Monday, April 30, 2018

The Great Migration North to Detroit

In what was the largest internal migration of any group in American history, the Great Migration saw six million African Americans migrating from the South to the North drawn by improved economic opportunities and hopes of a better life. Black Americans were also escaping segregation and discriminatory "Jim Crow" laws in the South.

Another factor for the diaspora was the release of the movie Birth of a Nation in 1915 which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as a heroic force protecting the purity of white womanhood against sexually aggressive freed slaves after the Civil War. The D.W. Griffith film opened to nationwide protests and demonstrations.

"Birth of a Nation" still. The black man was played by a white actor in blackface.
After a private screening, President Woodrow Wilson released a public statement calling the film "Unfortunate." With the film's general release, the South experienced a resurgence of KKK domestic terrorism driving more black Americans North. Most of the migrants were unskilled laborers and service industry workers--not rural farm workers.

From 1910 through 1929, Detroit experienced the fastest growing African American population in the United States--a 611% increase. During the same period, New York City had a 66% increase and Chicago had a 148% increase. Blacks settled primarily on Detroit's lower east side in a concentrated neighborhood called Black Bottom--originally named by the French for the dark, fertile soil found there. The area adjacent to Black Bottom became Paradise Valley--famous for its jazz clubs.

Black migrants found fierce competition for living space in Detroit's worst neighborhoods which became segregated slums. Living conditions in Paradise Valley and Black Bottom were bleak with the oldest wooden dwellings in the city--many dating back to the 1860s. Fire was a constant hazard. The buildings were owned by absentee landlords and were poorly maintained. Old hotels and row houses were subdivided into small apartments and boarding houses to increase profits--many without plumbing facilities.

Thinking they had left "Jim Crow" laws enshrining segregation and racism behind, blacks found that in Detroit they were confined to "red lined" neighborhoods backed by real estate covenants preventing them from moving into Detroit's established white neighborhoods or suburbs. Blacks found that racial discrimination and white supremacy were entrenched in the North just as they were in the South.

But there was a significant distinction between the North and the South for blacks in this era. In the South, white people didn't mind living in proximity with blacks. The plantation culture depended upon it. But white people didn't want to work next to blacks. The North was the opposite. White people tolerated working with blacks, but they didn't want black people in their neighborhoods.

The assembly line

Early on, black women overwhelmingly worked in domestic service jobs. Eventually, clerk positions opened up in the retail industry for them. Black men worked in the service industry at hotels, restaurants, passenger trains, and public works. The jobs paid little, offered no fringe benefits, and provided no chance for advancement. Labor shortages during World War One opened up good jobs in shipyards, foundries, steel mills, auto factories, and meat packing. Unskilled black laborers took the most undesirable and dangerous jobs wherever they were employed.

Henry Ford
When Henry Ford announced the Five-Dollar Day in 1914, he also ramped up the hiring of blacks to fill vacancies in the Highland Park Plant. Employee turnover was a problem, and black workers were willing do jobs others would not. This set many black workers on the road to modernity. Beginning in the 1920s, Dodge and Packard began recruiting black workers too.

With improved economic conditions, a black inner city culture developed catering to the needs of African Americans. Churches, markets, bakeries, barber shops, hotels, beauty parlors, clinics, jazz clubs, and adult entertainment developed. But every white and black Detroiter knew where the color lines were and woe to him that crossed them.

The high cost for African Americans penetrating the color line in Detroit is exemplified by the Dr. Ossian Sweet affair in 1925. As a youth in Bartow, Florida, Ossian witnessed the lynching of a black man in 1911. The angry white mob strung up the man while he pleaded for his life. The vigilantes doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. The crowd cheered when the flames enveloped him. Traumatized, the Sweet family moved to Detroit as part of the Great Migration. 

Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife Gladys
Ossian Sweet managed to secure an education and attend medical school at Wilberforce Academy in Ohio. Between semesters he worked in Detroit as a bellhop at several hotels--one summer he was a vendor at Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park. Dr. Sweet and his family were part of a new demographic--upwardly mobile, black Americans. As a young doctor at Dunbar Memorial Hospital, Sweet wanted to escape the confines and squalor of Detroit's minority-isolated inner city. Dr. Sweet bought a home on Detroit's east side in an all-white, working-class neighborhood.

When word spread of the purchase, whites viewed the incursion into their neighborhood as a violation of their "sacred" real estate covenant. The day the Sweet's moved in, a mob of "neighbors" assembled outside their home on September 8th, 1925 and cursed them with racial slurs. On the second day, the crowd grew to several hundred angry whites. Dr. Sweet and his family were joined by Sweet's two brothers and seven other friends--no doubt for a house warming get-together and a show of moral support. The hostile mob surrounded the house and started throwing rocks and bricks through the windows.

The sound of shattering glass terrorized the group and prompted Ossian's brother Henry to fire two shots at the mob--the first above their heads and the second into the crowd. Leon Breiner took a bullet and died. The Detroit police were conspicuous by their absence until the call went out that a white man had been shot by a black man. Everyone in the Sweet home was arrested, taken to jail, and tried for conspiracy to murder.

Clarence Darrow
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) retained the best lawyer in the land--Chicago civil liberties attorney Clarence Darrow. The first trial lasted four weeks and ended in a mistrial. The second trial focused only on Henry Sweet--the shooter. The prosecution pushed for a murder charge, but the defense insisted that a man's home was his castle, and he had every right to defend it. Henry Sweet was acquitted.

The Sweet trials were a referendum on race relations and segregation in Detroit ushering in a new era of political activism. But the graphic incident showed the risk of violating the city's red-lined neighborhoods. When it became clear to whites that black people were breaching their segregated neighborhoods, growing numbers of white Detroiters began to relocate to the expanding suburbs north, south, and west of the city in a demographic shift known as white flight.

Franklin D. Roosevelt
The Great Migration slowed during the Depression but picked up again with the coming of World War Two. The Selective Service took many white and black males out of the work force to serve in the military. The war represented a turning point in black employment prospects. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed executive order #8802 creating the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) mandating nondiscrimination in defense industries and government jobs. Industrial work began to eclipse service employment for black men. By the end of the war, African Americans held 8% of defense jobs, up from 3% before the war. Despite the gains for black men, black women were still relegated to domestic work and low wages.

The United States Congress debated making the FEPC permanent, but Southern legislators cut off funding and shut down the program in 1946. It took another twenty years before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established to address many of the same issues.

World War II helped transform Detroit's social geography. Several distinct black communities emerged based on income, occupation, and status within black Detroit. Many African Americans fortunate enough to flee the crowded city center left as soon as they could; the rest were left behind to bear the brunt of being trapped in the city's worst housing. Detroit's shifting racial borderlands became battlegrounds for the future of the city. This racial frontier put blacks on a collision course with their white counterparts.

"Detroit Lost Neighborhoods: Black Bottom and Paradise Valley"

Monday, April 16, 2018

All-Time Top Ten Blog Posts

Photo Credit: Nicole Fribourg
One of my young critics wrote that my blog was old-fashioned and looked like a Monopoly property card. High praise indeed! That's when I knew I was onto something. No whistles, no bells, no GIFs, no capturing of readers' marketing information, just fact-driven posts that interest me--and as it turns out--interests others.
Several people have asked me how to find my earlier posts. Go to the left sidebar and scroll down to the Blog Archive. You can browse the titles by year and month to find a topic you like. To receive new posts automatically, you can subscribe in the upper-right corner of the site. 

Many thanks to everyone who reads, comments, and shares my Fornology posts. Here are the titles of my top ten all-time blog posts.

PostsPage views










Thursday, April 12, 2018

Willow Run Bomber Plant Changes Ypsilanti Forever

Original Three-story Ypsilanti Depot Station.
At the turn of the century, before the second World War, Ypsilanti had an active downtown area along Michigan Avenue. Northeast of town, there was a thriving business district called Depot Town.

Depot Town was the area's commercial hub and provided services for weary train travelers. Ypsilanti's three-story brick depot station was ornate compared to the depot in Ann Arbor. In its day, it was said to be the nicest train station between Detroit and Chicago.

The Norris Building built in 1861 was across from the depot on River Street. It was originally supposed to house a retail block on the ground floor and residential rooms on the two upper floors. Instead, the building became an army barracks during the Civil War. The 14th Michigan Infantry Regiment shipped out of Depot Town in 1862, as did the 27th Michigan Regiment in 1863. 

The facade of the historic Norris Building remains on North River Street, despite a fire which decimated the rear portion of this last remaining Civil War barracks in Michigan. Work has begun on rebuilding the historic building.

Michigan State Normal School was located west of Depot Town on West Cross Street and northwest of downtown Ypsilanti. It spawned a growing educational center which later expanded its mission to become Eastern Michigan University. 

Ypsilanti's residential area with its historic and varied architecture filled the spaces between. Surrounding everything was some of the most fertile farm land in the state.

The water-powered age of nineteenth century manufacturing on the Huron River gave way to the modern electrical age of the twentieth century. The soft beauty of the gas light was replaced with the harsh glare of the incandescent light bulb. The times were changing for Ypsilanti--ready or not.


The countryside was prime tillable ground with fruit groves scattered about the landscape. Henry Ford owned a large tract of land in an area known as Willow Run, named for the small river that ran through it. The Ford patriarch used the land to plant soybeans, but the United States government needed bombers for the Lend Lease program with Great Britain. On December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Nazis declared war on the United States on behalf of their ally. America was drawn into the second world war.

The Roosevelt administration asked the Ford corporation, now run by Edsel Ford, to build a factory that could mass produce the B-24 Liberator Bomber. Edsel Ford, Charles Sorenson (production manager), and some Ford engineers visited the Consolidated Aircraft Company in San Diego to see how the planes were built. 

That night, Sorenson drew up a floor plan that could build the bomber more efficiently. His blueprint was a marvel of ingenuity, but the Ford corporation made one significant change in his master plan.

The best shape to build a front to back assembly line operation is in a straight line. But to avoid the higher taxes in Democratic Wayne County, the bomber plant took a hard right to the south on one end to stay within Republican Washtenaw County, which had lower taxes. This was at the insistence of Harry Bennett, Ford's head of security who had strong ties to Washtenaw County being a graduate of Ann Arbor High School.

The construction of the plant in Willow Run began in May of 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. Legendary Detroit architect Albert Kahn designed the largest factory in the world, but it would be his last project. He died in 1942.

The federal government bought up land adjacent to the bomber plant and built an airport which still exists today and is used for commercial aviation. The eight-sectioned hangar could house twenty Liberators.

Soon, workers flooded into Ypsilanti and the rapidly developing Willow Run area where makeshift row housing was hastily constructed. The Ford Motor Company recruited heavily from the South. By March 1, 1943, the bomber plant brought in 6,491 workers from Kentucky. That's when the derisive term "Ypsitucky" was first heard. But Ford recruiters also brought in 1,971 workers from Tennessee, 714 from Texas, 450 from West Virgina, 397 from Arkansas, and 314 from Missouri. In the most demographic shift in the area since the white man drove the red man west, the sleepy farming town of Ypsilanti went from a sunrise-to-sunset community to a three shift, around-the-clock, blue collar factory town. 

Suddenly the area was hit with a housing shortage. Ypsilanti homeowners rented rooms to workers or converted their large Victorian homes into boarding houses. It was wartime and money was to be made. Some families rented "warm beds." One worker would sleep in the bed while another was working his shift, but still there was a housing shortage. Many people slept in their cars until they could make other arrangements. 

Long time residents did not like the changes they saw in their town. The bomber factory workers worked hard and drank hard. Fights broke out in local bars, often over women. Ypsilanti developed a hard edge and a dark reputation.

Because so many men were in uniform serving their country, there was a shortage of skilled labor at first. But then the women of Southern Michigan stepped up big time. To make up the labor shortfall, they donned work clothes, and tied up their long hair in colorful scarves collectively earning the nickname "Rosie the Riveter". It was calculated that by the end of the war, 40% of every B-24 Liberator was assembled by women.


Little known factoid: The first stretch of expressway in America was made with Ford steel and Ford cement. It connected workers in the Detroit area to their jobs at the bomber plant in Willow Run via Ecorse Road. It's still there and runs along the north end of the former GM Hydromatic Plant and Willow Run Airport.


The Yankee Air Museum housed on the east end of Willow Run Airport was established in 1981 to restore and preserve the almost forgotten history of Willow Run Airport, and to commemorate the achievement of the men and women who helped win the war by the sweat of their brow producing 8,685 B-24 Liberators.


Background history of the Yankee Air Museum:

Rosie the Riveter short:

The following link has some vintage bomber plant footage:

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Erie Canal Populates the Great Lakes Area

If you wanted to travel to the Northwest Territory from the East prior to 1825, your choices were limited to canoeing with portaging around sizable natural barriers, or a person could take a rugged land passage on horseback or a horsedrawn wagon over perilous dirt roads and Indian trails. Neither method was suitable for commercial success or serious westward expansion. There needed to be some way to open the interior of the continent west of the Appalachians to farming and settlement.

The driving force behind the Erie Canal was New York Governor DeWitt Clinton. His vision made Detroit a destination city in the nineteenth century and provided a water highway for many of our European ancestors--especially German, Irish, Italian, Polish, Scandinavian, and Greek. These settlers were not like the French who trapped and hunted wildlife establishing a lucrative fur trade with Canada and Europe. These new immigrants were land-hungry farmers and empire builders who wanted a fresh start in life, and they changed the face of the Great Lakes region forever.

Once Governor Clinton raised the seven million dollars for its construction, the groundbreaking for the Erie Canal began at a middle segment of the proposed route in Rome, New York, on July 4, 1817. When finished, the canal would stretch 363 miles from Albany, New York on the Hudson River to Buffalo, New York on the east end of Lake Erie, opening the Great Lakes to westward American expansion.

Untold numbers of Irish immigrants and draft animals provided most of the muscle power to dig out the canal. The excavated soil was piled on the north side and graded to form a towpath for horses to pull canal boats and barges along the route. Hundreds of migrant German masons were hired to build the stonework for thirty-four locks needed to raise the boats 565 feet--the elevation difference between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. Where the canal had to cross valleys and water barriers, the masons built eighteen aqueducts to carry the boats above them. 

Lockport, New York
In 1823, the builders reached the Niagara Escarpment at what came to be known as Lockport, New York. Canal engineers devised five locks along a three-mile stretch to carry the canal eighty feet over the dolomitic limestone barrier. The original Erie Canal profile was forty feet wide at the surface, twenty-eight feet wide at the bottom and four feet deep. In 1835, the State of New York enlarged the canal to seventy feet wide and seven feet deep, further encouraging westward expansion and making New York City the economic powerhouse of the Eastern Seaboard.

"Erie Canal Opening" by Charles Yardley Turner (1905).
The Erie Canal was completed in eight years, two years ahead of schedule at a cost of $7,143,000. In a grand ceremony, Governor Clinton and other dignitaries boarded the Seneca Chief steamer in Buffalo and traveled the length of the canal to the Hudson River and down to New York harbor. On October 26, 1825, amid patriotic fanfare and a brass band, Governor Clinton took a keg of Lake Erie water and poured it into the Atlantic calling it a "marriage of the waters." The keg was then refilled with ocean water for the return trip of the Seneca Chief to Lake Erie to consummate the exchange of water.

Erie Canal aqueduct
The Erie Canal became an instant commercial success and stimulated economic growth along its entire route. Before the canal, the only way west through the Appalachian Mountains was overland on rugged wagon roads. The trip to Detroit took five to six weeks. The Erie Canal cut that time in half.

Prior to the canal, bulk goods traveled on the backs of pack animals limited to no more than 250# per beast of burden. Canal boats could carry up to thirty tons of cargo. Shipping costs dropped 90% from $100/ton to less than $10/ton. Buffalo, New York became a major transhipment point for farm produce from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan going east while manufactured goods and European immigrants shipped west.

Historian Harvey C. Colburn wrote in The Story of Ypsilanti (1923) that "Immigration in Detroit from Europe was greatly facilitated by the Erie Canal. The first steamer on Lake Erie was the Walk-on-the-Water in 1819. By 1826, there were seven steamers on the lake, and by 1830, a daily service was established between Buffalo and Detroit." If your ancestors came to Detroit between 1825 and the 1850s, chances are they floated up the Erie Canal courtesy of the labor of thousands of skilled and unskilled immigrants who preceeded them.

The Erie Canal reconfigured the young United States' national religious and social dynamics by connecting the Hudson Valley with the Great Lakes region. By 1842, the New York Railroad had a continuous line linking the East with the continental interior. Passenger traffic on the canal tapered off in favor of the modern steam locomotives with their speed and relative comfort. The canal simply increased its commercial freight business. Water was still the most cost-effective way to move bulk goods, and the canal could ship thirteen times more tonnage than all the trains of New York Central Railroad.

By the end of the 1880s, railroads dominated passenger transportation, but it wasn't until competition from improved roadways and the trucking industry at the beginning of the twentieth century that the canal was rendered obsolete. Today, 200 miles of the old canal are used for public recreation like boating, biking, hiking, and cruising.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Detroit's Nineteenth-Century Moonlight Towers

Newport, Rhode Island introduced the first gas street-lighting in America in 1803. Throughout the nineteenth-century, it was the preferred method of outdoor street illumination, but the system was expensive to install and each lamp had limited range. In the 1880s, electric carbon-arc lighting offered a relatively inexpensive alternative to coal-generated gas lighting.

Large municipalities who could afford them invested in moonlight towers to illuminate large expanses like parks and public squares. Each tower was crowned with six carbon-arc lights giving off 200 times more illumination than the most powerful incandescent light bulbs.

Because the "moonlight" was harsh, the arc-lights were mounted 175 feet high and lit up a circle with a radius of 1,500 feet.  Downtown nightlife became a new reality for many Americans who believed that general illumination drove criminals deeper into the shadows.

The lights buzzed loudly and dropped shreds of burning ash as the carbon electrodes burned quickly and had to be replaced nightly. The height of the moonlight towers made them difficult to maintain, so a counter-balanced "dumbwaiter" elevator system was soon developed to change out electrodes more efficiently.

Detroit winter street lit up by a moonlight tower.

Detroit had one of the most extensive moonlight tower systems in the country inaugurated in 1882. One-hundred and twenty-two towers were placed 1,000 to 1,200 feet apart. The entire system illuminated twenty-one square miles. By the turn of the century, most of the towers were replaced by incandescent lighting once the AC electrical grid was laid out. Detroit sold its towers to several small municipalities such as Grand Rapids, Michigan and Austin, Texas.

Austin moonlight tower.
In 1885, Austin, Texas was terrorized by a serial killer known as the Servant Girl Annihilator, who killed eight servant girls all attacked at night. The only night light Austin had in those days was moonlight, but when the evening skies were cloudy, Austin had no light at all.

Detroit agreed to sell thirty-one of their used moonlight towers to Austin. Over the years, the lamps have been refitted with modern mercury-vapor light bulbs which require much less maintainence than the crude carbon-arc technology. Seventeen of their original thirty-one towers--the last of the moonlight towers--are still in operation.

Austin city officials were ready to remove the towers by 1976, but they were too late. The moonlight towers were inducted into the National Registry of Historical Places. In 1993, the city dismantled and rebuilt each existing tower for a citywide Moonlight Tower Festival which began in 1995. Next time you are in Austin, Texas, behold some Michigan history.