Recipe For A Riot: Detroit, Michigan, 1942

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Five African American men stand on sidewalk with their hands raised above their heads, with uniformed officers facing them in foreground. Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

Looking to start some trouble? Some good trouble? Boy, do we have a story for you.

1942, Detroit. A city in the grips of a housing crisis. Fast-growing due to the war effort overseas—all those automotive industries retooled for armaments, the famous ‘Arsenal of Democracy’—but still deeply segregated by race, ethnicity, and class, the Motor City is bursting at the seams.

While the Detroit race riots of 1943 are widely remembered, less well-known is a major riot that took place a year before in February 1942, laying the groundwork for the conflicts to come. Today on Crime Capsule, we offer a recipe for a riot, courtesy of longtime Detroit-area historian Gerald van Dusen and his book Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942.

Ingredient 1: Ensure housing for minority communities is poorly constructed, unhealthy, and demeaning.

a photo of a bed with a mattress and two ratted blankets
Bedroom in substandard house, with deteriorating and missing wall board to protect residents from the elements. Library of Congress. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.
Child plays on mound of debris in backyard of dilapidating housing structure. Library of Congress. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.

Ingredient 2: Enforce official and unofficial segregation laws, creating specific racially-based districts such as Black Bottom, Paradise Valley, and North End across the city.

Pen-and-ink drawing depicting the six segregated black enclaves in the city of Detroit. Author’s collection. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.
Overhead view of backyard and house in Black Bottom, Detroit. Library of Congress. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.

Ingredient 3: Build a wall between white and black neighborhoods (‘nuff said).

Wall built by developer in 1941 to ‘protect’ his real estate interests. The Birwood Wall, still standing today, stretches from Eight Mile Road three blocks south to Pembroke Avenue. Library of Congress. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.
Children, oblivious to the deeper significance of the concrete wall behind them, pose for a picture on a sunny day in August 1941. Library of Congress. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.

Ingredient 4: Begin construction on new federal homes for African Americans war workers, then reverse course under political pressure and declare that the homes will be for whites instead.

African Americans peaceably assemble in Cadillac Square in downtown Detroit to protest the decision by the federal government to reverse its original stance and declare the Sojourner Truth housing project a white settlement. Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.

Ingredient 5: Spread race-based propaganda far and wide.

flyer reading "Help white people to keep this district white, men needed to keep our lines solid, come to nevada and fenlon sunday and monday, we need help, don't be yellow, come out, we need every white man, we want our girls to walk on the street, not raped"
Flier distributed by the Seven Mile-Fenelon Association pressure group organized against black occupancy of Sojourner Truth Homes. Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.
White picketers at the corner of Nevada and Fenelon protesting the assignment of black war workers to this new federal war housing facility, February 1942. Library of Congress. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.

Ingredient 6: When protestors arrive seeking justice, fire tear gas, and let chaos reign.

Police attempt to disperse rioting crowds with tear gas on the streets near the Sojourner Truth Homes. Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.
An African American man runs in front of a police vehicle, with a uniformed police officer holding his nightstick up behind him in the aftermath of the violent protest over the Sojourner Truth projects. Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.

Ingredient 7: Once the dust settles,with racial discrimination having shown its ugly face in full display, watch as the federal government mandates that the homes be used for their original intended purpose, regardless of any corrupt, racist, or crooked local officials seeking otherwise.

A photo of a Black family standing on the front porch of their new home
Moving vans escorted by Detroit police motorcycle units on April 29, 1942, as African American war workers prepare to finally move into the Sojourner Truth Homes. Library of Congress. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.
Proud family among the first to move into a new home at Sojourner Truth. Library of Congress. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.

Ingredient 8: Watch even more as after this event and others like it, cases of housing injustice move higher and higher up the legal system, eventually culminating in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, part of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, breaking the power of homeowners’ associations, brokers, and landlords from maintaining racial boundaries in housing. And thank Representative John Lewis (1940-2020) for giving us a name for what we knew was the right thing all along: good trouble.

On a warm spring day, a grandmother is able to take her little granddaughter for a walk around the Sojourner Truth Homes without fear or concern following the rioting that occurred in late February. Library of Congress. Image sourced from Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Housing Riot of 1942: Prelude to the Race Riot of 1943.

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