'Lifting As We Climb' - Michigan appeals court judge receives award


Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens (third from right) was presented with the “Lifting As We Climb” honor by the Detroit Association of Women’s Clubs on March 30.  Among those congratulating Stephens were (left to right) Lorraine Chappell, Edwina Dortch, Felicia Miller Talley, Tamaia Diane Williams, Angela Calloway, and Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Virgil Smith.

– Photo by John?Meiu

By Tamela Aikens

The “Lifting As We Climb Brunch” celebrates Rosa Slade Gragg and her legacy, and each year the Detroit Association of Women’s Clubs awards “The Lifting As We Climb” honor to a woman whose lifetime work and service embody and exemplify Rosa’s Gragg’s values and commitment. The brunch is held each March during Women’s History Month.

The 2019 Rosa Gragg honoree was Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Cynthia D. Stephens. Prior to her appointment to the Court of Appeals in 2008, Stephens served as a general jurisdiction trial judge for 23 years. She was appointed to the Third Circuit Court in 1985 after service as a 36th District Court judge. She was the chief judge pro tempore, Mediation Tribunal chair and presiding Civil Division judge of the Third Circuit Court for eight years.

An Emory Law School graduate, Stephens has been admitted to practice in Georgia, Texas, and Michigan. Prior to her election to the bench in 1981, she served as vice-chair of the Wayne County Charter
Commission, associate general counsel to the Michigan Senate, regional director for the National Conference of Black Lawyers-Atlanta office, and consultant to the National League of Cities Veterans Discharge Upgrade Project.

She has been active in bar work including 16 years as a commissioner of the State Bar of Michigan, chairing its Justice Initiatives Committee, Communications Committee and Children’s Task Force.

Stephens is former chair of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan, a former member of the executive board of the National Bar Association and its Judicial Council. She has been honored by many
civic and religious organizations including the inaugural Woodrow Smith Community Service Award from the Shrines of the Black Madonna, the Golden Heritage Award from Little Rock Baptist Church and the Susan B. Anthony Award from the City of Detroit Human Rights Department. She was awarded the State Bar of Michigan’s highest honor, the Roberts P. Hudson Award, in 2005.

Stephens has served as adjunct faculty at Wayne State University Law School, the Detroit College of Law and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. She has also served as faculty member for the National Judicial College and the Michigan Judicial Institute and the Emory Law School Kessler-Eidson Program for Trial Techniques. She was a contributing author to the Lawyer’s Co-Operatives “Michigan Nonstandard Jury Instructions” as well as several articles on subjects ranging from jury selection to ethics.

She has served on numerous civic boards and commissions including New Detroit, the Inner City Business Improvement Forum, the Detroit Metropolitan Association Board of Trustees for the United Church of Christ, the Greater Detroit Area Health Care Council and the Girl Scouts. She is a resident of Detroit – and an inspiration to many.

According to the Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation, Rosa Slade Gragg was born in 1904 and died in 1989. She was a civic leader who made contributions in the educational, social, and political arenas. She made history with numerous first achievements by a woman. Born in Georgia, Gragg was a summa cum laude graduate of Morris Brown College in Atlanta. She furthered her studies at Tuskegee Institute, Wayne State University, and University of Michigan. Understanding the importance of education in the struggle for black progress, she founded the Slade-Gragg Academy of Practical Arts in 1947, the first black vocational school in Detroit.

Known as the Tuskegee of the North, it trained more than 2,000 women and returning veterans. This was the first black-owned and -operated business on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Later she led the establishment of a youth center, library, and archives for Bethel A.M.E., the second oldest black church in Michigan.

Dr. Gragg understood the needs of black women. In 1941 she founded a building for the Detroit Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. In 1958 after being elected to the presidency of the National Association, she succeeded in having the Fredrick Douglass home in Washington, D.C., declared a national shrine by Congress. She was known to fight for black people with skill, force, and money.

She stated, “We cannot advance dependent on other people; we must build up an economic responsibility ourselves.”

In 1960 Gragg was elected vice president of the Council of Women of the United States, affiliated with the International Council of Women of the World. She was the first black president of the Detroit Public Welfare Commission.

Rosa Gragg was an advisor to three U.S. presidents. Under President Roosevelt she was the only black on the board of the National Volunteer’s Participation Committee of Civil Defense. She helped open Detroit’s first Civilian Defense Office. Under President Kennedy, she served on the Status of Women’s Commission, the National Women’s Committee on Civil Rights, and the Commission on Employment of the Handicapped. President Johnson appointed her to the Citizens Committee on Community Relations and the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.

She was inducted in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1987 for her achievement in civil rights. She is remembered most for her concern for the struggles of African American women and for her work in her church and the Detroit community.