Automobile Industry Employment: Kentucky, African Americans(start date: 1910 - end date: 1930)
By Reinette F. Jones, with assistance from Kathy L. Schiflett - 03/28/2018
1910-1930 DRAWING POWER OF THE AUTOMOBILE INDUSTRY
Repeated family tales give credit to thousands of African American men from Kentucky who headed up north at the turn of the 20th century to work in car factories and find a better way of life. Perhaps the pleasure is in the telling of the stories, but there were actually only a few hundred from Kentucky who made the trek and found employment in the northern automobile industry. The men were part of the first wave of families migrating to the industries in northern cities during the early 1900s. Knowing how many were employed in the automobile industry requires quite a bit of research, because it was not until about 1930 that the automobile industry began keeping data on African Americans both as employees and consumers.
The invention and mass production of the car created new and various kinds of employment that drew a few thousand African Americans to northern cities. The period 1910-1930 was just prior to the labor union membership campaign, the early years leading to the Great Depression, and the impact of decreasing wages in the automobile industry. It was also the period when the African American population in Kentucky decreased by 35,616.
The population loss was not because of the outmigration of automobile industry jobs: African Americans from Kentucky were an extremely small part of the northern workforce in the automobile industry between 1910 and 1930. The same was true for the automobile industry in Kentucky. The difference, however, was that African American men who were native Kentuckians were entering the automobile industry workforce in Kentucky more often than they were in any other state. To say it another way, between 1910 and 1930 African American men who left Kentucky were looking for opportunities in other states, and seeking jobs in the automobile industry was not the leading factor.
Looking at the data provided by S. A. Reich in Table 3.1 on p. 69 of his A Working People: a history of African American workers since Emancipation, the automobile industry was not the largest industry employer for African Americans between 1910 and 1930. African Americans made up 4% of the U.S. automobile industry workforce in 1920 [8,156] and in 1930 [25,895], up from a low of 0.5%  in 1910. In relation to other industries, the employment percentages and actual numbers were much higher for African Americans in the steel industry [1910: 5.5% (17,432)]; [1920: 13.6% (47,797)]; [1930: 13.3% (45,472)]. The numbers and percentages had also been higher in the meatpacking industry [1910: 6.2% (5,800)]; [1920: 21.4% (28,300)]; [1930: 11.8% (20,400)].
So while the automobile industry drew potential African American employees to various northern cities between 1910 and 1930, it was not the sole industry to do so; it did not become a recognized industry employer of African Americans until after a couple of decades into the 20th century. The increased number of African American employees occurred when the overall number of employees increased in the automobile industry. In 1930, that total was 640,474 employees; of that number, the African American employees total was 25,895, or 4%. The labor force in the automobile industry was thought to have stabilized by 1930; some would say it had reached a peak in terms of competition, profits, and number of employees.
However, going back to 1910, the types of jobs African Americans held in the automobile industry on the national level were at the bottom of the job ladder in less skilled and the most hazardous positions. Little had changed by 1930 when a very small number of African Americans were in more skilled positions, were car salesmen, or owners of car-related businesses. Those employed in more skilled positions were most probably employed by the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, MI. [See Ford Motor Company History website.]
The Ford Motor Company was the first automobile manufacturing company to hire African Americans. The company had sent employment agents to southern states offering African Americans $5 per day for factory work, the same pay as whites. Employment for African Americans in southern manufacturing paid between $1.50-$1.75 per day. In October 1916, the Ford Motor Company announced that "the gentler sex" [women] too would be making the same pay as men, $5 per day [source: "Henry Ford Gives Women - Hands Credit to Wilson, $5 per day, The Day Book (Chicago), 10/25/1916, p. 8].
It is not known if the Ford Motor Company recruitment agents came to Kentucky or if the company considered Kentucky a southern state. In 1919, an ad appeared on the front page of a Kentucky newspaper announcing the Ford Motor Company pay of $7 per day [source: Richmond Daily Register, 7/22/1919, p. 1]. The Ford Motor Company paid some of the highest wages to African Americans in the automobile industry, which had the desired effect of creating anti-union attitudes among African Americans in Detroit. All of that would later change; in 1927, the Ford Motor Company was feeling the pressure of competition, leading to several of the Ford factories being closed in order to retool and perfect the design of a new car, the 1928 Model A. Added to these changes was the increase in the number of African American employees joining labor unions.
Many sources chronicle and analyze the entry and advancement of African Americans in the automobile industry and their joining labor unions. A few works have been listed below for additional information. The remainder of this entry looks specifically at where and when African American Kentucky natives were employed in the automobile industry from 1910-1930.
Sources: The Negro in the Automobile Industry, by H. R. Northrup; C. S. Johnson, "The Changing economic status of the Negro," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 140 The American Negro, (Nov. 1928), pp. 128-137; L. H. Bailer, "The Negro automobile worker," Journal of Political Economy, vol. 51, no. 5 (Oct. 1943), pp. 415-428; J. F. Kain, "Housing segregation, Negro employment, and metropolitan decentralization," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, vol. LXXXII, no. 2 (May 1968), pp. 175-197; African Americans in the U.S. Economy, edited by C. A. Conrad, et. al.; Great Depression: people and perspectives, by H. Cravens and P. C. Mancall; Black Detroit and the Rise of the UAW, by A. Meier and E. Rudwick; "Automobile Industry" in Encyclopedia of African American Society, vol. 1, A-L, Sage Publications, 2005; and Technology and the African-American Experience: needs and opportunities for study, edited by B. Sinclair.
1910-1930 AFRICAN AMERICAN EMPLOYEES IN AND FROM KENTUCKY IN THE AUTOMOBILE INDUSTRY
The following information is based on data taken from the U.S. Census looking at 584 African Americans who were born in Kentucky and employed in the automobile industry as it was defined by the U.S. Census Bureau from 1910 to 1930. The data is available in the .pdf document attached to this entry.
- Negro population in Kentucky in 1910 was 261,656 or 11.4% [131,492 males and 130,164 females], down from 13.3% in 1900 [source: pp. 721 & 723 in Thirteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1910, Volume 2].
- Negro population in Kentucky in 1920 was 235,938 or 9.8% [118,548 males and 117,390 females], down from 11.4% in 1910 [source: p. 26 in Fourteenth Census of the United States, State Compendium, Kentucky].
- Negro population in Kentucky in 1930 was 226,040 or 8.6% [113,501 males and 112,539 females], down from 9.8% in 1920 [source: pp. 38 & 99 in Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, Population, Volume II, General Report Statistics by Subject].
During the first three decades of the 20th Century, African Americans in and from Kentucky were employed in 25 states doing a variety of jobs in the automobile industry. Of the total employees, five were women and 579 were men. The automobile industry was a male workplace. It was rare for women such as Anna M. Ray in Chicago to be a car inspector in 1930; Birdie Hayne was a machinist in Detroit in 1920; 16-year-old Mabel Young worked in an automobile factory in St. Louis in 1920; and there was Margaret Owsley in Indianapolis, who was a maid at an automobile store in 1920, and Mattie Morgan was a scrub woman in an automobile shop in Louisville in 1920. The 1916 announcement in the The Day Book (Chicago) that women would be paid $5 per day at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit may not have been a message that reached African American women in Kentucky [see Negro Women in Industry by U.S. Department of Labor].
For the African American male automobile industry employees from Kentucky, there were more than 60 jobs identified in the census records. The jobs ranged in skills and duties, including the employment of an elevator boy, assemblers, cement workers, a delivery boy, laborers, mechanics, a tire repairer, molders, a vulcanizer, an air hyster, and chauffeurs/drivers. There were also two teamsters: James H. Roberts working in a Detroit automobile company in 1910, and Adolph Dimeree who was working in an automobile body factory in Louisville in 1930.
The first group of employees were found in the 1910 U.S. Census. There were 49 African American males born in Kentucky and employed in the automobile industry with the majority living in Kentucky (14), Indiana (14), and Ohio (12). The top jobs were chauffeurs/drivers (21), laborers (7), and machinists (6). The chauffeurs/drivers were employed at automobile companies or were private drivers in Indianapolis; Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton, OH; East St. Louis, Chicago, and Bloomington, IL; Wichita, KS; and Louisville and Mayfield, KY.
By 1910, African American males were still very much employed as drivers of horse-drawn vehicles and were slowly moving toward employment such as chauffeurs and private drivers of automobiles. According to L. J. Greene and C. G. Woodson in The Negro Wage Earner, pp. 110-112, the number of teamsters, draymen, hackmen, and chauffeurs more than doubled between 1890-1910. They were the second largest group of Negro workers in trade and transportation, doing menial work referred to in the South as "Negro jobs." These were the same jobs available to African American men in northern cities who could not find employment in the factories. Having a Negro chauffeur was thought to be a status symbol of wealth and class for the employers. For the workers in 1909, the average yearly wage in the automobile industry was $643, about $12.36 per week, or $2.06 per day (6-day workweek) [source: Report on Motor Vehicle Industry, by the Federal Trade Commission, June 5, 1939, p. 8].
In the 1920 U.S. Census, of the 203 African American males born in Kentucky and employed in the automobile industry, 44 were mechanics, 43 laborers, 33 chauffeurs/drivers, 23 machinists, and 16 repairmen. The number of chauffeurs/drivers had increased by 12 since the count in 1910. [Note: The chauffeur operating license cost $2 in Kentucky in 1920 and $1 to renew - source: Facts and Figures of the Automobile Industry, 1921, p. 73.]
While the number of chauffeurs had slightly increased, African American men were moving into jobs that required some degree of technical skills as mechanics. There were also those who entered the automobile industry as undefined laborers. All were probably employees learning on their own or receiving on-the-job training or individuals providing services to African American automobile owners, because in 1920 automobile insurance and automobile service and repair were all segregated. Two ways of getting around the barriers were self-employment and education. Schools in Kentucky were segregated, and of the high schools that offered trades to African American students, there is no mention of them having automobile technical training courses by 1920.
The recognized automobile school in Kentucky was in the YMCA central branch in Louisville [source: Facts and Figures of the Automobile Industry, 1921, p. 84]. In 1920, the YMCA branches in Louisville were segregated, with the central branch designated for whites. In the high schools, automotive mechanic courses were very slowly being added as part of the eight-four plan of reorganizing schools to include four years of high school [source: The Gates Open Slowly, by F. L. McVey, p. 262]. The reorganization started in 1917; three years later, the plan had not gotten off the ground. The unfinished work was the reorganization of the vocational curriculum, especially the preparation of teachers and the expenditures of vocational funds [source: Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of Kentucky for the Two Years Ending June 30, 1921, pp. 43-47]. A full-time supervisor of Trades and Industries and Home Economics education had been employed. A department of vocational teacher-training was organized at the land-grant schools, University of Kentucky and Kentucky Normal and Industrial Institute [now Kentucky State University].
So while public education in Kentucky was attempting to get more organized in order to offer the vocational education courses that would include automobile technical courses in the newly formed high schools, employment in the automobile industry was moving forward. African Americans were employed in automobile factories and companies and in the small automobile-related businesses such as car garages, stations, stores, and shops in Chicago, IL; Indianapolis, IN; Detroit, MI; St. Louis, MO; Winston Salem, NC; Dayton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Findlay, OH; and in the Kentucky cities of Barbourville, Frankfort, Hopkinsville, Lexington, Louisville, Paducah, and Parker.
There was evidence of the automobile industry's drawing power to get a few African American males in Kentucky to move to other states. Of the 203 Kentucky-born men employed in the automobile industry in 1920, the majority lived in Kentucky (64), Ohio (40), Michigan (32), and Indiana (22). Smaller groups of employees had settled in Illinois, New York, Missouri, California, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. In addition, there were individual employees who settled in Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.
In Kentucky, the employment of 64 African Americans in the automobile industry was almost nothing given that the automobile industry was booming across the board. Over two million passenger and commercial vehicles were produced in the United States in 1920, with the greatest sales in the U.S. and Europe. In addition to the European sales, 12,183 vehicles were shipped to African countries and nations, geographic locations under European rule [source: Facts and Figures of the Automobile Industry, 1921, p. 53]. Vehicle production in Kentucky came from the state's one passenger car factory and one motor truck factory. Consumers in Kentucky included the rural schools that used motor buses to transport 4,500 students. The state's total motor vehicle registrations were up from 19,500 in 1915 to 112,683 in 1920. Kentucky ranked 25th among the U.S. vehicle registrations in 1920. In Kentucky there were 483 passenger car dealers, 311 truck dealers, 490 automobile garages, 598 repair shops, and 662 supply dealers. Total gross motor vehicle revenue for Kentucky in 1920 was $815,539.31. [If converted to 2018 dollars, that amount would be $10,637,566.82]. ~ [Source: Facts and Figures of the Automobile Industry, 1921, pp. 7, 9, 21, 33, and 38-39.] The average yearly wage in the automobile industry in 1919 had increased from $1,431 to $1,498 in 1921 [source: Report on Motor Vehicle Industry, by the Federal Trade Commission, June 5, 1939, p. 8].
By 1930, automotive mechanics courses had been added to the high school curriculum in Kentucky. For African Americans in and from Kentucky, the number of male automobile mechanics was at an all-time high of 105, though the men were still a very miniscule part of the automobile industry workforce. Of the 327 African American males born in Kentucky and employed in the automobile industry in 1930, there were 105 mechanics, 76 laborers, 17 porters, 15 car washers, 15 machinists, 14 janitors/maintenance workers, 11 chauffeurs/drivers, 11 repairmen, and six salesmen, with the remaining 162 men employed in 40 other automobile-related jobs. The 327 African American men lived and worked in 22 states with most in Kentucky (93), Michigan (69), Indiana (46), Ohio (37), and Illinois (31).
The employment of Kentucky's African American males in the automobile industry in Michigan (69), was starting to rival that of the employment of African American males in the automobile industry in Kentucky (93). In Michigan, 66 men were employed in Detroit and the Wayne County area as laborers (36), machinists (6), janitors/maintenance workers (4), and hammer hands (2), along with 18 individuals employed in various jobs from car washer to welder.
Meanwhile, in Kentucky the number of African American male mechanics had tripled since the last census. Of the 105 mechanics counted in the 1930 census, the largest group (48) were employed at home: Louisville (13), Lexington (5), and three or less in Madisonville, Heidrick, Ashland, Bowling Green, Cynthiana, Harlan, Henderson, Henryville, Hopkinsville, Kitchen, Maysville, New Castle, Olive Hill, Owensboro, Paducah, Russellville, Shelbyville, Stanley, Winchester, and Woodford County.
The next largest group of African American automobile industry employees in and from Kentucky were 76 laborers, of which only 10 were in Kentucky: Covington, Hopkinsville, Kitchen, Louisville (4), Maysville, New Castle, and Somerset.
The number of chauffeurs/drivers had decreased from the 33 counted in 1920 to 11 in 1930: Cincinnati (2), Nashville (1), and eight in Kentucky - Frankfort (2), Lexington, Louisville (3), Market House, and Maysville. The chauffeurs/drivers were the third largest group of African American men in Kentucky employed in the automobile industry.
As the 1930s were about to begin, a few African Americans had moved into new jobs in the Kentucky automobile industry. The jobs were primarily a mix of old menial tasks that were now available to African Americans, combined with new jobs that had not been open before to African Americans in the state: car maker - Louisville; car washer - Louisville, Maysville (2), and Owensboro; helper - Louisville; laundry - Bowling Green, Covington, and Marion; molder - Madisonville; teamster - Louisville; tire repairman - Owensboro; trimmer - Lexington; and car unloader - Louisville.
There was one passenger car assembly plant in Kentucky, in Louisville [source: p. 16 in Facts and Figures of the Automobile Industry, 1929 edition]. Kentucky had 808 vehicle dealers, 1,301 repair shops, 1,166 retail supply stores and supply departments, and 163 parts and accessory wholesalers [pp. 34-35]. It led the southeast in new truck sales with 4,680 [p. 52]; ranked second, behind Arkansas, with the least number of transportation buses, 599 [p. 61]; and ranked last in number of private carrier buses with 199 [p. 64]. Kentucky continued to rank 25th in U.S. vehicle registrations with 304,231 [p. 66]. Kentucky state license taxes, including gas taxes, totaled $11,467,039 in 1928 [p. 76].
The automobile industry in Kentucky was still viable and flourishing. On the national level, the average yearly wage in 1929 was $1,638, and due to The Depression, it would decrease to $1,228 in 1931 and to $1,035 in 1933 [source: Report on Motor Vehicle Industry by the Federal Trade Commission, June 5, 1939, p. 8].
The Depression came when things were starting to look up; in other cities, especially Detroit and Chicago, there were more African Americans from Kentucky working in new types of automobile industry jobs than those in Kentucky. The jobs were higher skilled positions: air hyster - Saginaw, MI; assembler - Los Angeles; car body builder - Chicago; crane operator - Detroit; die mover - Detroit; drill press operator - Detroit; fireman - Detroit; floor man - Chicago; foundry hand - Indianapolis; hammer hand (2) - Detroit; heater man - Detroit and Ft. Wayne IN; license inspector - Chicago; millwright - Detroit; receiving clerk - Chicago; salesmen - Chicago, Dayton OH, Detroit, Elmsford NY, Gary IN, and Royal Oak MI; sand blaster - Cleveland OH; shipping clerk - Springfield OH; steel cutter - Detroit; tool grinder - Detroit; tool maker - Detroit (2); vulcanizer - Chicago; and welder - Detroit.