Greg Bowens, the newly elected president of the newly created Grosse Pointe/Harper Woods NAACP, has become amusingly accustomed to that reaction. His vice president, John Clark, a retired white Detroit police officer who served on the force for more than 30 years beginning in 1971, has also experienced his share of raised eyebrows. But more importantly, both men have experienced a significant amount of support from fellow Grosse Pointers who are beginning to recognize the importance of diversity and inclusion in an area that doesn’t exactly enjoy a reputation for either.
“I attended the Black Caucus sponsored by the Michigan Senate back in June, and there were a number of chapters from throughout the state there. We all had to go around and introduce ourselves, right? So I stand up in my blue blazer and club tie and say ‘Hi, I’m John Clark from the new chapter in Grosse Pointes/Harper Woods. And it’s like, ‘you’ve got a chapter in Grosse Pointe/ Harper Woods?” said Clark, adding that after the initial shock, he received a warm welcome.
One of the first to sign up as a member, Clark confessed that his son describes his political leanings as somewhere to the left of Rachel Maddow. To Clark, who laughed when recounting the discussion, it’s simply a matter of what’s right versus what’s not.
“For me it goes from something that can be accomplished to something that must be accomplished. The ongoing viability of diverse neighborhoods depends on there being, in my estimation, a resource like the NAACP available. It’s important for the folks who are discriminated against, but it’s also important for the rest of the community to have a place to go to when something has happened, or to report it,” he said.
The evidence of change, Bowens and Clark agree, is that so many more residents now feel compelled to report incidents of discrimination and racism, as opposed to looking the other way.
“I think generationally the Pointes have changed. I like to believe my adult kids have a broader view, and a more open view, of social issues than the generation that I came from. But you can’t take anything for granted. You can’t just assume that change is going to occur. You have to be aware of events in the community that give you indications that well, you know, maybe we’re not that bright shining city on a hill that we thought we were,” said Clark.
The impetus for the creation of Michigan’s youngest NAACP branch came from Grosse Pointer Elaine Flowers who was one of the first black females to join the Detroit police force in the 70s. Becoming frustrated with her inability to find an organization that she felt could be used as a vehicle to help create programs for young people to come together around issues related to race relations, she reached out to Bowens for his assistance in establishing a local NAACP branch. Bowens agreed to help, and the two reached out to their contacts, creating a nucleus of like-minded individuals who would join them. Clark was one of the first to sign up. But then Flowers leaned on Bowens a little harder, urging him to consider becoming the first branch president. Once again Bowens agreed. Much of what bound them together was a belief that the Pointes had enough good people living there who believed in racial equity and who were equally anxious to help the area grow and divorce itself from its well-known racist and unwelcoming past.
As fate would have it, two separate and unrelated tragedies that took the lives of two young women last December during the holiday season served as an unexpected catalyst toward racial healing, not only for Grosse Pointe but for Detroiters as well. Paige Stalker was 16 years old, white, and a resident of Grosse Pointe. Christina Samuel was 22, black, and a resident of Detroit’s east side. Stalker was killed on Dec. 22. Several days later, on New Year’s Eve, Samuel was killed.
“She (Paige Stalker) was the young lady who was a senior at Grosse Pointe South and was in a car with a bunch of kids. White kids. And they went across…they were in Detroit, on the east side of Detroit…reportedly smoking weed, I don’t know for sure, and the car was shot up and she was killed. And, at that same time, that was around the holidays, that same night, there was a young woman, she was a college student, about the same age, and she was murdered on the east side of Detroit, around Gratiot and 8 Mile. And people were saying that there was a lot of attention that had been paid to Paige Stalker’s death, and that folks had stepped forward and offered a substantial reward leading to the person’s capture …And so people all across the region were asking the question ‘why are we paying so much attention to this one life and not the other?” said Bowens.
“It looked like this incident at first might increase the divisions in the area, but instead the two families got together and rose above the nonsense, and said we believe that both of our daughters lives have value. I think it touched a lot of people to see how they were able to cut across lines of race, class and geography to say that there’s enough love out there for everybody. And that was another example of the kind of spirit that was floating around in the Pointes that would allow people to come together under the banner of the NAACP,” he said.
Unfortunately, a more recent event in Grosse Pointe, also involving young people, involved a group of Grosse Pointe South high schoolers who created a racist video that circulated throughout the YouTube universe. Ironically, the school’s principal, Moussa Hamka, is the first Arab American, who also happens to be a Muslim, to serve in such a capacity in any of the Pointes. When Hamka was first appointed he received death threats and racial taunts from around the country. Still, Bowens said he was encouraged by the response of the community which chose to confront the issue. And for the Pointes, Bowens said, that is progress.
“I’m gonna tell you the truth, man. Six years ago, five years ago when my oldest first went to high school? That kinda thing woulda never happened. They would have never said anything about it. The onus would have been on the black and Hispanic and white kids who would have been offended by seeing that and want to say something in class or in the hallway. And it would have been about their reaction as opposed to the incident itself that gave rise to it. The way that the community rose up and spoke out this time speaks volumes about the progress made,” he said.
But it isn’t only among white Grosse Pointers where progress is required. According to Bowens, there is still too much attachment to symbolism over substance among some black critics who persist in viewing the Pointes through a 1950s lens as opposed to where the community is today. What happened not that long ago at the Grosse Pointe Farmer’s Market is a perfect example, he said.
“The brouhaha was that Grosse Pointers are doing things to keep Detroiters out. And there were people from both sides who hung onto that narrative and said ‘that’s the deal.’ Now, I make no judgment about what’s in people’s hearts or anything like that. But I will say that while sometimes we can get so distracted by symbols, and the symbolism involved in something, that we lose sight of the big picture,” said Bowens.
“People put a kids wagon in the middle of Kercheval with a sign on it that said ‘Welcome to the Farmer’s Market.’ And some people said, ‘well that’s just another example of Grosse Pointers trying to keep Detroiters out.’ It was a welcome sign on a wagon.”
“And so while we’re going to be incensed about a wagon in the middle of the street and the symbolism that it represents. Even though it says ‘welcome.’ You’re not incensed that there are no black cops on the police force for any of the five Grosse Pointes. There’s not one black judge in any of the five courts for the Grosse Pointes. Or Harper Woods. You’re not upset that there’s only two teachers of color in the school system. You can have a kid that starts in kindergarten and goes all the way through 12th grade and never has a black teacher. Never see a black administrator. Never see a black secretary. I get the symbolism. What I’m saying is you’re incensed about this over here, but you’re comfortable with the real racism and the real discrimination. We can do something about this wagon, but teachers? Aw man, that’s hard. The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court is more diverse than every elected body in the Pointes ought to have those same people coming out in the streets and registering people to vote.”