We wanted to share some of the local Black historical figures that made a difference in Washtenaw County. Today, we talk about Albert Wheeler, the first black mayor, and first tenured Black professor at the University of Michigan.
Washtenaw County is rich in history, especially Black history. You just have to know where to look. Today, we wanted to share some information about Albert H. Wheeler, Ann Arbor’s first (and still only) Black mayor and U-M’s first tenured Black professor.
Albert H. Wheeler was raised in St. Louis Missouri and attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. There, he studied biology. Shortly after, he got his master’s in microbiology at Iowa State University. He moved to Ann Arbor to continue working towards his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Once he completed his doctoral degree, he took a job as a research associate at the university.
Wheeler became an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the U-M in 1952 and eventually became the first tenured Black professor. Influenced by his experiences of discrimination at the university and in attempting to secure a home mortgage in Ann Arbor, Wheeler also worked as a civil rights activist on campus and in the city. He eventually co-founded the Ann Arbor Civic Forum. This later became the city’s NAACP chapter, and Wheeler served as president of that body in the late 1960s.
In April of 1975, Wheeler made a bid for mayor of Ann Arbor. He ran as a Democrat and unseated the Republican incumbent mayor, James E. Stephenson. That election used the instant-runoff voting system and represented the first-ever use of IRV in the U.S. mayoral contest. Wheeler ended up winning by a slim margin of 121 votes. This system was later repealed in an April 1976 special election.
Ann Arbor’s Wheeler Park was named in Albert H. Wheeler’s honor. Some members of his family remain active in Michigan political life, including his daughters Alma Wheeler Smith and Nancy Francis. Wheeler’s grandson, Conan Smith, also serves as a Washtenaw County commissioner, and Smith’s wife, Rebekah Warren, is a member of the Michigan House.