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Claude Harvard faced many racial obstacles over the course of his young life, but when he addressed a crowd of students at Tuskegee University in 1935, he spoke with confidence and optimism:

“Speaking from my own experience, brief as it is, I feel certain that the man or woman who has put his very best into honest effort to gain an education will not find the doors to success barred.”

One of the few, if not the only, Black engineers employed by Henry Ford at the time, Claude had been personally sent to Tuskegee by Ford to showcase an invention of his own creation. Even in the face of societal discrimination, the message of empowerment and perseverance that Claude imparted on that day was one that he carried with him over the course of his own career. For him, there was always a path forward.

Four men in suits wearing headphones sit at a table with equipment on the table and along the wall behind them
Claude Harvard practicing radio communication with other students at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272856

Born in 1911, Claude spent the first ten years of his life in Dublin, Georgia, until his family, like other Black families of the time period, made the decision to move north to Detroit in order to escape the poor economic opportunities and harsh Jim Crow laws of the South. From a young age, Claude was intrigued by science and developed a keen interest in a radical new technology—wireless radio. To further this interest, he sold products door-to-door just so he could acquire his own crystal radio set to play around with. It would be Claude’s passion for radio that led him to grander opportunities.

At school in Detroit, Harvard demonstrated an aptitude for the STEM fields and was eventually referred to the Henry Ford Trade School, a place usually reserved for orphaned teen-aged boys to be trained in a variety of skilled, industrial trade work. His enrollment at Henry Ford Trade School depended on his ability to resist the racial taunting of classmates and stay out of fights. Once there, his hands-on classes consisted of machining, metallurgy, drafting, and engine design, among others. In addition to the manual training received, academic classes were also required, and students could participate in clubs.

Young men sit around a long table looking at a man standing at one end
Claude Harvard with other Radio Club members and their teacher at Henry Ford Trade School in 1930. / THF272854

As president of the Radio Club, Claude Harvard became acquainted with Henry Ford, who shared an interest in radio—as early as 1919, radio was playing a pivotal role in Ford Motor Company’s communications. Although he graduated at the top of his class in 1932, Claude was not given a journeyman’s card like the rest of his classmates. A journeyman’s card would have allowed Claude to be actively employed as a tradesperson. Despite this obstacle, Henry Ford recognized Claude’s talent and he was hired at the trade school. By the 1920s, Ford Motor Company had become the largest employer of African American workers in the country. Although Ford employed large numbers of African Americans, there were limits to how far most could advance. Many African American workers spent their time in lower paying, dirty, dangerous, and unhealthy jobs.

The year 1932 also saw Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company once again revolutionize the auto industry with the introduction of a low-priced V-8 engine. By casting the crankcase and cylinder banks as a single unit, Ford cut manufacturing costs and could offer its V-8 in a car starting under $500, a steal at the time. The affordability of the V-8 meant many customers for Ford, and with that came inevitable complaints—like a noisy rattling that emanated from the engine. To remedy this problem, which was caused by irregular-shaped piston pins, Henry Ford turned to Claude Harvard.

Engine sitting on a stand
1932 Ford V-8 Engine, No. 1 / THF101039

To solve the issue, Harvard invented a machine that checked the shape of piston pins and sorted them by size with the use of radio waves. More specifically, the machine checked the depth of the cut on each pin, its length, and its surface smoothness. It then sorted the V-8 pins by size at a rate of three per second.  Ford implemented the machine on the factory floor and touted it as an example of the company’s commitment to scientific accuracy and uniform quality. Along with featuring Claude’s invention in print and audio-visual ads, Ford also sent Harvard to the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago and to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to showcase the machine.

Machine on display under a sign with text, with images along wall behind
Piston Pin Inspection Machine at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, Illinois. / THF212795

During his time at Tuskegee, Harvard befriended famed agricultural scientist George Washington Carver, who he eventually introduced to Henry Ford. In 1937, when George Washington Carver visited Henry Ford in Dearborn, he insisted that Claude be there. While Carver and Ford would remain friends the rest of their lives, Claude Harvard left Ford Motor Company in 1938 over a disagreement about divorcing his wife and his pay. Despite Ford patenting over 20 of Harvard’s ideas, Claude’s career would be forced in a new direction and over time, the invention of the piston pin sorting machine would simply be attributed to the Henry Ford Trade School.

Despite these many obstacles, Claude’s work lived on in the students that he taught later in his life, the contributions he made to manufacturing, and a 1990 oral history, where he stood by his sentiments that if one put in a honest effort into learning, there would always be a way forward.


Ryan Jelso is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

#THFCuratorChat, technology, radio, manufacturing, making, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, engines, engineering, education, by Ryan Jelso, African American history

White compact car

THF90278

Most Americans weren’t very interested in small cars—until 1973, when Middle Eastern oil-producing countries cut back on oil exports. Gas prices skyrocketed in the U.S., and shortages led to long lines at service stations. Many people still wanted big American-style cars, but more and more actually bought small four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive, European-inspired cars like this Ford Escort. “The new world car” evoked the Model T’s slogan: “the universal car.”

Blue sign in the shape of a stylized eagle with white text "Ford, The Universal Car"
Model Ts were built in 20 countries, on every continent but Antarctica. / THF104934

Two-page advertising spread with photo of car under cover decorated with a variety of national flags and many people in white coats standing alongside; also contains text
Ford responded to competition from small gas-sipping foreign cars by making an Escort for the North American market. Introduced in Europe in 1968, the Escort was built and sold in many countries, coming to the U.S. in 1981. / THF84548

Series of colorful images, each with a title and text underneath
Many Escort ads focused on technology that improved the car’s fuel efficiency, reflecting customers’ growing interest in improved gas mileage. / THF84549


This post was adapted from an exhibit label in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

Ford Motor Company, cars

Dark background containing white line drawings, notations and text

By the early 1950s, Ford Motor Company’s engineers had made over one million technical drawings of the parts used to make Ford cars and trucks. In 1949 alone, they used 13 million square feet of blueprint paper!

Large room full of tables, some of which have men standing near, leaning on, or lying on them with pencils or pens in hand
Ford Motor Company engineers at work, circa 1952. / THF125069

The drawings were being stashed away wherever room could be found. Since many of the drawings were for parts that were still in production, there was concern that the company’s operations would come to a halt if drawings were lost to a fire, a flood, or worse. Plans were made to microfilm the drawings so they could be stored more securely.

Sheet with text that notes among other things “top security for its records in the event of a bombing attack”
Paragraph from a 1951 brochure detailing the microfilming project. Cold War tensions were running high. / detail from THF135511

Three women in room with small filing cabinets along the walls and desks in the center
Eleven fireproof storage safes, holding one million microfilmed drawings, 1951. / THF123713

To save space, most of the original paper blueprints were destroyed after the drawings were copied onto microfilm. But a few can still be found in our Miscellaneous Ford Motor Company Blueprint and Drawings Collection.

Blueprint with blue background containing line drawings with notations and text
Blueprint showing part TT-7851-R for a Ford Model TT Truck. / THF138486

Dark background containing white line drawings, notations and text
70 mm microfilm copy of the same drawing. / THF406917

The Ford Motor Company Part Drawing Collection consists of over one million Ford engineering drawings from 1903–1957, on 70 mm microfilm. Each piece of film measures approximately 2.625 x 3.5 inches, and is in a manila envelope that shows the part number and the drawing’s latest revision date.

Manila envelope with handwritten numbers and red check mark
Envelope for drawing TT-7851-R, dated August 25, 1926. / THF406916

As of this writing, about 3,000 Ford part drawings can be seen on our Digital Collections website. Only 997,000 to go!

So, why don’t we “just” digitize them all?

The first challenge is the size of the film. Most high-speed scanners on the market now are not equipped to hold 70 mm film. And because each frame of film was cut from its roll and placed in a separate envelope, the film cannot simply be run through a machine.

We image the film using an Epson Perfection V850 Scanner with built-in Transparency Unit (a light inside the lid that allows it to scan film). Each piece of film measures just under 3 x 4 inches, so a scanning resolution of 1200 dpi (3600 x 4800 pixels) will usually suffice … but we go higher if a drawing looks like it will be difficult to read.

Three sheets with intricate drawings, notations and text
Larger blueprints, like this one for a V-8 Cylinder Block, were microfilmed in segments. / THF401366

After the film has been scanned, the images are straightened and cropped, and adjustments may be made to the brightness and contrast. If the film is a negative, we also create an additional, positive version of the digital image.

Line drawings, notations and text on light background
This version of the digital image can be printed without using as much toner. / THF406918

However, the bigger challenge is the data entry. Even the best digital image is useless if nobody can find it. To that end, it is necessary to transcribe the part number, the date of the drawing, and the title of the drawing from each piece of film. And many of the drawings include more than one part number!

Handwritten text reading in part “A-18254-B” followed by “A-18255-B”
If parts are symmetrical opposites, there is only one drawing for the pair. / detail from THF400831

Handwritten text in tabular format with numbers, dates, and initials
The revision history appears in the upper right corner of each drawing. This drawing is dated December 3, 1930 … but earlier versions may also exist. / detail from THF400831

If you are interested in researching the Ford Motor Company Part Drawings Collection, our Popular Research Topics page includes an FAQ and information about how to get started. Inquiries can be sent to research.center@thehenryford.org.

The Henry Ford is facing unprecedented financial challenges due to the impact of our 16-week closure and reduced operations. We need your help in securing our future. Love the Henry Ford? Please support all that we treasure—including our digitization program. Longtime supporters of The Henry Ford will match your donation dollar for dollar, so your contribution will have double the impact.
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archives, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, #digitization100K, digitization, drawings, by Jim Orr, cars, Ford Motor Company

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The 1953 Ford Sunliner, Official Pace Car of the 1953 Indianapolis 500. (
THF87498)

As America’s longest-running automobile race, it’s not surprising that the Indianapolis 500 is steeped in special traditions. Whether it’s the wistful singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” before the green flag, or the celebratory Victory Lane milk toast – which is anything but milquetoast – Indy is full of distinctive rituals that make the race unique. One of those long-standing traditions is the pace car, a fixture since the very first Indy 500 in 1911.

This is no mere ceremonial role. The pace car is a working vehicle that leads the grid into the start of the race, and then comes back out during caution laps to keep the field moving in an orderly fashion. Traditionally, the pace car’s make has varied from year to year, though it is invariably an American brand. Indiana manufacturers like Stutz, Marmon, and Studebaker showed up frequently, but badges from the Detroit Three – Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors – have dominated. In more recent years, Chevrolet has been the provider of choice, with every pace car since 2002 being either a Corvette or a Camaro. Since 1936, the race’s winning driver has received a copy of pace car as a part of the prize package.

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Amelia Earhart rides in the pace car, a 1935 Ford V-8, at the 1935 Indianapolis 500. (
THF256052)

Likewise, honorary pace car drivers have changed over time. The first decades often featured industry leaders like Carl Fisher (founder of Indianapolis Motor Speedway), Harry Stutz, and Edsel Ford. Starting in the 1970s, celebrities like James Garner, Jay Leno, and Morgan Freeman appeared. Racing drivers have always been in the mix, with everyone from Barney Oldfield to Jackie Stewart to Jeff Gordon having served in the role. (The “fastest” pace car driver was probably Charles Yeager, who drove in 1986 – 39 years after he broke the sound barrier in the rocket-powered airplane Glamorous Glennis.)

Ford was given pace car honors for 1953. It was a big year for the company – half a century had passed since Henry Ford and his primary shareholders signed the articles of association establishing Ford Motor Company in 1903. The firm celebrated its golden anniversary in several ways. It commissioned Norman Rockwell to create artwork for a special calendar. It built a high-tech concept car said to contain more than 50 automotive innovations. And it gave every vehicle it built that year a commemorative steering wheel badge that read “50th Anniversary 1903-1953.”

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Henry Ford’s 1902 “999” race car poses with the 1953 Ford Sunliner pace car on Ford’s Dearborn test track. (Note the familiar clocktower at upper right!) (
THF130893)

For its star turn at Indianapolis, Ford provided a Sunliner model to fulfill the pace car’s duties. The two-door Sunliner convertible was a part of Ford’s Crestline series – its top trim level for the 1953 model year. Crestline cars featured chrome window moldings, sun visors, and armrests. Unlike the entry-level Mainline or mid-priced Customline series, which were available with either Ford’s inline 6 or V-8 engines, Crestline cars came only with the 239 cubic inch, 110 horsepower V-8. Additionally, Crestline was the only one of the three series to include a convertible body style.

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William Clay Ford at the tiller of “999” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (
THF130906)

Ford actually sent two cars to Indianapolis for the big race. In addition to the pace car, Henry Ford’s 1902 race car “999” was pulled from exhibit at Henry Ford Museum to participate in the festivities. True, “999” never competed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But its best-known driver, Barney Oldfield, drove twice in the Indy 500, finishing in fifth place both in 1914 and 1916. Fittingly, Indy officials gave William Clay Ford the honor of driving the pace car. Mr. Ford, the youngest of Henry Ford’s grandchildren, didn’t stop there. He also personally piloted “999” in demonstrations prior to the race.

As for the race itself? The 1953 Indianapolis 500 was a hot one – literally. Temperatures were well over 90° F on race day, and hotter still on the mostly asphalt track. Many drivers actually called in relief drivers for a portion of the race. After 3 hours and 53 minutes of sweltering competition, the victory went to Bill Vukovich – who drove all 200 laps himself – with an average race speed of 127.740 mph. It was the first of two consecutive Indy 500 wins for Vukovich. Sadly, Vukovich was killed in a crash during the 1955 race.

sunliner-side
Another view of the 1953 Ford Sunliner pace car. (
THF87499)

Following the 1953 race and its associated ceremonies, Ford Motor Company gifted the original race-used pace car to The Henry Ford, where it remains today. Ford Motor also produced some 2,000 replicas for sale to the public. Each replica included the same features (Ford-O-Matic transmission, power steering, Continental spare tire kit), paint (Sungate Ivory), and lettering as the original. Reportedly, it was the first time a manufacturer offered pace car copies for purchase by the general public – something that is now a well-established tradition in its own right.

Sure, the Sunliner pace car is easy to overlook next to legendary race cars like “Old 16,” the Lotus-Ford, or – indeed – the “999,” but it’s a special link to America’s most important auto race, and it’s a noteworthy part of the auto racing collection at The Henry Ford.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

racing, race cars, Indy 500, Ford Motor Company, cars, by Matt Anderson

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

The Ford Fleet

February 3, 2020 Archive Insight

Beginning in 1915, Henry Ford, began developing the Rouge property in Dearborn, for a new Ford Motor Company plant on the east side of the Rouge River. The plan was to utilize the river to transport raw materials from coal mines and lumber mills to the factories. By 1923, the “river navigation project” was complete. The Rouge had become such a large facility, however, that one ship could not handle transporting the huge quantities of raw materials needed for production. Mr. Ford began acquiring his own fleet of ships for the company by ordering two ore carriers to be built. These ships, the Henry Ford II and Benson Ford– named after Mr. Ford’s grandsons – and would remain in service for over 50 years.

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Ford Freighter
Benson Ford docked at the Rouge River Factory, 1924.

The freighters Benson Ford and Henry Ford II were the two most modernized ships on the water at the time. Ships of the day were mainly powered by coal fired steam propulsion engines, however, the Ford ships were each equipped with a British designed 3,000 horsepower diesel engine.

Operations for the fleet were growing so rapidly that by 1925 it was necessary to establish a Marine Department within Ford Motor Company. Under the direction from Mr. Ford, the department began building out the fleet, adding the East Indian later that year. By the 1930s, Ford Motor Company expanded overseas into Europe, Asia, and South America with export plants established on the east coast. During this time, Mr. Ford purchased 200 surplus World War I merchant vessels from the United States government. Of these ships, twenty-two were converted to barges, ocean-going ships and canal carriers; the rest were scrapped for the Rouge’s steel furnaces.

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Ford Freighter East Indian docked at Jacksonville, Florida, 1935.

After the East Indian was purchased in 1925, it was reoutfitted from a steam powered engine to a diesel, like the Henry II and Benson before her. At 461 feet long, and with her new engines totaling 3,000 horsepower, the East Indian quickly became the most powerful merchant motorship under the American flag.

At the start of World War II, the fleet carried less ore and fewer finished parts to Ford factories forcing the company to cut back on operations during the lake shipping seasons, placing more emphasis on non-Ford cargoes. By June 1942, 500 American ships were sunk by submarines in the Atlantic ocean with casualties of over 5,000 crewmen. During this time, almost the entire Ford Fleet was recruited by the United States government for war service.

In November 1941, the Green Island, the third of the Ford ships to go to war, was put on a maritime commission in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, only six months later, the Green Island was hauling sugar from Cuba to the United States when a German submarine came upon her and ordered her crew into lifeboats. After all the crew members were safely away from the ship, the ship was torpedoed and sent her to the bottom of the ocean. After being held prisoner by the Germans, the entire crew was rescued, the only Ford crew to be so lucky.

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Ford Freighter
Green Island arriving at New York City dock, August 4, 1937.

A month before the sinking of the Green Island, two of Ford’s ocean-going lakers, Oneida and Onondaga, were turned over to the government in June 1942. Only one month later, on July 13, 1942, the Oneida was on a bareboat charter when it was sunk by a German submarine off the east coast of Cuba; six of the crew were lost. The Onondaga was sunk just ten days after that, about 200 miles west of where her sister vessel was lost; fourteen of the crew, including the captain were lost along with one passenger.

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Ford Freighter Oneida at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1924.

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Ford Freighter Onondaga docked in Los Angeles, California, March 16, 1925.

In early 1942, the freighter East Indian was commissioned by the WSA for a time charter in Capetown, South Africa. The ship and her crew left Capetown on November 2, 1942 on a planned out-of-the-way course that was meant to avoid German submarines. Unknown to them, German submarines had spotted the ship shortly after they left port; at 5 o’clock in the afternoon on November 3, a torpedo struck the ship, sinking it within two minutes. The crew who were able to get aboard lifeboats did, but remained at the mercy of the Nazis and the ocean.

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Report of Marine Casualty or Accident for Sunken Ford Freighter East Indian, February 15, 1943.

Report submitted February 15, 1943 detailing the sinking of the East Indian on November 3, 1942. Details include information about vessel and master of ship; information about last port of departure and trip; type of cargo ship was carrying; purpose of trip; and information on lost crew members.

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Letter from Harold Axtell to Ford Motor Company regarding the Sunken Ford Freighter East Indian, July 1, 1943.

Harold Axtell's son was aboard the East Indian when it sank Nov 3, 1942.  In this letter he is still inquiring about his son's fate.  He also enclosed a newspaper clipping about 6 men from the East Indian who were found on a raft in Maceio, Brazil, and wonders if his son might be one of the men.

 

According to Murdoch MacLean, a survivor of the ordeal, reported that, once the ship was sunk, a German officer told the crew that “I got a beam on you at nine this morning. Had we fired then, we would have saved you 100 miles…I’m sorry, for you had a beautiful ship. However, this is war” (Snyder 57). The crew were stranded in lifeboats, with no supplies, for thirteen days after their ship sunk. A British ship, the “Durando” came upon the survivors, bringing them safely back to port in Capetown. There were 74 men aboard the East Indian with only 40 survivors. Additionally, the British rescue ship, the Durando was sunk on its way back to England, with loss of all hands.

By 1950, the Ford Fleet only delivered a fraction of the cargoes received at the Rouge Factory. In 1953, the “new Ford Fleet” was launched, which consisted of eight new additions to the fleet, including the William Clay Ford, freighter By 1975, the entire fleet was capable of hauling regular cargoes of raw materials and excess vessel capacity was available. Ford began chartering the fleet to carry cargoes for other companies through the latter half of the twentieth century. By the early 1990s, most of the original fleet was decommissioned through scrapping projects or rechristened to other companies or private buyers. The pilot house of the William Clay Ford was rehoused as part of the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle State Park while the pilot house of the Benson Ford was purchased by a private owner and is now a private residence on Put-In-Bay island.

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Ford Freighter
William Clay Ford docked at Rouge Factory, 1953.


Cory Taylor is an Imaging Technician at The Henry Ford.

by Cory Taylor, Ford Motor Company

84.1.1660.505 Refugees Outside Hall

In the early years of World War I hundreds of thousands of Belgian refugees fled to England to escape their war torn country. Lord Perry, of Ford of England, worked with Henry Ford to establish a home for these refugees to help get them on their feet while they found work and homes of their own in England. For this purpose, Perry leased Oughtrington Hall in Cheshire, England with money donated from Henry and Clara Ford to house up to 100 refugees at a time.

The idea of helping the refugees appears to have been discussed in person between Perry and the Fords in October 1914 while Perry was visiting the states. On returning to England, Perry wrote Clara Ford in December of 1914, saying he’d secured Oughtrington Hall for $35.00 per month, with the landlord giving the rent money to the Belgian Refugee Fund. By December 29, 1914 the first group of refugees had arrived consisting of “six better class adults, 14 better class children and 3 nurses for the children; one wounded Belgian Officer and his wife; 7 discharged Belgian soldiers (these men have been wounded and are sufficiently recovered from their wounds to be discharged from Hospital, but not well enough to rejoin the Army; they cannot go back to their homes in Belgium because they have been destroyed); 4 working class married couples with 5 young children, 3 elderly single men.” The first group of refugees was picked by Perry and included those he considered “the better class” and those of the “working class.” Perry envisioned the wealthy refugees overseeing the children and the working class, and the working class performing the housekeeping, and cooking. The “servant class,” however, rebelled at this notion and Perry was soon writing to Clara noting the working class, “imagine themselves guests and see no reason why they should not be treated as guests with a consequence that they expect to be waited on etc.” Perry compromised by proposing they be paid a servants wage for their labor which would be payable after they left the house to return to Belgium or other employment. The number of refugees in the house continued to grow quickly, by February 1915 there were 93 refugees in the house and in March, 110.

84.1.1660.443 School Room

To oversee the group’s needs, Perry appointed a former Ford Motor Company agent in Brussels, Vandermissen as he was the only one in the original group who could speak English. The initial group of refugees battled outbreaks of many contagious diseases, including a scarlet fever and small pox scare. Perry was unable to find a Belgian doctor for some time, so he had to hire local doctors and even use the Manchester plant doctor to see to the refugees needs, however the language gap proved a problem. Eventually, a Belgian doctor was hired, and a surgery and doctor’s office were set up on the grounds. A chapel was built, and a Belgian priest was brought in to see to the refugees’ spiritual needs. Oughtrington Hall was one of the few refugee homes that could house large families and there were always many children in the hall. A nursery and school were established, and the indoor tennis court was heated with a stove to provide a play area for the children. The refugees also raised and sold pigs and cows on the 30 acres attached to the hall.

84.1.1660.482 Sewing Room

84.1.1660.499 Indoor Tennis Court

84.1.1660.501 Belgian man checing mailbox

Perry and his wife, Katie, spent countless hours arranging for the lease, administrating the house, and seeing to the needs of the refugees. They donated much of their own furniture and clothing, “Katie and I have both taken all of our clothes, excepting those that we are actually wearing – both suits and under-clothes – and used them for fitting out some of these poor people.” Perry also requested the Fords send their second-hand clothing to the refugees as well “if it is not too much trouble, it would be nice to receive from you any old clothes of Edsel’s or Mr. Ford’s which could be spared…Such clothes would be of much better quality than we can think of buying, and would further more save money,” a request the Fords followed through with (although only one woman in the hall could fit into Clara’s shoes). However, not all the refugees’ needs were met immediately. When the boiler went out in 1915, Perry refused to pay for a new one as they were only renting, demanding the landlord replace the unit, but it took the landlord sometime to make up his mind and “meanwhile the poor Belgians are very cold.” The money the Fords provided not only furnished the house, and provided food, but also bought clothing, toiletries, and basic items for the refugees (many of whom had left the country with no extra clothes or personal possessions) as well as provided the refugees with pocket money from $0.50 - $1.00 each per week. Perry also purchased subscriptions for magazines and rented a piano and gramophone (asking Edsel Ford to send along any old records). Because the first refugees moved in around Christmas the Perry’s purchased a Christmas tree, decorations, and small gifts for the children.

By 1918, because of war rationing, Perry was forced to reduce the number of refugees in the home and stop taking in new refugees; he proposed to the Fords to gradually start winding up the project and close down Oughtrington Hall. The chapel, priest, and doctor had all left by this time and Perry stated only families with children were left. Perry wrote Clara, “I feel that the conditions under which you have, for so long, rendered help to Belgian Refugees in this country, have materially changed; so much so, that it is probably true to say that there are no Belgian refugees in the same sense that there were three years ago.” He went on to add most of the refugees had found work and had become part of community, the others he believed should be taken care of by the government. Over the three years of operation a constant flow of hundreds of refugees came and went through Oughtrington Hall, the number of refugees fluctuated but appears to have stayed around 100 for the most part. Many found jobs, some at the Ford Manchester plant, and moved into homes of their own, or a relative in Belgium sent them money so they could establish their own residence. In July 1918, Perry transferred administration of the hall to the Manchester Belgian Refugees Committee along with the furniture and all equipment in the house.

Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford.

Ford Motor Company, World War I, philanthropy, Henry Ford, by Kathy Makas

Henry Ford used wireless radio to communicate within Ford Motor Company (FMC) starting after October 1, 1919. This revolutionary new means of communication captured Ford’s interest because it allowed him to transmit messages within his vast operation. By August 1920, he could convey directions from his yacht to administrators in FMC offices and production facilities in Dearborn and Northville, Michigan. By February 1922, Ford’s railroad offices and the plant in Flat Rock, Michigan were connected, and by 1925, the radio transmission equipment was on Ford’s Great Lake bulk haulers and ocean-going vessels. Historian David L. Lewis claimed that “Ford led all others in the use of intracompany radio communications” (The Public Image of Henry Ford, 311).

Ford Motor Company also used radio transmissions to reach external audiences through promotional campaigns. During 1922, FMC sales branches delivered a series of expositions that featured Ford automobiles and Fordson tractors. An article in Motor Age (August 10, 1922) described highlights of the four-month tour of western Oregon:

“The days are given over to field demonstrations of tractors, plows and implements, while at night a radio outfit that brings in the concerts from the distant cities and motion pictures from the Ford plant, keep an intensely interested crowd on the grounds until the Delco Light shuts down for the night.”

The Ford Radio and Film crew that broadcast to the Oregon crowds traveled in a well-marked vehicle, taking every opportunity available to inform passers-by of Ford’s investment in the new technology – radio – and the utility of new FMC products. Ray Johnson, who participated in the tour, recalled that he drove a vehicle during the day and then played dance music in the evenings as a member of the three-piece orchestra, “Sam Ness and his Royal Ragadours.”

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Ford and Fordson Power Exposition Caravan and Radio Truck, Seaside, Oregon, 1922 . THF134998

In 1922, Intra-Ford transmissions began making public broadcasts over the Dearborn’s KDEN station (call letters WWI) at 250-watts of power, which carried a range of approximately 360 meters. The radio station building and transmission towers were located behind the Ford Engineering Laboratory, completed in 1924 at the intersection of Beech Street and Oakwood Boulevard in Dearborn.

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Ford Motor Company Radio Station WWI, Dearborn, Michigan, March 1925. THF134748

Staff at the station, conveying intracompany information and compiled content for the public show which aired on Wednesday evenings.

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Ford Motor Company Radio Station WWI, Dearborn, Michigan, August 1924. THF134754

The station did not grow because Ford did not want to join new radio networks. He discontinued broadcasting on WWI in early February 1926 (The Public Image of Henry Ford, 179).

Ford did not discontinue his intracompany radio communications. FMC used radio-telegraph means to communicate between the head office in Dearborn and remote locations, including, Fordlandia, a 2.5-million-acre plantation that Ford purchased in 1927 and that he planned to turn into a source of raw rubber to ease dependency on British colonies regulated by British trade policy.

Brazil and other countries in the Amazon of South American provided natural rubber to the world until the early twentieth century. The demand for tires for automobiles increased so quickly that South American harvests could not satisfy demand. Industrialists sought new sources. During the 1870s, a British man smuggled seeds out of Brazil, and by the late 1880s, British colonies, especially Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) and Malaysia, began producing natural rubber. Inexpensive labor, plus a climate suitable for production, and a growing number of trees created a viable replacement source for Brazilian rubber.

British trade policies, however, angered American industrialists who sought to establish production in other places including Africa and the Philippines. Henry Ford turned to Brazil, because of the incentives that the Brazilian government offered him. His goals to produce inexpensive rubber faced several hurdles, not the least of which was overcoming the traditional labor practices that had suited those who harvested rubber in local forests, and the length of time it took to cultivate new plants (not relying on local resources).

Ford built a production facility on the Tapajós River in Brazil. This included a radio station. The papers of E. L. Leibold, in The Henry Ford’s Benson Ford Research Center, include a map with a key that indicated the “proposed method of communication between Home Office and Ford Motor Company property on Rio Tapajos River Brazil.” The system included Western Union (WU) land wire from Detroit to New York, WU land wire and cable from New York to Para, Amazon River Cable Company river cable between Para and Santarem, and Ford Motor Company radio stations at each point between Santarem and the Ford Motor Company on Rio Tapajós. Manual relays had to occur at New York, Para, and Santarem.

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Map Showing Routes of Communication between Dearborn, Michigan and Fordlandia, Brazil, circa 1928. THF134693

Ford officials studied the federal laws in Brazil that regulated radio and telegraph to ensure compliance. Construction of the power house and processing structures took time. The community and corporate facilities at Boa Vista (later Fordlandia) grew. By 1931, the power house had a generator that provided power throughout the Fordlandia complex.

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Generator in Power House at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931. THF134711

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Power House and Water Tower at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931. THF134714 

Lines from the power house stretching up the hill from the river to the hospital and other buildings, including the radio power station. The setting on a higher elevation helped ensure the best reception for radio transmissions.

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Sawmill and Power House at Fordlandia, Brazil, 1931. THF134717
 

Workers built the radio power house, which held a Delco Plant and storage batteries, and the radio transmitter station with its transmission tower. The intracompany radio station operated by 1929.

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Radio Power House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
 THF134697 

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Radio Transmitter House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929. THF134699

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Storage Batteries in Radio Power House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
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Delco Battery Charger for Radio Power House, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929. THF134703 

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Radio Power House Motor Generator Set, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929.
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The radio power house is visible at the extreme left of a photograph showing the stone road leading to the hospital (on an even higher elevation) at Fordlandia.

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Stone Road Leading to Hospital, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929. THF134709

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Radio Transmitter Station, Fordlandia, Brazil, 1929. THF134707

Back at FMC headquarters in Dearborn, Ford announced in late 1933 that he would sponsor a program on both NBC and CBS networks. The Waring show aired two times a week between 1934 and 1937, when Ford pulled funding. Ford also sponsored World Series broadcasts. The most important radio investment FMC made, however, was the Ford Sunday Evening Hour, launched in the fall of 1934. Eighty-six CBS stations broadcast the show. Programs included classical music and corporate messages delivered by William J. Cameron, and occasionally guest hosts. Ford Motor Company printed and sold transcripts of the weekly talks for a small fee.

On August 24, 1941 Linton Wells (1893-1976), a journalist and foreign correspondent, hosted the broadcast and presented a piece on Fordlandia.

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Program, "Ford Summer Hour," Sunday, August 24, 1941. THF134690

Linton Wells was not a stranger to Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, he and his wife, Fay Gillis Wells, posed for a tintype in the village studio on 2 May 1940.

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Tintype Portrait of Linton Wells and Fay Gillis Wells, Taken at the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, circa 1940. THF134720

This radio broadcast informed American listeners of the Fordlandia project, in its 16th year in 1941. Wells summarized the products made from rubber (by way of an introduction to the importance of the subject). He described the approach Ford took to carve an American factory out of an Amazonian jungle, and the “never-say-quit” attitude that prompted Ford to re-evaluate Fordlandia, and to trade 1,375 square miles of Fordlandia for an equal amount of land on Rio Tapajós, closer to the Amazon port of Santarem. This new location became Belterra. Little did listeners know the challenges that arose as Brazilians tried to sustain their rubber production, and Ford sought to grow its own rubber supply.

By 1942, nearly 3.6 million trees were growing at Fordlandia, but the first harvest yielded only 750 tons of rubber. By 1945, FMC sold the holdings to the Brazilian government (The Public Image of Henry Ford, 165).

The Ford Evening Hour Radio broadcasts likewise ceased production in 1942 after eight years and 400 performances.

Learn more about Fordlandia in our Digital Collections.

Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment; Kristen Gallerneaux is Curator of Communication and Information Technology; and Jim Orr is Image Services Specialist at The Henry Ford.

Sources

  • Relevant collections in the Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan.
  • Grandin, Greg. Fordlandia: The Rise and  Fall of Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City. Picador. 2010.
  • Lewis, David L. The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 1976.
  • Frank, Zephyr and Aldo Musacchio. “The International Natural Rubber Market, 1870-1930.″ EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008.

technology, by Jim Orr, by Kristen Gallerneaux, Michigan, Henry Ford, communication, by Debra A. Reid, Ford Motor Company, radio

Ford Motor Company devoted its employees and manufacturing facilities to military production during both of the 20th century’s world wars. Ford’s efforts in World War I were slow to start, given Henry Ford’s outspoken opposition to the conflict, but once the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the automaker rose to the challenge. Over the next two years, Ford built passenger cars, supply trucks, aircraft engines, gun caissons, tanks, helmets and body armor. Ironically, one of Ford’s best-known wartime products, the Eagle anti-submarine boats, never saw action before the Armistice. However, the factory that built the Eagle boats subsequently became the core of Ford’s River Rouge plant.

Ford’s efforts for World War II were greater still. Like other American automakers, the company suspended all civilian production in February 1942. Ford famously turned out B-24 bombers at its Willow Run facility, but it also produced a variety of wheeled vehicles including jeeps, amphibious cars, armored cars, trucks and tanks. Ford’s non-vehicle production included military gear of every type, from aircraft engines to guns to helmets to tents.

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Red Cross Workers with a Ford Military Ambulance at the Highland Park Plant, 1918. THF 263442

Needless to say, ambulances were among the most crucial vehicles used in both wars. During World War I, Ford personal collaborated with the United States Surgeon General’s Office and frontline drivers to design a Model T-based ambulance ideal for battlefield conditions. The company donated $500,000 to the Red Cross, enabling the humanitarian organization to purchase nearly 1,000 vehicles for wartime use – including 107 ambulances. Beyond those Red Cross units, another 5,745 ambulances were built for the Allied armies.

THF265816
Red Cross Motor Corps members took classes in auto maintenance. These women are checking under a Ford ambulance’s hood in 1942. THF 265816

Dodge produced most of the frontline ambulances used by American forces in World War II, but Ford units were active on the homefront. The Red Cross’s Motor Corps, established in World War I, rendered important service during the Second World War as well. Corps drivers working in the United States ferried Red Cross staff and supplies, couriered packages and messages, and occasionally stepped in to assist with Army and Navy transportation needs. An estimated 45,000 women were active in the Motor Corps during World War II. Corps members generally drove their personnel vehicles in this service, but Ford-built ambulances were also used in the transport of the sick and wounded.

In honor of National Red Cross Month, take a look at our digital collections to see more artifacts related to the organization.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

healthcare, World War II, World War I, Ford Motor Company, cars, by Matt Anderson

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.

THF266604_redacted
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.

THF266606_redacted
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