The Way It Was – Detroit, The Arsenal of Democracy

Photograph courtesy of The Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

1942 During World War II, Detroit was dubbed the Arsenal of Democracy, as factories cranked out combat machinery day and night. However, the influx into the city of thousands of workers resulted in a severe housing shortage. Many whites lived in close quarters, but in the African-American community, centered primarily in the Black Bottom neighborhood on the lower east side, overcrowding was particularly acute. Even though construction of the Brewster-Douglass projects expanded in the early ’40s, adequate housing for blacks remained a problem. This photograph depicts a gathering of African-Americans in Cadillac Square protesting unsuitable living conditions. In the early ’40s, the federal government decided to build homes designated for blacks in northeast Detroit, at East Nevada Street and Fenelon Avenue. Named after the abolitionist and women’s-rights crusader Sojourner Truth, the project would accommodate 168 families. Opposition in the overwhelmingly white neighborhood was immediate and intense. The feds changed course and opted for white housing. When protests from civil-rights groups followed, it was decided to revert to the original plan. A racial melee broke out in February 1942 when black families started moving in. The Detroit police had a tough time containing the fighting, and the state police and the Michigan National Guard eventually were mustered to restore order. But it served only to put a lid on a tinderbox of fomenting racial tension. In June 1943, a full-fledged race riot broke out in Detroit, resulting in 34 dead, hundreds injured, and property damage in the millions. Today, the Sojourner Truth buildings still stand, although they’ve been extensively modernized.