Detroit race riot of 1943

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The Detroit race riot broke out in Detroit, Michigan, in June 1943, and lasted for three days before Federal troops regained control. The rioting between blacks and whites began on Belle Isle on June 20, 1943, and continued until June 22, killing 34, wounding 433, and destroying property valued at $2 million,[1] ($27.5 million in 2015 US dollars).

Events leading up to the riot[edit]

Sign in response to proposed Sojourner Truth Housing Project, February 1942

By the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan had established a presence in Detroit along with the lesser-known Black Legion, organizations committed to white supremacy.[2] In summer 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.[citation needed]

In recent years, 50,000 blacks and 300,000 whites had arrived, mostly from rural Appalachia and the American South.[3] Ethnic groups were pressured to resent African Americans especially. A historian of Detroit's Poles found that they were scared into seeing African Americans as "threatening their jobs, homes, communities, and churches".[4]

Recruiters convinced blacks as well as whites in the South to emmigrate to the North by promising higher wages in the new war factories. Believing that they had found a promised land, blacks began to relocate their families North in larger numbers. However, upon arriving in Detroit, blacks found that bigotry existed in the North just as it did 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. [5] Job-seekers arrived in such large numbers in Detroit that it was impossible to house them all.[citation needed]

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government was concerned about providing better housing for the workers throughout the country. 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, a predominantly white neighborhood.[citation needed]

The completed housing development that was designated for blacks was named Sojourner Truth, in memory of the black Civil War abolitionist and women's rights advocate. Many whites fiercely opposed allowing blacks to move into an all-white neighborhood. On January 20, 1942, Washington DC informed the Housing Commission that the Sojourner Truth housing project would be for whites and another would be selected for blacks. But when a suitable site for blacks could not be found, Washington D.C. housing authorities agreed to allow blacks into the housing project, beginning February 28, 1942.[6]

On February 27, 1942, with a cross burning in a field near the homes, 150 whites vowed to keep out any black tenants. By the following morning the crowd of whites – many armed – had grown to 1,200. Blacks who had already signed leases and paid rent attempted to get through the whites' picket line, leading to a clash between white and black groups.[7] Despite the mounting opposition from white groups, black families moved into the project at the end of April. To prevent violence, Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries ordered the Detroit Police Department and state troops to keep the peace during the 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 streets to guard six African-American families who moved into the Sojourner Truth Homes. Eventually, 168 black families moved into the homes.[6]

Later, in June 1943, three weeks before the riot, Packard Motor Car Company promoted three blacks to work next to whites in the assembly lines. In response, 25,000 whites walked off the job, effectively slowing down the critical war production. It was clear that whites who worked with blacks in the same plant nevertheless 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."[8]


Altercations between black and white youths started on June 20, 1943, on a warm Sunday evening on Belle Isle. A fist fight broke out when a white sailor's girlfriend was insulted by a black man. The brawl eventually grew into a confrontation between groups of blacks and whites and then spread into the city. The riot escalated with a false rumor that a mob of whites had thrown an African-American mother and her baby into the Detroit River. Historian Marilynn S. Johnson argues that this rumor reflected black male paranoia over white violence against black women and children.[9][10] Another false rumor swept white neighborhoods that blacks had raped and murdered a white woman on the Belle Isle Bridge. Angry mobs of whites spilled onto Woodward near the Roxy Theater around 4 a.m., beating blacks as they were getting off street cars.[7] Stores were looted and buildings were burned in the riot, most of them in a black neighborhood in and around Paradise Valley, one of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods in Detroit. The clashes soon escalated to the point where black and white mobs were “assaulting one another, beating innocent motorists, pedestrians and streetcar passengers, burning cars, destroying storefronts and looting businesses."[3] Both sides were said to have encouraged others to join in the riots with false claims that one of "their own" was attacked unjustly.[3]


The riots lasted three days and ended once Mayor Jeffries and Governor Harry Kelly asked President Roosevelt to intervene. Federal troops finally restored peace to the streets of Detroit. Over the course of three days, 34 people were killed. Of them, 25 were African–Americans, 17 of whom were killed by the police. Thirteen murders remain unsolved. Out of the approximately 600 injured, black people accounted for more than 75 percent and of the roughly 1,800 people who were arrested over the course of the three-day riots, black people accounted for 85 percent.[3]

After the riot, leaders on both sides had an explanation for the riots. White city leaders including the mayor blamed young black “hoodlums”.[3] The Wayne County prosecutor believed that the leaders of the NAACP were to blame as the instigators of the riots.[3] Detroit's black leaders pointed to other causes ranging from job discrimination, to housing discrimination, police brutality, and daily animosity received from Detroit's white population.[3] Following the violence, Japanese propaganda officials incorporated the event into its materials encouraging black soldiers not to fight for the United States, most notably in a flyer titled "Fight Between Two Races".[11]

According to The Detroit News:

Future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, then with the NAACP, assailed the city's handling of the riot. He charged that police unfairly targeted blacks while turning their backs on white atrocities. He said 85 percent of those arrested were black while whites overturned and burned cars in front of the Roxy Theater with impunity while police watched. "This weak-kneed policy of the police commissioner coupled with the anti-Negro attitude of many members of the force helped to make a riot inevitable."[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dominic J. Capeci, Jr., and Martha Wilkerson, "The Detroit Rioters of 1943: A Reinterpretation," Michigan Historical Review, Jan 1990, Vol. 16 Issue 1, pp. 49-72.
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Sitkoff, "The Detroit Race Riot 1943"
  4. ^ Thaddeus Radzialowski, "The View from a Polish Ghetto. Some Observations on the First One Hundred Years in Detroit", Ethnicity (1974) 1#2 pp. 125–150.
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ a b [2]
  7. ^ a b c
  8. ^ [3]
  9. ^ Marilynn S. Johnson, "Gender, Race, and Rumours: Re-Examining the 1943 Race Riots," Gender and History (1998): 10:252-77.
  10. ^ Patricia A. Turner, (1994). I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture, p. 51.
  11. ^


  • Capeci, Jr., Dominic J., and Martha Wilkerson. "The Detroit Rioters of 1943: A Reinterpretation," Michigan Historical Review, Jan 1990, Vol. 16 Issue 1, pp 49–72
  • Capeci, Jr., Dominic J., and Martha Wilkerson (1991). Layered Violence: The Detroit Rioters of 1943. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 0-878-05515-0.
  • Shogan, Robert, and Tom Craig (1964). The Detroit Race Riot: A Study in Violence. Philadelphia: Chilton Books.
  • Sitkoff, Harvard. "The Detroit Race Riot 1943," Michigan History, May 1969, Vol. 53 Issue 3, pp 183–206, reprinted in John Hollitz, ed. Thinking Through The Past: Volume Two: since 1865 (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005) ch 8.
  • Sugrue, Thomas J. (1996). The Origins of the Urban Crisis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-05888-1.
  • "The 1943 Race Riots". The Detroit News. Retrieved September 22, 2006. 
  • Norman Prady. "The Story of How Mother Catered The Riots". The Detroit News. 
  • Vivian M. Baulch and Patricia Zacharias. "The 1943 Detroit race riots". The Detroit News. 
  • "Mayor Jeffries and Governor Kelly's June 21, 1943 radio speeches addressing the riots".