On this day in 1942: Black families move into Detroit housing after protests from white residents

By: - April 29, 2023 3:07 am

Police seek to protect Black homeowners from white protestors at Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Homes in 1942. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

On April 29, 1942, African-American families at Detroit’s Sojourner Truth Homes were assisted by more than 1,500 state troopers and city and state police as they moved into their federally funded homes that were developed primarily for World War II defense workers. 

Why the law enforcement presence? 

Because they had to disperse white protesters who had been trying for months to bar them from moving in. 

The housing site was named after Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. At the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio, Truth delivered what is now recognized as one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speeches in American history, “Ain’t I a Woman?” 

Later in life, Sojourner Truth moved to Battle Creek and a monument of her is located there. Truth also is a member of the Michigan’s Women’s Hall of Fame. She died in 1883. 

Sign with American flag “We want white tenants in our white community,” directly opposite the Sojourner Truth homes, a new U.S. federal housing project in Detroit, Michigan. A riot was caused by white neighbors’ attempts to prevent African American tenants from moving in, 1942 | Arthur Siegel, Wikimedia Commons

The early 1940s was a time when housing for both Black and white residents in Detroit was scarce and few residential units were constructed because of the country’s economic focus on winning World War II. Nonetheless, the Motor City’s African American population doubled from 149,000 in 1940 and 300,000 in 1950. 

On Feb. 27, 1942, a group of 150 white people picketed the Sojourner Truth Homes site one day before African Americans were to begin moving into the new project. The incident included a crowd of hundreds and a Ku Klux Klan-style cross burning. 

The following day, Black families were met with violence and intimidation from white mobs, and were ultimately denied entry to their homes. Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries Jr. postponed occupancy of the Sojourner Truth Homes after the violence.

The incident caused federal officials to reverse their earlier decision: The Sojourner Truth site would be for white residents and another site would be identified for African Americans. 

That action prompted organized protest from the African-American community, including the Detroit Urban League, the Rev. Charles A. Hill of Hartford Avenue Baptist Church and union activist Coleman A. Young. Hill sent a telegram to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt requesting support. 

Ultimately, federal housing authorities flip-flopped and allowed African Americans to move into the Sojourner Truth Homes. 

However, Detroit continued to grapple with racism. The city suffered through a race riot the following year, beginning on June 20, 1943. White residents’ fears of more African Americans in Detroit and the impact on jobs and housing were the root cause of the civil unrest.

Young would later become a Michigan state senator in 1965 and the first Black Detroit mayor in 1974. On Oct. 17, 1986, Young, state Rep. Virgil C. Smith (D-Detroit), housing advocate Lena Bivins and others dedicated a new 66-unit townhouse public housing project on the historic Sojourner Truth site. 

In 2020, the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office was awarded a $30,000 Underrepresented Communities grant from the National Park Service. The funding is being used to document and nominate the Sojourner Truth Homes for the National Register of Historic Places. 


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.