Skip to content

Response to Review of The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford

Ollie Ayers’s cogent review of my book summarizes the main points of the argument and captures many aspects of African Americans’ journey from sharecropping in the Jim Crow South to inclusion in highly prized jobs at Ford Motor Company (FMC) and, finally, to playing a leading role in the unionization of FMC. I welcome this opportunity to discuss some of the concerns and questions raised by Ayers’s review.

The broad theme underlying Ayers’s critique centers on my failure to provide the reader ‘with more explicit analysis of the complex and competing impacts wrought by unionization and at least some consideration of the questions’ he listed in the paragraph preceding this quote in his review. ‘The book’s epilogue would have been more satisfying had it addressed the question of which ‘concrete accomplishments’ accompanied unionization’.  I could not agree more. Among the issues I wanted to discuss in the epilogue was the degree to which black Detroit’s model of civil rights unionism was successful.

My initial inspiration for The Making of Black Detroit emerged from my dissatisfaction with the traditional explanation for the shift within black Detroit from an anti-union position to a pro-union stand. In order to capture how and why a community of apolitical African Americans and loyal Ford workers became a major force within the industrial union movement in Detroit, I started with the community. After I had answered as best I could the questions I raised initially – challenging conventional interpretations – I then wanted to know more about the ‘marriage’ between the UAW and black Ford workers.

I deliberately chose the image of a marriage of convenience to describe the alliance that took place between the UAW and black Ford workers to convey the contingent nature of that arrangement, leaving unanswered the extent of ‘actual progress made by black workers’ as the new alliance unfolded into the 1940s. When black Detroiters joined the UAW, they did so hoping to make further gains as equal participants in the upward march of American life. While the new alliance felt like progress within black Detroit in June of 1941, the arrangement raised more questions than I could adequately answer in one volume. It is for this reason that I have embarked on another book – perhaps I should call it volume two – taking the story I told in The Making of Black Detroit forward from 1941 through the 1960s.