Detroit, A Model City
Neighbors in his dilapidated west Detroit
neighborhood remember James Major as a preacher who helped his wife manage
an apartment building. They recall watching as sickness claimed his wife's
life, as infirmity stifled his, and he unceremoniously disappeared into
a nursing home. Its hardly the kind of life one expects to be grist for
But there in the September 1997 issue
of the Journal of American History, along with articles on slavery in Bourbon
County, Ky., and African-American scholar-activist W.E.B. DuBois, you can
find the story of James Major and the kiss that sparked a wildcat strike
and derailed his future.
Major was then, in 1955, a strapping
married man of 35, a would-be boxer, a World War II Army veteran who that
January had landed a job in the trim department of Chryslers Dodge Main
Plant in Hamtramck. As an African-American, his mere presence in that department
was a reminder of recent changes, troubling changes for the white men who
had formerly had a lock on the installation of hardtops and side chrome.
Troubling, too, for the hierarchy, was the presence of white women like
Majors frequent work partner, Catherine Young. When Major and Young became
friendly, even flirtatious, tensions simmered and finally, on the last
work day before Christmas, boiled.
That last work day was traditionally
a festive one, complete with booze. Young proposed a round of Christmas
kisses between the couples who occupied consecutive workstations; she proceeded
to kiss a white co-worker, while Major delivered a peck to the cheek of
one Leona Hunt, also white.
As Hunt walked away, the Yule festival,
in the words of author Kevin Boyle, became something much more ominous.
White workers yelled and swore at Hunt,
who began to cry. If he done that to you, Mrs. Hunt, he will do it to others,
shouted one white worker in a growing crowd, according to Youngs
subsequent testimony. Security officers hustled Young and Major
before managers, saying Hunt had filed a complaint. Production ground to
a halt; managers shut the line down; and a mob of idled workers waited
to hear that Major had been fired and Young suspended for 10 days.
The incident at Dodge Main seems so
easily explained that it is hardly worth a second glance, writes Boyle.
But the former Detroiter and associate
professor of history at the University of Massachusetts is part of a burgeoning
movement among historians to give such Detroit events not only glances
but sustained examination. Their goal is to interlace the broad forces
of change with daily life; zeroing in, for instance, on the experiences
of a few people like Major and Young and their co-workers.
Says Boyle, Detroits become this symbol,
this way of exploring urban problems which is sort of a sad thing to say
in some ways and particularly the problem of race. Its this laboratory.
For a number of thirtysomething historians,
Boyle included, turning the telescope of their profession on the city is,
in part, explaining a place they once lived. Its just one of those places
that gets under your skin, Boyle says.
In his article The KissRacial and Gender
Conflict in a 1950s Automobile Factory, Boyle details the years leading
up to 1955, the slow crumbling of what had been a white male employment
enclave as first white women and then black men made headway. And after
that fateful Dec. 22, 1955, Boyle follows the failed efforts of Young and
Major to find redress through their local union, the UAW Fair Practices
Department and Michigans Fair Employment Practices Commission.
For Major, it was his first and last
job in the citys lucrative manufacturing plants. The bitterness lingered
40 years later when Boyle tracked him down.
The interplay of the personal and the
political lies at the center of so much of postwar American historythe
struggle over integrating neighborhoods and schools, over the distribution
of welfare benefits, over urban renewal, writes Boyle. Again and again
we see the costs of that interplay, in the battered body of Emmett Till,
in white flight from central cities, in the smoldering ruins of South Central
Los Angeles. And too we see its victories, in the gradual fashioning of
a society where, at least at times, a kiss between a black man and white
woman can remain simply a kiss.
Symbol of division
Several miles north of James Majors
old neighborhood, residents are well aware of the history in their midst.
They see it dailya concrete wall, nearly a foot thick and 5-feet-plus tall
that runs through back yards for three blocks near Eight Mile and Wyoming.
Out walking his dogs, Glenn Wilson, 47, eyes the wall where it runs along
the Alfonso Webb Playground and recalls that being big and adept enough
to boost up and walk atop the wall has for decades been a childhood rite
of passage here.
It was like a grown-up stage to be
able to walk that wall. Anybody couldnt walk that wall; you had to have
some skills, says Wilson.
But growing up in the 50s, everyone
here knew the meaning of the wallto divide the races, whites on one side,
blacks on the other. The neighborhood is entirely African-American on both
sides of the wall today, Wilsons family having been pioneers integrating
the white side. A boxing instructor at nearby Johnson Recreation Center,
Wilson says he tells youngsters the wall symbolizes something thats wrongHuman
beings, were supposed to get along.
Outside the immediate neighborhood,
the story of the wall had been largely forgotten in Detroit and remained
virtually unknown beyond the city. That is, until it came back into light
as part of Thomas Sugrues 1996 book, The Origins of the Urban CrisisRace
and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. If the chronicling of recent Detroit
history constitutes a movement, a new school of city historians, Sugrue,
now a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania,
is its central figure its pater familias, said one fellow historian and
Origins is its central book.
Sugrue had found scattered references
to the wall in his research, and finally, in the Burton Historical Collection
of the Detroit Public Library, came across the papers of schoolteacher
Burneice Avery, who had grown up among a settlement of 1,000 blacks who
staked out land in the neighborhood beginning in the 1920s, built temporary
quarters and agitated for federal loans to build the permanent homes of
their dreams, running water and all.
But federal support was more readily
available to a white developer who wanted to build to the west of the black
community, which was seen as a high-risk slum by government appraisers.
The developer erected the half-mile wall during the 1940s in a deal with
the Federal Housing Administration for loans and mortgage guarantees. To
the African-American neighbors, the government had colluded in a concrete
After reading the Avery papers, Sugrue
recalled, I got in my car and drove to Eight Mile and found the wall still
standing. & I wasnt surprised, though I suppose it is to many folks
shocking because it gives physical form to the racial segregation thats
so pervasive in metropolitan Detroit. Its the most obvious, most blatant
symbol of division.
What has made Sugrues book important,
though, isnt the rediscovery of the wall or his detailing housing segregation
and pitched conflicts the wall symbolizes. And it isnt his dissection of
the abrupt collapse of the citys manufacturing base after World War II,
and the disproportionate blow that collapse dealt to the African-Americans.
Many of the things that he brought
to light, a lot of us knew already, says Mike Smith, a Detroit historian
at work on a dissertation on the 19th century development of the citys
street railways. But he put it all together and did meticulous research.
Origins of the Urban Crisis
won more than a half-dozen awards, including the Bancroft Prize, which
goes annually to top works in the field of history. Theres no clear count,
but Sugrue guesses that its being used at dozens of colleges around the
country. It is also in that minority of academic books that breaks out
to a general audience.
Groundbreaking is the term that historian
Jacqueline Jones uses to describe Sugrue and other historians re-examining
Detroit. He shows that the issues of jobs and housing were critical to
the citys development and to the persistent inequality experienced by blacks,
says Jones, a professor of American civilization at Brandeis and winner
of a MacArthur genius grant for her work on the history of the underclass
and other topics.
The recent work on Detroit & highlights
developments critical to understanding national politics in the
post-war era, says David M. Freund of Princeton, who is working on a book
about white racial politics in the Detroit suburbs from the 40s through
From the outset of his book, Sugrue
signals that hes taking on both his academic peers and public perceptions
held about Detroit.
For instance, he points to the debate
over the nature and existence of an urban underclass. Some scholars emphasize
a culture of joblessness and dependency fostered by welfare, others the
flight of jobs from central cities and racism in the job market, still
others point to a marginalization of urban centers rooted in the white
backlash against the civil rights movement and the politics and policies
that followed itfrom black power to busing to affirmative action.
Sugrue, in effect, rolls the film of
Detroits malaise further back than earlier scholars. The coincidence and
mutual reinforcement of race, economics, and politics & from the 1940s
to the 1960s, set the stage for the fiscal, social, economic crisis that
confront urban America today, he writes. The origins of the urban crisis
are much earlier than social scientists have recognized, its roots deeper,
more tangled, and perhaps intractable.
Yet like a core among the other younger
scholars at the center of the new Detroit histories, Sugrue is also rewinding
the film to come to grips with some of his own personal history as a white
ex-Detroiter who grew up in the changing city of the 60s and 70s. Not all
the young historians poking at the Detroit story are white or former city
residents. But that is the case for notables Sugrue, Boyle, Suzanne E.
Smith and Heather Ann Thompson.
Weve all talked about how deeply personal
its been, says Smith, assistant professor of history at George Mason University
and author of Dancing in the StreetsMotown and the Cultural Politics
of Detroit. Weve kidded about having a group therapy session.
Smith recalls moving from near City
Airport at age 8 as the biggest trauma of my life. My parents said we were
moving to Cleveland. They might as well have said Mars. Returning to Detroit
as a scholar meant reconnecting with where I was taken from.
The author of Whose Detroit?Politics,
Labor, and Race in a Modern American City, Thompson puts it like thisI
think all of us were acutely aware that this was a very strained but incredibly
interesting and important place to understand.
Sugrue recalls his fifth birthday,
which he celebrated in the midst of Detroits 1967 riot, the sight of National
Guard vehicles rumbling along Fenkell (quite a thrill) and being barred
from playing outside (for fear we would be picked off by snipers, although
there werent any snipers near our section of the city). He remembers the
hubbub when the first African-American family moved into the neighborhood
a few years later; the majority of the neighborhoods whites eventually
including the Sugrues, who relocated to homogenous Farmington Hills moved
out few years after that. (In one odd coincidence, the first African-American
family in Sugrues neighborhood was headed by a member of the controversial
STRESS police unit and figures into a bizarre cop-on-cop shooting in Thompsons
Studying Detroit, says Sugrue, was
on some level coming to grips with processes I observed as a child but
never fully understood.
Housing and jobs, where Detroiters
lived and made their livelihoods often fractiously are his chief lines
He first follows the housing story
up until about 1960. African-Americans moving from the Jim Crow South encountered
a Northern housing market that systematically confined them to the worst
Detroit had to offer and put the wall in their faces.
Moreover, unlike some other Northern
cities, public-housing advocates were frequently outmaneuvered by white
homeowners and blocked from building in much of the city. That long, running
battle at one point sparked street clashes of more than 1,000 blacks and
whites when the first black family moved into the Sojourner Truth Homes
(near East Seven Mile and Ryan) in 1942. In the aftermath of that, and
a full-blown race riot the following year, whites wielded the threat of
imminent violence as a political tool in housing debates, writes Sugrue.
And until the 1960s, the housing issue,
in election after election, helped keep control of the city firmly in the
grip of conservatives.
In the workplace, Sugrue details a
pattern of postwar discrimination that was ubiquitous but also inconsistent
and capricious from industry to industry and even from plant to plant.
An individual worker might not be able
to predict when and where he would encounter an arbitrary rebuff, he writes.
Nonetheless, by all objective measures, white Detroiters citywide enjoyed
preferential treatment at hiring gates, in personnel offices, in union
halls and in promotion to better positions.
During World War II, Detroits job market
boomed; the city was the arsenal of democracy. But even during the war,
the government began tilting defense work away from central cities, and
by the early 50s Detroit had become a ghost arsenal. Other industries,
too, moved more and more operations out of cities. Sugrues account swims
in the overlapping measures of deindustrializationDetroit lost 134,000
manufacturing jobs 1947-1953; some 55 manufacturing firms moved to the
suburbs from 1950-1956; the Detroit area lost 56,000 defense jobs in 1954
alone; manufacturing jobs fell by 50 percent during the 50s.
But as the nation showed phenomenal
growth overall, few economists doubted that all boats would rise with the
tide. They certainly werent considering African-American boaters.
Blacks faced a double whammy of the
discrimination and deindustrialization; denied a place in most plants until
the middle of the war, blacks were less likely to be protected by seniority
when plants shrank. And the farther away old plants moved and new plants
opened the less likely black workers were to follow. Plants relocating
in Detroit from the South played by the Jim Crow practices that droves
of black Detroiters had recently escaped.
But Sugrues most controversial finding
occupies the last portion of the book, wherein he examines the resistance
to integration in the citys neighborhoods, which he dubs the largest social
movement the city has seen. Keeping the housing market unfree becomes a
larger and larger battle through the 50s and into the 60s. In 1964, the
white homeowners movement would win a referendum against open housing
in Detroit only to have the ordinance ruled unconstitutional in Wayne County
Sugrue says he was surprised when he
studied records of the Mayors Interracial Committee, another collection
archived at the Detroit Public Library and documenting the work of a group
formed after the riot of 1943.
I began to find example after example
of violent attacks that had occurred on the homes of African-Americans
who were the first or second to move into formerly all-white neighborhoods,
From the beginning of my research,
nearly every African-American from the mid-40s to the mid-60s who was the
first to move into an all-white neighborhood could expect to have windows
of his or her home broken out and to be the subject of anything from petty
harassment to all-out war in an attempt to drive them from the neighborhood.
As a historian, I expected to find
some of that, but the magnitude of it and the depressing detail was eye-opening.
And if Sugrue begins his book challenging
his fellow academics, he finishes by taking on the commonplace observation
that Detroits urban crisis began with the riot of 1967 and worsened with
the inauguration of Coleman Young as Detroits first black mayor in 1974.
& By the time Young was inaugurated, the forces of decay and racial
animosity were too powerful for a single elected official to stem.
Variations on that theme are a common
thread among the recent works in bold contrast, for instance, to Zeev Chafets'
1990 Devils Night and Other True Tales from Detroit.
Writes BoyleThe popular story that
Detroit was undone by riot, misrule and the 70s oil crisis blow to the
auto industry serves an obvious political purposeblack rioters and bad
luck caused the citys decline; whites bear no responsibility for its problems.
Historians accounts & have moved in precisely the opposite direction,
insisting that the roots of Motowns continuing crisis must be traced not
to the terrible events of 1967 but to white Detroiters and the institutions
Likewise, to paint Detroit of the 40s
and 50s as a golden era is to gloss over reality particularly as experienced
We [Detroit historians] all dismiss
the notion that everything was just beautiful, hunky dory, in this city
until African-Americans moved to the city, and more specifically African-American
militants pushed the liberals to be more responsive to their needs, says
Thompson. We all reject this very powerful argument in historiography that
everything was just beautiful in the 50s until the 60s came along and leftists
and left-wing liberals ruined it all.
These new Detroit histories always
seem to be written against something. Against academic assumptions,
against myths, against the common narratives.
In the case of Suzanne E. Smith, the
enemy is the nostalgia that has made Motown the Sound of Young America
and at the same time cut the music adrift from the adults and the time
and the place that created it.
For African-Americans in the decades
leading to Motown, Detroit was a beacon of opportunity, a city that encouraged
aspirations even if it sometimes stifled them. And for Smith in Dancing
in the Streets, that collision of aspirations and barriers fostered
an outpouring of political and cultural enterprise. Detroit, she notes,
was the birthplace of the Nation of Islam, a key part of Malcolm Xs story;
it was the home to the first radio station built, owned and operated by
African-Americans; black Detroiters launched pioneering African-American
publishing, theater and arts projects; black Detroit congressmen John Conyers
and Charles Diggs Jr. were instrumental in creating the Congressional Black
Motown, which grew to become the largest
black-owned company in the nation, has to be placed in that milieu. Company
founder Berry Gordy Jr., specifically, makes sense only as part of the
black economic self-help movement that his father symbolized with his Booker
T. Washington Grocery Store at St. Antoine and Farnsworth.
For the pivotal year 1963, Smith overlays
the companys story with Detroits Great March to Freedom, when Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. led thousands of Detroiters in what he called the largest
and greatest demonstration for freedom ever held in the United States.
It was a precursor to the March on Washington where King would intone many
of the same words a symbolic thrust of the civil rights campaign into the
North; backstage, Detroiters, from militants to the establishment, jockeyed
to make their cases. While Stevie Wonders 1963 Fingertips lives on for
radio listeners, Smith reminds readers that Motown also released a recording
of Kings Detroit speech that year.
Motowns music symbolized the possibilities
of amicable racial progress, writes Smith. But as a company, Motown represented
the possibilities of black economic independence, one of the most important
tenets of black nationalism.
Yet the birth of Motown also coincides
with the quickening pace of the deindustrialization that Sugrue considers
at much greater depth. And as a capitalist enterprise, the Motown that
Smith portrays is conflicted over what it might owe the community and its
purely business agenda. Following that business agenda, Motown would eventually
forsake the Motor City for Los Angeles, where it would lose everything
that made it distinctive beyond its catalog of oldies.
There was a unique configuration in
Detroit for a phenomena like Motown to emerge, says Smith. But at the same
time, she says, she tried to balance what was exceptional in Detroit with
what was relevant to other urban areas. I was trying to pull together many
different narrative threads to do that as a model that people can apply
to other cities & even though Detroit is so exceptional in many ways.
The Detroit clique as Smith jokingly
refers to the group of historians is not without its differences.
Heather Ann Thompson suggests that
she and Sugrue may have begun with similar questions but wound up decades
apart in pursuing answers.
He was in a large part trying to explain
crisis and collapse and decided that the 50s was really the cradle of that,
says Thompson, assistant professor of history at the University of North
Carolina at Charlotte. I didnt disagree there was crisis. But I saw that
that crisis was really about possibilities.
The Detroit story that she concentrates
on takes place, by and large, between the 67 riot Thompson prefers rebellions
and the election of Coleman Young; it takes place in the streets, in the
courts, in the election booths in one stream of her story; in the other
stream, the action is on factory shop floors and union offices.
Incredibly important competing visions
of the city were being fought out, hammered out, with no assurance who
was going to triumph. & People fight tooth and nail for that city long
after the fires of 67 are extinguished, Thompson says during a phone interview.
Blacks, whites, liberals, leftists,
nationalists, business leaders, unionists, anti-busing activists and various
conservative factions jockey for influence, each group with its own internal
divisions and shifting alliances.
Some of the most divisive conflicts
are between a predominantly white police force and an increasingly African-American
city. An undercover decoy unit known by the acronym STRESS (Stop the Robberies
Enjoy Safe Streets) would symbolize to conservative whites, in Thompsons
book, the only group working to control chaos and disruption in the Motor
To the black community, not to mention
to liberals and leftists, STRESS itself would become the force of chaos.
Shoot-outs between STRESS officers and three young black revolutionaries
would leave one cop dead and another paralyzed, and trigger the largest
manhunt in the citys history.
For blacks and many whites, says Thompson,
the manhunt illustrated the degree to which Detroit was in a state of emergency
& that the police in key respects were out of control. Police broke
into homes without search warrants, in one case fatally shooting a man
who was asleep in bed.
Only one of the three radicals, Hayward
Brown, survived the manhunt, and defended by flamboyant, abrasive and charismatic
leftist attorney Ken Cockrel, Brown won acquittals in three subsequent
trials. In cases like this, argues Thompson, the citys dynamic left took
the struggle from the streets to the courts and pushed the system to its
absolute limits. Nonetheless, in Thompsons analysis, liberals claim much
of the credit, leading to Youngs election and a marginalization of the
left. (Significantly, disbanding STRESS and forcing integration on the
police force were among the new mayors first acts.)
Meanwhile, in the citys auto plants,
an entrenched union leadership faced young militants in groups like the
Dodge Revolutionary Movement. The leaders feared the black nationalist
element among the insurgents and they also feared a replay of their 50s
struggles with communists in their ranks. A violent 1973 fracas in which
perhaps 1,000 union officials took up bats and pipes to break a wildcat
strike at Chryslers Mack Avenue plant serves as the final trouncing of
Yet, Thompson says in the interview,
the radicals made points that still resonate about the need for democratizing
unions and the need for unions to be at the vanguard, rather than always
being the barrier to that struggle.
And Thompson, who moved from Indiana
to Dearborn and then Detroits Rosedale Park neighborhood as a teen in the
late 70s, brings the story closest to the present.
For all the battering that cities like
Detroit took by the 80s, she writes, they became places where African-Americans,
and more specifically the black middle class, finally could experience
real social, economic and political opportunity.
Adds ThompsonIts easy, particularly
for white scholars and scholarship, to look at a city that has suffered
economically and is also primarily African-American and decide that there
is very little left of that city. & I felt, particularly growing up
in that city, that that was not the case.
Soon to be a book
More Detroit books are in the publishing
For instance, Boyle, whose previous
book was on the UAW but not specifically on Detroit, was inspired by Sugrue
to ask more questions about housing segregation in DetroitI said, man,
I want to go back to the start of those conflicts. Which is to say hes
going back to the 1920s, when both blacks and whites were flooding into
the city and the boundary lines of separation were being drawn to constrain
blacks to ghettos. Restrictive covenants were coming into use to bar sale
of homes to blacks; real estate agents stopped showing blacks homes in
Last year Boyle won a Guggenheim fellowship
to work on The People v. SweetA Story of Race, Rights and Murder in
Jazz Age America. The broad outline of the story is well known by many
Detroiters29-year-old black physician Ossian Sweet moves his family into
2509 Garland in an all-white east side neighborhood; a mob forms, rocks
fly; 20 or more shots are fired from inside the house, killing a white
factory foreman standing across the street; Sweet and 10 others are charged
with conspiracy to murder; the NAACP rallies behind the Sweets; the nations
most famous defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, carries the day, and garners
at least some of the publicity that the civil rights leaders had hoped
for. The story was major news across the nation in African- American papers,
but far less than the Scopes Trial to the white press.
Now Boyle argues the story needs to
be known outside of Detroit, and he wants to go beyond the outline, among
other things to go back further to find out more about Ossian Sweet and
his world, and forward to the impact of the incident.
Meanwhile, Detroiter Dave Riddle is
writing a book on influential Detroit attorney Ernest Goodman. Freund,
of Princeton, expects his tentatively titled Colored PropertyState Policy
and White Racial Politics in the Modern American Suburb to be be out
within two years. Nick Salvatore, author of an award-winning Eugene V.
Debs biography, is working on the life of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a giant
among African-American preachers, a civil rights leader and the father
of Aretha Franklin. A new study of the 1967 riot is in the works.
Smith, Thompson and Sugrue are all
pursuing new projects from the history of civil rights in the North to
the saga of African- American funeral directors which in some way overlap
or draw on the story of Detroit.
Setting the pace
According to Sugrue, these are some
of the trends in the study of American historyto address race and inequality,
to bring political history together with the social and cultural, to bring
national and local history together with everyday experience, to make the
experience of cities central to understanding the nation.
So the stuff on Detroit is right at
the core of those currents, and I think its fair to say that a lot of the
work on Detroit is trend-setting, he adds, noting work on Oakland, Calif.,
Philadelphia and New York picks up on some of the Detroit leads. In some
ways, the Detroit stuff is setting the pace for what I think is going to
be a very substantial body of work on race and political economy in American
Can it make a difference outside of
the world of academia? Particularly in Detroit?
Every time I come to Detroit, I get
huge audiences, Sugrue says. Those audiences include people who are addressing
Detroits problems from all sorts of different vantage pointscommunity organizers,
folks at the UAW and other unions, city officials, corporate executives,
neighborhood activists. It amazes me. (One Sugrue reader is Detroit Renaissance
head Paul Hillegonds, a one-time state House Republican leader, who said
he wished hed read Origins back when he was in Lansing.)
Responding to the same question, Boyle
notes what the labor movement, for all its limitations, was able to do
in the 1930s and 1940s to transform vast numbers of lives. Its not inconceivable
to say you can have a social movement of that kind, he says.
Still, its hard not to think about
some of the images in Origins where well-meaning liberals white
and black toil to turn Detroit into a model city through job training programs,
for instance, or by picketing and lobbying to break the color line and
place the first African-American retail clerks in downtown stores. Meanwhile,
larger economic forces the inexorable flight of jobs for the suburbs and
beyond are throwing African-Americans out of jobs en masse.
In 2002, a time when urban policy has
all but disappeared from the political vocabulary, what are the odds of
seeing a proportionate response to todays urban crisis?
Probably not good, concedes Sugrue.
But my job, as someone who is in the
realm of public policy and political debate, is to push in that direction.
Thomas J. Sugrues expert testimony
as part of a University of Michigan defense of its affirmative action policies
can be read at http://www.umich.edu/~urel/admissions/legal/expert.
The testimony includes key themes from The Origins of the Urban Crisis.
Kevin Boyle talks about the Ossian Sweet trial in a video clip as part
of the informative Detroit African-American History Project at http://www.daahp.wayne.edu/interviews.html
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