How Henry Ford's Dislike Of Cities Fueled Detroit's Racial Divide

Illustration for article titled How Henry Ford's Dislike Of Cities Fueled Detroit's Racial Divide

It's a story that's been repeated a few times over the years when we look back at the impact of the auto industry on the development of Detroit, but it's getting new attention in the wake of the fatal shooting of a teenager on a man's front porch.


19-year-old Renisha McBride was shot by 54-year-old Theodore Wafer on the front porch of his Dearborn Heights home earlier this month. McBride, according to Detroit Police, was in a car accident. Toxicology reports indicated she had alcohol in her system. She was unarmed at the time of her death. Wafer was charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and felony firearm usage last week. Those are the basics of what you need to know until the trial starts, whenever that is.

Why people are talking about this case worldwide is because of race: McBride, from Detroit, is black, and Wafer, from the mostly white suburb of Dearborn Heights, is white. All current social discussion of the case aside, it does warrant shining a light on how some cities in Metro Detroit became so racially segregated and how the region's biggest industry played a part in it.

Us Detroiters know the difference between Dearborn and Dearborn Heights: Dearborn is the home of Ford, and Dearborn Heights is the bedroom town where several Ford employees live. As blacks moved from the South to Detroit to work at Ford decades ago, however, they were unwelcome to either city.

Much of what would follow from the segregation of Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, nearby Inkster and Detroit stemmed from an early decision from Henry Ford as Ford Motor Company was beginning to boom, as a historian explains in The Detroit News:

Ford was a Dearborn man, not known for his love of cities. Having stated that "the real United States lies outside cities," Ford decentralized production early, opening the River Rouge plant in the 1920s and making Dearborn — not Detroit — the center of operations. This posed an immediate problem for black workers. Although white auto workers might reside in Dearborn, the town was closed to black residence.

A local solution was found in 1921 when a property developer bought a tract of land in Inkster and built cottages at low cost for black workers employed at the Rouge complex. This set in motion Inkster's early development as a suburb with a sizable black population — a suburb that grew as a direct response to the suburbanization of Ford industry and to the local apartheid practiced by Dearborn and other communities near the Rouge plant.


What's also notable, that the News doesn't mention: Dearborn's town slogan for years was "Keep Dearborn Clean," which was interpreted as "Keep Dearborn White." Over time, Dearborn would actually become less white as masses of Arab-Americans made their home there. (Ford also briefly took residence in the city of Detroit at the Renaissance Center before General Motors moved in, something that'd certainly upset old Henry.) But Inkster remained a mostly black enclave right on the border of the mostly white Dearborn Heights.

So if you're looking for an explanation of why Detroit is the way it is (and why we will never, ever stop talking about race around these parts), here's one of the myriad reasons why.


[Photo via AP]


Sherry Lynn

I love your Blog!! If you haven't read Fordlandia yet, you should check it out. More about Ford's attempts at social engineering.