North to Detroit

Charles Denby went North to Detroit as a teenager in 1924 at the height of the 1920s boom. A job was easy to come by as was housing. Adjusting to new social norms was not as easy, though. The excerpt below is from the first part of his autobiography written in 1952 recounting his experiences as part of the Great Migration.

THE FIRST TIME I went North was in 1924. My pal then was Hines, a young man about eighteen. He was from a farm in Texas. We were hoping we'd get to see the Mason-Dixon line. I thought in my mind that it would look like a row of trees with some kind of white mark like the mark in the middle of the highway. We were hoping day would break before we got to the line. The train stopped in Covington, Kentucky just as the sun was rising. Someone said the bridge ahead was the Mason-Dixon line. We were North. We didn't have to worry about sitting in the back, we felt good. We walked around staring at all the buildings.

Hines and I met a boy from Columbus we had known in school. We agreed that if there was one white man on the train with a seat beside him, we'd sit there to see what he would do. All the things we'd heard before was like reading in the Bible. When I get to heaven I have milk and honey and pearly gates. I wanted to see was I there. We walked through the train feeling shaky. We thought any minute they would tell us to sit in the Negro coach. We found a seat for two. Hines and the boy from Columbus sat down. I continued to walk until I saw a seat by a white man. I was very uncomfortable for the first hour. Hines seemed very surprised that I continued to sit by the man. I relaxed some. He was reading a paper and when he finished half, he pushed it to me and asked if I wanted to read. He wanted to know where I was going and said, “Detroit is a nice place.” This was the most relaxing time I had.

When we reached Detroit each of us had an address of the people where we would live. Mine was the Gordon house on 30th Street....

Mr. Arthur Gordon was light-colored and his wife was dark. They were very nice people. They charged us ten dollars a week to sleep, eat and do our laundry but at that time it seemed terrible to me. We had heard at home that you could make twenty-five or thirty dollars a week in the factory. I thought I'd be rich. On the farm if you had five dollars you'd carry it around for six months. Ten dollars seemed impossible. I felt five dollars should be right and I would deposit the rest. After a few years I would have several thousand dollars. I always planned to send money to my mother and father. I wanted them to build a home like the white people had. I was afraid to tell anyone how much money I had with me. We had always heard that they pocket-pick and slip you out of your money in the city.
The next big plan was to get a job. Hines and I got work at Graham Paige. It was an independent factory then as were Dodge, Chrysler and DeSoto. We were very happy to get the jobs. It was a welcome thing: we could be here the rest of our lives and never go back to the South, on any condition, except in the case of death in the family. I met a friend from home and asked him if he would ever go South again.

He said, “No, it's too many ups.”

I asked, “What do you mean, it's too many ups?”

He said, “The first thing in the morning, before day breaks, you have to wake up. Then you have to get up, then you have to feed up, gear up. You go to the field before the sun is up and hitch up, the first words you say to the mules is ‘git up.’ And you start to bedding up. When night comes you look over how much of the earth you have turned up. After you plant up, you start getting ready to round up. When you're through rounding up, you start chopping up. When you get through with that it's time to go to the hayfield and start baling up. When that is done you come back to the field and start gathering up. Then you start to hauling up to the white man to have your settling up. And you don't get a damn thing in return, but a big mess up. No, I'm not telling a mule ‘git up’ no more, if he's sitting on my lap. I'm not planting any more cotton, and I'm not planting any more corn. If I see some mules running away with this world I'm going to tell them to keep going, ‘go ahead on.’”

My job at Graham Paige was in the foundry shaking out the oil pan that fits under the motor. Hines got a job just outside the foundry, chipping motors. I was very much surprised when I was hired. I asked the man if there were any jobs. He said, yes. I told him I preferred somewhere else when he told me to work in the foundry. I had worked in a foundry in Anniston. I knew what the work was like. He said there were no other jobs open. When white men came he told them about other jobs and hired them. I started looking and wondering, How could he say, to my face, there were no other jobs when he told a white man ahead of me about polishing and put another in the carpentry shop. Hines' job was worse than mine. They led us out to see where we would come to work the next morning.

As I looked around, all the men were dirty and greasy and smoked up. They were beyond recognition. There were only three or four whites. These were Polish. Negroes told me later they were the only ones able to stand to work. Their faces looked exactly like Negro faces. They were so matted and covered with oil and dirt that no skin showed. Hines and I went home discussing how it was that they could say everyone was free with equal rights up North. There was no one in the foundry but Negroes. We didn't believe those men wanted to be in the foundry.

At the end of the week they said we'd get no pay the first week. They held it in what they called abeyance. The job was very rugged. I had to work continuously, as fast as I could move. The heat from the cubulos, which were round furnaces for melting the iron, was so hot that in five minutes my clothes would stick with dirt and grease. We'd walk through on our lunch period to talk to a friend. We couldn't recognize him by his clothes or looks. The men working in his section would tell us where he was or we could tell a friend by his voice.

My job paid five dollars a day. The first foreman was quiet, he didn't do much raring or hollering like the other foremen. They would curse and holler. They would pay us off right there if we looked back or stopped working. Workers passed out from the heat. The foremen rushed a stretcher over and two workers would take the man out, give him fifteen minutes to revive and then he would have to go back to work. When a man passed out, the foreman would be running out to see if the guy was conscious. He would be cursing all the time. If the worker took too long, he'd shake him. They never mentioned a wound serious enough to go to first aid. Workers would get a layer of iron from the cubulo, bring it to the iron pourers, fifteen to twenty men with long ladles. These would be filled with hot iron running like water. As their ladles filled up, the men had to straighten their arms out level and pour the iron down a little hole the size of a milk bottle. All the time they had to turn slow, like a machine. If they poured too fast, the iron would explode the mold and burn the other men. The iron would drop on a wet spot and hit the men like a bullet and go into the skin. The man getting hit still had to hold the ladling iron level to keep from burning the other men. They would wait their chance and pick out the balls of iron, and sometimes the foreman picked it out as the men went on working. A man would sit a half hour after work too tired to change clothes and go home.

When I had worked for a month the foreman came and said they were going to change the standard of the job and put it on piece work. We could make more money. I got a nickel for each pan I shaked out. I was glad for the money but I was sorry we were on piece work. We had to work just like a machine. Take a mold, knock it out, set it back. Over and over for nine hours. It was never under nine hours and sometimes ten, eleven and twelve hours a day. We never knew how many hours we were going to work. If they wanted to send us home at ten, ten we went. If a machine broke down we waited an hour for repairs. The money was taken out of our weekly pay even though it wasn't our fault. We cursed every minute of the day. The main curse was against the foremen. The foremen would say, “God damn it. Do it. If you can't do it there are plenty of men outside who will.” No women worked in the plant except one little section. They put in seats or something like that.

In four months I was laid off. After being off for some weeks we finally felt we were rested and could go around to see the city. Everything was different in Detroit in 1925. Relations between Negroes and whites were close then. Negroes and whites boarded in the same homes many times. There were Negroes and whites walking around together and nobody even looked up. Every Sunday you could see mixed couples and Negro couples and white couples on motorcycles. Gangs of kids were often mixed. If a white and a Negro got in a fight in the plant it was just between them. Whichever one got whipped we laughed. One night, near Hamtramck, a white man stepped on a Negro's foot. The Negro cursed him. The white guy ran, and caught him, got him down and beat him up. There were seven of us, and two or three whites watching. The Negro guy said he'd had enough. All the way home he was laughing and saying he'd gotten whipped by that white man. But the jobs that whites had were in different places from Negroes. We didn't know whites in the shop. There was no such thing as going to a white person's home. There was no reason for a white to invite you. The only whites around us in the foundry were Polish and their language was different.

We got laid off from the foundry, got called back and then laid off again. I left Detroit and went to Pittsburgh with a friend. We hoped to work steady. We got a job in a steel mill. It was rough work but there were other Negroes doing it. We could take it only three weeks. We came back to Detroit and went to work for the city. I had a laborer's job, I cleaned drains, repaired sidewalks and dug holes. We worked way out in the Polish neighborhood near West Warren....

One fellow, from Mississippi, named Holly, cried when he heard about the fight [I’d been in]. He said he wished he was God. “I'd destroy this damn world today, the way whites treat Negroes for nothing.”

He told me he wouldn't have taken it if he had been there the day it happened. We worked on one side of the street and the Polish worked on the other. One day a young Polish kid came up on a motorcycle. Holly borrowed it to try it out. He rode around and then rode up to where the whites were working. The first time, he slowed when he went by them. The next time he came back slow, until he got near the ringleader. He turned the handlebar, put the gas on hard and ran into the man. It split the Polish fellow's lip, burst his ribs and knocked out his teeth. The ambulance and the police came. Holly told them he didn't know how to ride very well. His hand had slipped on the handlebar and fell on the gas and the motorcycle got out of control. They didn't do anything to Holly. They separated the Negroes and the Polish; we were transferred downtown.

I went to work again at Graham Paige. I worked off and on for them from 1924 to 1925. I got fired in 1925 and the way I got fired was like this: Many workers would pass out. The boys would say, “The bear has got you.” When we got real hot, we'd see little dots in front of us. We worked on a swing shift. We'd get through, after a continual half-running pace all day, fifteen minutes before the whistle. If we sat down we often caught the cramps in our legs and all over. We couldn't move, sometimes we had to wait fifteen or thirty minutes before we could get up and go home. One day, I told a pal that I felt a case of cramps coming on. I said I would get in a hot bath and try to keep them away. My pal said he would cover for me if the foreman came before the whistle blew.

The foreman came in. I was sitting on the bench in the washhouse and he said, “God damn it, get in your clothes and go back to work.”

This was a few minutes before the closing whistle. If I had changed back into my clothes they were so dirty that I would have needed another bath. I went to my locker real slow. He cursed me and said if I didn't get dressed, and get on the job before the whistle blew, I wouldn't have a job. He cursed me some more. I stopped and stood there.

He said, “God damn, get out of those clothes.” I said, “These are my clothes. I'm going to keep them on.” I had tried to talk nice in the beginning, but I got mad when he cursed me. The whistle blew and I went on home. The next day, a note to see personnel was in place of my time-card in the rack. They told me that the foreman had said to pay me off.

I said, “Let me tell you what happened.”

They said, “We don't care what happened. If the foreman said you're out, you're out.”

I did mainly construction work for a while. In about a year I went back to Graham Paige because they were hiring men who had worked there before. About one hundred workers came out that day. They hired all the men in the line ahead of me. I got to the desk and gave my name. He said he was sorry but that I had been fired and I could never again work for Graham Paige. I went out and watched him hire more men. I switched caps and shirts with a fellow in the line. I got in the same line as before and said I hadn't worked for Graham Paige. I gave a false name and got a job. I worked there until the Depression. It always bothered me working under the wrong name. If I had got killed, my mother and family wouldn't have gotten anything out of it

To Start You Thinking -

  • 1) What did Denby's friend really mean when he said that he would never return to the South because "It's too many ups?”

    2) After several decades of mass migration into the United States immigration was severely limited in the 1920s - especially for southern and eastern Europeans. What does Denby's description tell you about the relative social position of Polish immigrants and African Americans newly migrated from the South?

    3) Compare and contrast the instances of racism encountered by Denby in Detroit with examples of Southern racism you studied in earlier readings.

from Charles Denby, "Chapter 2 - North to Detroit" in Indignant Heart: A Black Worker's Journal, (Boston: South End Press, 1978) as found at In Motion: The African American Migration Experience Reprinted by permission of the Raya Dunayevskaya Memorial Fund.
Last modified in October, 2011 by Rick Thomas