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The Republicans were the majority party in the city during much of the post Civil War era, but a split in the party ranks in the early 1880's over prohibition allowed the Democrats to establish a tradition of office holding. Most Republicans advocated temperance in the use of liquor, but one faction supported outright prohibition. The prohibitionists often entered a separate slate of candidates for city offices and even won a council seat in 1884. The effective result, however, was to give control of the city to the Democrats. Although the prohibition party soon disappeared from city politics, the Democrats continued to offer strong candidates and held the mayor's office thirteen of the fourteen years from 1880 and 1893, often with council majorities. The depression of 1893 hurt the party nationally and locally and the Republicans regained their domination of city government.

Although it had little role in the formal machinery of government, prohibition was a significant force in community affairs. Given the prominence of education in Ann Arbor, the school board was an important community institution. In combination with the women's rights movement, the prohibitionists managed to elect a number of candidates to the school board. While the board continued to be controlled numerically by wealthy merchants, women became increasingly involved in school affairs. In 1881 women property owners received the right to vote in school elections. Backed by local temperance societies in 1883, Mrs. Sarah Bishop became the first woman elected to the board.

During the 1890's the interest in the women's rights movement increased in Ann Arbor. In 1894, after the Michigan Equal Suffrage Association held its annual convention in Ann Arbor, local women founded the Political Equality Club of Ann Arbor. That year club member Miss Emma E. Bower, editor of the Ann Arbor Democrat , backed by the WCTU and the suffragists, won a seat on the school board. In 1896 Mrs. Anna Bach became the first woman president of the school board. The following year Miss Bower was made board treasurer. She served a term as president in 1899.

Besides the public school system, Ann Arbor also had three parochial schools. St. Thomas Catholic School, the largest of the three, completed a new building in 1886 on its present site and soon enrolled 200 students. Bethlehem German Evangelical Church School had 60 students at that time and the school connected with Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church had 55.

A school of music had existed in Ann Arbor as early as 1879. The program was strengthened in the 1890's when the University Musical Society started the University School of Music. The school constructed its own building on Maynard Street in 1893 and had, despite its name, no formal ties with the University. It merged with the University in 1929.

Ann Arbor's churches enjoyed a prosperity of their own between 1880German Methodist Episcopal Church and 1900. Only four new congregations formed during this period (Disciples of Christ, Grace Lutheran, Trinity Evangelical Lutheran, and Seventh Day Adventist), but a great increase in attendance was experienced at established churches. Ten new churches were built. Most of these new stone or brick structures are still standing and are among the most beautiful old buildings in Ann Arbor. Some are romanesque structures--the Unitarian Church (northeast corner of State and Huron), the Church of Christ (northwest corner of Tappan and Hill), and St. Thomas Catholic Church (northwest corner of Kingsley and State)--and are good examples of field stone architecture. The two African-American congregations of Second Baptist and Bethel A.M.E. built new brick structures in the 1890's to accommodate a stable African-American population.