The Rev. JoAnn Watson attends a Feb. 24, 2023, press conference announcing Detroit’s new reparations task force at West Side Unity Church. (BridgeDetroit photo by Malachi Barrett)

The Rev. JoAnn Watson, a legendary Detroit activist and political leader with inter-generational reach and impact, has died at the age of 72.

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the NAACP’s Detroit Branch, said he learned of Watson’s death Monday after speaking with her family. Funeral arrangements and opportunities to celebrate Watson’s life and accomplishments are being discussed, he said. Anthony, who has known Watson since they were fourth-graders, has immense pride in his childhood friend and neighbor, saying Watson will be remembered for always standing up for what is right.

“JoAnn was always for many of us, kind of bigger than life,” Anthony said in an interview. “She’s gone physically but she will always be among us spiritually. She was an uncompromising, relentless fighter for freedom, justice and equity. She spoke the unrivaled truth to power – didn’t matter who it was, where it was or when it was.” 

Watson’s decades-long career in public service spanned from Detroit City Council to the United Nations. She was the first woman director of the Detroit NAACP, a pastor at West Side Community Church and lifelong advocate to provide reparations for descendants of slaves.

“I think it was her most important project,” Anthony said of Watson’s reparations advoacy. “Human rights was her life’s work. The repairing of the tearing of Black humanity was certainly a part of that. JoAnn had many other interests as well. If people really want to remember JoAnn Watson, do the work she did.”

Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield acknowledged Watson’s death in a Monday afternoon press release. Sheffield had appointed Watson to help lead the work of Detroit’s inaugural reparations task force earlier this year. 

“Today, God called upon our beloved Mother, the Honorable Rev. Dr. Joann Watson, saying

‘Job well done my faithful servant,’ and she went home to be with the Lord,” Sheffield said.

Fellow Reparations Task Force member Keith Williams, who is also chair of the Michigan Democratic Party’s Black Caucus and a mentee of Watson’s, said it’s important that she lived to see the start of Detroit’s reparations work. Williams said he was inspired and felt validated by Watson throughout his life, calling her a “queen” of the city. Without Watson, Detroit may not have a commitment to redress Black residents for historic discrimination, Williams said. 

“We lost a champion for social justice,” Williams said Monday. “How do you describe JoAnn? She was true to her cause, she loved Black people but more importantly she just wanted this city to work for everybody … The impact she had on Detroit, it’s going to always be there.”

Janis Hazel, a reparations task force member who, like Watson, worked with the late Congressman John Conyers, Jr., said Watson informed the group that she would not attend a July 1 meeting due to illness. Hazel said Watson’s death came as a surprise. 

“She was a fixture in Detroit politics, a professor, activist and mother,” Hazel said. “We will miss her, but her good deeds will speak for her for eternity.”

Watson served on Detroit’s City Council for a decade from 2003 to 2013 and was a fierce water and human rights advocate. She served as a public liaison for Conyers and developed strong community ties as host of the “Wake Up Detroit!” radio and television program. Watson held positions on a variety of boards and community groups, including the Black Legacy Coalition, Detroit Council of Elders and Unity Urban Ministerial School.

“I always knew JoAnn was going to be somebody special,” Anthony said. “She was a great writer, she could speak very well and she was very studious. She used to help me with my homework. She looked at the world and put it in context, in terms of where we fit, and tried to make some sense of that and a difference in it. What she (accomplished) was not surprising.”

In an interview with Detroit Public Television published a month before her death, Watson said she found a passion for activism at the age of 12 when her grandparents took Watson to the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom. Watson said she was mentored by Rosa Parks and they visited reparations conferences together. 

The Rev. Charles Williams, chairman of National Action Network in Michigan and senior pastor of Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, said Watson was much more than a former city legislator, activist and church leader.

“JoAnn Watson was the city of Detroit’s queen mother. We affectionately knew her as The Rev. Queen Mother JoAnn Watson. She was that because her spirit was motherly, yet it would chastise you, yet it would lead you,” he told BridgeDetroit.

“We are so appreciative of knowing that at a time when most of the politicians had succumbed to the writing on the wall in regard to emergency management and bankruptcy, her mind was always with the people,” Williams added. “She was with the pensioners, those who were being disenfranchised by way of their vote being taken away during emergency management, she was with those that suffered poverty and needed relief – she was that voice.”

Williams said Watson supported male leadership and she also outshined it as a model for Black female leaders. 

“As someone who grew up in this city from a boy activist to a man and now a pastor and a community leader, her spirit should forever be with us,” he said. “She was unashamedly Black, unashamedly Christian and a power and a force – you just did not want to be on her bad side.”

Williams said an experience with Watson he’ll never forget unfolded during a holiday weekend dinner at her home with her family. It wasn’t about the music or the food, but the city, the policies and the people and issues that needed to be lifted up, he said. 

“It was a long talk about the future of the city of Detroit and the importance of the next generation of leadership stepping up,” he said. “It was an experience that I will always covet.”

Williams added Watson, a former head of the NAACP, was also a beloved voice on the radio.

“She was up every morning and said, ‘wake up Detroit,’” he said. “We are grateful for her waking us up and we promise we won’t go to sleep and we won’t let her legacy go to sleep.”

Saunteel Jenkins, a former Detroit councilwoman who served one term with Watson, also worked with Watson while on the staff of the late Detroit Council President Maryann Mahaffey.

“She was a large figure in the Black community. Even though our views did not always align, she was always kind to me, proud of me in the work that I did and the way that I did it, Jenkins said. 

“JoAnn was extremely smart. There were often times where people would come up against her politically, they might underestimate her and it proved to be a mistake,” said Jenkins, adding she’d run into Watson just a few weeks ago. 

Watson was among the residents to testify during Detroit’s bankruptcy case about water shutoffs and affordability and was at the forefront of efforts for affordable water before that. 

“She lived long enough to see Detroiters get an affordability plan which was something she fought for the entire time she was on the council,” she said.  

Detroit Councilman Coleman Young II told BridgeDetroit that Watson died Sunday evening, according to relatives. 

“JoAnn Watson was the first person to give me an opportunity. When I first started working for the city, she paid me out of her own funds, as a 23-year-old intern … She took me under her wing. I would not be where I am at if it was not for her,” he said. “She was a trailblazer, she was an innovator, she was an icon. They broke the mold when they made her. Heroes are remembered, but legends are never forgotten. The legend of JoAnn Watson will live on for eternity.

There are so many Black people in this city who would not have, but do have, because of her. I’m just heartbroken. It’s not the same. We just lost an icon,” added Young, who spoke with her recently about reparations and what she wanted to do and how she wanted to pull it together.

“There are so many things we’re taking up now because of her advocacy,” he said. 

Rev. Barry Randolph, pastor at Church of the Messiah, said Watson was an amazing human being and fighter for Detroit. Randolph and Watson were both pastors, civil rights activists and they were longtime friends. He remembered Watson fighting for causes like water rights and affordable housing and always for the average Detroiter, he said. 

“She made sure that they had a voice, making sure they were part of the progression of Detroit and the movement of Detroit, never leaving a single person behind,” he said. 

Micah Walker contributed to this report

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  1. Ms Waston help my family doing the lost of my son. Getting his belonging was very hard I contact ed MsWaston one day later the police chief office call me to come to the chief office and everything was release to me Ms Watson because a friend always taking with me if she attend a afscme union event she will be missed .thank u Ms Waston….peace. Earl Blackshear and family.

  2. The Honorable Rev. JoAnn Watson worked with Rev. Lucius Walker in the Anti-Klan Network and bringing to fruition the opportunity for youth from underserved communities to become first rate debt free doctors through scholarships to the prestigious Latin American School of Medicine offered by Cuba’s historic leader Fidel Castro — a scholarship still available that has graduated 200+ US students who are working in underserved communities coast to coast including Detroit. We love you JoAnn Watson the rock and powerful voice for us all.

  3. Long Live the Life, Love and Legacy of Our Freedom Fighter Sister, Friend and Colleague.
    The Rev. Dr. Joann Watson work was bar none!
    She can be modeled, but never replaced!
    My heart is heavy to hear of this great loss, but I shall forever cherish the memories we made on the struggle for justice and equality!!!
    God Bless and Keep all of Rev.Joanns loved ones as the Struggle Continues!
    Bishop Cheryl Myhand

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