Former US Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins of Detroit dies after bout with COVID-19

Detroit — Longtime community activist and former Detroit congresswoman Barbara-Rose Collins died after contracting COVID-19, her family confirmed Thursday. She was 82.

"She lived her whole life in the same neighborhood, same house she was born in, on the lower east side," said her son, Christopher Collins, 51. "That says a lot about a person."

Collins said his mother had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine but still fell ill. She had been hospitalized for days before dying at about 2 a.m. Thursday, he said.

Councilwoman  Barbara-Rose Collins attends a council meeting at the City-County Building in Detroit on Feb. 5, 2008. The longtime community activist and Detroit congresswoman died at the age of 82, her family announced in a statement on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.

Barbara-Rose Collins was the first Black woman from Michigan elected to Congress.

Her political career started 50 years ago, in 1971 at age 32, Collins first ran for elected office, a seat on the Detroit Board of Education. 

In 1974, she ran for a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives and won. She served for three terms.

Collins wanted to pursue a congressional run in 1980, according to her congressional biography, but was talked out of it by her mentor, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, who thought a City Council run would be better.

Collins listened, and in 1981, was one of three new members elected to Detroit's council.

After putting her congressional dream on hold for nearly a decade, Collins successfully ran in 1990 to represent Detroit in the U.S. House. 

"Queen Mother Barbara-Rose inspired the next generation of Black men and women to aspire to a career in public service," said City Council President Brenda Jones. "First as a school board member, later a state representative and then on to city council — one would have thought that would be enough. But no, Barbara-Rose’s vision carried her to the top, breaking barriers along the way."

During her time on Capitol Hill, Collins was appointed the majority whip-at-large. She touted legislation on sexual harassment laws, equal pensions for women and helping to bring the Neighborhood Enterprise Zones to Detroit.

A member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus, she also was on the Public Works and Transportation Committee; the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families; and Government Operations as well as the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, according to her biography.

Collins urged farmers to address deficiencies in food with donations to urban food banks and opposed President Bill Clinton’s crime bill, "which she viewed as an attack on Black men in particular," her family said in a statement.

She was arrested while protesting with congressional colleagues for the rights of Haitian refugees outside the White House in 1994. The next year, Collins worked with other Detroit leaders to support the Million Man March, where she was a speaker, her family said.

Adolph Mongo, a longtime Detroit politico, was Collins' district manager for a time when she was in Congress. He called his late boss a "bad mamma jamma."

South African President Nelson Mandela gestures after a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus on Oct. 4, 1994, on Capitol Hill. From left are Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins, D-Mich., Mandela, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md., chairman of the caucus.

Mongo said that Collins' rise, from single motherhood to the school board to the Detroit City Council to Congress, inspired a generation of Detroiters and showed what was possible. 

But when people say she was all smiles, Mongo said, don't believe it. She took her work seriously.

Mongo noted that Collins played a major role in the printing of expiration dates on grocery products.

"She was a tough person to deal with. She demanded perfection," Mongo said. "She could dish it out, and she could take it."

Christopher Collins called his mother a "trailblazer" and noted that long before Juneteenth became a holiday in 2020, she was the first to push for it.

Other reaction from friends and colleagues poured in Thursday evening.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said on social media that in 2018, she honored Collins with the Shirley Chisholm "Unbought and Unbossed" award, named for another Black woman trailblazer in Congress.

"She was a lifelong fighter for her communities, and she will be sorely missed," Lawrence said. 

Coleman Young II, who on Tuesday won an at-large seat on the Detroit City Council, counted Collins as a mentor. She was also a former boss.

"Everything she touched increased and multiplied in value," Young said Thursday. "The world is a little more empty and a little less light."

The Michigan Democratic Party noted Collins' "contributions to bettering Detroit and Michigan will not be forgotten."

Longtime community activist and Detroit Congresswoman Barbara-Rose Collins, seen here campaigning for congress on Aug. 9, 1990, died at the age of 82, her family announced in a statement on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. Collins was elected to the U.S. House in 1990, becoming the first Black woman from Michigan elected to Congress.

Collins was born Barbara Rose Richardson on April 13, 1939.

She graduated from Cass Technical High School and then Wayne State, where she studied political science and anthropology before pursuing a career in politics.

"After attending a historic speech at the Shrine of the Black Madonna Church, a torchlight was ignited by Stokely Carmichael’s oratory, leading her to not only join the Shrine, but to dedicating herself to the grassroots movement and the liberation of Black people," her family said Thursday. 

During her first stint on the City Council, she initiated ordinances on South African divestiture, toxic-waste cleanup and single-room occupancy for the homeless.

While in Congress, she launched an annual forum on black families, The News reported.

"She was a strong advocate for the Black diaspora, due to her grassroots background and spirit of advocacy," Jones said. "As a member of the Shrine of the Black Madonna church, the Queen Mother often led community and national efforts to bring justice and fight for civil and human rights."

Alisha Bell, the Wayne County Commission chair, called the former lawmaker "a role model and source of inspiration for a generation of young women who chose to pursue public office."

"She had a remarkable career, boldly serving Detroit on the City Council and as a representative in the Michigan House of Representatives and in Congress,” Bell said.

Her time in the spotlight wasn't without controversy.

The Detroit Democrat faced criticism for missed votes in Congress, firing an aide whose partner died of AIDS and spending irregularities.

The U.S. Justice Department and House Ethics Committee was investigating her on claims of misuse of office, campaign and scholarship funds when she lost a reelection bid in 1996 to Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick in the Democratic primary.

Shortly after her tenure ended in January 1997, the ethics committee took no action beyond issuing a statement of alleged violations against Collins because voters had dismissed her and the group had run out of time before the 104th Congress ended, The News reported.

Collins denied wrongdoing. 

She was again elected to the Detroit City Council in 2001 for another stint, reelected in 2005 and retired in 2009.

Collins earned praise for championing the downtrodden, but scrutiny for behavior some considered unusual. She wore tiaras on her birthday, sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" in the council chambers and likened the transfer of city-owned Cobo Center to imperialism.

Jones, the council president, recalled how Collins told her: “ 'Baby, you remind me of me when I was that age.' We formed a bond and found many common areas of agreement over the years." 

Young said Collins hired him as a legislative analyst when she was on the council.

"She was someone who lifted up other people," he said. 

Former Councilwoman JoAnn Watson said she taught her English class at Wayne County Community College District with a heavy heart Thursday night, knowing that her friend and former council colleague was gone.

Watson recalled Collins’s 80th birthday party at Bert’s in Eastern Market with hundreds of guests.

“She loved Detroit. Loved, loved, loved, loved Detroit. She loved spending time at Belle Isle. Lived in the same house all her life. Detroit has suffered a loss as she’s joined the ancestors,” Watson said.

Ken Cockrel Jr., who formerly served as Detroit mayor and City Council president, also served with Collins for eight years on the council. He said she was spectacular to work with. “This is a big loss,” Cockrel said Thursday. 

Cockrel said he admired her skill and the ability to debate on policy, even if it turned bitter. 

“You could get into a floor fight with her, but she would then invite you to her house a few days later. She always understood that it was business and never personal,” he said. 

“I think to some extent, that was the era she grew up in, and I don’t know that exists anymore.”