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Chapter Twelve Lilly and Alberta Detroit, 1917 I’m going to Detroit gonna get myself a job. Gonna get me a job up to Mr. Ford’s place, Stop these eatless days from staring me in the face. —­Blues lyrics by Blind Blake, 1920 Lilly’s new lover was thirty-nine years old, a brown-skinned man with a medium build and a receding hairline.1 Although not dashingly handsome, Henry Pratt possessed one highly attractive quality: he was not afraid of hard work.As soon as Pratt arrived in Detroit,he found a job working as a janitor.The following year he found better paying work at the Bellevue Foundry. And in 1919, when the Dodge Motor Company began actively recruiting black workers, Pratt got a job at their new plant and moved with Lilly and Alberta to Hamtramck , a predominantly Polish area just beyond the city limits.2 Although the Dodge brothers hired African Americans, they were hardly proponents of racial equality. They simply believed that blacks from the Jim Crow South would be less likely than their white employees to join a union.3 At the Dodge factory, blacks were not allowed to work on the assembly line and were always given the least desirable and lowest paid jobs at the plant.4 For nine hours every day, Henry Pratt worked in the foundry, pouring molten metal from a roaring hot blast furnace into cast-iron molds. Foundry work was hot, noisy, backbreaking, and dangerous. As recently as 1976, the Labor Occupational Health Monitor reported that third-degree burns, crushed limbs, and amputations were common among foundry workers who, the article noted, were more than twice as likely to die from job-related causes than other factory workers.5 After his long day at work, Pratt walked home to a frame house on Burnside Avenue set cheek to jowl with a dozen other houses just like it. There were no trees in the yard and no paint on the walls. There was no indoor plumbing. In 47 48 Chapter Twelve order to use the toilet, his family had to go out to the barn behind the house. All the toilets on the block emptied into the same sewer drain, and in the summer the stench would have been overpowering.6 Alberta,who had learned to sew at Barber,contributed to the family’s income by working in a dress shop. Although my grandmother was a great raconteur who loved to entertain her children with stories, she remained closemouthed about the five years she spent in the Motor City. The only memories from this period Alberta ever shared with her family revolved around the church. The Methodist Church had been my grandmother’s salvation in the cotton fields of Alabama, in the slums of Birmingham, and in the coalfields of Kansas. In her new environment, the Methodist Church once again provided a refuge. At least twice a week, she and Lilly made the twenty-minute streetcar trip from Hamtramck to worship at Scott Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church. With over a thousand members, Scott was the oldest and most influential Methodist Episcopal church in the city.7 The two women joined the choir and were soon heavily involved in church activities. Lilly’s specialty was fund-raising. Many of Scott’s members had just recently arrived from the South and had little money to spare. Somehow, as she went from door to door collecting donations, Lilly was able to convince these people to give their hard-earned cash to the church. In a 1926 article in the Southwest Christian Advocate, Lilly is praised as “one of the best financial members in the church,” making as many as forty house calls in a single week. Scott Methodist Church would have needed every penny. As Lilly went from door to door around her neighborhood, Detroit’s black churches were coping with an unprecedented social crisis. Less than a mile from Scott Methodist Church, African Americans were moving by the thousands into a three-mile section of the city’s east side known as the Black Bottom. Desperate for a better life, they came to Detroit from the rural South in search of work, some with only the clothes on their backs. By 1920 the Black Bottom was home to over three hundred thousand people. Housing conditions were appalling. After a visit to one ghetto boardinghouse, an inspector from the city board of health wrote: “Toilet stopped up. Bath in deplorable condition...


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MARC Record
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