explained the law to the store clerk who called the police to have her, and her friends removed. She called her father, the formidable civil rights activist and attorney Harold Bledsoe. After her father spoke with the police and the store clerk, (she was not exactly sure what he said) he bought a cigar and left while Judge Bledsoe Ford and her friends ate their ice cream.
She credits her father with telling her that she was an American, and as such, she believed like all Americans, she was entitled to the rights of American citizenship. Her parents taught her to never let race or her gender interfere with her dreams.
Judge Karen Fort Hood stated, “I always say we stand on her shoulders because she paved the way for people like me, not only African-American women but all African-American judges. She’s been a mentor for me and others.” Then Circuit Court Judge, and now Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, credited Bledsoe Ford with teaching her that everyone deserved to be treated with respect and dignity, and Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Stephens was taught that the court belonged to the people - that judges were servants of the people, not over people.
As she retired, Judge Geraldine Bledsoe Ford said, “…I think law is a service occupation. I would hope that people who want to become lawyers understand that. I think of it as the most important profession for holding the world together. Become a lawyer only if you have a fundamental and internal commitment to the betterment of humankind.”
To read more about Geraldine Bledsoe Ford in her own words, go to the Detroit Free Press, December 28, 1998, article, Barrier-breaking Detroit judge retires after fulfilling a legacy of law.