Like the successive rebellion that would erupt 24 years later, the Detroit Race Riot of 1943 was deeply rooted in racism, poor living conditions and unequal access to goods and services. The apparent industrial prosperity that made Detroit the “Arsenal of Democracy” masked a deeper social unrest that erupted during the summer of 1943. The KKK was active in the region and riots had already broken out in other cities.
Before and during World War II, workers migrated north to seek factory employment in such vast numbers that Detroit was incapable of adequately receiving them. Because black Detroiters were still treated as second class citizens, they suffered disproportionately from wartime rationing and the overall strains on the city. Factories offered employment but not housing, and because whites violently defended the borders of their segregated neighborhoods, black residents had little choice but to suffer in repulsive living conditions.
Detroit’s 200,000 black residents were marginalized into small, subdivided apartments that often housed multiple families. They were crammed into sixty square blocks on the city’s east side, an area ironically known as Paradise Valley. Because there was simply no space left to expand upon already existing African American neighborhoods, the city attempted to construct a black housing project in what was otherwise a white neighborhood. A mob of more than one thousand whites, some of whom were armed, lit a cross on fire and angrily picketed the arrival of their African American neighbors.
Black workers faced virulent racism on the job as well. In June of 1943, white workers halted production to protest the promotion of their African American co-workers. Other factories faced habitual slowdowns by bigoted whites who refused to work alongside African Americans. Humiliation and resentment on each side spilled over into all facets of Detroiter’s wartime struggle and by the early 1940s, racially motivated street fights were common.
On June 20, 1943, more than two hundred black and white individuals engaged in racially-motivated fighting on Belle Isle. Though police quelled the violence by midnight, tensions soared and later that night, two rumors led to incendiary action on both sides. African Americans at the Forest Social Club in Paradise Valley were told that whites had thrown a black woman and her baby off of the Belle Isle Bridge. They formed a furious mob and moved near Woodward, breaking windows, looting white businesses and attacking white individuals.
In a nearby area, angry whites had gathered after hearing that black men had raped a white woman near the same bridge. Around 4am, a mob of white men formed outside the Roxy Theatre on Woodward. When the movie let out, black men exiting the theatre were surrounded and beaten. As word of both incidents spread, so did the violence.
Gangs of each skin color roamed the streets, with Woodward as their dividing line. White mobs overturned cars owned by blacks and set them on fire and beat black men as white policemen looked on. A white doctor was beaten to death while making a house call in a black neighborhood. African American community leaders pleaded for Mayor Edward J. Jeffries to call in help from national troops. It was not until white gangs entered Paradise Valley that the Mayor responded by seeking assistance from President Franklin Roosevelt.
Violence was curbed by the arrival of 6,000 army troops in tanks armed with automatic weapons. The streets became vacant around midnight, with most residents too terrified to leave their homes. Nine whites and twenty five African Americans were killed in the Riots of 1943. No white individuals were killed by police, whereas seventeen African American died at the hands of police violence. 700 people were reportedly injured, with damages amounting to two million dollars.
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