By: Jamon Jordan
In 1903, an auto company founded by James Packard opened a 10,000 square ft facility on the east side of Detroit. The Packard Plant would grow to be one of the largest factories in US history. That same year, another man named Henry Ford would form the Ford Motor Company, and within a few years would begin selling the Model T.
For over a century, Detroit has been on the move, and has put the world on the move. Detroit became the Motor City and changed not only this city, but fundamentally transformed cities around the world.
But as much as Detroit changed the world, African Americans changed Detroit.
Henry Ford, James Packard and the auto industry may have turned Detroit from making cigars, stoves and railroad boxcars into building automobiles. But African Americans made Detroit a center for Black progress in civil rights, business and entertainment.
Black people have lived in what is now Detroit for hundreds of years. The earliest written record of a Black person in Detroit is the 1736 notation of an “unknown negresse” who was enslaved and buried on the grounds of Saint Anne de Detroit, which was originally a simple chapel within Fort Ponchartrain du Detroit. Fort Ponchartrain, later known as Fort Detroit, was the fort built by Frenchman Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac and the others who arrived with him in 1701.
The purpose of the fort was to facilitate Cadillac’s monopoly of the fur trade. But the French were knee-deep in another trade, the slave trade.
Within 100 years of that earliest record of an enslaved Black woman, Black people in Detroit would literally engage in war against the institution of slavery, and they would win.
Black people have never accepted slavery, they fought against it in every way possible. They broke the tools, they burned the crops, they refused to work, they poisoned the slaveowners and overseers, they ran away, they participated in slave revolts and they even sued for their freedom.
The most famous of these lawsuits was Dred Scott v. Sanford, which reached the US Supreme Court in 1857. But 50 years before Dred Scott, there is a lawsuit for freedom in Detroit.
In 1805, Peter and Hannah Denison, enslaved by the William and Catherine Tucker in the Michigan Territory are freed by Catherine Tucker after William Tucker’s death. Although Catherine frees Peter and Hannah, she does not free their four children, Elizabeth, Scipio, James and Peter Jr. In fact, in her will she plans to leave them to her children.
Peter Denison initiates a lawsuit for the freedom of his children. Elijah Brush, the namesake of the street and the neighborhood, Brush Park, is the Denison attorney. The case Denison v. Tucker is heard by the Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory, another street namesake, Augustus Woodward.
Woodward rules that anyone born in slavery after 1793 is to be freed upon reaching 25 years old. But anyone born before 1793 is enslaved for life. Peter Jr. was born after 1793, and was to be freed upon his 25th birthday. But Elizabeth Scipio and James were to be enslaved for life.
The entire Denison family escapes to Canada to obtain freedom, a practice that will become a staple in Detroit’s abolitionist movement.
Black people in Detroit had to move for freedom.
Detroit’s abolitionists, particularly its Black Underground Railroad leaders, will be bold in their battle against slavery.
In 1833, an uprising is organized to free Thornton and Lucie Blackburn from the clutches of the Wayne County Sheriff and two slavecatchers. Before the uprising, Lucie (then known as Rutha) Blackburn is invited in her jail cell by her friend, Caroline French, a young Black free woman and resident of Detroit living on East Fort Street. While in the jail cell, Caroline French prays with Lucie, because prayer changes things.
And Caroline switches clothes with Lucie Blackburn inside of the jail cell.
Lucie walks out as if she’s Caroline, and Caroline remains in the cell as if she’s Lucie.
To the sheriff, ‘All Black women look alike.’
After Lucie escaped, she was taken to Canada, where she was free.
Lucie was on the move.
An uprising the next day would erupt, and Thornton would be freed by a crowd of hundreds of Black Detroiters with help from some abolitionist white allies.
Thornton was on the move.
Thornton was placed on a wagon and taken to the river, placed on a boat, and transported across the river to Canada, where he was reunited with his wife. They would both go to Toronto and start the first taxicab company in Toronto.
They put Toronto on the move.
Thornton and Lucie, now free in Canada, and Detroit had cemented Canada as the destination point for the Underground Railroad.
Thousands of freedom seekers would come through Detroit, and be freed from slavery via the Underground Railroad with help from Underground Railroad conductors like William Lambert and Julia Lambert, George DeBaptiste, William Webb and the congregation of Second Baptist Church, the first Black church in Michigan.
In fact, it would be Second Baptist Church which would become the center of Underground Railroad activity as well as the first school for Black children in Detroit, while at the same time a holy sanctuary for devout congregants.
For Black people in Detroit, faith and freedom go hand-in-hand.
Along with freedom seekers escaping slavery, Detroit would be the center of many free-born Black people leaving the south. The aforementioned George DeBaptiste, as well as the family of John and Fannie Richards, and the Pelhams, the Lees, the Cooks and the Cole family were prominent Black families that helped to create the institutions that would help to create not only Black residency in Detroit, but a Black community.
Black people escaping from slavery and free Black people were on the move, and were coming to Detroit.
Fannie Richards, from a prominent free Black family that left Virginia for Detroit in 1850, would become the first Black public school teacher of an integrated school in Detroit, only after being one of the fighters in a lawsuit to overturn segregation in Detroit’s public schools. She and Mary McCoy would go on to establish the Phyllis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Ladies, a care facility for women who had no husbands or children to care for them in their later years.
Mary McCoy was the wife of Elijah McCoy, the inventor of the lubricating cup for trains – the Real McCoy.
These free Black women helped to create the infrastructure for an influx of thousands of Black people that would arrive in Detroit from the early 1900s to 1970.
When the Great Migration – the movement of millions of African Americans out of the south to the north and west – begins in the early 1900s, there are already churches, schools, institutions and businesses here to greet them. The early Black community of the 1700s and 1800s had helped to establish a foundation of churches, schools, businesses and other institutions, to address many of the needs of the incoming African Americans from the south.
From 1910-1920, the Black community in Detroit multiplies sevenfold – from nearly 6,000 in 1910 to 41,000 in 1920. And from 1920 to 1930, the African American population will nearly quadruple from 41,000 to 150,000.
Why are so many Black people on the move to Detroit?
World War I has opened up job opportunities in the factories.
Black people in the south have been facing the harsh reality of southern Jim Crow, deprived of the right to vote, and largely being pushed into low-skilled farming labor of sharecropping and tenant farming. Along with the violence of frequent lynchings and other forms of racial violence, Black people are not only seeking opportunities, they are fleeing terrorism.
Also, in 1914, Henry Ford began offering $5 a day to all workers. Prior to this, Ford and the other automakers and most factories in Detroit discriminated against African Americans. Some outright refused to hire Black workers. Others hired African American workers only as strikebreakers in case the white labor unions went on strike. Others hired Black workers, but refused to pay them the same wages as white workers.
$5 a day for all workers was a game changer.
When Black people begin coming to Detroit in large numbers from 1910-1930, and again during WWII, they are leaving southern segregation and coming smack dab into northern Jim Crow.
Housing is segregated. Due to real estate steering, redlining and racial restrictive covenants, the main area where Black people can live is the Lower East Side neighborhood of Black Bottom.
This area, named for the rich, dark soil that fueled the French ribbon farms of the 1700s, in the early years of the auto industry, becomes a diverse community stretching from Mount Elliott on the east to Brush Street on the west and from Gratiot on the north to Jefferson on the south.
This neighborhood, which is where many of the abolitionist leaders of the 1800s lived and worked and the first Black churches were founded, is an area rich in diversity before WWII. There are German and Polish immigrants, Italian and Greek immigrants, some Irish residents along with a small community of Syrians in the area. Many of the German and Polish immigrants, are also Jewish.
Acre for acre, Black Bottom was the most culturally rich, historically significant neighborhood in the history of Michigan.
However, by the time we arrive at WWII, many of the former immigrants and their children and grandchildren have moved north, and east, and west of Black Bottom. And due to housing segregation based on race, the neighborhood has become a Black neighborhood.
A Black, overcrowded neighborhood.
At first, African Americans were being blocked from buying and renting homes in predominantly white neighborhoods because of practices like “steering.” Real estate agents “steered” renters and homebuyers to neighborhoods that were predominantly of the same racial and ethnic group. So, whites were being shown homes in white neighborhoods and the same for African Americans.
Also, banks often refused to grant mortgages to African Americans, especially if they were working class African Americans.
However, by the 1920s, the main form of housing discrimination were racial restrictive covenants. Sometimes attached to the deed, or contained within the deed itself, it would be written, “This house or parcel cannot be rented, leased or owned by a negro, or ‘colored’ person.”
Some went further and said things like, “and no negro or colored can occupy or reside in this home.” Others would add, “no negro can reside in this home, except as a domestic laborer (maid, butler, cook), but they must enter through the back door.”
Racial restrictive covenants were challenged in court numerous times, by Black homeowners. Black people were moving against housing discrimination.
In 1922, a Black couple, Charles & Anna Morris bought property in Pontiac, MI. The property had a racial restrictive covenant that stated “Said lot shall not be occupied by a colored person”. A.B. Parmalee, a white neighbor – one has to use a very liberal definition of the word ‘neighbor’ here – becomes the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit to remove the Morris family from the property.
The Michigan Supreme Court rules against Morris, and rules that the Black couple cannot live there, but because the restrictive covenant only says that the property “shall not be occupied by a colored person,” the judge rules that the Morris family can continue to own the property.
Racial restrictive covenants are now backed up by the highest court in the state.
The reality is though, that the courts are not the only way that whites sought to enforce housing discrimination. The other main form of enforcement was violence or threats of violence by white mobs and white homeowners’ associations.
They should be known as the “unwelcoming committee.”
In just one year – 1925 – there are 4 major incidents of white mobs, and even the Ku Klux Klan, showing up at homes with the express intent to drive African Americans out of their bought or rented homes in Detroit neighborhoods that are predominantly white. The white mobs are clear on using violence, to prevent Black residents from living in these spaces.
In one incident, the mob breaks into the home and at gunpoint, forces Alexander Turner, a Black physician, who has moved himself and his family to a home on Spokane street, to sign over his deed to the white homeowners – the Tireman Avenue Improvement Association. He is then forced out of the house and his furniture and belongings are thrown out of the house.
In the other 3 of these 4 incidents, the African American residents arm themselves in order to prevent being killed or attacked by the racist mobs. In the most famous of those cases, Black people even shoot 2 white people, injuring one, and killing another.
Dr. Ossian Sweet and his wife Gladys Sweet bought a home on the corner of Garland and Charlevoix in 1925. Dr. Sweet, a co-worker of Dr. Turner at the Black hospital – Dunbar Memorial – was also close friends with Vollington Bristol, a Black funeral director who also confronted a white mob when he rented his home to Black residents.
Sweet, who saw what happened to Dr. Turner and Mr. Bristol, was well aware of the danger of buying a home in a predominantly white neighborhood. Moreover, the home he bought had a racial restrictive covenant. To get around the covenant, Sweet offered an extra $6,000 above the asking price for the home, the equivalent in $90,000 today. In all, he paid $18,000 for the home, which in today’s value is the equivalent of $260,000.
Dr. Sweet prepared for what might happen. He had guns for everyone in the home – himself; his wife, Gladys; his two brothers Dr. Otis Sweet and Henry Sweet; his friends Charles Washington, Leonard Morse, William Davis, Hewitt Watson and John Latting; his handyman Norris Murray; and his chauffeur Joe Mack.
When the mob inevitably began to gather around the house at dusk and hurled threats and then bricks at the home, gunshots came from inside the home and hit two whites – Eric Houghberg was shot in the leg. He would recover.
Leon Breiner was shot too. He would never get up again.
Everyone in the house was arrested and charged with first degree murder.
The trial – People v. Ossian Sweet et al – would become a legendary court case and the NAACP would bring in legendary defense attorney, Clarence Darrow to lead the defense.
In the first trial, the result was a mistrial due to a hung jury.
The second trial, in which Henry Sweet was tried alone, ended in an acquittal. Clarence Darrow defended him by arguing Castle Doctrine – that the Sweets had the right to defend themselves and their home when the home was attacked by the white mob.
The charges were then dropped on the other defendants.
Although the trial had not outlawed housing discrimination, it made a crack in the barrier that Black Detroiters faced in attaining housing. Especially for middle class African Americans.
Black People in Detroit will not stop moving.
The trickle of Black people living outside of Black Bottom would grow exponentially in the decade following the Sweet trials. By the late 1930s, middle class African Americans are firmly ensconced in four other neighborhoods in Detroit:
Paradise Valley – the business and entertainment district north of Black Bottom in the area now occupied by Ford Field, Comerica Park, 36th District Court and the Chrysler Freeway
Conant Gardens – the northeast neighborhood between Conant & Ryan (west and east) and 7 Mile & Nevada (north and south),
The North End – the neighborhood situated Woodward (west), the city of Hamtramck (east) E. Grand Boulevard (south) and the city of Highland Park (north),
And the Old Westside – bounded by Grand River (East), Buchanan (South), Tireman (North) & Epworth (West).
However, those 4 neighborhoods primarily opened up for middle class Black Detroiters.
What about poor and working-class African Americans?
Along with continuing to live in the overcrowding conditions of Black Bottom, poor and working-class African Americans were moving to one of the first federally funded housing projects in the country – the Brewster Homes.
Some Black people will move to the far northwest side of Detroit, near 8 Mile and Wyoming, and build their own homes. In 1941, a white developer will build a 6-foot wall from 8 Mile to Chippewa St. to separate the white neighborhood from the African American neighborhood.
This was done so that the white housing development could be funded by the federal government and the mortgages on the homes would be eligible for backing by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which from 1934-1968, blocked most African Americans from being able to access these low interest loans for home mortgages.
The federal government, by backing home loans to white homebuyers, while refusing them for most African Americans, picked winners and losers and became the primary segregationist institution in housing, which helped to widen the already existing racial wealth gap, and created a new wealth gap between white working-class families who received low interest home loans, and African American working-class families who were locked into paying rent, including rent at the Brewster Projects.
Despite and because of federal policy, Black people were still moving around Detroit.
In 1941, the federal government would fund the building of another housing project for African Americans who worked at any Detroit factories with a defense contract. The US government needed Black people to produce war goods, and Black people needed housing.
The “unwelcoming committee” – the Seven Mile-Fenelon Homeowners Improvement Association – attempted to block African Americans from moving into Sojourner Truth Homes in February 1942.
When Black people attempted to move in, they were met by a wall of 1,000 whites who physically tried to block Black people from getting in. Black people attempted to fight their way through this group, and the police began arresting African Americans.
It would not be until April of 1942, under the protection of the Michigan National Guard, that African Americans would finally be able to move into the Sojourner Truth Homes.
In 1943, a year after the Sojourner Truth Homes battle, a brutal race riot raged in the city of Detroit.
The riot, beginning at Belle Isle, would claim the lives of 34 people, 9 whites and 25 African Americans, 17 of which were killed by members of the Detroit Police Department.
No whites were killed by members of the Detroit Police Department.
But Black people kept moving.
The year after the riot, Orsel and Minnie McGhee bought a home on the “white side” of Tireman. Although the home had a racial restrictive covenant barring it from being sold to African Americans, Orsel was light-skinned and mistaken for a white man.
However, when white neighbors saw his wife and discovered that the McGhees were a Black family, the “unwelcoming committee” – the Northwest Civic Association – filed a lawsuit headed by the McGhee’s across-the-street neighbors, Benjamin and Anna Sipes. The case, Sipes v. McGhee would eventually reach the Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall was the attorney for the McGhees.
The Supreme Court in 1948, would rule that although private parties can enter into these racial restrictive covenants, they cannot be enforced by the state government, including the courts, or any government. This ruling begins the reversal of the Supreme Court decision in 1926, Corrigan v. Buckley.
Although it was now illegal for the courts and other government officials to enforce housing covenants, the federal government was still creating housing segregation through its FHA policies.
In 1946, a few years after the race riot, and the fully expected blame of Black people for the riot, the city developed a plan of urban renewal to destroy Black Bottom, the community with the highest concentration of African Americans in the city.
After the federal government provided funding for “slum clearance” in 1949, the city began demolishing the homes, businesses, as well as some of the schools, churches and businesses in Black Bottom.
The people were forced to move. At the time, about 80% of the residents were renters, and 20% of the residents were homeowners. The homeowners received some compensation for the loss of their property. In most cases, it was inadequate.
The renters received nothing, except an eviction notice.
With this turn of events, there was a building of high-rises in housing projects. The Frederick Douglass towers were built next to the Brewster Homes, transforming the housing project to the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects. Other housing projects would be built or expanded after the demolition of Black Bottom, including Herman Gardens and the Jeffries Projects.
But there was no expansion in the granting of FHA-backed loans for African Americans.
In 1956, the federal government passed the Interstate Highway Act, and Mayor Albert Cobo, who ran in 1949 on a platform of housing segregation, would plan the final destruction of Black Bottom, and the beginning of the freeway construction on what was Hastings Street.
This would bring about the end of the Black business and entertainment district known as Paradise Valley.
The working class and poor Black renters of Black Bottom began to move into newly built and expanded housing projects as well as the west side neighborhood near Grand Boulevard, Grand River, 12th Street, Dexter Ave., and Linwood.
This neighborhood had a large Jewish population. However, after WWII, Jewish residents began to move north of this area. They began to rent, lease and sell homes to African Americans, many of whom were being forced out of Black Bottom.
After Black Bottom and Paradise Valley are destroyed, and so many African Americans – wealthy, middle class, working class and poor – have been forced to move to other areas in Detroit, there are only a few white strongholds still trying to keep African Americans out.
In the far northwest neighborhood near Telegraph and Schoolcraft, there are still “unwelcoming committees” showing up when Black homeowners move in.
In the northwest area of Rosedale Park, white homeowners will prevent African Americans from moving in until 1973.
By the late 1950s, whites are moving out of the city of Detroit, into newly established and expanding suburbs that are considered “sundown towns.” African Americans are blocked from moving into them, and even when they are employed there, must be out of town by “sundown.”
Cities like Taylor, Westland, East Detroit, Royal Oak and Farmington Hills are sundown towns.
All of the Grosse Pointes are sundown towns, and the most notorious are Livonia, Warren and Dearborn.
Even Ferndale was a sundown town.
Black people will be on the move to the suburbs too. By the 1970s, there is a substantial Black middle-class community in Southfield and Oak Park, as Jewish residents have moved to northern suburbs in Oakland County like West Bloomfield and Farmington Hills.
Black people, in all of these eras, built churches, opened schools, started businesses, established institutions, made music, created art and other forms of culture, that helped to make Detroit a world-class city.
At the same time, due to housing segregation, school inequality, police brutality, job discrimination, urban renewal, residential displacement, and other forms or racial injustice and white supremacy, Detroit would not be able to move as far as it should have.
But just as we must not forget this sad history of racial injustice and oppression, we must also never forget how Black people and their culture and contributions moved Detroit to become a center of industry, labor, culture, music and progressive ideas.
Henry Ford and the other automakers may have made this the Motor City, but Berry Gordy and Black folks made it Motown.
Jamon Jordan is an educator, writer and historian. Also known as Baba Jamon, he has been a teacher of African & African American history for 20 years and a researcher of Black history for decades. He taught at the African centered Nsoroma Institute in Detroit for 10 years and now runs Black Scroll Network History & Tours, where he leads tours and facilitates presentations centered on African & African American history in the Detroit area, and throughout Michigan and the United States.