The 1943 Race Riot

Created by: Madeline MacArthur
Time Period: 20th Century, WWII
Topic: Crisis and Response, Industrialization and Labor, Race and Ethnicity

The 1943 Detroit race riot was one of the biggest racial conflicts that occurred in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century, and it was primarily caused by deep-seated systemic racism and unequal housing and job opportunities in wartime Detroit.

Shortly after the turn of the century, Detroit experienced a significant population increase. Between 1910 and 1920s, Detroit’s black population went from 6,000 to over 40,000. Despite the immense African American population, there was not enough housing for black people in Detroit, nor had there been since the 1890s. Detroit’s first public housing was constructed in the 1930s during the Great Depression, but none of it allowed black people to live there. Meanwhile, Detroit’s black population doubled between 1933 and 1943.

By the time World War II began, African Americans made up 150,000 of Detroit’s overall population of 1,623,452. The population continued to grow as both white and black people flooded into Detroit for defense work, and by the summer of 1943, Detroit’s population was at over two million. With the growing demand for adequate housing, the Federal Housing Authority was forced to provide wartime housing for African Americans called the Sojourner Truth Housing Project in 1942. However, this housing was to be built in a white neighborhood. This caused the white residents of this neighborhood to threaten violence and stage protests. Due to all the pushback, black residents were not able to move into the housing project until nine months after it had been completed. Racial tension continued to grow with the Packard Motor Company hate strike in early June of 1943, where white workers refused to work because two black workers had been promoted to work alongside them. Violence broke out at Eastwood Park in the wake of this strike, where black people were brutally beaten by white policemen.

On the evening of June 20th, 1943, the anger over the vast inequality African Americans were facing boiled over as black youths who were seeking revenge for the Eastwood Park incident reportedly started fights at the Belle Isle recreation center, and the violence quickly spread to the mainland. Throughout the night, violence spread across the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods. Black people stoned white policemen and looted white-owned property, and white people assaulted black theatergoers as they were returning home for the night. Mayor Edward Jeffries did not request any help from the governor or the President until 16 hours into the riot, and the riot went on for nearly 30 hours before it was stopped by the National Guard.

 

The 1943 race riot caused 34 deaths and 433 injuries. 26 out of the 34 killed were black, and 17 out of the 26 black people killed were killed by white policemen. The riot also led to 104 arrests, and 101 out of the 104 arrested were black. This further shows the inequalities and systemic racism that caused the riot in the first place. In addition to this, the riot cost $2 million worth of property damage and one million war production hours. Governor Harry F. Kelly formed the Fact-Finding Committee of 1943 in order to get to the bottom of what caused the race riot, but instead of focusing on the deeply rooted inequality and racism that led up to it, the committee blamed black leaders for stirring their people to violence.

Most local newspapers in Detroit similarly either framed white people as the victims in the riot or claimed that the riot was nothing more than a few social deviants on both sides disrupting wartime unity and slowing the war effort. The only newspaper that focused on the systemic racism behind the riot was the NAACP-influenced Michigan Chronicle, which boldly stated that the treatment of African Americans directly contradicted the values that the U.S. claimed to be fighting for. By the 1960s, conversations about the 1943 race riot nearly stopped altogether because it contradicted the narrative of a unified nation fighting for good during the war. This erasure of U.S. history regarding systemic racism only further highlights the unfair and unequal treatment of African Americans and the frustration that led to the riot.