COLLINS, Barbara-Rose

COLLINS, Barbara-Rose
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1939–

Biography

A longtime community activist and single mother, Barbara-Rose Collins was elected to Congress in 1990 on a platform to bring federal dollars and social aid to her economically depressed neighborhood in downtown Detroit. In the House, Collins focused on her lifelong advocacy for minority rights and on ensuring that Black families and Black communities had the resources and opportunities they needed to thrive.

The eldest of four children of Lamar Nathaniel and Lou Versa Jones Richardson, Barbara Rose Richardson was born in Detroit, Michigan, on April 13, 1939. Her father worked as an auto manufacturer and later as an independent contractor in home improvement. Barbara Richardson graduated from Cass Technical High School in 1957 and attended Detroit’s Wayne State University majoring in political science and anthropology. Richardson left college to marry her classmate, Virgil Gary Collins, who later worked as a pharmaceutical salesman; they had two children: Cynthia and Christopher.1 In 1960 the couple divorced, and, as a single mother, Barbara Collins had to work multiple jobs. She received public financial assistance until the physics department at Wayne State University hired her as a business manager, a position she held for nine years. Collins subsequently became an assistant in the office of equal opportunity and neighborhood relations at Wayne State. In the late 1960s, Collins heard a speech by Black activist Stokely Carmichael at Detroit’s Shrine of the Black Madonna Church. Inspired by Carmichael’s Black Power philosophy and community activism, Collins purchased a house within a block of her childhood home and joined the Shrine Church, whose agenda focused on uplifting Black neighborhoods. In 1971 Collins was elected to Detroit’s region one school board, earning widespread recognition for her work on school safety and academic achievement. Encouraged by the Shrine Church pastor, Collins campaigned for a seat in the state legislature in 1974, hyphenating her name, Barbara-Rose, to distinguish herself from the other candidates.2 Victorious, she embarked on a six-year career in the state house. Collins chaired the constitutional revision and women’s rights committee, which produced Women in the Legislative Process, the first published report to document the status of women in the Michigan state legislature.3

Bolstered by her work in Detroit’s most underserved neighborhoods, Collins considered running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1980 against embattled downtown Representative Charles Coles Diggs Jr.; however, Collins’s mentor Detroit Mayor Coleman Young advised her to run for Detroit city council instead, and she did successfully.4 Eight years later in the Democratic primary, she challenged incumbent U.S. Representative George William Crockett Jr., who had succeeded Diggs. In a hard-fought campaign, Collins held the respected, but aging, Crockett to a narrow victory with less than 49 percent of the vote. Crockett chose not to run for re-election in 1990, leaving the seat wide open for Barbara-Rose Collins. Collins’s 1990 campaign focused on bringing federal money to Detroit, an economically depressed and segregated city. Her district’s rapidly rising crime rate (one of the highest in the nation) also affected the candidate.5 In 1989 Collins’s son was convicted of armed robbery, and she concluded that he got into legal trouble because he lacked a strong male role model. “I could teach a girl how to be a woman, but I could not teach a boy how to be a man,” she later told the Detroit Free Press.6 Drawing from this experience, Collins promised to pursue legislation to support Black families, rallying under the banner “Save the Black Male.” In a crowded field of eight candidates, Collins won her primary with 34 percent of the vote, a victory that amounted to election to Congress in the overwhelmingly Democratic district. Collins sailed through the general election with 80 percent of the vote and was re-elected twice with even higher percentages.7

One of three Black women in her freshman class, Collins sought the influence and counsel of longtime Michigan Representative John David Dingell Jr., who helped her gain a seat on the Public Works and Transportation Committee (later Transportation and Infrastructure).8 She also received assignments to the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. She later traded these two panels for Government Operations (later named Government Reform and Oversight) and the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, where she chaired the Subcommittee on Postal Operations and Services in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995). A member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus, Representative Collins was appointed a Majority Whip At-Large from 1993 until 1994.

Collins’s career was focused on her campaign promises to direct federal resources and programs to improve opportunities in underserved Black communities. In October 1992 Collins began encouraging agricultural growers to donate excess food that would otherwise go to waste to urban food banks and shelters.9 Collins generally supported President William J. (Bill) Clinton’s economic and job stimulus initiatives; however, she vocally opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, arguing that opening American borders to cheaper Mexican products would take domestic manufacturing jobs away from unionized factory workers, including many in her district.10 Though she favored the bill’s final version, she voted against the President’s April 1994 omnibus crime bill, objecting to its extension of the death penalty to several more federal crimes and opposing a section that mandated life in prison for people convicted of three felonies. Collins argued that these provisions would affect minority communities disproportionately, declaring, “I think justice is dispensed differently for people of color, be they black or Hispanic.”11 Collins’s family advocacy was apparent in her enthusiastic support of the October 1995 Million Man March, a mass rally of African-American men in Washington, DC, to draw attention to social, economic, and political challenges faced by the Black community. Collins planned to provide water for the marchers. “The idea is electrifying,” she said about the march’s emphasis on family and community. “Black men will be reaffirming their responsibility for black women and for the black family.”12 Collins also called on federal officials to include housework, childcare, volunteer work, and time devoted to a family business as components of the gross national product. “If you raise the status of women,” she declared, “we would be more conscious of the family unit.”13

With her focus on domestic issues, Representative Collins generally opposed increasing foreign aid. “Our cities are hurting,” she observed. “We must learn how to take care of America first.”14 In April 1994, Collins and five other Democratic House Members were arrested after staging a sit-in at the White House to protest American policy toward Haiti. In the wake of the island nation’s military coup, the protestors called for greater acceptance of Haitian refugees and demanded a stronger embargo against Haiti.15 “What’s being done to Haitians is inhumane and immoral,” Collins said. “The fact of the matter is we welcome Hungarians with open arms, we welcome Vietnamese with open arms, we welcome Cubans with open arms, but when it comes to black Haitians, we tell them, ‘Stand back we don’t want you,’ the result being that hundreds are drowned at sea, children and women eaten by sharks.”16 All six Members were fined and released.

While Collins was popular among her constituents, she drew negative publicity when the Justice Department and the House Ethics Committee investigated her office in 1996 for the alleged misuse of campaign and scholarship funds.17 Though Collins was initially unopposed in the 1994 primary, six opponents entered the race following the controversy. Challenger Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick defeated the incumbent in the primary by a 21-point margin and went on to win the general election. Barbara-Rose Collins remained active in local politics. In 2001 she won a seat on the Detroit city council. Collins was re-elected in 2005 to the council for a second term and retired in 2009.

Footnotes

1DeWitt S. Dykes Jr., “Barbara-Rose Collins,” in Notable Black American Women, vol. 2, ed. Jessie Carney Smith (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1996): 134; the couple’s third child died in infancy.

2Dykes, “Barbara-Rose Collins”: 135.

3Dykes, “Barbara-Rose Collins”: 135.

4Dykes, “Barbara-Rose Collins”: 136; Aaron Williams and Armand Emamdjomeh, “America Is More Diverse than Ever—But Still Segregated,” 10 May 2018, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/segregation-us-cities/.

5Almanac of American Politics, 1996 (Washington, DC: National Journal Inc., 1995): 710.

6Dykes, “Barbara-Rose Collins”: 136.

7Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

8Dykes, “Barbara-Rose Collins”: 136.

9Congressional Record, House, 102nd Cong., 2nd sess. (5 October 1992): 3074.

10Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong., 1st sess. (21 October 1993): 8336; Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong., 1st sess. (26 October 1993): 8436.

11Politics in America, 1996 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1995): 685.

12Francis X. Clines, “Organizers Defend Role of Farrakhan in March by Blacks,” 13 October 1995, New York Times: A1.

13Maria Odum, “If the G.N.P. Counted Housework, Would Women Count for More?,” 5 April 1992, New York Times: E5.

14Adam Clymer, “House Votes Billions in Aid to Ex-Soviet Republics,” 7 August 1992, New York Times: A1.

15Peter H. Spiegel, “Members Arrested in Haiti Protest,” 25 April 1994, Roll Call: n.p.

16Kenneth R. Bazinet, “Congressmen Arrested Outside White House,” 21 April 1994, United Press International.

17In January 1997, the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee found Representative Collins guilty of violating 11 House rules and federal laws; however, the panel did not recommend disciplinary action because Collins had already left office. A historical chart of all formal House ethics actions is available at https://ethics.house.gov/sites/ethics.house.gov/files/Historical_Chart_Final_Version%20in%20Word_0.pdf. See also Robyn Meredith, “Ethical Issues Pose Test to a Detroit Lawmaker,” 2 August 1996, New York Times: A10; Sarah Pekkanen, “Ethics Committee Issues Scathing Report on Collins,” 8 January 1997, The Hill: n.p.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Barbara-Rose Collins" in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.

"Barbara-Rose Collins" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Government Operations
  • House Committee - Government Reform and Oversight
  • House Committee - Post Office and Civil Service
    • Postal Operations and Services - Chair
  • House Committee - Public Works and Transportation
  • House Committee - Science, Space and Technology
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families
  • House Committee - Transportation and Infrastructure
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