Demographic history of Detroit

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Race and ethnicity in Detroit. Each dot is 25 people.
  Hispanic (of any race)

Detroit's population began to expand rapidly based on resource extraction from around the Great Lakes region, especially lumber and mineral resources. It entered the period of largest and most rapid growth in the early 20th century and through World War II, with the development of the auto industry and related heavy industry. Attracting hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe, the Near East, and black and white migrants from the South, the city became a boom town. By 1920 it was the fourth-largest city in the country.

The population of Detroit increased more than 1,000 times between 1820 and 1930. Most of the increase occurred during the early decades of the 20th century.[1] This massive population increase was driven by the expansion of the auto industry during the early twentieth century. By 1920 Detroit had become the fourth-largest city in the country and it held this position for decades.[2] Postwar suburbanization and industrial restructuring caused massive job loss and population changes in the city.


Early years[edit]

Detroit was founded by Europeans in 1701 when the colonial French established a fort here as a center for trading. The European population numbered 100 French soldiers, farmers and merchants. The first women arrived in September. The fort attracted Native Americans of the region, and bands of various tribes settled nearby, including the Huron. They soon far outnumbered the French.

Detroit developed as the most important French city between Montreal and New Orleans, two major areas of colonial settlement. Its European population was 800 people in 1765, shortly after France ceded its territory east of the Mississippi River to Great Britain after being defeated in the Seven Years' War. By that time, most or all of the Native Americans had moved from the area.[3]

By 1773, the population of Detroit was 1,400. By 1778, its population was 2,144 and it was the third largest city in the British Province of Quebec.[4] At this time, the British considered it part of Quebec rather than the Thirteen Colonies.

After the American Revolutionary War and settlement of the northern boundary between Canada and the United States, Detroit and Michigan became part of US territory.

20th century[edit]

In the early 20th century from 1910 to 1930, Detroit was among the many cities in the North that attracted immigrants from southern, central, and eastern Europe as well as African American migrants during the Great Migration. The promise of good jobs in addition to readily available property brought many people to the Motor City, as they sought a place where they could settle down and live the American Dream. More than one-fifth of the population of the city was consistently composed of immigrants during the first half of the 20th century.[5] From at least 1880 to the 1980s, the greatest number of immigrants and their descendants living in Wayne County, Michigan (where Detroit is located) were from central and eastern Europe.[6]

Detroit’s population increased from under 500,000 in 1910 to over 1.8 million at the city’s peak in 1950, making Detroit the fourth-most populous city in the United States at that time[5]. The population grew largely because of an influx of European and Middle Eastern (Lebanese, Assyrian/Chaldean) immigrants, in addition to the migration of both black and white Americans to Detroit.[8] During the Great Migration, beginning around 1920, blacks left the South in search of better jobs as well as to escape Jim Crow laws. During the first wave of the Great Migration, thousands of African Americans settled in Detroit, as part of the total of 1.5 million blacks who left the South in the first half of the 20th century looking for opportunities in the Northeast and Midwest.[10] In 1910, about 6,000 blacks lived in the city.[9] By 1930, more than 120,000 blacks lived in Detroit.[11] Despite the large influx of black residents, in 1940, whites still made up 90.4% of the city's population as the white population was also increasing rapidly as they sought the same opportunities as everyone else.[12]

During the Great Migration, it was not only black Americans seeking better opportunities throughout the United States. In the 1930s and early 40s, many Native Americans, such as the Creek (Muscogee) and Cherokee from Oklahoma settled in Detroit. The federal government encouraged such urban relocation so that Native Americans would have access to jobs and other opportunities. The Hispanic population of Detroit also rapidly increased after 1940, especially in the late 20th century as immigration laws changed. By 2010, the Hispanic population of Detroit was ten times higher than that of 1940.[1]

During the 1940s, the booming defense industries attracted large numbers of workers, who enjoyed the readily available jobs and often higher wages.[13] The expansion of industry for war production during World War 2 resulted in Detroit's population growing by 350,000 people from 1940 to 1943.[13] The defense industries attracted 50,000 blacks from the South in the Second Great Migration, along with 300,000 whites mostly from rural Appalachia and Southern States.[13] Many industries in Detroit were willing to hire blacks for work, particularly during the war when there was a shortage of white workers. By 1940, nearly 12% of automotive giant Ford’s workers were black.[5]

While there may have been many jobs available to new immigrants to the city, the rapidly changing population created a significant housing crisis in Detroit. Most black residents who moved to Detroit settled in the neighborhoods of Black Bottom or Paradise Valley, both located on the East side of Detroit. These choices in housing were not a random pattern, but were reinforced by restrictive covenants that prevented blacks from purchasing homes in white neighborhoods. In addition to restrictive covenants, neighborhoods of Detroit experienced redlining, which prevented anyone who lived in a redlined district, essentially any neighborhood where there were black residents, from getting a loan or mortgage for their house. Real estate agents also often refused to show houses in white neighborhoods to blacks, and neighborhoods formed homeowners associations to protect their communities from black residents moving in. Despite the lack of housing, blacks continued to move to Detroit, and by 1960, almost 30% of the population of Detroit was black.[5]

The white population of the city peaked in 1950 and then steadily declined due to white flight and net emigration through 2010.[1] The white population fell 95% between the 1950 and 2010 censuses, as whites who often still worked in the city moved to the surrounding suburbs. Many of these white residents were moving out of the city to avoid black Detroiters who were slowly beginning to be able to buy houses in white neighborhoods. Additionally, the industrial boom of the postwar period had begun to decline by the 1950s and 60s. In 1950, 56% of all automobile employment in the United States was in Michigan, but by 1960, that had fallen to 40%.[5] Many of the factories that had employed thousands of Detroiters were forced to lay off workers, leading to Detroiters moving elsewhere for work.

The race riot of 1967, a result of years of segregation in Detroit, only exacerbated the phenomenon of white flight. By 1980, not only did blacks make up over 60% of the population, but the population of Detroit as a whole had decreased by 20% since its height in 1950.[5] This trend of population decline did not change in the following 30 years, and by 2010, the population of Detroit had decreased by about 60%.[1] While Detroit had been in the top ten most populous cities in the United States between 1910 and the 2000-2009 decade, given its population decline between 2000 and 2010, Detroit ranked as the 18th-most populous city in the United States in 2010.[2]

However, in an apparent turn-around, the Detroit News reported in its September 17, 2015 edition that the white population of the city is now rising, with a reported increase in white residents from 2013 to 2014 of nearly 8,000. This is the first measurable increase in Detroit's white population since 1950, when the city was 84% white.


Demographic history profile of Detroit, Michigan, Between 1820-2010[1][6][7]
Year Population White % White Non-Hispanic White % Non-Hispanic White Black % Black Asian % Asian Other or
% O/M Hispanic/ Latino % Hispanic/ Latino Foreign
% FB
1820 1,422 1,355 95.29 NA NA 67 4.71 0 0 0 0 NA NA NA NA
1830 2,222 2,096 94.33 NA NA 126 5.68 0 0 0 0 NA NA NA NA
1840 9,102 8,909 97.88 NA NA 193 2.12 0 0 0 0 NA NA NA NA
1850 21,019 20,432 97.21 NA NA 587 2.79 0 0 0 0 NA NA 9,927 47.23
1860 45,619 44,216 96.92 NA NA 1,403 3.08 0 0 0 0 NA NA NA NA
1870 79,577 77,338 97.19 NA NA 2,235 2.81 0 0 4 0 NA NA 35,381 44.46
1880 116,340 113,475 97.54 NA NA 2,821 2.42 10 0 34 0.04 NA NA 45,645 39.23
1890 205,876 202,422 98.32 NA NA 3,431 1.67 12 0.01 11 0 NA NA 81,709 39.69
1900 285,704 281,575 98.55 NA NA 4,111 1.44 4 0 14 0.01 NA NA 96,503 33.78
1910 465,766 459,926 98.75 NA NA 5,741 1.23 58 0.01 41 0.01 NA NA 157,534 33.82
1920 993,678 952,065 95.81 NA NA 40,838 4.11 620 0.06 155 0.02 NA NA 290,884 29.27
1930 1,568,662 1,446,656 92.22 NA NA 120,066 7.65 1,590 0.10 350 0.03 NA NA 405,882 25.87
1940 1,623,452 1,472,662 90.71 1,467,506 90.39 149,119 9.19 1,237 0.08 434 0.02 5,156 0.32 322,688 19.88
1950 1,849,568 1,545,847 83.58 NA NA 300,506 16.25 1,734 0.09 1,481 0.08 NA NA 278,260 15.04
1960 1,670,144 1,182,970 70.83 NA NA 482,223 28.87 2,780 0.17 2,171 0.13 NA NA 201,713 12.08
1970 1,511,482 838,877 55.50 815,823 53.98 660,428 43.69 4,478 0.30 7,699 0.51 27,038 1.79 119,347 7.90
1980 1,203,339 413,730 34.38 402,077 33.41 758,939 63.07 6,621 0.55 24,049 2.00 28,970 2.41 68,303 5.68
1990 1,027,974 222,316 21.63 212,278 20.65 777,916 75.67 8,461 0.82 19,281 1.88 28,473 2.77 34,490 3.36
2000 951,270 116,599 12.26 99,921 10.50 775,772 81.55 9,519 1.00 49,380 5.19 47,167 4.96 45,541 4.79
2010 713,777 75,758 10.61 55,604 7.79 590,226 82.69 7,559 1.06 40,234 5.64 48,679 6.82 36,000 5.1

Central city[edit]

"7.2 Sq Mi"; a 2013 report created by a coalition of Data Driven Detroit, Downtown Detroit Partnership, Midtown Detroit Inc., and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.; outlined the demographics of the following communities: Downtown, Corktown, Eastern Market, the eastern riverfront, Lafayette Park, Midtown, New Center, and Woodbridge, a total of 7.2 square miles (19 km2), according to the 2010 U.S. Census data. This central area is not as wealthy as comparable central areas in Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and other similar cities, yet its residents have more ethnic diversity and are wealthier than other areas of Detroit.[8] Eric Lacy of MLive wrote "Consider that data either proof downtown Detroit is on an upswing, other neighborhoods are deteriorating fast or a mixture of both."[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Gibson, Campbell; Kay Jung (February 2005). "Table 23. Michigan - Race and Hispanic Origin for Selected Large Cities and Other Places: Earliest Census to 1990" (PDF). United States Census Bureau. Retrieved January 8, 2013.
  2. ^ Seelye, Katharine (March 22, 2011). "Detroit Census Confirms a Desertion Like No Other". The New York Times. Retrieved December 29, 2012
  3. ^ French Ontario in the 17th and 18th centuries – Detroit Archived August 24, 2004, at the Wayback Machine. Archives of Ontario July 14, 2008. Retrieved July 23, 2008.
  4. ^ Jacqueline Peterson, Jennifer S. H. Brown, Many roads to Red River (2001), p69
  5. ^ a b c d e Sugrue, Thomas (2005). The Origins of The Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton University Press. pp. 23, 25, 128. ISBN 9780691121864.
  6. ^ Gibson, Campbell; Kay Jung (February 2006). "Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-2000". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved January 21, 2013.
  7. ^ "Detroit (city), Michigan". State & County QuickFacts. United States Census Bureau. June 8, 2006. Archived from the original on July 15, 2006. Retrieved January 21, 2013.
  8. ^ Gallagher, John. "Downtown Detroit has more wealth, diversity than city as whole, report says" (Archive). Detroit Free Press. February 18, 2013. Retrieved on June 14, 2015.
  9. ^ Lacy, Eric. "Downtown Detroit (7.2 square miles) is more diverse, educated and wealthy than rest of city, report says" (Archive). MLive. February 18, 2013. Retrieved on June 14, 2015.

Further reading[edit]

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