In 1991, East Detroit, a Macomb County community located immediately north of the Motor City, wanted to turn the page. Through local referendum, its voters opted to change the name of their city to Eastpointe.
George Lawroski, a 45-year resident, had tried twice before the change East Detroit’s name. He argued that his hometown had been stigmatized by its big city neighbor to the south, which had been struggling with a high crime rate, rising unemployment and, in some neighborhoods, growing despair. One year earlier, ABC’s “Prime Time Live” aired a 40-minute news documentary on Detroit, which highlighted the city’s problems.
“When I say I’m from my city, I don’t want to be branded as a living in a slum,” Lawroski told the Detroit Free Press in 1991. He died in 2001.
Monique Owens was an elementary school student at Pentecostal Christian Academy then. The young Detroit resident during those days would often tag along with her grandmother to East Detroit to shop.
“I remember crossing Eight Mile [into Eastpointe] and I would say, ‘That’s somewhere I want to live,’” Owens recalled in an interview earlier this month with the Advance. “Now I live here and I’m the mayor of the city.'”
About 30% of Eastpointe’s 32,000 residents are African American, which is dramatically higher than the 4.7% of Blacks who lived there as reported by the 2000 U.S. census.
Owens moved from Clinton Township in Macomb County to Eastpointe about 10 years ago. Her career started as a clerical employee in the Detroit Police Department and later as a Wayne County Sheriff deputy. After being elected to the Eastpointe City Council, she developed a greater desire to serve as mayor.
But Owens’ ascension was more than a notion: In 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a suit in which it argued that Eastpointe violated the Voting Rights Act. The city, the feds charged, systematically denied its African-American residents the opportunity to elect people who look like them.
“Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits practices such as Eastpointe’s at-large City Council system where they improperly dilute the ability of citizens to elect the candidates of their choice,” said then U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade of the Eastern District of Michigan. “We filed this lawsuit to ensure that all voters in Eastpointe have a fair opportunity to participate in their local government.”
“Eastpointe elections are characterized by the use of practices and procedures that impair Black electoral success,” the suit read. “Under the totality of circumstances, the current at-large method of electing the Eastpointe City Council results in Black citizens in Eastpointe having less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”
One result was Owens being elected to serve on the Eastpointe City Council. Last November, she was elected mayor. She narrowly beat fellow City Council member Michael Klinefelt, earning 1,648 votes to his 1,629 votes — a 19-vote victory.
At 35, she is the first African American seated in either post.
“I didn’t want just Black people voting for me,” Owens said. “I’m good enough for Black people and white people.”
In her early days as mayor, Owens visited the White House with a group of fellow local elected officials. There, she met Vice President Mike Pence.
“I wasn’t able to meet the president of the United States [Donald Trump], but I was still able to meet the vice president,” Owens said with a glowing smile.
She hopes to make more visits to Capitol Hill and Michigan’s capitol in Lansing in hopes of securing dollars to support city projects that help her constituents.
Deonda Easley, an African-American Eastpointe resident, met Owens about two years ago and has been very impressed with her service as a city council member and now mayor.
“Mayor Owens is amazing,” Easley said. “It’s exciting to see someone that you know making history.”