"Top Branch" Award and interesting Things

A Labor Day Tribute: Harry Browne, Norm Osborne, Henry Nickleberry 


by Michael Thompson, retired Saginaw News journalist


Sept. 3, 2018


At least can self-publish, with nobody tearing it up but me. So to close Labor Day, this is something we researched and labored upon during the month of August:

A Labor Day Tribute: Harry Browne, Norm Osborne, Henry Nickleberry

Harry Browne graduated from Saginaw High School in 1925, Norm Osborne in 1934, Henry Nickleberry in 1945. They are forever linked in our historic local African American involvement and leadership in the labor movement.

Two of the men still were in diapers when their families moved to Saginaw -- Browne's from London, West Virginia, and Nickleberry's from Wichita Falls, Texas. Osborne was born in Saginaw to parents who had arrived from Trinidad.

The Brownes came independently in 1909 and the Osbornes in 1912, when as few as 300 black citizens were scattered across all sections of Saginaw County in various labor professions. (As historian Roosevelt Ruffin once noted, there were not enough black people here prior to 1925 for white people to really care where they lived.)

The Nickleberrys arrived in 1929, part of the first wave of Great Migration families that began to come north to the First Ward during the middle 1920s in pursuit of auto-plant employment.

The three men achieved many "firsts" for African Americans, both within and outside of labor unions. And the labor movement remains an underrated aspect of black history. In Saginaw, specifically, the black population soared from 328 in 1920 to 16,550 in 1960?.Why? Jobs, and the labor unions that helped to keep these jobs in place for so many years.

Browne's pioneering landmarks were as head of the Saginaw AFL-CIO, and then UAW Local 668, and then the United Fund drive (now United Way), and then the County Board of Supervisors (now Commissioners). In 1955, he narrowly was defeated for a City Council seat, which was achieved six years later, in 1961, by attorney Henry Marsh. Browne Airport, on Janes Road in Buena Vista, bears his name.

Osborn's inroads expanded into representing the UAW into social issues and concerns, intrgrating such groups as the Saginaw Social Services Club, the Saginaw County Council of Churches and the Boy Scouts of America.

Nickleberry's barrier-busting went beyond Saginaw's borders. In 1948, he became the one of the nation' first black UAW international representatives, appointed by Walter Reuther. He later became the first black chairman of the Saginaw Department of Social Services Board and closed his career as Saginaw's mayor from 1989-93.

(June 12, 1908 to Sept. 4, 1990)

Browne was a pioneer in more than the labor movement. He was among only a handful of African American students to enroll in 1926 at Michigan State University, with electrical engineering as his field of study.

His first racial slap in the face took place when a professor told him, in front of the entire classroom, "Hey Browne, what are you gonna do, open a shoeshine stand and run it electrically?" Beyond his initial dismay, he used this slur as motivation.

Indeed, black electrical engineers were not in demand at the start of the Great Depression, and so upon his return to Saginaw from East Lansing, Browne found work at the Grey Iron foundry. Blacks were mostly restricted to the metal castings operations at Grey Iron and Malleable Iron, for jobs Nickleberry described as "so rough and injurious, so hostile, so flamingly hot."

Browne gradually was elected and appointed to UAW 668 leadership by the same white co-workers who overall harbored deep racism and animosity toward African Americans. This was a partnership of convenience. Many of them, unlike their black peers, were first-generation European immigrants, barely versed in the English language that governed their labor conditions and their wages. Harry Browne may have possessed a black skin, but he was college-educated and eminently qualified to represent their illiterate selves in their union. (And in addition, according to the joke back then, the foundries were so dirty that EVERYONE looked like a black person before the work day was done.)

During those early years of the UAW, Browne was not in a position to enact racial reforms within the union. Therefore, he took small steps, such as landing startup jobs for individual black peers and registering them to vote, and setting up classes for them in reading and writing.

"Harry pushed me all the way," Nickleberry later said. "He was my mentor, like a father. He helped to lay the foundation."

Browne also became a charitable go-to guy in the First Ward, like a one-man welfare office. If someone was short on food, or a rent payment, or whatever, he was there to help, often at personal expense. Ruben Daniels remarked, "I can't count the times when I saw Harry peel off some bills."

This spirit of giving eventually caused him to establish Browne's Mortuary, which essentially was a non-profit enterprise during its early stages, often offering funeral services free of charge. During his final elder years, Harry Browne summed things up: "That's why I'll never have anything. Piling up money means nothing to me."

(May 18, 1915 to April 11, 1998)

During his early childhood, Osborn recalls, "There were no rich families, there were no poor families, and race was not an issue. We didn't even think about it."

Then he was rejected for Boy Scouts membership because of his skin pigment.

He not only formed his own Boy Scout troop, but he became a lifelong leader in the national association, ultimately receiving the prestigious "Spirit of Scouting" honor.

"It hurt me when they didn't want me because of my skin color," he recalled in a 1990 interview, "but I guess I was a little bit more hard-edged than I had imagined."

Osborne first gained his progressive social outlook starting in 1935, during the heart of the Depression. He found government employment and support through President Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps and rode a bus north to the Tawas City area, where he cut trees, dug ditches and strung telephone lines. He reaped $30 per month and kept a mere $5 for his own expenses, sending the $25 remainder back home to his family as the eldest of seven children.

His union involvement began a year later, in 1936, with UAW Local 467, when he found work at the Saginaw Manufacturing Plant on East Genesee Street, later Delco Morraine. He noted with sarcasm that black workers were relegated to broom-and-shovel jobs until the onset of World War II led to manpower shortages.

"Overnight," he said, "I was suddenly qualified to operate a machine. I had quite a revelation overnight, didn't I?"

He instead represented the UAW through outreach into the community, and also served as the first black person on municipal boards such as the Saginaw City Planning Commission.

For his efforts in scouting, he received the national UAW's Outstanding Service Award.

"In the UAW, I never wanted to be an organizer or a negotiator or a committeeman," Osborne said. "My interest was in community services. I listened to people's problems and I helped them."

(Nov. 2, 1927 to Sept. 13, 2013)

Unlike Harry Browne at MSU, Nickleberry was popular among white people during his young adult years.

He started at Grey Iron as a coremaker on his 18th birthday, which was November 2nd, 1945. Within a couple weeks, the UAW launched its first-ever national strike, which turned out to last 113 days, all though the winter. And it just so happened that his father, Herman Nickleberry, owned and operated Nick's Garage on North Washington Avenue, directly across the street from the foundry, which became a de facto local strike headquarters for UAW 668. The mostly white picketers may not normally have patronized Nick's Garage, but color was no barrier when taking a warm-up break from the bitter cold. And when the strikers were hungry, farmers from the nearby Thumb area would donate potatoes, cabbages, even some chickens, to be cooked on the stove at Nick's Garage.

Henry himself, always outspoken, became a picket captain.

"I joined the union and immediately started spouting off," Nickleberry once reflected, with his familiar laughter.

He still was only 20 when national UAW chief Walter Reuther picked him to become one of the union's first African American international representatives, the launch of a lifelong career which closed from 1980-86 as a top aide to one of Reuther's successors, Mark Stepp. (Nick then began a second career in local politics, elected to the City Council in 1987 and then appointed mayor by his peers from 1989-93.)

In his union role, he spent plenty of time on the road, taking personal steps to integrate previously segregated restaurants and hotels in towns that ranged from Port Huron to Muskegon.

Back at home, he seemingly was everywhere. NAACP, United Fund, Frontiers International, Cub Scouts. He was the first black member of the Social Services Board, from which for many years he donated his $25 per-meeting stipends to local welfare charities. While serving on a public housing board during the 1950s, he helped prevent the Daniels Heights project from being established as racially segregated, with the 14th Street railroad tracks as the proposed dividing line. As a member of the St. Mary's Hospital Board of Trustees, he was instrumental in preserving the East Side home base and preventing a wholesale move to the suburbs.

He frequently penned his viewpoints in letters to The Saginaw News People's Forum. When the topics pertained to union business, he signed off as "UAW Region 1-D, international representative." When addressing local issues, he merely listed his then-home address on North 12th Street near Lapeer.

"These are problems not only to the group in question," he once wrote, in words that still hold true today. "They are important to the total community."

He also wrote, "People are disappointed and disgusted. We need to set a constructive fire to them."


Some old-timers and historians will say that The Banner should have included Rev. William Bowman in same chapters as Harry Browne and Henry Nickleberry. However, unlike our featured duo, Bowman spent the highlights of his career in Detroit rather than in Saginaw.

He was born in Judsonia, Arkansas, on Christmas Day 1900, and headed for Saginaw in 1925, among the very first wave of Southern blacks to ride the trains north for auto jobs that paid three times as much as picking cotton. In 1937, he was among black men who the UAW hired (part-time) to help the union with integration. His efforts led to his 1945 appointment as a UAW international representative, three years ahead of Nickleberry, and his move to Detroit.

He was described as "highly respected and articulate." His title as Rev. Bowman came because he served as pastor of the original Christ Community Church, on Fourth and Farwell, for a brief spell in 1938-39.

Saginaw historian Willie McKether compiled a list of other blacks who served, during the 1940s and 1950s, as UAW local union officers -- presidents, veeps, bargaining committees, trustees, financial secretaries. McKether acknowleged that there may be omissions, but his history is as thorough as possible. Included are:

Grey Iron, Local 668 -- Harry Browne, Ed Hall Jr., Leon Hall, C.O. Kelly, Willard Sparks, Barney Nichols, Joe Wiggens, John Conners, James Jackson, Eunice Williams, Reeves Barbour, James McDaniel, Glynn McArn, Willie Harris, John Ernie Ramzey.

Malleable, Local 455 -- Thaddeus Ervin, Thad Bowman, Thomas Beeler, Ezell Smith.

Malleable Iron was less integrated than Grey Iron, and so historical black leadership came in later years through the efforts of Sam Young and Bennie Pruitt, Local 455 bargaining chairmen during the 1970s and the 1980s, and also David Lawrence, Larry Houston, Zebedee Love and Ceceil Anderson.

(Sources for this historical report are Saginaw News archives and Willie McKether's "Voices in Transition: African American Migration to Saginaw, 1920 to 1960." McKether's thesis, which served as his 2005 doctorate dissertation in sociology at Wayne State University, is available for review at Hoyt Library, along with Roosevelt Ruffin's "Black Presence in Saginaw: 1855 to 1900.")




June 18, 1941

Less than two weeks before a scheduled march on Washington, its chief organizer, (Asa) A. Philip Randolph, was invited to the White House by President Franklin Roosevelt. Randolph was the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first successful black trade union. He, along with activist and singer Bayard Rustin, had issued a “Call to Negro America to March on Washington for Jobs and Equal Participation in National Defense on July 1, 1941.”

Roosevelt was wary of the prospect of such a demonstration and desirous of developing support for a war effort. Randolph told Roosevelt he would abandon the march plans only if the president would stop job discrimination in both the defense industry and the government. Before the end of the month, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which barred government contractors from discriminating in hiring on the basis of race, color, creed or national origin.

Leola Wilson headshot.jpg
Leola Wilson received the Distinguished Service Award, Saginaw Valley State University's most prestigious award for a community member. Wilson was recognized recently during SVSU's All-University Awards Banquet.
Wilson is recognized for serving as president of Saginaw's chapter of the NAACP since 1998, where she represents nearly 1,500 members. She also served continuously on the board of the Saginaw Intermediate School District since 1975. She provided dedicated service to SVSU as a member of the Board of Control from 2005 to 2013. After completing her term on the board, Wilson served as a member of the presidential search advisory committee during 2013 and 2014.


Hello All!!

My smiles are because we were named the "TOP Branch" by the State President.  President White in presenting recognized our continuous high memberships. Our continuous involvement in the community.  The State Secretary added our memberships come regularly, everything is in order, membership forms, checks.  President and Secretary reported we consistently average about 600 memberships a year.  They are proud of what we do to help the State Conference.  The "Holler Out" was how do we do it !!  I said two great secretaries and treasurer. A top Freedom Fund Banquet.  I can't forget our great board.  I took a FFB book to present and in our report told about our Young Professionals, Honorees and Speaker.
We do a great job, working together.  I will be giving Deb the check for $500.00 from the State Conference for our outstanding work as a Branch.  Thanks to you all.  God bless!

National Futures Without Violence Respect Campaign

Jeff Schrier | MLive.com Arthur Hill High School junior Ceria Barnes, a member of the Teen Advisory Council, waves to her family as students and staff applaud in the school's media center, Monday morning, Dec. 14, 2015. Barnes won the top prize in the National Futures Without Violence Respect Campaign regional contest for her essay on bullying. She won $2,500 cash and a $250 Macy's gift card and $2,500 for Health Delivery Inc.'s school-based health center.