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Reversing a Reputation

Desiree Cooper

Marc Sanchez

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Klan Robe
(Desiree Cooper)
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"We have Melon Fest, which is one of the things Howell's known for, is the Howell Melon Fest," says Cate Doefer. I met Doefer serving coffee at Howell's Uptown Coffeehouse. I asked her what else Howell is known for.

"Howell's known for ... " She laughed awkwardly. "It has an undeserved reputation for being racist, which I think comes from some guy who was the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who actually lived 10 miles north of here in Cohoctah. I think they picked Howell as a name, as an identifier of where all this activity was, because it's easier to spell than Cohoctah. It's also easier to say."

Doefer was talking about Klan leader Robert Miles. In the 1970s, he went to prison for bombing empty school buses during the desegregation of the Pontiac public schools. Klan rallies on his farm made the area a magnet for white supremacists.

He died in 1992, but the reputation hasn't. It's not all undeserved. Klansmen once paraded down Howell's streets.

Steve Manor is a retired teacher and Howell city councilman. He remembers another incident 30 years ago.

"The lady that was the head of that family was Shirley Griffin, and literally woke up in the middle of the night and there was a cross burning in the middle of her lawn," he says. "She called the police, and they responded. The authorities, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, were involved. They apprehended the people that did it."

For Manor and others, that wasn't enough. They formed a council to address racism in the entire county: The Livingston Diversity Council. They once held an exhibit of Jim Crow memorabilia in the town's Opera House. And they've had frank town meetings about racism.

Pat Convery heads the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce and is an active member of the committee.

"I have heard stories of people of color who refuse to get off exit 137 that's at Howell/Pickney to get gas because they knew they'd be beaten up," she says. "That shocked me, and it shocked the other people in the conversation, because it's not true."

The hearsay is a big hurdle for Howell to overcome. But Convery says they have to keep trying.

"Is it wrong for me to be happy to go out at lunchtime and see a couple of African-American people going into a restaurant?" she asks. "I almost want to go up and say, 'Hey, welcome!' Of course, I don't."

She remembers some of the council's discussions. "There was a person who was African-American who said, 'People look at me when I'm in Howell.' Well, I said, 'I'm probably one of the people because I'm going, 'Yes!'"

Those kinds of discussions have been great. But two years ago, they had a bigger issue to deal with. A local auctioneer came upon a stash of Klan robes: Buttons, posters, a copy of Hitler's "Mein Kampf."

He decided to auction the lot in downtown Howell. On the King holiday weekend.

Residents groaned. Here we go again. The diversity council pressured the auctioneer to move the date.

Meanwhile, Candye Hinton had just moved to the county. She's an African-American real estate agent.

"The first week that I was here, I was sitting on boxes, and I looked down at the newspaper and it said 'KKK Auction,'" she remembers. "And so I was literally trying to read the paper and somebody knocked on the door. And they said, 'Hi. We're here to collect items for the auction.' And I said, 'Oh seriously!' And I just slammed the door on her face and I thought, we're going to have to move.

"Come to find out the lady that was collecting for the auction was actually collecting for the elementary auction down the street that was happening at the same time. But I didn't know that," she laughs.

Since then, Hinton's had ups and downs living and working in the area, as the only black female real estate agent in the county.

"There are times that I may run into a bit of resistance because they're not sure if I'm the customer or the realtor."

"So they're more comfortable with you being the realtor than a customer?" I ask.

"Yeah!" Hinton laughs. "They are."

Still, Hinton emphasizes that she likes Livingston County, and day in and day out, race isn't a big deal.

Back at the coffee shop, Cate Doefer says Howell's reputation is hard on everyone.

"I worry about that a lot because my children are both in band," she says. "And we've gone to band things at Walled Lake East and my children have actually had people yelling at them saying, 'Howell, you're racist! Get out of here!' And my children have never done a racist thing in their lives."

In fact, the kids at Howell High School have their own very active Diversity Club. Anastasia Martin is the vice president. They have weekly earnest discussions about civil rights. They've protested against homophobia. But change isn't coming fast enough for the high school senior.

"I'd love to go somewhere where it's more diverse, where you can see how other people live and that everybody isn't white and middle class in the world," she says.

Meanwhile, realtor Candye Hinton said that it's only a matter of time before globalism and diversity come to Howell, whether they're ready or not. "It is no longer a completely all-white society or area. So when people say we never had that problem here, it's because it's never been in your face. It's never showed up and it's never sat by you."

This month, Hinton became the first black president of the Livingston Diversity Council. This is her chance, she says, to help turn Howell into a place that everyone would want to live, no matter their color.

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