One of the most rewarding discoveries I made in researching and writing Black Detroit—A People’s History of Self-Determination was how central the city has been in the nation’s history. For example, many Americans are not aware that slavery existed in Detroit, prompting a passionate, resolute abolitionist movement. The city’s proximity to Canada made it a desirable terminus for the fabled Underground Railroad, particularly after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.
At the dawn of twentieth century, Detroit began its emergence as an industrial hub as the automobile industry forged by Henry Ford gathered steam, and when he made his offer of five dollars a day to workers it spurred the Great Migration, attracting thousands of African Americans from the South.
The influx of migrants from the South and abroad created a housing dilemma and the need for social welfare, particularly for marginalized Blacks. Detroit became the testing ground and the ideal city for the creation of the National Urban League. Coterminous with this development was the rise of the union movement in the factories with Black and white workers at the point of production.
When World War II erupted, Detroit again assumed the spotlight as the automobile plants were transformed into a veritable war machine, the legendary “Arsenal of Democracy.”
During the 1950s as the nation’s infrastructure was dramatically altered by the building of public housing and highways, Detroit’s prominence was once more at the epicenter. The destruction of neighborhoods with a concentration of African Americans was targeted, a patterned repeated in many metropolitan areas where urban renewal was tantamount to “Negro removal.”
On the cultural front, Detroit commanded national attention when the enterprising Berry Gordy established his recording company and subsequently created the soundtrack of a generation. Gordy’s genius was a continuum of Detroit’s innovative narrative from Elijah McCoy to Henry Ford.
While several American cities experienced riots and rebellions in the sixties, Detroit had the most catastrophic in terms of fatalities, arrests and injuries, and the destruction of property, both residential and commercial. A long history of police brutality sparked a disturbance that had been simmering for years and the recent 50th anniversary of the 1967 rebellion has been illuminated by a film that focuses on one harrowing moment in five days of mayhem.
Out of the ashes of the rebellion, Detroit elected its first Black mayor, Coleman Young. His remarkable ascendance and his long tenure in office were hallmarks, showcasing the power of the Black vote and self-determination.
Young was the consummate dealmaker with the city’s major corporations, thereby amassing the funding needed to construct the Renaissance Center, the city’s most impressive landmark.
For more than three decades Detroit, like many cities, has struggled to gain economic traction following a series of destructive uprisings. And a survey of the city beyond downtown and midtown reveals in broad strokes the detritus few cities can replicate. Even in the worst of times as the city recovers from a municipal bankruptcy of historic proportions, Detroit is again front and center.
Whether good or bad, the Motor City or Motown, as it is popularly known, has been in the fulcrum of America’s story. There used to be a saying that “when the nation sneezes Detroit comes down with pneumonia” indicating the city’s economic importance.
Now that “Detroit” is on the nation’s theater marquees thanks to Kathryn Bigelow’s film, the city is again under the microscope, or at least the cinemascope. At no point does the film attempt to capture the city’s epic odyssey; it’s a narrow aperture on a horrific tragedy that stops short of the African American agency so vital to the city’s history and development.
Maybe one day a visionary filmmaker will document those dynamic episodes that have given Detroit such a pivotal place in the nation’s history. On that occasion perhaps we can see how Black and white workers made the union movement such a powerful force for change; how one man’s assembly line of auto production gave rise to another man’s harnessing of artistic talent.
After journalists began parachuting into Detroit, and job seekers from elsewhere began connecting with Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock, there was much talk about Detroit as the “comeback city.” It was reminiscent of the early sixties with the arrival of the Cavanagh administration and the buzz about Detroit as the model city.
Let us hope that the optimism of that time does not devolve into the turmoil that destroyed Detroit. Yes, Detroit, metaphorically and realistically, can resume its momentous place in America’s journey, but without Devil’s Night, abusive police, and certainly without the bloody upheavals that burned out so much of its prodigious past, a past so critical to the nation’s progress and glory.
Herb Boyd is the author of Black Detroit—A People’s History of Self-Determination