Region Focus

Winter 2003

Economic History

Wheels of Change The Automotive Industry's Sweeping Effects on the Fifth District
By Robert Lacy

Southern Workers Head North

For many Southern laborers, the rapid expansion of the automobile industry in the 1910s and 1920s meant jobs not in Charlotte or Norfolk, but in Detroit or Flint. There was huge demand for unskilled labor in the foundries and on the assembly lines in Michigan. Migrants from Southern states filled a large portion of the need for labor, particularly during World War I, when workers were lost to military service, and in the mid-1920s, when the passage of restrictive immigration legislation disrupted the supply of European laborers. Employment agencies, automobile companies, and bus companies, which stood to benefit from interstate migration, distributed advertisements in the South touting high wages and good working conditions in Detroit manufacturing facilities.

Many of the migrants from the South were black laborers, looking for better lives in the North. Black workers typically filled the least-desirable and lowest-paying jobs in the industry, but the pay was better than in other industries in the area. Detroit's black population grew from 5,700 in 1910 to 120,000 in 1930, or from 1 percent of the city's population to 8 percent.

In addition, a large number of white workers from Appalachia moved to the upper Midwest in search of more desirable employment.

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