Saturday, March 27, 2021

Detroit's Father Gabriel Richard

Father Gabriel Richard

One of the most influential people in Detroit's 320 year history is Father Gabriel Richard (Ri-CHARD), who was born in La Ville de Saintes, France on October 15, 1767. At the age of seventeen, young Richard entered a Jesuit seminary and was ordained a priest on October 15, 1790.

After the French Revolution, Richard and many of his fellow priests refused to swear allegiance to the new secular French Republic. He escaped the guillotine when the captain of the ship Reine des Coeurs (Queen of Hearts) made it quietly known that he was about to sail for the United States and had room onboard to smuggle a few priests out of the country. When the Reine des Coeurs sailed on April 2, 1792 Gabriel Richard was aboard. Four months later, anti-Catholic mobs in Paris murdered 200 defiant priests.

Father Richard reported to Bishop Carroll of Baltimore and began his new life in America as a mathmatics teacher at St. Mary's Seminary. In 1798, the bishop assigned Father Richard to do missionary work with the local Native American tribes and to administer the sacraments to the Catholic population in the Northwest Territory. He arrived in Fort Detroit as a priest for the Society of Saint-Sulpice.

A defining moment in the history of Detroit and the life of Father Richard was the Great Fire of June 11, 1805. A burning ember from a baker's pipe fell into a pile of hay. Within minutes, the fire spread out of control burning everything within Fort Detroit but the stone chimneys. The blaze took most of the cattle and the town's food supplies did not survive the blaze. Father Richard took control and organized men into expeditions that went up and down the Detroit River asking farmers on both sides for emergency provisions to avert famine. From then onward, Detroit residents refered to Richard as "Le Bon Pere" (the Good Father).

To comfort his parishioners, Father Richard served an open air mass that included this phrase in his sermon, "Speramus Meliora Resurget Cineribus." (We hope for better things. It will rise again from the ashes.) These words became the official motto for the City of Detroit and appear on the city's flag. This motto would have renewed significance 162 years later when much of Detroit burned once again.

Along with Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory Judge Augustus B. Woodward, Father Richard founded the Catholepistemiad of Michigania on August 26, 1817--twenty years before Michigan became a state. The school's name was neither good Latin nor Greek, just hard to pronounce. On April 30, 1821, the school was renamed the University of Michigan.

In 1835, the new Michigan Constitution adopted the Prussian model of education which was a system of primary schools, secondary schools, and a university.  A Board of Regents of twelve members was nominated to govern the university. The system was administered by the state and funded with tax dollars. The University of Michigan moved from Detroit to Ann Arbor on forty acres of Henry Rumsey's farmland bought by the Board of Regents. The first class began in 1841 and the first commencement ceremony was in 1845.

Father Richard was elected as a non-voting delegate from the Michigan Territory to the United States House of Representatives for the 18th Congress. In March 1824, he petitioned for and secured federal funding for the Chicago Road to connect Chicago with Detroit, which was later renamed Michigan Avenue. The highway ran the full length of Lower Michigan, opening it up to the West for the development of the southern part of the state.

In 1832 with a servant's heart, Father Richard cared for cholera victims for four days before succumbing himself on September 13th. His body is buried in a crypt beneath the altar of Ste. Anne's side chapel. A bronze bust designates that his tomb lies within. At least five schools in Michigan bear his name, but most Detroiters today have no idea what a giant this five-foot, two-inch man was.

Saint Annes' in Corktown 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

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 minority isolated 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 white 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"

Saturday, March 6, 2021

1930 Lincoln Phaeton Hamtramck Garage Find

1930 Lincoln Dual-Cowl Sport Phaeton Limo and its proud owner.

A photograph of a 1932 Detroit Police Lincoln Phaeton squad car caught the eye of one of my readers in my crime history The Elusive Purple Gang: Detroit's Kosher Nostra . Bill (last name withheld) emailed me with an interesting story about a 2005 garage find of a 1930 Lincoln Phaeton Dual-Cowl limousine with 70,000 miles on it which he found in Hamtramck, Michigan. The limo was covered with a canvas tarp and buried under an avalanche of trash for over fifty years.

The car's owner Bruno Rusniak bought the car when he was twenty years old in 1940. When Bruno died in 2004, his sister Lucille liquidated her brother's estate and sold the long-neglected car to Bill. The provenance of the car is interesting, but no less fascinating is the background of the Lincoln Motor Company and their Deluxe Dual-Cowl Sport Phaeton model.


Cadillac Motor Car founder Henry Leland left General Motors (GM) in 1917 to build Liberty V-12 aircraft engines with government funding for the World War I war effort. With the help of Ford, Packard, Buick, and other auto manufacturers, 20,748 Liberty engines were mass produced. After the war, surplus Liberty engines were adapted for hydroplane racing and luxury runabouts. Some used by smugglers during Prohibition.

At war's end, Leland with the help of his son reorganized his company and named it Lincoln Motor Car Company. On September 16, 1920, his first Lincoln L-Series, four-door, three-speed manual transmission car was built in his Dearborn, Michigan factory. The start-up company struggled in the competitive marketplace and had trouble fulfilling orders. Leland's stock holders were unhappy and his company went into receivership in 1922.

Edsel Ford

Only one offer was made to purchase Lincoln Motors. Ford Motor Company (FoMoCo) bought Lincoln for the bargain price of $8,000,000. Henry Ford's only son Edsel was made president of the company. By 1923, Edsel and his general manager Ernest C. Kanzler were able to trim manufacturing costs by $1,000 per car, and the company began posting a profit for the first time.

Edsel was a forward-looking Ford with a flair for automotive design and modern management. When the Lincoln nameplate began earning money, Ford's Lincoln Motor Car Division introduced a two-passenger roadster, a seven-passenger touring sedan, and a five-passenger limousine. Lincoln Motors (FoMoCo) competed against Cadillac (GM), Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg, Packard LeBaron, Pierce-Arrow, and Rolls-Royce in the stand-alone, luxury car market.

Lincoln Greyhound Hood Ornament 

In 1924, the Lincoln L-Series became popular with police departments across the country in a model called the Police Flyer. They were equipped with Ford V-8 engines, brakes on all four wheels, 7/8" bulletproof windshields, and mounted spotlights on the left and right sides of the car near the windshield operated from handles inside the car. Police sirens and gun racks were also fitted to the Police Flyers making them much sought after, state-of-the-art patrol cars.

Another great stroke for the Lincoln L-Series was when a Lincoln became the first state limo in 1924--used by President Calvin Coolidge. The Lincoln Phaeton Dual-Cowl (front and rear seat windshields) limousine is the car that polio-stricken President Franklin D. Roosevelt used on the campaign trail so he could appear before crowds without leaving the vehicle. The car became known as the Sunshine Special because of its retractable convertible top. President Truman used the same car until it was retired in 1948.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Today, the Sunshine Special is on display at the Henry Ford Museum with other famous presidential cars. Lincolns were the official state limos until 1993 when Cadillac became the presidential state car.


After Bill removed the clutter around and on top of his garage find, he rolled the car out onto the driveway and into the sunlight to get a better look. The Phaeton's original colors were blue with black fenders, but at some point the car underwent a hasty do-it-yourself paint job. Bill also discovered that the car had a smashed fender, other rear end damage, and several bullet holes in the aluminum body work. After rummaging through the limo's interior, he found a canvas bag from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago in the back seat.

Extensive rear end damage on aluminum body.

The elderly sister of Bruno Rusniak told Bill that her brother was pulled over by the Detroit Police one evening for some unspecified reason. Rather than be subjected to a search, Bruno shifted the 4,920 pound car into reverse and slammed into the front fender of the squad car disabling it. Then, he sped home, drove the car into his garage, and pulled a tarp over it. There it sat for decades until his passing.

Bill contacted me to find out if the name Bruno Rusniak ever came up in any of my Detroit underworld research. He sent me a copy of the car's registration and Bruno's death certificate. I searched and found nothing about his involvement in the rackets, but for the record, Bruno lived his whole life at 5582 Caniff in Hamtramck. He served in World War II as a mechanic which became his life's work. Bruno died from a variety of heart ailments on November 25, 2004 and was buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Detroit.

After sheet metal repairs and straightened frame cradling a new gas tank.

As fate would have it, the new owner Bill is also a mechanic and a car enthusiast. After shipping the car to his garage, he changed the spark plugs, belts, and fluids, put some fresh gasoline in the tank, and sprayed some ether into the carburetor. The car started right up. Body shop repairs were made and new 7.00 x 20, six-ply whitewall tires were mounted. The Lincoln Deluxe Dual-Cowl Sport Phaeton limo is once again roadworthy.

Much to my surprise, Bill asked if I would like to take his classic car out for a drive the next time I'm in the Detroit area. That is an offer I can't refuse.

FoMoCo's Edsel Car Disaster