The City at War

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One the sharpest growing pains experienced by American cities during the war was the deterioration (or eruption) of race relations. Read the accounts of the Detroit Riot in one of the nation’s leading African-American newspapers (access to full text newspapers available HERE and on the Content page of the ICON course Web site under Lesson 3).
Explain briefly (1-2 pages) how these reporters and editors viewed the riot, its causes, and its larger implications.
The Proquest Historical Newspapers offer full page and article images with searchable full text back to the first issue. Each newspaper collection includes digital reproductions providing access to every page from every available issue.
Users can cross-search titles.
•Chicago Defender
Coverage: 1910 – 1975
•Atlanta Daily World
Coverage: 1931-2003
•Los Angeles Sentinel
Coverage: 1934-2005
•New York Amsterdam News
Coverage: 1922-1993
•Pittsburgh Courier
Coverage: 1911-2002
• Erenberg and Hirsch: Moore essay, pp. 263-283 Escobar essay, pp. 284-309
• Jeffries: Chapter 4, pp. 69-92
• Greg Hise: The Airplane and the Garden City: Regional Transformations During World War II (ICON > Content)
• Pete Daniel: Going Among Strangers: Southern Reactions to World War II
Notes from Instructor
The American West was, before the 1940s, largely a resource (agriculture, livestock, and mining.) They brought not only dramatic growth but rapid change, diversifying the western economy with a flood of federal war orders. The war brought new industry (shipbuilding and aircrafts) and enormous new investment in research and development (consider the rapid growth of the University of California system, and the establishment of the Los Alamos project.) “It was as if someone had tilted the country,” as one observer noted, “People, money, and soldiers spilled west.” The impact on the American South was more complicated; a region already reeling as a result of the Great Depression. The war hastened the mechanization of agriculture, encouraging continued migration west and north. The South, the historic center of military training, saw a massive infusion of military personnel but a lesser share of war orders: It was “more campground than arsenal” [ SIDEBAR 3.1 “REGIONAL CHANGE”].
The war entailed the movement of vast numbers of people; for new employment, for military training, and for personal reasons. This migration ran in a number of directions. In large part, it simply accelerated the pattern of urbanization, as workers flooded into centers of war industry. It also continued and accelerated the northern migration of southern blacks, and the black population of northern cities jumped sharply in the war years. Overlaying this were the temporary dislocations of the war: workers moving without their families to look for war work and families and individuals moving for military training or service [ SIDEBAR 3.2 “MARTINS AND THE COYS”].
All of this movement required hurried planning and building to meet wartime demand [ SIDEBAR 3.3 “WAR HOUSING”]. Most cities experienced stark housing shortages, and significant strains on public services (water, roads, and public transit) and public schools. Since many cities were ill-equipped to handle rapid growth, much the building was done on the urban fringe and often hastily erected war plants surrounded by trailer homes for their workers. This pattern of development was also encouraged by the increased importance of air travel and interstate highways, and by federal programs which effectively subsidized suburban building [ SIDEBAR 3.4 “BUILDING FOR WAR”].
Wartime films often give a benign view of wartime migration and change: people moving to new jobs, prefab homes popping up all over the place, and cities and regions “booming” [ SIDEBAR 3.5 “THREE CITIES”]. The boom was actually quite painful; for every “model city” built adjacent to a new shipyard, there were tales of unmanaged urban growth, squalor, housing crises, and violence. The housing crunch was the most serious of these problems. Cities tried to meet the demand through home registries and new building and companies put up prefab workers’ housing as quickly as they 28 |
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could. The demand still outstripped supply: “hundreds of men, women, and children are sleeping nightly on outdoor benches,” as the police chief in Oakland complained, “in public parks, in chairs in all-night restaurants, in theaters, in the halls of rooming houses, in automobiles, even in City Hall corridors” [ SIDEBAR 3.6 “GROWING PAINS”].
In some cities such as Detroit, the combination of immigration and stress on public services and housing stock led to stark racial confrontations. During the course of the war, these involved a dispute over the construction of public housing in a white neighborhood, ongoing tension (over promotion or work rules) between black and white workers at Detroit’s war plants, and sporadic outbreaks of violence in the city’s over-burdened public schools and public transit. All of this exploded in June of 1943, in a city-wide race riot which resulted in over 200 arrests, more than 700 injuries, and 34 deaths [ SIDEBAR 3.7 “DETROIT, 1943”]. The Detroit riot was the starkest example of a common wartime pattern, including the “Zoot Suit” riots in Los Angeles (sparked by fighting between sailors and Mexican-Americans) and a number of riots in the vicinity of southern army camps, where blacks from the north often inadvertently crossed the segregation line.
All of the wartime turmoil had important implications for the postwar years. While many assumed that workers migrating to war jobs would leave when the war ended, most of them stayed. This, coupled with the return of soldiers, continued the urban housing crunched and pressed the federal government to think more systematically about public housing [ SIDEBAR 3.8 “LOOKING FOR A HOME”]. The war-era pattern of suburban development continued, and most new housing was built in sprawling subdivisions which was serviced by shopping malls and the new interstate highway system. Unfortunately, all of the racial tensions remained as well. Older central cities became poorer and blacker as “white flight” to the suburbs, subsidized by generous new mortgage programs for veteran, increased [ SIDEBAR 3.9 “HOMES FOR 1946”]. 29
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