Dearborn City Council votes to remove Hubbard name from city ballroom

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Dearborn, joining cities across the country in efforts to remove racist symbols from public spaces, is moving toward banishing the name of its segregationist former mayor.

The City Council unanimously voted Tuesday night to remove the name of Orville Hubbard, Dearborn's longest-serving mayor, from the city's performing arts ballroom.

This is a 2007 photo of the statue of Mayor Orville Hubbard in front of Dearborn City Hall. Many have criticized the monument to a man seen by some as a segregationist.

The action drew some critics to decry a "cancel culture" move.

In addition to the Hubbard Ballroom at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center on Michigan Avenue, the former mayor's name is displayed around the city, including on signs for Hubbard Drive near Fairlane Town Center.

After more than an hour of public discussion, the council voted to rename the ballroom in honor of President Abraham Lincoln for overseeing the end of the Civil War. The 15,000-square-foot ballroom is a popular space for weddings and events for up to 800 people.

The initiative was begun by council members Erin Byrnes and Robert Abraham.

The council adopted a renaming policy a year ago and Byrnes proposed renaming options in the summer. She said Lincoln gained the most support because, in 2011, Dearborn was selected as one of a handful of cities to showcase the Emancipation Proclamation.

"Since the ballroom was originally named in 2007, the space has undergone extensive renovations and upgrades. Currently, of course, the ballroom is closed due to COVID-19, but the renaming will be an accurate reflection of the ambiance of the space as it exists," Byrnes said.

Byrnes said the renaming will be important in the relaunch and rebranding of the event space.

"I see this as a process that's about evolving, not erasing. It really is about advancing unity and inclusivity in our city, and I hope that this is a positive message," she said.

Councilman David Bazzy said it's not the same civic center that he grew up roller-skating in. He is looking at the space in a different light.

"Over the years, we've spent a significant amount of taxpayers' dollars to renovate the ballroom ... and be a welcoming facility, and with that, we started looking for the appropriate names that emulate what the ballroom now stood for," Bazzy said. "We can't change the past."

Resident Leslie Windless said her family "would never have an event in a space named Hubbard."

Hubbard Ballroom seats 800 people in the Ford Community  & Performing Arts Center.

Council member Leslie Herrick said, "Especially now, one of the enhancements is a full-service kitchen, (the ballroom) is much more elegant than it was between when it was a roller rink and what it is today. I was torn with the name, but the name evokes the ideals that President Lincoln represented: Peace, freedom, unity, democratic and inclusive process."

In June, Hubbard's statue was removed from the grounds of the Dearborn Historical Museum in the city's downtown as a divisive symbol and was given to his family. A day before, a Black Lives Matter shirt was placed on the statue.

Hubbard was the mayor of Dearborn from 1942 to 1978 and was known as a segregationist. His "Keep Dearborn Clean" campaign was considered a thinly veiled effort to keep his city White.

Residents weigh in

"It's funny how no one on council brought up why the name change occurred," said Mike Hachem. "Because of personal ideologies, not because of upgrades."

Hachem and other residents said it was a "cancel culture" decision by the City Council. Hachem said erasing Hubbard's name from public view would be no different from taking former Mayor Michael Guido's name off of the city's performing arts center.

"If we're going to remove his name, might as well let's remove Mayor Guido’s name for what he said about Arab Americans. His name is right in front of the building. Might as well rename Ford Road, Fordson, Oakland Elementary ... all have played a crucial part in history," Hachem said.

"I know my tax dollars will go to this, and yet earlier we just saw that we didn't have enough to pay for city services. Let’s stop playing games."

Karen Stachecki said the council handled the initiative poorly and said members shouldn't spend time or money renaming the ballroom.

"This should have been open to residents on whether it should be done, and then as to a name," Stachecki said. "You’re saying this isn’t a cancel culture move and yet you put a historically political name on it, so that contradicts what you're saying it's not."

Abraham said he was part of the original naming of the ballroom and said it was not named in honor of the former mayor.

"We're doing a disservice to the rest of the Hubbard family that provided decades and decades of service, not only to Dearborn but to Wayne County. Many of the Hubbard family still reside in Dearborn. Most of the comments are really not disputable, but I can tell you first-hand that the name was to recognize the entire Hubbard family, in fairness to all of them."

Former Dearborn mayor Orville Hubbard stands guard on Michigan Avenue in an undated photo. Hubbard was the mayor of Dearborn from 1942 to 1978, and was an outspoken segregationist. His "Keep Dearborn Clean" campaign was a thinly veiled effort to keep the city white.

The renaming issue also led some listening in on the Zoom meeting to accuse the city of disparate treatment of Black and White residents or visitors. The remarks grew heated at times and led the council to issue a warning about using respectful language as some accused the city of racist policies and decried the high taxes they say prevent some people from moving into the city.

Council members did not respond to the claims during the public portion of the meeting.

Others joining the Zoom meeting said changing the name was "the littlest we could do" to prioritize unity. 

"Council members who don't want to address it and want to ignore statements about if racism even exists against Black people in Dearborn. That's disgusting, anybody on council who is allowed to be OK with that ..." said Alexandria Hughes.

Hubbard was elected mayor 15 times and sometimes referred to as the "Dictator of Dearborn," author David L. Good wrote in his book published in 1989 by Wayne State University Press.

"He became a model for successful suburban leaders, establishing a reputation for outstanding municipal services and low taxes, as well as for the most notorious racist rhetoric north of the Mason-Dixon line," wrote Good, a former Detroit News editor who reported on Hubbard for 18 years. "During his reign, Hubbard was compared with nearly all the tyrants of the twentieth century and some before."

After the 1967 riots in Detroit, Hubbard threatened to "shoot looters on sight."

“(Hubbard) was a complicated person,” Good told The Detroit News in 2015.

Workers take down the statue of former Mayor Orville Hubbard Tuesday morning from in front of the old City Hall building in Dearborn.

► More: Orville Hubbard — the ghost who still haunts Dearborn

“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 citizen's apartment building in Clearwater, Florida," Good said.

Longtime resident Ken Paris said Lincoln's considerations of race have come under scrutiny, just as other policies or positions of other prominent historical figures, and the renaming could have been done better.

"If we have no past, we have no future. Can we just judge the past by the standard of the present? Many of us seem to really be intent on proving not only that we can, but that we must," Paris said. "Let's start acting like a community."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_