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"

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