Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

Making Migrants an Asset: The Detroit Urban League-Employers Alliance in Wartime Detroit, 1916 to 1919

Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

Making Migrants an Asset: The Detroit Urban League-Employers Alliance in Wartime Detroit, 1916 to 1919

Article excerpt

In 1916 Detroit's civic leaders established the Detroit Urban League (DUL), an interracial organization headed by African-American social work professionals to assist in the adjustment of black rural southern migrants who arrived during the Great Migration. To position itself strategically, the new organization forged an alliance with the city's industrial employers. This article focuses on the nature and impact of this alliance on African-American southern migrants who arrived in the Motor City during the Great War. It analyzes how Detroit employers influenced the main actions taken by the DUL, demonstrating how the DUL-employers partnership pushed for the interests of employers far more than it did for those of African-American migrants.

When World War I cut off the European labor supply, thousands of African-American southerners moved to northern cities to meet the demand for labor. In 1910 there were about 5,700 blacks in Detroit. During 1916 to 1917, between twenty-five thousand and thirty-five thousand African Americans arrived in Detroit. (1) This increase in the black population of the Motor City stirred strong feelings of uneasiness among blacks as well as whites. "Old Detroiters" among the African-American population expressed fears of increasing segregation as a result of file migrations. Ministers and police complained of streets crowded with "undesirable characters of all sorts, gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, and procurers." (2)

Even before World War I triggered the Great Migration, many northern cities had been receiving more and more black southern migrants. The situation had led in 1911 to the establishment of the National Urban League, an interracial organization that focused on the problems of black urban dwellers. In 1916 the initiative of Eugene K. Jones, executive secretary of the National Urban League, led to the formation of an affiliate in Detroit. (3)

From the very start the black community did not have much leverage in shaping the league's program. They forfeited that opportunity when their leaders refused to support the establishment of such an organization. In 1915 Jones met with Detroit's leading clergymen and requested their support in the establishment of a branch in Detroit. (4) At this time black clergy refused to embrace the Urban League program. They resented "an outsider telling them the needs of their city." (5) They were also afraid that a program aimed at aiding southern black migrants could destroy the delicate balance of race relations in Detroit. The "old-guard blacks" rebuffed Jones, viewing him as a messenger of doom. (6)

Having been rejected by the black clergy, Jones sought and found support from Associated Charities, an organization established in 1879 by Detroit's civic leaders to coordinate the work of different charitable institutions and raise funds to meet the city's community welfare needs. (7) In the summer of 1916 its board of directors decided to establish an Urban League affiliate and pledged "to appropriate $580.68 to cover the cost of its operation for the first four months." (8)

The strong representation of business firms meant that there was considerable corporate influence on Associated Charities's goals and objectives. Of the fourteen board members of Associated Charities, ten were connected with Detroit's industries. First and foremost was Henry Glover Stevens, vice president of Associated Charities and a millionaire whose father had become very wealthy through the western mining business. He and his brother, Williams P. Stevens, managed the Stevens Land Company. Henry G. Stevens was the first important president of the DUL and one of its financial donors. Other members of Associated Charities included representatives from the Ford Motor Company, the J. L. Hudson Company, the Michigan Bolt and Nut Works, the Detroit Board of Commerce, the Employers Association of Detroit, the Hudson-Webber family, the Ray Chemical Company, and First and Old Detroit National Bank. …

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