Several factors spurred the movement of Black Americans from the South during the Great Migration in the 1920s, including the menace of the Ku Klux Klan, the treacherous boll weevil and soil erosion, to say nothing of the neo-slavery policies of sharecropping.
But most historians agree that it was Henry Ford’s promise of a wage increase to $5 a day that motivated the so-called “blues people” to pack their cardboard suitcases and a sack of sandwiches for the trip to Detroit and beyond the cotton curtain.
There is a classic photo of 10,000 jobseekers outside the Highland Park plant on Jan. 5, 1914, eager to get one of the jobs advertised, and upon close inspection, many of them were Black. They wanted to be part of this revolutionary wage that doubled the salaries Ford and other industrialists were paying their employees.
One of Ford’s motives was to improve the sales of his Model T by providing his workers with a salary so they could afford to purchase the product they helped produce. These job opportunities were good news and bad news for Black workers in Detroit who before World War I represented but a small portion of the city’s total population. By the end of the war, however, there were some 8,000 African-Americans employed in the auto industry, with Ford commanding 1,675, most of them consigned to the dirtiest most dangerous jobs. But even getting a job at Ford’s foundries and blast furnaces was a vast improvement over the dangers they faced under Jim Crow.
For the next two or three decades, Ford would continue to be the largest employer of Black Detroiters, and this livelihood was instrumental in the development of significantly large middle class. All of this was enhanced by Ford’s cordial relationship with Detroit’s ministers, particularly at those churches where a good number of the congregants were Ford workers.
It should be noted that Ford provided housing for its workers at reduced rates, insurance plans, loans at low interest and recreational facilities.
Working at Lincoln-Mercury, a division of Ford, was no better, though it was a relief to get out of the hot zones and the custodial broom and mop brigade. Such was the luck of music mogul Berry Gordy during his brief stay on the factory assembly line that taught him a valuable lesson in production.
“The minute I walked into the Lincoln-Mercury assembly plant and saw how cool it was—no furnaces, fire or hot metal—I knew this was going to be my home for a while,” he wrote in his memoir, “To Be Loved.” “Little did I know when I started how important to my future that assembly line was going to be. All I knew was the slow-moving car frames were the loveliest sight I’d ever seen. There was a pleasing simplicity to how everyone did the same thing over and over again.”
Taking home more than $86 a week was a windfall for Gordy, but even more lucrative was the learning experience he would apply later in his assembly line of songwriters, producers and performers.
Gordy’s family had arrived in Detroit from Georgia not too long after Ford’s enticement, and from his father, Gordy acquired an entrepreneurial impulse that figured largely in his future plans.
Ford’s $5 bargain helped induce thousands of Black Americans from places like Cotton Valley and the Red Hills of Georgia. What’s needed now is an income boost, a hike in minimum wage to give this generation the kind of optimism that their grandparents received after Ford’s less than altruistic generosity.