Mr. Ford, blacks and the UAW

Labor economist Herbert Northrup said that in the ’20s and ’30s blacks came closer to job equality at Ford than at any other comparable company.

In the 1920s and ’30s, only Ford Motor Co. offered blacks a wide range of employment opportunities. No other auto companies considered blacks as capable as other workers. At Ford, blacks could work on the assembly line, in laboratories, in skilled trades, and could be promoted to foreman. Only Ford allowed blacks into apprentice programs.

James Charles Price became the first salaried black employee in the industry when Ford promoted him to purchaser of abrasives and industrial diamonds, a job at which he became regarded as one of the best in the industry.

Ford even put blacks into the hated and feared Service Department run by Harry Bennett. Goons from Bennett’s department were used to keep order inside the plant gates and to strike fear into the hearts of union organizers. One famous photo shows a black Bennett enforcer pushing a leafleteer off the premises.

Labor economist Herbert Northrup said that in the ’20s and ’30s blacks came closer to job equality at Ford than at any other comparable company. No other car companies hired blacks for anything but the most menial or difficult and dangerous jobs — jobs unwanted by white workers.

Ford even hired blacks to work in Harry Bennett’s dreaded Service Department, which was charged with keeping order in and around Ford plants. Here two service department employees — one black — are shown harassing a union organizer.

      So when the United Auto Workers began to organize, Ford’s black employees were caught in the middle. Many were grateful to Ford for the opportunities he provided and were suspicious of the white union organizers.

Blacks had long been involved in trade and craft unionism — the strike by black porters against the Pullman Company had lasted 12 years — but Ford had given them good jobs when other plants refused to hire them and many feared the loss of these jobs.

Many other ethnic groups, like Polish immigrants, remembered previous hard lives in Europe and showed gratitude to Ford by bowing low from the waist when the great man walked the line. They were loathe to find fault with their benefactor. They knew there were hundreds of jobless men lined up outside who would gladly take their prized jobs.

Even Jews who knew of Ford’s anti-Semitism accepted his commissions, including famed architect Albert Kahn. Ford’s great status allowed many of his foibles to be written off as eccentricities.

Henry Ford believed that the unions were communistic and wanted to take his factories away from him.

      Henry Ford had always admired inventive genius, the basis of his long time friendship with Thomas Edison. And although he was not devoid of prejudices, he respected and supported genius regardless of color. He held inventor George Washington Carver, one of the most famous blacks of his time, in great esteem. An outspoken admirer, Ford donated funds for Carver to continue his research into uses for the peanut, for cotton and for the sweet potato.

Despite his apparently benevolent attitude toward black workers, Ford voiced the opinion that Anglo-Saxon-Celtic peoples possessed higher competence than other races. But whatever his prejudices, he believed that black workers could do the jobs required of them. In 1923, Ford began a program to recruit black workers. He hired Father Everard W. Daniel, pastor of St. Matthew’s Protestant Episcopal Church, to help him find suitable workers. Ford also hired Donald J. Marshall, a black policeman and member of the Rev. Daniel’s congregation, to work in Bennett’s Service Department.

The paternalistic Ford wanted to control all parts of his workers’ lives. He wanted faithful married men who were churchgoers and non-drinkers. And he wanted them to have adequate housing within walking distance, so he provided a Dearborn subdivision of homes he considered acceptable.

So when the UAW organizers began showing up at the Ford gates, they met with resistance. Black workers and the American public tended to side with Henry Ford’s anti-union position. In 1938 a George Gallup poll found 66 percent favored Ford and only 33 percent were for the union. Among car owners, 75 percent sided with Ford.

UAW leader Horace Sheffield, who began working at Ford in 1934, called Henry Ford a “genius in the field of job equality.”

      Ford felt the unions were communistic and wanted to take his factories away from him. He felt he had been good to his workers and could not understand why they would want to bite the hand that fed them.

Black auto workers remained suspicious of white unionizers and their promises. The black workers, despite being last hired and first fired, feared the alternatives of welfare and joblessness. And labor’s ideal of seniority never seemed to apply to them.

White unionists feared that blacks would be willing strikebreakers because they needed the money more and were used to bad working conditions and abuse from whites, making it easier for them to tolerate threats from strikers.

And Henry Ford himself was perfectly willing to use blacks as strikebreakers in order to preserve the open shop.

Horace Sheffield, who began working at the Ford Rouge plant in 1934 and later became a UAW leader, wrote an article July 2, 1964, in The Detroit News about Henry Ford and his black workers in which he called Ford a “genius in the field of job equality.”

“The significant thing,” Sheffield wrote, “is that Henry Ford accomplished this measure of fair employment practices in the Rouge plant long before there was any thought of a ‘Negro revolution’ or any commitment on the part of government to the principle of equality in employment. It was unprecedented, and it was achieved without apparent backlash from the white work force.”

UAW leader Walter Reuther knew he needed support from black workers and promised the union would take up the fight against racial discrimination. But while Reuther spoke out against racial bias, blacks saw such biases among his most fervent supporters.

Walter Reuther, right, and Henry Ford II. Reuther promised a fight for racial equality to win support of Ford’s black workers.

      Eventually the UAW overcame black ambivalence and prevailed against Ford Motor Co. despite the total resistance of Henry Ford. And blacks became a huge part of the UAW membership — up to 25 percent — allowing them to wield considerable political clout.

Their support helped elect the young Democrat Jerome Cavanaugh as mayor of Detroit, who repaid them by hiring more blacks in the police and fire departments and other city offices that had long been closed to them.

These union members funded the Detroit NAACP chapter, helping it to become among the strongest in the nation.

Martin Luther King Jr. in 1961 told a UAW convention:

“Negroes are almost entirely a working people. There are pitifully few Negro millionaires and few Negro employers. Our needs are identical with labor’s needs — decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measured conditions in which families can grow and have education for their children and respect in the community.”

Ford’s Highland Park plant shortly after it was erected in 1909.

* * *
      In 1915 James Charles Price was working as a cutter in a fashionable tailor shop owned by Jarvis Jennings. Among the customers were a number of Ford executives including Henry Ford himself, who took a liking to the polite young man and invited him to come to work at the Highland Park company headquarters.

Price stayed with the company for 32 years, eventually becoming the first salaried black Ford employee.

James Charles Price was proud of his 1923 promotion to the “Star Roll.” This meant he wore a badge with a star identifying him as a salaried supervisor.

“I started out in the shop at $5 a day,” Price once said, “and that was the top pay in the country. At that time, there wasn’t another Negro working in the shop. I understand there was one working in the power plant, though.

“Mr. Sorensen, Mr. Ford, Mr. Edsel Ford, an excellent man, and Mr. Ray Rauch were always kind to me. I was put in charge of abrasives … all grinding tools … throughout the plants. I specified purchases and was responsible for the distribution to branch plants as well as the main ones here.

“The Ford executives gave me a free hand in those days when they used more abrasives than they do today, so I had a responsible position.

“Some narrow-minded individuals approached Mr. Sorensen about me. I understand, but Mr. Sorensen told them bluntly that Jim Price was his man and was doing a fine job.

“I supervised the purchase of millions of dollars worth of abrasives.”

A conservative, soft-spoken man, Price was proud of his 1923 promotion to being on the “Star Roll.” This meant he wore a badge with a star identifying him as a salaried supervisor.

Black UAW leader Horace L. Sheffield later wrote: “Back in those days, everybody knew that a man who had a star on his badge was a real wheel. The powers of a star man were so considerable, or believed to be, that the mere mention that one was in the area was enough to get everyone on their toes. Oh yes … Ford had a Negro “star man,” too, whose name as I recall, was Jim Price. He was in charge of Ford Motor Co.’s entire abrasives department, and I shall never forget the warm feeling of pride that used to envelop me whenever he came through the shop.”

Price retired from Ford in 1947 and went into the office supply business with his sons, Junior Lyle, Wellington and Purnell. Ford Motor Co. and Ford executives became their best customers.

Price’s granddaughter, Detroit News librarian Linda Culpepper, kept a poem he treasured that reveals his sentiments.

Price wrote, “While on my way thru the shop today, I chanced to see these words hanging rather inconspicuously in an out-of-the-way place, probably placed there by some sincere and honest soul. They almost instantaneously drew me to them. They cast their mantle of sentiment and truth around me.

      I’d rather have one little flower from the garden of a friend

Than to have the very choicest blossoms when my stay on earth must end.

I’d rather have a few kind words that may now be said to me,

Than tears around my casket when my life had ceased to be.

I’d rather have one loving smile from the friends I know are true,

Than the flowers sent in mourning when I bid this earth adieu.

So give me all your flowers today, whether they’re pink or white or red.

I’d rather have one blossom now

Than a truckload when I’m dead.”


Police had to be called out to control the crowds at the Ford plant when Henry Ford announced the $5 day in 1914.