Statue of Dearborn ex-Mayor Orville Hubbard taken down

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

The statue of Dearborn’s former mayor, criticized for his segregationist views and whose monument was debated vigorously by residents of a changing city, was taken down Tuesday morning from in front of old City Hall.

It will be moved to the Dearborn Historical Museum, where Jack Tate, acting chief curator, said he’s heard that the city wants to have the statue in its new place outside the museum “before frost gets on the ground.”

“Orville Hubbard is a big part of our history,” Tate said.

But area activists and others say relocating the monument signals a shift in how the controversial mayor’s views are perceived today.

Mayor Jack O’Reilly said he hopes moving the statue reflects the new Dearborn, one he says is diverse and welcoming.

“The history is set, it’s done, it’s fixed,” O’Reilly said. “That’s not who we are today, or what we represent.”

The call for the statue to be removed from the old City Hall began as national groups sought the removal of the Confederate flag in South Carolina this past summer.

The strongest push to take down the work came from Fatina Abdrabboh, director of the Michigan regional office of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Its placement in a museum, she said Tuesday, is the right choice.

“... Not everything in a museum (is something) we valorize. There are also things we extract lessons from,” she said.

“Our whole country continues to discuss the impact of race and racism in our lives, and today’s dismantling presents another opportunity,” a statement on the group’s website said.

When the old City Hall was sold in 2013, the statue was expected to be moved, said Mary Laundroche, director of the Dearborn’s Department of Public Information. The decision to move it to the historical museum was made “in the last month or so,” she said.

Laundroche said a public works crew moved the statue Tuesday because of construction at the site. Artspace is building living and work space for artists and galleries in the building.

More than 30 years after Hubbard’s death, and more than 35 years since he last served as mayor, his tenure remains controversial.

Supporters speak of Hubbard as a mayor who kept his city safe and clean and prosperous, even as Detroit’s fortunes changed for the worse next door.

Critics speak of Hubbard as the most prominent northern segregationist, and say that honoring him is inappropriate in a community that has changed since Hubbard’s time.

Hubbard, who served as mayor from 1942-78, infamously refused to allow African-Americans to settle in Dearborn. But when civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy came to Dearborn to give a speech in 1969, Hubbard told him “we’d like to have you living here.”

“He was a complicated person,” said David L. Good, a former Detroit News editor and Dearborn Historical Commission chairman who wrote a book on Hubbard. “He wasn’t just a segregationist. In many respects, he was a very good mayor and did a lot of good things for the city. ... He got the streets cleared of snow and leaves. He had a wonderful recreation system, parks and pools, Camp Dearborn and the senior citizens apartment building in Clearwater, Florida.”

Longtime Hubbard aide Maureen Keane-Doran told The News she visited the statue at the old City Hall site every day. Doran said she was “heartbroken” and “sick about it” to see the statue she helped pay for moved from its once-prominent location. The old City Hall site is “where it should have stayed,” Doran said. “It wouldn’t have hurt anybody.”

Nancy Hubbard, Orville’s daughter and a former longtime Dearborn City Council member, said while she would prefer to “leave it where it is,” Hubbard noted the old site is no longer city property.

Hubbard said she hopes her father is remembered “for all the wonderful things he did in Dearborn.”

O’Reilly, the mayor, said that moving the statue to the new city administration building would be read as an endorsement of what Hubbard represented. The city tried to strike a balance, O’Reilly said, between remembering its history and “not reflecting that the past controls the present.”

O’Reilly likened moving the statue to an historical museum with the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol in South Carolina to a museum: Both Hubbard and the flag are “a part of history, a learning tool,” but neither should be honored.

“It was never intended the statue would come to the new (city hall),” O’Reilly said. “There was a lot of damage done” to Dearborn’s reputation during Hubbard’s tenure, he said.

O’Reilly was elected to the Dearborn City Council in 1990 and as mayor in 2007. His father, John, was an Orville Hubbard protege before succeeding him as mayor.

Jack O’Reilly remembered Hubbard as a complicated figure. In 1951, he survived a grassroots recall effort. Once, when Hubbard had lost a lot of weight, he sold his old suits on the lawn of City Hall.

“Orville Hubbard was a real publicity hound and he wanted people to know what he thought,” Good said. “He was a man who was photographed covered with white bunnies for Easter. He was photographed jumping up and down on a subpoena — and then, when some of the photographers missed it, he did it again for them. He was photographed with a boa constrictor, he was photographed in a clown mask.”

Janice Trimpe heard of the statue’s imminent move months ago. The Orville Hubbard statue she sculpted in six weeks in 1989 was the start of a career sculpting well-known works, including one of the UAW Sit Down Strike in Flint and the statue of the old man playing checkers with his granddaughter in Mount Clemens.

“I think it’s perfect” that Hubbard will be placed at an historical museum, said Trimpe, 72, who lives in New Mexico.

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter, said Dearborn of the 2010s is a repudiation of the segregationism for which Hubbard is known.

“The vision that Orville Hubbard had, thankfully, is not the Dearborn of today,” he said.

The city is believed to be at least one-third Arab the Census considers Arabs as white and its black population is 4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Walid said a museum is the proper place for the statue to be displayed, but said it “should be given a proper explanation.” He said the historical marker accompanying the statue was insufficient and should be replaced by one that tells a fuller story of Hubbard’s record, including his efforts to keep black people out of Dearborn.

The sign will indeed change, Tate said. The old sign, placed by the Michigan Historical Commission, referred to the old City Hall site, and wouldn’t make sense any longer. While the language for the new sign hasn’t been written, Tate said the new sign would “cover Orville Hubbard’s life and the things he did as mayor.”

Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan Historical Center, said that state historical markers that are taken down are either recycled or destroyed. They are state property and can’t fall into private hands.

The Orville Hubbard marker went up on Michigan Avenue in 1984, two years after Hubbard’s death and five years before the statue. These days, Clark said, it’s common to let at least 10 years pass between an event or a death and the placement of a marker. When the sign in Dearborn is re-written, the language will have to be approved by the Michigan Historical Commission before a new marker can be placed, Clark said.

Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed to this report.