Sunday, October 7, 2012

Beth Tompkins Bates's "The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford"

Beth Tompkins Bates is professor emerita at Wayne State University and author of Pullman Porters and the Rise of Protest Politics in Black America, 1925-1945.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford, and reported the following:
From p. 99:
Although Henry Ford liked to point out that the man who is “living aright will work aright,” apparently he did not think he was responsible for Detroit’s housing problems. Samuel Marquis [an executive at Ford Motor Company] tried to persuade him otherwise as early as 1916, calling attention to the housing crisis unfolding around them. Ford did not heed his warning. Nor did he act to check the rise of the ghetto, even as he located his factories—first, the Highland Park plant where the Model T was born, and second, the River Rouge—outside Detroit’s city limits, creating distance from Detroit’s taxes and its urban blight. Operating as the largest taxpayer in suburban sites assured that Ford interests dominated politics, including “civic” policies designed to keep watch over unionization efforts. Marquis may have had the last word on Ford’s response to the housing crisis in Black Bottom: “In the end we reap what we sow.”
To a degree, Ford Madox Ford’s Page 99 Test applies to my book, The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford. While the nation celebrated Henry Ford as the most benevolent of employers, this paragraph reveals the limitations of his policies toward his African American employees. When Henry Ford launched his acclaimed Five-Dollar-a-Day in 1914, he emphasized the importance that good housing played in making sure his white ethnic workers were “living aright” so they might “work aright.” Six years later, Henry Ford—the man who had opened the door to economic opportunity for black Americans on a wider, more inclusive scale than any industrial employer had before—kept his distance from the rising color line that increasingly restricted his black workers to crowded, over-priced housing stock in an urban landscape shaped and bounded by race.

The response of black workers to Henry Ford for including them in jobs across the occupational spectrum—as crane operators, mechanics, electricians, bricklayers, and tool-and-die makers—is not captured. By rejecting the notion that better jobs were for white men only, Ford raised expectations and hope about what was possible in America, suggesting to recent migrants from the South that a corner had been turned in the ongoing black struggle for inclusion as full-blooded Americans. In this regard, Ford’s policies sparked a transformation in the lives of black workers and their families, helping lay a foundation for a labor-oriented, civil rights agenda, and, ultimately, providing a base for the formation of the urban black middle class. The book traces relations between Henry Ford, FMC, black workers, and Detroit’s black community as they were formed and transformed during the years between World Wars I and II. Henry Ford had a plan for where and how the black community and black workers would become ideal workers for his open-shop movement, his American Plan. At the same time, the black community had a plan of their own, one that would lead to inclusion in the American Dream. The tensions that rose as these two plans were implemented drive the narrative.
Learn more about The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford at the the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue