History of African Americans in Detroit

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, blacks or African Americans living in Detroit accounted for 79.1% of the total population, or approximately 532,425 people as of 2017 estimates.[1] According to the 2000 U.S. Census, of all U.S. cities with 100,000 or more people, Detroit had the second-highest percentage of black people.[2]

Nearby suburbs also had high black populations, reflecting the history of settlement of African Americans here during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when people were attracted to Detroit's industrial jobs: Southfield had a black population of 42,259, and Pontiac 31,416. In 2002 the Michigan city with the highest percentage of black residents was Highland Park, where 93% of the population is black.[3] In the 2010 census, African Americans made up 22.8% of the total city and metropolitan area population in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.

History of African-American settlement[edit]


Among African Americans who moved to Detroit from the American South before the end of slavery were George and Richard DeBaptiste. They attended classes taught by Rev. Samuel H. Davis, the pastor at the Second Baptist Church in the city.[4] Marcus Dale[5] attended the African Methodist Episcopal church led by Rev. John M. Brown and others.[6] In the days before the Civil War began, Detroit was an important site on the Underground Railroad, in which local people aided the passage of fugitive slaves to freedom. Its location just across the river from Canada, where slavery was abolished in 1834, made it a destination for many seeking freedom. Although Michigan was a free territory, some refugee slaves wanted to go over the border to Canada to prevent being captured by slavecatchers. Others settled in Detroit.

Local blacks involved in the Underground Railroad work included Samuel C. Watson (who later opened a drug store in Detroit),[7] William Whipper, Richard and George DeBaptiste, and others. William Lambert, Laura Haviland,[8] and Henry Bibb were also involved.[9] Many Detroit African Americans served in the American Civil War (1861-1865). The 102nd Regiment United States Colored Troops of Michigan and Illinois was recruited in large part in Detroit.[10]

Blacks in Detroit had to face rising tensions from ethnic whites before and after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in January 1863. A Democratic Party paper, The Detroit Free Press, supported white supremacy and opposed President Abraham Lincoln's handling of the war. In addition, it consistently presented issues of the day as problems due to competition with free blacks, projecting threats to white men's power and forecasting worse labor problems if the mass of slaves were freed. On March 1863, a race riot broke out in Detroit. Catalyzed by the arrest of a mixed-race man for allegedly molesting a white girl, a white mob attacked blacks and their neighborhood, resulting in two deaths (one, white and one black), numerous people injured, 35 houses and businesses destroyed, and more than 200 people left homeless. As a result, the city established its first full-time police force.[11]


After the war, African Americans formed an important political block in the city, led by Watson, George DeBaptist, John D. Richards, and Walter Y. Clark.[12] Saginaw's William Q. Atwood was an important figure outside Detroit who influenced the city's African-American politics as well.[13]


Before World War I, Detroit had about 4,000 black people, 1% of its population. In the 1890s, journalist and founder of the black paper, Detroit Plaindealer, Robert Pelham Jr. and lawyer D. Augustus Straker worked in Detroit and throughout the state to create branches of the National Afro-American League. The pair were active, in part through the league, in supporting blacks in legal trouble.[14] Pelham was also an important figure in the league at a national level.[15]

The first major period of black growth occurred from 1910 to 1930, during the economic expansion in the auto industry.[3] At the time in Detroit, most blacks lived in mixed communities containing other racial groups, often recent European immigrants, as both groups were making their way and had to take older housing.[16]

Due to the war effort in World War I, many men enlisted in the armed forces, and employers needed workers. They recruited African Americans from the South, who were also on the move as part of the first Great Migration. They sought more opportunity and a chance to leave behind the oppression of the Jim Crow South. From 1910-1930, the black population of Detroit increased from under 6,000 to over 120,000, as the city developed as the fourth largest in the country. By 1920, of Michigan's black population, 87% was born outside of the state, and most of those came from the South.[17] Because landlords began to restrict access to housing, blacks were forced into small districts, which became overcrowded as the population grew. T. J. Sugrue, author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, wrote that the first geographic racial divisions between whites and blacks developed during the Great Migration.[16]

In 1912 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded a Detroit chapter. The Detroit Urban League was founded in 1916. Both organizations used the support of black churches. Steve Babson, author of Working Detroit: The Making of a Union Town, wrote that in the early 20th century the black population "was relatively behind the middle-class leadership" of the NAACP and the Urban League.[18]

Around the 1920s and 1930s black people working in Henry Ford's factories settled in Inkster because they did not want to commute from Detroit and they were not allowed to live in Dearborn.[19] Whites resisted even middle-class blacks moving into their neighborhoods. In 1925 the State of Michigan charged physician Ossian Sweet with murder after he used a shotgun to kill a white man who was part of a mob trying to force him to leave his newly purchased house, located in a mostly white neighborhood. Sweet was acquitted of his charges.[20]


During the Great Depression, the population stagnated.[3] The black population growth was at the lowest rate since 1910.[17] As the US entry into World War II disrupted the labor market by drafting numbers of young men, the demand for labor grew with the expansion of the war industries. Sections of the auto industry were converted to wartime production of the arsenal and vehicles needed for war, and a new wave of blacks migrated from the South.[3] President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an Executive Order to prevent discrimination among defense contractors, increasing opportunities for minorities in the range of jobs and supervisory positions. This was resisted by some working-class whites. In the period from 1940 to 1950, more than 66% of the black population in Detroit had been born outside the area, with most born in the South.[21] The increase in population had strained city schools and services for all residents.

Housing Crisis[edit]

Competition in employment and housing spheres increased social tensions in the city. Insufficient housing opportunities for African Americans led to a polarized political and economic landscape. The government attempted to ease the housing pressure by building projects for working-class families, but whites resented placement of these projects in their neighborhoods. Public housing became synonymous with "black" because they were placed in impoverished urban areas, and the implementation of housing projects faced opposition from white homeowners and public officials looking to please their constituents. Federal housing policies effectively stymied the progress of African Americans in the city of Detroit, and, consequently, housing shortages disproportionately targeted African American citizens.[22]

Residential segregation was prevalent as structures of disinvestment amplified hypersegregation along both racial and economic lines. In 1935, the Federal Home Loan Bank Act (FHLB) commissioned 239 lending maps for the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) to document and evaluate what neighborhoods throughout the country were lending risks. Many areas of Detroit were redlined as a result of being designated "high risk" neighborhoods. Many neighborhoods that were graded as hazardous for lending were primarily composed of minority groups, and these redlined neighborhoods illustrated the ways in which economic inequality disproportionately targeted African Americans. Citizens residing in these neighborhoods were denied loans by lending institutions, and consequently they were unable to purchase or fix homes. Systematic discrimination in housing contributed to volatile race relations in the city of Detroit.

The most important pro-public housing coalition was the Citizens' Housing and Planning Council (CHPC). The goal of this organization was to improve environmental conditions in slums by replacing suboptimal living and sanitary conditions with more adequate housing for African Americans. This reform aimed to ameliorate poor living spaces and construct a cleaner environment that was more conducive to public health and morale.[22] This organization inevitably faced opposition from anti-public housing groups and white homeowners who were fixated on maintaining racial homogeneity in their neighborhoods.

1943 Riot[edit]

Postwar tensions and animosities culminated in the race riots of 1943. This riot started with a conflict among young men at Belle Isle, and it quickly spread into the city, inciting violence between whites and blacks. Although at the time blacks were largely blamed for the violence, studies have found that many young armed whites traveled across the city to attack majority-black areas east of Woodward Avenue. By contrast, blacks arrested in the riot tended to be mature family men who had lived longer in the city and were defending their homes. The governor had to call in the National Guard to suppress the riot. As a result of this riot, white citizens learned to use violence to gain leverage in political and housing contentions.[22]

Civil Rights Movement[edit]

The civil rights movement in the South affected minorities in northern and western states as well. In Detroit, activists pushed for more representation in local government, including the white-dominated police force, and for equal justice in housing and employment. At the same time, African Americans were proud of their progress in Detroit. In 1965 the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History was founded in the city.

According to columnist Keith Richburg, in the 1960s a social divide developed between the many black people from Alabama and those from South Carolina; they lived east and west of Woodward Avenue, respectively. The migrants from South Carolina believed they were more refined than those from Alabama, who were from rural areas and thought to be lower class. Richburg described the divide as "more psychological than geographic".[23]

From 1950 to 1970 de facto racial segregation in the Metro Detroit area increased. Those white people who were more established economically moved out of the city to newly developed suburbs, which often were divided by class and income levels. In that period black growth in the suburbs averaged 2.7%, while in previous decades it had been 5%.[21] Social tensions increased as blacks felt oppressed by discrimination, a majority-white police force, and restricted housing. Resentments erupted in the widespread destruction and violence in black neighborhoods of the Detroit riot of 1967, considered the worst in urban America. That summer similar riots erupted in numerous cities across the country. Both middle-class whites and blacks began to leave Detroit in greater number. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in April 1968, there was renewed violence in a civil disturbance along 12th Street, the center of the 1967 unrest. It was quickly controlled. In the 1970s, the number of middle-class blacks moving to the suburbs increased, as they also sought newer housing, better schools, and neighborhoods with less poverty and crime.[3]

Auto Industry[edit]

Pressures on the auto industry and restructuring of heavy manufacturing across the region caused high job losses, adding to the strains of the city. Overall population in the metro area declined, with many people moving to other areas for work. Detroit suffered concentrated poverty in sections, where people were unable to leave. The quality of schools declined, creating a cycle that appeared to trap people in place. The city struggled to support those in need at a time of declining revenues.

Demographic Changes and Suburbanization[edit]

By 1970 Detroit and six other municipalities, Ecorse, Highland Park, Inkster, Pontiac, River Rouge, and Royal Oak Township, had higher than average black populations. The six suburban municipalities with higher than average black populations held a total of 78.5% of the suburban black people in the tri-county area.[24] During this suburbanization period, many middle-class blacks also moved from Detroit to Southfield.[25] Suburban development and growth increased among all populations, and blacks became more widely distributed.

By 2000, blacks in the six suburban municipalities that had held the great majority in 1970 made up only 34% of the blacks in the suburbs.[24] From 1990 to 2000, black people migrating to the suburbs constituted almost half of the total population growth there. In the decade 1990-2000, the highest number of blacks moved into the Detroit suburbs of any decade in the 20th century. In that decade, the black population of Southfield increased by more than 20,000 people.[3] At the same time, the total number of black people in Detroit decreased for the first time in the city's history. But other ethnic decreases resulted in black people in the city making up a higher percentage of its overall population: from 76% to 82%.[26] As of 2002, a total of 90% of the black population in Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland counties resided in Detroit, Highland Park, Inkster, Pontiac, and Southfield.[2]

Migration of black families out of Detroit continued. By 2010 Southfield became 70% black.[25] In 2010 9% of Macomb County's population was black,[27] and the black population in Warren from 2000 to 2010 increased from 4,000 to 18,000.[28]By 2011 black suburbanization had increased across the area, as blacks settled in more different localities. [25] By 2011 black suburbanization had increased across the metro region, no longer limited to a few communities. From 2000 to 2010, Detroit had lost around 200,000 people, as many families continued to leave the ailing city.[25]

The housing market in Metro Detroit declined during the Great Recession, enabling some blacks to move into areas that had previously been too expensive. At the same time, many white suburbanites were unable to sell their houses so stayed in place, resulting in the development of more integrated neighborhoods. Mark Binelli, author of Detroit City is the Place to Be, wrote "In a funny way, the recession had helped this integration along."[27] Some suburban residents, including middle-class blacks, resented the new arrivals, feeling they brought unwelcome patterns of behavior that disrupted the peace of the suburbs.[27]


  • NAACP of Detroit.
  • KICK is an organization that serves LGBT African Americans.


The Michigan Chronicle and The Michigan FrontPage, both owned by the company Real Times, serve the African-American community.


Congressman John Conyers speaking on stage alongside Alicia Skillman (l) and Curtis Lipscomb (r) during Hotter Than July 2013 in Detroit, Michigan's Palmer Park

The "Hotter than July" annual LGBT festival is held in the park Palmer Park; the festival states that it caters to the "black same-gender-loving".[29]

A Buffalo Soldiers museum is located in western Detroit, near Rouge Park. It interprets the history of African-American soldiers who fought in the West. [30]

Ruth Ellis, a black lesbian, held house parties at her residence, "The Spot". It became a socializing place for black lesbians and gay men, allowing them to avoid heterosexism and racism in their society. Ellis, who was featured in the documentary Living With Pride, was the oldest-known black woman who identified as a lesbian until her death in October 2001. She lived in Detroit until her death.[31]

Notable people[edit]

See also[edit]


  • Babson, Steve. Working Detroit: The Making of a Union Town. Wayne State University Press, 1986. ISBN 0814318193, 9780814318195.
  • Binelli, Mark. Detroit City is the Place to Be. Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company (New York). First Edition, 2012. ISBN 978-0-8050-9229-5 (hardback version).
  • Carrillo, Karen Juanita. African American History Day by Day: A Reference Guide to Events. ABC-CLIO, August 31, 2012. ISBN 1598843605, 9781598843606.


  1. ^ "U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Detroit city, Michigan".
  2. ^ a b "Race and Ethnicity in the Tri-County Area: Selected Communities and School Districts." (Archive) From a Child's Perspective: Detroit Metropolitan Census 2000 Fact Sheets Series. Wayne State University. June 2002. Volume 2, Issue 2. p. 1. Retrieved on November 10, 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Metzger, Kurt and Jason Booza. "African Americans in the United States, Michigan and Metropolitan Detroit." (Archive) Center for Urban Studies, Wayne State University. February 2002. Working Paper Series, No. 8. p. 8. Retrieved on November 9, 2013.
  4. ^ Simmons 1887, p355
  5. ^ Simmons 1887, p685
  6. ^ Simmons 1887, p1115
  7. ^ Simmons 1887, p862-863
  8. ^ Tobin, Jacqueline L. From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad. Anchor, 2008. pp200-209
  9. ^ Toledo, Gregory. The Hanging of Old Brown: A Story of Slaves, Statesmen, and Redemption. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. p75
  10. ^ Dunn, William. A History of the First Michigan Colored Regiment. Thesis (M.A.)--Central Michigan University, 1967.
  11. ^ Kundinger, Matthew (2006). "Racial Rhetoric: The Detroit Free Press and Its Part in the Detroit Race Riot of 1863" (PDF). University of Michigan. Retrieved 2011-02-24.
  12. ^ "The Colored Voters", Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), 30 April 1874, page 1, accessed December 13, 2016 at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/7841273/the_colored_voters_detroit_free_press/
  13. ^ "Political Gossip", Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) September 6, 1884, page 8, accessed December 13, 2016 at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/7841433/political_gossip_detroit_free_press/
  14. ^ Alexander, Shawn Leigh. An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle Before the NAACP. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, p36
  15. ^ Alexander 2011, p326
  16. ^ a b Metzger, Kurt and Jason Booza. "African Americans in the United States, Michigan and Metropolitan Detroit." (Archive) Center for Urban Studies, Wayne State University. February 2002. Working Paper Series, No. 8. p. 12. Retrieved on November 9, 2013.
  17. ^ a b Metzger, Kurt and Jason Booza. "African Americans in the United States, Michigan and Metropolitan Detroit." (Archive) Center for Urban Studies, Wayne State University. February 2002. Working Paper Series, No. 8. p. 9. Retrieved on November 9, 2013.
  18. ^ Babson, p. 28.
  19. ^ Binelli, p. 25. "The blacks working at the Rouge didn't necessarily want to commute all the way from Detroit but they weren't welcome in Dearborn, so they began settling in the regrettably named suburb of Inkster (which in fact commemorates an early Scottish settler, Robert Inkster)."
  20. ^ Carrillo, p. 265.
  21. ^ a b Metzger, Kurt and Jason Booza. "African Americans in the United States, Michigan and Metropolitan Detroit." (Archive) Center for Urban Studies, Wayne State University. February 2002. Working Paper Series, No. 8. p. 10. Retrieved on November 9, 2013.
  22. ^ a b c 1962-, Sugrue, Thomas J.,. Origins of the urban crisis : race and inequality in postwar Detroit. New Jersey. ISBN 9781400851218. OCLC 878919151.
  23. ^ Richburg, Keith (1995-03-16). "American in Africa". Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-10-13.
  24. ^ a b Metzger, Kurt and Jason Booza. "African Americans in the United States, Michigan and Metropolitan Detroit." (Archive) Center for Urban Studies, Wayne State University. February 2002. Working Paper Series, No. 8. p. 11. Retrieved on November 9, 2013.
  25. ^ a b c d Binelli, p. 133.
  26. ^ Metzger, Kurt and Jason Booza. "African Americans in the United States, Michigan and Metropolitan Detroit." (Archive) Center for Urban Studies, Wayne State University. February 2002. Working Paper Series, No. 8. p. 13. Retrieved on November 9, 2013.
  27. ^ a b c Binelli, p. 134.
  28. ^ Binelli, p. 133-134.
  29. ^ Case, Wendy. "Affirming Ferndale." (Archive) Metro Times. May 30, 2007. Retrieved on January 24, 2013.
  30. ^ Detroitblogger John. "Soldiering on." Metro Times. July 28, 2010. Retrieved on August 2, 2015.
  31. ^ Hornsby, Alton Jr. (editor). A Companion to African American History (Wiley Blackwell Companions to American History). John Wiley & Sons, April 15, 2008. ISBN 1405137355, 9781405137355. p. 418.

Further reading[edit]

  • Sugrue, Thomas J. "A Dream Still Deferred." (Op-Ed) The New York Times. March 26, 2011.
  • Simmons, William J., and Henry McNeal Turner. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. GM Rewell & Company, 1887.

External links[edit]