Black Historical Figures You Should Know: Rosa Letitia Byrd

“I like helping people.I like being part of organizations that do things, that make a difference in people’s lives.” -Rosa Letitia Byrd, Ann Arbor News, 1997

History is a funny thing. Sometimes, events can seem a lifetime way when really it was a mere ten years ago. Time can be tricky like that. Today, we wanted to talk about Rosa Letitia Byrd, the first Black teacher at Forsythe Middle School.

Rosa Letitia Byrd (who often went by Letitia) was born in 1927 in Bluefield, West Virginia. She was the second child and the only girl of Pete William Johnson and Harriet Victoria Johnson. From an early age, she showed a lifelong love of learning. 

She eventually earned a Bachelor of Science in Music Education and Business Administration from Bluefield State College. She continued her education and got a Master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling from Eastern Michigan University. She would later earn her Gerontology Certificate from the University of Michigan. 

Byrd took her education and wanted to share her love of learning with others. She was an active member of the community and continued to share her love of music with everyone around her. Byrd became the first Black teacher at Ann Arbor’s Forsythe Middle School. She tried numerous times to be hired by Ann Arbor Public Schools. She was told to try Inkster, “where they were hiring Black people.” After several years and the passage of Civil Rights legislation, the administration later called her back. She made them wait a month before saying yes, which made her the first Black staff member at Forsythe Middle School. She would work for the district for 25 years, and 12 of those years she worked as a guidance counselor at Huron High School.

She also was a founding board member of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County and a member of the National Council of Negro Women. She was also involved in numerous community groups, including the SOS Crisis Center, the Ann Arbor Kiwanis Club, Family Services Collaborative, and more. In 1997, Rosa Letitia Byrd was named the Ann Arbor Citizen of the Year, the first award of its kind.

It’s easy to think history is far behind us, but Byrd passed away in 2018. Her legacy still lives on, and her encouraging words to our community should resonate with everyone.

“Age is just a number. What’s more important is commitment and openness to new experiences.” Rosa Letitia Byrd, Ann Arbor News, 1997.