By Susan Saulny
HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — Even though more than 50 years have passed since Sallie Sanders was a confused little girl wondering why her family was kicked out of their house for being on the wrong side of the color line here, the pain seems fresh.
“Just abruptly, we had to end up staying with relatives and friends,” said Ms. Sanders, a retired state worker who is black and who, at age 60, still has trouble recounting the ordeal without breaking into tears. “It was kind of devastating. My parents tried to protect us quite a bit, but I knew something was wrong”.
And something was. In 1971, a federal judge found that this old manufacturing town, five miles from downtown Detroit, had purposefully used urban renewal projects throughout the 1950s and ’60s to obliterate black areas from its two square miles, forcing the displacement of hundreds of families.
Although the judge, Damon J. Keith, ordered a remedy, and Hamtramck agreed to build new housing, it did not. For decades.
Now, though, in a time of deep recession and a housing slump in one of the most economically depressed states in the country, Hamtramck (pronounced ham-TRAM-eck) is at last fulfilling its legal — and what officials now call moral — obligation to provide affordable housing to the mostly poor families who were dislodged generations ago. And if the plaintiffs in the original class-action lawsuit are no longer living, as in Ms. Sanders’s case, children and grandchildren are eligible.
About 100 houses have been completed for rent or sale, and another 100 are on the way, paid for by a mix of local and state money.
In the last five years, the town, population 23,000, began building the new houses, but the project stalled because of the recession. It is only now approaching the final stages of construction, thanks to a recent increase in federal stimulus money. The homes cost $140,000 to $160,000, and subsidies can drive the price down to $100,000; most rentals are in the $400-a-month range, after government assistance.
But beyond the building, Hamtramck has changed in another way, too. It is now Michigan’s most international and diverse city, having evolved from a town that was 90 percent Polish just 40 years ago. With the changes came new attitudes about how to deal with the past.
Just weeks ago, Ms. Sanders moved into a new ranch-style house on the same street where her family once lived, and Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm personally handed over the keys. As a young lawyer, Ms. Granholm was a clerk to Judge Keith in the late 1980s.
“We went full circle, and it’s pretty wonderful,” said Ms. Sanders, whose parents, now dead, were among the 250 plaintiffs who sued the city. “To acknowledge that, O.K., they were wrong, that gives me a little satisfaction because my parents were mistreated so. I just wish they were here to see it”.
The home building is also what experts call a bittersweet finale to one of the longest-running housing discrimination suits to weave its way through court, having begun in the civil rights era. Beyond its age, the case is also distinctive in that it happened at all. While Hamtramck may be an extreme example, experts said housing discrimination against blacks in the mid-1900s was common, but class-action lawsuits were rare because of their expense and complexity.
Some contend that urban renewal projects were routinely used to demolish black areas, and that most of the housing was never replaced.
“This case is unusual in a good way,” said Victor Goode, a lawyer with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Michael Barnhart, an expert on fair-housing law and the lead lawyer in the Hamtramck case, agreed. “This kind of discrimination happened all over the country,” Mr. Barnhart said, citing Chicago, Detroit and other cities.
Over the last 10 years, as the settlement appeared to be coming to fruition, Mr. Barnhart and a local minister, the Rev. Joseph R. Jordan, met with surviving plaintiffs and their families just about weekly, spending hours trying to work out the details of moving hundreds of families back to town, most from Detroit.
“We had tried several times over the years to get something started, but really couldn’t find the funding,” Mr. Barnhart said.
Judge Keith, who now sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, called the case “difficult” and “depressing” in an interview. But, he added: “I was there to see Sallie Sanders get the keys. It was meaningful to me as a human being”.
Charnita Monday, 64, is renting one of the new houses. She moved to Hamtramck from Bessemer, Ala., looking for factory work in the late 1960s. The home she bought was among those condemned.
“The judge just kept hammering on the case, and all those years, they wouldn’t let it go,” said Ms. Monday, who is black. “I think an injustice has been righted”.
“I had gotten physically tired, mentally tired and even tired of praying,” she said. “But now, it’s like you got a new life, you know?”
In his 1971 opinion, Judge Keith wrote that testimony showed that Hamtramck officials were well aware of the difficulties their actions caused for blacks, but that they “ignored their requests for assistance, failed to investigate complaints and in no way compensated such displacees for the loss suffered”.
He also chastised the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development for approving Hamtramck’s plans and failing to protect the plaintiffs’ rights.
After decades, Hamtramck has an opportunity, however painful, to come to terms with itself.
“Nobody with a conscience wants the burden of this enormous charge of racial discrimination to be hanging over them and who they are,” said Mayor Karen Majewski. “It’s important that we do whatever we can to redeem ourselves, our history and reputation.”
“And it’s been very hard to find a way to do that,” Ms. Majewski said, “because you know what this economy is like”.
Hamtramck, despite its size, has always had a large sense of self and pride — so much so that it refused to be annexed by Detroit like so many other small towns were in the early 1900s, forcing the city to grow around it. As a result, Hamtramck, originally a homogenous village, is now a city within a city, and in the last few decades it has become a first stop for immigrants from Bangladesh, Yemen, Albania and Lebanon, among a host of other countries. As of the 2000 census, 41 percent of Hamtramck’s population was foreign-born.
Alongside church bells, the Muslim call to prayer is broadcast by loudspeakers every day. Twenty-five languages are spoken in the public schools.
To Mr. Jordan, the minister, Hamtramck is almost unrecognizable as the same place that tore down his friends’ neighborhoods. “We have made tremendous progress,” he said.
Ms. Monday said she had been distraught after her house was demolished and she had to move her five young children into a small apartment in Detroit, where she lived until her new home became available in 2008.
“When I left, I was bitter,” she said. “It’s a different place now. It’s been good to me, and I’m happy”.
The New York Times