"The Committee ... Has Stood out against Coercion": The Reinvention of Detroit Americanization, 1915-1931

Article excerpt

To historians, the picture of the Americanization movement in Detroit has long seemed clear. The melting-pot pageantry of Henry Ford's English School and the family engineering of his Sociology Department have become well-known symbols for industrial Americanization. The propaganda campaigns for the public night schools sponsored by the Americanization Committee of the Detroit Board of Commerce during World War I likewise are familiar. But the picture fades out after 1920-1921, when businessmen's interest in Americanization waned across the nation. (1) Cutting off historical investigation of Detroit's industrial Americanization around 1921 is, however, a mistake that obscures the important reinvention which the Americanization program underwent during the 1920s. This reinvention would enable it to survive by bringing it more in line with alternate Americanization rhetorics and with professionalized social-agency practices in other parts of the city and nation. (2) The underlying goal of this reinvented Americanization was the same as that of Ford's experiment--integrating immigrants into an orderly industrial society--but the means, methods, and justifications it employed shifted over time.

Examining the entire sixteen-year career of the Americanization Committee of Detroit (ACD) from 1915-1931 reveals that it completely reshaped both its rhetorical depiction of immigrants and its own organizational structure and practices. The ACD transformed itself from a volunteer businessmen's group that preached complete assimilation into a professionally staffed social agency that advocated the selective preservation of immigrant cultures. In addition to helping us revise our chronology and interpretation of Americanization in Detroit, the full history of the ACD is also an ideal lens through which to view the shifting of responsibility for social planning in the Motor City from the business community to organized public and private social-welfare agencies. The full story of the ACD illuminates the complicated and ambiguous nature of Progressive social and political hegemony in the city as organized charity became a key player in 1920s Detroit social planning. Likewise, the ACD's reinventions of itself render problematic our previous understanding of the relationship between Americanization and pluralist social policy between the world wars. (3)

The reinventions of the ACD's structure proceeded in tandem with its rhetorical reinventions of the immigrant, providing us with a useful barometer of its internal transformations. Citywide Americanization first came to Detroit as a response to manufacturers' fears of unrest among immigrant workers, fears triggered by the 1914-1915 recession. Not only were Detroit workers sitting idle, but also the fame of the five dollar day drew unemployed newcomers from other cities to swell the population. By late 1914 the labor surplus had grown so great that manufacturers were attempting to discourage further immigration into the city with a "Hire Detroiters First" policy. With about seventy-five thousand men--or 25 percent of the work force--jobless by mid-December, the Board of Commerce opened a Bureau of Unemployed. The board seems to have been surprised, and a little frightened, at the numbers the unemployment bureau's investigators turned up: most of the unemployed applicants were unskilled and foreign-born; 61 percent could not speak English. (4) Ignoring the fact that automobile production lines increasingly demanded unskilled labor, Detroit's business leaders concluded that the city's immigrants were unable to find work because they were unskilled, and they were unskilled because they spoke no English and were not American citizens. (5)

The uneasy new consciousness of immigrant workers that Motor City businessmen acquired during the recession was made explicit by a photograph printed on the cover of the board's weekly magazine, the Detroiter, in January 1915, under the banner headline, "The Unemployed--Your Problem" (figure 1). …