“Happy Birthday, Mayor Young… ya old fart.” After a few takes, the Detroit Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen settled on this message for the Mayor’s birthday card.
Today, May 24, 2018 marks the 100th birthday of one of the most well-known former mayors of Detroit, Coleman A. Young. As a mayor who spent twenty birthdays in office, it was certain that at least one of those would be celebrated widely. The milestone of Young’s 70th birthday in May of 1988 was marked by Young’s family, friends, staff, and colleagues, who took the time to record their well wishes and birthday greetings to be compiled into a 20-minute video birthday card for the Mayor to keep. The final edited version of the birthday card features some familiar faces: Rosa Parks, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin, to name a few. Even Mickey Mouse joined the celebration with a few of his original Mouseketeers.
As a part of the Detroit Video History Archive, this collection includes both an edited and unedited version of the compiled birthday card, as well as an assortment of the original messages on U-Matic tapes. Many musicians sent their regards, beginning with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, featured first in the final card. Stevie Wonder, who recorded his well wishes while on tour in Hong Kong, delivered a cover of his own tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr, with new lyrics written just for Young. Aretha Franklin was featured singing a soulful rendition of “Happy Birthday,” sung at the Detroit Institute of Arts next to a portrait of Young himself. The musical tributes were rounded out by a group of young students from Jamison Elementary School, where room 205 sang their best in honor of the Mayor.
There were a variety of others featured throughout the card, and many names that are easily recognizable throughout Detroit even 30 years later: Don King, Mike Illitch, Jacques Demers of the Detroit Red Wings, Dennis Archer (who would later become Young’s successor in office), Lee Iacocca of General Motors, and – as previously mentioned – the Detroit Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. Don and Bella Barden, Detroit business man and Wayne County COO at the time, recorded their birthday greetings in the midst of their own wedding reception.
With such a diverse cast of characters, it’s obvious that Young’s reach went far beyond the Detroit border during his time in office. Despite the differing views many had of the Mayor at the time, all the messages had a common theme: Coleman Young loved his job and he loved his city. One friend, Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg, used her message to weave a tale of Young’s true love- Detroit. On a day like today, we celebrate Detroit’s storied past. Happy 100th birthday, Mayor Young!