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Dearborn Mayor Orville Hubbard was an avowed segregationist who
was unrelenting in his quest to "keep Dearborn
A policy of
boundaries created dividing line between black, white suburbs
Gordon Trowbridge and Oralandar Brand-Williams / The Detroit News
-- Nothing in his training had prepared young Bill Whitbeck,
up-and-coming Washington bureaucrat, for the scene he faced: a hot
Sunday night, angry protesters, and a car that wouldn't start.
sat fretting in the back seat of a rented sedan. In the summer of 1970,
Whitbeck and his colleagues at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development had the job of a lifetime: trying to help secretary George
Romney open the all-white suburbs of Detroit and other major cities to
After an unproductive meeting
with suburban leaders, Romney rode off and more than 100 fuming
protesters surrounded Whitbeck's car. The driver -- a young HUD lawyer
and "one of the few blacks within miles" -- had to beg a cop for help
getting the car started.
The escape left a lasting
impression on Whitbeck -- and the political turmoil it symbolized left
an even deeper impression on Metro Detroit race relations. Whites who
since the end of World War II had left Detroit for the suburbs balked at
efforts to make their new neighborhoods more open to blacks.
While avowed segregationists such as Dearborn
Mayor Orville Hubbard grabbed headlines, other controversies were much
more complex than simple racial hostility. But the product, say
historians and demographers, was the same: A sharp dividing line between
black city and white suburbs.
"It's not just
academic," said historian Thomas Sugrue, a Detroit native. "It's played
a big role in shaping how things look today."
Flight from the
Detroit's population exploded in
the first decades of the 20th century, fed largely by rural blacks
fleeing the South for northern jobs.
the city's blacks had been packed into areas north of downtown and on
the far west side. But a growing black population strained at the walls
constraining it, and increasingly, auto jobs provided the income to look
for homes in middle-class neighborhoods throughout the city.
That was one factor in a complicated mix that
sparked rapid turnover of Detroit neighborhoods from white to black.
Much had nothing to do with race: Just as blacks were moving up the
economic ladder, many whites could leave the crowded city for spacious
suburban homes. New highways made it possible to live farther from
downtown offices and urban auto plants.
dozens of neighborhood groups sprung up with the goal of keeping blacks
out. Many open-housing activists called for integration, but political
leaders, residents' groups, even ministers fought any expanded black
presence in Detroit neighborhoods.
real estate agents took advantage, a practice detailed by historians. A
drumbeat of warnings to white homeowners that black buyers were invading
generated plenty of new listings, and profits, for "block-busting"
Sugrue's parents were part of
that receding white tide. Now a historian at the University of
Pennsylvania, he is among the many who have chronicled Detroit's postwar
"The untold story is in the suburbs," he
said, where some whites -- though often a minority -- worked hard to
make sure blacks didn't follow.
To this day, the
deeds of many suburban homes still contain wording of restrictive
covenants that barred sale to blacks -- covenants rendered impotent by
law today, but a telling reminder of the barriers blacks faced.
Communities such as Southfield and Oak Park were
welcoming. But places like Grosse Pointe worked hard at exclusion: In
the late 1950s, state investigators uncovered a point system used by
homeowners and real estate agents there that graded potential new
residents on how "ethnic" they were; blacks, Jews and other minorities
Invisible boundaries were clear to
Detroit's black community. Breaking them down was a war fought on the
streets and in the courtrooms. Detroiters such as Arthur Johnson pushed
to open Detroit's white neighborhoods and predominantly white suburbs to
The local civil-rights community was
energized by a visit by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, Johnson said.
The Detroit branch of the NAACP mounted a series of boycotts against
communities that kept blacks out.
For weeks, black
protesters marched through Detroit's suburbs. A quiet but stern crowd
often greeted them with tense curiosity.
scary," recalled Johnson. "We marched in Dearborn, Redford, Grosse
Pointe and Oak Park.
"It was really tense in
Dearborn," Johnson said.
'Keep Dearborn clean'
Hubbard, Dearborn's mayor, was blunt and
unrelenting in his quest to "keep Dearborn clean" -- a phrase that made
"clean" synonymous with "white."
"They can't get
in here," Hubbard told an Alabama newspaper reporter in 1956. "Every
time we hear of a negro moving in ... we respond quicker than you do to
While city officials proclaim that the
Hubbard era of racial antagonism is over, Dearborn has a street and
senior housing center named after him, and a life-sized statue in front
of City Hall. Last spring, the city made the late mayor's birthday a
Even without such reminders,
Dearborn's past resonates loudly with African Americans, said University
of Michigan researcher Reynolds Farley.
book Detroit Divided, an examination of segregation in Metro
Detroit, Farley surveyed black residents about their perceptions of
various suburbs. Blacks saw places such as Southfield as open and
accommodating. They saw Dearborn as still harboring racial hostility,
nearly two decades after Hubbard.
reputations are long-lasting, even as communities change over time,"
Dearborn's black population is up
sharply, from fewer than 100 in 1980 to more than 1,200 in 2000. Still,
that's less than 1.3 percent of the population in a city that borders
Detroit's 775,000 African Americans.
Warren key battlefield
Warren is another community blacks are hesitant to
enter, Farley's studies show.
That Sunday night
that so frightened Whitbeck was one of the low-lights of a 1970 fight
between the city and federal officials. HUD, under former Governor
Romney, was seeking to withhold federal money from communities that
failed to encourage integration.
Warren became the
key battlefield. HUD officials pointed out that while about 30 percent
of the workers in Warren's factories were black, fewer than 50 black
families lived there. Eventually, residents voted to reject federal
urban-renewal grants if they were tied to integration policy.
Richard Sabaugh, now a political consultant in
Macomb County, fought against the grants from his seat on Warren's City
Council. He argues that his opposition, and that of most who sided with
him, was only to stop federal interference in local affairs.
"There was never any concerted effort to stop
integration," Sabaugh said.
"I have to admit there
were some people who were opposed (to integration). I found that in
politics you don't question the motivation of people. You just try to
get their vote."
Whitbeck, now a judge on the
Michigan Court of Appeals, said that with the hindsight of history, he
believes efforts to impose integration were misguided. "Things change,"
he said. "But slowly."
Sabaugh argues there is now
more openness to diversity than ever before: "More people know
integration is inevitable and are willing to accept it."
With a population just 2.7 percent black, Warren
remains the ninth whitest large city in America. But its black
population more than doubled in the 1990s, to 3,700.
David Riddle, a Wayne State University history
instructor who has written extensively on that era of Warren politics,
said the events of 1970 still affect the city's image.
"When a municipality acquires a reputation like
that, I think it's self-sustaining," he said. "The people governing in
Warren now, most of them were in high school when this was going on.
Maybe the guilt-by-association should be held in abeyance."
Then again, whenever an episode
of discrimination is uncovered, no matter how isolated, it brings those
images back. John and Cynthia Newell and their young son, John Jr.,
encountered the sting of discrimination in 1990, soon after they moved
Fed up with their crack-infested
Detroit neighborhood, the Newells hoped to escape. Instead, they said,
they were confronted with skinheads who burned a cross on the lawn of
their rented home.
In the two years the Newells
lived on Campbell near Nine Mile, they were accosted by teen-agers who
told them to "go back to Africa" and stuffed their mailbox with "White
"I had a white friend that I lost
my friendship with because they kept calling her 'nigger lover' whenever
we walked to the store," Cynthia Newell said. "They threw eggs at her
when she was with me.
"All of the neighbors
weren't racist. Some of them wanted to socialize. But they couldn't
because they were afraid for their safety."
incidents reinforce the image of Detroit's suburbs as hostile to blacks.
"The issue for white folks is whether we want to
be part of integrated communities. Certainly blacks are making an
effort," said Cliff Schrupp, director of the Fair Housing Center of
down Woodward Avenue to Ford Auditorium in 1963 to protest
restrictive covenants that barred the sale of housing to them.
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The Detroit News.
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