There’s something familiar about Hamtramck’s latest election cycle

By Greg Kowalski
What to make of these new immigrants taking over political control of the
town? What’s going to happen to the rest of us?
Those questions were being asked all over Hamtramck — 90 years ago.
At that time the incumbent German population was rapidly being overwhelmed
by the new Polish immigrants who were coming to work mainly at the Dodge
Main factory.
The Germans were worried, even frightened. They knew the
Poles, but not well. In fact, for centuries the Poles and Germans had been
at odds and occasionally even enemies. So they felt they had a reason to be
The village of Hamtramck was carved out of the much larger Hamtramck
Township in 1901. At that time it was a small farming village of about 2.1
square miles, with a population that was about 95 percent of German
descent. Poles and other ethnic groups made up about 5 percent of the
By 1920, the percentages were the same — only reversed. The
village was 95 percent Polish and other ethnic groups and 5 percent
Germans. And the numbers had changed astoundingly. From 3,500 people in
1910, the village had grown to near1y 48,000 people.
What hadn’t changed, however, was that the Germans maintained almost
total political control. Poles had tried to make inroads into the political
scene but were actively shut out. It wasn’t unusual for the village
officials to abruptly close the polls at 4 p.m. on election day, just
before the shift ended at the factories, so the Poles who worked there
couldn’t vote. They had no say over their high property assessments and
taxation by the township and village, which became hot issues.
In response, the Poles formed the American-Polish Political Club, and
began monitoring village council meetings. In October, 1917, they asked
that a Polish-speaking person be hired by the village clerk’s office so
they could communicate better with the officials and make their concerns
known. But they got little satisfaction from the Germans in control.
Finally, they organized their voting force when they learned that the
Germans were considering allowing the village to be annexed by the growing
city of Detroit. The Poles began the process of seeking to have Hamtramck
incorporated as a city. An election was held in October, 1921, in which
voters, by a 4-to-1 margin, supported the incorporation of Hamtramck as a
Once that happened, Hamtramck could not be annexed by Detroit. In
1922, Hamtramck formally became a city, and within the space of two years
the Poles had taken complete political control of the city, virtually
forcing out all the Germans who held office.
A lot of political maneuvering went on to accomplish this. The Poles and
Germans both wooed the African-American voters, who, while not a large
block, were reliable voters and could make the difference in the election.
In fact, two African-Americans were on the council — Ordine Toliver on the
last village council and Dr,. James Henderson on the first city council.
When the Poles took control, Peter Jezewski was named the first Polish
mayor in America, and the pattern was set: For nearly eight decades almost
every person elected to office was of Polish descent.
After many years of being in control, it is understandable when one group
supplanted by another is anxious, whatever the nationalities involved may
be. But a lesson can be learned from what happened 90 years ago — Hamtramck
adapts and goes on.
And sometime history repeats itself, right before your eyes.
(Greg Kowalski is chairman of the Hamtramck Historical Commission.)

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