Collection Spotlight: Wade McCree's contribution to Detroit and the nation

The Walter P. Reuther Library continues to celebrate Black History Month by highlighting the life of Wade McCree and his papers.

In his work as a judge, appointed official, and educator coupled with his sense of civic responsibility, Wade Hampton McCree, Jr. made a unique contribution to the Detroit metropolitan area and beyond. His success in these areas are noteworthy by themselves, but even more so given the barriers to success experienced by African Americans of his era. Spanning 66 years and containing 76 linear feet, the papers that bear his name are rich in the primary sources necessary to write about McCree as well as the events and organizations in which he played a part.

The son of the first African-American owners of a pharmacy in Iowa, Wade Hampton McCree, Jr. was born in Des Moines. The elder McCree’s later work as a narcotics inspector with the federal government meant that the family moved periodically when the father received reassignments. Wade, Jr. received his education from Boston Latin School, America’s oldest public school and Fisk University, his parents' alma mater, before graduating from Harvard Law School where he received a scholarship. His matriculation in law school was interrupted by World War II where he served with the 92nd Infantry Division in Italy. Following his discharge in 1946 as a Captain, he married Dores McCrary. They moved to Detroit, where he joined the law firm of Harold E. Bledsoe and Hobart Taylor in addition to establishing a family with his wife.

Beginning with an appointment to Michigan’s Workmen’s Compensation Commission by Governor G. Mennen Williams in 1952, McCree moved quickly into other elected and appointed positions. A vacancy on the Wayne County Circuit Court preceded his election to the unexpired term in 1955 and a full six-year term beginning in 1959. With this election, he became the first African American elected to a court of record in Michigan. National appointments followed, beginning with President Kennedy’s appointment of him to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1961 and the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals five years later where he took part in a number of school desegregation cases. In 1977, President Carter appointed him as the U.S. solicitor general representing the Carter administration in numerous suits, including the Bakke “reverse discrimination” lawsuit against the University of California at Davis. McCree drew from these experiences in his work as the Lewis M. Simes Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, a position he maintained after leaving the Carter administration and until his death in 1987.

His career did not end in the courtroom or classroom, as he served as a board member, trustee and overseer of educational institutions and initiatives. Likewise, he served on the UAW Public Review Board and as Vice Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, amongst many other affiliations. For his efforts, he received numerous awards and honors, including honorary doctorates from Harvard, Howard and the University of Pennsylvania in addition to the Fordham-Stein Award for his “talent, professionalism and nobility of spirit.”

Correspondences, speeches, writings, case files, meeting minutes, and publications predominate within the Wade McCree Papers at the Walter P. Reuther Library. In this way, the collection reflects his life’s work as well as important developments in American history. This blog entry is largely derived from Margaret Raucher, Finding Aid, "Wade McCree H. Papers," 1998, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

For more information on Detroit's black legal history, see the Damon J. Keith Law Collection of African American Legal History.

Louis Jones, PhD, CA, is the Field Archivist for the Walter P. Reuther Library.