Empowerment Mural Photograph taken by Heather Dougherty

A Brief 20th Century History of Detroit

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      Detroit is a city with a rich history. For many years, people migrated to the area in search of jobs and in hopes of achieving the American dream. “By 1880, Detroit was an immigrant city with over 116,000 people. More than 40 different nationalities were represented…Latinos were a growing population, with many coming north to work in the railroad industry.”1

      As Detroit entered the 20th century its population grew immensely and in 1910 was the 9th largest city in the United States. Detroit was not only home to the auto industry but also produced metal crafts, railcars, stove works, paints, iron, brass, and copper.  By 1910, an African-American middle class was established. The late 1910’s saw World War I and Detroiters fought valiantly as did other Americans. After the war, Detroit “grew geographically to 77.9 square miles.”2 The city developed culturally with the opening of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Masonic temple, the Fox Theater and many other movie houses.

      In 1922, the Ford Motor Company introduced the 40-hour work week which made Detroit a very appealing city to new Americans and migrating Americans alike. The Great Depression had a devastating effect on Detroit. However, with the election of Franklin Roosevelt and his initiation of the New Deal, Detroit was able to bounce back. Many construction projects were started. The Detroit Zoo was built and the famous Woodward Avenue was expanded. Housing projects were also built in the city. In 1932, a New Deal interior design project was funded and allowed famous muralist Diego Rivera to complete his fresco entitled, Detroit Industry. 3

      After World War II, Detroit was leading the country’s economy and accounted for “1/6 of the country’s employment at mid-century.”4 The post war abundance allowed for many improvements in the city, however, Detroit was racially segregated and conditions were beginning to worsen. The period after World War II in Detroit is often times discussed through a racial discourse of black and white. This is partly because these two groups were the major residents of the city. However, there were other ethnic groups present, like Latinos. Not a lot of scholarship exists on these groups though. Nonetheless, African Americans fought against racial segregation in housing and employment. As author Thomas Sugrue notes, “In 1953, Detroit boasted the largest number of independently owned black businesses of any city in the United States.” 5

      Detroiters witnessed two major riots in the 20th century, one in 1943 and one in 1967. Many argue that Detroit has not bounced back from the riot in 1967. Whether this is true or not, it is important to view the riot as a turning point in the history of Detroit. Social and economic unrest was prevalent and still is in Detroit. Also, the effects of deindustrialization were hard-hitting to residents of the Motor City in 1967 and throughout the rest of the century.

      Detroit is still struggling with many of these problems today. Companies continue to move out of the city, as do residents. However, there is still hope for the city of Detroit. This is being illustrated by the many Latinos that reside on Detroit’s Southwest side. Latinos are proud of their Detroit, and are making history with all they are doing.