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Life for Us is What We Make It: Building Black Community in Detroit, 1915-1945.

Black Detroit has attracted more than its share of scholarly attention. This is not surprising, as its history provides striking examples of the hope and despair, the constructive achievements and violent conflict that have characterized black urban America. Detroit itself was transformed from a middle-sized nineteenth-century commercial city to America's quintessential industrial city in just two decades. Its small black population (less than 6,000 in 1910) grew to become one of the largest and most influential black urban communities in America. Once admired for its effective African-American organizations and its record of interracial co-operation, Detroit exploded in two of the bloodiest race riots of the twentieth century and by the 1980's was widely viewed as a prime specimen of the breakdown of urban America.

Twenty years ago, David Katzman provided the background for this dramatic story in Before the Ghetto: Black Detroit in the Nineteenth Century. Since then, specialized studies have explored some of the major turning points in the history of twentieth-century black Detroit. David Levine has studied the interracial conflict of the World War I and immediate postwar era; August Meier and Elliot Rudwick have written on the unionization of black auto workers in the 1930's and '40's; Dominic Capeci's work on World War II Detroit focuses on the conflict at the Sojourner Truth Housing Project in 1942; and Sidney Fine has produced a massive and comprehensive volume on the Detroit riot of 1967. Now Richard W. Thomas has written a general study of black Detroit between 1915 and 1945. A substantial revision of his 1976 doctoral dissertation, this is an ambitious work. Thomas makes good use of documentary sources, particularly the rich collection of the Detroit Urban League. Several chapters contribute substantially to our knowledge of black Detroit. Yet, overall, his book is a disappointment.

Thomas fails on several levels. First, the book is replete with errors. This reviewer counted over fifty errors in grammar, usage and punctuation, all of which should have been corrected in copy editing. There are also many factual errors and inconsistencies. The 1967 race riot is placed in 1968. A confusing chronology of the life of UAW organizer Shelton Tappes implies that he was a college dropout at the age of 15 and a major labor leader at the age of 18. Ossian Sweet, whose attempt to defend his home against white rioters led to one of the landmark trials of the 1920's, is confused with his brother Henry and is misidentified as a dentist rather than a physician.

Second, the book's organization makes it impossible to get any sense of the historical development of black Detroit. Authors of community studies always face a difficult decision as to whether to organize their work chronologically or topically. Usually some combination of the two works best. Thomas opts for a largely topical scheme of organization. The problem with this is that the three decades he covers are marked by rapid and dramatic change. World War I, the 1920's, the Depression and World War II all bring distinct challenges to black Detroit. Yet that sense of chronological change is lost as the author brings us, in chapter after chapter, up to 1945, then back again to 1915, often repeating material that has already been discussed. We learn little of how the Depression affected the life of black Detroiters. We learn about World War II in a fragmented way--its impact on interracial relations, its impact on labor relations, but never get a sense of the whole.

Most important, Thomas's central thesis is seriously flawed. Since the publication of Joe William Trotter, Jr.,'s Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat in 1985, a new generation of black urban historians have argued that proletarianization rather than ghetto formation provides the best organizing principle for analyzing the development of black urban communities. The distinction between the two approaches has sometimes been overdrawn. Most of the ghetto formation studies deal with the pre-World War I era before African-Americans worked in large numbers in industry, while the proletarianization studies focus on the 1920's and 1930's, when industrial jobs became crucial to the economic life of blacks in the cities. Ghetto formation and proletarianization may be more complementary than contradictory. Nevertheless, the proletarianization thesis, as elaborated by Trotter, Earl Lewis, Peter Gottlieb and others, has illuminated and enriched our understanding of black urban life.

Thomas, who had pioneered the proletarianization approach in his doctoral dissertation, now purports to go beyond this thesis to use "community building" as a theoretical paradigm that he believes will provide a more "holistic perspective". But community building is an amorphous concept. Like "black power" in a later era, it meant very different things to different segments of the community. The Urban League saw it in terms of helping southern migrants adjust to life in Detroit. The NAACP saw it as fighting discrimination. Business leaders focused on black entrepreneurship, Garveyites on rising black consciousness and politicians on mobilizing the black electorate. Some, although not all, of these visions of community building were contradictory. When, in the late 1930's, a group of black leaders in the UAW rallied young black workers to the cause of trade unionism, they explicitly rejected an older vision of community building that accepted and benefitted from the paternalism of Henry Ford. Thomas recognizes these complexities but does little to sort them out. There is little analysis, except for the broadest of generalities, of what the various strategies achieved and of what groups within the community they benefitted. Instead, the author often adopts the breathless rhetoric of the advocates themselves: black country clubs and hotels are "fabulous" and enterprises little known outside of Detroit are "famous."

In fact, none of these strategies worked very well in the period covered by this study. Most black Detroiters remained poor, ill-housed and undereducated; racism was perhaps more intense in 1945 than it had been in 1915; black businesses were undercapitalized and devastated by the Depression; and most black political leaders were either ineffective or co-opted by the white power structure. The race riot of 1943, which Thomas discusses in the middle of the book rather than at the conclusion, dashed many of the dreams of progress held by Detroit's African-American leadership. The barriers erected by racism in the North proved to be in many ways even tougher to tear down than those in the South. Thomas's concept of "community building" does little to help us understand why this was true.
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Author:Spear, Allan H.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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