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To say Carmen Harlan was surprised to learn she would be the 2018 recipient of Judge Damon J. Keith’s Soul and Spirit Humanitarian Award would be an understatement.

“I couldn’t believe it when Judge Keith called me, I could not believe it,” she said.

“I’ve attended it over the years and certainly the honoree is someone as well known as Aretha Franklin, (the late Detroit radio personality) Martha Jean McQueen who was on the air for a number of years, you could go down the list ... Governor Jennifer Granholm.

“You’re looking at people who, I mean, I’ve covered them and never considered myself to be in the same category, to be honest.”

Harlan, who retired from WDIV-TV’s anchor desk in 2016, will receive the award Wednesday at the judge’s 31st annual Soul Food Luncheon.

“It’s the year of the woman,” said Keith, senior judge for the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. “She richly deserves it,” he said, adding that it wasn’t him alone who chose Harlan, but a committee.

“We try to select someone from the black community during Black History Month who has done exceptionally well and has made a contribution to the struggle of black people in our city and state.”

Keith, who has served on the federal bench for more than 50 years, said Harlan “exemplifies the success of a black woman who has achieved national fame.”

Judge Keith, Harlan said, has been a close, personal friend of hers for a very long time.

“I trust his judgment, I admire him a great deal, and so I was just honored to think that he felt this was something he wanted to do,” she said.

The 2016 honoree, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Denise Page Hood, will present the award to Harlan.

In recent years the Soul Food Luncheon, which takes place at the U.S. Federal Courthouse each February during Black History Month, has honored Metro Detroit leaders such as Rosa Parks, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Craig Strong, former Mayor Coleman Young and Avis Ford chairman Walter E. Douglas with the Soul and Spirit Humanitarian Award.

Besides the award presentation, the luncheon is, of course, known for serving soul food such as barbecue ribs, chicken, greens and macaroni and cheese.

“It’s a spread,” said the Emmy Award-winning journalist. “Anything you can imagine that you think you might want when it comes to soul food, it’ll be there. Food has a way of bringing people together, certainly you’re much happier when you’ve got a full stomach and you’ve enjoyed your food, so the luncheon is something that those of us who have attended it in the past look forward to.”

Attending the luncheon, Harlan said, is a way to honor all that Judge Keith has done.

“He’s been so instrumental in moving the city forward, speaking on behalf of all people, no matter race or gender, and he’s been active in civil rights all of his life.”

Keith, 95, said it’s important to celebrate black people in groundbreaking roles. He said he attended Detroit schools growing up and graduated from Northwestern High School “and I never had a black teacher.”

“So you can’t take these things for granted when you see someone like Carman Harlan, who has been so successful and just think of the black women that can see her and say ‘Gee, I can achieve this,’ ” Keith said.

At Channel 4, Harlan anchored the 5 and 11 p.m. newscasts for several decades. She started at the station in 1978 as an assignment reporter. She’s a graduate of Mumford High School and the University of Michigan.

In the fall of 2016, she announced her retirement, citing the desire to have more time for her three grandchildren while they’re still young.

Harlan’s not sitting still; she has been traveling back and forth from Detroit to New York working on a major fashion project: an elegant, versatile shirt for women.

“I thought I was retired, but I’ve been anything but,” said the native Detroiter, laughing.

It is called the Carmen Shirt, and she said it is something “every woman needs in her wardrobe.”

Harlan was inspired by a shirt she had that was a comfortable, versatile, go-to piece for those days when you don’t have time to think about your wardrobe. It will come in silk and cotton fabrics and, for now, in a variety of neutral colors.

“I’m a fish-out-of-water,” she said regarding the clothing industry. “On a consumer end, I’m confident buying clothes, but making them is something that I’ve never really had any experience with and so now I’m learning and getting excited about things that I really didn’t get a chance to in the past, and this is allowing me to do that and be very creative.”

Harlan will launch the shirt locally on April 28.

“I think Detroit women will love it.”

mbaetens@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @melodybaetens

Groundbreaker

Name: Carmen Harlan

Title: Retired anchor, WDIV-TV (Channel 4)

Education: Bachelor of Arts, University of Michigan

Family: Andrew Henry Jr., husband; adult children Jessica Hall and Joseph Cobb; three grandsons

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