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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 Ford Pipe Band, 1947.

    If you’re out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day you’re sure to hear the sound of the bagpipes. In America, you’ll most likely hear the Scottish highland pipes, not the Irish uilleann pipes, but over the years the highland pipes have been assimilated into Irish culture and it’s hard to pass a St. Patrick’s Day celebration without hearing the familiar strain of the pipers. And speaking of bagpipes, did you know Ford Motor Company sponsored its own Pipe Band in the 1930s and 1940s? Continue Reading

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

    George DeAngelis sits at the tiller of his Quadricycle replica in 1963. He’s on Detroit’s Bagley Avenue, where Henry Ford built the original car in 1896.

    George DeAngelis, a long-time Ford Motor Company employee and devoted student of Henry Ford and his automobiles, passed away on December 14, 2014. Mr. DeAngelis is remembered for his published works on the Ford Model A and the Ford V-8, as well as Henry Ford’s early 999 and Arrow race cars. Here at The Henry Ford, though, we especially remember him for a pair of three-dimensional contributions: his incredible 1963 and 1991 replicas of Henry Ford’s first car, the 1896 Quadricycle.

    Regular visitors to Henry Ford Museum know that the Quadricycle – the original car built by Henry Ford himself – occupies a prominent place in our Driving America exhibit. While the original car was used frequently during Henry Ford’s life – indeed, he posed with it less than a year before he died – it was retired to Henry Ford Museum by 1963, the centennial of Henry Ford’s birth. DeAngelis set out to build a working replica for the celebration. DeAngelis had the perfect background for the task. He possessed the skills of a tool and die maker, but with the careful eye of an artist. He had a genuine love for antique automobiles, to boot.

    There were no blueprints of the Quadricycle, so DeAngelis gathered every written description and photograph he could find. Of course, he also had the original Quadricycle as a pattern. The historic car sat in an enclosed display case, so DeAngelis estimated his initial measurements through the glass. Amazingly, when the original Quadricycle was removed for confirmation, DeAngelis found he had made only one error – and of just 5/8 of an inch!

    What DeAngelis thought would be a one-winter project turned into three years of nights and weekends. He was able to source some of his parts from lawn mower catalogs, and some from antique shops, but most he made himself. While the replica stayed remarkably true to the original, DeAngelis made a few concessions to safety and reliability. Most notably, he gave his replica a brake – something Henry’s Quadricycle never had. The work was finished by June 4, 1963, when DeAngelis drove his replica along the same route Henry Ford took during the original Quadricycle’s first drive on June 4, 1896.

    George DeAngelis rides in his 1963 Quadricycle replica at Old Car Festival in 2012.

    When the festivities ended, The Henry Ford purchased the replica from George DeAngelis. Over the years, the 1963 copy became a staple of our annual Old Car Festival, thrilling visitors each year as museum staff drove it through Greenfield Village. In a neat coda to the story, we commissioned DeAngelis to build a second Quadricycle replica nearly 30 years later. DeAngelis’s 1991 replica now sits in the reconstruction of Henry Ford’s Bagley Avenue shed in Greenfield Village.

    Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

    Driving America, Henry Ford Museum, by Matt Anderson, Old Car Festival, Greenfield Village, quadricycle, Henry Ford, cars, making, in memoriam, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company

    In May 1937, an event took place that would become a touchpoint and rallying cry in the history of labor organization: the Battle of the Overpass. Numerous United Auto Workers organizers, including Walter Reuther and Richard T. Frankensteen, arrived at the Ford Motor Company Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, shortly before shift change, intending to hand out flyers to plant workers. Instead, the organizers were attacked by Ford employees. We have just digitized a number of photographs documenting those events, including this one showing union representative Robert Sentman being chased by Ford Service Department men. View photos from our digital collections about the Battle of the Overpass, or learn more about the day’s events and aftermath on our website and via the Walter P. Reuther Library.

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

    Ford Rouge Factory Complex, Michigan, Dearborn, digital collections, by Ellice Engdahl, labor relations, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company

    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

    On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford and his vice president James Couzens stunned the world when they revealed that Ford Motor Company would double its workers’ wages to five dollars a day. The announcement generated glowing newspaper headlines and editorials around the world. The notion of a wealthy industrialist sharing profits with workers on such a scale was unprecedented.

    In the century since, many theories have been posited for Ford’s bold move. Some suggested the increase was to justify assembly line speed-ups. Others speculated it was to counteract high labor turnover due to increasingly monotonous assembly line work. Ford admirers believed it was pure philanthropy. Cynics asserted that it was little more than an elaborate publicity stunt. As usual, the truth lay somewhere in the middle.

    More Monotony, But More Money

    To a large degree, Ford’s implementation of the Five-Dollar Day cannot be appreciated without first understanding his advances with the moving assembly line. Experiments through 1913 and into 1914 reduced the time required to build a Model T automobile from 12½ hours to a mere 93 minutes. Increased efficiencies lowered production costs, which lowered customer prices, which increased demand. The public was eager to buy all of the cars Ford could build.

    Explosive production gains came at the cost of worker satisfaction. The very goal of the moving assembly line was to take what had been relatively skilled craftwork and reduce it to simple, rote tasks. Workers who had taken pride in their labor were quickly bored by the more mundane assembly process. Some took to lateness and absenteeism. Many simply quit, and Ford found itself with a crippling labor turnover rate of 370 percent. The assembly line depended on a steady crew of employees to staff it, and training replacements was expensive. Ford reasoned that a bigger paycheck might make the factory’s tedium more tolerable.

    Ford’s Five-Dollar Day prompted banner headlines around the world. (THF204872)

    If the need to retain workers was a partial motivation for the Five-Dollar Day, then the solution may have worked too well. Within days of the announcement, thousands of applicants came to Detroit from all over the Midwest and entrenched themselves at the Ford’s gate. The company was overwhelmed, riots broke out, and the crowds were turned away with fire hoses in the icy January weather. Ford announced that it would only hire workers who had lived in Detroit for at least six months, and the situation slowly came under control.

    Strings Attached

    Those who did have jobs at Ford soon discovered that there were even more conditions. Lost in the headlines was the fact that the pay increase was not a raise per se, it was a profit sharing plan. If you made $2.30 a day under the old pay schedule, for example, you still made that wage under the Five-Dollar plan. But if you met all of the company’s requirements, Ford gave you a bonus of $2.70.

    Part of Henry Ford’s reasoning behind the Five-Dollar Day was that workers who were troubled by money problems at home would be distracted on the job. If higher pay was intended to eliminate these problems, then Ford would make sure that his employees were using his largesse “properly.” The company established a Sociological Department to monitor its employees’ habits beyond the workplace.

    To qualify for the pay increase, workers had to abstain from alcohol, not physically abuse their families, not take in boarders, keep their homes clean, and contribute regularly to a savings account. Moral righteousness and prudent saving were all well and good, but they were not generally an employer’s business—at least not outside of working hours. In contrast, Ford Motor Company inspectors came to workers’ homes, asked probing questions, and observed general living conditions. If “violations” were discovered, the inspectors offered advice and pointed the families to resources offered through the company. Not until these problems were corrected did the employee receive his full bonus.

    Modifying manufacturing methods was one thing. Modifying the people who carried out those methods was quite another. Henry Ford and his supporters may well have seen the Sociological Department as a benevolent tool to benefit his employees, but the workers came to resent the intrusion into their personal lives. Ford himself eventually realized that the Sociological Department was unsustainable. By 1921, it was largely dissolved.

    Wages Up, Sales Up

    As for charges that Ford raised pay in pursuit of publicity, there’s no question that the Five-Dollar Day brought a spotlight on Ford Motor Company. But publicity is fleeting, and the Five-Dollar Day’s impact was far greater than newspaper headlines. Other automakers soon boosted their own wages to keep pace with Ford. Automobile parts suppliers followed suit. In time, workers in any number of fields were earning genuine “living wages” that afforded them comfort and security above basic food, shelter and clothing needs.

    It’s no small detail that, as Henry Ford slyly observed, in the course of improving his employees’ standard of living, Ford also created a new pool of customers for his Model T. The Five-Dollar Day helped to bring members of America’s working class into its middle class. Better wages, combined with the affordable goods produced by the assembly line, are cornerstones of the prosperity that has characterized American life for so many of the past 100 years.

    Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation of The Henry Ford.

    Michigan, Detroit, manufacturing, by Matt Anderson, Ford workers, labor relations, Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company

    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.

    labor relations, Michigan, Ford workers, Ford Motor Company, Detroit, by Peter Kalinski, 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