The Making of Corporate Empire

Against the Current, No. 197, November/December 2018

Jane Slaughter

The Color Line and the Assembly Line:
Managing Race in the Ford Empire
By Elizabeth D. Esch
University of California Press, 2018, 257 pages, $29.95 paperback.

AS I WAS reading Elizabeth Esch’s absorbing tale of Henry Ford’s 20th-century imperialist adventures from Dearborn to Brazil to South Africa, the announcement came: Ford Motor Co. was extending its empire to my corner of the world.

Ford officials aren’t shy to contrast their vision with the old, battered Detroit, where the company has had no factories since 1927. “It became a place where hope left,” Chairman William Clay Ford, Jr. told the press, calling the long-abandoned train station that Ford would now renovate as a tech center a “symbol of the city’s hard times.” Now, it “should be a great talent magnet.”

The refurbished building, explained CEO Jim Hackett, “is gonna attract a whole different kind of worker than we needed when we were engineering physical systems and vehicles.” (Presumably in the future we’ll just be beamed up.)

Echoing the governments of Brazil and South Africa in the 1920s, Detroit local elites hailed the company’s $740 million investment in the Corktown neighborhood. And just as developing-country officials saw Ford as key to their projects of national modernization, Chairman Ford promised: “If you’re young and want to change the world, what a great place to work.”

To drive the point home, Ford displayed in lights on the building’s exterior the Detroit motto Speramus meliora, resurget cineribus: “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.” The old Detroit, hollowed out by capital flight, can be reborn when capital returns, bringing with it (white — and Asian?) engineers untethered to the city’s failed past.

Meanwhile, neighborhood residents predicted “There goes the neighborhood” — and started talking about gentrification, displacement of longtime Latino, Black, and white residents, and the fight over a Community Benefits Agreement.

Making Men

As Esch shows, Henry Ford always said that he was as much about “making men” as about making cars. As he spread the assembly line around the world, she argues, his social engineering techniques “led governments, social scientists, intellectuals, financiers, and nationalists globally to seek out the ideas associated with Ford as well as the actual investment.” (2)

Ford’s social engineering was not uniform from country to country. It always had a racist or pro-nativist component: “elites in these societies shared in common an overarching belief in ‘white’ as the racial designation of civility, progress, modernity, and order.” (3)

But his managers applied their white supremacist ideas flexibly, depending on the local scene. Although the “ethos of the assembly line” would seem to see all workers as interchangeable, it was actually used in very different ways to “draw, redraw, and harden the color line.” (1, 3)

Esch looks at three case studies of the interaction of the color line with the assembly line. In the United States, Ford is famous, and often seen as progressive, for being the only Big Three employer in the 1920s and 1930s to hire Blacks in any numbers, at his mammoth Rouge complex in Dearborn, near Detroit.

 On his Brazilian rubber plantation, he recruited men he saw as “mixed race” in order to better them. In South Africa, only whites were hired.

Given the ample evidence of Ford’s racism, which Esch marshals definitively, why would he break from others of his class to actively seek out Black workers in the United States? Ford developed relationships with Black ministers who thoroughly vetted job-seekers. At the Rouge, Black workers were hired in at the same pay as whites. In the early 1920s, a range of jobs was open to them.

It’s important to note, though, that Ford hired Blacks in numbers at only that one plant. In 1939 there were 9,825 Black workers at the Rouge and a total of 57 at four other Michigan factories.

Controlled Experiments

This segregation of Blacks in one place seems in line with Ford’s penchant for experimentation; at the Rouge he had a controlled trial.

Esch speculates that Ford’s initial strategy was “strike insurance” — if white workers were to walk out, the plant could still be run with Black labor. But the integrated workforce soon gave way to one where African Americans were placed on the worst jobs, in the forge and foundry. White managers thought Black workers uniquely able to deal with the heat.

In 1920 Auto Workers’ News wrote of the foundry as akin to a sentence of “hard labor” in a job that “occupies the same place in the Ford scheme as the ‘hole’ does in the penitentiary.” (96) Yet Black workers tended not to quit the Satanic mill; they stayed on the job longer than whites because they lacked other options.

Another Ford experiment is instructive. The company hired workers in two other categories that other employers would not take a chance on: ex-convicts and the handicapped. Thus Ford assured himself of captive segments of the workforce, who were assured by their betters how lucky they were.
The Rev. R.L. Bradby, one of Ford’s chief recruiters, patrolled the plant to make sure Black workers stayed in line. Donald Marshall, a Black Detroit police officer, was hired to keep order. One operative for the infamous Ford Service Department wrote that Marshall controlled “the colored vote” in Detroit, and that “If a colored man would give any back talk in his employment office…Marshall would take him out in the back room somewhere and …beat the very last daylights out of him.” (92)

Black workers could not get housing in Dearborn, near the Rouge plant, but were allowed to live in the village of Inkster, eight miles away. As still another experiment in making men, and families, Ford took over the Black section of Inkster in 1931.

He hired or rehired laid-off Black workers who lived there, but thought them too irresponsible to handle their own pay. Of their wage of $6 a day, workers were allowed to keep only a dollar, the rest diverted to a fund managed by Ford officials, including Marshall. The fund set up a commissary in Inkster, made home loans, built schools, and paid for civic improvements like garbage pickup and road paving.

Esch writes “Here too, extremely limited options could make Ford’s shouldering of the white man’s burden appear beneficent…Ford was lauded nationwide and even in much of the African American press.” (108-109) But the practice of withholding wages ended in 1933 with passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, with its minimum wage clause.

Nothing daunted, in 1936 Ford began another venture into creating a total environment for workers. He bought a plantation in Georgia with the idea of raising giant goldenrod to produce latex for rubber, staffing it with white and Black workers.

Taking an experimental malaria drug produced by I.G. Farben was mandatory. Stills on the 80,000-acre property were smashed. A manager wrote that Henry Ford instructed just when to stop schooling for Black children: “Give them a seventh grade education and that will keep them out of trouble. But learn them how to work!”

Esch doesn’t tell us how this experiment turned out, but a quick search reveals that for a time it made a profit in iceberg lettuce and that Ford’s own mansion on the property is now the centerpiece of “The Ford Plantation — a premier private sporting club and residential community” complete with golf club, marina, and equestrian center.

Straight Lines in the Jungle

Ford’s rubber plantations in the Brazilian Amazon were two more examples of his experimental approaches to making men and making production. Carving a replica of a Midwest factory town out of the jungle, complete with time clocks, Ford could create a “total atmosphere in which straight lines connecting behavior to work time and leisure time could be drawn.” (121)

After research, Ford chose Brazil partly for its racial “admixture.” (Liberia, for example, was rejected.) A botanist who scouted plantations for Ford reported that the “three main stocks: Portuguese, Indian and Negro…is not a particularly good one from a racial standpoint but it is by no means a bad one…[they] have enough of the white race in them to suffer keenly and long intensely for the better things.” (131-132)

Brazilians were white enough to become good consumers, which would presumably discipline them for punctuality and hard work.

But Ford was never able to convince the single men he imported to Fordlandia, beginning in 1927, to stay on the job. He housed them in barracks, fed them in cafeterias, and subjected them to an 11-hour day in which the factory whistle sounded 12 times. Turnover was immense.

In 1930 managers fled a spontaneous strike. When they returned, they found all the time clocks smashed as well as the trucks. Workers’ demands showed how much Fordlandia had tried to regiment their lives in the name of “taming” them: the firing of certain despotic managers; the right to live where they chose; free access to the docks on the river; the right to drink alcohol and to choose their own recreation; a second chance before firings.

Esch notes that when local managers blamed the strike on workers’ “Bolshevistic” tendencies, rather than “savagery,” they were actually recognizing in them a degree of modernity.

Ford called in the Brazilian military and the police set up a system of “passports” for Fordlandia workers, foreshadowing the coming Pass Laws in South Africa. However, by 1934, with few rubber trees surviving and no rubber exported, Ford threw in the towel and tried a new experiment at a plantation 80 miles away, Belterra (“beautiful land”).

There, the terms of the experiment shifted: male workers were encouraged to bring their families. School was compulsory for children and adults. One class was American folk dancing, a particular obsession of Ford’s.

But just as workers were presumed unfit but moldable, Ford saw the rain forest as a problem to be conquered rather than a resource to be nurtured. Managers’ “willful ignorance [of rubber tree botany] in the face of decades of local knowledge” (134) led them to uproot forests and then plant trees close together in straight lines — leading to the spread of deadly fungi.

In 1946, after synthetic rubber was conceived, the company abruptly left Brazil.

[The Fordlandia saga is also recounted in historian Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (2009) — ed.]

Amenable to Apartheid

Ford had a history in South Africa before the first Model T was built in Port Elizabeth in 1924. The first Ford sold outside North America was purchased there in 1903. The company was welcomed in the interwar years, long before apartheid was formalized in 1948, because of its willingness to hire only whites.

In fact, factory jobs like Ford’s were seen by the government as the way to deal with what it called the “poor white problem.” The Dutch Reformed Church and the national Department of Mines and Industries petitioned the Carnegie Commission of New York to set up a study. Its premise was that changing the behavior of poor whites would get rid of both poverty and their desire to “mix” with nonwhites.

“The white civilization should not be coddled,” said education reformer Ernst Malherbe. Rather, poor whites would have to adjust to “the highly organized modern way of life,” which would then distance them from the “natives.” (170)

Whites used to living on the frontier as subsistence farmers hadn’t adjusted to capitalism and weren’t interested in consumer goods. A solution, Esch notes, was a job at the Ford factory, followed by the purchase of a Ford: “Fordism provided a model of not just industrial but racial development.” (152) White workers would learn factory discipline, but remain protected from competition with Blacks.

An emphasis on workers as consumers is usually said to be a central component of Fordism, beginning with the $5 a day wage in Michigan in 1914. But in South Africa, Ford was willing to give up 80 percent of its potential market, the Black majority, in order to conform to local racial practices.

Blacks were not permitted to live near whites in Port Elizabeth, so they built a squatter community, KwaFord, out of discarded Ford packing crates.

There isn’t space here to discuss the multiple and contested meanings of “Fordism” over the years. But Esch shows that it was no universal plan. As today, Henry Ford’s capitalism showed itself malleable to local conditions. Its only constants were a confident assumption of racial hierarchy and a will to step up productivity by any means necessary, whether that involved a carrot or a stick — a $5 day or a beating.

November-December 2018, ATC 197