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Bankole: New Ypsilanti mayor fights for racial equity

Bankole Thompson

Lois Richardson has watched the city she grew up in change before her eyes over the years.

The longtime Ypsilanti councilwoman, who was recently catapulted to the position of mayor in the wake of a racial uproar involving her predecessor, is the first black woman to lead the city.

And she wants a more welcoming city.

The era of the Black Lives Matter movement is creating almost a completion of a cycle of history for the new mayor and providing an instructive perspective for how she would lead a majority black city with a population of roughly 20,000.

June:Ypsilanti mayor resigns; Richardson becomes mayor

The city was a significant stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves who were seeking shelter as they traveled through Detroit to enter Canada as their final destination. In fact, the abolitionist and reformer Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave and one of the most consequential figures in history, is said to have visited Ypsilanti on several occasions where he gave speeches.

Beaming with pride, Richardson shared some of her memories of a time when Ypsilanti had a vibrant and stable African American community despite the persistent racism during the Jim Crow era:

Ypsilanti Mayor Lois Richardson

“We had our own Rosewood in the south side of Ypsilanti. We had every single thing we needed in our community. The only reason anyone would go downtown was to pay their utility bill or to the library. The only difference is that urban renewal came and wiped out everything we got. I grew up in that era of the 1950s.” 

The impact gentrification has had on this black enclave has remained a visible reminder of how many black neighborhoods have been decimated in other urban cities where ihigh-priced developments displaced residents.

There has been ongoing debate in Ypsilanti about the issue of affordable housing and whether the city is favoring developers at the expense of longtime residents and small businesses.  

“I’m taking over at a time that I’m supposed to be taking over. This city needs a lot of healing right now,” Richardson told me. “I’ve had a number of calls from both young and old about the pent-up hurt and anger built over the years. Many people have been experiencing racism here and have not spoken up.”

Richardson says she wants to roll out a 40-member race and equity advisory committee to begin to tackle some of the issues relating to structural inequities in the city.

The mayor plans some initiatives in her first 100 days in office that will presage things to come as well as demonstrate the kinds of issues she wants to champion. She said it’s the right time to push for changes to the enduring obstacles to racial progress in the city.

It makes sense. Many public officials including African American elected leaders around the country view the death of George Floyd, an African American, who died recently under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer, as a moral reckoning for all those working toward racial justice.

“I think this moment has been a long time coming for us Black people. I am so proud of our young people for stepping out there. I’m with them 100%,” Richardson says. “I think that we as a people have to push through this movement. It is not a moment, and we can’t stop. We have to move with this movement now.”

She added: “I’m going to move with this movement because I want to see us come to that place where we are fully free and without harassment from the police, and free to move in this country as the words that were printed in that document (Declaration of Independence) says that it should be.”

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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