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First Weekend Home

New Life for Hamtramck's Black Enclave

Desiree Cooper

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(Courtesy JRJ Consulting)
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This weekend, 62-year-old Charnita Monday is going to be doing what she's done almost every day of her life: Hang out with her little sister, 61-year-old Helen Hatcher.

The sisters live in Hamtramck, Mich., a two-square-mile independent town inside the City of Detroit. The two are happy there now, but it hasn't always been so great. They left the segregated South as teenagers, only to face discrimination again when they moved north to Hamtramck. The city's Jim Crow policies almost pulled them apart forever.

The women grew up in Bessemer, Ala., and went to went to live with relatives in Detroit after their mother died. It was Motown in 1965 -- back then, the center of the music world "It was new, exciting, going places, doing things!" Monday says. "Freedom! When you're 18 and leaving home you be, wow."

The sisters worked, married and raised their families. The whole time, they either shared the same house or neighboring apartments. In the late 1960s, Monday decided to buy them a bigger house. That's when they moved into a two-family flat in Hamtramck. "I lived downstairs and she lived upstairs," Monday says. "We had one phone, we shared it. When she was going to work, I would keep her kids. We looked out for each other. It was always Charnita and Helen."

They felt at home in their mostly-black enclave in the predominantly Polish neighborhood. Their neighborhood was separated from the rest of Hamtramck by a freeway. It was both a physical and psychological barrier that Monday was uncomfortable crossing.

"You lived on this side of town, other people lived on the other side. If you crossed the line, it wasn't pleasant."

Often, the white business owners refused to serve them. Cabs wouldn't pick them up. In 1968, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the city alleging Hamtramck was trying get rid of its black residents.

It turns out that the highway that ran through Hamtramck was originally planned to go around the town. But Hamtramck city officials intervened and requested that the freeway be re-routed straight through one if its black neighborhoods. After that, the area slowly decayed through neglect.

"That neighborhood was allowed to deteriorate to the point of collapse," says Michael Barnhart, who was 27 when he became involved in the case called Garret v. City of Hamtramck. "The sewers weren't working well, the streets were ruined. Houses were being condemned."

A federal judge called city's urban renewal plan "Negro removal." He found the city guilty of displacing countless black families. Charnita and Helen's neighborhood was hit hard. Their house was condemned and they were forced out of Hamtramck. Monday ended up on the west side of Detroit, Hatcher on the east side.

Up until that point, Monday had tolerated racism. But now it had broken her apart from her sister. That hit close to home. "You don't fully understand racism until it happens to you," she said. "Someone has to treat you different, 'cause of the color of your skin, which it shouldn't be."

The judge ordered that new housing be built for the plaintiffs. That was in 1971. For the next 35-plus years, nothing happened.

"Well, The first question people ask me is how this could have taken 40 years," said Barnhart. "Part of it is that for years, the city simply fought every issue. Also, the city was in and out of receivership -- they didn't have the financial resources to do it."

As the years turned to decades, Barnhart worried that many of his plaintiffs wouldn't live to see justice served. Time was taking a toll on the sisters, too.

"We have the same issues," said Monday. "I have a bad heart, she has a bad heart. Rheumatoid arthritis -- she has it. I do, too. I was stuck in the house and she was stuck in the house. All we had was the phone."

Then, about nine years ago, things started to change in Hamtramck. New people were in office. There was more cooperation between the local, state and federal agencies to support the project.

Karen Majewski, the current mayor, says she's committed to getting the 200 court-ordered houses built. "We can't hold ourselves as a model of inclusiveness and ethnic diversity unless we make sure we live it," she said. "We can't do that with a 40-year-old racial discrimination lawsuit hanging over our heads. We have to do the right thing."

It wasn't until Hatcher actually got a subsidized house in Hamtramck that Monday dared to believe it could happen for her, too. She had just one request: "If they could just find a house a block apart where we could roll and see and each other, I would be happy with that," she said. "But the best part of everything is when they told us we had a house and they were side-by-side!"

Juanita Jones, attorney Michael Barnhart and even the mayor of Hamtramck were there when the sisters moved in. For Majewski, this is the beginning of a new era for Hamtramck.

"You don't always get to make restitution to the folks you've wronged," she said. "And in this case, we can. And what comes out of it is not just a shaking of hands. We shake hands and we keep holding hands -- and the path that we walk on after this is one we walk together. That's what's so gratifying."

  • Music Bridge:
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    Artist: The Album Leaf
    CD: Seal Beach (Better Looking)
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  • By Patty Mendenhall

    From Beaverton, OR, 04/19/2008

    I listen to your program every week, but this was the first time I felt compelled to write. It made my heart feel good to learn that Helen and Charnita were finally able to live next door to each other again. An injustice was finally corrected. It gives me hope. Thanks for your wonderful report.

    By Deborah Terrell

    From Chicago, IL, 04/19/2008

    I was so impressed with this story I had to access the website and view the slides.
    Thank you!

    By Barbara Stuart

    From Saginaw, MI, 04/19/2008

    I really enjoyed the story about the Hamtramck sisters. It was heartwarming and encouraging to hear that the right thing was done to bring them back home and living next to one another. Your program is wonderful and keeps me company every Saturday. Thank you.

    By Roman Kozak

    From Omaha, NE, 04/19/2008

    I found your story very interesting, as i know Hamtramck well, my grandparents lived there for some years, in the Ukrainian community. Its good to hear good news about the city. I can' help but wonder about the origin of Charnita's name though, as in Polish it means roughly 'little black girl'. Do you know?

    By Leroy Jacobs

    From Chicago, IL, 04/19/2008

    I LOVE THIS STORY!! THIS IS A GREAT ENDING!!

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