The Detroit Race Riot broke out in Detroit, Michigan in June 20, 1943, and lasted for three days before Federal troops restored order. The rioting between blacks and whites began on Belle Isle on June 20, 1943 and continued until the 22nd of June, killing 34, wounding 433, and destroying property valued at $2 million.
In the summer of 1943, in the midst of World War II, tensions between blacks and whites in Detroit were escalating. Detroit’s population had grown by 350,000 people since the war began. The booming defense industries brought in large numbers of people with high wages and very little available housing. 50,000 blacks had recently arrived along with 300,000 whites, mostly from rural Appalachia and Southern States.
Recruiters convinced blacks as well as whites in the South to come up North by promising them higher wages in the new war factories. Believing that they had found a promised land, blacks began to move up North in larger numbers. However, upon arriving in Detroit, blacks found that the northern bigotry was just as bad as that they left behind in the deep South. They were excluded from all public housing except Brewster Housing Projects, forced to live in homes without indoor plumbing, and paid rents two to three times higher than families in white districts. They also faced discrimination from the public and unfair treatment by the Detroit Police Department. In addition, Southern whites brought their traditional bigotry with them as both races head up North, adding serious racial tensions to the area. Job-seekers arrived in such large numbers in Detroit that it was impossible to house them all.
Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government was concerned about providing housing for the workers who were beginning to pour into the area. On June 4, 1941, the Detroit Housing Commission approved two sites for defense housing projects–one for whites, one for blacks. The site originally selected by the commission for black workers was in a predominantly black area, but the U.S. government chose a site at Nevada and Fenelon streets, an all-white neighborhood.
To complete this, a project named Sojourner Truth was launched in the memory of a black Civil War woman and poet. Despite this, the white neighborhoods opposed having blacks moving next to their homes, meaning no tenants were to be built. On January, 20, 1942, Washington DC informed the Housing Commission that the Sojourner Truth project would be for whites and another would be selected for blacks. But when a suitable site for blacks could not be found, Washington housing authorities agreed to allow blacks into the finished homes. This was set on February 28, 1942. In February 27, 1942, 120 whites went on protest vowing they would keep any black homeowners out of their sight in response to the project. By the end of the day, it had grown to more than 1,200, most of them were armed. Things went so badly that two blacks in a car attempted to run over the protesters picket line which led to a clash between white and black groups. Despite the mounting opposition from whites, black families moved into the project at the end of April. To prevent a riot, Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries ordered the Detroit Police Department and state troops to keep the peace during that move. Over 1,100 city and state police officers and 1,600 Michigan National Guard troops were mobilized and sent to the area around Nevada and Fenelon street to guard six African-American families who moved into the Sojourner Truth Homes. Thanks to the presence of the guard, there were no further racial problems for the blacks who moved into this federal housing project. Eventually, 168 black families moved into these homes. Despite no casualties in the project, the fear was about to explode a year later.
In early June 1943, three weeks before the riot, Packard Motor Car Company promoted three blacks to work next to whites in the assembly lines. This promotion caused 25,000 whites to walk off the job, effectively slowing down the critical war production. It was clear that whites didn’t mind that blacks worked in the same plant but refused to work side-by-side with them. During the protest, a voice with a Southern accent shouted in the loudspeaker, “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work next to a nigger”.