Race Tension: A Small Example Writ Large


Volume VI, Number 1
Fall, 1986

            A couple of years ago a well-known sociologist, Alphonso Pinckney, published a book entitled, The Myth of Black Progress.  Its basic premise was that discrimination, often covert and insidious, is still pervasive in the 1980s, despite the wider opportunities now open to Blacks.1 This should be an eye-opener to the many who believe that federal law and law enforcement have resolved the major problems of race discrimination.  The truth is that the patterns of discrimination - and the rational and irrational conceptualizations undergirding those patterns – which crystallized in the late nineteenth century, the Gilded Age, have only eroded at the edges, the visible edges.  The United States Supreme Court’s adverse decision in the Civil Rights Cases (1883) and its landmark endorsement of segregation in Plessy v Ferguson (1895) were strong ribs of the 19th century cage labeled “prejudice”.

            Those particular ribs, along with others, have now been excised by law and court decisions, but other, less visible wire struts now hold the cage together.  The Gilded Age witnessed job and housing discrimination, preached social separation, allowed bias in school assignments and support, and paraded under the banner of white superiority and Black inferiority.  In one form or another, these constraints, which range from the annoying to the injurious, survive today.  Dominic Capeci’s study of a 1942 housing conflict in Detroit documents the persistence of race tension into the mid-20th century, as Black communities continued their exertions to remove, wire strut by wire strut, the cage of discrimination into which the Gilded Age had put them.          

            Capeci’s interest in Detroit was aroused or further stimulated by his earlier research on the Harlem riot of 1943.2 In the book which emerged from that study in 1977, Capeci makes clear his belief that, as he puts it in his introduction, New York Blacks “were affected by circumstances outside New York City – for example, the Detroit riot of 1943.”3 When he came to write about Detroit, however, he chose to probe a precursor event to the riot, an incident that clearly set the stage for the larger and more violent outbreak which followed the next year.  There is a fascination about the subject – the tenanting of the federally-owned Sojourner Truth apartments – which does not generally attach to rioting because of the agencies and agents involved.

            The examination of small-scale conflict whether violent or not, has become a hallmark of a growing group of historians.  The microhistory approach in the Black history area has evolved out of urban studies.  Gilbert Osofsky’s pioneer work on Harlem (1963), Seth Scheiner’s study of New York Negroes (1965), Allen Spear’s Black Chicago (1967), Kenneth Kusmer’s exploration of Afro-Americans in Cleveland (1976), and David Katzmann’s Before the Getto (1973), an investigation of nineteenth century Detroit’s Black residents, are excellent examples of the urban community approach.4 More recent works on Greensboro, N.C., Topeka, and San Francisco, to cite a few, sustain the tradition.5

            Undoubtedly spurred by this productive turn in the historiographic road, scholars, like Capeci have begun to look more closely at conflict sequences, usually but not always within an urban setting.  Elliott Rudwick produced a prototype study on the East St. Louis outbreak (1964) and helped to set a pattern.  William Tuttle’s analysis of the 1919 Chicago riot (1970) maintained the high quality of the genre.  Elizabeth Pleck widened the model without diminishing its probity in her 1979 study of migration and poverty in late nineteenth century Boston.  David Garrowsaw the relationship between the Selma, Alabama civil rights protest and the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act (1978).  Outside of the urban arena, Nell Irvin Painter’s excellent account of the 1879 Exodus (1976) and Robert Ahearn’s 1978 narrative of the same movement explore a rural migration permeated with rebellious rumblings.  Painter’s analysis is particularly acute, lending substance to the conviction that these studies are only the beginning.6

                Capeci is a careful and competent investigator.  He has combed the primary sources in Detroit and Washington to identify all of the pieces in a complex jigsaw puzzle.  With a bow toward the Black circumscription so evident before World War II, Capeci takes up his task in earnest in 1940.  Black leadership is visible and vocal in the state legislature and on city council, in the Black churches and secular organizations.  During his first term, Mayor Edward J. Jeffries, Jr. seemed to herald a new day of support for Blacks at the top of the political ladder, but he began to waffle in his second term, sometimes giving the impression that he favored segregation.

            As the country geared up for was, Detroit’s Blacks faced disquieting, even destructive forces in the community.  They were disadvantaged economically by restricted employment opportunities and residentially by housing shortages and closed neighborhoods.  Hospital facilities – for Blacks – were antiquated and inadequately staffed; schools in Black neighborhoods were underfinanced.  Perhaps consequentially, Black crime was disproportionate and headlined by the press.

            The police force, which was to play an unhappy role in the Sojourner Truth hostilities, included a token percentage of Black officers whose access to promotion paths was effectually blocked.  After Pearl Harbor, a host of difficulties of varying intensity surfaced in the Black community.  False allegations of conniving with the Japanese, gross discrimination against Blacks in the military, and frustrations fueled by job competition and racially mixed buses complicated an unstable situation.  The influx of Black migrants attracted to a northern city by war industry magnetism created internal friction as the newcomers, by their numbers, speech patterns and different customs, threatened to upset already-established but tenuous Black-white relationships. Chief among the pressures created by the migrants was the almost total lack of adequate housing.

            Against this background, Capeci begins his narrative of the tenanting of the Sojourner Truth apartments.  Characterized by indecision on the part of municipal and federal officials, disagreements between and among agencies, and a growing resistance on the part of white neighbors, primarily of Polish extraction, to a Black settlement, the situation exploded when Black residents were finally authorized to occupy their assigned apartments.  On the appointed day, crowds gathered, racially separate.  During a long February Saturday in 1942, whites blocked access, Blacks charged, whites counter-charged, and the law enforcement officers appeared to permit a sporadic running battle, which added up to white obstructionism.  There were no fatalities but 40 persons were known to have been injured.  A tense stalemate, marked by exchanges of accusations and official indecision, lasted two months before the Black tenants moved in under proper protection.

            “More than simply another racial clash…,” Capeci concluded (p. 146), “the dispute revealed much about interethnic conflict, leadership, and organization, municipal spokesmen and institutions, and federal-urban relations during a war for democracy.”  It “was the opening salvo of a race war that climaxed in a series of race wars nationwide,” he notes (p. 161) and goes on to link it to the larger 1943 Detroit riot.  With the concept of linkage, few historians can quarrel and in the case of a 1943 upheaval following close on the heels of a 1942 mini-riot, the connections are apparent.  Whether this dispute was a significant departure from previous hostilities in the nation and whether its importance warrants the attention which Capeci has so ably lavished on it are two questions worthy of further reflection.

            Historical interpretations differ more frequently by degree than direction.  Capeci demonstrates that the coincidence of global was and the New Deal’s enlargement of federal responsibilities led to federal programs such as the Sojourner Trust Homes.  It is a longer jump from that acceptable premise to the assertion that the confrontation over occupancy “signaled a social change for a nation in transition,” (p. 146) which spread across the land.  To be sure, the bitterness of exclusion from opportunities for jobs, housing, health care, and similar necessities exploded under wartime pressures, but, as Capeci suggests, the bitterness was a long time in building.  White hostility has had a durable history.  The fruits of that bitterness had previously and too often puckered community taste buds, inviting race trauma and tension.

            The role of the federal government in 1942, while different, was not new.  The federal government has been involved in race conflict since the Civil War, either by affirmation during Reconstruction and scattered industrial strikes, or by its stoic absence when needed.  Here again, the Gilded Age provides the seedbed from which bitter fruit sprang.  White antagonisms created Black anguish in housing, employment, health care, law enforcement, education, and politics.  Efforts to involve the federal government after Reconstruction were largely unsuccessful, once the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was struck down.  The various Blair bills, for example, calling for federal aid to education, generated high interest in the 1880s before they went down to defeat in Congress.  President Wilson’s move to segregate federal workers is indicative of the ways in which the federal government has contributed to racial pressures.  While Capeci is right in suggesting that federal involvement is housing was new, the presence of the federal government in race-related issues is of long standing.

            So too were the antagonists of long-standing; in 1942 as before and after, they were primarily men and women if the working class.  Almost twenty years later, in testimony before the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission), Herbert J. Gans pointed out that “the conflict between the white working class and the Negro population…[is] an old American tradition [which] began in nineteenth century America.”7 He cited the 1863 New York Draft Riot and a spate of others in the twentieth century.  His observation is well-founded and blunts the Capeci intimation that the Sojourner Truth controversy was a transitional turning point.

            Perhaps of greater significance is the fact that the Sojourner Truth confrontation was a two-way battle, not just whites attacking, but Blacks charging and counterattacking.  This characteristic, a tremendous morale-builder in the Black community in spite of the dangers, was not new in 1942.  Fighting back appeared first in the Wilmington, N.C. riot in 1898, but the first major occurrence came in the riots of 1919, particularly in Chicago.  Arthur Waskow reminded us that “the propensity of Negroes in 1919 to challenge the assumption of their own subordination startled America…”  The 1919 riots, he points out, “confronted the holders of office with the necessity of dealing with actual private violence on a large scale.”8 This, too, was an established pattern well before 1942.

            In a word, however significant the Sojourner Truth standoff was to Detroit and however symbolic it was of the intrusion of federal housing as an additional cause for racial violence, larger issues were involved: continued Black resistance, a century of federal entanglement, and a history of white worker resentment of Black upward mobility.

            On the question of the significance of Capeci’s study, I can only affirm its importance.  The detail with which he has enriched his narrative, his care in addressing analytical questions, and his willingness to state conclusions which he feels are warranted by the evidence are all worth his effort and that of a reader.  Only by peeling back the thick over-lays which contemporaries inevitably place on events will we be able to judge their importance and their relevance to issues of larger consequence.

            It is this relationship of in-depth studies to macrohistory which makes this book a useful one.  The overall micro-macro history syndrome is well established in scholarly circles.  The British discovered the relationship when they created a committee to take the pulse of local history.  The committee’s report in 1979 observed that over the last twenty-five years the study of local history had matured and “at an advanced level…[it] has led to substantial re-writing of much ‘national’ and ‘political’ history in the light of local findings.”9 Capeci’s monograph deserves a recognizable place in the footnotes and bibliographies of our regional and national history.

            While he is at home in dealing with his landscape on a horizontal scale, stretching from Washington, D.C. to Lansing, Michigan with burgeoning industry and government bureaucracies on a wartime footing, he is less assured moving vertically through time to the late sixties and up to the present.  For microhistory to speak with greater authority, it should reach out beyond its limited time span to suggest future impact.  For Detroit after World War II, the next mountain peak of race resistance came in 1967.  The riot was also multicausal in origin, although high on the list was the estimated 100,000 housing units judged to be overcrowded or substandard.  In the decade preceding 1967, no new public housing units were constructed.

            Out of the rubble of the 1967 explosion came New Detroit, an organization conceived and established cooperatively b state and city political leaders and corporate executives.  This is not the place to explore the role of New Detroit in succeeding decades, but it would be useful to have a scholar of Capeci’s experience comment on the 1967 riot and its aftermath from the point of view of Sojourner Truth and the 1943 riot.  Looking back after five years, the chairman of the New Detroit board, Father Malcolm Carron, S.J., then president of the University of Detroit, observed in 1973 that the organization had expended $18 million in support of “existing institutions and agencies set up to deal with the problems responsible for the outburst in 1967; over-crowded living conditions, police brutality, poor housing, lack of jobs, poverty and anger with businessmen.”10 The familiarity of many of those conditions suggests that 1942 and 1943 are more clearly comprehended when references to 1967 and later supplement other analytical approaches.

            Capeci’s intense look at a housing mess, replete with those bumbles which lead to rumbles in race-tense situations, is an exemplary exploration within the limits he has set for himself. The players in the drama become people, the setting three-dimensional.  The offstage effects, beyond Detroit’s city limits, are muted but related.  This is good history.  Its meaning becomes even clearer in the context of August Meier’s characterization of Black history in a 1983 review essay: “…a long memory of ineradicable and only modestly modifiable white racism, and an equally constant deep river of Black protest, glorious in and of itself, but largely futile.”11 Capeci’s close and careful analysis of Sojourner Truth adds substance to the memory and depth to the river.


1Alphonso Pinckney, The Myth of Black Progress.  (Cambridge, England, 1984).  

2Dominic J. Capeci Jr., The Harlem Riot of 1943 (Philadelphia, 1977).  

3Ibid.: xiii.  

4Gilbert Osofsky, Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890-1930 (New York, 1963); Seth M. Scheiner, Negro Mecca: A History of the Negro in New York City, 1865-1920 (New York, 1965); Allan Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Ghetto, 1890-1920 (Chicago, 1967); Kenneth Kusman, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870-1930 (Urbana, 1976); David Katzman, Before the Ghetto: Black Detroit in the Nineteenth Century (Urbana, 1973).  

5Thomas C. Cox, Blacks in Topeka, Kansas 1865-1915: A Social History (Baton Rouge, 1982); William H. Chafe, Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, N.C. and the Black Struggle for Freedom (New York, 1980); Douglas H. Daniels, Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco (Philadelphia, 1980).  

6Elliott M. Rudwick, Race Riot at East St. Louis, July2, 1917 (Carbondale, 1964); William M. Tuttle, Jr., Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919 (New York, 1970); Elizabeth H. Pleck, Black Migration and Poverty; Boston, 1865-1900 (New York, 1979); David J. Garrow, Protest at Selma: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Voting Act of 1965 (New Haven, 1978); Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (New York, 1977); Robert G. Ahearn, In Search of Canaan: Black Migration to Kansas, 1879-1880 (Lawrence, 1978).  

7Herbert J. Gans, “The Ghetto Rebellions and Urban Class Conflict,” in Robert H. Connery, ed., Urban Riots: Violence and Social Change (New York, 1968), 49.  

8Arthur Waskow, From Race Riot to Sit-in: 1919 and the 1960’s (Garden City, N.Y., 1966), 10-11.  

9Lord Blake, Report of the Committee to Review Local History (London, 1979), 5.  

10Inside New Detroit (Detroit, 1973), n.p. [Italics in original].  

11August Meier, “Whither the Black Perspective in Afro-American Historiography?” Journal of American History, 70 (June, 1983), 104.