The kiss, the wall & other true tales

Neighbors in his dilapidated west Detroit neighborhood remember James Major as a preacher who helped his wife manage an apartment building. They recall watching as sickness claimed his wife’s life, as infirmity stifled his, and he unceremoniously disappeared into a nursing home. It’s hardly the kind of life one expects to be grist for historians.

But there in the September 1997 issue of the Journal of American History, along with articles on slavery in Bourbon County, Ky., and African-American scholar-activist W.E.B. DuBois, you can find the story of James Major and the kiss that sparked a wildcat strike and derailed his future.

Major was then, in 1955, a strapping married man of 35, a would-be boxer, a World War II Army veteran who that January had landed a job in the trim department of Chrysler’s Dodge Main Plant in Hamtramck. As an African-American, his mere presence in that department was a reminder of recent changes, troubling changes for the white men who had formerly had a lock on the installation of hardtops and side chrome. Troubling, too, for the hierarchy, was the presence of white women like Major’s frequent work partner, Catherine Young. When Major and Young became friendly, even flirtatious, tensions simmered and finally, on the last work day before Christmas, boiled.

That last work day was traditionally a festive one, complete with booze. Young proposed a round of Christmas kisses between the couples who occupied consecutive workstations; she proceeded to kiss a white co-worker, while Major delivered a peck to the cheek of one Leona Hunt, also white.

As Hunt walked away, the Yule festival, in the words of author Kevin Boyle, became “something much more ominous.”

White workers yelled and swore at Hunt, who began to cry. “If he done that to you, Mrs. Hunt, he will do it to others,” shouted one white worker in a growing crowd, according to Young’s subsequent testimony. Security officers hustled Young and Major before managers, saying Hunt had filed a complaint. Production ground to a halt; managers shut the line down; and a “mob of idled workers” waited to hear that Major had been fired and Young suspended for 10 days.

“The incident at Dodge Main seems so easily explained that it is hardly worth a second glance,” writes Boyle.

But the former Detroiter and associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts is part of a burgeoning movement among historians to give such Detroit events not only glances but sustained examination. Their goal is to interlace the broad forces of change with daily life; zeroing in, for instance, on the experiences of a few people like Major and Young and their co-workers.

Says Boyle, “Detroit’s become this symbol, this way of exploring urban problems — which is sort of a sad thing to say in some ways — and particularly the problem of race. It’s this laboratory.”

For a number of thirtysomething historians, Boyle included, turning the telescope of their profession on the city is, in part, explaining a place they once lived. “It’s just one of those places that gets under your skin,” Boyle says.

In his article “The Kiss: Racial and Gender Conflict in a 1950s Automobile Factory,” Boyle details the years leading up to 1955, the slow “crumbling” of what had been a white male employment enclave as first white women and then black men made headway. And after that fateful Dec. 22, 1955, Boyle follows the failed efforts of Young and Major to find redress through their local union, the UAW Fair Practices Department and Michigan’s Fair Employment Practices Commission.

For Major, it was his first and last job in the city’s lucrative manufacturing plants. The bitterness lingered 40 years later when Boyle tracked him down.

“The interplay of the personal and the political lies at the center of so much of postwar American history: the struggle over integrating neighborhoods and schools, over the distribution of welfare benefits, over urban renewal,” writes Boyle. “Again and again we see the costs of that interplay, in the battered body of Emmett Till, in white flight from central cities, in the smoldering ruins of South Central Los Angeles. And too we see its victories, in the gradual fashioning of a society where, at least at times, a kiss between a black man and white woman can remain simply a kiss.”

‘Symbol of division’

Several miles north of James Major’s old neighborhood, residents are well aware of the history in their midst. They see it daily: a concrete wall, nearly a foot thick and 5-feet-plus tall that runs through back yards for three blocks near Eight Mile and Wyoming. Out walking his dogs, Glenn Wilson, 47, eyes the wall where it runs along the Alfonso Webb Playground and recalls that being big and adept enough to boost up and walk atop the wall has for decades been a childhood rite of passage here.

“It was like a grown-up stage to be able to walk that wall. Anybody couldn’t walk that wall; you had to have some skills,” says Wilson.

But growing up in the ’50s, everyone here knew the meaning of the wall: to divide the races, whites on one side, blacks on the other. The neighborhood is entirely African-American on both sides of the wall today, Wilson’s family having been pioneers integrating the white side. A boxing instructor at nearby Johnson Recreation Center, Wilson says he tells youngsters the wall symbolizes something that’s wrong: “Human beings, we’re supposed to get along.”

Outside the immediate neighborhood, the story of the wall had been largely forgotten in Detroit and remained virtually unknown beyond the city. That is, until it came back into light as part of Thomas Sugrue’s 1996 book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. If the chronicling of recent Detroit history constitutes a movement, a new school of city historians, Sugrue, now a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, is its central figure — its “pater familias,” said one fellow historian — and Origins is its central book.

Sugrue had found scattered references to the wall in his research, and finally, in the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library, came across the papers of schoolteacher Burneice Avery, who had grown up among a settlement of 1,000 blacks who staked out land in the neighborhood beginning in the 1920s, built temporary quarters and agitated for federal loans to build the permanent homes of their dreams, running water and all.

But federal support was more readily available to a white developer who wanted to build to the west of the black community, which was seen as a high-risk slum by government appraisers. The developer erected the half-mile wall during the 1940s in a deal with the Federal Housing Administration for loans and mortgage guarantees. To the African-American neighbors, the government had colluded in a concrete insult.

After reading the Avery papers, Sugrue recalled, “I got in my car and drove to Eight Mile and found the wall still standing. … I wasn’t surprised, though I suppose it is to many folks shocking because it gives physical form to the racial segregation that’s so pervasive in metropolitan Detroit. It’s the most obvious, most blatant symbol of division.”

What has made Sugrue’s book important, though, isn’t the rediscovery of the wall or his detailing housing segregation and pitched conflicts the wall symbolizes. And it isn’t his dissection of the abrupt collapse of the city’s manufacturing base after World War II, and the disproportionate blow that collapse dealt to the African-Americans.

“Many of the things that he brought to light, a lot of us knew already,” says Mike Smith, a Detroit historian at work on a dissertation on the 19th century development of the city’s street railways. “But he put it all together and did meticulous research.”

Origins of the Urban Crisis won more than a half-dozen awards, including the Bancroft Prize, which goes annually to top works in the field of history. There’s no clear count, but Sugrue guesses that it’s being used at dozens of colleges around the country. It is also in that minority of academic books that breaks out to a general audience.

“Groundbreaking” is the term that historian Jacqueline Jones uses to describe Sugrue and other historians re-examining Detroit. “He shows that the issues of jobs and housing were critical to the city’s development and to the persistent inequality experienced by blacks,” says Jones, a professor of American civilization at Brandeis and winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant for her work on the history of the underclass and other topics.

“The recent work on Detroit … highlights developments critical to understanding national politics in the post-war era,” says David M. Freund of Princeton, who is working on a book about white racial politics in the Detroit suburbs from the ’40s through the ’60s.

Rewriting history

From the outset of his book, Sugrue signals that he’s taking on both his academic peers and public perceptions held about Detroit.

For instance, he points to the debate over the nature and existence of an urban underclass. Some scholars emphasize “a culture of joblessness and dependency” fostered by welfare, others the flight of jobs from central cities and racism in the job market, still others point to a marginalization of urban centers rooted in the white backlash against the civil rights movement and the politics and policies that followed it: from black power to busing to affirmative action.

Sugrue, in effect, rolls the film of Detroit’s malaise further back than earlier scholars. “The coincidence and mutual reinforcement of race, economics, and politics … from the 1940s to the 1960s, set the stage for the fiscal, social, economic crisis that confront urban America today,” he writes. “The origins of the urban crisis are much earlier than social scientists have recognized, its roots deeper, more tangled, and perhaps intractable.”

Yet like a core among the other younger scholars at the center of the new Detroit histories, Sugrue is also rewinding the film to come to grips with some of his own personal history as a white ex-Detroiter who grew up in the changing city of the ’60s and ’70s. Not all the young historians poking at the Detroit story are white or former city residents. But that is the case for notables Sugrue, Boyle, Suzanne E. Smith and Heather Ann Thompson.

“We’ve all talked about how deeply personal it’s been,” says Smith, assistant professor of history at George Mason University and author of Dancing in the Streets: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit. “We’ve kidded about having a group therapy session.”

Smith recalls moving from near City Airport at age 8 as “the biggest trauma of my life. My parents said we were moving to Cleveland. They might as well have said Mars.” Returning to Detroit as a scholar meant reconnecting “with where I was taken from.”

The author of Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City, Thompson puts it like this: “I think all of us were acutely aware that this was a very strained but incredibly interesting and important place to understand.”

Sugrue recalls his fifth birthday, which he celebrated in the midst of Detroit’s 1967 riot, the sight of National Guard vehicles rumbling along Fenkell (“quite a thrill”) and being barred from playing outside (“for fear we would be picked off by snipers, although there weren’t any snipers near our section of the city”). He remembers the hubbub when the first African-American family moved into the neighborhood a few years later; the majority of the neighborhood’s whites — eventually including the Sugrues, who relocated to “homogenous” Farmington Hills — moved out few years after that. (In one odd coincidence, the first African-American family in Sugrue’s neighborhood was headed by a member of the controversial STRESS police unit and figures into a bizarre cop-on-cop shooting in Thompson’s book.)

Studying Detroit, says Sugrue, “was on some level coming to grips with processes I observed as a child but never fully understood.”

Housing and jobs, where Detroiters lived and made their livelihoods — often fractiously — are his chief lines of inquiry.

He first follows the housing story up until about 1960. African-Americans moving from the Jim Crow South encountered a Northern housing market that systematically confined them to the worst Detroit had to offer — and put the wall in their faces.

Moreover, unlike some other Northern cities, public-housing advocates were frequently outmaneuvered by white homeowners and blocked from building in much of the city. That long, running battle at one point sparked street clashes of more than 1,000 blacks and whites when the first black family moved into the Sojourner Truth Homes (near East Seven Mile and Ryan) in 1942. In the aftermath of that, and a full-blown race riot the following year, whites wielded “the threat of imminent violence as a political tool” in housing debates, writes Sugrue.

And until the 1960s, the housing issue, in election after election, helped keep control of the city firmly in the grip of conservatives.

In the workplace, Sugrue details a pattern of postwar discrimination that was ubiquitous but also “inconsistent and capricious” from industry to industry and even from plant to plant.

“An individual worker might not be able to predict when and where he would encounter an arbitrary rebuff,” he writes. “Nonetheless, by all objective measures, white Detroiters citywide enjoyed preferential treatment at hiring gates, in personnel offices, in union halls and in promotion to better positions.”

During World War II, Detroit’s job market boomed; the city was “the arsenal of democracy.” But even during the war, the government began tilting defense work away from central cities, and by the early ’50s Detroit had become “a ghost arsenal.” Other industries, too, moved more and more operations out of cities. Sugrue’s account swims in the overlapping measures of deindustrialization: Detroit lost 134,000 manufacturing jobs 1947-1953; some 55 manufacturing firms moved to the suburbs from 1950-1956; the Detroit area lost 56,000 defense jobs in 1954 alone; manufacturing jobs fell by 50 percent during the ’50s.

But as the nation showed phenomenal growth overall, few economists doubted that all boats would rise with the tide. They certainly weren’t considering African-American boaters.

Blacks faced a double whammy of the discrimination and deindustrialization; denied a place in most plants until the middle of the war, blacks were less likely to be protected by seniority when plants shrank. And the farther away old plants moved — and new plants opened — the less likely black workers were to follow. Plants relocating in Detroit from the South played by the Jim Crow practices that droves of black Detroiters had recently escaped.

But Sugrue’s most controversial finding occupies the last portion of the book, wherein he examines the resistance to integration in the city’s neighborhoods, which he dubs the largest social movement the city has seen. Keeping the housing market unfree becomes a larger and larger battle through the ’50s and into the ’60s. In 1964, the white homeowners’ movement would win a referendum against open housing in Detroit — only to have the ordinance ruled unconstitutional in Wayne County District Court.

Sugrue says he was surprised when he studied records of the Mayor’s Interracial Committee, another collection archived at the Detroit Public Library and documenting the work of a group formed after the riot of 1943.

“I began to find example after example of violent attacks that had occurred on the homes of African-Americans who were the first or second to move into formerly all-white neighborhoods,” he says.

“From the beginning of my research, nearly every African-American from the mid-’40s to the mid-’60s who was the first to move into an all-white neighborhood could expect to have windows of his or her home broken out and to be the subject of anything from petty harassment to all-out war in an attempt to drive them from the neighborhood.

“As a historian, I expected to find some of that, but the magnitude of it and the depressing detail was eye-opening.”

And if Sugrue begins his book challenging his fellow academics, he finishes by taking on “the commonplace observation that Detroit’s urban crisis began with the riot of 1967 and worsened with the inauguration of Coleman Young as Detroit’s first black mayor in 1974. … By the time Young was inaugurated, the forces of decay and racial animosity were too powerful for a single elected official to stem.”

Variations on that theme are a common thread among the recent works in bold contrast, for instance, to Ze’ev Chafets' 1990 Devil’s Night and Other True Tales from Detroit.

Writes Boyle: “The popular story” — that Detroit was undone by riot, misrule and the ’70s oil crisis’ blow to the auto industry — “serves an obvious political purpose: black rioters and bad luck caused the city’s decline; whites bear no responsibility for its problems. Historians’ accounts … have moved in precisely the opposite direction, insisting that the roots of Motown’s continuing crisis must be traced not to the terrible events of 1967 but to white Detroiters and the institutions they controlled.”

Likewise, to paint Detroit of the ’40s and ’50s as a golden era is to gloss over reality — particularly as experienced by African-Americans.

“We [Detroit historians] all dismiss the notion that everything was just beautiful, hunky dory, in this city until African-Americans moved to the city, and more specifically African-American militants pushed the liberals to be more responsive to their needs,” says Thompson. “We all reject this very powerful argument in historiography that everything was just beautiful in the ’50s until the ’60s came along and leftists and left-wing liberals ruined it all.”

Motown anatomy

These new Detroit histories always seem to be written against something. Against academic assumptions, against myths, against “the common narratives.”

In the case of Suzanne E. Smith, the enemy is the nostalgia that has made Motown the Sound of Young America — and at the same time cut the music adrift from the adults and the time and the place that created it.

For African-Americans in the decades leading to Motown, Detroit was a beacon of opportunity, a city that encouraged aspirations even if it sometimes stifled them. And for Smith in Dancing in the Streets, that collision of aspirations and barriers fostered an outpouring of political and cultural enterprise. Detroit, she notes, was the birthplace of the Nation of Islam, a key part of Malcolm X’s story; it was the home to the first radio station “built, owned and operated” by African-Americans; black Detroiters launched pioneering African-American publishing, theater and arts projects; black Detroit congressmen John Conyers and Charles Diggs Jr. were instrumental in creating the Congressional Black Caucus.

Motown, which grew to become the largest black-owned company in the nation, has to be placed in that milieu. Company founder Berry Gordy Jr., specifically, makes sense only as part of the black economic self-help movement that his father symbolized with his Booker T. Washington Grocery Store at St. Antoine and Farnsworth.

For the pivotal year 1963, Smith overlays the company’s story with Detroit’s Great March to Freedom, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands of Detroiters in what he called “the largest and greatest demonstration for freedom ever held in the United States.” It was a precursor to the March on Washington — where King would intone many of the same words — a symbolic thrust of the civil rights campaign into the North; backstage, Detroiters, from militants to the establishment, jockeyed to make their cases. While Stevie Wonder’s 1963 “Fingertips” lives on for radio listeners, Smith reminds readers that Motown also released a recording of King’s Detroit speech that year.

“Motown’s music symbolized the possibilities of amicable racial progress,” writes Smith. “But as a company, Motown represented the possibilities of black economic independence, one of the most important tenets of black nationalism.”

Yet the birth of Motown also coincides with the quickening pace of the deindustrialization that Sugrue considers at much greater depth. And as a capitalist enterprise, the Motown that Smith portrays is conflicted over what it might owe the community and its purely business agenda. Following that business agenda, Motown would eventually forsake the Motor City for Los Angeles, where it would lose everything that made it distinctive — beyond its catalog of oldies.

“There was a unique configuration in Detroit for a phenomena like Motown to emerge,” says Smith. But at the same time, she says, she tried to balance what was exceptional in Detroit with what was relevant to other urban areas. “I was trying to pull together many different narrative threads to do that as a model that people can apply to other cities … even though Detroit is so exceptional in many ways.”

Era apparent

The “Detroit clique” — as Smith jokingly refers to the group of historians — is not without its differences.

Heather Ann Thompson suggests that she and Sugrue may have begun with similar questions but wound up decades apart in pursuing answers.

“He was in a large part trying to explain crisis and collapse and decided that the ’50s was really the cradle of that,” says Thompson, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “I didn’t disagree there was crisis. But I saw that that crisis was really about possibilities.”

The Detroit story that she concentrates on takes place, by and large, between the ’67 riot — Thompson prefers “rebellions” — and the election of Coleman Young; it takes place in the streets, in the courts, in the election booths in one stream of her story; in the other stream, the action is on factory shop floors and union offices.

“Incredibly important competing visions of the city were being fought out, hammered out, with no assurance who was going to triumph. … People fight tooth and nail for that city long after the fires of ’67 are extinguished,” Thompson says during a phone interview.

Blacks, whites, liberals, leftists, nationalists, business leaders, unionists, anti-busing activists and various conservative factions jockey for influence, each group with its own internal divisions and shifting alliances.

Some of the most divisive conflicts are between a predominantly white police force and an increasingly African-American city. An undercover decoy unit known by the acronym STRESS (Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets) would symbolize to conservative whites, in Thompson’s book, “the only group working to control chaos and disruption in the Motor City.”

To the black community, not to mention to liberals and leftists, STRESS itself would become the force of chaos. Shoot-outs between STRESS officers and three young black revolutionaries would leave one cop dead and another paralyzed, and trigger the largest manhunt in the city’s history.

For blacks and many whites, says Thompson, the manhunt illustrated “the degree to which Detroit was in a state of emergency … that the police in key respects were out of control.” Police broke into homes without search warrants, in one case fatally shooting a man who was asleep in bed.

Only one of the three radicals, Hayward Brown, survived the manhunt, and defended by flamboyant, abrasive and charismatic leftist attorney Ken Cockrel, Brown won acquittals in three subsequent trials. In cases like this, argues Thompson, the city’s dynamic left took the struggle from the streets to the courts and “pushed the system to its absolute limits.” Nonetheless, in Thompson’s analysis, liberals claim much of the credit, leading to Young’s election and a marginalization of the left. (Significantly, disbanding STRESS and forcing integration on the police force were among the new mayor’s first acts.)

Meanwhile, in the city’s auto plants, an entrenched union leadership faced young militants in groups like the Dodge Revolutionary Movement. The leaders feared the black nationalist element among the insurgents — and they also feared a replay of their ’50s struggles with communists in their ranks. A violent 1973 fracas in which perhaps 1,000 union officials took up bats and pipes to break a wildcat strike at Chrysler’s Mack Avenue plant serves as the final trouncing of that movement.

Yet, Thompson says in the interview, the radicals made points that still resonate about the need for democratizing unions and the need for unions “to be at the vanguard, rather than always being the barrier to that struggle.”

And Thompson, who moved from Indiana to Dearborn and then Detroit’s Rosedale Park neighborhood as a teen in the late ’70s, brings the story closest to the present.

For all the battering that cities like Detroit took by the ’80s, she writes, they became “places where African-Americans, and more specifically the black middle class, finally could experience real social, economic and political opportunity.”

Adds Thompson: “It’s easy, particularly for white scholars and scholarship, to look at a city that has suffered economically and is also primarily African-American and decide that there is very little left of that city. … I felt, particularly growing up in that city, that that was not the case.”

Soon to be a book

More Detroit books are in the publishing pipeline.

For instance, Boyle, whose previous book was on the UAW but not specifically on Detroit, was inspired by Sugrue to ask more questions about housing segregation in Detroit: “I said, man, I want to go back to the start of those conflicts.” Which is to say he’s going back to the 1920s, when both blacks and whites were flooding into the city — and the boundary lines of separation were being drawn to constrain blacks to ghettos. Restrictive covenants were coming into use to bar sale of homes to blacks; real estate agents stopped showing blacks homes in white neighborhoods.

Last year Boyle won a Guggenheim fellowship to work on The People v. Sweet: A Story of Race, Rights and Murder in Jazz Age America. The broad outline of the story is well known by many Detroiters: 29-year-old black physician Ossian Sweet moves his family into 2509 Garland in an all-white east side neighborhood; a mob forms, rocks fly; 20 or more shots are fired from inside the house, killing a white factory foreman standing across the street; Sweet and 10 others are charged with conspiracy to murder; the NAACP rallies behind the Sweets; the nation’s most famous defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, carries the day, and garners at least some of the publicity that the civil rights leaders had hoped for. The story was major news across the nation in African- American papers, but far less than the Scopes Trial to the white press.

Now Boyle argues the story needs to be known outside of Detroit, and he wants to go beyond the outline, among other things to go back further to find out more about Ossian Sweet and his world, and forward to the impact of the incident.

Meanwhile, Detroiter Dave Riddle is writing a book on influential Detroit attorney Ernest Goodman. Freund, of Princeton, expects his tentatively titled Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in the Modern American Suburb to be be out within two years. Nick Salvatore, author of an award-winning Eugene V. Debs biography, is working on the life of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a giant among African-American preachers, a civil rights leader and the father of Aretha Franklin. A new study of the 1967 riot is in the works.

Smith, Thompson and Sugrue are all pursuing new projects — from the history of civil rights in the North to the saga of African- American funeral directors — which in some way overlap or draw on the story of Detroit.

Setting the pace

According to Sugrue, these are some of the trends in the study of American history: to address race and inequality, to bring political history together with the social and cultural, to bring national and local history together with everyday experience, to make the experience of cities central to understanding the nation.

“So the stuff on Detroit is right at the core of those currents, and I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the work on Detroit is trend-setting,” he adds, noting work on Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia and New York picks up on some of the Detroit leads. “In some ways, the Detroit stuff is setting the pace for what I think is going to be a very substantial body of work on race and political economy in American cities.”

Can it make a difference outside of the world of academia? Particularly in Detroit?

“Every time I come to Detroit, I get huge audiences,” Sugrue says. “Those audiences include people who are addressing Detroit’s problems from all sorts of different vantage points: community organizers, folks at the UAW and other unions, city officials, corporate executives, neighborhood activists. It amazes me.” (One Sugrue reader is Detroit Renaissance head Paul Hillegonds, a one-time state House Republican leader, who said he wished he’d read Origins back when he was in Lansing.)

Responding to the same question, Boyle notes what the labor movement, for all its limitations, was able to do in the 1930s and 1940s to transform vast numbers of lives. “It’s not inconceivable to say you can have a social movement of that kind,” he says.

Still, it’s hard not to think about some of the images in Origins where well-meaning liberals — white and black — toil to turn Detroit into a model city through job training programs, for instance, or by picketing and lobbying to break the color line and place the first African-American retail clerks in downtown stores. Meanwhile, larger economic forces — the inexorable flight of jobs for the suburbs and beyond — are throwing African-Americans out of jobs en masse.

In 2002, a time when “urban policy” has all but disappeared from the political vocabulary, what are the odds of seeing a proportionate response to today’s urban crisis?

Probably not good, concedes Sugrue.

“But my job, as someone who is in the realm of public policy and political debate, is to push in that direction.”


Thomas J. Sugrue’s expert testimony as part of a University of Michigan defense of its affirmative action policies can be read at The testimony includes key themes from The Origins of the Urban Crisis. Kevin Boyle talks about the Ossian Sweet trial in a video clip as part of the informative Detroit African-American History Project at

W. Kim Heron is the Metro Times managing editor. Send comments to [email protected].
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