1943 - A race riot there will be
The summer of 1943 found the United States embroiled in the worst war in world history and the industrial might of Detroit was playing an integral part in winning it. Common during times of war, domestic hatreds and tensions grip entire communities, bringing out the best and worst even amongst allies. At a time when Americans were pulling together to defeat its enemies, societal problems of long standing chose a bad time to rear its ugly head in Detroit. In June of 1943 Detroit suffered one of the worst race riots in the country’s history, forcing America to take a long, hard introspective look at itself. Analysts concluded there was no one specific cause to the disorder but rather a multitude of causes that had been a long time in the making. It was, if viewed on the whole, just pieces of a puzzle.
With the country at war, the industrial output necessary to win quickly fell upon the large urban areas of the North, cities like Chicago, Cleveland, New York and in particular Detroit. Again, as in 1915, there were more good paying jobs available in Detroit than could be filled.
The Detroit riot of 1943, along with numerous other riots that occurred that same year, was known world wide. Nazi propaganda radio was having a field day explaining how the freedom loving Americans, who espoused that democracy was the answer, were now beating each other to death on the streets of Detroit.
An embarrassed President Roosevelt had to divert U.S. Army troops that were on their way to fight Nazis in North Africa and instead send them to Detroit to keep Americans from killing Americans.
Roosevelt found a legal loophole to keep from declaring martial law (a prerequisite for sending in federal troops) while giving the army carte blanche to apply as much force as necessary to quickly and quietly put down the riot.
But blacks were not the only entity envious of a high paying blue-collar job. A veritable tidal wave of white Southerners also flooded into Detroit. Over 500,000 migrants arrived between June of 1940 and June of 1943 alone. Approximately 50,000 were black. The rest were a hodgepodge of poor white Appalachians, unsuccessful farmers, Baptists, Methodists and others. It was Detroit’s version of The Grapes of Wrath.
Detroit had run the economic gamut over the decades. From a buzzing metropolis of the WWI era flaunting its automotive prominence, to an anemic invalid of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and then back again to a bee hive of activity which WWII dictated. With well-paying jobs in excess, the Motor City offered unheard of opportunities. This point resonated throughout the South where poor sharecropping blacks were becoming expendable due to modern advances in farm machinery and the ravages of the boll weevil. As for the oppression they incurred from whites, little had changed since the Civil War. Reconstruction was an unmitigated failure. While the physical act of slavery was outlawed the mentality of slavery could not be. For most the risk of moving north was academic, there was nothing left to lose.
Wartime Detroit was awash with good paying jobs, as this puzzled shop keeper on the left attests to. It was also saturated with a host of dysfunctional groups, many far from home, all antagonistic towards each other.
Detroit was bearing the brunt of the war production for the country, cranking out a staggering 1/3 of the military equipment
being used to fight the fight. But it came at a price. Detroiters, worn and frazzled from endless production work, were at the breaking point.
Detroit’s racial situation had become so precarious and so pronounced that in August of 1942, ten months before the notorious riot, LIFE magazine wrote a caustic article entitled “Detroit is Dynamite” admonishing the city at length for its poisonous racial atmosphere and predicting the city would riot:
Few people doubt Detroit can do this colossal job.
It has the machines, the factories, the know-how as no other city in the world has them. If machines could win the war, Detroit would have nothing to worry about. But it takes people to run machines and too many of the people of Detroit are confused, embittered and distracted by factional groups that are fighting each other harder that they are willing to fight Hitler. Detroit can either blow up Hitler or it can blow up the U.S.
Sojourner Truth - A Portent of things to come
The second “Great Migration” of Southern blacks which occurred during WWII caught Detroit badly off guard. Suddenly the city that could bury Hitler found it couldn’t adequately house its own people.
The federal government, determined to keep Detroit’s indispensable industrial juggernaut rolling, came to the realization that additional black housing was badly needed. But where would the new black housing be accepted? The sight eventually chosen was located at Nevada & Fenelon, right next to a white neighborhood.
There was only one black housing project in the city, the Brewster housing project and it was full. Southern whites were also vying for living space. Locals were under the impression the new housing project was intended for whites until it was given the name Sojourner Truth (after a Civil War slave and poet). Their protestations came swiftly. Strategies were initiated and congressmen were incited, successfully reversing Washington’s decision.
Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries was fully aware of not only the acute housing problem in his city but of the highly combustible atmosphere between the races. Siding with the blacks, Jeffries reeled off a scathing series of telegrams to Washington demanding they rescind their decision. Much to the vexation of the white community, Washington flip-flopped again and the housing project again was set for black occupancy. The move in date was to be February 27th, 1942.
Round one went to the whites as over 1,200 well armed protestors showed up on moving day, too much for the Detroit Police Department to control. The first black families who showed up at 9 a.m. thought the crowd too volatile and turned back.
Later that day two black tenants ran their car through the picket line, starting off a melee. Detroit police used tear gas and shotguns to disperse the crowd but moving day had to be postponed indefinitely. (Above, left) Locals made their intentions eminently clear. (Above, right) Protestors pose with their “trophy.”
April 28, 1942 – White protestors line up at the entrance to Sojourner Truth as round two prepares to get under way.
Note the protestor with the oversized chunk of wood in his hand and his completely unabashed demeanor as he stands in front of the police car.
This time Mayor Jeffries was better prepared. In tandem with 1,100 Detroit police officers, Jeffries requested and was granted 1,600 National Guardsmen to secure the route and site. Round two went to the black tenants. The inconclusive showdown that was Sojourner Truth simply escalated raw feelings between the races to a near riot status. Everyone seemed to know that somewhere in the future there would be a rematch to settle old scores once and for all. Sojourner Truth was a portent of things to come.
Despite the massive show of force by authorities, the white protestors showed an iron resolve. Again the two sides went at it and had to be forcefully broken up, but the black tenants were finally moved in. With forty people injured and over one hundred arrested, sentiments still ran high. One black tenant exclaimed, “The Army is going to take me to ‘fight for democracy,’ but I would just as soon fight for democracy right here. Here we are
fighting for ourselves."
One step closer to judgment day - Thousands of white employees at Packard walk off the job to protest having to work with blacks.
After the U.S. entry into WWII, the federal government took over all private industries capable of producing war material. This meant for the duration of the war no more cars would be produced. The world famous Packard Motor Car Company was humming 24/7 with the vital production of the giant Rolls-Royce aircraft engines and twelve cylinder Packard marine engines used to power PT boats.
While the UAW hierarchy outwardly supported integration of its work force, its rank and file did not. Whites didn’t mind so much that blacks worked in the same plant, but they refused to work side by side with them. Three weeks before the riot, Packard promoted three blacks to work on the assembly line next to whites. The reaction was immediate and swift. A plant-wide hate strike resulted as 25,000 whites walked off the job, bringing critical war production to a screeching halt. A voice with a Southern accent barked over the loudspeaker, “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work next to a Nigger.”
Although the matter was rectified within a few days by relocating the black workers, the wheels were quickly coming off Mayor Jeffries’ wagon. Detroit was spinning out of control and on a collision course with disaster.
April 1941 - (Above, left) Thousands of southern blacks were employed at Ford’s River Rouge Complex. In 1941 the UAW waged a strike at the Rouge. Whites walked off the job but blacks stayed behind. Many blacks felt a loyalty to “Uncle Henry.” The two groups clashed on numerous occasions in barbaric fashion.
(Above, right) Yet another subtle but telling reason leading to the riot was Detroit’s antiquated transportation system, once quantitatively compared to the caliber of a small New England town. Due to severe gas rationing during WWII, many depended on the trolleys to get them to work or recreation. With the arrival of several hundred thousand Southerners into the city in the space of a few years, the trolley system became terribly overburdened. Whites who had stood in shock and revulsion at the mere thought of blacks living near them now found themselves literally elbow to elbow with them on the cramped trolleys. Many fisticuffs resulted.
You could smell it in the air
For the generations that grew up in the era of air conditioning, relief from the ravages of the sun is only a push button away. Such extravagances were not available during WWII. The most immediate respite in those days was the public beach. If you lived in Black Bottom, this meant Belle Isle.
Sunday June 20, 1943 was a typical day downtown. The sun’s lustrous heat felt quite pleasant early in the morning but quickly spiraled to a challenging ninety-one degrees by the afternoon. Some 100,000 Detroiters decided to patronize Belle Isle that day;
75 percent were black.
Belle Isle, the largest city-owned island park in the country, encompasses a spacious 985 acres, but it wasn’t big enough to prevent two volatile groups from avenging past grievances on this fateful day. The fury of the war had changed Detroit drastically. Because of the dense, interracial crowd that frequented Belle Isle, Detroit police came to believe that if trouble started, it would likely start here.
Life magazine had based its article on the numerous major racial incidents in the months preceding the riot. Hot points included the Sojourner Truth housing project, Packard Motor Car Co & Eastwood Amusement Park. The Broadhead Naval Armory sat on the mainland next to the Belle Isle bridge. Fisticuffs between white sailors and black civilians had been occurring all summer long with increasing intensity. Black youths, seeking revenge for previous incidents, had been mugging whites on the island all day. About 10:00 that night, with a traffic jam the length of the bridge, hundreds of Detroiters were walking to the mainland. White sailors and the black youths finally caught up to each other and soon there was a racial donnybrook the length of the bridge. Detroit police came out in force, arresting dozens. The police believed they stopped the incident in its tracks but unbeknown to them, other parts of the city, feeding on false rumors, began to erupt.
(Above & Below) Detroit police officers defend blacks from the white mob. Although the DPD was criticized for being indifferent to many of the brawls, surely these victims would have entered the long list of fatalities without them.
Detroit police use Tommy guns and tear gas to halt a white mob trying to enter Black Bottom in search of potential victims.
White rioters watch with delight as a car belonging to a black was rolled over and set ablaze. White rioters took their volcanic anger out on the first blacks they encountered. In the early hours of the riot many unsuspecting blacks found themselves on Woodward Ave.
If you were black you did not want to be west of Woodward Ave.This was deep in 'enemy territory.' Black Bottom was east of Woodward and thus the only real safe confines.
(Above) Rioters began stopping trolley cars and abducting black patrons who were given a swift, unconditional beating.
(Below) In every disaster there seems to emerge some sort of hero. Someone who takes great risk, not for the sake of their own personal aggrandizement but simply to quench a thirst for justice. As is often the case they remain forever anonymous. A white passenger attempts to sway a blood-thirsty mob that was determined to assault black passengers. Note how a number of rioters closest to the car ignore his plea and continue to search the car for potential victims.
"he went about doing good"
Dr. Joseph De Horatiis came to America with the fervent belief that all men are created equal and even the meekest of immigrants could excel. Amidst the chaos and tumult of the riot, Dr. De Horatiis received an emergency call which would take him through Paradise Valley, an all black section of Detroit. Stopped at a roadblock by a Detroit police officer, he was sternly warned about the potential ramifications. The doctor waved him off; he had a duty to perform. By the time he got to the intersection of Warren and Beaubien he was stopped by black rioters who beat him to death.
Detroit police pull the battered and lifeless body of Dr. De Horatiis from his car which was found in Paradise Valley.
Dr. De Horatiis' stubborn but professional insistence on carrying out his Hippocratic oath would ultimately cost him his life.
At the funeral, Dr. De Horatiis’
lifelong friend, Father Hector Saulino,
brought home the gravity of the riot.
His emotion-choked eulogy ran on, reminding
us that “Many times the good doctor refused to
take money and often paid the bills of
specialists he called into cases. Many
times he loaned great sums of money without
taking notes. After thirty-seven years of
service he died poor, owed much of that money still.
In his death Dr. De Horatiis offers a solution to all wars – Christian charity. When will the world learn that as long as men beat one another and strive greedily and selfishly against each other, peace cannot return to stay?”
Dr. De Horatiis' bier
Blessed Sacrament Cathedral
A monument for Dr. De Horatiis off Gratiot serves as a poignant reminder of that shameful day long ago.
Army Colonel August Krech, the garrison commander at Fort Custer in Battle Creek, was the senior army officer in the area. He suspected there would be trouble in Detroit and if martial law were declared it would be his responsibility to quell the disturbance.
As such, Krech conducted two mock drills earlier in the summer to see how long it would take to get troops to Detroit and he assured Mayor Jeffries he could go from the staging area at Rouge Park to the streets in 49 minutes. Krech was good to his word but the bureaucratic bungling of his superiors who misunderstood the prerequisites of declaring martial law would prevent him from stopping the disturbance in its tracks, allowing the riot to escalate.
With the familiar balustrade of the Detroit Public Library (above) in the foreground, the U.S. Army heads for Woodward Avenue to break up the riotous mobs that seemed to be growing not only in size but in intensity. There they encountered between 10-15,000 whites, the "great mob" that Jeffries had seen roaming Woodward unabated and administering justice as they pleased. The sight of well armed soldiers, brandishing bayonets quickly brought them to their senses and caused them to scatter pell-mell. Krech ordered his men, "fix your bayonets, load your guns and don't take anything from anyone."
The military police then marched down Vernor Highway and into the rebellious ghetto of Paradise Valley. This proved more
challenging. It was here they found the feistiest part of the white mob trying to enter the ghetto and to rumble and burn their houses
down. The DPD managed to keep them at bay temporarily but were badly in need of reinforcements. The army was greeted with
curses, stones and an occasional gunshot to which they answered with bayonets and tear gas.
The riot climaxed at the Frazer Hotel in Black Bottom after a white police officer was shot by a black hotel patron. As dozens of
Detroit and state police converged on the scene, more shots rang out. Police poured some 1,000 rounds into the building, along with
tear gas, until the rickety old hotel looked as pock marked as the moon. By 11:00 p.m. Bloody Monday had drawn to a deadly
close. The army had restored order but not peace.
The U.S. Army, fully armed, attend a Tigers game at Briggs Stadium in the days following the riot at the behest of Mayor Jeffries. Needless to say, there were no incidents.
Of the thirty-four confirmed dead, many were killed in the most sadistic fashion possible, that of blunt force trauma. Bludgeoning's and multiple stab wound victims inundated Detroit Receiving Hospital. While killing with a gun is certainly a violent crime, it is much less personal because there is no physical contact. Of course, the greater the distance the less personal the killing. But beating a person to death with a bat or stabbing a victim thirty or forty times indicates a volcanic personal hatred of pathological proportions. This is ultimately what defined the ‘43 riot.
July 6th - With order now restored, the army musters out of Detroit, down Woodward Avenue and past the DIA reviewing stand which held their commanders, (above, left to right) General Guthner, Governor Kelly and General Aurand.
It proved to be an uneasy peace, however, and twenty-four years later the army would return, to a city under both different and yet hauntingly familiar circumstances.
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