Chapter 2:How did Detroit go from being a thriving metropolis to the murder capital of America?

No other major city in America has gone from being a hundred percent white city (until the 1910s) to almost hundred percent black now. The story of Detroit is sadly the story of the inability of the white majority to accept blacks as equals, it is the story of race relations in America. The imprint of how the blacks have been treated by the white majority is etched in the geography of Detroit, in the generational memory (trauma) of blacks, in the disparity of education, wealth, income, and opportunity for blacks versus whites. This story provides a sociological context for understanding the root cause of why the crime rate is high and what should be done about it.

This graph shows the shifting demographic of Detroit from 1890 to 2020. The white population peaked in 1950 at 1.5 million and is now less than 10% of what it was at its peak. Over one million whites have left Detroit since 1950.

Number of whites vs blacks 1890–2020

The story of Detroit is best understood through examining these distinct time periods: 1920–1930; 1940–1950; 1960–1980; 1990 to now.

1920–1930 were boom years for the auto industry. Detroit had become Motown, USA. Americans from all over were moving to Detroit for jobs. The Great Migration of the blacks from the South resulted in 80,000 blacks moving to Detroit for jobs. Many were sharecroppers and most were uneducated, but they found jobs in the factories. This was the first big influx of blacks into Detroit. They were not welcomed by the white population (in today’s language they were the equivalent of caravans coming from the South). But, Ford and other car manufacturers needed cheap labor, and blacks from the South wanted to get away from Jim Crow laws and discrimination(including lynching). They did not find a hospitable environment in Detroit, they were confined to black neighborhoods, in particular, the neighborhood of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley ( As more blacks migrated to Detroit the Black Bottom neighborhood became increasingly crowded. The housing stock was already old and many homes did not have plumbing or electricity, yet more than one family shared a home, there were very few places outside Black Bottom that they could find a home. In 1924 a black physician, Dr. Ossian Sweet, moved into a white neighborhood and white mobs surrounded his home. Someone inside his home shot a gun and killed someone in the mob. Dr. Sweet was charged with murder. All through that period racial tensions ran high

1930 to 1950 were momentous years for Detroit. Depression resulted in major job losses in the auto industry. Many whites and blacks were laid off. FDR in 1934 created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) to spur home construction. FHA revolutionized homeownership by creating the current financial mortgage system. In the process, it produced a lending structure that helped to solidify the racial segregation that still exists today. The Underwriting Handbook used by the FHA endorsed the practice of redlining, which marked African-American neighborhoods as ineligible for FHA mortgages. Redlining is the practice of refusing to back mortgages in neighborhoods based on racial and ethnic composition. in 1934 the FHA Underwriting Handbook incorporated “residential security maps” into their standards to determine where mortgages could or could not be issued. Developed by the Home Owner’s Loan Coalition, these were color-coded maps indicating the level of security for real estate investments in 239 American cities. The maps were based on assumptions about the community, not on the ability of various households to satisfy lending criteria. This link is to an interactive redlining map of 1937 Detroit. You can click on any area of the map and see how it was described by HOLC surveyors. Written in the surveyor notes is the percent of “negros” or “jews” in that area.

FHA, HOLC, and the subsequent GI Bill enabled middle-class Americans (whites) to buy homes and resulted in a housing boom. Homeownership created wealth for whites which were denied blacks of similar income. Homeownership has been the primary source of wealth for many Americans. To this day there is a gap in the wealth of whites and blacks that can be traced back to this period. Had blacks been allowed to own homes starting in 1934 in Detroit it is possible that we might not be in this situation in Detroit today. This could have been a turning point.

“White mob riot against racial integration in Detroit”

In 1941 Sojourner Project homes were built to house black wartime workers. This project was in the midst of a white neighborhood.

Racial tensions were boiling over, white workers walked off the Packard assembly line when they were asked to work alongside black workers. Then in 1943 race riots broke out over disinformation (sound familiar) in black and white neighborhoods that a black (or white) child was thrown over a bridge by some whites (or blacks).

With echos of the 2020 election, Albert Cobb beat out a more liberal mayoral candidate George Edward over the issue of building low income (black) housing in white neighborhoods.

1950 to 1968 were tumultuous years for Detroit, the end of the war brought great prosperity, automobile sales were booming and Detroit was thriving. These were the fabulous fifties in Detroit for many. But this boom was not equally distributed. Detroit’s population reached a peak of 1.8 million in 1950, with 1.5 million whites and approximately 300,000 blacks.

“The auto industry also gave rise to a large number of high paying management and executive jobs. There were also large numbers of attorneys, advertisers, and other workers who supported the industry’s managerial force. These workers already by the 1920s had begun to move to neighborhoods well removed from the industry’s factories and higher crime rates. This upper stratum moved to outlying neighborhoods, and further, to well-to-do suburbs such as Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe. Oakland County, north of the city, became a popular place to live for executives in the industry. “By the second half of the twentieth century, it was one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, a place profoundly shaped by the concentration of auto-industry-derived wealth.”[10]

Public policy was automobile-oriented. Funds were directed to the building of expressways for automobile traffic, to the detriment of public transit and the inner-city neighborhoods through which the expressways were cut to get to the auto factories and the downtown office buildings.[11]

These processes, in which the growth of the auto industry had played such a large part, combined with racial segregation to give Detroit, by 1960, its particularly noteworthy character of a substantially African-American inner city surrounded by mainly white outer sections of the city and suburbs. By 1960 there were more whites living in the city’s suburbs than the city itself. On the other hand, there were very few African-Americans in the suburbs. Real estate agents would not sell to them, and if African-Americans did try to move into suburbs there was “intense hostility and often violence” in reaction.[11]

“Detroit’s legacy of discrimination in housing has stretched long and far. During the Roaring Twenties, African American neighborhoods in Detroit experienced a renaissance; one full of prosperity, livelihood, and industry within black communities. However, due to the economic hardships of manufacturing industries, these communities fell on hard times, and devolved into decrepit remnants of what they once were. These areas soon became overcrowded, underfunded, and mistreated. Moreover, the mass migration of hopeful blacks from the South into these neighborhoods exacerbated their problem with overpopulation. Given the lack of industry, terrible living conditions, and overpopulation, many black citizens sought a way out, but found it was not easy.

White Detroiters and some wealthier black communities used various methods to restrict the movement of black citizens into predominantly white neighborhoods. Real estate agents and white homeowners often used a tactic called redlining. The Home Owners Loan Corporation, which was charged with deciding which areas were suitable for housing loans, would mark black neighborhoods in red, flagging the area as unsuitable for federal loans and subsidies. This red-line prevented blacks from the ability to attain loans from banks to build new houses or make improvements on existing ones. This also contributed to the racial prejudice against blacks. Having a black resident in a white neighborhood greatly depreciated home values, further motivating white Detroiters to keep their neighborhoods segregated. There were no major alternate means of obtaining loans, and government and state loans were the only means of getting a new home. This red-line allowed whites to restrict the movement of blacks into white areas by eliminating their ability to obtain loans, thus maintaining segregated neighborhoods.

In addition to the already effective redlining, neighborhood associations would often mandate restrictive covenants onto their buildings in order to prevent black families from moving in. These covenants were sometimes explicitly discriminatory and took the form of; “people of color can’t purchase this home,” or only for the “caucasian race.” However, after certain hallmark legal cases of discrimination in housing such as Shelley vs Kraemer deemed restrictive covenants unconstitutional, neighborhood associations had to change their practices. To circumvent political hurdles, covenants were often changed to restrict boarding or dividing houses into multiple family units. Because African-Americans could not get loans, splitting the house was one of only a few feasible options, and these covenants took it away.

The creation of New Deal programs during the 1930s, although unintentional, further restricted black agency and movement. It established a strong relationship between patriotism and homeownership. Working and middle class homeowners started to fiercely oppose integration and the construction of public housing.[17] Real estate agents and homeowners believed that having affordable public housing and more black residents would force home values to depreciate. Many middle class homeowners were also upset by the fact that they were unable to get government loans and subsidies while so much money was being put into low-cost housing projects.[18] This made them cling on to their homes even tighter.

Neighborhood associations and the ability of de facto discrimination to influence discriminatory policy curbed efforts to combat racism in housing and allowed whites to prevent integrated neighborhoods. Neighborhood associations hell-bent on preventing integrating housing elected officials who supported their anti-integration agendas. Moreover, already elected politicians were controlled by their anti-integration constituents regardless if the politicians were actually anti-housing or not. This can be seen in the election of Mayor Albert Cobo. Cobo, a staunch opponent of integrated housing, dismantled the Mayor’s Interracial Committee, a large advocate group for housing equality, and took additional measures to disband organizations and government policies that would be beneficial to integrated housing. Cobo’s regime demonstrated how de facto discrimination could influence de jure discrimination, and contribute to overall racism in housing.

The open housing movement

In 1948, Shelley v. Kraemer and three other United States Supreme Court cases established that state enforcement of racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional.[19] This decision revitalized the advocacy for integrated neighborhoods. Suburbs around Detroit expanded dramatically as wealthy African-Americans began to move into white neighborhoods. The singular asset that many white residents held after World War II was their home, and they feared that if Black people moved in, the value of their homes would plummet. This fear was preyed upon by blockbusting real estate agents who would manipulate Whites into selling their homes for cheap prices by convincing them that African-Americans were infiltrating the neighborhood. They would even send Black children to go door to door with pamphlets that read, “Now is the best time to sell your house — you know that.” With the means to pick up and leave, many white residents fled to the surrounding suburbs. This “white flight” took much away from the city: residents, the middle class, and tax revenues which kept up public services such as schools, police, and parks. Blockbusting agents then profited by reselling these houses at incredibly marked-up prices to African-Americans desperate to get out of the inner city.

These inflated prices were only affordable by the black “elite.” As wealthier black Detroiters moved into the previously white neighborhoods, they left behind low-income residents in the most inadequate houses at the highest rental. Redlining, restrictive covenants, local politics, and the open housing movement all contributed to the restricted movement of black, low-income Detroiters”

“By the late 1940s, the economic wounds from years of redlining and restrictive covenants hurt the standard of living for many African Americans and minorities living in Detroit. With limited housing opportunities and sky-high rents, those living in “red” neighborhoods like Black Bottom and Paradise Valley often had little financial ability to pay for private apartments or even housing repairs. Consequences of close-quarter living were exacerbated by an influx of black immigrants during the Great Migration and World War II. The decaying neighborhoods also developed sanitation problems; garbage pickups were rare and trash littered the street, accelerating the spread of diseases and enticing pests.[19] Perceptions of “urban blight” and a need for “slum clearance” in these areas were fueled especially by (majority white) Detroit city planners, who classified over two-thirds of housing in Paradise Valley as substandard.[17]

A plan for “urban renewal” in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods was put forth by Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries in 1944. Utilizing eminent domain laws, the government began taking down buildings in the Black Bottom neighborhood in 1949.[20] The push for urban renewal in post-World War II Detroit was popularized by local government officials, in conjunction with real estate agents and bank owners of the time, who stood to gain from investment in new buildings and wealthier residents. When the 1956 Highway Act mandated new highways routed through Detroit, the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley areas were an ideal placement; deconstruction of the site had already been started, and the political clout of slum clearance was more powerful than the limited ability residents had to advocate against the placement.

Though it faced urban poverty and overcrowding, the Black Bottom neighborhoods were an exciting mix of culture and innovation, with the economic district boasting approximately 350 black-owned businesses.[20] The downtown area is often described as if Motown music played even from the pipes in the street.

But when highway projects were announced, sometimes years before construction started and sometimes warning only thirty days in advance, the property values for those who did own land disappeared.[21] The forced relocation condemned many residents to even harsher poverty, and the local government commissions made few efforts to assist families in relocation. It was difficult enough for the thousands of persons displaced to find new housing in a time where restrictive covenants, even though technically outlawed in 1948, were deftly and covertly written into many of Detroit’s surrounding neighborhoods. It was even harder for business owners to relocate their life’s work. Lasting ramifications of the highway construction are still felt by the black business sector in Detroit today.

The Oakland-Hastings Freeway, now called the I-375 Chrysler Highway, was laid directly along Hastings Street at the heart of the Black Bottom business district, and cut through the Lower East Side and Paradise Valley as well.[21] For the construction of the Edsel Ford Expressway (I-94) alone, 2,800 buildings from the West Side and northern Paradise Valley were demolished, including former jazz nightclubs, churches, community buildings, businesses and homes. The Lower West Side was mostly destroyed by the John C. Lodge Freeway, which also ran through black neighborhoods outside of Twelfth Street and Highland Park.[21]

What was once a diverse, thriving home to thousands of people quickly became a monument to the misguided and racist views of the city officials and planners of Detroit at the time. The highways catalyzed the decline of Detroit. Although planners envisioned them as necessary for a grander future Detroit, even when they were constructed the size of the roads were superfluous and better fit for a city with twice the population of Detroit. It created a second housing crisis and further encouraged residents to move out of the city and commute downtown to work, both of which drained money from Detroit’s inner city. The highways reinforced the Motor City as just that: a place rumbling with engines from nine to five, but quieter and more deserted than it ever had been when the work day ended.”

David Maraniss’ book “Once In a Great City” expresses eloquently the two currents of vibrancy and decay running simultaneously through Detroit during the late 50s and early 60s. He writes “ Cars were selling at a record pace. Motown was rocking. Labor was strong. People were marching for freedom. The president was calling Detroit a “herald of hope”. It was a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things. But life can be luminescent when it is most vulnerable. There was a precarious balance during those crucial months between composition and decomposition, what the world gained and a great city lost”

Detroit and America would be a lot different if people (whites and blacks) had found a way to coexist and thrive together. For a brief period of time, this possibility existed in Detroit. But, it was not to be. The white flight out of Detroit



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sunil mehrotra

entrepreneur;CEO, strategist;thinker-doer;left brain/right brain;