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Remembering Roman Gribbs

Roman Gribbs was pretty much a forgotten man, politically at any rate, the first time I went to see him almost seventeen years ago. He was respected in the legal community, and coming to the end of an almost twenty-year career as judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals.

But apart from that, he spent forty years as the answer to a trivia question: Who was the last white mayor of Detroit? By the turn of the century, many people had forgotten. 

Which was unfair. Gribbs, who died Tuesday at the age of 90, was sort of an accidental mayor, but one who deserved more credit than he ever got for keeping the city together and trying to make it better. He was actually sort of an accidental politician. .

What he always wanted was to be a judge. 

His parents were immigrant farmers whose last name was Grzyb, the Polish word for mushroom. Their son Roman, whose friends called him Ray, served in World War II, went to law school on the GI bill, anglicized his name, and practiced in Detroit. 

He was decent and honest and ended up getting appointed sheriff. He felt a little funny about that at first, he told me, because he had no law enforcement background. 

But a friend told him,  “Hey, it’s an administrative job, not a police job. Get your name out there, and you can be elected judge.” Instead, pressured by a wife whom he would later divorce, he ran for mayor, and won a very close election in 1969. 

It was in many ways a harrowing time. Two years earlier, the city had been devastated by the infamous riot. During the four years Gribbs was in office, he told me he woke up every summer morning worrying whether another riot would break out. The riot also accelerated the flight of white residents, businesses and jobs to the suburbs. 

Yet Gribbs told me, “I thought with the right help and assistance, we could make the city better than it was.”

Gribbs created a new positon called deputy mayor and appointed an African-American to fill it. “I knew to prevent (another riot) I had to bring in the black community, make it part of city governance,” he told me. He worked with Henry Ford II to build the Renaissance Center and helped revitalize Eastern Market.

“I think I stabilized the city, got it moving again. We brought crime down, and of course another riot never happened.”

But Gribbs wasn’t happy. He wasn’t a flashy personality; he preferred administration to politics. He didn’t run again, and Coleman Young was elected to replace him. When I last had lunch with Ray Gribbs four years ago, he told me not seeking reelection had been a mistake.

“If you really want to do something in Detroit, you’ve got to commit to eight years, not four.” When I was leaving his chambers in 1999, he told me people often said, “You know, you were the last white mayor there’ll ever be.”

And he would reply, “No. There will be a time when we have another white mayor. I think race will eventually wash away, but it’s not going to be in the next decade.” Roman Gribbs lived long enough to be proven right. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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