Garrett, Joyce F.

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Joyce F. Garrett


Government official

Joyce Finley Garrett blazed a trail in the United States State Department when, in 1962, she became the first female African-American foreign service officer. Her service as Vice Consul in Caracas, Venezuela, was brief in comparison to her later decades-long career in various levels of Michigan state government, but it signaled a key attribute of Garrett's career success: her drive. Garrett summed up her attitude for Marian Dozier of the Detroit Free Press in 1991, saying "I don't like people telling me what I can't do." Her frustration at being told that a woman—let alone a woman of color—would not be hired into the U.S. Foreign Service, sparked a fire in Garrett. For the entirety of her career, Garrett refused to "kowtow to someone else's standards," as she put it to Dozier.

Garrett was born Joyce Finley on August 16, 1931, in Detroit, Michigan. Her parents, Thomas A. Finley and Mary Fleming, divorced while she was very young. An only child, Garrett was raised for a short time by her mother in Detroit. But her mother traveled a great deal and Garrett moved to Cleveland, Ohio, at about age eight to live with her father's sister, Grace, and her husband Rodger Price. Garrett's mother agreed to part with her daughter because she hoped the Prices, who had recently lost their own daughter, could better provide for Garrett with their higher income.

A bright child, Garrett took full advantage of all that Cleveland and the Price family offered. Garrett achieved academic success, taking part in a gifted child program in the Cleveland public school system. Moreover, she became active in extracurricular activities such as editing her high school yearbook and serving as president of the student Council on Foreign Affairs. Outside school, Garrett studied French and Spanish, and piano. On her own time, Garrett devoured books. She had fond memories of summers spent at an uncle's home near South Haven, Michigan, swimming and "reading my way through the library that had come with the house," as she recalled to the Michigan Chronicle. Garrett's grandmother, Mary Griffin, remembered her to the Detroit Free Press in 1983 as a "very brilliant little girl, very determined."

Garrett's achievement in school primed her for success. After high school, Garrett gained entrance to Smith College, a prestigious women's university in North-hampton, Massachusetts. Garrett stood out as one of only a handful of black students in a student body of over 2,000 women, but even more as an intelligent, engaged student. She nurtured her interest in foreign affairs and developed a fluency in both French and Spanish. She spent her junior year studying in Geneva, Switzerland. She graduated cum laude in 1953, becoming the first college graduate in her family. Her achievement was greeted with a mix of emotions. Her mother recalled Finley's disappointment in her college graduation to the Detroit Free Press, saying "Not for her, it wasn't special. It would have been magna cum laude if she hadn't fallen in love." Instead of pursuing her interest in furthering her education in political science or law school, Garrett married Nathan Taylor Garrett on June 9, 1953, in New York City. Nathan Garrett had graduated from Yale University the previous year and worked as a certified public accountant. The couple had one daughter, and moved over the next years from New York, to Columbia, South Carolina, and then by the mid-1950s to Detroit, where Joyce Garrett's mother and grandmother still lived. In Detroit, both Joyce and Nathan Garrett enrolled in graduate study at Wayne State University. Their marriage suffered, and they divorced in July 1957. Joyce Garrett then raised her daughter as a single mother.

While working for Wayne County government as a personnel technician from 1956 to 1961, Garrett refocused her career aspirations. Remembering her interest in foreign affairs, Garrett trained for the foreign service exam. While in high school, Garrett had been impressed with Soviet Ambassador Andrei Gromyko during a visit at a United Nations session in New York City. But in college, Garrett had been discouraged by one of her professors who had told her that a black woman would never be accepted into the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service. Discouragement did not sit well with Garrett. "Injustice has always aroused my energies—whether it be based on race, sex, or social class," Garrett related to De Witt Dykes in Notable Black American Women.

Soon after passing the foreign service examination, Garrett became the first African-American female foreign service officer. After a period working in Washington, D.C., Garrett moved with her daughter to Caracas, Venezuela, in 1962, where Garrett served as vice consul. After a year, Garrett left the foreign service to return to Detroit. Her decision haunted her, as she had left her job to pursue a romantic relationship that did not work out. "She would have been a wonderful diplomat. She speaks three languages, and she has the grace and the charm and the political knowledge and the history and all those talents. I think she would have enjoyed using that very much, and she didn't use it," a friend of Garrett's told Diane Haithman of the Detroit Free Press in 1983.

Garrett's legacy as a strong, independent woman only grew in Detroit, where Garrett soon returned her attention to her career. She completed her master's degree in political science in 1966 from Wayne State University. She furthered her education into the 1970s with courses toward a doctorate at Wayne State and law classes at the University of Michigan School of Law. Garrett moved from positions in Wayne County government to Oakland Community College before becoming assistant director of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 1967.

As Garrett was taking on more and more influential positions in Michigan, she became acquainted with Coleman Young, then a state senator. The two became companions in 1968. Their relationship became widely recognized in Michigan, as Garrett and Young both pursued life in the public eye. Garrett ran for public office as Wayne County commissioner in 1967 and 1972, and for the Wayne County Charter Commission in 1968. She lost all three elections. Young won election as the first black mayor of Detroit in 1973, and Garrett became the unofficial first lady of Detroit, joining Young at celebrations and acting as hostess at functions at the mayoral mansion.

At a Glance …

Born Joyce Finley on August 16, 1931, in Detroit, MI; died on September 27, 1997, in Bloomfield Hills, MI; children: Andrea (changed name to Shahida Mausi at age seventeen). Education: Smith College, AB, 1953; Wayne State University, MA, 1966; Foreign Service Institute, 1962.

Career: Wayne County Civil Service Commission, personnel technician, 1956–61; US Department of State, Washington, DC, and Caracas, Venezuela, foreign service officer, 1962; Wayne County Civil Service Commission, personnel technician II, 1963–1964; Mayor's Youth Employment Project, City of Detroit, job development placement specialist, 1964–1965; Oakland Community College, Michigan, personnel administrator, 1965–1967; Michigan Civil Rights Commission, assistant director, 1967–1969; Wayne County Office of Human Relations, director, 1969–1974; Wayne County Community College, part-time political science instructor, 1969–1974(?); Detroit Bicentennial Commission, executive director, 1974–77; Detroit News, columnist, 1978; Department of Public Information, director, 1978–83; City of Detroit, personnel director, 1983–93.

Selected memberships: American Association of University Women; League of Women Voters; NAACP; and National Council of Negro Women.

Selected awards: Women of Wayne Headliner, 1972; Spirit of Detroit Award, 1974.

Garrett was much more than Young's companion; she had ambitions of her own. In 1969 Garrett became the first female department head in Wayne County government when she was appointed director of the Wayne County Office of Human Relations. Her continued work in public service during Young's administration brought scrutiny of her credentials. When she was appointed executive director of the Detroit Bicentennial Commission in 1974, for example, her appointment was questioned because of her close relationship with the mayor. Nevertheless Garrett headed the Commission for the next four years, and coordinated the events of Detroit's 200th anniversary celebration of the American Revolution.

When Young prepared to run for a second term of office, Garrett left her government work as the election neared. She wrote a column for the Detroit News for a period in 1978 and started her own public relations firm before Young appointed Garrett director of the Detroit Department of Public Information later that year. Her work in government drew criticism, especially when she worked as unofficial press secretary for the mayor from 1980 to 1983. Despite widespread acknowledgement of Garrett's considerable talents and exemplary credentials, Detroit News columnist June Brown pointed to the difficulties Young and Garrett had as an example for elected officials to "separate all personal relationships from public business."

Though Garrett and Young ended their romantic relationship in 1980, Garrett and Young remained close and she worked in his administration until he retired in 1993. Young appointed Garrett Director of the City of Detroit's Personnel Department in 1983. The job, which she held for the next decade, removed Garrett "from the political limelight," as Haithman put it.

Though Garrett's personal life faded from the public eye, she did not diminish her work contributing to her community. She was an active member of such organizations as the American Association of University Women, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, and the National Council of Negro Women. She served on the boards the Bank of the Commonwealth, of the Founder's Society of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and of the Museum of African American History. Garrett also had been in 1971 the first black elected as a member of the Smith College Alumnae Governing Board; had served as the Vice Chair of the Metropolitan Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau; and participated in the activities of the Democratic Party of Michigan.

For years, Garrett struggled privately with Behcet's syndrome, a chronic inflammatory disease. In the late summer of 1997, Garrett's health had deteriorated so much that she moved into a nursing home for care. She died on September 27, 1997. Hearing of her death, Young remarked in the Detroit Free Press that Garrett would be remembered as a "truly remarkable woman whose strong intellect and unwavering spirits will have a lasting impact on Detroit."



Living Legends in Black: An Official Project of the Detroit Bicentennial Commission, Bailey Publishing, 1976, p. 66.

Notable Black American Women, Book 3, Gale Group, 2002.


Detroit Free Press, April 1, 1977, pp. 3A, 6A; November 9, 1978, pp. 1A, 19A; November 19, 1978, pp. 1A, 19A; June 23, 1983, pp. B 1, 2.

Detroit, the Magazine of the Detroit Free Press, September 14, 1975, pp. 8 ff.

Detroit News, November 7, 1973, p. 3A; August 25, 1974, p. 14; January 30, 1977, pp. 3A, 12A; August 2, 1983, p. C1; November 9, 1978, p. 2B; September 30, 1997, p. C2.

Ebony, October 1962, p. 70.

Essence, September 1974, pp. 20, 22.

Jet, April 4, 1974, p. 30.

Michigan Chronicle, May 13, 1967; July 10, 1971; May 7, 1983, p. B7.