Black and White: The Rise of Detroit’s White Middle Class, Part 2

By Matt Johnson

Ford's River Rouge Plant

(Ford’s River Rouge Plant – Dearborn, Michigan)

From the 1920’s to the 1940’s, black Americans were emigrating out of the antebellum south and immigrating into the urban neighborhoods of Detroit while Ford and other auto industry giants in Detroit were building and obtaining massive capital and wealth. Detroit was becoming an industrial giant; the pride of the United States industrial strength. But there was reason to be optimistic as an African American in Detroit in the 1920’s through the 1940’s. As Beth Tompkins Bates explains in her book The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford, black men were hired for service jobs, not technical jobs or jobs that required too much responsibility. Bates elucidates this point clearly, “Black men would shine shoes, turn down beds on the sleeping cars at night, change sheets and remake beds in the morning, iron clothing, and attend to any other needs of the traveling public,” specifically those who were white. This was the norm not only in Detroit, but across the northern states.

Bates goes on to explain the contrast, “During the twenties, Ford not only hired large numbers of African Americans; he also placed many in skilled positions, such as crane operator, mechanic, electrician, bricklayer, and tool-and-die maker…Ford was a major catalyst for raising those expectations…” This validates one of the many reasons why African Americans picked Detroit as a final destination. Would black Americans really sit idly by and suffer under the strict totalitarian rule of southern whites and their “Black Laws,” or would African Americans migrate north to Detroit for a better life for themselves and their children? Migration patterns support the decision to escape the authoritarian regime of the south for a better life in the north (Black et. al). But as El-Malik Hajj El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) prophetically illustrated in his The Ballot or The Bullet speech in Detroit on April 12, 1964, “If you are south of the Canadian border, you are in the south.”

From the very moment black American migrants stepped off the train, they were treated differently than other ethnic groups, especially white ethnic groups. As black men quickly found out, Ford, and mainly Ford with the exception of the Hudson Motor Car Company, hired African Americans or highly skilled jobs. As Farley et al. illustrates, “In 1940, the Ford Motor Company employed 85,000 workers at its Detroit-area factories, 21 percent of them African American. More than half of all employed black men in metropolitan Detroit at that time drew their paychecks from Ford.” Hudson on the other hand only employed “225 black workers” out of a force of more than 12,000, while only 1 percent of the city’s black population was pay rolled by the “municipal government.” These points illustrate that, yes, the vast majority of black men were employed in one form or another between those migration years and well into the 1940’s, but of those employed, the vast majority of those jobs were service jobs and not highly skilled professions.

Near Downtown Roxy Theater - Detroit Race Riots 1943

Downtown Detroit

Americans do not realize that this type of lack of employment opportunity is an economic “Black Code.” In other words, black Americans are inherently inferior in work ethic and intellect. But this is nothing new. Black Codes existed well before the emergence of Detroit. For example, “Illinois passed anti-immigration, ‘Black Codes,’ legislation in 1819, 1829, and 1853; and Indiana approved and passed their own anti-immigration laws in 1831 and 1852. In addition, the newly formed territories west of the Ohio River also passed such legislation – the Michigan territory in 1827 and the Iowa territory in 1839 and 1851.” As has been illustrated, the social and political thinking and practice was no different in Detroit in the early part of the 20th century. It is just in a different form, but the barriers and lack of opportunities is still there – manifesting and codifying in a different context.

The immediate treatment and the subsequent methods by Detroit municipal employees as black Americans departed from their trains’ highlights the continuation of cultural continuity of white Americans towards black Americans. As Beth Tompkins Bates narrates:

The struggle for housing was front and center. It did not take long for African Americans to realize that inclusion in the American economic dream was going to extend to housing within the city of Detroit. When black migrants go off the train at Detroit’s Central Station, they were steered toward overcrowded, segregated neighborhoods in Black Bottom. The city’s black population, which increased over 600 percent between 1910 and1920, was squeezed into limited, decaying housing stock as the walls of the emerging ghetto rose. Detroit’s Real Estate Board forbade sales to blacks in white neighborhoods, and racial covenants severely restricted areas where blacks might develop their own communities. Another way blacks were kept in their ‘place’ was through the brutality of Detroit’s largely native-born, white police force.

This was the beginning of redlining policies in Detroit and Wayne County. This was the emergence of a system constructed for one privileged group over all other groups. And although Henry Ford, for sympathetic reasons or for personal economic gain, attempted to facilitate upward mobility of black Americans in his own way, the economic policies that emerged in favor of whites would have a greater impact on the system and the perpetuation of access to education, property, and ultimately wealth, ensuring the success of one group over the other in economic, social, and political population dynamics. But there is a counter argument to these points.


Matt Johnson is a writer for The Systems Scientist and the Urban Dynamics blog; and is a mathematical scientist. He has also contributed to the Iowa State Daily and Our Black News.

You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Twitter or on Facebook

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Copyright ©2015 – The Systems Scientist

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