Bowling Desegregation in Detroit Unions

Created by: Makai Milton
Time Period: Postwar, WWII
Topic: Culture, Race and Ethnicity

Bowling was a very popular sport during World War II and the post-war era across the United States. The sport, initially brought over to the US from Germany, was standardized in the late 1800s through the American Bowling Association (ABC) which became the governing body of the sport.

What this has to do with Detroit is that the city is the center for American car manufacturing, and many union auto workers were part of those leagues. During the late 1930s and early 40s, the auto factories were in full swing with many of the workers joining the United Auto Workers (UAW) which sponsored sports such as golf, basketball, boxing, and bowling to encourage cooperation among autoworkers. The UAW used these leagues to foster friendship and camaraderie outside of the plants so workers would accept each other. Bowling became so popular that by 1941 the city had 89 bowling alleys.

Source: “Recreation, Bowling Tournament, Detroit, Michigan,” February 12, 1955, Photo
ID: 364, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archive of Labor and Urban Affairs, Detroit,
Michigan, Detroit, Michigan.

This amount of growth in the sport is largely a result of Detroit being the heart of automobile and military parts production during World War II and the constant employment that went along with it. The growing population coincided with a large migration of African Americans to the Midwest from southern states due to the racist practices there. These newcomers were often given the most dangerous jobs and the lowest pay. As a result, not only were many African Americans in Detroit working for Ford, but they were also a part of UAW organizations.

The addition of African Americans into official ABC tournaments was hindered by a “white male sex” clause limiting a team’s eligibility to only white men. This was especially an issue in Detroit because the 40s were a revolutionary time for sports other than bowling. Major League Baseball desegregated in 1947 and the National Basketball Association desegregated in 1950 while professional bowling continued with its racist practices. A National Negro Bowling Association was created in 1939. There were other bowling leagues, mainly for people of color at the time, but they were not seen as official. The only other professional league was the Women’s International Bowling Congress (WIBC) which also prevented people of color from participating.

Detroit’s UAW Local 600, which was made up of workers at the Ford Rouge plant, was the most vocal in support of desegregation in the ABC. The Local 600 had more African Americans on its team than any other team at the time. Their efforts turned primarily to desegregating the ABC whose hesitation came from trying not to appear communist. After years of pressure, the ABC removed its “white male only clause” in 1951. The first all-black team premiered in 1953. That team included Detroit native, Bill Rhodman who is now listed as a professional bowling Hall of Famer.