On this day in 1963: GOP Michigan governor fights for fair housing

    1963 March took place on Kercheval Avenue. Here is the Detroit-Grosse Pointe Park border, Kercheval Ave. near Alter Road | Ken Coleman

    An unlikely collaboration occurred on June 29, 1963 — at least by today’s political standards.

    Gov. George Romney, a moderate Republican, participated in a seminal NAACP march against housing discrimination in a set of exclusively white metro Detroit cities.

    The demonstration, which occurred before the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act of 1968, proceeded along Kercheval Avenue through Grosse Pointe and into Grosse Pointe Farms. Immediately following it, a rally was held at Grosse Pointe School. The Pointes were all white at the time — although Blacks had worked there as domestic workers there for decades. The effort attracted between 500 and 700 people — about half of whom were white, the Detroit Free Press reported the following day.

    Romney, who served about six years as Michigan governor, from January 1963 to January 1969, called demonstrations like the effort in Grosse Pointe “the most epic struggle in America for freedom since the Civil War.”

    “The elimination of injustice and discrimination is most critical and urgent domestic problem in the United States,” Romney continued. “Until we eliminate this discrimination, ours words will have a hollow sound to the world. The Americans today who are pursuing the most difficult course are the Negroes in the North and South who are showing the nation the way through these non-violent marches.”

    1963 March took place on Kercheval Avenue. Here is the Detroit-Grosse Pointe Parker border, Kercheval Ave. near Alter Road 2 | Ken Coleman

    For years, Detroit NAACP president Edward Turner challenged housing discrimination in the cities located immediately of east of Motor City. “Grosse Pointe represents the epitome of the sophisticated kind of discrimination, the kind practiced by every man, woman and child who lives in the community,” Turner said.  

    The Pointes did not have an African-American homeowner until 1965 when A. Gordon Wright, a 35-year-old federal government official, bought a two-story red brick colonial home on Rosedale Street. Wright, a lawyer from Cleveland, headed Detroit’s federal Economic Development Administration office.

    Romney, who ran for president in 1968, resigned as Michigan governor in January 1969 to join the Richard Nixon administration as U.S. Housing and Urban Department secretary. He is the father of U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who drew headlines as perhaps the only prominent Republican to march in a recent Black Lives Matter protest. Ronna McDaniel, Republican National Committee chair and former Michigan Republican Party chair is a granddaughter. 

    George Romney died in 1995. 

    Grosse Pointe Park welcome sign | Ken Coleman

    Today, Grosse Pointe Park is about 10% African American. In 2015, Grosse Pointes-Harper Woods NAACP Branch was founded. Three years later, Sierra Leone Donaven, a Grosse Pointe Farms resident, became the first African-American city council member in any of the Grosse Pointes. 

    A Black Lives Matter peaceful demonstration was held in Grosse Pointe Woods on June 2. Like the 1963 march, it too, attracted Blacks, whites and others.  

    Ken Coleman
    Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.