Detroit trailblazer: Retired Oakland County official Denise Langford-Morris keeps on winning

DETROIT – She’s one of Metro Detroit’s true trailblazers.

A career of firsts was punctuated by being the first African-American appointed to the Oakland County Circuit Court. She then became the first Black elected leader countywide in Oakland County.

Denise Langford-Morris kept on winning.

Spending 30 years on the Oakland County Circuit Court bench until she recently retired.

“My dad was the one who wanted to be a lawyer and my dad told me that you could do and be whatever you wanted to be,” she said.  Not only would Victor Langford’s girl become a lawyer, she became the barrier-breaking kind.

The first black prosecutor hired by L. Brooks Patterson. “When I walked in there wasn’t an African American secretary, clerk, boss, lawyer, no one.” It didn’t phase her.

“My parents always had friends of all races and if you met my mother you probably wouldn’t know she’s black, my mother looked like a little old Jewish lady but she was the blackest woman I know and she encouraged us to be welcoming and to know people are people.”

Her mother Plennie’s activism in the 60′s and 70′s made her daughter fearless and empathetic. “She took me to march with Dr. King, she took me to NOW organization meetings in Detroit, to Erma Henderson’s Conference of Concerned Women.”

Before becoming a lawyer, she started in social work. Protecting the elderly and children but knew she could do more.

She enrolled at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. She was so well regarded in Oakland County she got the call from Governor John Engler in 1992. He wanted to appoint her to the Oakland County Circuit Court. The first black judge in the county. “I was welcomed, I knew the judges because I practiced in front of them.” Getting an appointment is one thing, wining an election is another. “I said I am going to win. I’m going to do everything in my power. The governor gave me this opportunity, I’m the first African American in the Oakland County bench and I’m going to win there’s no other option.”

She won her race in 1994 and every race after becoming the first female dean of the Oakland County bench.

Today her portrait hangs on the wall of her alma mater where she graciously donates her time. The students wanted to honor her, not simply because of her career of firsts but all the time and care she has lavished on them.

While her time on the bench has ended, she retired for all of a weekend. She’s using those judicial muscles in a new capacity at JAM the largest private mediation firm in the world. “I feel that I want to work as long as I’m able. I never want to not work. In fact, if you hear I’m not working I want you to come check on me because something is wrong.”

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