Detroit turns page on Cobo, bank to rename convention center

By: - February 20, 2019 7:31 pm

Cobo Center | Ken Coleman

The Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority (DRCFA) on Wednesday awarded the naming rights of 723,000-square-foot Cobo Center in Detroit to Chemical Bank.

Larry Alexander, Mike Duggan and Gretchen Whitmer at Cobo renaming, Feb. 20, 2019 | Ken Coleman

The facility is named for former Detroit Mayor Albert E. Cobo. Many African-Americans have long called for the facility to be renamed, given Cobo’s record of racial discrimination in the city.

The Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit NAACP president, grew up in Detroit and was a child during the turbulent 1960s when racial relations in Detroit were intense.

“It’s not a renaming,” Anthony said. “It’s a reclaiming. You are really reclaiming a sense of sensitivity, of bringing people together.”

The DRCFA manages operations at Cobo Center and made the selection. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and others were on hand for the announcement.

“Our announcement today gives us all an important message: That public-private partnerships work, and the we continue to dedicate ourselves to serving the customers of this great center and to the rebuilding of a truly great American,” said Larry Alexander, DRCFA chair.

Gary Torgow at Cobo renaming, Feb. 20, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Alexander said the renaming process could take “six or seven months” and that current Cobo exterior signage will come down sooner than that.

“Today’s announcement continues to build on our bank’s investment in the city, its neighborhoods, the region and our state,” said Gary Torgow, Chemical Financial Corporation board chair.

Cobo Center is the 17th largest convention center in the country. It hosts the annual North American International Auto Show, as well as the annual NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner, an event fundraising event that routinely attracts 10,000 people each spring.

Chemical Bank recently announced that its corporate headquarters is moving into downtown Detroit. It is the largest bank headquartered in Michigan.

Cobo was elected mayor of Detroit in 1949. He served in that role until suffering a fatal heart attack in September 1957. City elections in Detroit are nonpartisan, but Cobo was an active Republican. He challenged Michigan Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, a Democrat, for the state’s top office in 1956. Williams handily won re-election.

Cobo’s relationship with the city’s growing African-American community was notorious at best. He presided over an eminent domain takeover of a historic section of the city that largely Black and poor known as “Black Bottom.”

Only days into his tenure as mayor in January 1950, Cobo began work on his “slum clearance” plan in Black Bottom.

He said at the time: “I feel that we must acquire the land in these backward sections that we must remove the buildings there from, and sell the property back to private individuals for development.”

In 1954, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the city’s Housing Commission had practiced racial discrimination with respect to its prior actions and policies.

Duggan called Cobo’s razing of Black Bottom “discriminatory.”

“I believe that the civic center needed to be renamed,” Duggan said. “I’m not a big believer that you’ve gotta renamed every street and building in your country or in your city, but the Cobo era was marked by the wiping out of African-American neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal.”

Cobo Center | Ken Coleman

Whitmer said that Wednesday’s announcement begins the “next chapter” in Detroit.

“We know that the name that is coming off this facility is one that is synonymous with division — and right now in our country and in our state, I know that we’ve got enough division,” she said. “It is time for us to move forward together and to build bridges and to do so in a way that everyone has opportunity. That’s part of what is happening here today.”

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit.