Cost of Segregation: Policies of exclusion created boundaries between black, white suburbs

By Gordon Trowbridge and Oralandar Brand-Williams

From the archives: This story was originally published on Jan. 14, 2002, as a part of a special project by The Detroit News.

WARREN -- Nothing in his training had prepared young Bill Whitbeck, up-and-coming Washington bureaucrat, for the scene he faced: a hot Sunday night, angry protesters, and a car that wouldn't start.

Whitbeck sat fretting in the back seat of a rented sedan. In the summer of 1970, Whitbeck and his colleagues at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had the job of a lifetime: trying to help secretary George Romney open the all-white suburbs of Detroit and other major cities to black homeowners.

After an unproductive meeting with suburban leaders, Romney rode off and more than 100 fuming protesters surrounded Whitbeck's car. The driver -- a young HUD lawyer and "one of the few blacks within miles" -- had to beg a cop for help getting the car started.

The escape left a lasting impression on Whitbeck -- and the political turmoil it symbolized left an even deeper impression on Metro Detroit race relations. Whites who since the end of World War II had left Detroit for the suburbs balked at efforts to make their new neighborhoods more open to blacks.

While avowed segregationists such as Dearborn Mayor Orville Hubbard grabbed headlines, other controversies were much more complex than simple racial hostility. But the product, say historians and demographers, was the same: A sharp dividing line between black city and white suburbs.

"It's not just academic," said historian Thomas Sugrue, a Detroit native. "It's played a big role in shaping how things look today."

Flight from the city

Detroit's population exploded in the first decades of the 20th century, fed largely by rural blacks fleeing the South for northern jobs.

For years, the city's blacks had been packed into areas north of downtown and on the far west side. But a growing black population strained at the walls constraining it, and increasingly, auto jobs provided the income to look for homes in middle-class neighborhoods throughout the city.

That was one factor in a complicated mix that sparked rapid turnover of Detroit neighborhoods from white to black. Much had nothing to do with race: Just as blacks were moving up the economic ladder, many whites could leave the crowded city for spacious suburban homes. New highways made it possible to live farther from downtown offices and urban auto plants.

Former Michigan Gov. George Romney served as President Richard Nixon's HUD secretary.

Still, dozens of neighborhood groups sprung up with the goal of keeping blacks out. Many open-housing activists called for integration, but political leaders, residents' groups, even ministers fought any expanded black presence in Detroit neighborhoods.

Profiteering real estate agents took advantage, a practice detailed by historians. A drumbeat of warnings to white homeowners that black buyers were invading generated plenty of new listings, and profits, for "block-busting" agents.

Marching for inclusion

Sugrue's parents were part of that receding white tide. Now a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, he is among the many who have chronicled Detroit's postwar decline.

"The untold story is in the suburbs," he said, where some whites -- though often a minority -- worked hard to make sure blacks didn't follow.

To this day, the deeds of many suburban homes still contain wording of restrictive covenants that barred sale to blacks -- covenants rendered impotent by law today, but a telling reminder of the barriers blacks faced.

Communities such as Southfield and Oak Park were welcoming. But places like Grosse Pointe worked hard at exclusion: In the late 1950s, state investigators uncovered a point system used by homeowners and real estate agents there that graded potential new residents on how "ethnic" they were blacks, Jews and other minorities were barred.

Invisible boundaries were clear to Detroit's black community. Breaking them down was a war fought on the streets and in the courtrooms. Detroiters such as Arthur Johnson pushed to open Detroit's white neighborhoods and predominantly white suburbs to blacks.

The local civil-rights community was energized by a visit by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, Johnson said. The Detroit branch of the NAACP mounted a series of boycotts against communities that kept blacks out.

For weeks, black protesters marched through Detroit's suburbs. A quiet but stern crowd often greeted them with tense curiosity.

"It was scary," recalled Johnson. "We marched in Dearborn, Redford, Grosse Pointe and Oak Park.

"It was really tense in Dearborn," Johnson said.

'Keep Dearborn clean'

Hubbard, Dearborn's mayor, was blunt and unrelenting in his quest to "keep Dearborn clean" -- a phrase that made "clean" synonymous with "white."

"They can't get in here," Hubbard told an Alabama newspaper reporter in 1956. "Every time we hear of a negro moving in ... we respond quicker than you do to a fire."

While city officials proclaim that the Hubbard era of racial antagonism is over, Dearborn has a street and senior housing center named after him, and a life-sized statue in front of City Hall. Last spring, the city made the late mayor's birthday a civic holiday.

Even without such reminders, Dearborn's past resonates loudly with African Americans, said University of Michigan researcher Reynolds Farley.

For the book Detroit Divided , an examination of segregation in Metro Detroit, Farley surveyed black residents about their perceptions of various suburbs. Blacks saw places such as Southfield as open and accommodating. They saw Dearborn as still harboring racial hostility, nearly two decades after Hubbard.

"Those reputations are long-lasting, even as communities change over time," Farley said.

Dearborn's black population is up sharply, from fewer than 100 in 1980 to more than 1,200 in 2000. Still, that's less than 1.3 percent of the population in a city that borders Detroit's 775,000 African Americans.

Warren key battlefield

Warren is another community blacks are hesitant to enter, Farley's studies show.

That Sunday night that so frightened Whitbeck was one of the low-lights of a 1970 fight between the city and federal officials. HUD, under former Governor Romney, was seeking to withhold federal money from communities that failed to encourage integration.

Warren became the key battlefield. HUD officials pointed out that while about 30 percent of the workers in Warren's factories were black, fewer than 50 black families lived there. Eventually, residents voted to reject federal urban-renewal grants if they were tied to integration policy.

Richard Sabaugh, now a political consultant in Macomb County, fought against the grants from his seat on Warren's City Council. He argues that his opposition, and that of most who sided with him, was only to stop federal interference in local affairs.

"There was never any concerted effort to stop integration," Sabaugh said.

"I have to admit there were some people who were opposed (to integration). I found that in politics you don't question the motivation of people. You just try to get their vote."

Whitbeck, now a judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals, said that with the hindsight of history, he believes efforts to impose integration were misguided. "Things change," he said. "But slowly."

Sabaugh argues there is now more openness to diversity than ever before: "More people know integration is inevitable and are willing to accept it."

With a population just 2.7 percent black, Warren remains the ninth whitest large city in America. But its black population more than doubled in the 1990s, to 3,700.

David Riddle, a Wayne State University history instructor who has written extensively on that era of Warren politics, said the events of 1970 still affect the city's image.

"When a municipality acquires a reputation like that, I think it's self-sustaining," he said. "The people governing in Warren now, most of them were in high school when this was going on. Maybe the guilt-by-association should be held in abeyance."

Discrimination's sting

Then again, whenever an episode of discrimination is uncovered, no matter how isolated, it brings those images back. John and Cynthia Newell and their young son, John Jr., encountered the sting of discrimination in 1990, soon after they moved to Warren.

Fed up with their crack-infested Detroit neighborhood, the Newells hoped to escape. Instead, they said, they were confronted with skinheads who burned a cross on the lawn of their rented home.

In the two years the Newells lived on Campbell near Nine Mile, they were accosted by teen-agers who told them to "go back to Africa" and stuffed their mailbox with "White Power" stickers.

"I had a white friend that I lost my friendship with because they kept calling her 'nigger lover' whenever we walked to the store," Cynthia Newell said. "They threw eggs at her when she was with me.

"All of the neighbors weren't racist. Some of them wanted to socialize. But they couldn't because they were afraid for their safety."

Such incidents reinforce the image of Detroit's suburbs as hostile to blacks.

"The issue for white folks is whether we want to be part of integrated communities. Certainly blacks are making an effort," said Cliff Schrupp, director of the Fair Housing Center of Detroit.