The Black Autoworker in Early Industrial Detroit

It’s fair to say that the workers of Ford Motor Company (FMC) played an essential role in the industry’s growth in the early 20th century. With the growing popularity of the product along with a new scarcity in the workforce due to the closing off of European immigrants following World War I1, industrialists began to search for potential employees who could compensate for this shift. Meanwhile, southern black residents, many of which being the first generation free of slavery, saw in this an opportunity to escape the oppression a relentless Jim Crow south and live comfortably with job prospects. These factors of push and pull inevitably led to the Great Migration, with large numbers of newly emancipated blacks moving to the north in search of social and economic prosperity that both themselves and their ancestors were denied. According to author of “The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford” Beth Tomkins Bates, Detroit saw a growth of 5,741 to 40,838 in its black population in the decade between 1910 and 1920. This growth then doubled by 1925 with the city’s black community increasing to 81,000. Upon arrival these migrants slowly found that, despite their hopes of economic and social liberation, they’d be met with further hardships, discrimination, and economic suppression. 

A southern black family after arriving in Chicago, 1922

Work on the Ford assembly lines was often relentless and tiring with long hours, short breaks, and repetitively face-paced physical excursion. In the 1920’s, one auto worker was cited saying this about the work pace: “The machine that I am on goes at such a terrific speed that I can’t help stepping on it in order to keep up with it. The machine is my boss.”2 The average autoworker in this time faced many hardships to obtain their paycheck, but for post-war black migrants that path was made significantly more difficult. Job insecurity and frequent layoffs, lack of accommodations from their employers, and other working conditions at FMC meant that African American workers often dealt with “income [that was] insufficient for his support and that of his family.”3 On top of this, black workers were disproportionately assigned to dirty and dangerous jobs. This was particularly prevalent at the River Rouge plant, with 26% of the workforce being African American by 1922 and growing exponentially in the following years. Foundry workers here were subjected to a dangerous, hot environment and were prone to get serious burn injuries from the work. Nauseous fumes also were inhaled by these workers, resulting in high death rates due to tuberculosis and pneumonia.4

River Rouge Plant worker pouring molten metal into mold, 1934

In addition to the poor working conditions many African American workers faced at FMC, home life and housing was another source of stress and harm. According to Joyce Shaw Peterson, author of “American Automobile Workers 1900-1933”, with the sudden influx in population and a reallocation of resources and attention following WWI, a housing crisis developed that would specifically affect blacks and subsequently lead to further discrimination. This also lead to a more rigid system of housing segregation in the area (which already existed in the area before, but to a lesser degree), with 85% of Detroit’s black population living in the East side area in 1910. Later in the decade when southern black migration would grow, they would be systematically forced into this area of high concentration. Peterson also cites that housing options in this area were particularly old, in poor conditions, and overly crowded with a 1919 report stating that there was “not a single vacant house or tenement in the several Negro sections of the city. the majority of Negroes are living under such crowded conditions that three or four families in an apartment is the rule rather than the exception… stables, garages and cellars have been converted into homes for Negroes.”

With all these sources of stress, economic and housing disparity, and proneness to workplace injury and harm, it would have been necessary for the black community to find leisure activities to decompress on their days off work. The problem was that many recreational institutions were heavily segregated and often barred entry of black individuals. This then led to the boom in black churches in the Detroit Metropolitan area. Acting as a pivotal institution to African Americans since the 19th century, black Detroit autoworkers found it to be a versatile and supportive community. Churches like the Second Baptist Church of Detroit, the largest black congregation in 1915 Detroit, offered a support system for the community with education opportunities, information on housing and relocation, and resources for employment.5 Churches like these also offered a variety of activities such as plays, debates, lectures, recitals, clubs, and athletic events.6 It goes without saying that the auto industry greatly impacted the lives of African American workers (often in more negative ways), and the church offered a place of otherwise missing solace, becoming a major epicenter of black social life.

A vintage photo of the Second Baptist Church of Detroit
  1. Bates, Beth Tomkins. 2012. The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford, pp. 2
  3. Peterson, Joyce Shaw. 1987. American Automobile Workers 1900-1933, pp. 85
  5. Peterson, Joyce Shaw. 1987. American Automobile Workers 1900-1933, pp. 91

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