Hey, wake up, your eyes weren’t open wide

In which I start to read a fun story about an old-timey car factory, and stumble over a giant race riot

(This started out as kind of a history/car post and turned into a political rant. You have been warned. If you want to skip this, go check out “Love Is” instead. It’s about two naked eight-year-olds who are married.)

A 1949 Packard convertible — the kind of car for a nut who’d build a time machine out of a DeLorean

I’m a big car nut, and a major history buff, and one of my favorite topics is defunct car brands — you know, the kinds of cars that haven’t been made for years and are mostly punchlines to jokes, like Fozzie Bear in his Studebaker and the dad buying an Edsel in “Peggy Sue Got Married.”

I was sitting in a waiting room on Tuesday with several hours to kill, started surfing old-time car blogs, and fell down a wormhole, reading about the Packard car company and its giant factory in Detroit.

Of all of the defunct car brands in the U.S., perhaps none has a stronger fan base than Packard. Before the Great Depression, it was considered one of the “three P’s” of American luxury cars — Packard, Peerless and Pierce-Arrow — that rivaled Rolls-Royce in prestige and quality.

When the demand for luxury cars collapsed in the early 1930s, Peerless and Pierce-Arrow exited the business, but Packard soldiered on, mainly by moving down-market and making cheaper cars. During World War II, Packard, which was famed for its high-quality engineering and manufacturing standards, supplied aircraft engines for fighter planes.

After the war, unfortunately, Packard reintroduced the same cars it had been making in 1941 and 1942. Though fashionable before the war, styling trends had moved on. The company quickly got a reputation for being too conservative and stodgy. Increasingly, its cars were bought by little old ladies, retired bankers and clergy.

Packard’s motto was (the not-very-inclusive) “Ask the Man Who Owns One,” but the man who owned one was likely to be an elderly doctor driving a plain black one with no radio and rubber floor mats. (When I wrote my G.C. Murphy Co. history book, one of the people I interviewed remembered her father, the company president, driving a Packard in the 1950s. His kids would hide on the floor when they saw their friends. “It looked like a hearse,” she told me.)

Perhaps the most famous movie Packard is the one driven by Doc Brown in “Back to the Future.” That choice of car by the scriptwriters had to be intentional. Driving a Packard in 1955 is one of the things that marks Doc Brown as a weirdo and a crank — just the kind of guy who was likely to buy another orphaned car (a DeLorean) 30 years later.

After a disastrous merger with Studebaker in 1954, and then two years of building Packard cars with Studebaker bodies — “Packard-bakers,” people said, laughing — Packard disappeared in 1958.

The giant Packard plant on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit became a national eyesore. After an effort by the city of Detroit to redevelop the property failed (in part because the city tried taking it over without legal permission) it sat empty for decades, being stripped by looters, set on fire by vandals, and photographed by everyone looking for a symbol of “urban decay.”

Yet the cars were so well-made, and so beloved by their quirky, eccentric, stubborn owners, that many survive, and some can be purchased for not much money. The Packard company has a strong enough following that there are not one, but two Packard museums in Ohio. Here’s a picture of my wife and I sitting in one of the museum cars at “America’s Packard Museum” in Dayton:

I’m just one cigarette holder and four elections away from being FDR

So that’s the Packard story. Many really good books have been written about the company, and I own several of them.

All of this is to establish my bonafides.

Because despite all of that, I never heard the following story until this week, when I was sitting in a waiting room, hoping to read some fun stuff about old-time cars, and instead stumbled over a nasty chapter in American history.

Here’s what I learned (and this is a bit of an over-simplification):

During the summer of 1943 — 75 years ago — up to 25,000 white workers at the Packard factory in Detroit walked off the job after three Black workers with seniority were promoted in the foundry.

This problem wasn’t isolated to Packard. On June 4, 1943, the Detroit Free Press carried an Associated Press story from Washington citing unnamed sources in the Labor Department warning of strikes and walkouts:

“Negroes or Mexicans, hired in the last two years in plants where manpower was growing scare, now automatically have begun moving up to skilled jobs as they fall vacant,” AP reported. “This advance is made possible through union contracts guaranteeing seniority rights. But even though they had fought for those seniority guarantees, skilled American white workers have protested and walked out when they saw Negroes and Mexicans moving into the skilled field.”

Detroit Free Press, June 5, 1943

(“Skilled white American workers,” as opposed to “Negroes” (sic) who were some how … less American, I guess? I digress.)

Specifically at Packard’s factory, there had been agitation for a while from white workers after the federal government and the United Auto Workers union began pressuring the company to hire and promote Black employees to fill vacant war-time positions.

There was even more anger from white women workers when Black women were hired to work alongside them on the assembly lines. (One lady was particularly outraged that Black women were going to be allowed to use the same restrooms. “They think their fannies are as good as ours,” she said.)

The UAW’s president alleged that the Ku Klux Klan had descended on Detroit to cause trouble — in other words, the problem was caused by “outside agitators.”

Detroit Evening Times, June 5, 1943

About two weeks later, after the strikers were ordered to return to their jobs, 10,000 people (mostly young white men) rioted, smashing windows of Black-owned businesses and killing at least 34 people.

The mayor of Detroit blamed “Negro hoodlums” and the district attorney faulted the NAACP for “agitating.” Later research has found almost no evidence of Klan activity; the hatred was homegrown.

Needless to say, I never learned this in school, and despite being a devoted fan of Packard cars, never saw a word about this in any exhibit or book. (That’s not to say it wasn’t there. Maybe it was. Perhaps I just missed it.)

Car collector books and museums tend to focus on the fun aspects of the hobby, such as horsepower and styling, rather than the factories and the people who built the cars, but still — this was one of the largest race-riots in U.S. history and was one of five large mostly white-on-Black race riots that happened that summer. That’s a pretty big deal.

But, to be honest, and this is a little embarrassing — I never heard about those riots, either.

Politicians (and they’re mostly Republicans) have talked a lot about eliminating “critical race theory” (and most of them can’t even explain what that is) from schools and universities. Many of them have also eliminated Black history classes from schools — Florida went so far as to block high schools from offering an advanced placement (AP) course in African American studies until “changes” were imposed to make it more acceptable to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

I guess learning about something like the Packard strike of 1943 or the Detroit race riots would fall under the heading “critical race theory,” and I guess it might make white students feel bad about themselves. (That’s one of the objections to teaching the history of racism in American schools, after all.)

But I’m not an impressionable youth. I’m a sissy white liberal who’s interested in antique cars, and I’m a member of a labor union — hell, I was a member of the Auto Workers union for about 20 years, while my union was affiliated with it — and I never learned about any of this until I was 40(mumble) years old. If I never heard about it, I’m guessing the likelihood of a K-12 (or even a university) student learning this stuff is less than zero.

The philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Why are we deliberately making sure that students don’t remember a past that includes ignorance like that shown by Packard workers in 1943? Do we really want to then repeat a past that includes white mobs rampaging through the streets, smashing and burning Black businesses?

Don’t answer that second question. I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

Nostalgia is fun. Looking at quaint old cars is fun (at least to me). But as originally coined in the 17th century, the term “nostalgia” actually described a disease or a pathology. Nostalgia for a neat old car like the Packard convertible at the top of the page is fine, but wanting to return to that era without recognizing how toxic it was — especially for people of color and immigrants — is dangerous, and explains a lot about why the United States of America has fractured as much as it has. A lot of Americans, it seems, are longing for an era that deservedly was left in the past — and which needs to stay there.

(Optional soundtrack/source of the title)

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