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Commentary

The city of Dearborn turns the page on one of its racist leaders

Jack Lessenberry

When I was young I was proud that I didn’t live in Dearborn, whose mayor-for-life, Orville Hubbard, was a bizarre brawling clown who wore outlandish bow ties.

Hugely fat, he would do anything for publicity. Pose with a boa constrictor, wear a giant paper bag, or straddle Michigan Avenue looking like a bargain-basement Mussolini, you name it.

He raised parakeets in his office and often sat there in his underpants. He humiliated department heads, once making one get down on all fours and bark like a dog.

And he was a famously open racist. Everybody knew that his slogan, “Keep Dearborn Clean” meant, “keep it white.”

Everybody knew that his slogan, "Keep Dearborn Clean" meant, "keep it white."

During the civil rights movement, he was happy to tell the New York Times that he favored “complete segregation” to avoid a “mongrel race.”

If African-Americans were foolish enough to try to move in, he boasted that he had the police hassle them until they left.

“I’m not a racist. I just hate the black bastards,” he once said.

Nevertheless, Dearborn loved him.

He was first elected mayor in 1941, and was constantly reelected by huge margins. Despite his appalling tendencies, he ran a city that provided amazing local services, including a summer camp and a retirement community in Florida.

Never conventional, he left his wife and lived with Maureen Keane, a young local beauty queen turned mayoral aide, who nursed him through his last term, after he had been incapacitated by a stroke. She then attempted to be elected mayor herself, but failed.

Hubbard finally retired in 1978 and died four years later.

In 1989, the city erected a statue of him in front of Dearborn’s old city hall. Yesterday, they finally took the statue down, and carted it away to the Dearborn Historical Museum.

The people running Dearborn today were mostly relieved. Mayor Jack O’Reilly said, “there was a lot of damage done” to his city’s reputation during Hubbard’s time.

Mayor Jack O'Reilly said, "there was a lot of damage done" to his city's reputation during Hubbard's time.

Today’s Dearborn is at least one-third Arab-American, and Dawud Walid, one of their leaders told the Detroit News that Hubbard’s vision “is thankfully not the Dearborn of today.”

Yet, he was a complex personality.

David Good, a former editor at the News, wrote a magnificent biography of Hubbard, Orvie, The Dictator of Dearborn.

Last night Good told me, “as appalled as I was by much of what he said and did, I liked Hubbard. I knew what he was, and liked him anyway. He was a fascinating personality, never boring, by far the most interesting person I ever met.”

David Good thinks sending the statue to the Dearborn Historical Museum makes sense, though his first choice would have been the Henry Ford Museum’s civil rights exhibit.

Good said something else we should remember:

“In a lot of ways, Dearborn wasn’t that different from a lot of other lily-white suburbs a half century and more ago – except for Orville Hubbard. Hubbard said stuff out loud that reflected the views not only of a lot of his constituents, but white folks in nearby suburbs as well.”

There’s a lot of truth in that, and there are many people, black and white, who would give anything today for the quality of city services Hubbard’s Dearborn provided.

That too might be worth thinking about, even if it is good that his statue is gone.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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