A state office building named for a slavery advocate will now bear the names of the authors of Michigan’s civil rights law.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order Tuesday to rename the Lewis Cass Building in downtown Lansing to the “Elliott-Larsen Building,” honoring the two former legislators, Democrat Daisy Elliott and Republican Melvin Larsen, who sponsored landmark legislation in 1976.
It is the first time a state building in Michigan has been named for an African-American woman.
Lewis Cass, a Michigan territorial governor, advocated for the expansion of slavery. Now, his name has been stripped from a state office building. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
Elliott died in 2015, but Larsen was “humbled and thrilled” at the announcement, giving “all credit to Daisy who initiated working together to sponsor the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act,” Larsen said in a news release. “Having the honor of this building named after the two of us is the ultimate honor of the work she began decades ago to guarantee equality and justice for all of Michigan’s people.”
Lewis Cass was a territorial governor of Michigan before it was a state, represented Michigan in the Senate from 1845-1857 and served as President James Buchanan’s secretary of state. He was a slave owner and supported the expansion of slavery into northern states. As President Andrew Jackson’s secretary of war, Cass was involved in the forced removal of Native Americans from their homelands.
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The building name change comes in the wake of protests against racism and police violence sparked by the killing of a black man, George Floyd, during an arrest in Minneapolis in May. In recent days, Mississippi has taken down its state flag, which bore an image of the flag of the Confederacy, and Princeton University renamed a building that had been named after former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who espoused racist views about African Americans.
The former Lewis Cass Building, located in downtown Lansing, houses parts of state departments, including the headquarters of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget and some workers from the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, signed into law by Gov. William Milliken in 1977, declared it is a civil right to be free from discrimination and expanded constitutional protections to a broader class of individuals.
Several state officials spoke out in support of the change.
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said that his staff “will be proud to go to work in ‘Elliot-Larsen,’ a building now named to reflect our shared commitment to equal rights for all Michiganders.”
“This should be a universally supported change,” Brian Calley, the former Michigan lieutenant governor, tweeted Tuesday. “Elliott-Larson was historic, landmark state legislation. It is fitting that ... a building be named in honor of the sponsors. And the Cass building is the right one to rename.”
State Rep. Cynthia Neeley, D-Flint, also expressed her support for Whitmer’s order in a news release.
“While Lewis Cass was our territorial governor and a U.S. senator from Michigan, he also owned a slave, supported the expansion of slavery and implemented the ‘Trail of Tears,’ which was the forced removal of native indigenous American people from their ancestral lands,” Neeley wrote. “Renaming it the Elliott-Larsen Building is a touching tribute to two legislators who sponsored Michigan’s landmark civil rights act.”
Cass still has a Detroit street, Detroit high school, a statue in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. and a Michigan county named after him.
“As we continue the march toward justice and equity in Michigan, naming this building for these leaders sets in stone their names as a reminder to Michigan public servants to choose inclusive ideals over closed-minded ideologies,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said in a news release.
“We can and must build upon the foundation laid by Elliott and Larsen to make our state a home for opportunity for all.”
“Together, Melvin Larsen and Daisy Elliott’s names have become synonymous in Michigan with the protection of civil rights,” Whitmer said in a news release. “In 2020, we must honor the work of our predecessors who, 44 years ago, outlined in law the vision of what we continue to strive for even today.”