Orville Hubbard was one of the most prominent segregationists of the North — and for a time, the city he led as mayor for 36 years was awfully proud of him. For decades, a 10-foot bronze statue of Hubbard stood outside City Hall in Dearborn, Michigan, the community of 98,000 people outside Detroit that he ran from 1942 to 1978. With right hand raised and a smile, the statue waved at traffic passing along the city’s busiest thoroughfare.
But finally, Hubbard is being placed where he belongs: not in the future of Dearborn, but in its past. On a quiet Tuesday at the end of September, and with little fanfare, Dearborn removed the Northern equivalent of a Confederate flag. In a striking visual, the iconic statue was pulled down with ropes and will ultimately be placed in the Dearborn Historical Museum on the city’s west side. It will receive a new plaque too — one that acknowledges the former mayor’s racist policies.
Hubbard was nationally known for refusing to allow African-Americans to move into Dearborn — including the many thousands employed by Ford Motor Company, which is headquartered in the city, despite Ford serving as one of America’s largest employers of black workers. A Detroit reporter writing for the New York Times in 1969 quoted Hubbard’s surprising evaluation of himself: “There used to be a saying in Dearborn — Hitler, Hague, and Hubbard. But Hitler and Hague are gone. I’m the only one left.” At the time, Dearborn was a city of 115,000 people. Not one of them was black, “except for 15 or so live-in servants.”
Current Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly told the Detroit News that the statue’s removal symbolizes the changing nature of the city. “The history is set, it’s done, it’s fixed,” O’Reilly said. “That’s not who we are today, or what we represent.”
Dearborn has an unusual racial history. Henry Ford once infamously used a local paper to publish a 91-part anti-Semitic series of articles dubbed “The International Jew.” (A 1927 libel lawsuit forced the closure of the paper.) But today, Dearborn is home to the Arab American National Museum, and residents come from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and well beyond. The community is a nexus for the region’s large population of Muslims. At least one-third of the city is of Arabic descent; it is rich in mosques, Islamic schools and Arab festivals.
But, in evidence of the city’s legacy of exclusion, only about 4 percent of today’s residents are African-American. The outspoken, glad-handing Hubbard — who, during World War II, organized a flotilla to patrol the Rouge and Detroit rivers for Nazi submarines — was indicted in 1965 under a federal civil rights statute for allowing the Dearborn police to stand by while a furious mob of up to 400 people threw rocks and eggs at the house of a local resident who they believed — mistakenly, it turned out — to have sold the place to an African-American family. After a jury acquitted Hubbard, he bought every one of them a steak dinner.
The popularity that won Hubbard 15 terms in office, as well as recall votes and a grand jury investigation, isn’t wholly forgotten today. Defenders of retaining the Hubbard statue’s prominent location pointed to his strong record in providing city services. That included free snow removal of both streets and sidewalks, and a free babysitting program that had 100 participating families each week. In 1957, he became one of the first mayors in the nation to combine his fire and police departments in the name of efficiency. Thirty-five miles northwest of the city, he constructed an entire 626-acre country club with six lakes. He dubbed it Camp Dearborn, and it was free for city residents and their guests. That’s what you could do with Ford money at the height of the American auto industry.
But race was never far from his anxieties. Everybody knew what he meant with the city’s slogan: “Keep Dearborn Clean.” But, unlike leaders in other suburbs that were similarly hostile to integration, he wasn’t always so subtle. Integration was a threat, he said to a reporter, because it would involve couples having “half-breed kids” resulting in “a mongrel race. And from what I know of history, that’s the end of civilization.”
In 1963, he ordered four aides to throw a Time magazine reporter out of City Hall for covering a racial incident in the city. Two years later, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission held Hubbard and another city official accountable for ordering news clippings that were “humiliating to Negroes” to be placed on municipal bulletin boards. In 1971, he invited the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan to speak in Dearborn. For a bit of time, he even refused to provide sanitation service to African-American families that eventually settled in Dearborn.
The Hubbard statue had been paid for with private funds and erected in 1989, six years after the Mayor’s death. The movement to take it down was ignited this summer, coinciding with calls to remove the Confederate flag from public places in Southern states. It also followed an organic transition in Dearborn: City Hall moved several years ago from its historic home, where Hubbard presided, and the site is now being redeveloped into residences and workspace for artists. Moving the statue to the new headquarters of the city offices would have appeared to be an especially emphatic endorsement of Hubbard’s policies. Today’s mayor, whose father was a Hubbard protégé, is having none of it.
It’s apparent that the Stars and Bars isn’t the only symbol of racism that cities have obstinately displayed in modern times. Northern cities, too, must contend with their icons of segregation, and any prickly significance of “local pride” imbued therein. Active steps, like Dearborn’s removal of the Hubbard statue from its prominent perch, and putting such pieces in local historical museums where they can be thoughtfully contextualized, are the right thing to do. And long overdue.
Anna Clark is a freelance journalist in Detroit. She has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, NBC News online, Pacific Standard and other publications. She is a political media correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review. Anna is the editor of A Detroit Anthology and author of Michigan Literary Luminaries: From Elmore Leonard to Robert Hayden. A former Fulbright fellow, she is also the director of applications for Write a House. Her website is annaclark.net.