Heritage \ Writings \

Oscar William Baker (1879-)
Prominent Bay City attorney.
  • Transcribed Feb. 2007.
  • 1915 Business bio. (Added Jan, 2009)

    Michigan Manual of Freedmens Progress, 1915



    Baker, Oscar W., 223 N. Van Buren St., Bay City. Mr. Baker was born Aug. 30th, 1879, and is the youngest of four children of James H. and Mary F. Baker.

    At the age of 7 he met with an accident whereby he lost his left limb, amputated above the knee, but this did not affect his ambition to achieve success in the professional world. He eventually graduated from the Bay City High School, Bay City Business College, and Law Department of the University of Michigan, class of 1902.

    He entered the law office of the Hon. L. E. Joslyn (now referee in bankruptcy, U. S. District Court, for the eastern district of Michigan, Southern Division), at Bay City, in 1902, where he has since been engaged in the practice of law.

    Mr. Baker was secretary of the Republican County Committee for Bay County for two terms; Circuit Court Commissioner for Bay County, one term; is a member of the Bay City Board of Commerce and other institutions.

    In June, 1910, he married Miss Ida May Harrison, of Ohio, who together with their three children, Oscar W., Jr., Albert H. and Dorothy Florence, now comprise the family of our subject.

    He has been highly successful in the practice of law, color prejudice in Bay City being at a minimum. Mr. Baker's practice is nearly all white. He is an honorary member of the Epsilon Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha, of the University of Michigan; stockholder in the Farmers' State Savings Bank, Fulton Mfg. Co. and Kuhlman Electric Co., and other Bay City corporations. He is also a member of the Bay City Y. M. C. A., and has already accumulated a competence.

    In 1914 Mr. Baker was appointed a delegate to the National Half Century Anniversary of Negro Freedom, by Governor Ferris, and in 1915 was made a member of the Freedmen's Progress Commission, of which he is the president, to install a Michigan Afro-American exhibit in the Exposition held in connection with said Anniversary.

    Oscar's father, James H. Baker, and other family members. (Added Feb., 2009)

    The Bay County Story - From Footpaths to Freeways, Les Arndt, 1982


    Page 579.

    Bay City was newly chartered when James H. Baker came here in 1867 to make his permanent home and become a keystone of Bay City's black community, after he was mustered out of the First Michigan Infantry as an orderly to General Ely and meritorious service with a black Pennsylvania regiment during several major Civil War compaigns.

    The city was still in its infancy, electing a prominent lumberman, Nathan B. Bradley as mayor only two years previously in the historical first election under city charter, which was held seven days before the end of the Civil War.

    Although black people had been here previously as fur trappers, lumberjacks and adventurers, this started a permanent settlement as an integral part of Bay City history. Their number here grew gradually until now Bay City has about 600 blacks, or about one percent of approximately 50,000 population.

    Page 581.

    When Baker came here in the 1860s following Civil War service, he found only six blacks residing in Bay City. He remained to become a dominant figure not only among fellow blacks but also as a community leader.

    Baker's son, the late Oscar W. Baker, became the community's first black attorney. Grandsons Oscar, Jr. and James H. are attorneys here today. A granddaughter, Elaine Baker, lives in Germany and is a well known European concert singer.

    The first Bay City Baker was a man of many facets. A Civil War soldier before coming here, he became a barber, a policeman, constable of the city's Fourth Ward, and finally proud owner of the New Crescent Lunch Counter and Ladies' Dining Room at 805 N. Water, which he boasted was "bar-less."

    He was delegate to the first Colored Men's State Convention in Battle Creek March 25, 1884, the candidate for state land commission on the Populist ticket, a member of a committee of Michigan Negroes who petitioned the state lawmakers "for the right of suffrage," and avid backer of a movement to send a black delegate-at-large to the Republican convention in Chicago in the late 1880s.

    He was born in Manchester, Va., where his father, also James H., landed after emigrating from Ireland. Also native to Erin soil was his grandfather Richard.

    Baker was listed in the Bay City 1868 directory, Oldest to be found locally, as boarding at Fourth and Jackson. In those days Negroes were designated as "colored." Then the newly chartered city had fewer than 1,000 citizens. But railroads had arrived, opening the community to the outside world, and it was reported a telegraph office had been established here.

    It was the railroads that were most responsible for attracting other blacks here in the remaining years of the 19th century. They did toil as porters, brakemen, stewards on lines running from Detroit to Mackinaw City, with Bay City a convenient mid-point to live.

    His son, Oscar W. Baker Sr., was born here in August, 1879, and he was scarsely six years old when he was struck by a Pere Marquette Railroad train at 11th and Jefferson crossing and eventually lost a leg. That unfortunate incident began the Baker family's connection with the law.

    The father brought suit in young Oscar's name and won $5,000 judgment. Although bad investments contributed to the dissipation of the cash before Oscar Sr. was 21, he went to the University of Michigan Law School with money earned as the secretary to Michigan Lt. Gov. Orin W. Robinson.

    Graduating from the law school in 1902, Oscar Sr., began practice her with the white lawyer Lee E. Joslyn. In 1906, he brought suit against the railroad on grounds it had been a mistake to pay the $5,000 without securing a bond from his father. After winning in circuit court here, the Michigan Supreme Court rules against him, holding that payment of the original $5,000, to the attorneys who were to turn it over to the Bakers, qualified as a valid procedure.

    However, as a result of the case insurance companies, railroads and similar firms began to require that a guardian be appointed for minors in civil suits.

    Oscar Baker Sr. was hailed as a master courtroom psychologist, especially in criminal cases, and as an authority on prohibition law.

    He was a patron of athletics, serving as director and attorney for the association which sponsored professional baseball here. He also founded and was head of a amateur baseball league and backed the Golden Gloves boxing tournaments.

    The Baker family home was on Van Buren Street, between 10th and 11th Streets, the neighborhood were Oscar Jr. and his wife Robbie, still live. The couple has three daughers, Gail Ann, Cheryl and Christine Lee.

    The late Oscar W. Baker was 35 and a popular attorney her when he was to the helm of the Freemen's Progress Commission in 1915, a group organized to prepare a Michigan exhibit for the country's Half Century Anniversary of Negro Freedom and Lincoln Jubilee at Chicago, Ill., Aug. 22 – Sept. 16 that year. Baker was appointed one of the 56 delegates to the jubilee by then Gov. Woodbridge N. Ferris. He also helped in getting a state legislative appropriation for he exhibit.

    A city duo had displays at the jubilee – W. A. Powell, a mechanic and inventor, who unveiled modes of valve grinders, and Mrs. W. J. Powell, who displayed “human hair goods.”

    Though there were few Negroes in Bay City in the days when Oscar Jr. was growing up, he pointed out the four brothers and five sisters demaned respect from whites and were prepared to fight for it if necessary.

    ”Nobody could call us nigger and get away with this,” he said. “We would find a way to come back at them.” That attitude brought his brothers, James V., Albert and Robert, problems many times, especially in the military, Oscar says. Oscar was kept out of the service because of bad eyesight.

    Following two years at Bay City Junior College, Oscar like his father went to U-M Law School. On graduation in 1935, he founded the Baker law firm and brother James, upon U-M graduation in 1951 joined the firm. After practicing for 46 years, Oscar is semi-retired.

    In 1937 he acted as chairman of the state bar association's legal redress committee, traveling the state in helping blacks to acquire their rights. In the mid-1960s he joined the National Lawyers' Guild voting rights promotion in Mississippi, for two weeks two consecutive summers. He also participated in civil rights marches in Detroit.

    Additional Information:

    1880 Census: Bay City, Bay Co., MI.

    • Baker, James H. - age 32, b. Virginia
    • Baker, Mary F., wife - age 30, b. Canada
    • Baker, Edgar W., son - age 6, b. Michigan
    • Baker, James H., son - age 4, b. Michigan
    • Baker, Florence M. dau. - age 2, b. Michigan
    • Baker, Oscar, son, age 0, b. Michigan
    • Turner, Cornelia, sister-in-law, age 19, b. Canada

    1900 Census: Bay City, Bay Co., MI.

    • Baker, James H. - age 53, b. virginia
    • Baker, Mary F., wife - age 50, b. Canada
    • Baker, Oscar, son - age 21, b. Michigan
    • Susand, Mary J., mother-in-law, - age 80, b. Kentuky

    1940 Census: Bay City, Bay Co., Michigan.

    • Baker, Oscar - age 60, b. Michigan
    • Baker, Ida, wife - age 52, b. Ohio
    • Baker, Oscar, son - age 29, b. Michigan
    • Baker, Mary L., dau. - age 18, b. Michigan
    • Baker, James, son - age 16, b. Michigan
    • Baker, Elaine, dau. - age 14, b. Michigan
    • Baker, Mildred, dau. - age 13, b. Michigan
    • Baker, Yvonne, dau. - age 11, b. Michigan
    Related Pages/Notes

    Oscar W. Baker

    (Office, Shearer Bldg.}

    Father James

    Mr. Baker's son, Oscar W. Baker, Jr., and grandson, James W. Baker, followed his foot steps, graduating from University of Michigan with law degrees, in 1934 and 1951 respectively.
    Related Pages:
    Baker, James H.
    Ethnic: Blacks
    Joslyn, Lee E.
    People Referenced
    Baker, Albert H. (son)
    Baker, Cheryl (g-dau)
    Baker, Christine Lee (g-dau)
    Baker, Dorothy (dau)
    Baker, Edgar (bro)
    Baker, Elaine (dau)
    Baker, Florence (sister)
    Baker, Gail Ann (g-dau)
    Baker, James H. (father)
    Baker, James H. Sr. (g-father)
    Baker, James V. (son)
    Baker, Oscar W. (subject)
    Baker, Mary L. (dau)
    Baker, Mildred (dau)
    Baker, Oscar W., Jr (son)
    Baker, Robert (son)
    Baker, Robbie Mrs (dau-inlaw)
    Baker, Yvonne (dau)
    Bradley, Nathan B. (mayor)
    Edwoods, Mary (mother)
    Ely, Gen.
    Ferris, Woodbridge N. Gov.
    Harrison, Ida May (wife)
    Joslyn, Lee E.
    Powell, W.A.
    Powell, W.J. Mrs
    Robinson, Orin W. Gov.
    Susand, Mary J. (relative)
    Turner, Cornelia (aunt)
    Warner, Fred M. Gov.
    Subjects Referenced
    Battle Creek, MI
    Bay City, MI
    Bay City Bus. College
    Bay City Junior College
    Bay Co., MI
    Bay City YMCA
    Baker law firm
    Chicago, IL
    Civil Rights movement
    Colored Men's State Conv.
    Cresent Lunch Counter
    Detroit, MI
    Farmer's State Svg. Bank
    Freedmen's Progress Comm.
    Fulton Mfg. Co.
    Kuhlman Electric Co.
    Ladies Dining Room
    Lansing, MI
    Lincoln Jubilee
    Mackinaw City, MI
    Michigan bar
    Mich. Supreme Court
    National Lawyers' Guild
    Pere Marquette R.R.
    Shearer Bldg.
    Univ. of Michigan
    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.