Detroit suburbs grapple with the history of being anti-Black ‘sundown towns’

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White residents of one northern Detroit neighborhood were not happy when a federal public housing development for blacks was announced in the early 1940s, during World War II.

A wave of protests against police brutality and white supremacy has spread across the country for two months, and metro Detroit is no different. Black Lives Matter rallies have been held in the city and its suburbs in the wake of the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd earlier this year. 

These protests and conversations about defunding police departments have included people from the suburbs and have mostly happened in Detroit. Now, suburbanites are engaging with the history and policies of their communities.

Delisha Upshaw is a Black woman who lives in Livonia, a suburb that is more than 90 percent white, with more white residents than the entire city of Detroit. 

Upshaw is part of the group Livonia Citizens Caring About Black Lives, which put up a controversial billboard off I-96 last week that reads: “Driving While Black? Racial profiling ahead Welcome to Livonia.” 

She says she wanted to bring attention to racism in her city. 

“I have an advertising and marketing background, so I thought ‘How can we force people into this conversation and how can we force people into action?’” Upshaw said. “That’s how we came up with the exact words and message of the billboard.”

Racism won’t go away if people are able to ignore it, says Upshaw who feared that would happen if Livonia Citizens Caring About Black Lives had gone for a “safer” approach. 

“I have a 13-year-old daughter who is going to be driving, and the more I learned from people’s personal anecdotes and stuff about police stopping Black people more often, I knew I didn’t want that for my child,” she said. 

Livonia Mayor Maureen Miller Brosnan released a statement last week saying racism isn’t tolerated in Livonia and city officials are committed to addressing the stigma of anti-Blackness that has been associated with the suburb.

Recommissioning the Livonia Human Relations Commission, having talks with a regional NAACP chapter and inviting the group behind the billboard to meet, are actions Miller Brosnan says the city should take to heal racial tensions.  

But Miller Brosnan isn’t exactly a fan of the billboard. 

“This billboard is counterproductive to these and other efforts we are taking to ensure Livonia is ‘a welcoming place for all’ – a goal that this group and I share,” Miller Brosnan said in the statement.  “This billboard will not help advance the progress of diversity in our community, something to which I am committed.”

Livonia Police Chief Curtis Caid refuted the claim that police officers target Black drivers. It is a welcoming city for everyone, he says.  But that doesn’t erase Upshaw and other Black people’s experiences with police there, or its legacy of being a “sundown town.”

Reynolds Farley, a researcher and sociologist at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy, defines a sundown town as a place where Black people weren’t allowed to live. 

“There was just a massive effort on the part of many cities to remain all-white in their population and to keep Blacks out in one fashion or another,” Farley said. 

Black people who were caught in these sundown towns often faced threats of violence if they hadn’t made their way to the Detroit border by sundown. Some faced actual instances of violence or were arrested by local police, according to Farley. But it wasn’t always violent. 

Some places created housing policies that restricted Black people from living there, while others had police escort Black people to the Detroit border.

Farley says these policies stretch as far back as the 1920s, when America was fresh off the victory of World War I and Black people began migrating from the South, hoping to find jobs in northern factories. Farley says that many of these towns became much more extreme about their desire to remain all white post-World War II, thanks in part, to the growing number of Black people who could afford to buy homes. 

Black people worked in factories near cities like Wyandotte, downriver of Detroit, but Farley says it was made clear that they were not welcome there, especially not as homeowners. 

Wyandotte wasn’t unique. 

James Loewen, a historian and sociologist, wrote a book called “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” that details this period in American history. Loewen didn’t respond to an interview request, but his website has a database of all the known sundown towns in Michigan, and the rest of the country. 

Jamon Jordan, Detroit historian and educator for the Black Scroll Network History and Tour, says many of Detroit’s suburbs were at one point or another considered sundown towns.

“Most of the suburbs that directly share a border with the city were sundown towns. Places like the Grosse Pointes, East Detroit which is now Eastpointe, Grosse Ile, Allen Park, Dearborn, even Ferndale which many people find hard to believe now, Royal Oak, Warren, they were all places that wanted to remain all white for many years,” Jordan said. 

Jordan says the tension between Detroit residents and people who live in the surrounding suburbs exists today. 

Jamon Jordan (Photo courtesy of Bridge Michigan)

“Detroit has a dynamic with the suburbs that a lot of other cities don’t have. If you say you’re from Atlanta, but you’re actually from Bankhead or College Park, no one really cares. Same with people in Los Angeles and the suburbs there;” Jordan said. “But in Detroit, people will take offense to someone from Bloomfield or even Southfield claiming to be from Detroit. Why? Because a lot of those suburbs were built on the idea and had their whole identity [based on the fact] that ‘we are not Detroit.’” 

The Federal Housing Administration contributed greatly to further segregating Black and white communities post-World War II because of racist lending policies and redlining.

Affordable FHA mortgage loans were made available to white people — they could buy homes in the suburbs —  while Black families were excluded from these opportunities. This occurred even when Black people could afford to pay more than their white counterparts. 

The FHA also approved loans only for certain neighborhoods —  redlining. Almost always excluding neighborhoods that were Black, again, regardless of if Black homeowners could actually afford to pay off the loan.  

Jordan says another reason the suburbs expanded so rapidly in the era of ‘White Flight’ is that white people living in Detroit finally wanted to not have to be associated with many of the economic and social problems that existed in the city. They also followed the jobs and housing opportunities the suburbs offered but that Blacks were excluded from. 

“Again, a lot of people back then saw the chance to get away from the bad press that is and was the city of Detroit,” he said. 

Today, suburban communities are hosting Black Lives Matter protests, and signs decorate lawns  in several communities. Upshaw and others who live in former sundown towns want to help end the legacy of segregation and exclusion. 

The city of Dearborn recently removed the statue of former Mayor Orville Hubbard, who was an avid racist and segregationist. Current Dearborn Mayor John B. O’Reilly Jr. says he is committed to making Dearborn a welcoming place for everyone.

“The removal of the Hubbard statue is a positive development for our community, because the statue had been more divisive than unifying,” O’Reilly said. “It distracted people from understanding the Dearborn of today, and our years of fostering productive relationships and inclusiveness.”

Although Hubbard wanted the city to remain all-white during his 36 years as mayor and afterward, Dearborn currently has the highest population of Muslims in the United States, more than 40 percent— or just shy of 41,000 people—of residents  of Arabic descent, and nearly 30 percent of Dearborn residents are born outside of the U.S.  

Other suburbs have committed to changing their regional standing. Ferndale has focused on promoting the LGBTQ community and other progressive people and ideas. The city elected Michigan’s first openly gay mayor, Craig Covey,  in 2008. The public school board there passed a resolution declaring racism as a public health crisis last month. 

The Grosse Pointes still have a reputation for being unwelcoming and controversies surrounding race are the subject of public discussion at least once every few years. Just two weeks ago, construction workers found a noose at Grosse Pointe South High School.  

Each of the five Grosse Pointe municipalities are majority white to this day, at least 80 percent white to be exact, some being as high as 94 percent white. 

Some elected officials throughout the five separate municipalities say that isn’t due to a lack of effort to diversify. Grosse Pointe Park Mayor Bob Denner says the city recently passed a Human Rights Ordinance to “signal the clear intent of our city to protect the rights of all our residents and visitors.” 

Grosse Pointe Park resident Elisa Gurulé has seen and advocated for these changes firsthand. A seven-year resident, Gurulé believes her city is more welcoming than it used to be and credits community organizations for driving the change. 

“There’s one group called WE GP, which stands for Welcoming Everybody Grosse Pointe and they have done a lot of the recent organizing for Black Lives Matter rallies here,” Gurulé said.

“Some of the younger newer city officials are much more progressive than their predecessors, but some of them were met with great resistance.”

Gurulé helped start a group called Little Pointers for Diversity on Facebook hoping that she and others could change some of the longstanding racist attitudes of her neighbors one conversation at a time. 

Even with these efforts, many of Detroit’s suburbs remain majority white and segregation in the region remains a concern. As of 2017, only seven of Detroit’s nearly 80 suburban municipalities are majority Black, and only 14 suburbs are at least 20 percent Black. Only Highland Park – an enclave, which many Detroiters don’t consider a suburb – and Royal Oak Township have a Black population above 75 percent of the total population. The city of Detroit itself is nearly 80 percent Black, for the sake of comparison. 

What do you think about racism in metro Detroit? Did you learn something new from this piece? What questions did you still have after finishing it? Let us know on Twitter @BridgeDet313. 

One thought on “Detroit suburbs grapple with the history of being anti-Black ‘sundown towns’

  1. James W. Loewen never GOT an interview request. I know, because I AM James W. Loewen. How did you request? Did you phone me? I show no record of it.Did you email me? I cannot see that you did.

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