A People’s College: The Untold Story of Wayne State University’s Founder
A Corktown educator, a college for immigrants, and a successful push to preserve David Mackenzie’s home.
This piece was originally published in 1979 in Michigan History by Preservation Detroit’s co-founder, Allen Wallace, then a student at Wayne State. It has been lightly edited.
David Mackenzie was born in 1860 of Scottish parents in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.
After graduating from the University of Michigan and spending time as an educator across the state, Mackenzie was called back to Detroit by the resignation of former Central High School principal, James Beazell. Beazell’s resignation brought forth prophecies of doom for Central High. Mackenzie’s distinguished reputation as an educator brought him to the attention of the Detroit School Board, and he was successfully persuaded into accepting the post as principal of Central High. Mackenzie quickly won the admiration and respect of his students and faculty through dedication, scholarship and refusal to allow anything, including politics, to distract him from his purpose.
Under Mackenzie Central High flourished and grew. Louise Potter, a former associate of Mackenzie, recalled, “the dozens of cases … (of) parents fighting to get their children into Central, because they felt it was the place of opportunity, a place where their children would really learn.”
The clamor to get into Central High School was the result of Mackenzie and his excellent faculty. Mackenzie’s ability as a scholar armed him with a storehouse of knowledge that he used to test the competency of his teachers. Henry L. Caulkins, a 1915 graduate of Central High, recalled to the author the impression Mackenzie and his faculty made upon him. “He was a great scholar, a great educator, a marvelous person …. It was his ability to surround himself with an outstanding group of teachers that made Central in those days the Number One in the Nation. They were dedicated people who not only taught us but they became a part of us and their influence was felt throughout our lives.”
Mackenzie’s dedication to the education and development of his students did not end with their graduation from Central. Each year Mackenzie would dig into his own pocket to help one or two students from the graduating class finance their college education. All Mackenzie asked in return was that they repay it if they could so that the funds would be replenished and made available for another student.
Lee White, formerly of the Detroit News, was one of the first of Central’s students so selected by Mackenzie. When White graduated from Central in 1906 Mackenzie asked him what he intended to do in the autumn. White responded that he was going to sell aluminum ware in the Upper Peninsula during the summer to earn money to start college in the fall. It turned out that White’s ambitions were not fruitful and after he had paid the expenses of his summer job had very little money left for tuition. Remembering that Mackenzie told him to come and see him if things did not go according to his plans, White paid a visit to Mackenzie’s office. Mackenzie asked how much it would cost to go to the college he planned to attend and White said $250. Mackenzie then asked if he would prefer it in a lump sum or would he like to receive a monthly check. Assuming that Mackenzie was referring to a job at which he could earn the $250, White was stunned when Mackenzie said if he wanted to pay it back there would be no interest.
“A People’s College”
Mackenzie’s deep interest in the lives of his students was what led to the founding of the junior college at Central. In 1913 Mackenzie polled his students and found that 30 of them wished to continue their education but could not afford the expense of attending a distant college. Mackenzie felt that many a gifted Detroit student would be lost unless higher training could be provided closer to home and less expensive than in Ann Arbor.
Mackenzie immediately set to work forming a junior college which opened its doors in 1915 with 33 students. Established as a department at Central High under the Detroit School Board it was required that classes be free of charge and open to all high school graduates. The junior college shared the Central High building with the high school, and Mackenzie assumed administrative responsibilities of both departments.
After one year the enrollment rose to 100 students, and in 1917 the Michigan legislature authorized the Detroit Junior College with Mackenzie named as dean. Mackenzie’s encouragement of the junior college movement resulted in his election as first president of the American Association of Junior Colleges in 1920.
Over the next few years the popularity of the Detroit Junior College grew. By 1920 the enrollment had reached 700, which combined with the students attending the night sessions, gave a total of 1,000 students. Mackenzie recognized the need to expand the College further and began petitioning the State Legislature to raise the school to full, four-year collegiate status.
It was a jubilant day in 1923 when Mackenzie’s hard work and persistence resulted in the elevation of the Junior College to the four-year collegiate level. With the new status the name of the College was changed to the College of the City of Detroit, and David Mackenzie was fittingly named its first dean. Newman Ertell, member of the first graduating class of 1925 and later associate professor and coach, remembers the day: “The enthusiastic response to the announcement could not be contained and classes broke with the students lifting Assistant Dean Darnell and School Registrar Bedwick onto their shoulders in jovial celebration.
“We gathered in front of Mackenzie’s home and Dean Mackenzie came out on the porch and gave us an impromptu but rousing speech. We all left feeling elated.’’
For the rest of his life the administration of his college would occupy the majority of Dean Mackenzie’s time. Wayne State University’s School of Pharmacy was founded by Dean Mackenzie and Frank Cody in 1924, and in 1925 Mackenzie officiated at the ceremonies of the first graduating class of the College of the City of Detroit.
Mackenzie’s College of the City of Detroit was the nucleus around which a number of other independent Detroit schools attached themselves. In the early thirties the Detroit City Law School, Detroit Teacher’s College and Detroit College of Medicine moved in with Mackenzie’s City College, and the name was pluralized to the Colleges of the City of Detroit.
In 1933 the colleges merged to form a municipal university which was given the title of Wayne University in 1934. The University underwent a final name change in 1956 when the State of Michigan assumed operation of the school, thereafter to be known as Wayne State University.
Dean Mackenzie was a humanitarian and perhaps one of the greatest scholars in the history of Wayne’s administration, attributes that Louise Potter saw as decided advantages in Mackenzie’s position.
“Central was so located,” said Potter, “that Mackenzie could see earlier than some others in Detroit the wave of immigration that hit Detroit right after the first World War. He talked with hundreds of these foreign parents in their own tongue which eased them and made them feel here was a man, a scholar, and one who did not look down upon them because they knew no English. He made them feel a pride in their origins and, again, they were bound to him for life.
Albertus Darnell, Mackenzie’s assistant dean, felt that Mackenzie had no parallel as an educator, saying:
“I never knew any man who could win the confidence of young people so quickly and completely … this quality and his vision as an educator, coupled with his ambitions for the growth and progress of the college were the main reasons … for his great success in building up the college ….”
In his educational undertakings and his endeavor to expand his college Mackenzie worked beyond his strength. In June of 1926 Dean Mackenzie came down with influenza and retired to his home to convalesce.
Don S. Miller, faculty member at City College and later Wayne University Associate Dean, was one of the last of the Dean’s faculty to see him alive. “I shall never forget the last time I saw Dean Mackenzie,” recalled Miller. “I was working rather late in my laboratory after everyone else had gone when he appeared in the doorway, looked all about the room, spoke to me very kindly and then walked away. Shortly afterwards I walked through one of the corridors and I saw him walking slowly through the halls looking intently at everything he passed. As I approached and passed him he spoke to me again and said, ‘Beautiful old building, isn’t it?’ The next day he was absent from his office, and in fact he never returned to it.”
Dean Mackenzie died at his home on July 16, 1926. At the time of his death the enrollment of his college had risen from 100 students in 1917 to almost 2,000 in 1926. Said Don S. Miller:
“He wanted City College to become a people’s college in the sense that he wanted no exclusiveness. He wanted to open its doors as an opportunity to those who couldn’t otherwise have gone to college … By letting City College grow naturally, offering what it could, letting it grow as needs developed he left a monument for all time in his beloved Detroit.”
A Queen Anne in Detroit
The David Mackenzie House is the work of Malcomson & Higginbotham and was originally built for Detroit banker Frank H. Blackman. It is today known as the home of David Mackenzie who first occupied it in 1906. Mackenzie’s position at Central High and the College of the City of Detroit made him a familiar figure in the neighborhood, and the early campus social life centered around the Mackenzie home with the doors always open to students and faculty.
Equally competent working on a small scale, Malcomson & Higginbotham created a charming 3-story residence. Of Queen Anne design, the building is made up of a combination of architectural stylistic elements. Georgian elliptical and Palladian windows, Roman festoons and a Romanesque engaged turret. The whole is unified by a stately balustraded classical porch and topped by a steeply pitched, hipped slate roof. The exterior is further enhanced by the carved oak front door with beveled glass and bead and reel moldings that highlight the door and window openings.
After passing through the tiled vestibule one is greeted by the warmth of the oak woodwork in the front stair hall. Although not a lavish home, the Mackenzie House has a generous amount of woodwork that is fashioned into carved oak fireplaces and wainscoting, oak ceiling beams and sliding double doors and two rooms of exquisite, rare bird’s-eye maple.
Guests were received in the front parlor where they could enjoy the comfort of the pastel tiled and carved oak fireplace. On a sunny day the curved bay set in the circle of turret provided a bright spot for afternoon callers.
The second floor sleeping quarters consist of the Mackenzie’s three-room suite, as well as two guest bedrooms. The servants’ quarters and stairs are located at the rear of the house above the kitchen.
The room of greatest historical importance and the one most associated with David Mackenzie is his oak paneled library. Here he conducted the after-school business of Central High, received visiting educators and dignitaries, and sought relaxation in his many scholarly pursuits. Mackenzie was renowned as a Classical scholar who spoke several languages along with Greek and Latin. He never failed to amaze his students and faculty with the facility with which he could read and write Sanskrit. With his knowledge and keen interest in the world he delved into a variety of scholarly activities, inviting interesting intellectual figures to his home. He might entertain a Hindu on one occasion and, perhaps, a stimulating author on the next.
Most importantly it was in the library at his residence that Mackenzie met with then Superintendent of Schools Frank Cody and other City educators to plan the formation of his junior college. It was here that the groundwork was laid which would realize Mackenzie’s vision of a college for Detroit’s students; the school which would become today’s Wayne State University.
Preserving Mackenzie House
Preservation Wayne [Ed. Note: Now Preservation Detroit] has led the efforts to preserve and restore the home of David Mackenzie on the Wayne State University campus. Since its formation in 1975 as a student organization, Preservation Wayne has attracted members from diverse backgrounds. Students, alumni and community people, many of whom work in neighboring cultural center institutions, have joined in historic research, documentation, educational and technical activities with the expressed purpose of enlightening the public as to the value and adaptive reuse potential of historic buildings.
When Wayne State announced in 1977 that the home of David Mackenzie would be demolished to make way for a sewer line to service a University apartment project, Preservation Wayne concentrated its efforts on convincing the University of the historic importance of the building to Wayne’s early history and growth. After intense negotiations with the University and together with the support of many civic leaders and community people, Preservation Wayne won a one-year reprieve on demolition from the Wayne State Board of Governors (BOG). Preservation Wayne volunteered to shoulder the fundraising drive, shifting gears to take on the task of raising the estimated $135,000 needed to restore the neglected and now vacant building.
One year later, a consultant service grant from the National Trust had been secured together with a donation of architectural services by a local architect, and a new tenant was identified in the form of the recently organized University Cultural Center Association [Ed. Note: Now Midtown Detroit, Inc.].
The BOG, responding to the momentum and dedication of the preservation campaign, officially endorsed the Mackenzie House Restoration Project in July of 1978.
Preservation Wayne’s ongoing drive to restore the Mackenzie House was recently rewarded with a $60,000 matching Federal Grant-In-Aid for Historic Preservation awarded by the Department of State’s Michigan History Division.
Determined to see the Mackenzie House successfully restored, Preservation Wayne is increasing its fundraising while continuing its efforts to make the preservation and reuse of historic buildings in the University area a key part of the renaissance of Detroit.