Statue of Limitations
Dearborn Mayor Orville Hubbard is still controversial, even 75 years after his election
Photo courtesy of Janice Trimpe
The last thing Orville Hubbard ever wanted was a statue. “Basically I’m not interested in landmarks,” Dearborn’s blatantly segregationist mayor once said. “You see what happened to all of the monuments to Stalin in Russia and Batista in Cuba.”
His comment may have been shellacked with a coat of hyperbole, but more than three decades after his death, it’s hard to deny that he sounded a bit prescient. As a controversial Confederate battle flag came down from the South Carolina statehouse grounds in July 2015, the national uproar over memorials to racism spread north of the Mason-Dixon Line — and straight to a life-size statue of Hubbard, polka-dot bow tie and all.
The statue began waving a cheery greeting near Dearborn’s former City Hall more than a quarter-century ago. But in a blog post last summer on deadlinedetroit.com, former Detroit Free Press reporter Bill McGraw urged that the statue be moved to the Dearborn Historical Museum. The American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee of Michigan called on the City Council to remove it.
It wasn’t the first dust-up over the statue. In 1988, Arthur L. Johnson, executive secretary of the NAACP Detroit chapter, told The Detroit News that the statue’s proponents “are obviously saying they think it doesn’t matter that he was a racist.” In 1999, the statue prompted an attack in Lies Across America by James W. Loewen, a former University of Vermont race relations professor. He titled a section on Dearborn’s mayor “Honoring a Segregationist,” and wrote: “Not until white suburbanites are embarrassed rather than delighted to live in all-white neighborhoods will Orville Hubbard’s statue come down.”
How did Hubbard — a lawyer who fizzled in nine previous election tries — become mayor, anyhow?
The tale involves the body of a police official, a corruption case, the head of Henry Ford’s security force, and a sensationalized magazine article.
On a sweltering July day, in 1941, flies swarmed around a mysterious Lincoln Zephyr. The gas tank was empty. In the trunk was a bottle of wine, partially drunk. Behind the wheel was the body of Charles Slamer, Dearborn’s chief inspector of police.
Was it murder or suicide? According to a coroner’s report, Slamer had killed himself with barbiturates.
Some two months earlier, he had been named an unindicted co-conspirator in a case alleging that Dearborn police took graft for protecting the National Daily Bankers, a huge numbers racket.
Though nothing came of the charges, the citizens of Dearborn decided it might be time to turn City Hall over to an outsider. The 1941 mayoral race matched Councilman Clarence Doyle against Hubbard, who found himself running as a reform candidate.
“It was lucky for me I didn’t get elected in 1939,” he said later. “I’d have been blamed for everything.”
A Doyle whispering campaign tied Hubbard to the Ku Klux Klan and the notorious Black Legion.
Then came the break of Hubbard’s career. The police magazine Dan Gillmor’s Scoop hit the stands just before the election. It summed up the Slamer case with the teaser: “Exclusive: Scoop rips lid off America’s biggest vice scandal.” It accused Harry Bennett, chief of Ford’s head-busting security force, of bringing in “a horde of criminals and gangsters, thereby helping to create the conditions that bred the wholesale vice and corruption.”
The next moves were like a chess match. Bennett bought every available copy of the magazine. Hubbard ordered 1,000 more, distributing copies across town. He tried to implicate Doyle without actually accusing him of anything: “By sitting close to the so-called fire, as hot as the one the grand jury found flaming, my opponent should have smelt-the-smoke,” he wrote.
Dearbornites elected him by over 1,000 votes.
Hubbard managed to stay in office for 36 years. He died in 1982 after having been incapacitated by a stroke while in office. The statue had been positioned next to a state historical marker saluting Hubbard as an “effective administrator” who “made Dearborn known for punctual trash collection, speedy snow removal, Florida retirement facilities and a free recreational area, Camp Dearborn.” According to Loewen’s book, an official in charge of the marker program had wanted to have Hubbard described as a segregationist, but was told, “We can’t say that; let’s just say everything that we can say.”
In September 2015, the statue was removed, with plans to relocate it to outside the Dearborn Historical Museum. As of press time, it was still in storage.