Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

Northwestern High School (old)

This high school, once located at Grand River Avenue and West Grand Boulevard, saw some of Detroit's greatest grads walk its halls - from the greatest bassist to ever live to the longest serving African-American congressman in the nation's history.

As Detroit started to grow with the introduction of the automobile, the city's schools were put under an incredible strain. To wit, in 1880, Detroit's population was 117,000; by 1910, it was 465,766. Meanwhile, the number of high schoolers in the city jumped from just 500 in 1880 to almost 6,000 in 1910. This meant that, though the city's population had merely quadrupled in those 30 years, the enrollment at the city's six high schools had increased twelvefold.

"Detroit today is like one of those small boys who are growing so rapidly that their mothers cannot keep their arms and legs from protruding from their clothes," the Detroit Free Press wrote in an editorial on April 21, 1911.

This led to incredible overcrowding, particularly at Central High School. This was due, in large part, to the growing number of residents in the LaSalle Gardens, Virginia Park, Wildermere Park and Northwest Goldberg neighborhoods, which were sending their students to Central. By 1911, Central High School had 1,666 seats, but had an enrollment of 3,208. Teachers had to use small dressing rooms located off the auditorium or basement storerooms.

In Jan. 24, 1911, the Detroit Board of Education's real estate committee recommended spending more than $1 million to build new and expand existing schools, including $280,000 for what would become Northwestern. Despite the overcrowding, the matter would nevertheless be debated for months, with the Board of Education finally agreeing to spend $155,000 to buy 40 acres of the Ferry Farm at Grand River and the Boulevard. The school, like many in Detroit, was designed by the firm Malcomson & Higginbotham. Requests for proposals were sought from builders that fall.

A groundbreaking was held at noon on Oct. 5, 1911. "This event is fraught with meaning to our city, its citizenship and the section of the city in which this school will be located," Charles P. Robertson, president of the board of education, wrote in a formal invitation to Common Council and Mayor Thompson for the event. "It indicates the enlargening of our city when a school of this class - the seventh high school - is needed in a residence section several miles from the center of the city."

The cornerstone was placed Nov. 26, 1911, with Thompson and others speaking at the cornerstone-laying ceremony. Among the speakers was professor L.H. Jones of the Ypsilanti State Normal School (today known as Eastern Michigan University), said that "if all the boys and girls were made as good men and women as those which have come out of the other high school of Detroit, you could dispose of half your police force, tear down half your courts and dismiss half the judges. ... All these things are not intended for the educated people to any such degree as for the uneducated. It is the ignorant man and woman who lead in the commission of crimes." Robertson then picked up the ceremonial silver trowel and with a good schmear of mortar, sealed the copper box in the stone.

Northwestern would open in 1912 with 40 rooms and more than 400 students. Also on the Ferry Farm property that it had acquired, the Board of Education would build three more schools behind Northwestern - basically creating a campus that would feed the area's children from one school to the next. They were: Marr Elementary School, built in 1913 at 6250 Grand River; McMichael Middle School, built in 1917 at 6230 Grand River Ave.; and Martindale Normal Training School, also built in 1912 on the south side of the property. In 1925, a covered passageway was added to connect Northwestern to McMichael Middle.

Between 1914 and 1939, the student body increased ten-fold, and Northwestern started absorbing some of its feeder schools to meet demand.

Among some of the legendary Detroiters to come out of Northwestern:

  • U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (1929-2019) graduated from Northwestern in 1947. He was the longest serving African-American member of Congress, serving from 1965 to 2017, and co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Among his accomplishments was introducing the the legislation to make the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.

  • James Jamerson (1936-1983) was a 1954 Northwestern High grad. Jamerson is widely considered the greatest and most influential bass player to ever live, playing on hundreds of records as Motown Records' studio bassist.

  • Willie Horton (1942-present) graduated from Northwestern High School in 1960 and was signed by the Detroit Tigers a year later. He was a hero of the Tigers' 1968 World Series championship season and had four All-Star appearances over his 18-year career. His number 23 was retired by the Tigers in 2000.

  • Albert Cleage Jr. (later known as Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman), graduated from Northwestern in 1929. He founded the Central Congregational Church in 1953, which later became the Shrine of the Black Madonna.

The school was demolished starting in October 1980, after a newer, larger building opened just to the east, on West Grand Boulevard and Lawton Street. Today, Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church occupies the site of the original Northwestern High.

Special thanks to Jamon Jordan, the City of Detroit's official historian, for the alumni information.

Last updated 13/07/2023