I was born in Detroit, Michigan. The mayor, at the time of my birth, was Albert Cobo. Cobo was also born in Detroit, Michigan on October 2, 1893. During the Great Depression, he was an accountant for the Burroughs Adding Machine Co until he was lent to the city for six months to help out during a financial crisis. After helping to keep tax-delinquent Detroiters in their homes through a seven-year tax payment plan, Cobo was elected the city’s treasurer in 1935 and served a seven year term. He then became mayor in 1949 on a campaign of keeping the ‘Negro invasion’ out of the city’s white neighborhoods. Cobo died of a heart attack on September 12, 1957, just months before his last term in office would have ended. Detroit's largest convention center, the Cobo Center, is named in his honor.
While he deserves credit for the development of the city's civic center, Cobo achieved success through hostile policies and actions that negatively impacted the African-American community. He oversaw the razing of the thriving Black Bottom and Paradise Valley communities, where 75 to 80 percent of all African Americans in the city lived, in order to make way for expressways. The area was also the home of an estimated 350 black-owned businesses. Afterward, the city did almost nothing to assist or help relocate residents. The freeways simply made it easier for wealthier citizens to live elsewhere — where yards were bigger, homes newer and bigger, and property less expensive. In the end, land that was once home to many African Americans would sit unused and overgrown for years. By Cobo’s death, the city had lost more than 150,000 people; by the end of the 20th century, it had lost its status as one of the country's largest industrial and manufacturing cities.
Cobo called his policies “the price of progress.” Interesting choice of words, don't you think? To be fair, Cobo's attitudes and strategies were probably not all that different from many white politicians of his day, but does the fact that he lived in a time when racist attitudes dictated government behavior excuse such behavior?
You may be thinking: Why bring this up now?
Over the years, Detroiters, and, more importantly, Detroit area students, were only taught about Cobo's accomplishments. Only recently has the story behind the story come to light. Many are calling for the Cobo Center to change its' name. The core issue of this debate is what Rochelle Riley, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, calls “selective history loss.”
“[It] stems from the entirety of American history being taught from a singular point of view that omitted so much that made our country great and our current condition what it is,” she said. “Selective history loss happens when the tale of the hunt is told by the hunter rather than the lion. Years later, when you hear the lion’s side, you are incredulous such as when people expressed surprise when first lady Michelle Obama reminded them that slaves built the White House.”
Slavery built the White House. Gentrification built the Cobo Center. Each, in their own place and time, set the stage for decades of problems that plague the nation still today. There are few examples nationwide where communities have successfully avoided racial polarization. We are a nation of immigrants, a melting pot society, yet we have difficulty embracing and celebrating our differences; instead, we fight over them. We cannot seem to move beyond our prejudices.
So, how do we build a color-blind society? We can start by expressing our outrage over incidents like Charlottesville, Virginia. We can conduct ourselves as, and raise our children to be, responsible citizens who won’t tolerate bigotry, period. Balanced education, provided from diverse points of view, must be a top priority for America, moving forward. “America's divide will persist until we teach children whole history,” says Riley.
Until we open our hearts and minds to each other's life experiences, America's progress, as 'one nation, under God (or under law), indivisible, with liberty and justice for all' will never truly become a reality.