Join Date: Feb 2001
Location: The Hills of North Georgia,USA
100 Years of Ford: The Workers
Working-class Fords share owners' destiny, dedication
Tradition unites different families with same name
By Bill Vlasic / The Detroit News
Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News
DEARBORN--On June 16, 1903, a visionary named Henry Ford founded the car company that changed the world. Three days later, Roosevelt Ford was born, the son of a dirt-poor black sharecropper in the steamy cotton town of Clinton, Mississippi.
Two unrelated Fords -- a budding captain of industry and a destitute child of the rural South -- had nothing in common but their destiny.
While Henry created the Ford Motor Co., it was Roosevelt who personified the sweat and toil of the workers who powered the automaker to greatness.
He was among the thousands of young, African-American men lured north in the 1920s by a $5-a-day paycheck and the promise of a future in the factories and foundries of Ford.
The mass migration triggered social changes that transformed the face of America. For Roosevelt Ford, it was only the beginning.
Four sons, seven grandchildren and two great-grandsons followed in his footsteps at Ford. They are electricians, engineers and administrators, hourly workers at the Rouge assembly complex and white-collar employees in the Glass House corporate headquarters.
They are the "other Ford family," and are as dedicated to the company as Henry's own great-grandson, Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr.
"My name is Ford, I worked at Ford and I drive a Ford," said Roosevelt's son, Carl, who retired in 1997 after 48 years with the automaker.
It's a remarkable family saga that mirrors the history of a company celebrating its 100th anniversary.
From the bloody labor battles of the Rouge to the integration of the skilled trades to the promotion of women and blacks to salaried positions, Roosevelt Ford's clan was there.
"I am part of a tradition," said DuJuan Ford, 28, a production worker at the Rouge stamping facility. "My great-grandfather started it. It's the family business."
Roosevelt Ford was one of 13 children, a black teen-ager trapped in the depressed, Deep South of the 1920s. A blight of boll weevils had ravaged the cotton fields, and decent jobs were scarce.
Racism pervaded his community, site of the infamous "Clinton Massacre" of 1875, when 20 blacks were lynched on one dark day.
His ticket to a new life was a freight train heading to Detroit, and a spot in line with scores of other blacks vying for a job at Henry Ford's first auto assembly plants.
"No American manufacturing company offered a wage anything like Ford," said Warren Whatley, professor of economics at the University of Michigan. "For a black to get $5 a day was phenomenal."
Henry Ford integrated the auto industry, hiring blacks by the thousands years before his competitors. Was he color-blind to race, or shrewdly exploiting an abundant new source of labor? It hardly mattered to hungry men like Roosevelt Ford.
He hired on at the Rouge in 1924, landing a job as a millwright in the hellish steel foundry where most blacks were assigned.
"The jobs that blacks got were the tough, dirty, hot jobs," said Roosevelt's son Alvin, a retiree with 54 years of service. "So many men lost their lives from breathing the dust and sand. It was so thick you couldn't see more than 10 feet in front of you."
Working conditions were perilous, and labor strife a powder keg about to explode. In April 1941, the United Auto Workers union struck the Rouge. Violence erupted outside the plant. Some 1,000 black workers -- torn between Ford and the UAW -- stayed locked inside for three days to keep the assembly line running.
The union branded them strikebreakers. "Ford knew damn well that black workers were his strike insurance," wrote former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, a union organizer in the 1940s, in his autobiography, "Hard Stuff."
As pickets fought with Ford security squads outside the Rouge, Roosevelt Ford kept working.
"My dad wanted to be part of the union, but he was locked in and couldn't come out," Alvin Ford said. "I remember my mother taking him his lunch every day."
One young union official, Douglas Fraser, empathized with the divided loyalties that blacks faced.
"Some stayed in the plant, but I understood it," said Fraser, who would serve as the UAW's president from 1977-83. "They had been given an opportunity at Ford they could not possibly have gotten elsewhere."
Weeks later, the UAW won an election on union representation, and negotiated its first contract with Ford. Roosevelt Ford had a more pressing concern -- feeding a growing family that numbered one daughter and 11 sons.
"We didn't have much," Carl Ford said. "We had one bicycle for the whole family. We just didn't have much and we were trying to get more."
The only opportunity to get ahead, he said, was a job at Ford.
The sign of success
The sign of success in Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood was a small, metal badge worn on the collar of a workingman's shirt. It meant he was employed at Ford, and it opened doors.
"A black man who worked at Ford kept that badge on," Roosevelt's son Herbert said. "You'd go to the grocery store, they would give you credit. That was something proud to have on you."
The badge -- with a picture of the Rouge stamped on it -- set apart blacks at Ford from laborers in other industries.
"With that badge, he could get his gas, electricity and telephone in his own name," wrote the late Detroit News columnist Lawrence Carter, a former Rouge worker.
"He became a man, not the anonymous cipher he was in, say, Chicago. He could buy his own home. It was the Detroit difference."
What Roosevelt Ford had, he wanted for his children. "Ford pays a good wage," he told his sons. "I want all my boys to work at Ford."
He was the consummate provider, a soft-spoken, no-nonsense patriarch who never turned a neighborhood kid away from the family dinner table. During World War II, he farmed two "victory gardens" on Ford-owned land and brought bushels of corn, peppers and cucumbers to share with the neighbors.
"My dad had an old, single-blade plow," Herbert Ford said. "Alvin and I would pull that plow. I was 11 or 12 years old. Oh, my dad kept us busy."
Four of his sons -- Roosevelt Jr., Alvin, Carl and Herbert -- would follow him to Ford.
Roosevelt Jr., the eldest, was an ace toolmaker in the Rouge engine plant, so skilled that he built a functioning, 3-inch-long V-8 engine as a hobby.
Alvin and Herbert were among the first blacks ever enrolled in the Henry Ford Trade School, then served apprenticeships to enter the skilled trades.
Alvin became an electrician, then a supervisor. Herbert started in production -- he called it "bull work, lots of heavy lifting" -- then worked as a metal model maker at Ford's engineering center.
"I was the first black in the shop," Herbert Ford said. "I knew there were a few guys who didn't want me there."
When a supervisor asked him if he planned to apply for the position of team leader, Herbert couldn't believe it.
"I said, they're not going to make me a leader. I'm a black guy," he said. "But he said, if you don't apply, I'm going to apply for you."
He got the job, and later became a supervisor himself. His brother Carl was the first black electrician at the engineering center. When he walked in the offices with his tool pouch slung over his shoulder, he knew that white employees watched his every move.
"I'd walk down the halls and people would look out their doors, like, who is that black guy?' " he said. "But I made a lot of really good friends out there."
Carl Ford realized early on that the same opportunities would not be available for years at rival Detroit automakers General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp.
"No question, Ford has been the best manufacturing company for the black man," he said. "The others are now on par, but they were far, far behind."
A family tradition
Roosevelt Ford died in 1983 never knowing how far his family would go at Ford.
The thought humbles his granddaughter, Maria Ford-Conliffe, Alvin's daughter and a project manager in Ford's corporate human resources department.
"My grandfather would be so proud," she said. "He'd be proud that my father and his brothers and my cousins and my brother and nephews have worked so hard to get ahead."
Like her, other family members have embarked on careers far from the factory life their grandfather endured.
Pat Ford-Turner works in customer service. Cheryl Ford-Walk is an administrative clerk. Carl Ford II works in building maintenance, Jefferey Ford in landscaping and Felicia Ford in product program management.
A 31-year-old engineer, Felicia Ford pores over plans for the 2005-model Ford Focus subcompact, rooting out excess costs in an effort to improve quality.
"I didn't think about working here until I started hearing our family story," she said.
Her father, Roy Ford, bucked the family trend to work at GM.
"There are some things we don't talk about at the dinner table," she said with a laugh.
Despite Ford Motor Co.'s financial woes of recent years, the "other" Ford family exudes optimism for the future.
"We're going to pull through," said Kevin Ford Jr., a Rouge production worker. "I was nervous about it until I saw some of the products we're planning on bringing out."
His grandfather, Alvin, puts his faith in the men and women who punch the clock every day at the No. 2 U.S. automaker.
"Ford will be a survivor," he said. "There are enough loyal employees who will sacrifice to make it survive."
The good life
The legacies of Henry Ford are many -- inventor of the modern assembly line, father of automotive mass-marketing, creator of a global industrial giant.
And whatever his motivations were at the time, he opened up opportunities for blacks that never existed before.
"What Henry Ford did had enormous consequences," said Elliott Hall, a lawyer with the Detroit firm Dykema Gossett and the first black vice president at Ford. "What he did raised the standard of living of every African-American in the early part of this century."
Like Roosevelt Ford, Hall's father, Odis, left a dead-end life in the South for a job at Ford.
"He had no future down in Arkansas," Hall said. "My dad made more money in a year at Ford than those sharecroppers did in a lifetime."
Today, 19 percent of Ford's 142,000 U.S. workers are African-American, slightly higher than the industry average. Ford has more black executives than GM or Chrysler, including four vice presidents.
The company has endured its share of racial strife -- periodic lawsuits over discrimination in its plants, a wildcat strike over racist violence in a British factory, the 1994 shooting of white UAW officials in the Rouge by a black union leader.
Yet Henry Ford's reputation as an enlightened employer of minorities remains secure.
"I hate to give old Henry credit, but nobody else hired blacks before he did it," said Fraser, the former UAW president.
In a sense, the Rouge was the cradle of equal opportunity in the auto industry. Three years ago, at the groundbreaking for the new, redesigned Rouge plant, the honor of driving the first construction piling into the ground didn't go to Chairman Bill Ford Jr. or some other corporate executive.
Instead, the man pulling the levers on the crane was Carl Ford.
"That was quite a thrill," he said. "Of all the big honchos and VIPS, I had the opportunity to drive the piling."
But the honor, he said, really goes to his father.
"He was so proud of the fact that he worked at Ford. He wanted all of us to be at Ford."
(Photo)Roosevelt Ford was a black teen-ager trapped in the depressed Deep South of the 1920s. His ticket to a new life was a freight train heading to Detroit, and a job at a Ford plant.
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My next Ford.....