Looking back on Detroit's history around election time, you're always going to encounter some anniversaries. But this date is special, because, on Nov. 5, 1919, Detroit abolished its system of selection members of Detroit City Council by ward.
In the old days, Detroit's system of wards, or districts, allowed individual council members to represent their own home turf. It helped ensure that the city's local problems had somebody you could hold responsible. It also enabled a certain amount of graft, exemplified by such "honest" fixers as Billy Boushaw, a tavern owner in Detroit's wharf district who could swing a vote as easily as a dead cat.
No doubt some of that played into Detroit's decision to abandon the old ward system and initiate a 94-year-long period of at-large voting for members of Detroit's esteemed law-making body.
Another consideration was that the city was on the verge of an annexation binge that would double the size of the city's boundaries. To undertake that sort of annexation would almost certainly have required the redrawing of ward boundaries. In 1917, Detroit had 21 wards and, with two representatives from each, 42 aldermen. An assembly of something approaching 100 aldermen would have been an unwieldy governing body, and the political battles of redrawing districts are no less formidable today. Discarding the wards may well have been a more politically expedient decision.
That said, there loomed over the choice one of the most troubling problems in Detroit's history: race. A number of factors combined to give the matter certain urgency. They were the Great Migration and Detroit's restrictive housing covenants.
The Great Migration, which lasted from about 1910 to the 1970s, marks one of the largest movements of people without a war, famine, or plague to drive it along. Millions of Southerners, many of them black, moved from the agricultural lands of the South to the respectively broader opportunities of the North. A book entitled Negro Migration during the War, by Emmett J. Scott (published in 1920), wrote:
With thousands of Southern blacks coming by the trainload, the demographics of certain neighborhoods in Detroit were bound to change. This was exaggerated by the way so many houses in Detroit were subject to restrictive covenants, which imposed restrictions upon the use of that land regardless of the owner, especially regarding race. Broad stipulations existed that people of color could not live in most of the areas of the city, which meant that the tens of thousands of new residents would mostly have to crowd into one of the shabbiest, oldest sections of the city: the Near East Side.
Taken together, this almost ensured that, had the ward system remained intact, Detroit would have had an African American on the city council in the 1920s.
The fact that at-large voting delayed that kind of representation for another 53 years is seen as evidence enough that race, not graft, was the deciding factor in the abolition of the ward system. In fact, the period of Detroit's greatest corruption coincided with Prohibition more than any tweak of governance.
Today, 95 years later, our district members of council, though still including the occasional carpetbagger or slick character, has allowed certain people of conscience to rise to government in a way that was simply impossible a few years ago. Detroit's long history of electing at-large council members by name recognition now means that different neighborhoods, at least in theory, have representative who can be held accountable for the conditions there. And, frankly, it's a refreshing change of pace.
But it never had to be the way it was to begin with.