Delray Neighborhood House Summer Camp

Demographic Changes in Detroit’s History

Image: Summer camp for Detroit children in Delray.

Native American Detroit, to 1800

Before the French and other European settlers came to southeast Michigan, the land was occupied by Native Americans. Various tribes, including the Anishinabeg (also called the People of Three Fires because it was composed of the Chippewa, Potawatomi, and the Ottawa peoples), Sauk, Huron, and Miami, inhabited Lower Michigan and left behind traces of their history dating back hundreds of years before European arrival. Native American tribes used the land around the Detroit River (which they called “The Bending River”) as a place to gather, but not as a place for permanent settlements. There is evidence of Native American tribes trading, producing objects, and preparing food near the banks of the Detroit River. This evidence includes pottery fragments (which classified as “Wayne Ware” pottery sherds by archaeologists, due to their unique form and color that is distinct to the Detroit area), oral histories of the tribes, European documentation, stone projectile points, and earthen mounds (modern day Mound Road is said to be named for Native American mound remains in North East Detroit, and along the Detroit River). The Detroit area was easily accessible by land and by multiple waterways, so it was an obvious destination for a common meeting ground between the various tribes.

Native Americans were important collaborators with the first European settlers, as they provided the newcomers with information about the land and the fauna in Detroit. Eventually, the Europeans would take advantage of the natural resources in the fur trade during the early 1700’s, which would decimate many indigenous animal populations. The French even went so far as to invite multiple Native American tribes, including the Potawatomi, to aid their fur trade in 1710 – Antoine Cadillac knew that the Native Americans had a better understanding of the animals and ways to trap/hunt them, and forged a symbiotic relationship with the local tribes to incorporate their knowledge and skill. The four tribes he invited were allowed to settle near Fort Wayne in Detroit, which created some of the first permanent Native American settlements along the Detroit River.

Click here for more information on Native American history

Click here to reach the North American Indian Association of Detroit

European Settlement and Immigration, 1800-1920

Detroit was first explored by Europeans when French fur traders arrived in the eighteenth century, and the first Europeans to move permanently into the area were French. These settlers started the move from fur trading to farming as the state’s primary economic activity by building ribbon farms in Native American territory along the Detroit River. For centuries, farmers and other landowners have reported finding Native American artifacts in their fields, many of which have found their way to Michigan’s many museums.

The earliest European immigrants came largely from France in the early part of the 19th century, mainly as fur traders and missionaries. Later, farming replaced fur trading as the state’s primary economic activity and more immigrants began to settle. In 1825 the first wave of German immigration to Detroit began; the Irish began in 1830. This growth continued through 1890s with Polish immigrants settling as well.

By the turn of the twentieth century Detroit was moving into a new phase as an industrial center. Following the Detroit International Exposition (1889-1894) in Delray, the city grew significantly, its bucolic riverfront and farmland transforming to a modern city with a rapid influx of new industries and workers. Low-cost housing sprang up around the factories so workers could walk to their jobs. Delray, in southwest Detroit, was a particularly popular destination for immigrants from Eastern Europe, who rapidly transformed the community. Hungarians, Poles and Armenians dominated the immigrant community that sought jobs, and Delray flourished. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, which had opened to serve the local population in 1897, expanded through the first decades of the new century but by 1922 shut its doors in response to its dwindling population: the predominately Hungarian population had opened their own Catholic churches and the original Episcopalian settlers had largely moved into neighborhoods north of Fort Street, leaving the church “in the heart of a foreign settlement” (Free Press).

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Delray-Szabos Market, one of the many Eastern European markets in Detroit during the early twentieth century. Image from River Rouge Museum.

While these changing demographics caused significant cultural shifts on the local level, according to observers in 1907, there was no more promising sign for the city’s future than its increasing population. One typical investor was Gannett Co., Inc., an up-and-coming media company founded in New York, which felt Detroit was a beautiful place filled with potential for growth. The young company showed faith and hope for the city, stating that the city had never been “working more effectively or running more smoothly.” The company pointed out the liberal investments of capital in big enterprises in the city, and the increased demand for expanding commerce. With a rapidly-growing population of 449,138 and an expanding economy, Detroit had the potential to employ countless others.

The time when Detroit’s automotive industry was just beginning to make headway and the population was steadily increasing was an optimal era for Detroiters. Local businesses like Gannett demonstrated their full investment in the potential of the place. This optimism was justified, as the salaried employees of the city made a total of $76,500,000 in 1906, and a large proportion of that was reinvested invested in banks and homes in the city.

The Great Migration, 1920-1945

During the 1920s, industry representatives from northern cities traveled to the south to recruit black people to work at their factories. The recruiters would give out free train rides to anyone who wanted to go work up North in the factories. Black people began using the train as a free ride to get where they wanted to go instead of the factories that had paid their way. M. Kelly Fritz, who traveled to Detroit as part of this Great Migration, recalls that the recruiters “got smart and locked the cars, and you couldn’t get out until you got where you’re going.” Fritz and a few friends of his gathered enough money to take a train by themselves, so they weren’t locked in trains like animals.

An estimated one million Black southerners moved from the South to the North in search of better jobs between 1910-1930. White people in the North resented the Black people moving up North because they competed with them for jobs. The population of Detroit, along with other northeastern industrial cities, multiplied during the Great Migration as people came to work in automobile industry jobs. Racist official housing policies confined the newcomers to segregated neighborhoods, such as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley in Detroit.

Great Migration Trains

African Americans left the South by train to travel to northeastern industrial cities during the Great Migration.

Declining population, 1950-2000

Detroit’s prosperity was, to some extent, responsible for a declining population in the mid-twentieth century. As residents gained more skills and more income, they eventually moved out of the inner city and into the more peaceful surrounding suburbs. This trend began earliest in heavily industrialized neighborhoods such as Delray, where the wave of Eastern European immigration continued into the 1920s, the population dropped from over 23,000 in 1930 to about 20,000 in 1940, and down to just over 17,000 in 1950. After WWII this trend spread across the city, with more affluent families moving out of industrial neighborhoods. Many families now had cars, and roads were making the city more accessible from the surrounding neighborhoods. Pollution was becoming a consideration, and the proximity to factories was no longer necessary. Less affluent workers from the South, from Mexico, and from Puerto Rico took their place in the increasingly dilapidated mixed-use neighborhoods, but this influx did not compensate for the rush to the suburbs.

Detroit would see many more businesses close their doors as the population changed. Into the 1950s, factories closed, and jobs disappeared. The expansion of expressways across the city destroyed hundreds of homes, as did the growth of new polluting industries such as the wastewater treatment plant in Delray. People who could leave did, people who could not stayed.

Over the half-century beginning in the 1950s, Detroit lost nearly half of its population, almost all of them white. Detroit has ranked among the 10 most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States since the mid-20th century. Persistent residential segregation made it difficult for Black Detroiters to move into the suburbs, aggravating discrepancies in living standards and poverty levels. The infamous race riots of the July 1967 were in large part a response to ongoing problems of housing and a declining urban environment faced by African American residents. Click here to read about the conditions that preceded the riots; click here to learn about the riot itself; click here to see an image of Nortown during the riots.

Map of Ethnic Groups in Detroit in 1971

Map of Ethnic Groups in Detroit in 1971

Detroit in the 1970s was undergoing trials and tribulations stemming from a variety of issues. Crime was at an all time high, the economy was in decline, and race relations of the city were in shambles. These issues were directly related to the changing demographics of the city. According to the map featured at the top of this page, which was produced as part of a teacher training project for Detroit public schools in 1971, much of the city was geographically divided into distinct ethnic communities. The map shows designated ethnic groups throughout Detroit that compromise 50% or more of the areas’ population. Identified ethnic groups included Blacks, Whites, Germans, Polish, Italians, Jewish, Mexicans, Greek, and Middle Eastern, among others. There was a heavy Polish and Italian presence in Northeast Detroit, in comparison to the rest of the city, which was majority African American. There were also quite a few areas that were indicated as having “mixed” ethnic groups, but the actual composition of this status was not indicated. Even with this, the black presence in the core of the city is very clear and well displayed on the map.

Today, there are pockets of different ethnic groups scattered throughout the city, but the population is predominantly African American. There is also a growing Hispanic population in some areas of the city, especially in southwest Detroit. All of these changes in waves of migration to Detroit are indicative of major international changes happening to the city in trade industries, during the war era, and during industrialization.

  • Thomas J SugrueThe Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.” (New Jersey: Princeton Univesity Press, August 21, 2005), 3-14.
  • John A. Wessell, Detroit Area Ethnic Groups 1971 (Detroit, MI: Detroit Public Schools Trainers of Teacher Trainers Project, Wayne State University, 1971).
  • “Detroit’s Rapid Growth,” Deroit, MI Detroit Free Press, September 02, 1907, 4.
  • Rebecca Solnit, “Detroit Arcadia,” Harper’s July (2007): 65-73.
  • Elizabeth Anne Martin, “Detroit and the Great Migration, 1916-1929″, Bentley Historical Library, http://bentley.umich.edu/research/publications/migration/ch1.php.
  • M. Kelly Fritz interview, 1994, in Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes: An Oral History of Detroit’s African American Community, 1918-1967, ed. Elaine Moon (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994), 80-81.
  • “Development of a Great Industry in Detroit,” Detroit Free Press, April 14, 1901, 10.
  • “Another Industry for Delray,” Detroit (MI) Free Press, May 26, 1901, A6.
  • Thomas King, “Railway Cars, Bricks, and Salt: The Industrial History of Southwest Detroit before Auto” (Presentation, Marygrove College, Detroit, November 5, 1999).
  • “Delray Church to Close its Doors,” Detroit, MI Free Press, February 18, 1922, 8.

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