Unpacking My Detroit ► Part 5.1 ► The 1943 Riot

Late last month I wrote about Detroit’s three major riots, one of them being the 1943 Riot. I am currently reading an amazing book that adds a bit more context to that riot. “The Warmth of Other Suns; The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize in History, as well as many other prizes and awards. They are all well-deserved. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to understand the pressures Black folks felt in the south and how moving north didn’t necessarily make them first class citizens.

Wilkerson tells this sweeping story by following the lives of 3 people: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney from Chickasaw County, Mississippi; Robert Joseph Persing Foster, from Monroe, Louisiana; and George Swanson Starling, late of Wildwood, Florida.

George Starling, married too early out of spite, found himself picking citrus fruit (and many other odd jobs) in order to save up enough money to send his wife to hair dressing school and finish his education at a university in Tallahassee. He dropped out due to finances, but always planned to return. However, during World War Two he heard they were hiring in Detroit. Against his wife’s wishes he moved north by himself to help assemble B-29 bombers in what was being called The Arsenal of Democracy; when the entire car industry was turned over to defeating Hitler and Japan. Wilkerson picks up his story:

Then on the humid night of Sunday, June 20, 1943, a fight broke out between several hundred white and colored * men on Belle Isle, a park extending into the Detroit River on the east side of town. The fighting spread north, south, and west as rumors circulated among blacks that white men had killed a colored woman and thrown her baby into the Detroit River and, among whites, that colored men had raped and killed a white woman in the park.

Neither rumor turned out to be true, but it was all that was needed to set off one of the worst riots ever seen in the United States, an outbreak that would mark a turning point in American race relations. Until the 1943 uprising in Detroit, most riots in the United States, from the 1863 Draft Riots in New York to the riots in Tulsa in 1921, to Atlanta in 1906 to Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Springfield, and East St. Louis, Illinois, and Wilmington, North Carolina, among others, had been white attacks on colored people, often resulting in the burning of entire colored sections or towns.

This was the first major riot in which blacks fought back as earnestly as the whites and in which black residents, having become established in the city but still relegated to run down ghettos, began attacking and looting perceived symbols of exploitation, the stores and laundries run by whites and other outsiders that blacks felt were cheating them. It was only after Detroit that riots became known as urban phenomena, ultimately centered on inner-city blacks venting their frustrations on the ghetto that confined them.

The Detroit Riots went on for close to a week, ending in thirty-four deaths and more than one thousand wounded. The Sunday night the riot began, as many as many as five thousand people joined in the stoning, stabbing, and shooting, so many people injured that the municipal hospital was admitting riot victims at a rate of one a minute.

George was living at 208 Josephine near Hastings and Woodward and heard the mayhem in the streets and on the radio all through the night. He was living in the middle of the crowded colored quarter mockingly called Paradise Valley, where blacks were stoning the cars of passing whites, whites were beating up blacks as they emerged from the all-night theaters on Woodward, and an inspector on the scene reported to the police commissioner that the situation was out of control.

The rioting continued into the next morning. It was now Monday, the start of the work week. A Co-worker of George’s called him up.

“Hey Starling, what you gonna do?”

“Do ’bout what?”

” ‘Bout going to work.”

“I’m going.”

“Man, you must be crazy.”

“What you talking about?”

“Don’t you know? Where you been? You didn’t know it was a riot going on?”

“Yeah, but I ain’t got nothin’ to do with it. I ain’t in no gang.”

“This ain’t no gang fight. This is a riot.”

“Well, they ain’t gonna bother me. I ain’t done nothing to nobody. I’m going to work.”

“You gonna get yourself killed.”

Streetcar violence on Woodward

George had to take two trolleys to get to Hamtramck. He boarded the first in a colored neighborhood, and instantly something was wrong. The colored people were sitting up straight; the white people were crouched in their seats so they couldn’t be seen out the window.

Wonder why these people down on the floor like they are, he asked himself.

The trolley made its way to a white neighborhood, and now the colored people crouched down and the white people sat up.

What in the devil is going on? he said to himself.

The trolley pulled into the intersection. A mob two blocks long stood cursing outside the trolley.

What’s wrong with all them people? he thought.

The mob became a single organism descending on the trolley. The trolley operator moved fast. “He went back the other way,” George said. “That’s the only thing that saved us. And that’s when I began to realize the seriousness of this thing.”

He managed to make it to work that day. But the trouble wasn’t over. The rioting continued all day Monday and into a second night. When he got back home to Hastings Street that evening, a mob was approaching from Woodward, howling and turning over cars.

“I ran so fast my heels were hitting my back,” he said.

As he rounded the corner onto Josephine, he could see a colored mob forming. “They were turning over white cars,” he said, “dumping the people out like you dump ashes out an ashtray and setting the cars on fire.”

Some colored men in his block stood on the sidewalk, trying to figure out what to do. They gathered the empty bottles in their flats to throw at people if it came to that. “We were wondering how it was going to end up.”

A white undertaker in the block joined the colored men contemplating the situation. He did not leave when the other white people fled. He fixed his feet on the ground with the neighbors who happened to be colored and let it be known where he stood. He might need their protection if it came to that.

“You know them white folks raising hell over there on Woodward Avenue,” the white undertaker started to say.

“Yeah, they sure are,” George said.

The white undertaker drew closer and into their circle. “But us colored folks is giving ’em hell over on Hastings,” he said.

The colored men welcomed a new brother, and they all laughed at the meaning of that. **

This book should be read by everyone interested in race relations in ‘Merka. It covers such a wide pallet, from the south to cities all across the nation, from Jim Crow laws to relative freedom. Don’t be put off by its 538 pages (not including index, end notes and notes on methodology). It’s a very well-written book and the pages breeze by, except for all the lynchings and ugliness, which cannot be ignored.


* Wilkerson explains that she is using the language of the times
** Hoping “Fair Use” covers this long excerpt; any mistakes or typos are mine

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.

4 thoughts on “Unpacking My Detroit ► Part 5.1 ► The 1943 Riot

  1. My dad had just joined the Detroit Police Department when the '43 riots broke out. My mom, six months pregnant with her first child, sat alone in their apartment not knowing for days if he was alive or dead. No time for even a phone call. He was gone almost a week and rumors were rampant.. I remember him talking about the use of mounted horses to break up crowds and how effective this was.

    My dad retired in early 1967, a few months before the July riots. It was very difficult for him to sit at home knowing that his "brothers" were out there.

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