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FORD TURNS 100: 1941 strike divided workers, a family

Union struggle left blacks torn between Ford loyalty, need for relief


Horace Lindsey Sheffield Sr. holed up with about 1,000 men, most of them African Americans, in the massive Ford Rouge complex, wondering when they would get out of there. It had been three days now. Sure, old man Ford was paying them around the clock -- oh, Lord, so much money! -- and the company brought food in by railcar. But the men were sharpening knives and other metal objects, waiting to clash with the union men outside.

No one was working, of course, and some of the guys were getting wild. Mostly, they were just waiting. Waiting for the strike to figure itself out. Waiting for the union guys to calm down, or at least to stop that annoying sound truck broadcasting how great the union was for Negro workers.

Sheffield believed he knew better. But what hurt the most was knowing the sound truck guy was his son.

The strike had started April 1, 1941, over at the Rolling Millat Ford Motor Co.'s Rouge plant in Dearborn. Harry Bennett, head of Ford's Service Department, which was charged with keeping order in the plants, fired eight employees. Most workers considered the department a bunch of thugs led by another thug.

It was no accident, everyone knew, that the fired employees were members of the UAW-CIO, the United Auto Workers and Congress of Industrial Organizations. This was the new, radical union trying hard to organize Ford's black employees. The older, rival branch -- the UAW-AFL, or American Federation of Labor -- was on Ford's side.

Sheffield, then in his early 40s, was among hundreds of African-American Ford employees who had stayed in the plant, loyal to Ford -- at the cost of his son, at least temporarily.

Outside, Horace Sheffield II, in his early 20s, was experiencing one of the highlights of what would be years of union activism. It was he who had thought of the sound truck. And he was on it, blasting his voice to the men in the plant, though he knew his father would not budge.

"I tried to convince him" the union was the way to go, Sheffield II, now deceased, said in a 1968 interview. "When I couldn't convince him, he and I came to a parting of the ways."

The Sheffields' division illustrates the ironic result of Henry Ford's unusual policy of employing African Americans. By the early 1920s, Ford had been employing black people in large numbers, while other employers ignored them. He had given them equal pay, equal opportunities, a chance to work as tradesman and even foremen. Such opportunities were unheard of in the 1920s, when Sheffield Sr. was hired.

But by the mid-1930s, unions had organized all auto plants except Ford, and the younger generation of workers had graduated from appreciating any job to evaluating working conditions and employers.

The Rouge plant had some of the roughest working conditions anywhere, and as unions sought to remedy that, Ford turned to his loyal, largely black workforce. People such as Sheffield Sr. responded, as did most black workers, young and old. But a few, such as Sheffield II, began to challenge that loyalty.

Heading North for work
T he 1941 strike was the culmination of forces that began roughly with the emergence of Ford's Model T, which went into high-gear production at the Highland Park and Rouge plants just before World War I.

Tremendous changes were taking place in America. Autos rapidly were replacing horses. Industrial unions were emerging, spawning significant strikes by 1919. Communists and socialists operated freely in labor circles, including those in Detroit.

Meanwhile, World War I -- and the 1921 federal Emergency Immigration Act following it -- had reduced the stream of immigrant labor that industrial employers relied on. That brought more Southerners to the North. Black Southerners fled bleak rural poverty, lynchings, Jim Crow laws and job discrimination. They headed toward a place that offered solid jobs, fair pay, something akin to opportunity.

What they were hearing about, for the most part, was the Ford Motor Co.

Some had heard about Ford from the company recruiterssent to the South to find laborers. Others got word from family members already up North. In either case, newly arrived blacks did not find a racism-free heaven, but they did find opportunity at Ford. This was because of Henry Ford's personal philosophy, Ford experts say.

As progressive as Ford was in his employment of African Americans, though, he never accepted unions or understood why his employees did. And when the time came to unionize Ford, his motivations for hiring black people in the early '20s and treating them well came under suspicion.

As is so often the case with Ford, not all is as it seems. Ford never favored integration, and more than one critic accuses him of being grossly paternalistic; some also speculate that he knew when he hired black people in 1920, that he could use them to break strikes in 1940.

Any debate about Ford's motives must consider the context, said David Lewis, a Ford expert and business history professor at the University of Michigan.

"People look back and say Henry Ford was manipulative" in hiring lots of blacks and treating them well, Lewis said. "But many, many employers around the turn of the century into the teens were paternalistic. It was regarded by most folks as being a good thing.

"Actually, Henry Ford in the teens was a very enlightened person."

Lewis said Ford's sympathetic attitude toward black people in the workplace had its genesis in 1888. Ford, then still a farmer, hired William Perry, a black man from Ontario, to help him cut down trees. The men, both 25, used a crosscut saw, which requires two people, one on each end of the long blade.

Later, Ford jotted down in a small notebook that black and white people can work together, "the colored man at one end of the log, the white man at the other."

Perry became Ford's first black employee in 1914. By 1919, there were 1,597 others at Ford, including the first white-collar black worker, Eugene Collins. By 1923, Ford employed 5,000 Detroit-area black men, far more than other plants.

While most blacks worked in the production foundry -- brutal manual labor -- many moved into other jobs never offered to them elsewhere. Eventually, black foremen actually could fire white workers who discriminated. They also were admitted to training schools and apprenticeship programs -- all radical practices for the time.

"Thus, you found colored electricians, plumbers, bricklayers and tool-and-die makers," said Willis Ward in 1954. Ward was a well-known black University of Michigan football player whom Ford hired in the 1930s. "As far as I know, there was no other place where colored men could ever become skilled tool-and-die makers. It was a closed trade."

"At Chevrolet, they were usually confined to the hammer shop," said the late Shelton Tappes in a 1961 interview. Tappes was a UAW-CIO union leader during and after the 1941 strike. "At places like Hudson, Continental and shops like that, they were janitors. At Packard, they were allowed to work in the foundry. Ford was probably the most liberal of the automobile companies in that there were other jobs open to them."

What good-paying, steady employment meant to Detroit's African Americans cannot be understated. They were crammed into neighborhoods rife with crime, unemployment and deplorable living conditions, but a job at Ford paid the bills and made the impossible possible: It allowed some to buy their own homes.

Ford a proving ground
Horace Sheffield Sr. must have thought about his beloved house, at 6358 Hazlett in Detroit, as he sat in the plant. It was the first piece of property any Sheffield had owned in the United States. He bought it in the 1920s, shortly after starting at Ford. He lived there nearly all his life. Henry Ford made that possible, he always said.

Sheffield had moved from Georgia around 1919 and found work at Ford soon after. He had had just four years of formal education. He eventually became a foundry foreman.

"My grandfather retired in 1959 or '60," said Horace Sheffield III of Detroit. "He had 49 years and 14 days. He said he never missed a day."

And yet, Sheffield said, "he talked about people dying at the dinner table because they had worked so hard. My grandfather was 6 feet tall with size 15 shoes. He had these huge hands, and he would take a piece of paper and light a cigarette and put the paper out with his hand" because they had been burned so often at work.

The senior Sheffield had seen worse conditions. What mattered was getting the chance to prove himself. And he was not going to walk out on the only man who had given him that chance.

"I think my grandfather went to his grave thinking if it hadn't been for Henry Ford, he would have been a barefoot sharecropper in rural Georgia and poor," Sheffield said. "He believed God had used Henry Ford to provide black people with an opportunity to gain middle-class status."

Sheffield II, on the other hand, was a Trotskyite, a radical socialist. His father saw opportunity in Ford. He saw it in the UAW.

He had taken a job at Ford's foundry a few years earlier. By 1941, he had joined the union organizers who were trying to overcome the last obstacle at the Rouge plant: 17,000 black workers mainly loyal to Ford.

Union drives a battle
The drive to unionize Ford -- the last major Detroit auto plant to be organized -- was the "acid test of industrial unionization," as one author said. And it consumed Detroit's black residents in a debate during the late 1930s -- a debate that fed into the emerging civil rights movement.

"As I saw it, the Ford Motor Co. was the battleground for the civil rights movement whether you worked for it or not," said the late Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, who worked at Ford in the late 1930s.

Unionists had an uphill fight. African Americans distrusted unions, which had excluded them outright or discriminated against them in other ways. Some had segregated locals. White union members refused to attend union social events with blacks. Black people rarely held leadership positions. African Americans believed unions were only trying to use them to conquer Ford; after that, they would be dumped. The strike was a white man's fight.

"That was the feeling as I understood it at the time I got out of college," said Ward, the former U-M football player. "You didn't have to go and tell a Negro that he shouldn't be in the union. He knew."

Henry Ford had established strong ties with black leaders, particularly ministers. As early as 1919, he had invited the Rev. Robert Bradby of Second Baptist Church in Detroit to help settle problems involving black workers in the plant. Ford also asked Bradby to recommend good workers from his congregation -- a referral system that lasted more than 20 years.

As the number of black workers increased, Ford also recruited the Rev. Everard Daniels of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, where many of the black elite worshipped.

The Detroit Urban League and local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also backed Ford. Most debates or rallies took place in churches, where pro-Ford ministers used their pulpits to great effect. The men holding out in the plant in 1941 had been told by ministers not to "bite the hand that feeds you."

UAW organizers worked feverishly, and often at their peril. Many were fired; others were beaten -- as some were during the famous 1937 Battle of the Overpass, when Ford's security agents attacked Walter Reuther and other UAW members passing out leaflets near the plant.

Bennett's spies recorded license plate numbers of people attending union meetings for later punishment. Ford organized loyalty rallies and clubs, and published strong propaganda, including handbills. One read:

"Henry Ford is the next man to Abe Lincoln in helping the Colored race."

But the union appealed to a new mind-set. Organizers hammered the harsh working conditions and recast Ford's so-called benevolence as masked racism.

"The price that the mass of Negroes working in the foundry have to pay in order for a few of their brothers to work at skilled jobs is too great a price to pay for a race whose contribution to American life has always been that of labor without honor," wrote Christopher Alston of the radical National Negro Congress in a 1940 pamphlet.

The union had helped double wages at other plants and given black workers seniority rights, Alston wrote. It would fight for black workers to haveEmancipation Day off. It was still fighting the poll tax in the South. The union was dignity -- it embraced all workers. They all "rise or fall together."

A few churches, such as Hartford Avenue Baptist -- now Hartford Memorial -- supported the unions. So did the national NAACP. Roy Wilkins, executive secretary, wrote in Crisis Magazine: "The spectacle of poor preachers, ministering to the needs of poor people whose lot from birth to death is to labor for a pittance, rising to a frenzied, name-calling defense of a billionaire manufacturer is enough to make the Savior himself weep."

But working conditions were harsh for everyone; white people simply left because they could find work elsewhere. The Depression hit blacks harder than whites.

"We cannot afford to have Ford close down on us," Daniels said in response to Wilkins.

Sides find a resolution
Eventually, the strike ended via negotiations, in part brokered by Michigan Gov. Murray Van Wagoner. The contract granted almost every UAW wish. Bennett severely objected. But Edsel Ford -- backed by Henry's wife, Clara, who threatened to walk out if Henry refused to sign -- finally ended the strike.

Other factors spurred the settlement: a U.S. Supreme Court ruling favoring the National Labor Relations Board over Ford, the impending Second World War, the feeling that a union win was inevitable.

Horace Sheffield III does not know when his grandfather emerged from the plant. By the strike's 10th -- and last -- day, only a few hundred men were left. Today, most experts and participants agree that some of them supported neither Ford nor the union. They just feared punishment no matter what they did.

Ironically, Sheffield said, his father was never beaten or fired despite his radical union activities -- because of his grandfather. "My grandfather told me he had a personal conversation with Henry Ford about his son," Sheffiled said.

Sheffield II died in 1995 after 50 years at Ford, most of them spent on union-related activities.

Sheffield Sr. eventually joined the union, as did most black workers. He died in 1979. His wife, Georgie, survived until 1992, living in the Hazlett house. After her death, her grandson sold the place, closing a chapter in family history.

Sheffield, pastor of New Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, has three children, including Horace Sheffield IV, who is 17 -- just old enough to argue with the old man now and then.

But Sheffield understands -- just as he understands his father and grandfather. They were different men from different times with the same dream.

"I admire both of them," he said.

My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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