Working for Democracy: Working-Class African-American Women, Citizenship, and Civil Rights in Detroit, 1940-1954

By Shockley, Megan T. | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Working for Democracy: Working-Class African-American Women, Citizenship, and Civil Rights in Detroit, 1940-1954


Shockley, Megan T., Michigan Historical Review


Louise Thomas was tired. She had worked hard for no pay at the Commerce School in Detroit, learning riveting in a defense training class. She spent 120 hours in the classroom, sacrificing weeks of income for the chance at a wartime job, one that paid much more than the average job an African-American woman in Detroit could get at that time. She passed the riveting course with flying colors, and in 1942 she went to Ford's Willow Run bomber plant to secure employment as she had heard that the factory desperately needed female riveters. On two separate occasions she spent money on bus fare to get to the site, only to sit and wait in an employment office. Finally, two different personnel officers told her that they could not place her. When Thomas returned to the school to question her riveting instructor about the situation, she overheard him telling the other teachers that "the school was not for colored girls and they were not going to get any employment." (1) She also heard him tell another black woman that if African-American women had left jobs to take the riveting class, they had better return to them, as Detroit factories would never hire them.

Thomas was not going to go back to her former job. She had trained for a war-defense position, and she was going to fight for the right to work at a skilled job for decent pay. Moreover, she was familiar with the fact that many women had already complained to the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) about Ford's hiring practices, but that the FEPC had failed to eliminate discrimination in the Willow Run plant. Thomas took her story to one of Detroit's major black newspapers in order to publicize the situation African-American working-class women faced in the city. She spoke for many black women when she stated:

   If the defense plants in Detroit are not going to hire colored
   women, and if the Government's Fair Employment Practices
   Committee is not going to enforce the President's order in this
   matter, why don't they be frank and tell the colored women the
   facts? I have spent long hours and sacrificed to get this defense
   training, which time I could have used in other ways, but I have
   not been hired. If I were a white woman, instead of a Negro,
   my school credentials and my O.K. slip for work at the Ford
   Willow Run plant would mean something and I would now be
   working on a defense job at Willow Run, riveting war weapons
   to help our nation win the war. It is time for those in authority
   to get behind these issues and help get a square deal for Negro
   Women in [the] defense industry. We, too, are Americans. (2)

Thomas knew that her position as a trained war worker should translate into government support for her to obtain a war job. Her message to the black community indicates that she understood the segregated hiring practices that kept her from a lucrative war position, and her language reflects an important political consciousness on the part of working-class black women who equated war jobs with racial justice and were willing to call upon local and federal governments to support their job claims. Moreover, Thomas's demand that "those in authority" should support black women's employment in defense industries indicates that working-class women understood how to use government agencies and unions to negotiate with employers and make hiring practices fair and equal.

Thomas's statement reveals strong connections between work and the struggle for civil rights. During World War II, the federal government needed all available labor to contribute to wartime production. However, as African-American women pointed out, despite the government's need, employers in many plants throughout the country often refused to hire them. As a result many African-American women tied the right to equal employment to the concepts of citizenship and contributing to the war effort, thus merging their claims to equal employment with the needs of the wartime government. …

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