In defense of Orville Hubbard

Sep 30, 2015 at 4:01 pm

Was longtime Dearborn Mayor Orville Hubbard a racist bigot? I believe he was. And that’s not worth defending.

Should Hubbard’s statue have been displayed in front of City Hall? I don’t believe it deserved to have been. It had the effect of lionizing a person whose main claim to fame was favoring government-promoted segregation.

Many well-meaning Dearbornites will say that the statue wasn’t a shrine to bigotry, but a monument to a man who retains the record for longest-serving mayor in U.S. history. Be that as it may, it is simply too easy to misunderstand the intentions behind the statue, and for that reason there probably should never have been one honoring the mayor. Its removal to the Dearborn Historical Museum, which happened yesterday, is correct and proper.

I have come to despise him personally for my own reasons. My father served on the Dearborn police force, and had few nice things to say about the man. When my mother was very sick as a child, her mother, an Italian immigrant, left her job running a mop at City Hall to care for her ailing daughter. She was promptly fired for this single offense. So I have every personal reason to chortle as Hubbard’s memorial is taken out of view.

And yet, before we melt down the memory of Orville Hubbard in the name of fighting racism, here are a few things to think over.

What kept Hubbard in office year after year wasn’t necessarily the deeply rooted bigotry of the people of Dearborn. Hubbard was a skilled administrator who pursued vigorous public works. He saw to it that Dearbornites had access to a system of public parks and public pools. He acquired a 626-acre park in Milford for his residents. He even negotiated the purchase of a high-rise retreat for the elderly in Clearwater, Fla., where many elderly residents enjoyed their waning days in that sunny climate.

He fought many things, often fiercely. He even opposed some of the more feverish development schemes of the city’s principal employer and benefactor, Ford Motor Company. He opposed public housing not just because it would be integrated, but because his constituents didn’t want it. Yes, he opposed integration, but it’s likely he opposed it because he saw integration as many people did at the time: the period in between the first black family arriving and the last white family leaving. (Sadly, that often remains the case today, a process that has proven very profitable to the real estate industry, thank you very much.)

He also had a better grasp than many politicians today of what is now called “urban planning.” When what’s now the Royal Dearborn Hotel went up on the periphery of Fairlane Mall, he reportedly complained that it “turned its back on Michigan Avenue.” Unlike Detroit to the east, which always seemed eager to run roughshod over residents to placate big business and bring big-ticket developments to fruition, Hubbard understood that Dearborn was a city of neighborhoods, and placed the concerns of residents first.

There is an often-told story that neatly illustrates how Hubbard stayed in office. If I recall it correctly, he was at his desk at City Hall when his phone rang. It was a call from a resident who complained that a branch was hanging over her home and clogging her gutters with leaves. He wrote a note on a piece of paper and handed it to his secretary while he spoke with her. Hubbard kept her on the line for about 15 minutes, chatting about this and that, until his secretary came back into the office with a note.

Hubbard suggested to the woman that she take a look at the tree that was responsible for her blocked downspout. A city crew was already at work pruning the offending branches. The woman was speechless.

Any city administrator who could provide that level of service would be re-elected year after year, even if his name were Lucifer T. Devil.

Also, the people who elected Hubbard again and again weren’t die-hard conservatives of the brand we know today. In many ways, the city was a bastion of working-class liberalism. As early as 1967, a poll showed 41 percent of the city’s population favored withdrawal from Southeast Asia. If residents were racist, it’s an opportunity to investigate the shortcomings (and there were many) of white liberalism of the time.

Also, was Hubbard more racist than other politicians of his time, or just more outspoken, more of a media hog, and more of a clown? Other white politicians of the 20th century, even the sainted Franklin Delano Roosevelt, were quite racist as well, and yet nobody is going to rip down FDR's portrait from the wall of Polish Village Café. Much of the hubbub about Hubbard is about perceptions, which, of course, he inflated to the best of his ability.

Finally, condemning racism is easy. Examining racism is harder. It’s easy to revile an N-bombing politician, a hood-wearing Klansman, or an immigrant-hating sheriff, but what about the quieter, subtler forms of racism that pervade our institutions these days? Yes, we should oppose de jure segregation, but shouldn’t we also question the de facto segregation all around us? Should we pat ourselves on the back for our open-mindedness in 2015 even as our schools are now more segregated than they were in Hubbard’s heyday?

In many ways, white America has traded in the old epithet-hurling, cross-burning brand of racism for a new polite, institutionalized, dog-whistling variety that produces many of the same old results. Hubbard’s sort of white supremacy was easy to recognize, and just as easy to condemn from today’s standpoint. But who is doing the hard work today of untangling the polite white privilege that still unfairly tilts the national playing field?

It’s worth asking, because creating a better world means more than condemning the wrongs of the past; it also demands we question what ill-fated monuments we might be actively building today. And in our haste to put the unseemly past out of view, we must not miss that point, fine though it is.