Orville Hubbard -- the ghost who still haunts Dearborn

Dearborn Mayor Orville Hubbard stands defiantly in the center of Michigan Ave. outside the Dearborn City Hall.

For most of his 36 years as mayor of the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, the late Orville L. Hubbard (1903-82) was known as the most outspoken segregationist north of the Mason-Dixon line.
A few years after taking office in 1942, Hubbard started attracting national publicity as a controversial administrator with a strange sense of humor. Eventually he gained a reputation as a political boss who worked to keep his town predominantly white.
The following chapter on Hubbard’s peculiar brand of racism was excerpted from the 1989 biography Orvie: The Dictator of Dearborn (Wayne State University Press) by David L. Good. Good, an editor in the features department of The Detroit News, lives in Dearborn and once covered city hall under Hubbard.


By David L. Good / The Detroit News

Through the half-drawn blinds in his mayoral suite at Dearborn City Hall, Orville Hubbard could see mainstream America. He could see the storefronts along historic Michigan Avenue, once the main Detroit-to-Chicago auto route, known during Indian days as the Sauk Trail. He could see the housewives at the neighborhood shops, the businessmen at the lunch spots, the auto workers at the bank, the retirees on the benches and the youngsters on the municipal playground equipment. He could see it all. And he could see that it was white.

In a sense, Orville Hubbard’s view was no different from that in any of a dozen or more other segregated suburbs that ringed the city of Detroit — or in hundreds of other such communities scattered across the country. But Orville Hubbard saw the cityscape and knew it was more than just a view. He knew it was a level for self-perpetuation. And while the racism of Orville Hubbard was not the racism of the Ku Klux Klan, of the cross burners and the lynch mobs, it was just as insidious in its way, representing as it did the stranglehold of the white power structure on the political machinery of the suburbs of northern America.

In Dearborn the political machinery was housed in a three-story, brick, colonial-style city hall built in 1922 and distinguished chiefly by a cupola inspired by the one at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Inside, lettered above the front entryway, was an immediate reminder of the influence of Henry Ford: his inspirational saying, “People get ahead during the time that others waste.” To the right, down the hall from a spiral stairway, lay the mayor’s office. Past a paneled wooden door stenciled with an invitation to “Walk In,” a pair of industrious-looking secretaries awaited to intercept visitors.

The dingy green walls of the office were decorated with a mix of clippings and slogans, including the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and a quotation on human kindness. There was also a map of Southeast Asia for quick reference on the Vietnam War, a Marine insignia arrangement and a large color photo of three young woman waterskiing in 1950’s-style tank suits. For good measure, there was a time clock with a card exhorting, “You asked for work. You have a job. Dig in or dig out. — Mayor Hubbard.” And, as insurance against confusion on busy days, there was a “Please Take a Number” standard and a “Now Serving” numerical display. Beyond a swinging gateway, past the long table in the conference room, was the mayor’s inner sanctum.

ImageThe door to Hubbard’s city hall office.

There, behind a neatly ordered desk near the windows that looked out on the erstwhile Indian trail, next to a pair of large wall mirrors and a couple of old maps of the United States and Florida, sat Orville L. Hubbard, one-time high school athlete, ex-Marine, nonpracticing attorney, self-acknowledged expert on matters from the milking of cows to the history of the American Revolution, and personal symbol of suburban America’s resistance to racial integration. This sunny fall morning in 1972 was no different from most. The mayor had a visitor, and, as always, he was ready to impart his peculiar wisdom to whoever was within earshot.

Most of Hubbard’s conversations soon turned into rambling, disjointed discourses, often profane or scatalogical, but nearly always compelling. Although his voice was flat and adenoidal, he was a master storyteller, even when he mumbled or skipped words, as he sometimes did in his declining years. He was witty, apt of phrase, insightful in his analysis of human nature, unequivocal in his opinions. His musings were invariably an intriguing melange of folksy epigrams, barnyard humor, historical references and character assassination.

When Hubbard talked, he didn’t just talk. He regularly worked himself into a desk-pounding fury, spewing out a machine-gun barrage of cuss words as he recalled past transgressions, real or imagined, by opponents or subordinates. Then he would regain his composure and meander off into childhood reminiscences, anecdotes about historical figures or general philosophizing, often pausing along the way to check a date or a spelling with an aide. An interview with Orville Hubbard wasn’t so much a question-and-answer session as it was an occasional effort to nudge a monologue back toward a topic that may have seemed all but abandoned hours before.

ImageThe mayor checks his weight on scales in the hallway outside his office.

In one-on-one conversations, Hubbard often appeared obsessed with the race issue. At least that was how he struck me during a two-year series of interviews we set up to talk about his life, and this morning was typical. As usual, he had found something that set him off. This time it was a story about Detroit Mayor Roman S. Gribbs declaring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a city holiday. With a touch of incredulity in his voice, Hubbard began reading aloud Gribb’s description of the slain civil rights leader: ” ‘A man of our times. … A man for all times. He advocated and lived nonviolence.’ ”

Hubbard’s squinty, gray-blue eyes peered out from behind his reading glasses, his swivel chair squeaking loudly as he shifted around to face me directly. “That son of a bitch,” he said in measured tones. “Truman said that Martin Luther King was just a troublemaker. He certainly stirred up violence everywhere.” Then he read more of Gribbs’ commentary: ” ‘He struggled for and he gained equality. He resisted and he overcame hatred. ‘ ” Again, Hubbard looked up. “He did like hell,” he snapped. Finally, adding his own practical reflection on the folly of Gribbs’ gesture: “That’s a lot of holidays. And they’re broke? I wouldn’t vote to give ’em the time of day. That … mess in Detroit can never be straightened out. Never, never, never, never. ”

Orville Hubbard was rolling now. Spotting a story about 65 Haitian refugees being blown ashore on the coast of Florida, he immediately clicked back to his own days as a Marine in the Caribbean. He had served a year and a half in the Virgin Islands, “where it’s 99 and 44/100ths percent black,” and where he recalled with some chagrin having to step deferentially off the street to make way for the locals to pass. He also drew some lasting impressions from a couple of days stationed on duty in Haiti, which he still mispronounced as “Hay-tie.”

ImageHubbard had few contacts with blacks growing up in rural Union City, Mich., but by the time he got into politics, his feelings on the subject had been hardened by a streak of shamelessopportunism.

“Boy, that’s some country,” he said enthusiastically as he launched into an impromptu history lesson about “Hay-tie.” “It was settled by the French, you know, and then the n—–s all overthrew ’em one night — masscred ’em. For years they lived down there by themselves. They started eating each other. Cannibalism. The Marines went down there in 1914, and they ate a few Marines. There was a General Russell that was in charge ’em at that time. Gave the order to go through those hills and shoot every —damn thing that moved. That brought ’em under complete control then, settled ’em down.”

A few minutes later, the mayor came to a story about a 26-year-old Detroit woman who was awarded $740,000 after a bungled operation turned her into a mental patient. “Jesus Chris Almighty,” he thundered. “Society can’t stay in business. Because the n—–s are revolting, we just give it away.” This was vintage Orville Hubbard, all right. If he was trying to cement his reputation as the nation’s most outspoken segregationist outside the Deep South, he certainly was succeeding. It was exactly the kind of performance you might expect of a man who supposedly once had examined the bullet-riddled body of a black man and called it an open-and-shut case of suicide. Or a man who, during the Detroit race rioting of 1967, had ordered Dearborn police to “shoot looters on sight.” Or a man who, the stories go, sometimes used to discourage blacks who had just moved into Dearborn by providing police and fire protection that was a little too good — wake-up visits every hour or so through the night in response to trouble calls.

ImageSculptor Janice Trimpe works on a bust of Mayor Hubbard

    Despite his record, Hubbard, intriguingly, saw himself as almost a moderate on the race issue, even while giving in to racist invective of the worst sort. “I’m not a racist,” he once protested to his assembled department heads, “but I just hate those black bastards.” Once, in an apparent effort to show a group of appoinees and a reporter how broadminded he was, he approached a black parking attendant at one of his favorite luncheon spots and, with a flourish, kissed the man on both cheeks. “See,” the mayor told his entourage, “I don’t hate n—–s.”

In his later years, Hubbard seemed to take genuine umbrage at the label with which he was inevitably tagged. When Roy Wilkins pinned the “meanest man in race relations” tag on him in 1969, Hubbard declined public comment. But when I asked him about it later, he was palpably irked. “He’s full of s—,” he said, adding somewhat extravagantly, “I’m probably the kindest human being that ever dealt with people anywhere in the world.” And while Hubbard never did become completely reconciled to the civil rights movement, he was willing to make accommodations to it in his later years. If he looked at Dr. King as an agitator, he also once extended a cordial greeting to the Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy, Dr. King’s successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

ImageHubbard could relate well with individual blacks. Although he dismissed Dr. Martin Luther King, right, as an agitator, he once told Dr. Ralph Abernathy, left, “We’d like to have you living here.”

    When Abernathy arrived one afternoon in 1969 to speak at the Dearborn Inn, Hubbard told him, “We’d like to have you living here.” Hypocritical, perhaps, but it also was another indication that the ogre of Dearborn could —and often did —- relate well with individual blacks. Hubbard had few contacts with blacks when he was growing up. One of his most vivid childhood recollections in the rural Michigan community of Union City, he told me, was a huge sign depicting “a n—-r kid eating a watermelon.” But by the time he got into politics, his feeling on the subject had been hardened by a streak of shameless opportunism. Although he took no public position on the racial issue until he’d been in office for a few years, he soon became willing to seize on it as one more political advantage in a homogeneous community where many voters undoubtedly felt threatened by the presence of thousands of black auto workers at the Ford Rouge plant.

While the anti-Semitic sentiments of old Henry Ford all but evaporated from the public mind after Dearborn’s most famous citizen made a brief and unsuccessful foray as a U.S. Senate candidate, the white-only rhetoric of Orville Hubbard tinged the mayor’s entire career. Even his first successful run for the mayor’s job in 1941 was marred by rumors — unfounded, he always said — that he was a member of the Klan and the even more notorious vigilante group the Black Legion. Shortly after that, he began using a campaign slogan originally intended to refer to illegal activities in town before the Ferguson grand juries came in. “Our first slogan said, ‘Keep Dearborn Clean from Vice, Graft and Corruption,'” Hubbard explained to me. “That’s exactly what it means.” But a few years later, the slogan had evolved — in its familiar short form, “Keep Dearborn Clean” — into something that most observers took to mean “Keep Dearborn White.” Probably the most charitable interpretation of that evolution is that the mayor never worked very hard at dispelling the impression.

ImageHubbard and his Public Works Director Frank Swapka liked to keep the city neat, but the slogan “Keep Dearborn Clean” came to be a catchphrase for “Keep the city white.”

    Hubbard’s years in office were marred by a long list of racist pronouncements. In what was arguably the low point, he opposed construction of a low-income housing development in 1948 on the grounds that it was a “racial gamble” that could turn into a black slum. He went so far as to have his aides pass out leaflets urging citizens to “keep the Negroes out of Dearborn” by voting against a referendum on the project. One of his favorite stories, in fact, concerned a former council member who, he said, worked at a polling place while wearing a hat with the same exhortation on it. But there were no other politicos in town who could even think of outbigoting Orville Hubbard.

Hubbard became a national figure of sorts on the race issue in 1956, when he told an Alabama newspaperman that he was “for complete segregation, one million percent.” In 1965, the federal government tried him — unsuccessfully — on charges of conspiring to violate the civil rights of a Dearborn man whose house was vandalized during a mob scene stirred up by rumors that he had sold to blacks. A bit later, Hubbard became the first target of the fledgling Michigan Civil Rights Commission after he refused to remove race-related news clippings he had posted on city bulletin boards.

Despite all that, however, Dearborn’s history of outright discrimination or harassment against blacks — by either Hubbard, his underlings or his constituents — fell well short of the city’s national image as a bastion of northern racism. A much-repeated story throughout Hubbard’s tenure in office dealt with routine mistreatment of blacks traveling in Dearborn or trying to live or shop in the city. In fact, however, the public record contained little to back up the story.

ImageHubbard shows his contempt for his critics by stomping on a subpeona at a city council meeting in 1959.

The mayor had a way of explaining his position on the basis of justice and equity without realizing his words were loaded with irony. “God——,” he once was quoted in the NewYork Times. “I don’t hate n—–s. Christ, I don’t even dislike them. But if whites don’t want to live with n—–s, they sure as hell don’t have to. D——t, this is a free country. This is America.”

Usually, though, when quoted for print, Hubbard spoke temperately, if patronizingly, on the subject. “I just don’t believe in integration,” he told The Detroit News in 1967. “When that happens, along comes socializing with the whites, intermarriage and then mongrelization.” But, he added, “the Negroes who work here are well treated. The’re welcome in our restaurants and motels. One Negro told me that he never recieved more polite treatment that when he was stopped by one of our policemen. And go talk to the Negro family who was slipped into the city by some civil rights group. We treat them well.”

In spite of his frequent segregationist declarations, Hubbard was not, strictly speaking, a white supremacist. He never said blacks were inferior — just that they should be kept apart from whites. As for assessing his role in keeping Dearborn white, he occasionally claimed “credit” for the feat in his earlier years as mayor. But he became more modest about the “accomplishment” later in life.

“I don’t keep the n—–s out of Dearborn,” he told me. “I don’t keep anybody out of Dearborn. I haven’t done anything to encourage ’em. I don’t do anything to discourage ’em.”

“I would think eventually they’ll overrun the place — in another 20 years, I wouldn’t be surprised. We’re surrounded now. Christ, we’re just a little postage-stamp community here. I would say the attitude of Dearborn is no different than that of any other community. This town has probably got the greatest diversity of nationalities in the country — 45, according to the 1970 census report. That’s as many as the United Nations.

“I believe in freedom of choice. Most people want to be accepted, and the only way to be accepted is to fit the pattern. I’m not against any human being in the world. I’ve never taken a stand against a person because he was red, white or yellow, whatever his color is. I’ve taken this stand; I’ve never changed it: I don’t believe in one group of people forcing themselves upon another. The average fellow with good sense doesn’t go where he’s not welcome and not wanted. I don’t care who he is, where he lives, you or me. People upon this world have lived among their own people. That’s the pattern. That’s the whole history of the world.

ImageHubbard gets a warm welcome at a rally protesting HUD housing. Hubbard was not, strictly speaking, a white supremacist. He never said blacks were inferior — just that they should be kept apart from whites.

    “What the hell’s a racist? You’re a racist because you don’t believe in forced segregation? If you are, I guess I’d be a racist. Do I think the black man is inferior? No, I don’t. I think any normal-born human being that has an equal opportunity would develop as much as anybody else regardless of who they are. I think environment’s the whole story in life. Human beings — I don’t care what color they are , but they must be accepted on their own merits. If you’re going to be a bum, be a bum. If you’re going to try to do something, you’re recognized for doing something. Be proud of who you are and how you live, and people will be proud of you.”

That’s the kind of stuff many of the folks in Dearborn loved to hear _ the blue-collar conservative groups in the heavily ethnic east-side precints as well as at least a share of the WASP-ish white-collar and professional types on the west side. It was a formula for racial separation without all the guilt feelings engendered by outright vituperation. And it well may have helped pull Hubbard through an election or two in the early years of his career.<TAB

ImageHubbard visits precinct workers in 1977.

    To those who knew Orvill Hubbard well, the irony of this strong ethnic support was inescapable. Of several long-standing secrets he kept from his constituents, the best kept was that he harbored a wide-ranging personal contempt that extended far beyond the black race. He looked down on a variety of ethnic and religious groups, including many that turned out heavily for him at the polls. If he had not remained on the guard to mask his considerable prejudices about all kinds of white groups, he would never have seemed so easy to pigeonhole as a white bigot.

Indeed, during our interviews, Hubbard frequently let slip asides of anecdotes that revealed his deep-seated dislike of many non-WASP groups. Sometimes he caught himself, and sometimes he did not.

“They say the Jews own this country, the Irish run it and the n—–s have all the fun,” he once observed. Then he added, “There’s more truth to that. And if there’s ever any corruption — it’s not a good thing to say, make a lot of people mad, but it’s true — the Irish are all involved. I’ve noticed that over the years. In the police department, they seem to be more corrupt even than the Dagos.” He also built up an active dislike for the city’s burgeoning Arab enclave in the east end, allowing once that “some people, the Syrians, are even worse than the n—–s.”

ImageHubbard was confined to a wheelchair in his later years following a stroke. He spent his last years in this home owned by Maureen Keane on Wellesley in Dearborn.

    Observed Judy Cord, an office secretary for Hubbard from 1959 to 1970: “I don’t think he liked anybody. I mean you were either a Polack or a Dago or a Jew or a potato digger, or you were cheap or you were a son of a bitch. Whatever you were, that was the excuse. So I don’t think you could say specifically he disliked blacks, because he expanded to everybody.”

As an aside, however, let it not be said that Orville Hubbard remained totally blind to the evils of prejudice. At one point, he remarked with totally unitentional irony, “Those Irish Catholics are the worst of them all. They’re so damn prejudiced. They talk about the Irish Mafia, about what’s going on in Ireland. They never settle that stuff because of the narrowmindedness.”

But a question remains: Was Hubbard’s own racial stand really just calculated for political effect? There can be no doubt that he believed what he was saying publicly , and yet, in light of his privately expressed revulsion toward other ethnic groups, there’s equally little question but that he would have been saying it differently had circumstances been different.

One clue comes from the mayor’s own musing about his dealing with blacks on a personal and political level. “Christ,” he sputtered, “when I ran for office back in the early days (as a township justice of the peace in 1936), the Negroes all voted for me. I knew ’em all. I get along with everybody. I say if Negroes lived here, they’d be all voting for Hubbard.”

Blacks voting for Hubbard?

Perhaps. In another town, under different circumstances, why not? But left unanswered is the question of what sort of community would elect such a man on such a racist platform as Orville Hubbard implicitly ran on — and keep on electing him.

Copyright 1989 Wayne State University Press; reprinted with permission.