Donald Robinson, Detroit’s first black fire marshal, dead at 89


Donald Robinson, one of Detroit’s first black firefighters and the city’s first black fire marshal, has died. He was 89 years old.

Robinson died on Jan.6 at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, where he was admitted after falling ill on Dec.22, his daughter, Donna Robinson Milhouse, a judge of the 36th District Court, said.

Milhouse described his father as a hard worker who was dedicated to his family, loved the arts, and was a longtime champion for the city of Detroit.

“He loved his family and always said it and showed it,” said Milhouse, the eldest of Robinson’s three children. “As a father he supported whatever we wanted to do and he never saw limits to what we could accomplish. He also echoed this sentiment in his way of seeing art and his city. He really appreciated the beauty of the things around him and he didn’t approve of the labels, especially the negative labels on Detroit.

Robinson, the eldest of four children of Irene and Alvin Robinson Sr., grew up in Detroit’s Brewster Projects at 556 Erskine St, she said.

“A lot of people his age are transplant recipients, but he was born here and raised in (historic) Ebenezer AME church,” Milhouse said. Plus, he worked for the city government, so there was that extra level of connection. We would be on summer vacation in Mississippi and he would take phone calls from the fire department. Detroit was what he had known since. the start and he loved living in the city.

Donald Robinson owns works of art he created when he was a student at Cass Technical High School.

Born in 1932, Robinson graduated from Cass Technical High School. Subsequently, he attended Wayne University, which is now Wayne State University. At Cass and Wayne, Robinson excelled at art, as he shared with Free Press in an article published in 2021.

“Throughout school, I was always able to impress any art teacher I had because I could do whatever they could,” said Robinson. “But finding a job in the field as a young black man back then in this field was more difficult.”

Donald Robinson, as he recalls, was the 16th African American to join the Detroit Fire Department when he was hired in 1956. He would become a Fire Inspector and on September 5, 1974, he was appointed Fire Marshal. fires by Mayor Coleman.  A young

Seeking stable employment that would allow him to support a family, Robinson joined the Detroit Fire Department in 1956. Robinson told the Free Press that he was, in his memory, the 16th Black hired in the service. He said the highlight of his career came on September 5, 1974, when he was appointed Fire Marshal by Mayor Coleman A. Young, which Robinson said made him the first black to hold this position in a large city. He will serve as Fire Marshal for 18 years before his retirement.

Donald Robinson, as he recalls, was the 16th African American to join the Detroit Fire Department when he was hired in 1956. He would become a Fire Inspector and on September 5, 1974, he was appointed Fire Marshal. fires by Mayor Coleman.  A young

“The fire department was exciting, it was providing security, and I think by the time I joined the service there was some pressure from the larger black community to find out where the black firefighters were. ? “Said Robinson.

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Milhouse remembers how his father stayed connected to the arts, even during his career with the fire department. And that connection to the arts included joining the Brazeal Dennard Chorale with his wife Barbara, whom he married in 1958.

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Being a member of the Brazeal Dennard Chorale meant being part of one of the oldest African-American choral groups in the country. Robinson would later become the executive director of the Choir. He helped expose the group to a wider audience, including an appearance at the 2012 World Choir Games in Cincinnati, where the choir won a gold medal in the spiritual music competition and a silver medal in the music category. mixed room.

“Dad was so involved and engaged with the Choir, I believe, because he was always teaching history and he felt the Negro Spirituals were a very important part of our history,” said Milhouse. “He always wanted to promote the strength that comes from our history, our culture and our art. ”

Robinson is survived by his wife, Barbara; children Donna Robinson Milhouse, Donald (Chris) Robinson and Anthony Robinson; grandchildren Justin Milhouse, Natalie Milhouse, Jasmine Spivey, Jessica Gray and Anthony Robinson; and one great-grandchild Kinsley Spivey.

Donald Robinson’s grandson, Justin Milhouse, a Detroit-based photographer, provided the photos published with the Free Press article about his grandfather in 2021. After Donald Robinson’s death, Justin Milhouse described the link artistic he maintained with his grandfather.

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Donald Robinson and his grandson Justin W. Milhouse.

“When I think of my grandfather, these words come to mind: ‘humility’, ‘family’, ‘art’, ‘Detroit’, ‘black pride’, ‘love’, ‘ compassion, “” music, “drama,” “travel,” “humor,” “education” and “inspiration,” “Justin Milhouse said in a written statement. “His energy is love and we’ve done everything we were supposed to do in this life and I’m really grateful to him for that.

“His last words to me regarding my art were, ‘I have no words’ and we were both tearful and overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. Grandpa, you haven’t finished teaching and I haven’t finished learning. ”


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