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On this day in 1943: Detroit leader renews call for hiring Black women defense workers amid strife

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On this day in 1943: Detroit leader renews call for hiring Black women defense workers amid strife

Jul 06, 2022 | 6:52 am ET
By Ken Coleman
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On this day in 1943: Detroit leader renews call for hiring Black women defense workers amid strife
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Rosa Slade Gragg shown third from the left. | Detroit Public Library photo

After white workers at Detroit’s Packard Motor Co. plant were suspended after leading a strike — which centered on their refusal to work with Blacks — Rosa Slade Gragg on July 6, 1943, renewed her call to businesses to hire Black women to help support the World War II defense effort. 

Gragg, an African-American Detroit resident, was tapped by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve on an advisory committee designed to help lead the effort to help identify and train domestic defense workers. 

“[We] call upon you not only to endorse this plan, but to actively fight for the integration of Negro women in industry in the Detroit area. To say that we want 10,000 women employed by June (1943) is not a quota, not a maximum, but a goal. America calls for unity, unity in strength,” said Gragg, according to Michigan Chronicle reporting.  

On June 3, 1943, about 25,000 Packard plant workers who produced engines for bombers and boats walked off the job in protest of the promotion of three Blacks. A group of workers were subsequently suspended several days later. 

On this day in 1943: Detroit leader renews call for hiring Black women defense workers amid strife
Aerial shot of Detroit’s Packard Motor Co. plant. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Some whites were concerned about Blacks taking jobs that they believed were theirs. 

Between 1940 and 1950, Detroit’s Black population doubled, from 149,119 to 300,506 residents, according to U.S. Census statistics. Although tens of thousands of American men were enlisted in the U.S. armed forces, older men were stateside civilians and part of the American workforce. So were women, many of whom were part of the working economy for the first time. That included Blacks and other people of color. The result was that thousands of Black men and women were employed in U.S. defense manufacturing plants between 1943 and 1945.

Gragg’s renewed call, first offered in October 1942, also came after June 20, 1943, civil unrest occurred between whites and Blacks after an altercation on Belle Isle, the city’s 983-acre island park nestled on the Detroit River between Ontario, Canada, and the Motor City. The three-day occurrence led to 34 deaths, the majority of which were African American residents. Roosevelt ordered federal troops to quell the uprising.

Gragg also led the Detroit Association of Colored Women’s Club and the National Association of Colored Women based in Washington, D.C. A Detroit street was renamed in her honor in 2019. 

She died in 1989.