Rural Michigan town’s racial solidarity gets tested

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
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Covert — The looming closure of a nuclear power plant, which has been a godsend to this poor, rural township, isn’t the only thing weighing on residents these days.

Art Jackson, left, Marilyn Cayton, Jean Robinson, LaDonna Golden, Cathy Green and Betty Colombel live in Michigan’s most diverse town.

A steady influx of Hispanics has grown to the point where they’re transforming local schools and businesses, comprising more than half of the students.

With nativism coursing through some parts of America, a large number of Hispanics moving into a community in conservative western Michigan might be fraught with unpleasantness.

But Covert isn’t just any community.

For 151 years, it has been a land of racial hopes and dreams. Settled by whites and blacks just after the Civil War, it remains the most diverse community in Michigan, according to an analysis of census and demographic data.

The different races sat together in one-room schoolhouses in the early 1900s, danced together at sock hops in the 1950s, and were buried side by side at the end of the century, as attested by photos at the Covert Historical Museum.

“We’ve always looked out for each other,” said Barbara Rose, 70, a former supervisor who has lived here since 1952. “We’ve always come together whenever there’s bad stuff.”

While Detroit and other major Midwestern cities remain largely segregated today, the black Rose chuckled at the audacity of a town being integrated in the 1800s.

But the image of racial solidarity is being tested anew.

In the 1860s, blacks and whites had shared a bond: They were both newcomers working together to carve a community out of the Michigan wilderness, historians said.

Now the two groups are long settled, and the only novices are the Hispanics, some of whom don’t speak English.

How will the old guard react to the interlopers? Will the town of hopes and dreams endure?

“They have to get used to it. It’s a huge shift in diversity,” said Manny Barajas, a real estate broker who has sold 100 homes and farms to Hispanics.

The sprawling township, which sits along Lake Michigan, has dense forest, blueberry farms, 2,800 people and five churches.

The population is 50 percent white, 24 percent black and 30 percent Hispanic, which doesn’t include migrant workers, according to the 2010 census. One-third of the residents live in poverty.

Despite the penury, the one-block downtown boasts a library built in 2010 and a public safety building that opened in April. Township coffers have been boosted by its biggest taxpayer, Palisades nuclear power plant. But the company announced it will close next year.

On a recent Sunday, the downtown was so empty two youths roller-bladed down the middle of the two-lane main drag. They passed a lawn sign that read “Jesus Loves You/ Don’t Give Up.”

Built on good intentions

Covert wasn’t created as an abolitionist community, freed-black settlement or utopian social experiment, historians said. It was just a bunch of New England whites and former slaves who didn’t mind the color of each other’s skin.

The whites had been influenced by the teachings of the Congregational Church, which stridently opposed slavery, said Anna-Lisa Cox, a fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

She called their cooperation a quiet radicalism.

“(Covert) was founded by a group of people who had good intentions and acted on them,” Cox said.

In 1866, these common folk joined together and quietly flaunted racial laws and customs. It was illegal for whites and blacks to attend school together so the township omitted the race of students when sending rolls to Lansing for state aid, Cox said.

Pedestrians stroll down the sidewalk past Ernie's, a popular Hispanic-owned eatery next to the U.S. Post Office in Covert near South Haven late last month.

It also was illegal for blacks to vote, but Michigan law didn’t say anything about being elected.

In 1868, the same year Michigan voters rejected the right of blacks to vote, Covert elected Dawson Pompey, a black farmer who was the son of a slave, to supervise the building of roads, Cox said.

By the end of the century, the township had elected 29 blacks as township trustees, constables, drain commissioners and election inspectors, and the first black justice of the peace in Michigan.

Betty Colombel, 87, who is Pompey’s great-great-granddaughter, taught at Covert public schools and continues to live in the township today.

“We accept everybody and anybody,” Colombel said. “That’s just the way things were, and they never changed.”

All of this had been lost to history until Cox wrote about it in her 2006 book, “A Stronger Kinship: One Town’s Extraordinary Story of Hope and Faith.” Before that, Covert had been covert.

Cox began to research the township because she heard it had been part of the Underground Railroad. It wasn’t a part of the slave route, she learned, but it turned out to be something even better.

They came for the fruit

Now Covert is undergoing another transformation.

It was a happy accident Hispanics ended up here. They said they knew nothing about the township’s history. They had come for the blueberries.

The region, dubbed Michigan’s Fruit Basket, produces everything from pears to peaches, apples to apricots.

It has long drawn migrant workers who left after several months, residents said. But, for the past decade, immigrants from Chicago have come and planted roots.

Many bought small blueberry farms, less than 10 acres. They supplement their income by working at factories, food processors or in the service industry, according to a Michigan State University study.

Many immigrants had grown up in rural parts of Mexico. They said they never liked the hustle and bustle of the city. Covert feels a lot like home.

“It’s like a mecca,” said Ernesto Villegas, 39. “Here was a walk in the park (compared to the city).”

After Villegas and his wife had a daughter, they didn’t want to raise her in Chicago. Too much crime and violence, he said.

They came to Covert and opened Ernie’s, a taco-and-burrito joint in downtown. The stress of city life flew off his shoulders, he said.

“It’s the first time in my life where I felt like I could do anything,” he said.

If the downtown museum tells the stories of white and black settlers, the businesses around it tell the tale of the newest arrivals.

Abraham Villegas brings a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich to a customer in his father's restaurant Ernies in Covert.

Sweet Harvest Café is now Ernie’s. Sarno’s Farm produce is now Arellano’s Fresh Fruit Market.

The jazz that once flowed from J and L Soul Food Kitchen has been replaced by a television tuned to a Spanish-speaking show in La Racherita grocery store.

Even the Dollar General has Mexican items in its International Foods aisle.

The doors of Arellano’s and La Rancherita are plastered with ads for long-distance buses and phone plans, both highlighting service to Mexico.'

“It feels great. I really enjoy it,” said Ramon Villegas, a father of three boys.

Villegas, 52, was a migrant worker but is now a landowner. In 2012, he bought the 10-acre blueberry farm where he had toiled for 27 years.

On the outskirts of town, the poor live in dilapidated trailers splayed over open fields along unpaved roads. Behind one doublewide was a threadbare clothes line, a string attached to two sticks in the ground. Across the street from some of the trailers were handsome homes.

Signs at the entrances to nearby farms warn about the dangers of pesticide in English and Spanish.

When Hispanics began to move into Covert in larger numbers in the early 2000s, tempered flared at the high school.

Black students called them blueberry pickers and made fun of their poor English, Hispanics said. In 2004 a group of Hispanic youths spray-painted a series of black-owned homes but skipped a Hispanic one, according to news reports.

The newcomers also felt slighted by teachers. They said instructors didn’t invest much time in them, apparently believing that, like the children of migrants, they would be leaving in a few months.

Hispanics say the schools have improved but there is still a gaping need for Hispanic teachers. When Alex Corona’s daughter was in kindergarten, she had to translate for a teacher who wasn’t able to communicate with an older Hispanic student.

“The schools haven’t reacted to the large Hispanic population,” said Corona, 28, an optician. “They preach a lot of black history, but not Hispanic history.”

Relations between students have smoothed out as they got used to each other. As for their parents, there never was a problem. The newbies said they have been warmly welcomed by the community. Strangers frequently wave hello.

Maria Gallegos was elected to the school board in 2014 and became president last year. No Hispanic has been elected to the township board, but several have been appointed to committees.

Gallegos, 39, who was born in Chicago, began visiting Covert after her mom bought a blueberry farm in 2004. She moved here for good five years later after meeting her future husband on a blind date.

“I like everything,” Gallegos said. “The only thing I miss is transportation. If you don’t have a car, you can’t go anywhere.”

The old-timers said the arrival of a new group in Covert is no big deal. They didn’t have to get used to living among people of a different color, they said. They’ve been doing it their entire lives.

While they downplay their reaction, the descendants of the original settlers are proud of what their community represents.

“Nobody cares if someone is black or white or Hispanic,” said Jean Robinson, 75, who was born in Covert and is secretary of the museum board. “We don’t look at color.”

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Twitter: @francisXdonelly

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