Mounted police engage Northeast Detroit residents rioting to protest the segregation of the Sojourner Truth Housing Project

Housing Crisis in the Arsenal of Democracy

Image: Mounted police engage Northeast Detroit residents rioting to protest the segregation of the Sojourner Truth Housing Project. Photo from Walter Reuther Historical Library, Wayne State University.

For much of the 20th century, blacks had an extremely difficult time finding adequate housing in Detroit and cities across America.  This was especially prevalent during and after World War II, when, despite Detroit’s status as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” black defense workers and returning black veterans struggled to find homes for their new families.

The two images below show two sides of the same story. One is a flyer distributed by local white residents requesting assistance from other white people outside their neighborhood to help keep black Detroiters from moving into the newly-completed public housing project just north of Hamtramck and on the eastern boundary of Nortown.  The other flyer, distributed by outraged black inner city residents, calls for people to come to their aid to fight the loss of the Sojourner Truth Homes to the housing discrimination that was rampant across the country.

sojourner truth flyer 1        

These flyers represent the two sides of the huge conflict over the building of homes to house black defense workers that previously lived in inner city slums. When the U.S. increased its involvement in WWII, the amount of production in Detroit increased as well. With this industrial boom came large numbers of new workers, many of them black. Most of these workers ended up in the already overcrowded segregated neighborhoods downtown, unable to find landlords willing to rent or sell to them elsewhere. City leaders and the NAACP then called for new homes to be built using federal dollars to house these workers, and a neighborhood at the corner of Nevada and Fenelon was selected and named the Sojourner Truth Housing Project.  However, white residents of the area were extremely angry that blacks would soon be moving into homes near theirs, and blacks were just as furious when Congressman Rudolph Tenerowicz led a movement to instead allow only whites to live in the neighborhood.  A major clash ensued on February 28, 1942, when several black families attempted to move into homes they’d been paying rent on for two months and were harassed by white militants.  Two months later, the original plan came to partial fruition when city and state police officers and Michigan National Guard troops guarded 168 black residents as they moved into the Sojourner Truth Homes.  This clash foreshadowed the even larger riots that began on Belle Isle the next year.

Black veterans faced many of the same obstacles.  In 1944, the U.S. Congress passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, often called the G.I. Bill of Rights (or just the G.I. Bill), to provide aid for returning veterans of World War II (and prevent another economic crisis like the Great Depression, which the country had just recovered from).  The bill’s main provisions were to guarantee that veterans would receive several things that had previously been unattainable for many Americans, let alone veterans who often did not attend college: education and job training; loans for homes, farms, or businesses; and unemployment pay.  The home loan guarantee proved very popular to millions of veterans: in the six years after the bill’s passage in 1944 until 1952, the Veterans Administration ensured that 2.4 million home loans were given out to World War II veterans.  In Nortown and other areas of Detroit, as well as many other American cities, this contributed to the building boom of the late 1940s, as many new low-cost, well-designed homes were built for all low- to medium-income groups, including beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill.

In many cities, including Detroit, in practice, this well-intentioned government action actually helped perpetuate much of the racism that was already present across America.  Rather than guarantee direct loans from the VA, the act simply provided for loans that could be acquired through the normal methods.  This meant that black veterans struggled to secure loans from banks just as much as they would have without assistance from the VA— the VA could provide up to $2000, but not the loan itself.  Thus, as it had in the past, all the new homes that were being built simply went to white veterans, and the housing that was available to returning black G.I.s was the same substandard housing that was available before the bill was passed.

  • “Detroit Home Builders Prove Well Designed Homes Can Be Erected For $4,900 to $8,500,” Washington Post, Mar 6, 1949.
  • Flyer, Sojourner Truth Housing Project, 1942, box/fol. 1188, Social Forces, Foundations, and Change.
  • Servicemen’s Readjustment ActEnrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1996 (United States, 1944),
  • Sojourner Truth Homes Mass Meeting Flyer, April A-Z Challenge.

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