State unveils Elliott-Larsen Building after shedding Cass name

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Lewis Cass building in Lansing is no more. 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday officially unveiled the new nameplate for the state Department of Health and Human Services building after the two lawmakers who spearheaded the state's non-discrimination law, former State Reps. Daisy Elliott and Mel Larsen. 

The Elliott-Larsen Building marks the first state building named in honor of a Black woman and commemorates Elliott and Larsen's 1976 proposal  that then-Gov. William Milliken signed into law in January 1977. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer stands with Badriyyah Sabree (left), former state Rep. Mel Larsen (right) and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist in front of a sign renaming a Lansing Department of Health and Human Services building after Larsen and Sabree's grandmother, former state Rep. Daisy Elliott on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.

The bipartisan collaboration between Elliott and Larsen is "an important symbol of who we are and what we believe in," said Whitmer, who asked officials to identify buildings that should be renamed during a push for the elimination of Confederate monuments in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minnesota.

Cass, the second governor of the Michigan territory, owned at least one slave and implemented the Indian Removal Act as secretary of war under President Andrew Jackson. As a presidential candidate, Cass supported the idea of letting territories decide whether to adopt slavery. 

Friends of Larsen and Elliott, who died in 2015, were on hand Monday for the unveiling.

Elliott, a native of West Virginia, was one of 11 women and 133 men elected to the Michigan Constitutional Convention in 1961 before serving in the Michigan Legislature for 20 years. 

"She was intellectually brilliant," said her granddaughter Badriyyah Sabree. "She was quiet, but she was a fighter and she could pierce your soul with the words of truth."

In the Legislature, Elliott worked for six years to get a bill passed to prevent housing and employment discrimination based on things like sex, age or marital status. 

Larsen became key to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. 

"If you don't think that I'm proud to have my name up there with her, you belong in another state," Larsen said. "That's one of the proudest things in my life."

Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist touted the change but also pushed for amendments to the law that would include LGBT people as a protected class. Larsen also advocated for the change.

"It is time to update this decades-old law for the 21st century," Gilchrist said.

After the event, Whitmer remarked on the life of another civil rights icon, former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who died Friday. 

President Donald Trump should wait before naming a nominee to take her place, Whitmer said. 

"I think a new protocol was decided four years ago and I think it should be observed," Whitmer said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's refusal in 2016 to confirm President Barack Obama's choice of Merrick Garland ahead of the November election. 

"After that election is when a conversation should get started about who an appointee is and I believe it should be the appointee of whomever wins that election," she said.

Trump said Monday he plans to announce his pick on Friday or Saturday and McConnell has said the Senate will hold a vote on Trump's nominee.