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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged african american history

We are truly living in unprecedented times. On Friday, March 13, 2020, The Henry Ford closed its doors due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. We did not open them again until Thursday, July 2—and even then, only on certain days, with many new guidelines in place about masks, social distancing, and capacity, to protect our visitors and staff. None of us predicted that we would remain closed for 16 weeks—but then, there is much happening now in the world that would have been difficult to predict.

One of the many unusual things that happened over that four-month period is that the most-viewed section of our website was our Digital Collections. While our online collections typically get tens of thousands of views each month, they’ve always fallen well short of our “Visit” section—until COVID-19 shut our doors. Between mid-March and late June, visitors viewed artifacts in our Digital Collections about 285,000 times. This whetted our curiosity about what artifacts people were looking at during our closure, and why—so we decided to put a list together and take a closer look.

Open car with green upholstered seat and visible mechanics
The Quadricycle was the third-most viewed artifact in our Digital Collections during our pandemic closure in 2020. / THF90760

Over half (58%) of the artifacts that were the most popular during our closure are also on the list of the most popular artifacts of 2019. Not surprisingly, this covers many of our national treasures and our visitors’ favorite artifacts, like the Quadricycle, the Rosa Parks Bus, the Lincoln Chair, and the Allegheny steam locomotive.

One group of artifacts that was not on last year’s list, but that was highly viewed during our closure (and since), is items related to the challenging history of race in America. Given the nationwide protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, many Americans are seeking to broaden their understanding in this area, which might explain this uptick in interest. A slave collar, a “Whites Only” drinking fountain, a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, and an Emancipation Day photograph are all artifacts on exhibit in “With Liberty and Justice for All” in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation illustrating this disturbing history—and all were sought out by hundreds to thousands of online visitors between mid-March and late June.

Collar with three tall prongs extending upward and heavy lock.
This slave collar was featured in an online article called “Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About George Floyd’s Neck.” / THF13425

Another group of items that seems pandemic-specific are documents and photographs from the World War II era. In George Washington Carver’s last agricultural bulletin, published in February 1942, he encourages Americans to consider wild plants (what many might call weeds) as an alternative to green vegetables, should the war cause shortages. In March, journalist Nicholas Kristof referenced our Willow Run expert set as an example of ramping up production in a short timeframe in a New York Times editorial about the coronavirus. Likely as a result, a B-24 Liberator bomber production flowchart and a photograph of a B-24 in flight made it into our top artifacts over this period. A “United We Win” poster speaks to both World War II and issues of race relations.

Black-and-white image of airplane flying over tall buildings.
Ford Motor Company’s fast ramp-up of B-24 Liberator bomber production during World War II provides insight on the ramp-up of coronavirus testing and treatment supplies in 2020. / THF251440

The last pattern we noticed was the popularity of artifacts related to recent films, at a time when many Americans stayed at home and increased their movie watching. Three auto racing photos—including the single-most viewed item during our closure, this photograph of race car driver Ken Miles at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans—demonstrate the continuing popularity of Ford v Ferarri, the 2019 movie about that very race. This letter, allegedly from Clyde Barrow to Henry Ford, has been popular ever since last year, when Netflix released The Highwaymen, a movie about the race to apprehend Bonnie and Clyde. During our closure, it was the fifth-most viewed artifact in our online collections.

Black-and-white photo of smiling man
This portrait of Ken Miles at the 24 Hours of Le Mans Race in 1966 was the most-viewed artifact from our Digital Collections during our closure. / LeMans06-66_441

It’s interesting to see patterns in views of our digital artifacts that map so closely to what has been going on in the world. To see if you can find any additional patterns we missed, check out the entire list of the most-viewed digitized artifacts during our COVID-19 closure here. And check out our Digital Collections for yourself—you might just find something there of value to you during these strange times.


Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

movies, African American history, COVID-19 impact, digital collections, by Ellice Engdahl

Black and white cover sheet featuring title “Female Suffrage: Song and Chorus”
This 1867 music sheet (00.4.183) was dedicated to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, George Francis Train, Lucy Stone, and other “advocates of female suffrage.” / THF93144

We often hear the names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in connection with the early struggle for “woman’s suffrage,” which we know more commonly today as “women’s suffrage”—the right of women as American citizens to vote. What is lesser known is that the early women’s suffrage movement began within the context of the broader struggle for women’s rights and it involved many more people—men as well as women, Black as well as white.

Printed family scene with man reading newspaper in a chair, woman holding little girl at his feet, and another little girl at the other side of his chair, all around a metal heating stove
This scene of domestic bliss from an 1880 trade card (89.0.541.1270) for parlor stoves belies the fact that women at this time lacked basic rights. / THF224913

Women’s Rights, Denied

Into the early 20th century, women were not considered entities with rights separate from men. They could not vote, serve on a jury, testify in court, or hold public office. If married, it was illegal for women to sign contracts, inherit property, keep or invest their own earnings, have automatic rights to their children (even after a divorce or if their husband died), or make a will without their husband’s consent. It was very difficult for them to get divorced from an abusive husband or have a profession other than that centered around home and children. Furthermore, they were expected to stay out of public matters—centering their lives around family and home, obeying their husbands, and behaving at all times in a refined, polite way.

Yellowed cover with image of two white men in suits holding an African American man in chains and title reading in part “The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1840”
Abolitionist literature like The American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1840 (2005.0.17.1), produced by and for northern abolitionists, often featured provocative covers depicting the brutality of slavery. / THF7209

Breaking Early Barriers

During the early 19th century, a few strong women began expressing their views about the rights of women as separate from men. Many of the early women who spoke out were white, educated, middle-class members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Members of this religious sect not only accepted women as equals to men but also saw it as their duty to seek justice for all. Lucretia Mott, one of the organizers of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, was Quaker. Susan B. Anthony, who joined the movement a bit later, also had a Quaker upbringing.

Many of these women had also long championed the abolition of slavery. In this they found allies in men as well as Black women. It was as advocates for this movement that these women got practice attending and speaking out at meetings. They paved the way for other women.

Man with quill in his hand over a document on table labeled “Pledge,” with woman over right shoulder pointing at the document and red devil creature with cup in hand at the man’s left shoulder
The title of this ca. 1851 oil painting (59.124.1) is “The Temperance Pledge,” referring to an important component of the temperance movement that involved signing a document in public promising to abstain from alcohol. / THF119917

Some of the early women’s rights advocates also championed temperance reforms—that is, an organized effort to encourage abstinence from, or at least moderation in, the consumption of intoxicating beverages—especially hard liquor. Excessive drunkenness, especially by men, was threatening the stability of many families (in 1830, consumption of alcohol was three times the current norm) and women led the charge to battle this. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were both temperance movement reformers before they became women’s rights advocates.

Black-and-white portrait of woman with light-colored hair and clasped hands wearing elaborate lace dress.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a leader in the struggle for women’s rights and an early advocate for women’s suffrage (98.94.18). / THF6584

A Few Voices Lead to Many

The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was the first official public forum for discussing women’s rights. But suffrage was never the main or the only goal there.

Lucretia Mott met Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who had recently married abolitionist Henry Stanton) at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in Great Britain in 1838, just as that country had ended slavery. They found they shared similar views and kept in touch after that. During a conversation when Mott visited Stanton’s hometown of Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, Stanton’s feelings of oppression as a wife and mother came tumbling out. The two decided to call “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of Woman.”

In July 1848, Mott, Cady Stanton and nearly 300 other attendees—men as well as women—gathered in Seneca Falls, including well-known self-emancipated orator and editor Frederick Douglass. James Mott, Lucretia’s husband, chaired the meeting, as women felt they lacked the experience as well as the knowledge of parliamentary procedure. Cady Stanton, possessing a gift for writing, had drafted a Declaration of Sentiments for the meeting, not unlike those presented and discussed at anti-slavery conventions at the time. But it was her genius to use the language and legitimacy of the Declaration of Independence, modifying the phrase “all men are created equal” to “all men and women are created equal.”

Sepia image of African American man in a suit seated in a chair; “Fred Douglas” handwritten along bottom
Self-emancipated abolitionist Frederick Douglass was an early champion for women’s suffrage (96.68.1). / THF210623

At the meeting, the attendees discussed the 18 grievances and 11 resolutions that Cady Stanton had drafted in her Declaration. But it was the resolution “that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise,” that led to the longest debate and greatest opposition. To most people at the meeting—women as well as men—the idea of women voting seemed far-fetched, ludicrous, even illogical. Cady Stanton defended it, claiming (what seems so obvious to us today) that women needed political rights to be able to make other gains through legal means. The resolution almost failed, until Frederick Douglass spoke fervently in its favor. It passed by a small margin—the only resolution adopted that was not unanimous.

Sepia portrait of African American woman in a dress and shawl seated in chair, knitting, with text at bottom “I sell the shadow to support the substance – Sojourner Truth”
Emancipated orator Sojourner Truth championed women’s rights along with abolition (96.72.1). / THF121160

The Seneca Falls Convention gave rise to numerous other women’s rights conventions that emerged over the next decade, in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Massachusetts. It was in Akron, Ohio, in 1851 that emancipated orator Sojourner Truth—best known for speaking out against slavery—gave her first known speech on women’s rights. She would continue to appear at many women’s rights conventions and give valiant service to the movement. It was also during this time that Susan B. Anthony assumed a leadership role in the women’s rights movement.

These conventions gave women practice in airing grievances, building consensus, and establishing alliances and friendships. Abolitionist support dominated these discussions, as the slavery issue heated up through the decade. There was no consensus about women’s suffrage. In fact, women’s suffrage was barely an issue on the table at convention after convention.

Colored print showing an African American man in a cream-colored patched suit adding a token to one of two jars under a red and white striped awning with a line of other African American men behind him
This 1867 cover of Harper's Weekly (2005.16.2) shows Black freedmen lining up to cast their ballots. Congress had recently approved measures allowing African Americans the right to vote—a right later ratified in the 15th Amendment. / THF11673

An Unfortunate Split

Only after the Civil War did women’s suffrage become the primary goal of the women’s rights movement. However, two factions split over how to achieve it. According to Angela P. Dodson in “Remember the Ladies”: Celebrating Those Who Fought for Freedom at the Ballot Box (2017), this “fissure” sundered alliances, strained relationships, diffused energies, squandered resources and stalled progress, and it took decades to heal.

Three-column newspaper page with title “The Revolution” at top, with two poems in left column and article “The Born Thrall” by Alice Cary in the two right columns
The Revolution (2005.14.1), a newspaper distributed by the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, featured essays supporting NWSA’s agenda. / THF277269

Although many women’s rights advocates supported the passage of the 13th Amendment formalizing emancipation, the dissension started with passage of the 14th Amendment (guaranteeing equality to all “male citizens”) and especially with the passage of the 15th Amendment (giving Black males the right to vote). In retrospect, it seems obvious that Black enfranchisement in the South was in peril if lawmakers didn’t act quickly and it was simply not judicious to fight for two difficult causes at the same time—Black freedmen’s rights and women’s rights. However, some women, including the vocal Elizabeth Cady Stanton, did not see it that way. These women felt they had fought long and hard for both abolition and women’s rights, and they felt they deserved their due.

It was at this time that women realized they needed to advocate for a national amendment calling for “universal suffrage” and began referring to themselves as suffragists. This would have been the perfect time for a national organization to push this agenda, and one was attempted at the 1866 National Woman’s Rights Convention, led by Susan B. Anthony. But there was almost immediately a division in the ranks—leading to two competing organizations. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), working specifically for the enfranchisement of women and opposing the 15th Amendment. At the same time, women’s rights advocate Lucy Stone organized the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in support of the 15th Amendment and working toward a broader coalition (her group ultimately received more support). These two groups competed for allies and support for the next 25 years, weakening each other’s success and forcing each of them to work harder for state-by-state support rather than working together to fight for a federal amendment.

Round orange button with yellow circle in center, with printed text reading “Vote no on woman suffrage”
During the struggle for women’s suffrage, many men and some women strongly opposed the notion of women voting, as evidenced by this ca. 1910 button (2004.117.1). / THF8518

In 1869 and 1870, respectively, the Wyoming and Utah territories granted women the right to vote (primarily to attract settlers), while an amendment granting women the right to vote was finally brought to Congress beginning in 1878. But none of these actions engendered wider support, and many people (both men and women) continued to oppose women’s suffrage on many fronts.

Button with image of eagle over crossed red, white, & blue American flags and shield, yellow background and blue rim, with text “Votes for Women – Patriotism”
During the early 20th century, suffragists often appealed to potential voters by distributing items with symbolic imagery, such as this ca. 1910 button (2004.116.1). / THF155862

A New Generation Takes Charge

It would take a new generation of women, lacking the painful memories of the reason for the rift in the first place, to take up the fight. These women reunified the group by forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890 (NAWSA) and creating new strategies for state and national support. This was also a time for Black women—who had played a modest role in the previous organizations—to form their own organizations that could champion women’s rights and women's suffrage, including the National Association of Colored Women in 1895 and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Prominent leaders like Ida Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell arose to lead other Black women in support of these causes. Unfortunately, white suffragists did not always welcome their help—in fact, some were willing to sacrifice this support to pacify Southerners and court their support for the ballot.

48-star American flag with red and white stripes and white stars on a blue field in upper left with text "Mr. President, What Will You Do for Women's Suffrage?" on white stripes
Alice Paul’s extremist tactics included aiming strong messages directly at President Wilson, as seen in this small handheld flag (2005.3.1) from about 1916. / THF8533

Two different kinds of leaders emerged during the early 1900s, for the final push to the 19th Amendment—Carrie Chapman Catt, the lobbyist, and Alice Paul, the agitator. Catt and Paul strongly disagreed with each other’s tactics, but neither would have succeeded without the other. Their different strategies offered women from all walks of life a way to get involved—organizing parades, printing flyers, and getting people to sign petitions. Victory was not easy to achieve, but on August 26, 1920—72 years after the Seneca Falls meeting—the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was added to the Constitution.

Round blue and white button with two stars and diagonal separation of colors, reading “Abolish Poll Tax / 100% Democracy”
During the Jim Crow era, most southern states had adopted poll taxes to keep Blacks from voting. The person who wore this button (2005.9.8) protested the injustice of paying to vote, which was finally abolished with the passage of the 24th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution (1964) and subsequent court rulings (1966). / THF 96541

The Struggle Continues

Unfortunately, the 19th Amendment did not guarantee equal voting rights to women. Racist laws and practices kept African American women as well as women of other disenfranchised groups—including Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian American women—from voting for decades. Voter suppression is, in fact, still an ongoing issue today.

Round white button with green block text reading in part “Support the E.R.A."
The Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.) finally passed both houses of Congress in 1972, but it was not ratified in enough state legislatures for approval (2001.76.1). / THF153507

Returning full circle to the larger issue of women’s rights, an Equal Rights Amendment was drafted in 1923—only three years after the 19th Amendment was ratified. Although it received much attention in the 1970s and early 1980s, it has never passed.

The struggle for women’s rights, including women’s right to vote, continues today.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

by Donna R. Braden, women's history, voting, African American history

What measures do you use to judge whether food is “healthy”? What connections do you see between healthy food and healthy communities? Today the concept of “food security” links nutritious food to individual and community health. This blog features historical resources in the collections of The Henry Ford that help us explore the meaning of “food security.” Many relate to the work of Black agricultural scientist George Washington Carver with Black farm families in and around Tuskegee, Alabama, between the 1890s and 1940s.

What Does "Food Security" Mean to You?
A big meal often symbolizes food security. You can almost smell the roast goose (once preferred to turkey) and taste the fresh apples, oranges and bananas in this centerpiece on a family’s holiday table!

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Family Seated at Dining Table for a Holiday Meal, circa 1945. THF98738

But does having a big meal on special occasions mean that a person, a family, or a community is “food secure”?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) explains that a person is “food secure” if they have regular access to safe and nutritious food in amounts required for normal growth and development and in quantity and calories needed to maintain an active and healthy life.

Students at this South Carolina school all appear healthy. This implies that they have access to a quantity of nutritious food necessary for normal growth. It also implies that they consume it consistently which helped keep them healthy and better able to complete their schoolwork.

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School Teacher and Her Students, Pinehurst Tea Plantation, Summerville, South Carolina, circa 1903. THF115900

Historically, many farm families raised much of the food they needed to survive, including meat, vegetables, grains, and fruit. The Mattox family farmed their own land, and they dedicated time and energy to tending their garden and raising their own beans and sweet corn (as pictured in this photograph). Being responsible for your own food supply required careful planning and hard work year-round because families had to grow, process, preserve, and then prepare and consume what they (and their livestock) ate. As long as everything went according to plan, and no disasters arose, a family might be food secure.

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Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991. THF45319

Many factors led to food insecurity. This indenture for three orphaned children, William (7 yrs old), Dennis (5 yrs old) and Henry (18 months old), specified that they receive “a sufficiency of food.” What did “sufficiency” mean? Consuming calories might provide energy to work, but calories alone did not (and do not) ensure a healthy life. Furthermore, being unfree made these indentured children dependent on someone else who might have other ideas about what “sufficiency of food” meant.

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Indenture for "...Colored Children Named William, Dennis & Henry," July 20, 1866. THF8563

Cotton and Food Insecurity
Southern farm families often grew cotton as their cash crop. Farm families could not eat cotton though the seed yielded byproducts used in livestock feed, and oil that became a popular cooking ingredient. Landowners and tenant farmers could strategize how much cotton to grow, and could plant corn to feed their hogs, and could dedicate land for a garden. Yet, many families across the rural South, Black and white alike, farmed cotton, and they received a share of the crop they grew as payment for a year of labor. Owners expected these sharecroppers to focus their energy on the cash crop – cotton - and not spend valuable labor on raising their own food. Instead, families became even more economically insecure by buying inexpensive food on credit.

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Picking Cotton, Louisiana, 1883-1900.
THF278896

Many sharecroppers and agricultural laborers in the South lived on a diet of meat (pork), meal (cornmeal) and molasses (processed from either sugar cane or sorghum) – the 3M diet. While pork in its many forms (including lard sandwiches) and cornbread with molasses provided much needed calories, the 3M diet did not deliver nutrients needed to maintain health. Niacin deficiencies led to the debilitating disease, pellagra, which afflicted impoverished people across the South and beyond.

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Trade Card for Silver Leaf Lard, Swift & Company, 1870-1900. THF225588

Inadequate supplies of food, and diets lacking in nutrients, undermined food security. Racism also undermined access to adequate foods. Graphic arts advertising southern staples often reinforced racist stereotypes rather than reality – that Black women often held positions of authority as Black cooks who prepared meals for others who could afford fresh foods and a varied and nutritious diet.

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Advertising Poster, "Old Fashion Molasses," circa 1900. THF8044

Improving rural health required a revolution that reduced the dependency on cotton and increased the types of crops grown for market. George Washington Carver, the first Black American to hold an advanced degree in agricultural science, used his knowledge to try to convince farmers to improve soils to increase cotton yields, but to also raise additional crops such as sweet potatoes and peanuts.

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George Washington Carver's Graduation Photo from Iowa State University, 1893. THF214111

George Washington Carver’s Work with Peanuts
Many associate Carver with peanut butter, but his relationship to peanuts far exceeds peanut butter.

A man in Montreal, Canada, secured a U.S. Patent for peanut candy – a paste sweetened with sugar – in 1884. At that time George W. Carver had been living for five years in Kansas working as a cook and laborer. Between 1886 and 1888, after being refused entry into a college in Kansas, Carver homesteaded near Beeler, Kansas.

Alabama, the location of Tuskegee Institute, where Carver went to work in 1896, ranked fourth in peanut production in 1900 behind Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Farmers in these states raised most of the raw product that Northern food processors like H.J. Heinz dry roasted and ground into peanut butter. This Heinz peanut-butter packaging features a blond blue-eyed girl in a grain field holding lilacs. This did not accurately represent southern farm families raising the high-quality crop that Heinz depended on for its “choicest peanuts.”

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Trade Card for H.J. Heinz Company, “Mama’s Favorites,” circa 1905. THF215296

As consumer demand for peanut butter increased, production increased. Nutritionists understood the value of peanuts and of peanut butter as an inexpensive source of plant-based protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. Farm families could eat their own home-grown peanuts but could also find a ready market for them.

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Women grinding peanuts into peanut butter at Heinz. THF292973

Tuskegee, Alabama was located just north of the peanut-growing region of southeastern Alabama. Carver set about to convince Black landowning farmers in and around Tuskegee to take advantage of the market opportunity. Orchestrating a more complete overhaul of cotton-dependent Alabama agriculture required convincing white landowners to free sharecroppers from requirements to grow only cotton. Others sought a revolution in civil rights through legal means. Even though many criticized the self-help message, families who ate better could channel new-found energy toward securing civil rights and social justice.

Carver appealed to his constituents in writing. He linked concerns about health and nutrition to economic independence in his May 1917 pamphlet, “How to Grow the Peanut.”

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Bulletin, How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption, 1917. THF213329

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Carver described the peanut as having “limitless possibilities.” The “nuts possess a wider range of food values than other legumes.” THF213331

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Carver described 105 ways to prepare the peanut – ground, boiled, roasted, and as a main ingredient in soups, salads, candy, and replacement for chicken, and other meats. THF213335

Crop Innovations
Carver applied his life-long fascination with plants to identify crops in addition to the peanut that had the potential to displace cotton. He used this weeder to collect specimens. He studied their molecular composition, extracted byproducts, and devised new uses for them.

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Weeder Used by George Washington Carver at Greenfield Village, 1942; Gift of Henry and Clara Ford. THF152234.

Carver promoted crops through short publications that stressed financial and food security.

Some crops occurred naturally, the wild plum, for instance, which landowning farmers might have on their property but that they undervalued as a food source.

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Bulletin, “43 Ways to Save the Wild Plum Crop,” 1917. THF288049

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During World War I, Carver promoted crops that Alabama farmers grew, but that could be processed into alternatives to wheat flour. THF290275

During the 1920s, Carver urged farmers to grow even more crops that they could eat, such as sweet potatoes.

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How the Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes, 1925. THF37735

During the 1930s, as economic conditions worsened during the Great Depression, Carver published a pamphlet focused on growing the tomato, a vitamin- and mineral-rich food source.

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Bulletin, “How to Grow the Tomato and 115 Ways to Prepare it for the Table,” 1936. THF288043

Carver, Food Byproducts, and Food Security  
Carver’s research into plant byproducts and new foods from farm crops caught the attention of Henry Ford.

Carver and Clara and Henry Ford corresponded about topics as practical as gravy made from soy and peanut flour, and as personal as digestive systems.

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Letter from George Washington Carver to Clara Ford, March 19, 1940. THF213553

Henry Ford recognized Carver’s inspiration by naming the Nutrition Laboratory in his honor on 21 July 1942.

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George Washington Carver and Edsel Ford at the Carver Nutrition Laboratory, Dearborn, Michigan, 1942. THF213823

Peanut Oil: A Byproducts Many Uses
Carver explained that peanut oil (separated from peanut paste) was “one of the best-known vegetable oils.” You can see oil, sitting atop the peanut paste, if you look for “natural peanut butter” at your local grocery store. Food chemists experimented with how to prevent the oil from separating from the ground peanut paste. Preventing separation requires hydrogenation, which changes the chemical composition of unsaturated fats and turns them into saturated fats. Heinz drafted advertisements to promote the new hydrogenated peanut butter to consumers as this example indicates.

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At Last! No oil on top. THF292249

The varied uses of peanut oil that Carver promoted increased market opportunities for impoverished farmers which increased their food security. To that end, Carver experimented with peanut oil as a rub to relieve the discomfort that polio patients suffered. While science could not link the peanut oil itself to positive benefits, the process of messaging the oil into the patient reduced pain by manipulating the muscles.

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Photographic print, Austin Curtis, George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Wilbur Donaldson and Frank Campsall Inspect Bottles of Peanut Oil, Tuskegee Institute, March 1938. THF213794

Healthy Communities
Building healthy communities started with individuals but grew through collective effort. Farm families, schools, businesses, church groups, and investors each committed resources to the cause. National intervention furthered local goals. The 1946 National School Lunch Act increased access to good food for all school children, not just those who could help themselves.

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Photographic Print, Cafeteria at George Washington Carver School, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1947. THF135671

Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

by Debra A. Reid, George Washington Carver, food, agriculture, African American history

As part of the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, we have had the opportunity to explore a number of fascinating stories of entrepreneurs represented in our collections. Recently, we’ve examined the life and work of aspiring entrepreneur and automobile designer McKinley Thompson, Jr.

While working for Ford Motor Company, Thompson conceived of an idea for an all-terrain vehicle that would do for Third World countries what the Model T did for America. This post highlights Thompson’s life and career as the first African-American automobile designer and sheds light on his little-known project for a vehicle ahead of its time, dubbed the Warrior.

Finding His Passion
On an October afternoon in 1934, 12-year-old McKinley Thompson, Jr., was stopped in his tracks while walking home from school. The reason? He had spotted a brand-new silver DeSoto Airflow, the first silver-colored and streamlined vehicle he had ever seen. In an interview from 2001, Thompson recalled that “the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through… It lit that car up like a searchlight.” Awestruck by the unique design of the car, it was right then and there that Thompson knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: an automobile designer.

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McKinley Thompson, Jr., undated (Photograph Courtesy of McKinley Thompson, Jr.)

In his youth, Thompson showed promise in drawing and was particularly interested in futuristic themes. He participated in commercial art courses throughout high school and, upon graduation in 1940, completed drafting courses where he learned to plan projects and present his ideas through drawings and concept illustrations. With these skills, Thompson acquired his first job as a draftsman with the National Youth Administration. He then worked as an engineering design layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps until he was drafted to serve in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. Following the war, he continued working for the Signal Corps until 1953, when he found an opportunity to pursue his childhood dream of becoming an automobile designer. 

Seizing the Opportunity

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“Do you want to be an Automotive Designer” contest article from Motor Trend magazine, March 1953 THF299257

In March of 1953, Motor Trend magazine sponsored an Automotive and Industrial Design contest with the goal of discovering talented young adults. The prize? One of five, four-year tuition-free scholarships to the prestigious Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles – one of the most respected schools for industrial design. Contest entry required several drawings and sketches, photographs, or models of cars and other products, along with an essay responding to the prompt, “What I think the trend in automotive design will be in the next ten years.” For McKinley Thompson, this was the chance of a lifetime – and he won.

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Motor Trend magazine’s winning contest entries, September 1953 THF299267

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McKinley Thompson’s winning entry in the article, “From Dream to Drawing Board to…?” in Motor Trend magazine, September 1953. In his essay, Thompson wrote that cars of the future would sacrifice aerodynamics to accommodate “more functional roominess and reduced size.” THF299268

Thompson’s gas turbine car, which incorporated reinforced plastic (an unusual choice of material at the time), won him the top prize. Thompson became the first African American to attend the Art Center, where he excelled throughout his course of study. After graduation, Thompson was offered a job with Ford Motor Company in the Advanced Styling Studio, finally realizing his childhood dream and breaking a barrier by becoming the first African-American automobile designer.

In the Advanced Styling Studio, designers were given a great deal of creative freedom. This suited Thompson’s interest in futuristic themes, allowing him to contribute sketches for fantastical ideas, such as a flying car and a nuclear-powered multi-trailered truck. He also worked on the Allegro and Gyron concept cars and collaborated on design ideas for the production Mustang and Bronco.

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1961 Ford Gyron  THF299432

The Warrior
While Thompson’s career at Ford gave him the opportunity to work on a variety of vehicles and concepts that could change the automotive industry, his most innovative idea had the potential to change the world. Thompson envisioned an all-terrain vehicle for Third World countries that would be easy to build and maintain, with low production costs. But his vision extended beyond the vehicle, which he dubbed the Warrior. He anticipated auto plants – located in the developing nations that would use the car – bringing jobs, better roads, and eventual economic independence to the host countries. Much like how the Model T brought America into the modern age and stimulated the economy through accessible and affordable mobility, Thompson believed the Warrior could do the same for Third World nations.

His program was called “Project Vanguard.” The plan was to use Uniroyal plastic components – known as Royalex – because they were lightweight, durable, and relatively cost-efficient. The first phase of the plan involved building a facility where Royalex could be fabricated for use on the Warrior and other assets. The second phase would involve the building of the vehicle division (to encompass the Warrior and other future vehicles), followed by a marine division for constructing boats, and a container division where “habitat modules” would be fabricated for housing. Though Ford Motor Company was supportive when Thompson first brought his idea to the company in 1965, Ford ultimately passed on the project in 1967, believing that the vehicle would not sell in large enough quantities to warrant the investment. 

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1974 Warrior Concept Car  THF92162

Despite this setback, Thompson still believed that his vehicle could succeed. He thought that if he produced a prototype car and could demonstrate the possibilities of this unique application of Royalex, he could garner interest for investment in the program. He gathered several friends to help in financing the Warrior prototype, including Wally Triplett – the first African American to play in the National Football League (for the Detroit Lions). By day, McKinley Thompson drafted concept drawings for Ford, but by night he worked tirelessly to bring his Warrior to life in a rented garage on Detroit’s west side.

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McKinley Thompson and Crew Testing the Warrior Concept Car, 1969. Click here to check out other images of the Warrior from a scrapbook compiled by Wally Triplett!  THF113754

Once his prototype was complete, Thompson and his partners attempted to market it to other investors and groups. They reached out to the Small Business Administration, which turned them down because the endeavor would take place outside the United States. They tried to gain assistance from the Agency for International Development but received little interest. A group of people at Chrysler, who assisted small businesses in getting started, suggested to Thompson that he first establish a market for Royalex in the United States. Plastic-bodied vehicles were still an unusual concept, and American automakers at the time were only experimenting with the idea on a limited scale. Thompson realized he was caught in a classic catch-22: He needed a Royalex facility to establish a market for plastic-bodied vehicles, but he couldn’t get the facility built without an existing market for plastic-bodied vehicles.

Instability on the African continent derailed opportunities to conduct business with the nations themselves. Thompson even tried to secure a bank loan to build Warrior cars in Detroit, but he was ultimately denied in this attempt as well. (Triplett later recounted that he felt that race played a role.) While every potential investor he approached told him it was a good idea, Thompson simply was unable to secure the funding needed to pursue his idea, eventually causing him to shut down the project in 1979.

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Image from a 1965 Royalex sales brochure, showing the possibilities of an amphibious vehicle using Royalex materials. Interestingly, the Warrior was designed to be an all-terrain vehicle – including use for crossing rivers and small inland lakes! Click here to check out the rest of this brochure in which Uniroyal has suggested other uses for Royalex. THF290896

An Inspiring Career
Around the same time that the doors were closing on the Warrior, Thompson developed another way to influence and change people’s lives. He coordinated a traveling exhibit, featuring the work of other African-American automobile designers, to motivate and encourage young people toward careers in design. Thompson traveled across the country, staging his exhibit in schools and shopping centers.

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Photograph from the Ford Motor Company publication, “Rouge News,” March 19, 1962 THF299429

McKinley Thompson had an impressive 28-year career with Ford. In 1962 he was awarded Ford’s highest honor for community service, the Citizen of the Year Award. He contributed to a variety of projects (including experimental concept cars), worked in the Thunderbird and Falcon design studios, and eventually oversaw 50 craftspeople and modelers before retiring in 1984.

Despite his career success, Thompson continued to regret that his Warrior vehicle and overall program never materialized – though he was proud of his accomplishment in building the Warrior and proving it’s basic feasibility. The Warrior project was ahead of its time in design and philosophy. The extensive use of plastic, so common today, was revolutionary at the time. Mr. Thompson’s larger economic prophecy was partially fulfilled in 1995 when Ewert Smith’s URI, an all-terrain vehicle designed for African topography, was manufactured in the small town of Witvlei, Namibia. The URI plant became Witvlei’s largest employer, providing economic stability to the area.

Even though the Warrior never made it to market, Thompson kept the car as a leisure vehicle, taking it on family vacations and occasionally using it to run errands – usually attracting a fair amount of attention. Thompson donated his prototype to The Henry Ford in 2001.

McKinley Thompson, Jr., passed away at the age of 83, after battling Parkinson’s disease, in 2006.

Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. This post expands upon Bart Bealmear’s “The Warrior,” blog post from February 2014. Special thanks to Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation, for his help in reviewing the content.

design, by Samantha Johnson, Michigan, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, entrepreneurship, Detroit, cars, African American history

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The Mattox Home in Greenfield Village
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Through furnishings and presentations, the Mattox Home in Greenfield Village tells the story of one family living in rural Georgia in the 1930s. Read on to discover more about the community in Bryan County (where the house was originally located), learn about the Mattox family, and get an inside look at how they lived.

Amos and Grace Mattox
Amos Mattox, probably born around 1889, grew up in this house during the harsh years of Southern segregation. He and his wife, Grace, married in 1909.

The home in Greenfield Village is shown as it would have been during the 1930s, when the entire country was in the grip of the Great Depression. Low prices and little demand for farm products created a crisis for farmers throughout the country, and many abandoned their land. Amos and Grace Mattox maintained their resourceful lifestyle, keeping up a vegetable garden, livestock, and fowl to feed themselves and two young children, Carrie and Amos, Jr. To supplement the family’s income, Amos worked at various jobs—as a laborer for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and Seaboard Air Line Railway and at the local sawmill, and as a shoemaker, carpenter, and barber. He also served as a deacon at the Bryan Neck Baptist Church. The church had been founded by his grandfather Amos Morel, a formerly enslaved steam engineer who, in the 1870s, purchased the land the Mattox home stood on. Like his grandfather, Amos Mattox sold parts of his family’s land when he needed cash.

Grace Mattox is remembered by her children as a busy and meticulous homemaker. In addition to daily chores, she canned fruits and vegetables, cared and provided for elderly and sick neighbors, crocheted, did “fancy work” embroidery, and made her home as cozy and attractive as possible. A devoted mother, she encouraged and supported the education of her two children, walking a mile to and from their school daily with a “proper hot lunch” for them.

Although life was hard, the Mattox family proudly affirmed that there was "always enough."

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A copy of the only known photograph of Amos Mattox, Sr. THF135142

African American Community Life in 1930s Bryan County, Georgia
Sixty-five years after the Civil War, coastal Georgia was a land of sleepy towns, cypress swamps, moss-hung trees, oxcarts, horse-drawn wagons, and a few cars. Among long-abandoned crumbling mansions stood small farmhouses scattered about on what were once extensive holdings of plantation land but were now mostly small individual farms—some privately owned like the Mattox home and property, but most rented on the share system. Following the breakup of the large plantations after the Civil War, members of the same family tended to settle close together on the same land where they had lived when they were enslaved. A generation later, this was still true of the Mattox family. Amos Mattox, Jr., remembers his Uncle Henry living within “hollerin’ distance” and his Uncle Charlie living 5 to 10 minutes’ walk away. In the absence of telephones, close neighbors could be hailed by shouting.

What we know about the Mattox family comes from record searches and oral interviews. When Henry Ford acquired the Mattox home in 1943, there were still many people alive who could recall their youth on the very land on which their descendants lived. Elderly, formerly enslaved neighbors like “Aunt” Jane Lewis were links to the past for children like Carrie and Amos Mattox, Jr.

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Henry Ford moved the Mattox Home to Greenfield Village in 1943. He can be seen in this photograph (far right) with Grace Mattox (in the doorway) and others at the home on its original site. THF123296

Like 89 percent of rural homes in 1930, the Mattox home lacked electricity and running water; kerosene lamps provided light. However, the Mattoxes owned a battery-operated radio and a hand-cranked phonograph. Amos, Jr., and Carrie could recall few leisure activities, but many occasions when the family worked together, farming, gardening, canning, and doing the wash. Most work was done outside, with seats provided on porches and under grape arbors. Houses were hot and close inside, and were used mainly for sleeping, bathing, or as shelter from the rain. In the evening the Mattoxes read from the family Bible.

Neighbors allowed their livestock, cattle and hogs, to range freely on common ground in the forest (families notched their animals’ ears with distinctive markings to prove ownership). After butchering a hog, the Mattoxes would smoke the hams for a few months in the chimney of their home. According to Amos, Jr., the chimney, made of clay and sticks, occasionally caught fire. To extinguish the fires, a member of the family climbed on the roof and poured water down the chimney.

Health care was poor and infant mortality high. Grace Mattox gave birth to six children, only two of whom survived past infancy. Often, community members would take shifts caring for a sick person night and day. Grace Mattox was instrumental in organizing home nursing for her local community.

The Mattox family’s social life, like that of their neighbors, centered around the Bryan Neck Baptist Church and the prayer house associated with it. The prayer house was about 150 feet from the Mattoxes’ home. They attended prayer meetings in Bryan Neck Baptist Church every other Sunday morning at daybreak. On alternate Sundays and Sunday evenings, as well as on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, they walked to the prayer house. The whole community was thought of as one family, including mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, and close friends. They celebrated holidays together, cared for one another in times of sickness and crisis, shared their surplus produce, and encouraged and supported one another in their daily lives.

The Mattox Home in Greenfield Village
In 1943 Henry Ford brought the Mattox home to Greenfield Village. After the purchase he agreed to let the Mattoxes continue to live on the property, built the family a new house, and bought new furnishings for it. Since no written agreement was found regarding the continued use of the property after the death of Henry Ford (1947) and his wife, Clara (1950), the Mattoxes were, sadly, evicted by the new owners, the Southern Kraft Timberland Company.

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View of the Mattox Home in Greenfield Village, showing the vegetable garden and the birdhouses made from gourds THF45319

Exterior and Grounds
Bryan County, Georgia, lies in a swampy region of the Low Country. People living in this area usually maintained yards of swept dirt to prevent the growth of vegetation and keep mosquitoes and snakes away from the houses. Residents swept fancy designs into the dirt to make the yards more attractive, especially around holidays. People also fashioned birdhouses from gourds to attract purple martins, which feed on mosquitoes and other flying insects. The birdhouses at the Mattox home, as well as the roof repaired with a cast-off sign, are examples of the family’s ingenious use of available resources.

Vegetable Garden
Most of what the Mattox family produced was for their own use. In their vegetable garden the Mattoxes raised corn, sweet potatoes, rice, peas, beans, tomatoes, and okra, as well as collard, mustard, and turnip greens.

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Rear view of the Mattox Home in Greenfield Village (the grape arbor is visible at right) THF1967

Grape Arbor
In the warm climate of coastal Georgia, families spent much of their lives outdoors. The Mattoxes’ grape arbor provided a cool, shady space for household chores like laundering or food preservation. Amos Mattox made wine from the native Southern scuppernong and muscadine grape varieties grown there.

Chicken Yard
The Mattox family raised chickens, hogs, and goats for their own use. The chickens and goats were confined in the yard near the house, while the hogs were allowed to range freely.

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Interior of the Mattox Home in Greenfield Village THF53390

The Home
That Mattoxes covered their interior walls with newspaper for both insulation and decoration. Photographs taken in the 1930s and 1940s show that this was the norm rather than the exception in small rural homes in the South.

Much of the furniture now in the home was owned by the Mattox family. The mirror on the wall originally belonged to Amos Mattox’s grandfather, Amos Morel. Needlework scattered through the rooms represent Grace Mattox’s sewing and decorating skills. Over the mantel is a copy of the only known photograph of Amos Mattox, Sr. Pictures and fans with representations of religious themes and the family Bible reflect the strong religious grounding of the family. A checkerboard with bottle caps as game pieces and homemade dolls show how the family overcame the constraints of limited means.

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Mattox Home kitchen THF53400

The room attached to the rear of the home contains the kitchen and dining room, often used as the children’s bedroom. On the woodburning cookstove, Grace Mattox prepared meals for her family and dishes to bring to church suppers and community celebrations. The family worked together to prepare canned goods that could be stored on shelves in the kitchen for use throughout the year.

Explore the Mattox Family Home for yourself in the Porches & Parlors district in Greenfield Village.

Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, African American history

thf213730George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute, 1939 THF213730

George Washington Carver’s commitment to knowledge, serving the community, and making a difference drove his work as an influential agricultural scientist.

Carver loved plants as a child and studied them his entire life. Despite the many challenges he faced, he earned degrees in agricultural science and gained international recognition for his work.

In 1896, Carver began his 47-year career at Tuskegee Institute, a university in Alabama committed to educating African-Americans. There, he taught agricultural science, managed the school’s experimental farm, and researched better farming practices.

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One of the many bulletins Carver produced to help southern farmers THF288047

Carver shared his knowledge through practical instruction, “how-to” publications, and a mobile classroom. His research became the basis for lessons on improving the health and nutrition of the soil as well as the health and well-being of people and the livestock they tended.

Carver understood that farm families who raised cash crops like cotton had little time to grow food for themselves and no extra money to buy it. He identified hundreds of new uses for undervalued food crops like peanuts and sweet potatoes, which increased market opportunities and improved diets.

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An interactive digital experience in Henry Ford Museum features the stories of Luther Burbank, Rachel Carson, and George Washington Carver.

Learn more about Carver’s remarkable career in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where a new digital experience in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit explores

  • Bulletins produced by Carver to help southern farm families
  • Carver’s work to create nutrient-rich soil needed to grow healthy crops
  • Weeds – an untapped food source Carver liked to call “nature’s vegetables”
  • New products Carver developed from crops southern farmers already grew

agriculture, African American history, Henry Ford Museum, George Washington Carver

Today, The Henry Ford mourns the passing of Damon J. Keith, a civil rights icon and courageous champion for social justice. Judge Keith was the driving force in high impact cases which shaped our local community, our country and our collective national conscience. He was a leader, scholar, beloved mentor and dear friend of many, including The Henry Ford. During his visits to our campus, he took particular delight that among the automotive, aviation, power generation and agricultural exhibits presented on the floor of the museum, a visitor could also experience our “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibition which presents the story of America’s historical and ongoing struggle to live up to the ideal articulated in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.

GM PM Judge Keith (2)

We were also honored to host Judge Keith as our honored guest in 2011 when The Henry Ford had the rare privilege of putting the original Emancipation Proclamation on public display. We wanted to preserve some of the special moments and memories the event generated in over 21,000 visitors who viewed the document during its 36-hour public presentation via a limited printing, non-commercial commemorative keepsake book, and we were honored to include Judge Keith’s reflections on the document’s significance as the book’s close.

Judge Keith’s passing is a true loss for Detroit, Michigan and our nation, but his inspirational and unwavering commitment to justice and civil rights will be his living legacy. 

Civil Rights, Michigan, Detroit, African American history

President Abraham Lincoln signed The Freedmen’s Bureau Act on March 3, 1865.  That Act created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands as part of the War Department. It provided one-year of funding, and made Bureau officials responsible for providing food, clothing, fuel, and temporary shelter to destitute and suffering refugees behind Union lines and to freedmen, their wives, and children in areas of insurrection (in other words, within the Confederate States). The legislation specified the Bureau’s administrative structure and salaries of appointees. It also directed the Bureau to put abandoned or confiscated land back into production by allotting not more than 40 acres to each loyal refugee or freedman for their use for not more than three years, at a rent equal to six percent of its 1860 assessed value, and with an option to purchase. The Bureau assumed additional duties in response to freed people’s goals, namely building schools, negotiating labor contracts, and mediating conflicts. 

Lincoln supported the Bureau because it fit his plan to hasten peace and reconstruct the nation, but after Lincoln’s assassination, support wavered. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1866 provided two years of funding. During 1868, increasing violence and for a return to state authority undermined the goals of freed people and the Bureau that worked for them. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act of 1868 authorized only the educational department and veteran services to continue. All other operations ceased effective January 1, 1869.

Collections at The Henry Ford help document public perceptions of the Freedmen’s Bureau as well as actions taken by Bureau advocates. Letters, labor contracts, and newspapers indicate the contests that played out as the Bureau tried to introduce a new model of economic and social justice and civil rights into places where absolute inequality based on human enslavement previously existed. The Bureau did not win the post-war battle for freedmen’s rights. Congress did not reauthorize the Bureau, and it ceased operations in mid-1872.

The Beginning
Bureau appointees went to work at the end of the Civil War in 1865 to serve the interests of four-million newly freed people intent on exercising some self-evident truths itemized in the Declaration of Independence:

That all men are created equal
That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights
That among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Engraved Copy of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, Commissioned by John Quincy Adams, Printed 1823

With freedom came responsibility to sustain the system of government that “We the People” constituted in 1787, and that the Union victory over secession reaffirmed in 1865. Little agreement over the best course of action existed. The national government extended the blessings of liberty by abolishing slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in 1865. It established the Freedmen’s Bureau which advocated for the general welfare of newly freed people.

Book, "The Constitutions of the United States, According to the Latest Amendments," 1800. THF 155864

Joint Resolution of the United States Congress, Proposing the 13th Amendment to Abolish Slavery, 1865.  THF118475

Expanding liberty and justice came at a price, both economic and human. Every time freed people exercised new-found liberty and justice, others resisted, perceiving the expansion of another person’s liberty as a threat to their own. The Bureau operated between these factions, as an 1868 illustration from Harper’s Weekly depicted. The newspaper claimed that the Bureau was “the conscience and common-sense of the country stepping between the hostile parties, and saying to them, with irresistible authority, ‘Peace!’.”

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“The Freedmen’s Bureau,” Harper’s Weekly, July 25, 1868, pg. 473. 2018.0.4.38. THF 290299

Economics
Building a new southern economy went hand in hand with expanding social justice and civil rights. Concerned citizens and commanding officers knew that African Americans serving in the U.S. Colored Troops had money to save. They started private banks to meet the need. The U.S. Congress responded with "An Act to Incorporate the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company." Lincoln signed the legislation on March 3, 1865, the same day he signed “An Act to Establish a Bureau for the relief of Freedmen and Refugees.” Agents of the public Freedmen’s Bureau worked closely with staff at the private Freedman’s Bank because freed people needed the economic stability the bank theoretically provided.

At least 400,000 people, one tenth of the freed population, had an association with a person who opened a savings account in the 37 branches of the savings bank that operated between 1865 and 1874. This included Amos H. Morrell, whose daughter’s heirs resided in the Mattox House. Soldiers listed on the Muster Roll of Company E, 46th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, also appear in records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company. Charles Maho, a private in Company E, 46th USCT, opened an account on August 13, 1868. He worked in a tobacco factory at the time. His brother in arms, James Parvison/Parkinson, also a private, opened an account on December 1, 1869 and his estranged wife, Julia Parkerson opened an account on May 14, 1870.

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Mattox Family Home, circa 1880

"Muster Roll for Company E, 46th Regiment of United States Colored Infantry, April 30-June 30, 1865" - Unknown - Rank 2 THF 96529

Freedmen’s Bureau officials encouraged deposits into the Freedmen’s Bank. This helped freed people become accustomed to saving the coins they earned, literally the coins that symbolized their independence as wage earners. Sadly, Bureau officials often assured account holders that their investments were safe. The deposits were not protected by the national government, however, and when the bank closed in 1874 it left depositors penniless and petitioning for return of their investments.

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One-cent piece.  Minted in 1868. THF 173625 (front) and THF 173624 (back)  

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Three-cent piece (made of nickel). Minted in 1865. THF 173623 (front) and THF 173622 (back).

The U.S. Congress authorized the Bureau to collect and pay out money due soldiers, sailors, and marines, or their heirs. Osco Ricio, a private in Company E, 46th U.S. Colored Infantry, who enlisted for three years in 1864, but was mustered out in 1866, made use of this service in his effort to secure $187 due him.

Freedmen’s Bureau staff mediated between freed people and employers, negotiating contracts that specified work required, money earned, and protection afforded if employers reneged on the agreement. A blank form, printed in Virginia in 1865, included language common to an indenture – that the employer would provide “a sufficiency of sound, wholesome food and comfortable lodging, to treat him humanely, and to pay him the sum of _____ Dollars, in equal monthly instalments of ____ Dollars, good and lawful money in Virginia.”

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Freedman's Work Agreement Form, Virginia, 1865 Object ID  2001.48.18. THF 290704

Another pre-printed form reinforced terms of enslavement, that the work should be performed “in the manner customary on a plantation,” even as it confirmed the role of Freedmen’s Bureau agents as adjudicator. Freedman Henry Mathew, and landowner R. J. Hart, in Schley County, Georgia, completed this contract which legally bound Hart to furnish Mathew “quarters, food, 1 mule, and 35 acres of land” and to “give. . . one-third of what he [Mathew] makes.” This type of arrangement became the standard wage-labor contract between landowners and sharecroppers, paid for their labor with a share of the crops grown on the land.

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Freedman's Contract for a Mule and Land, Dated January 1, 1868. THF 8564 

Many criticized sharecropping as another form of unfree labor rather than as a fair labor contract. Close reading confirms the inequity which often took the form of additional work that laborers performed but that benefitted owners. In the case of Hart and Mathew, Mathew had to repair Hart’s fencing which meant that Mathew realized only one-third return on his labor investment in the form of a crop perhaps more plentiful because of the fence. Hart claimed the other two-thirds of the crop plus all of the increased value of fencing. 

Isaac Yarbro/Yarbrough, private in Company E, 46th USCT, negotiated a contract with A. H. Elliott of Ouachita County, Arkansas, on January 1, 1867. Elliott furnished land, stock, and farming tools. Yarbrough furnished labor and his own rations. After marketing the cotton crop, the contract stipulated that Yarbrough would receive one third “of the cotton made by him as compensation in full for his labor and rations furnished by him.” Furthermore, Yarbrough, when not occupied making the cotton crop, would “do any other work that A. H. Elliott may see proper to have done on his plantation and without farther compensation.”

Education
Freed people wanted access to education to learn what they needed to make decisions as informed and productive citizens.

Harper’s Weekly, a New York magazine, often featured freedmen’s schools that resulted from a cooperative agreement between the Freedmen’s Bureau and the American Missionary Association (AMA), based in New York. A reporter informed readers on June 23, 1866 that “the prejudice of the Southern people against the education of the ‘negroes’ is almost universal.” Regardless, freed people needed schools, teachers, and institutes to train teachers. The Freedmen’s Bureau and its partners committed their resources in support of this cause.

Commentary accompanying an illustration of the “Primary School for Freedmen” indicated that the school building was dilapidated and owned by someone who wanted rid of the school, but the students were eager to learn and as capable as other students of their age in New York public schools.

“Primary School for Freedmen, in Charge of Mrs. Green, at Vicksburg, Mississippi, Harper’s Weekly, June 23, 1866, pg. 392 (bottom), story on pg. 398. THF 290712

School curriculum often emphasized agricultural and technical training. The “Freedmen’s Farm School,” located near Washington, D.C., also known as the National Farm-School, taught orphans and children of U.S. Colored Troops reading, writing and arithmetic, standard primary school subjects. Students also cultivated a one-hundred-acre farm. The combination compared to a new effort launched with the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 to create a system of colleges, federally funded but operated at the state level to train students in agricultural and mechanical subjects. The combination could help students realize the American dream – owning and operating their own farm. While the system of land-grant colleges grew steadily during Reconstruction, the freedmen’s schools faced opposition locally and at the state level. Increasingly educators turned to philanthropists to fund education for freed people.

Cover, “Schools for Freedmen,” Harper's Weekly 1867 bound volume (Vol. 11) -- March 30, 1867 issue (“Freedmen’s Farm School, upper right image, page 193) THF 290709

Struggles
The individuals appointed to direct the Freedmen’s Bureau often had military experience. Brigadier General Oliver Otis Howard served in the Union Army and gained a reputation as a committed abolitionist if not a strong officer. President Andrew Johnson appointed him the first Commission of the Bureau, and he remained in that position until the Bureau closed in 1872. Two years later Howard lamented lost opportunities: “I believe there are many battles yet to be fought in the interest of human rights”….“There are wrongs that must be righted. Noble deeds that must be done.” 

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O.O. Howard calling card and letter, in 2007.0.1.1 - Autograph album - "Ada Dewey Autograph Album, 1874-1875". THF 228573

Many shared Howard’s frustrations with the lack of public support for freed people’s goals. They also resented the obstructions that thwarted those goals. Newspaper reporting, such as the regular features in Harper’s Weekly, emphasized the good work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, but reporting also threatened projects aimed at sustaining the momentum.

Henry Wilson, a Republican Senator from Massachusetts, sought equality for African Americans. He took a correspondent to the Republican, a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts, to task for publishing misinformation about the extent of congressional fundraising for political purposes, and for downplaying the need for sharing facts with voters, especially the 700,000 Southerners newly enfranchised after ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. Wilson explained that hundreds of thousands of documents, possible through the congressional fundraising, could educate voters about issues and prepare them for the upcoming election. Without donations from U.S. congressmen, Wilson believed such efforts would fail.

Letter from Henry Wilson to Sanborn [probably Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, then a correspondent with the Springfield [Massachusetts] Republican newspaper], October 6, 1870  

The End
The short life but complicated legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau leaves much to ponder. The Bureau, as a part of the War Department, and then an independent national agency, mediated local conflict and supported local education. This occurred at an exceptional time as the Union began rebuilding the nation in 1865. Then, the Republican party interpreted the U.S. Constitution as a mandate for the national government to protect civil rights broadly defined. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, incorporated newly freed people as full citizens. Most believed that the Bureau had no more work to do, and Congress did not reauthorize it after July 1872. Those who favored the Bureau lamented its abrupt end and believed that much remained to be done to open the American experiment in equal rights to all.

Debra Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.

Sources and Further Reading

  • African American Records: Freedmen’s Bureau, National Archives and Records Administration
  • Carpenter, John A. Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard (1999)
  • Cimbala, Paul A. The Freedmen's Bureau: Reconstructing the American South after the Civil War (2005)
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988).
  • Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (1979).
  • McFeely, William S. Yankee Stepfather: General O.O. Howard and the Freedmen (1994).
  • Osthaus, Carl R. Freedmen, Philanthropy, and Fraud: A History of the Freedman's Savings Bank (1976)
  • Oubre, Claude F. Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Land Ownership (2012).
  • Washington, Reginald. “The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company and African American Genealogical Research,” Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)

Civil War, African American history, by Debra A. Reid

Tracy K. Smith is the current Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, commonly known as the US Poet Laureate. She is only the fourth African American to hold this post (or its predecessor, the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) since its establishment in 1937, following Robert Hayden (1976–78), Gwendolyn Brooks (1985–86), and Rita Dove (1993–95 and 1999–2000).

Smith’s term as Poet Laureate comes at a particularly auspicious time, as the current Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden (2016– ), is both the first woman and the first African American ever to hold that post—and she was nominated to her office by the first African American president, Barack Obama.

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Barack Obama 2009 Inauguration Program, Enclosed with Inauguration Invitation

All of these offices had previously been held primarily or solely by white men, and with the new officeholders have come new perspectives. In Smith’s case, this began with her Poet-Laureate project, American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities, an outreach effort where she envisioned “poems might be a way of leaping past small-talk and collapsing the distance between strangers.” It continues in her latest book of poetry, Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, 2018).

A book of poetry might seem at first glance to be a strange way to bring the past forward, tying historical events to topics at the forefront of our national conversation today. As Smith notes in the introduction to American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, an anthology of poetry she edited, the very nature of a poem – from the layout of words on a page to the vivid, emotion-inducing language used – can “call our attention to moments when the ordinary nature of experience changes—when the things we think we know flare into brighter colors, starker contrasts, strange and intoxicating possibilities.” Poetry can help us process and make sense of complicated issues, and allow us the empathy to see things from someone else’s perspective.

In Wade in the Water, Smith takes this cultural and historical perspective one step further, with poems that use historical documents, including letters from slaveholders and statements of African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, to shed light on today.  Some of these are “erasure” poems, where Smith relies solely on text from these documents—but removes portions to induce a new perspective for the reader.  “Declaration,” for example, removes words from the Declaration of Independence:

Our repeated
Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.
We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration
and settlement here.
--taken Captive
on the high Seas
to bear—

The words she chooses to include are reminiscent of the forced journey of slaves to America and highlight the day-to-day experiences of African Americans as in contrast to the high ideals of the original document.

poetry2Engraved Copy of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, Commissioned by John Quincy Adams, Printed 1823.

In the lengthy poem, “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All About It,” Smith again shares the direct words of African Americans who enlisted to fight in the Civil War, as well as their families, “arranged in such a way as to highlight certain of the main factors affecting blacks during the Civil War….” Excerpts from the letters and documents use the original spelling of the writers (pointing out the literacy levels of African Americans at the time), and shed light on the ways the war impacted African American families—many of which concerns still sound familiar today. The initial section of the poem is drawn from a November 21, 1864, letter from Mrs. Jane Welcome to Abraham Lincoln:

Mr abarham lincon

I wont to knw sir if you please

whether I can have my son relest

from the arme       he is all the subport

I have now       his father is Dead

and his brother that wase all

the help I had      he has bean wonded

twise   he has not had nothing to send me yet

poetry3Wood Engraving, "First and Last Dress Review of 1st Regiment South Carolinian (Negro) Volunteers," 1862.

The poems that use only Smith’s own words also reference the past as a way to understand the present.  In “Refuge,” the narrator tries to create empathy within herself for an immigrant, a refugee, by seeing that person as her mother during the Montgomery Bus Boycott:

Until I can understand why you

Fled, why you are willing to bleed,

Why you deserve what I must be

Willing to cede, let me imagine

You are my mother in Montgomery,

Alabama, walking to campus

Rather than riding the bus. I know

What they call you, what they

Try to convince you you lack.

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Rosa Parks Bus before Restoration, Destination Sign, March 2002.

Empathy is clearly a key theme running through both Smith’s Poet-Laureate project and her poetry. Asked what “the greatest challenge of our time” is in an August 24, 2018, interview with the Financial Times, Smith answered, “Love. Maybe a better word is compassion. In particular, we have to learn a new way of looking at the people we fear; people we have socially acceptable ways of dismissing or condemning for their own misery or misfortune.” She invites us to use our own American history as that new lens in order to better understand others, the world we live in today, and not least, ourselves.

Ellice Engdahl is Manager, Digital Collections and Content, at The Henry Ford.

by Ellice Engdahl, women's history, books, African American history

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Two Sisters Beauty Salon, 1945-50. THF240367

“Jim Crow” laws—first enacted in the 1880s by angry and resentful Southern whites against freed African Americans—separated blacks from whites in all aspects of daily life.  Favoring whites and repressing blacks, these became an institutionalized form of inequality.

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Jim Crow was a character first created for a minstrel-show act during the 1830s.  The act—featuring a white actor wearing black makeup—was meant to demean and make fun of African Americans.  Applied to the later set of laws and practices, the name had much the same effect. THF98689

In the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states had the legal power to require segregation between blacks and whites.  Jim Crow laws spread across the South virtually anywhere that the two races might come in contact.  In the North and Midwest, segregation became equally entrenched through informal customs and practices.  Many of these laws and practices lasted into the 1960s, until outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

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Through separate (and inferior) public facilities like building entrances, elevators, cashier windows, and drinking fountains, African Americans were reminded everywhere of their second-class status. THF13419, THF13421

It took a great deal of courage, resilience, and strength of character for African Americans to maintain their self-respect and battle the daily humiliation of Jim Crow.  The black church, self-help organizations, and men’s and women’s clubs offered refuge, support, and protection, while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) provided potential legal assistance.

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The NAACP, formed in 1909, emphasized fighting for racial equality through legal action rather than political protest or economic agitation. THF11647

Out of the demeaning environment of Jim Crow arose the opportunity for some African Americans to establish their own businesses.  The more cut off that black communities became from white communities and the more that white businessmen refused to cater to black customers, the more possible it became for enterprising black entrepreneurs to create viable businesses of their own. 

Most of these businesses were local, small-scale, and family-run.  Many black entrepreneurs followed the tenets of Booker T. Washington, who had established the National Business League in 1900 to promote economic self-help.  Washington advocated economic development as the best path to racial advancement and the means to eventually challenging the racial prejudice of Jim Crow.  While Washington’s precepts would become increasingly out of step with the times, especially when the Civil Rights movement gained momentum, the support for his ideas among black entrepreneurs of the Jim Crow era is repeatedly evident in the naming of businesses after Washington. 

The following images from the collections of The Henry Ford provide an intriguing window into the world of black enterprise and entrepreneurship during the Jim Crow era.

Barber Shops

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Rodger Clark’s No. 1 Barber Shop, c. 1950. THF240383

Black barbers had long cut white customers’ hair as part of their traditional second-class status in service to white people.  But, by the early 20th century, white patrons had begun to shift their business to white-owned shops.  A new generation of black barbers proudly established shops within their own communities, catering to a growing black consumer market.  They knew that their white counterparts would offer no competition, as they did not want the close contact with blacks that cutting hair demanded.  Nor could white barbers offer black men the kind of haircut and shave that they themselves knew how to give.

The cost to enter the field was low but black barbers’ status was high.  They generally attracted a regular customer base, akin to church preachers.  Men congregated and felt comfortable in these shops, and conversation flowed freely, both about local goings-on and larger racial matters that concerned them all.  Barber shops remained important spheres of influence during and after the Civil Rights era.

Beauty Parlors

The rise of black female beauty culture paralleled larger trends in society, especially the influence of mass media like movies and popular magazines.  Several black female entrepreneurs spearheaded an emerging beauty culture industry—the most famous of these being Madam C. J. Walker.  Some enterprising black women, initially trained as agents to sell special hair preparation and cosmetic products (so-called “beauty systems”), eventually opened their own beauty shops as permanent spaces to facilitate their work as “beauty culturists.”  With the little capital needed to start their own businesses, they could free themselves from economic dependence on their husbands or on white employers.  It was respectable work, considered doing their part for racial progress and the economic uplift of the black race.

Beauty parlors became places where black women could indulge in moments of pampering, self-indulgence, and relaxation while also letting off steam, gossiping, and speaking their minds.  Increasingly, beauty parlors became vital public spaces that nurtured debate and activism among women within black communities.

Undertakers and Funeral Directors

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Booker T. Washington was depicted on the front of this cardboard handheld fan for the Jacob Brothers Funeral Home, Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1955.  As advertised on the back, the funeral home promised air-conditioning and an organ in its chapels. THF224305

By the 1920s, funeral homes had emerged across the country as primary locations for carrying out the responsibilities of handling and burying the deceased.  These first emerged in large towns and cities and gradually spread to rural regions.  Funeral homes became a particularly lucrative avenue of entrepreneurship for blacks, which lacked white competition because of the close physical contact that was involved in this work.  When African Americans were excluded from joining the National Funeral Directors Association, they organized their own independent organization in 1925.

People entrusted black undertakers and funeral directors in their local communities with the proper and responsible treatment of their deceased loved ones.  These entrepreneurs offered an appropriate mixture of respect for traditional religious practices, modern American values, and the changing desires of local neighborhoods.  Some black funeral homes flourished through aggressive marketing and modern amenities like spacious limousines.

Cafés, Taverns, and Liquor Stores

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Dixie Liquor Store, St. Louis, Missouri, 1940s. THF240367

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Saratoga Café and Sportsman Lounge, Chicago, Illinois, 1940s. THF240377

During the Jim Crow era, segregation may have been the law in the South but it was just as apparent in northern and midwestern cities.  Restaurants, cafés, taverns, and liquor stores thrived in black neighborhoods, established by local businessmen and geared to local customers.  These two stores—in St. Louis, Missouri and Chicago, Illinois—seem to have been extremely popular gathering places for both men and women.

Roadside Amenities

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The Negro Motorist Green Book, 1949. THF 77183

It was one thing to frequent the businesses in your own neighborhood.  But what happened when you took an out-of-town road trip?  Where might you and your family inadvertently encounter hostility, be turned away, perhaps even risk your lives?  Black postal worker Victor H. Green attempted to help black travelers combat this dilemma by creating The Negro Motorist Green Book.  From 1936 to 1966, the Green Book offered a directory of safe places for African-American travelers.  This included not only the expected roadside amenities of lodgings, service stations, and restaurants, but also listings of many of the classic businesses found in local neighborhoods—like barber shops, beauty parlors, liquor stores, and nightclubs.  [For more on the Green Book, see this blog post.

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A. G. Gaston Motel, 1954. THF 104701, 104700

One of the most difficult and risky aspects of cross-country travel for African Americans was the question of where to stay overnight.  The Negro Motorist Green Book attempted to update its listings as often as possible, while word of mouth helped African Americans learn of safe places—who often drove miles out of their way to get to them.  But the fact remained that the most extensive listings of hotels and motels were in northern metropolises with large populations of black Americans.  In smaller towns, a tourist home or two might be listed—which meant staying in a room in someone’s house.  Many towns lacked even a single listing. 

In 1954, a new kind of black-owned lodging opened in Birmingham, Alabama, coinciding with a black Baptist convention in town.  Billed “The Nation’s Newest and Finest Motel,” it was built, owned, and run by pioneering black entrepreneur Arthur George (A. G.) Gaston.  Gaston also established several other businesses in Birmingham, including a bank, radio stations, the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company, a funeral home, and a construction firm.

Modeled after the groundbreaking Holiday Inns that had recently opened in Memphis, Tennessee, the A. G. Gaston Motel included 32 rooms, each with their own air-conditioning and telephone.  Gaston remarked that opening this motel “means that many persons passing through our city will have a fine place to stay.”  In 1963, the Gaston Motel became the epicenter of Birmingham’s Civil Rights protests and demonstrations. 

Berry Gordy and Motown Records

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This Smokey Robinson and the Miracles 45 rpm record was licensed to and issued nationally by Chess Records because Motown as yet lacked a national distribution network. THF170558

Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan, in 1959, created a business that successfully bridged the Jim Crow era and the post-Civil Rights Act era.  He accomplished this by accurately predicting the coming of an integrated market of consumers for black popular music. 

In 1922, Gordy’s father, Berry Sr., moved his family to Detroit from Georgia—an area steeped in Jim Crow laws and practices—because he faced hostility and potential violence from local whites when his food distribution business proved too successful.  Berry Sr. established the Booker T. Washington Grocery Store in the black working-class neighborhood of Detroit, which soon also became highly successful.  All the while, he encouraged his children to be industrious and establish their own business ventures. 

Inspired by the legendary boxer Joe Louis, Berry Jr. first dreamed of becoming a famous boxer but he eventually gravitated to his other interest—music.  From record store owner to songwriter to multi-million-dollar record producer and distributor, Gordy used his business savvy to redefine black music coming out of Detroit as popular music that both blacks and whites would want to hear and buy.  Throughout the monumental success of his career, Gordy claimed that he had continually upheld his family’s business ethic and the self-help ideals of Booker T. Washington.

The Jim Crow Era provided the impetus for a number of black businesses to grow and flourish, instilling a sense of pride within black communities, serving as symbols of racial progress, and promising safe places to do business and socialize.  The conversation and ideas that flowed freely in black business establishments also helped raise consciousness and establish a sense of solidarity within black neighborhoods.  When the Civil Rights movement gained momentum—offering an end to the indignities and disenfranchisement of Jim Crow—many black entrepreneurs did what they could to support the movement.  After the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, and segregation was declared illegal, black entrepreneurs could take pride in the role they had played in the Civil Rights movement despite the fact that the future viability of their segregated businesses were now in jeopardy.

To read more on these topics, check out these helpful books:

  • Cutting Across the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America, by Quincy T. Mills (2013)
  • Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920-75, by Susannah Walker (2007)
  • Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the 20th Century South,(2016)
  • Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit, by Suzanne E. Smith (1999)

Donna R. Braden is the Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

by Donna R. Braden, entrepreneurship, African American history