Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged ford workers

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

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.

mckinley-1
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

mckinley-2

“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.

mckinley-3
Motor Trend magazine’s winning contest entries, September 1953 THF299267

mckinely-4
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.

mckinley-5
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. 

mckinley-6
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.

mckinley-7
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.

mckinley-8
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.

mckliney-9
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

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.  

THF266594
Clipping (Information artifact)
-
""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.

THF266606_redacted
Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company

THF266608_redacted
Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company

THF266604_redacted
Photographic print - "Ford Motor Company Employee Home Improvement Project, Inkster, Michigan, 1930-1944" - Ford Motor Company

THF266610_redacted
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.

THF266608_redacted
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.

THF266600
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.

THF266610_redacted
Progress report - "Village of Inkster Welfare Report, 1931-1941" - Ford Motor Company

THF266596
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

THF325123

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.

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

First-Aid Hospital at Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, 1913. THF97148

From “a bottle of liquid soap, a few bandages, and a pair of scissors” in a small wooden box by the timecards, the Ford Motor Company Medical Department grew to include over 100 physicians, assistants, and other employees. In 1914, Ford Motor Company instituted the five dollar day and with it a number of improvements to their programs for workers. One such program, was to expand and build up the Medical Department, first at Highland Park, where a 23-room state-of-the-art medical facility was built, and then expanding to the Rouge and other factories across the Ford empire. Let’s take a look at what the Medical Department looked like around 1916.

By 1916, the Medical Department included six divisions: Tuberculosis, Roentgenology, Dermatology, Dentistry, Corps. of the First Aid, and Ophthalmology, as well as various surgeons and support staff, counting over 100 people in all. It was headed up by Dr. J.E. Mead, who was assisted by Dr. N.L. Woodry, and Dr. W.R. McClure, and included ten other physicians, mainly from Detroit College of Medicine. In the twelve months before July 1917, these doctors were kept busy handling 558,869 cases including: 278,692 surgical cases, 120,309 medical cases, 5,044 minor operations, 2,473 x-rays, and 1,111 dental exams.

The Emergency Medical Hospital, situated between the Paymaster’s Office and Employment Office at Highland Park, was prepared for all manner of medical needs with x-ray machines, dressing tables and chairs for injuries to the head and “uppers;” and benches, foot rests, and tubs for “foot cases;” a well-supplied stock of pharmaceuticals; and a full operating room (as well as an additional operating room in the Blast Furnace area). There were also six first aid stations around the factory that functioned 24 hours a day manned by assistants who provided basic first aid and referred any cases such as infections, foreign bodies in the eye, or those requiring minor surgery, to the main hospital.

Any injury, no matter if it was just a scratch, was expected to be reported and had to be attended to at a first aid station, and if it warranted further attention, at the Emergency Hospital. Bulletins, posters, articles in the factory papers and Ford Times, as well as lectures, and on the job coaching alerted men to the danger of leaving an injury untreated. Images portraying infected eyes and hands alerted employees to the importance of proper medical attention. A booklet of “Helpful hints” issued to employees included medical tips such as: “All foreign bodies lodged in the eye should be removed by the doctor or first-aid man, and not by a fellow employee, because serious complications may result and probably cause blindness,” and “Do not try to lift anything beyond your strength, as you are liable to rupture yourself,” as well as “Do not wear loose-fitting or ragged clothing, as you are liable to be caught and pulled into a machine and seriously injured” (to say the least).

The Medical Department also played a large role in the hiring process and job placement of employees. Each new hire at Ford had to undergo a medical examination, and doctors determined what jobs they were physically and mentally best suited for, in 1916-17 they examined 13,055 applicants. The doctors would then turn their reports over to the employment office to process. The employment office kept detailed records of the exact physical requirements needed for jobs in the factory, and matched a new hire to a suitable job. Ford boasted that this method allowed them to hire many workers with disabilities in their factories, “there are probably 5,000 jobs at the Ford factories that do not require full physical capacity, and a surprisingly large number of these may be performed by men for whom steady work was at one time considered physically impossible.” Even workers with tuberculosis were hired and put to work, active cases in a separate “Lungers camp” on Oakland Avenue where they sorted and reclaimed scrap outside in fresh air (in line with the prevailing treatment method of the time). In fact, even when workers were convalescing in hospital they were given whatever light work was possible in the form of occupational therapy. There was also a Medical Transfer Division within the department that examined men and recommended transfers or certain adaptions to their workflow after an injury or illness.

Hangar Hospital, Willow Run Bomber Plant, 1942. THF93728

As you can see from the above photo from Willow Run in 1942, the Medical Department continued to expand to include hospitals at the Rouge, Northern Michigan operations, and beyond. The department worked, in its own words, “solely for the aid and benefit of the employees; to see that they are in proper physical condition for their work and, if not, to do all that can be done in order that they may be in the best condition possible for the fulfillment of their duties.”

More resources on the Medical Department:

  • Accession 611. Norman L. Woodry Papers, 1916-1919
  • Accession 1660. Photographic Vertical File series, 1860-1980
  • Factory facts from Ford Full content in Accession 951. Ford Motor Company Non-Serial Publications Collection
  •  

    To learn even more about the Ford Medical Department, visit our Benson Ford Research Center. Its open Monday-Friday 9:30 am to 5:00 pm. You can set up an appointment in our reading room or ask us a question here.


    Kathy Makas is Reference Archivist at The Henry Ford.

    Ford workers, healthcare, Ford Motor Company, by Kathy Makas

    The Warrior

    February 24, 2014 Archive Insight
    The First African American Auto Designer and His Car for the Third World
    McKinley Thompson Jr., an African American industrial designer, was born and raised in New York City. He knew the road he wanted to travel in life one day in October 1934. He was returning home from school in Queens when he spotted a silver-grey Chrysler DeSoto Airflow (like this 1934 model in our collections) pulling up to a traffic signal. Mr. Thompson, then just a young boy of 12, was about a half a block away. Reliving the moment for The Henry Ford in an oral history interview in 2001, Mr. Thompson recalled many of the details: “There were patchy clouds in the sky, and it just so happened that the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through. It lit that car up like a searchlight.” He began running towards it, but the light turned green. Though the car drove off before he could get a closer look, the impact had been made. “I was never so impressed with anything in all my life. I knew [then] that that’s what I wanted to do in life—I want[ed] to be an automobile designer.” At the time, there hadn’t been a single African American car stylist.

    By 1953, Mr. Thompson was a war veteran with a family and a career as an engineering layout coordinator for the Army Signal Corps. He had reached his thirtieth birthday and could have easily settled into a comfortable existence. But he still wanted to be an automobile designer—a life goal he never lost sight of. He decided to enter a contest sponsored by Motor Trend magazine, with four winners each receiving an Art Center College of Design scholarship. His turbine car, which would incorporate reinforced plastic (an unusual choice of material at the time), won him a scholarship. He started at the Art Center in Los Angeles that same year, and was the first African American enrolled in their prestigious Transportation Design department. After graduating in 1956, he interviewed for an automotive design position with just one automaker: Ford Motor Company. He got the job.

    Mr. Thompson didn’t just land the position he had dreamed of since the day that shining car caught his eye; he made history by becoming the first African American automobile designer.

    He started at Ford’s Advanced Studio, where designers worked free from creative restrictions. On his first day, he was told by the Vice President of Ford Design, George Walker, “You can go as far as your talent will take you.” Mr. Thompson’s early design work included the Light Cab Forward truck, and he contributed sketches for the Mustang and the futuristic Gyron concept car. He also envisioned a forward-thinking project that had the potential to change the world.

    In 1965, Mr. Thompson took his innovative idea to Ford: an all-terrain vehicle for the Third World that would have economic and social consequences. He understood that rising countries needed good transportation, and that a vehicle had to satisfy the needs of the population. He knew that like the Model T, his car should be relatively easy to build and maintain, and that production costs must be kept to a bare minimum. But Mr. Thompson’s vision extended beyond this vehicle. He anticipated his auto plants—located in the developing nations that would use car—bringing jobs, better roads and eventual economic independence to host countries. He believed automobile manufacturing would “help develop the economy as it did in the United States.”

    The name he chose for the automobile that would make this grand plan possible was “the Warrior.” The car was actually intended to be the first in a series of vehicles, including a half-ton pickup truck, a six-passenger bus (an early version of the minivan), as well as boats and containers (buoys, pontoons, etc.). They would be constructed using a strong space age plastic material produced by Uniroyal called Royalex.

    Though Ford was very supportive, the company ultimately passed on the project in 1967. Mr. Thompson still believed the car could succeed, and he recruited friends to invest in or assist with developing the vehicle for the African market. One of those friends and investors was Wally Triplett, who had broken a barrier of his own in 1949 as the first African American to play in the National Football League (for the Detroit Lions).

    Mr. Thompson rented a garage on Detroit’s west side and went about building the Warrior. Still working at Ford during the day, he spent at least six hours a night—plus weekends—on the vehicle. “My family was very good about that. My wife knew how badly I wanted to do this,” he recalled. Mr. Triplett assisted, and was the only other individual involved in its construction.

    Testing the Warrior Concept Car, 1969. (In the parking lot of the Detroit Race Course, a horse racing track in Livonia, Michigan.) (Object ID 2004.40.1.1.)

    The prototype was modeled on the Renault R-10, a small four-door sedan. Indeed, the Warrior’s chassis came directly from a disassembled R-10. Base mechanical components, including the engine, were also incorporated. Renault already had a distribution system overseas, providing a ready-made parts supplier for Mr. Thompson’s customers. Mr. Thompson and Mr. Triplett designed and built the tools to form the sections of the body, which were then sent off to Uniroyal, who molded the Royalex plastic.

    While major work on the Warrior was complete by 1969, it’s likely that modifications were made to the vehicle through the mid-1970s while continued attempts were made to turn the vision into reality.

    The partners talked of building the car in Detroit themselves, but were denied a bank loan; Mr. Triplett believes race played a role. African nations were courted, but instability on the continent derailed those opportunities. As for Ford Motor Company, the automaker—like others—didn’t believe the car would sell in large enough numbers to warrant the investment. Mr. Thompson eventually stopped looking for funding, closing up shop on the Warrior in 1979. Still, he kept in touch with his project’s supporters, in the event something came up, but alas, “nothing ever came of it.”

    1974 Warrior Concept Car. (Object ID 2001.162.1.)

    Nevertheless, Mr. Thompson never lost faith in the Warrior, and kept the car as a leisure vehicle. He took it off-road in Northern Michigan’s sand dunes, and drove the car on family vacations. He even used it for running errands, usually attracting a fair amount of attention. Though the Warrior was never mass-produced, Mr. Thompson’s many years of driving the prototype proved it was a sound vehicle. The car got a respectable 35-40 miles per gallon on the highway and 25-27 in the city. Maximum speed was 75-80 mph. The Warrior is now a part of The Henry Ford collection.

    The Warrior project was ahead of its time in design and philosophy. The use of plastic, so common today, was revolutionary at the time. Mr. Thompson’s larger economic prophecy was partially fulfilled in 1995 when the 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.

    McKinley Thompson and the Warrior, circa 1980s. (Photograph courtesy of Terry Keefe.)

    After retiring, Mr. Thompson put together a traveling exhibit of the history of the African American designers at Ford. He wanted to show African American kids that his dream job was a career option for them, too. He traveled with the exhibit, standing next to it at malls and museums, happily fielding questions from curious visitors.

    Sadly, Mr. Thompson suffered from Parkinson’s disease later in life. McKinley Thompson Jr. passed away in 2006 at the age of 83.

    McKinley Thompson, undated. (Photograph courtesy of Terry Keefe.)

    “I regret I wasn’t able to get it going,” he lamented to The Henry Ford regarding the Warrior, a project in which he had invested so much work and faith. But he was quick to add that “God has blessed a certain number of people in the world with talent and ability and I’ve always felt that those people that have that blessing—creativity and imagination—owe it to the rest of the population to make life as good as it can be. It was rewarding to me to know that I was trying to make that kind of an effort. I felt good about that.”

    Bart Bealmear is a research support specialist in the Archives & Library at The Henry Ford.

    Learn more about the Warrior automobile, McKinley Thompson, and Wally Triplett with these sources:

    Archives materials available in the BFRC Reading Room:

    Oral History Interview with McKinley W. Thompson Regarding the 1974 Warrior Concept Car (2001.162.2)

    Wally Triplett Collection (2004.40.0). Includes the photograph album, “White Paper to Wheels” and an oral history with Mr. Triplett (2004.40.1)

    “Design Pioneers: Vanguards of Progress, Part II,” Isdesignet, September 1996. Archives Vertical File, African-American Workers – Inventions

    Books and magazine articles:

    Farrell, Jim and Cheryl. Ford Design Department: Concept and Show Cars, 1999.

    “From Dream to Drawing Board to…?,” Motor Trend, September 1953

    “Inspirations from McKinley Thompson,” Innovation, Winter 1999

    entrepreneurship, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, design, cars, African American history, by Bart Bealmear

    As Digital Collections Initiative Manager at The Henry Ford, I’m often asked what my favorite artifact is. This is a pretty tough question to answer when I have about 25 million artifacts to choose from—and to be honest, my favorites change all the time. Of the 18,000 or so artifacts added in our digital collections thus far, though, one of the items on my short list would have to be the Monkey Bar.

    The Monkey Bar was created by Patrick J. Culhane (or possibly Culinane/Cullinane—correspondence we have related to the artifact contains several variants on his name) in 1914–15, while he was a prisoner at the Massachusetts State Prison at Charlestown, where he’d been sent after a conviction of “larceny from a conveyance.” Culhane crafted an amazingly extensive diorama by hand, out of materials including peach pits and scraps of wood, fabric, metal, cellulose, and plastic—and all on a base measuring about 16” x 20”.

    Monkeys playing pool, checkers, and cards, and generally enjoying themselves (THF49089)

    Culhane intended the diorama to depict many of the worldly pitfalls that had put him and his fellow inmates on a path to prison. The Bar is chock full of monkeys engaged in all kinds of rambunctious activities—drinking alcohol, gluttonous eating, smoking (cigarettes, cigars, and opium), gambling and gaming in many forms (craps, roulette, checkers, shell game, and cards), playing music, monitoring the stock market via a ticker, and even paying off a policemonkey. Clearly some of the monkeys are ready to check into (or out of) the associated hotel, as they have their suitcases with them and keys and mail are visible behind the desk.

    Checking into a monkey motel, and perhaps enjoying a cigar too (THF49107)

    Perhaps surprisingly, monkey bars were created by other prisoners in the early part of the 20th century (another one was featured on Antiques Roadshow in 2007, for example), but the one in our collection is truly amazing in its tiny details, from the inlaid wood tables, to the cigar ash piling up wherever monkeys are smoking, to the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkey statuettes on top of the piano. Wherever you look in the great detail shots captured by our photographer, you see something new and striking.

    Playing the stock market and eating what must be Chinese food--with chopsticks, of course (THF49090)

    The story didn’t end with the creation of this amazing piece, though. Likely working through intermediaries at a Boston-area Ford Motor Company plant, Culhane managed to get the Monkey Bar to Henry Ford. In this time period, Ford was particularly known for hiring those who might not otherwise have an equal shot, including the disabled, the mentally ill, and former convicts. A hand-calligraphed note on the Monkey Bar’s glass case reads “Presented to Mr. Henry Ford / As a token of appreciation and esteem for his many benevolent and magnanimous acts toward, and keen interest in, prisoners / By A Prisoner.”

    Monkey roulette (THF49105)

    Ford became interested in Culhane, and may even have interceded for his release. In January 1916, Culhane was hired to work at the Ford Motor Company plant in Cambridge, Mass. Ford’s secretary continued to correspond with the Cambridge plant about Culhane, which seems to indicate an ongoing interest on Ford’s part.

    Hanging out behind the piano smoking opium, while a waiter brings more drinks and some law-related graft appears to be going down nearby (THF49103)

    Over the next 15 years or so, Culhane married, had children, and became owner of his own roofing company, seemingly having turned his life around from his earlier, criminal days. One can only assume Henry Ford, given his views on the rehabilitation of former convicts and his continuing interest in Culhane, would have been overjoyed at this change of fortune.

    Nothing like a turkey dinner, carved tableside, with plenty of chilled drinks (THF49094)

    Check out additional photos of the Monkey Bar, and the rest of our digital collections, online.

    Ellice Engdahl heads up the collections digitization effort at The Henry Ford, so gets many opportunities per day to revise her list of favorite objects. Invaluable assistance with this post was provided by her colleagues Lisa Korzetz, Registrar, and Andy Stupperich, Associate Curator.

    Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford, by Ellice Engdahl, making

    Photo: P.833.72372 Mr. Price Inspecting Emery Wheels at the Motor Building, Ford Motor Company, September 12, 1939

    No single reason can sufficiently explain why in a brief period between 1910 and 1920, nearly half a million Southern Blacks moved from farms, villages, towns and cities to the North, starting what would ultimately be a 50-year migration of millions. What would be known as the Great Migration was the result of a combination of fundamental social, political and economic structural problems in the South and an exploding Northern economy. Southern Blacks streamed in the thousands and hundreds of thousands throughout the industrial cities of the North to fill the work rolls of factories desperate for cheap labor. Better wages, however, were not the only pull that lured migrants north. Crushing social and political oppression and economic peonage in the South provided major impetus to Blacks throughout the South seeking a better life. Detroit, with its automotive and war industries, was one of the main destinations for thousands of Southern Black migrants.

    In 1910 Detroit’s population was 465,766, with a small but steadily growing Black population of 5,741. By 1920 post-war economic growth and a large migration of Southerners to the industrialized North more than doubled the city’s population to 993,678, an overall increase of 113 percent from 1910. Most startling, at least for white Detroiters, was the growth of the city’s Black population to 40,838, with most of that growth occurring between 1915 and 1920.

    The Fordson tractor was produced in the Fordson tractor plant, from 1917 to 1920. In 1920, production of the tractor was switched to the Rouge Plant.

    Photo: P.833.34535 Fordson Tractor Assembly Line at the Ford Rouge Plant, 1923

    Before the war, Detroit’s small Black community was barely represented in the city’s industrial workforce. World War I production created the demand for larger numbers of workers and served as an entry point for Black workers into the industrial economy. Growing numbers of Southern migrants made their way to Detroit and specifically to Ford Motor Company to meet increased production for military and consumer demands.

    By the end of World War I over 8,000 black workers were employed in the city’s auto industry, with 1,675 working at Ford. Many of Ford’s Black employees worked as janitors and cleaners or in the dirty and dangerous blast furnaces and foundries at the growing River Rouge Plant’s massive blast furnaces and foundries. But some were employed as skilled machinists or factory foremen, or in white-collar positions. Ford paid equal wages for equal work, with Blacks and whites earning the same pay in the same posts. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Ford Motor Company was the largest employer of Black workers in the city, due in part to Henry Ford’s personal relationships with leading Black ministers. Church leaders in the Black community helped secure employment for hundreds and possibly thousands, but more importantly, they also helped to mediate conflicts between white and Black workers.

    Ford Plant

    Photo: P.833.55880 African American workers at Ford Motor Company’s Rouge River Plant Cyanide Foundry, 1931

    Ford Plant

    Photo: P.833.57788 Foundry Workers at Ford Rouge Plant, 1933

    Ford Plant

    Photo: P.833.59567 Pouring Hot Metal into Molds at Ford Rouge Plant Foundry, Dearborn, Michigan, 1934

    In addition to jobs, Ford Motor Company provided social welfare services to predominantly Black suburban communities in Inkster and Garden City during the depths of the Great Depression. Ford provided housing and fuel allowances as well as low-interest, short-term loans to its employees living in those communities. Additionally, Ford built community centers, refurbished several schools and ran company commissaries that provided inexpensive retail goods and groceries. (You can learn more about the complicated history of Ford and Inkster in The Search for Home.)

    You can learn more by visiting the Benson Ford Research Center and our online catalog.

    Peter Kalinski is Racing Collections Archivist at The Henry Ford. This post was last updated in 2020 with additional text by Curator of Transportation Matt Anderson.

    by Peter Kalinski, Ford Motor Company, Detroit, Michigan, Ford workers, African American history

    By now most of us are familiar with the iconic image of a working-class woman during World War II known as "Rosie the Riveter." As you may know, "Rosie" is a character based on images of real working women at the time. What you may not know is that the Benson Ford Research Center has a wealth of these Rosie-the-Riveter-type images within its collection of photographs donated from Ford Motor Company.

    Women riveting the side of an airplane panel at Ford Motor Company's Willow Run bomber assembly plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, August 23, 1944. (From the collections of The Henry Ford - THF103582)

    What I find delightful about these images is that they tell a story about American women set in a specific place and time — not to mention documenting the budding social change that would flower in later decades.

    (By the way: The woman shown below, Norma Denton, was photographed February 10, 1943, as part of Ford Motor Company's P.R. photo essay entitled "Around the Clock Activities," which documents a day in the life of several working women in a war production factory. You can learn more about Norma and the "Around the Clock Activities" photographs on our Flickr site, as well as on our Collections page.)

    Norma Denton on top of an airplane assembly at the Willow Run plant. (From the collections of The Henry Ford, #P.833.77449.4)

    Another photo from the "Around the Clock Activities" series, showing two women (one of them a Mrs. Anderson) catching the bus to go to work at the Willow Run bomber plant. (From the collections of The Henry Ford, #P.833.77448.5)

    From 1942 to 1945, when many American men were overseas fighting the war, women were hired to fill in for the lack of male employees in factories. These women were expected to do everything that men had to do to build tanks, jeeps and bombers for the U.S. "Arsenal of Democracy." All of the automotive companies in the Detroit area, as well as those in the rest of the country, ceased making automobiles and converted their assembly lines to wartime production. Ford Motor Company's Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, were two of the largest such facilities.

    Workers on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company's Rouge assembly plant, March 17, 1943. (From the collections of The Henry Ford, #P.833.77606)

    Employees walking down a hallway in the Willow Run plant, October 16, 1942. (From the collections of The Henry Ford, #P.833.77111.O)

    During peak production at the Willow Run plant, up to one third of the workforce consisted of women. This does not seem like a particularly sizable number to us today; however, it was significant at the time because prior to World War II, very few manufacturing facilities employed that many women. Once the war was over, women were expected to return to being housewives and mothers so that the returning GI's could go back to work. It would take years, if not decades, before women re-entered the work force in significant numbers.

    I particularly like the following two photographs that show women employees with the B-24 "Liberator" bombers they helped to build. I think the enthusiasm of the women in photo #P.833.80544.6 and the confident stride of the woman in photo #P.833.80180.1 are indicative of the pride and economic independence women felt as productive members of the workforce. The image of these women posing with their "Liberators" is also a fitting metaphor for the future women's movement whose seeds were arguably sown here.

    The underside of a bomber airplane wing, with a woman walking with a clipboard, June 19, 1944, at the Willow Run airport. (From the collections of The Henry Ford, #P.833.80180.1)

    Six women posing in front of Ford's 6,000th B-24 Bomber at Willow Run airport, September 9, 1944. (From the collections of The Henry Ford, #P.833.80544.6)

    Linda Skolarus is Manager of Reference Services at The Henry Ford's Benson Ford Research Center, where you can research 'Rosie' and much more.

    by Linda Skolarus, World War II, Michigan, women's history, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company