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In the early 1930s, tensions were running high between two competing news sources: newspaper publishers were feeling the strength of their monopoly slipping away as the public’s appreciation for radio news broadcasts grew. This time of conflict in communications history is known as “The Press-Radio War.”

Publishers felt especially threatened by the nimbleness of radio networks. Broadcasters could share breaking news immediately over the airwaves, rather than having to wait for the next day’s run of newspapers to be printed and distributed. At first, newspaper companies tried to boycott radio’s ability to grow into something more than just an entertainment medium by asking wire services to block the flow of newsworthy information to radio stations. But eventually, the two media formats settled into a truce by the late 1930s, partly owing to the demand for reliable information-sharing as the threat of World War II grew. 

Aircraft flying over towers and buildings
The Detroit News “autogiro” aircraft flies over the WWJ transmitter towers on the roof of the Detroit News building. The autogiro used a swiveling camera to take aerial photos of newsworthy events and quickly transported reporters to the sites of developing stories. / THF238502

Some newspapers saw the financial benefit in blending formats and went so far as to cut out the competition by starting their own radio news stations. The Detroit News was one of the first newspapers in the United States to incorporate a commercial radio station into its operations. In August 1920, WWJ (then owned by the Detroit News) launched its program of nightly broadcasts under the call sign 8MK. As of 2020, WWJ has been on-air for 100 years!

Aircraft flying over tall buildings
In this image, the Detroit News autogiro flies over downtown Detroit. The Penobscot Building—site for the News’s experimental W8XWJ station—appears in the foreground. The original vertical “whip” antenna is just visible on the ball that tops the metal tower. / THF239963

In 1936, the Detroit News launched experimental audio broadcasting station W8XWJ from the 47th floor of the Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit. W8XWJ was formed under the FCC’s ultra-high short-wave “Apex” station program, an experiment designed to provide listeners with higher quality AM signals. The station’s original 100-watt AM vertical “whip” antenna was attached to the beacon sphere that tops the metal tower perched on the roof of the Penobscot Building. The height of the Penobscot—the tallest skyscraper in the city at that point—helped to disperse the radio waves over the entire city. Many people are familiar with the glowing red beacon at the top of the Penobscot, but its connection to the growth of radio in the city is not as well known.

From 1938-1940, W8XWJ ran a fascinating but ultimately short-lived experiment with an emerging technology called “radio facsimile.” Customers would hook a special “radio printer” up to their own radio, which would print the news overnight while they slept. In the morning, the news would be ready to enjoy with morning coffee – no need to deliver a physical newspaper!

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One of the original Finch Facsimile Transmitters from W8XWJ, complete with original station badge visible and a sample of a radio fax. / THF160295

At W8XWJ, a Finch Facsimile Transmitter was used to convert images and text into audio tones. These signals would arrive in customer’s home via radio waves, where their “radio printer” would translate the tones into human language. Everything would print out onto continuous rolls of thermal paper.

Wooden box with machinery inside, paper strip with images of three faces, paper reels
A Crosley “Reado” Radio Printer. / THF160315

This is a Crosley Reado Radio Printer – the type of device that people would connect to their home radio and would receive their faxed newspapers on. When The Henry Ford conserved this artifact through an Institute for Museum and Library Services grant, our conservators were excited to find an example of a facsimile still on the drum inside the machine. In this image, you can see an original radio facsimile portrait of Boris Karloff, who was famous for his 1931 portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster.

The Henry Ford’s collections also include the original transmitter and amplifier that powered the W8XWJ station.

GIF showing two metal cabinets with dials, one open to show mechanism inside
W8XWJ’s Western Electric 500 Watt Ultra Shortwave Transmitter and Amplifier. These two devices are visible in their original installation here. / THF173159, THF173165

The idea behind W8XWJ’s radio facsimile experiment was revolutionary, but the process was slow and fussy. It could take over 20 minutes to print a single page of news, and signal reception became unreliable beyond a mile or two away from the transmitter. In 1940, W8XWJ ended its radio facsimile project.

While the original “whip” antenna for W8XWJ was replaced by a FM antenna in the early 1940s, if you look toward the top of the Penobscot building today, there is a tangle of communication equipment visible from street level. And in the interesting way that the new and the old can merge and converge within the histories of technology, some of this contemporary equipment fulfills radio facsimile’s promise to provide easily accessible information—the top of the Penobscot now serves as an important hub for Detroit’s wireless Internet network.


Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communications & Information Technology at The Henry Ford.

radio, printing, Michigan, Detroit, communication, by Kristen Gallerneaux, #THFCuratorChat

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

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

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Motown Record Album, “The Great March to Freedom: Rev. Martin Luther King Speaks, June 23, 1963.” THF31935 

Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, held on June 23, 1963, helped move the southern Civil Rights struggle to a new focus on the urban North. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. later called this march “one of the most wonderful things that has happened in America.” 

Organized by the Detroit Council on Human Rights, this was the largest Civil Rights demonstration to date. Its main purpose was to speak out against Southern segregation and the brutality that faced Civil Rights activists there. It was also meant to raise consciousness about the unique concerns of African Americans in the urban North, which included discriminatory hiring practices, wages, education, and housing. The date was chosen to correlate with both the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 20th anniversary of the 1943 Detroit race riots that had left 34 people (mostly African American) dead. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who agreed to lead the march, had by this time become committed to uniting both North and South through his grand vision of achieving racial justice by using non-violent protest.

On the day of the march, about 125,000 people filed down Woodward Avenue, singing freedom songs and carrying signs demanding racial equality. Some 15,000 spectators watched them pass by a 21-block area before turning west down Jefferson Avenue to Cobo Hall. Cobo was filled to capacity to hear the speeches of the march’s leaders while thousands more listened to them on loudspeakers outside. Of the speeches given that day, Dr. King’s was the most memorable. People were riveted while he expressed his vision for the future, sharing a dream that foreshadowed the “I Have a Dream” speech that he would give a few months later at the March on Washington.

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Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown Record Corporation, considered Detroit’s Walk to Freedom to be such a historic event that he offered the resources of his Hitsville studio to produce a record album documenting Dr. King’s impassioned words. Gordy heightened the drama of the event by titling the album, “The Great March to Freedom: Reverend Martin Luther King Speaks.” He believed that this record belonged in every home, that it should be required listening for “every child, white or black.” No one realized at the time, including Gordy, that the August March on Washington would become the more remembered event.    

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dreams of social justice, voiced at Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, would prove elusive.  Despite the fact that Detroit had gained a national reputation for being a “model city” of race relations at the time, in reality the city’s African-American population faced unemployment, housing discrimination, de facto segregation in public schools, and police brutality. Ultimately this disconnect between perception and reality would lead to the violence and civil unrest of July 1967. 

For more on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom held on August 28, 1963, take a look at this post.

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

entrepreneurship, music, Michigan, by Donna R. Braden, Detroit, Civil Rights, African American history

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Ring received by Charlie Sanders when he was enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. THF165545

The Henry Ford has in its collection this commemorative bust and ring that had once been owned and cherished by Charlie Sanders, Detroit Lions tight end. He had received these items when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on August 4, 2007, along with five other players. 

The Pro Football Hall of Fame was created in Canton, Ohio, in 1963, to commemorate the game and players of professional football. As of 2017, 310 players are enshrined here, elected by a 46-person committee that is mostly made up of members of the media. An Enshrinement Ceremony is held annually in August. Thousands attend this ceremony and millions more watch and listen as the nationally televised event unfolds.

Sanders is one of 19 Lions enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Seven of the 19 are African American, including Lem Barney, Barry Sanders, and Dick “Night Train” Lane.

Charlie Alvin Sanders (1946-2015) was born in rural Richlands, North Carolina, where his aunt raised him after the death of his mother when he was only two years old. At age 8, after his father got out of the military, the family moved to Greensboro—a hotbed of racial tension, most famously the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins of 1960.  

He graduated from James B. Dudley High School (Greensboro’s first all-black public school, established in 1929). There he starred in football, baseball, and basketball. His dislike of Southern racial attitudes discouraged him from attending North Carolina’s Wake Forest University; he decided instead to play football at the University of Minnesota. 

The Detroit Lions chose him in the third round of the 1968 NFL Draft. Initially, he wasn’t sure about playing for Detroit after witnessing the civil unrest in that city in 1967, reminding him of the racial tensions in the South when he was growing up. He almost went to Toronto to play hockey, but the Lions offered him a contract he decided to accept. 

Sanders has been considered the finest tight end in Detroit Lions history. He played for the Lions from 1968 to 1977, totaling 336 career receptions (a Lions record that would hold for 20 seasons) for 4,817 yards and 31 touchdowns. He was also known as a superior blocker.    

The tight end was a unique offensive position that, depending upon the coach’s strategy, can assist with blocking for the running back or quarterback as well as receive passes. Greater use of the tight end as a receiver started in the 1960s. Sanders proved to be the Lions’ “secret weapon” in the passing game during a period when the right end was primarily a blocker. He was one of the first tight ends who brought experience in both college football and basketball, and he had great leaping ability, big hands, strength, speed and elusiveness—traits not common for tight ends of his era. Hall of Fame Cornerback Lem Barney claimed, “He made some acrobatic catches. I’m telling you, one-legged, one arm in the air, floating through the air almost like a Superman. If you threw it to him he was going to find a way to catch it.”   

Sanders grew up in an era that marked the transition between legally upheld segregation in the South and increasingly prominent roles of African Americans in all aspects of sports—on the playing field, in media, and as decision-makers in coaching and management. He came of age at a time when the black athlete in Detroit aspired to a more activist role in social and business matters. He spent much time in the company of Lions teammates Lem Barney and Mel Farr and Pistons star Dave Bing.  Referring to themselves as “The Boardroom,” they frequently conducted meetings in which they discussed the importance of black athletes being defined by more than simply their on-field exploits.  

Sanders’ look defined African American players of the 1970s. As writer Drew Sharp remarked, “He wore the huge Afro. His helmet couldn’t cover it all. It looked cool. It looked defiant. And, quite frankly, it was the only motive for any kids in my northwest Detroit neighborhood to buy a Lions helmet at that time because they wanted their Afros sticking out from the back.” He also sported a heavy Fu Manchu mustache at the time.

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Bust received by Charlie Sanders when he was enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. THF165545

During his 10 years playing for the Lions, he was chosen seven times for the Pro Bowl (NFL’s All-Star game) from 1968 to 1971 and 1974 to 1976—more than any other Hall of Fame Tight End. He was also chosen for NFL’s All-Pro team in 1970 and 1971 (made up of players voted the best in their position during those two years) and for the NFL’s 1970s All-Decade Team. In 2008, he was chosen as a member of the Lions’ 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. 

During an exhibition game in 1976, Sanders injured his right knee, ending his career. After retirement, Sanders served as a color analyst for Lions radio broadcasts (1983-1988), worked with the team as an assistant coach in charge of wide receivers (1989-1996 – mentoring players who would themselves go on to earn a place in the Lions’ record book), returned to radio broadcasting in 1997, then joined the Lions’ front office as a scout. He became the team’s assistant director of pro personnel in 2000, holding that role until his death on July 2, 2015. 

Sanders had also worked in the team’s community relations department and did much charitable work, serving as a spokesman for the United Way and The March of Dimes. He created The Charlie Sanders Foundation in 2007, providing scholarships for high school students in Michigan and North Carolina, and began the “Have a Heart Save a Life” program within the foundation. 

Sanders spent 43 years with the Detroit Lions over parts of five decades, the longest tenure of anyone outside the Ford family. Sports blogger “Big Al” Beaton wrote about him, “…as a kid growing up in the 70’s, my favorite Lion was Charlie Sanders….We all wanted to emulate Charlie Sanders. In my mind Sanders was the best tight end I’ve ever seen play.”

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

Detroit, Michigan, football, sports, African American history, by Donna R. Braden

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Talented African American jazz pianists played this piano at Detroit’s Club Harlem during the mid-1930s. How did the piano acquire its ivory finish? A few years after Club Harlem closed, the Warblers moved to Allen Park. The piano went with them. Perhaps the ivory lacquer was added by Maurine Warbler—a more appropriate look, perhaps, for a piano that now resided in a suburban home THF166445 (From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Allene Warbler in Remembrance of Her Parents Allen and Rene Warbler.)

The quiet ivory exterior of this unassuming little piano belies its jazz-infused past. Hidden beneath the ivory lacquer are glimpses of silver that offer a clue to its former life. Not only did this piano have a “front row seat” at one of the many jazz clubs that dotted Detroit’s Paradise Valley district during the 1930s and 1940s—it was part of the show.  

In March 1934, this piano left the Wurlitzer company’s DeKalb, Illinois factory for its new destination—Detroit. It was delivered to a jazz club called Club Harlem, housed in the basement of the Lawn Apartment building on Vernor at Brush. To give the piano an appropriately “jazzy” look, the club’s managers painted over the piano’s rather reserved mahogany factory finish with aluminum paint. The back of the piano—the side visible to the audience—was covered with black velvet, decorated with large glittery musical notes. The piano’s small size—only 61-keys instead of the standard 88—was likely an asset to upstart Club Harlem in what may have been tight quarters filled with patrons in this basement nightclub. Too, its small size made it more affordable than a standard upright piano. Detroit’s economy was only beginning its slow and uneven recovery from the depths of the Depression. 

More Alcohol, More Jazz
The timing of this new club’s opening in early 1934 was no accident. Prohibition had ended the previous December—it was again legal to manufacture, sell and transport intoxicating beverages in the United States. During the 13 years that prohibition had been in force, “underground” establishments had continued to discreetly serve patrons liquor, as well as often offering food and live shows. Now they could do it openly.

During the 1920s, jazz, a musical form rooted in the African American experience, had taken America—and the world—by storm. The fresh, lively sound of jazz was different than anything that had come before. It was the perfect “accompaniment”—in fact, helped define—this more modern era. A 1919 song, Take Me to the Land of Jazz, captured things perfectly with these lyrics, “How in every cabaret, it’s the only thing they play.”     

Detroit's Paradise Valley
During the 1930s, a commercial center emerged in an area of Detroit (bounded by Gratiot, Vernor, Brush and Hastings streets) that became known as Paradise Valley.  Racial discrimination had sequestered the city’s African American population into a tight-knit and vibrant community on Detroit’s near east side. Here, black-owned businesses dotted the streets and Detroit’s African American community could shop, eat, and enjoy their leisure time. Paradise Valley--with its clubs, theaters and dance halls—would become the major entertainment spot in Detroit, as a growing number of nightspots offered places where jazz could be enjoyed. Talented African American musicians and singers, including Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, lit up the nights. Paradise Valley experienced its most rapid growth after Prohibition ended in 1933, with many jazz clubs--including Club Harlem--added during the following decade. 

During the day, Paradise Valley was predominantly Black. At night and into the wee hours of the morning, Paradise Valley became more racially balanced, as many white Detroiters sought the entertainment opportunities found there. A major factor was the development of the black-and-tan nightclub, which catered to both African American and white audiences. Club Harlem, located at the northern boundary of Paradise Valley, was one of these black-and-tan jazz clubs. Many of the black-and-tan clubs in the district were owned by African American businessmen. A few, like Club Harlem, were owned by whites.

Club Harlem
Club Harlem’s owner was Morris Wasserman. Wasserman ran a loan business and owned a pawn shop. (It was said that Wasserman also had ties to Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang, criminals involved in the illegal liquor trade during Prohibition.) Wasserman hired Allen Warbler to manage the club. Warbler had previously worked for Jean Goldkette, a prominent band organizer and booking agent, at Goldkette’s popular Detroit ballroom, the Graystone, during its heyday of the 1920s. Warbler's wife, Maurine, who had worked for a theatrical booking agent, designed many of the costumes worn by the chorus performers at Club Harlem.

Among the performers who played Club Harlem was 19-year-old Milt Buckner. Orphaned at the age of 9 and adopted by members of Earl Walton’s band, Milt and his brother Ted were prominent jazz musicians in 1930s Detroit. A few years later, Milt Buckner would join Lionel Hampton’s band as pianist and key music arranger. Bands headed by Monk Culp and Ernest Cooper also played Club Harlem. Other musicians who entertained Club Harlem’s audiences were 23-year-old saxophone player Charles “Tubby” Bowen, who would later lead a band under the name Tubby Bowen and His Tubs, and 25-year-old Sammy Price, a Texas pianist who became the house pianist for Decca Records in New York City in 1938, recording with many of New York’s jazz and blues greats.   

Club Harlem had a short run--it operated from just 1934 to 1935. Club Harlem’s piano, once played by musicians like Milt Buckner and Sammy Price, ended its jazz career. Allen Warbler, Club Harlem’s manager, went into the real restate business. Club Harlem’s owner, Morris Wasserman, would open the Flame Show Bar on John R in Detroit in 1949. The Flame Show Bar would become one of the city’s major jazz clubs during the 1950s.

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Pianist Sammy Price in a publicity shot from the mid-1930s THF249299. (From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Allene Warbler in Remembrance of Her Parents Allen and Rene Warbler.)

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These young women were likely dancers in Club Harlem’s “Shim Sham Shimmy” chorus THF249293 (From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Allene Warbler in Remembrance of Her Parents Allen and Rene Warbler.)

Farewell to Paradise Valley
From the 1930s into the early 1950s, Paradise Valley bustled. But, in the 1950s and 1960s, urban renewal projects designed to “modernize” the city while eradicating “blight,” along with freeway construction for I-75, erased this vibrant African American community—scattering its inhabitants. Little remained of Paradise Valley and neighboring Black Bottom (named by French explorers for its rich soil), where the majority of Detroit’s African American community resided in rundown clapboard houses built to house the flood of German immigrants who arrived in the 1850s. No efforts were made by the city to support the relocation of the African Americans who had resided there. Detroit’s urban renewal projects—and their devastating effect on this community—helped fuel the growing resentment against racial discrimination that would culminate in the 1967 Detroit civil unrest.   

A little of Paradise Valley hung on for a few decades, though. The 606 Horse Shoe Lounge was the last remaining nightclub from the glory days of Detroit’s Paradise Valley. The club was located at 606 E. Adams from the 1930s to the 1950s. It had featured a floor show, an orchestra, and its owner John R. “Buffalo” James as emcee. Construction of the I-75 freeway forced the club to relocate to 1907 N. St. Antoine by the early 1960s. This last vestige of Paradise Valley’s legendary jazz clubs was demolished in 2002, the building razed as part of the Ford Field construction.

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The 606 Horse Shoe Lounge was the last remaining nightclub from Detroit’s legendary Paradise Valley  THF166450 (From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Arthur A. Jadach.)

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

Detroit, Michigan, African American history

Detroit Reacts to the Great Migration: Before the first World War, a majority of Detroit's African American population lived on the East Side and shared the area, known as Black Bottom, with white immigrant populations. At this time, relatively few African Americans, just 1.2% of the total population, called Detroit home. By 1930, the city’s African American population had grown by over 1,991%. The white immigrant population began to vacate the Black Bottom area and were quickly replaced with the growing population of African Americans attracted to the north by the promise of employment in Detroit’s booming auto industry and an escape from the rampant oppression of the south. As the African American population in Detroit increased, racial residential boundaries began to form, due in part to the stress on housing stock, as well as to outright discrimination in institutions such as employment and real estate.

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Photographic print -
"Newspaper Article, "Gold Rush is Started by Ford's $5 Offer," January 7, 1914" - Ford Motor Company

The automobile industry and Henry Ford’s highly-publicized $5-a-day helped to draw people in great numbers to the Detroit area. However, for African American workers, reality often differed from their hopes and expectations in the north. While many of the automotive manufacturers did hire African Americans, it was almost always for the lowest paying jobs, such as in the janitorial department or the foundry. Ford Motor Company led the automotive industry in its hiring of African American workers by 1919. The company paid African American workers the same rate as their white counterparts and hired for a variety of positions, including skilled labor. Across the board, however, African American workers made less money than their white counterparts, and consequently, had less income for quality housing.

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Photographic print - "Pickling Metal Crankcases and Other Parts to Remove Surface Impurities, Ford Rouge Plant, 1936" - Ford Motor Company Photographic Department

Discriminatory real estate practices played a significant role in the housing issues which plagued Detroit. Racially restrictive covenants, which legally ensured the sale of property to only white buyers, became increasingly common in Detroit. Even if a restrictive covenant was not in place, the Detroit Real Estate Board warned area realtors “not to sell to Negroes in a 100 percent white area,” thereby enforcing and perpetuating Detroit’s racial geography. Further, the practice of “redlining,” or the racial categorization of areas by their perceived financial risk in home insurance and mortgage lending, effectively shut out black homebuyers from the market. The practice extended to the lending of new mortgages, but also to home loans, leading to the inability to complete home repairs and, eventually, an abundance of blighted homes in black neighborhoods. In addition, real estate agents erroneously reported to white homeowners that the presence of black families in their neighborhoods would lower their property values. White homeowners, even those without ingrained prejudices against African Americans, certainly did not want their property values to lower, so rallied against any attempt by an African American homebuyer purchasing in their neighborhoods. The infamous story of African American Physician Dr. Ossian Sweet exemplifies the discrimination and mob violence experienced by those who attempted to move into white neighborhoods.  

Discrimination in the workplace meant that African Americans, as a whole, made significantly less money than their white counterparts. Redlining practices forced them into racially-segregated neighborhoods and cemented their inability to access loans for mortgages or home repairs. Yet, the promise of the north continued to draw African Americans to Detroit. Without access to capital, increasingly-crowded neighborhoods became increasingly-deteriorated. At each turn, discriminatory systems excluded an entire population from quality housing. From these conditions, Charles H. Lawrence and his family departed Detroit in search of quality housing and a better life. He became the first African American to settle in Inkster, Michigan, and hundreds soon followed.

African Americans Settle in Inkster
The City of Inkster, also located in Wayne County, is approximately fourteen miles from downtown Detroit. Detroit Urban League President John Dancy fielded many housing inquiries from frustrated African American migrants to Detroit in the post-World War I period and beyond. Unable to locate sufficient housing in the City of Detroit, Dancy broadened his search outside the City with hopes that more rural areas would not have the same restrictive covenants and that lesser demand would persuade landowners to sell to African American buyers. In 1920, Dancy succeeded when he found amenable property owners in possession of 140 acres in rural Inkster.  Although Inkster’s first African American residents’ settlement in Inkster preceded Dancy’s discovery, the 140 acres of available land enabled and impelled hundreds more African American families to move from Detroit to Inkster, despite the lack of a local government or basic public amenities like streetlights or sewer lines.  

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Clipping (Information artifact)
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""Henry Ford on Unemployment," 1932" - Detroit Free Press (Firm)

A Community Becomes a Project
Henry Ford was vocal about his disdain for institutionalized philanthropy. He wrote an entire chapter, entitled “Why Charity?” in an autobiography, and explained, “philanthropy, no matter how noble its motive, does not make for self-reliance…A philanthropy that spends its time and money in helping the world to do more for itself is far better than the sort which merely gives and thus encourages idleness.” Henry Ford’s brand of philanthropy was characterized by helping people help themselves. During the Great Depression, Henry Ford was called upon by the City of Detroit to provide aid because the City’s welfare offices were overwhelmed. Their argument, aside from civic responsibility, was that the City was not receiving taxes from Ford Motor Company (FMC’s factories were located outside Detroit) yet as many as “36 percent of the families receiving care from the City of Detroit were former Ford employees” in 1931. The public goodwill that Ford’s $5 a day policy brought was quickly dissipating. In 1931, Ford agreed to two philanthropic ventures; he provided a low-interest, short-term $5 million loan to the City of Detroit and essentially took the then-Village of Inkster under the Ford Motor Company’s auspices.

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Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company

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Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company

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Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company

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Report - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company

By 1931, a few years into the Great Depression’s hardships, the residents of Inkster were struggling. Unemployment and debt were high, public services had been cut, and many residences remained partially-completed, as the Great Depression halted progress in the young village. Controversially, Henry Ford placed FMC’s Sociological Department in charge of what became known as the Inkster Project. The Sociological Department was created in 1914 in order to manage the diverse workforce and ensure employee adherence to the company’s strict standards, which were paternalistic in nature and often crossed the home life-work life boundary. In Inkster, the Sociological Department immediately began implementing programs to comprehensively rehabilitate the village. A commissary, which sold high-quality, low-cost food and essential home goods, was established. Coal was distributed to those who needed it to heat their homes. Debtors were paid off, and a medical clinic and school were constructed. Homes deemed insufficient were rehabilitated. The inability to pay for these services was irrelevant; a type of “I.O.U,” repayable through Ford-provided work and wages, was enough to access all life’s necessities.

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Photographic print - "Checking on Ford Employees Home Conditions, Views from "Factory Facts From Ford," 1917"

The Legacy of the Inkster Project
Although the Inkster Project was generally highly-regarded at the time, the FMC Sociological Department’s role was often overreaching. When agreeing to Ford’s aid, an Inkster resident was also agreeing to running their household as preferred by Henry Ford. Although his funds undoubtedly helped Inkster during the Great Depression, Ford’s motives were not entirely altruistic. Besides the much-needed public relations boost he received from the Inkster Project, he also was able to assert his influence and ideals on a community that largely had no choice but to accept his aid -- with all strings attached.

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Broadside (Notice) - "Big Celebration in Inkster," July 4, 1940"

The Inkster Project’s legacy is complicated; many historians criticize Henry Ford’s paternalistic nature and the perhaps forceful imposition of his will onto the desperate, but others, including former residents of Inkster, praise Henry Ford for his aid. In her reminiscences, Georgia Ruth McKay explains that Inkster became a “jungle village changed into a city” during this period and that, “without his [Henry Ford’s] help, many would not have survived.” The Inkster Project was slowly phased out, but continued to operate in Inkster until 1941 when all programs were withdrawn.

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Progress report - "Village of Inkster Welfare Report, 1931-1941" - Ford Motor Company

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Report - "Village of Inkster Welfare Provision Report, circa 1936" - Ford Motor Company

Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. In writing this piece, she appreciated the research and writings of Beth Tompkins Bates’ “The Making of Black Detroit in the Age of Henry Ford”, Thomas J. Sugrue’s “The Origins of the Urban Crisis; Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit,”, and Howard O’Dell Lindsey’s dissertation, “Fields to Fords, Feds to Franchise: African American Empowerment in Inkster, Michigan.”

Henry Ford, home life, Ford Motor Company, by Katherine White, Ford workers, African American history, Michigan, Detroit

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If you’ve walked through “With Liberty and Justice for All” in Henry Ford Museum, you’re familiar with the long and complicated history of social transformation, including civil rights and race relations, in America. Some artifacts, like the Rosa Parks Bus, are primary sources in this story, but we also hold collections that offer a more oblique take, such as about 100 photo negatives we’ve just digitized relating to five days of civil unrest in Detroit in July 1967.

The images come from Detroit Edison, which was charged with the very normal work of restoring electricity under very abnormal conditions. While the photos primarily document the power company’s work in the wake of the unrest, the events of the preceding days and their aftermath are omnipresent, as you can see in this image. We undertook this digitization project as part of our participation in “Detroit 67: Looking Back to Move Forward,” “a multi-year community engagement project of the Detroit Historical Society that brings together diverse voices and communities around the effects of an historic crisis to find their place in the present and inspire the future.”

During 2017, we shared more collections-based stories related to the complex roots of, and reactions to, Detroit 67, in keeping with our mission to inspire people to help shape a better future. For now, visit our Digital Collections to browse all of the July 1967 Detroit Edison images.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford. This post was last updated in July 2020.

electricity, power, by Ellice Engdahl, Michigan, digital collections, Detroit, African American history

2004.30.3.4

In the 1920s, the African American population in Detroit tripled as the automobile industry drew workers from southern states.  Housing options in a segregated city were limited, however, and many African Americans found themselves living in the poor and crowded neighborhood of Black Bottom.  In the adjacent Paradise Valley area, some residents of Black Bottom were able to make a living working in the many nightclubs and theaters providing entertainment options for audiences of multiple races.  Urban renewal projects and freeway construction in the 1960s almost completely razed both neighborhoods. Archivist Brian Wilson, intrigued by this story as one factor setting the scene for later race riots in Detroit, discovered some related photos in The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation, which we’ve just digitized. They depict various performers at Club Harlem in Paradise Valley in the 1930s, such as this group of finely costumed dancers.

Revisit this lost neighborhood by browsing the rest of these images on our collections website.

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

Michigan, Detroit, African American history, by Ellice Engdahl, digital collections

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Dressing Goodfellows dolls has been a Christmas tradition in Detroit since 1924, and the Ford Motor Company Girls’ Club was a major participant in dressing Goodfellows dolls for underprivileged children in Detroit for many years. Starting in 1946 by dressing 65 dolls, the club’s peak donation was 3,000 dresses in 1967, 1969, and 1970, and they averaged between 1,500 to 3,000 dolls most years.

The Ford Girls’ Club was started in 1946 under the Recreation Section of Ford Motor Company. Every female employee – salaried, or hourly – was automatically a member (though active membership did cost $1.00 per year). Any immediate female family member of a club member could join, as could the wives of Ford male employees. The club was primarily social, meeting once a month in addition to dinners, picnics, dances, lectures, and workshops. Members were also service oriented - they held dances for returning veterans, gave gifts and visited veterans in hospitals, and each Christmas they participated in clothing dolls for the Goodfellows to distribute, making thousands and thousands of handmade dresses over the years.

Dolls were usually handed out at the annual November service meeting. The club’s first foray into dress making was in 1946, when women of the club made 65 handmade dresses for dolls. The next year they jumped up to 290, with the dresses being displayed in the Administration Building cafeteria before being sent to the Goodfellows. As more women joined the club, interest grew in this Christmas service project and the club dressed more and more dolls each year, with their finished projects being displayed in various Ford Motor Company buildings’ lobbies, and offices, as well as the Dearborn Virginia Dare storefront window in 1949. The number of dresses made continued to climb each year reaching to almost one thousand in 1954, and the dolls were displayed for the first time at the Rotunda Christmas Fantasy. The next few years were dress-making bonanzas, and in 1957 2,500 dolls were dressed and displayed at the Rotunda for visitors to view before they were distributed to girls in the Detroit area on Christmas Eve. The Girl’s Club maintained a high production rate in the years to come - between 1,750 and 2,000 dresses were made annually and displayed at the Rotunda or Ford Motor Company buildings. In 1966 production saw another jump when the club made almost 3,000, a number they reached the next year and continued to reach or come close to for the next four years.

Viewing the Doll Dressing Display at the Ford Rotunda, Dearborn, Michigan, 1958. THF111275

The handmade dresses were made of all kinds of fabric, from cotton to organdy, satin and lace. Women also knit and crocheted dresses, from wool to angora. Dolls dressed as nurses, astronauts, drum majorettes, hula dancers, Girl Scouts, flying nuns, ballerinas, and ice skaters complete with skates, graced the displays, as did brides, baby dolls, and all kinds of different ethnic dresses. Women could make any type of dress they wanted, but prizes were given by the Goodfellows, and later Ford, in specific categories:

  • Bride
  • Fancy dress
  • Baby doll
  • Character doll
  • Sensible doll
  • Costume
  • Tailored
  • Knit and crocheted
  •  

Goodfellows prizes ranged from $1 for a dress placing in a particular division to a grand prize of $10. Ford soon began judging the Girls’ Club’s work and awarding prizes as well, with the dresses usually judged by the wives of the Goodfellows’ president and executive officers. Early on prizes were cash, but when the displays headed to the Rotunda the stakes were raised. Grand prize in the 1950s and early 1960s was a sewing machine and console, second prize being a portable sewing machine, and third prize was a sewing cabinet.

The prizes, of course, were always of secondary importance in the Girls’ Club work with the Goodfellows' goal of “no child without a Christmas.” Over a 27-year period, 1946-1972, the Ford Girls’ Club donated over 45,000 hand-made dresses to the Detroit Goodfellows' organization to distribute to area children. The Ford employee newsletter The Rouge News and later Ford World carried stories and photos of the club’s donations every year, urging members of the club and others in the Ford organization to participate. We lose track of the Ford Girls’ Club here in the archive at about 1973, when Ford World ceased publishing stories on the yearly donation of dolls. However, judging from the 1972 output of 2,000 dolls, it seems likely the club continued the annual service drive for some years after.

The Goodfellows still distribute dolls and people in the metro Detroit area continue to provide dresses each year.

Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford.

by Kathy Makas, holidays, Detroit, Michigan, making, women's history, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, Christmas, toys