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Program of Work for the Assimilation Of Negro Immigrants In Northern Cities (1917)

A Program Of Work For The Assimilation Of Negro Immigrants In Northern Cities


By: Forrester B. Washington, Director of the Detroit League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes


A Presentation at the 44th Meeting of the National Conference on Social Welfare,

Pittsburgh, PA, June 6-13, 1917 (pp.497-500)

The first prerequisite in the task of organizing a local community for the absorption of a large new population of negro citizens is the establishment of a vocational bureau. In the past, when labor agencies brought the majority of negroes who came North, the problem of employment was simple. They were assured of jobs before they arrived. But now the majority of immigrants come without such inducement. They come in larger numbers and at all times of the year, when the demand for labor is strong and when it is slack. This situation is fraught with danger because in a few days idling about the city in search of a job the immigrant may come into contact with conditions and people whose influence is demoralizing and may destroy his chance of ever becoming a useful citizen. The immigrant needs more bolstering up in the first week than at any future time. Until he gets his first pay at the end of two weeks, he finds it difficult to get anybody to trust him. He is apt to become a charity seeker and a dependent.

The vocational bureau of the Detroit League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes has not been content merely with locating vacant jobs, but has been successful during the last twelve months in placing a thousand negroes in employment other than unskilled labor. It has made itself known to immigrants by cards of direction placed in the hands of negro employees about railway stations. It has persuaded the proprietor of a local moving picture theater which is a great gathering place for colored newcomers, to run lantern slides nightly announcing that employment and other services can be secured free at the office of the league.

To solve the difficult problem of the first week’s board, the league has arranged with certain factories a system of checks issued to guarantee payment for bills incurred at restaurants and boarding houses.

The establishment of a bureau of investigations and information regarding housing comes next in importance. The character of the houses into which negro immigrants go has a direct effect on their health, their morals and their efficiency. The rents charged determine whether the higher wages received in the North are real or only apparent, whether the change in environment has been beneficial or detrimental. The tendency is to exploit the negro immigrant in this particular.

The Detroit Urban League has induced one of the largest foundries to build low-priced homes for its colored employees, near the plant. It also has somewhat relieved the housing problem by the purchase of leases from the proprietresses of a number of disorderly houses which were closed by the police. It also keeps a list of empty houses and has been surprised to find how many of them are not listed by commercial real estate agents. A list of furnished rooms also is kept and immigrants are kept away from those connected with disorderly houses.

With the shorter working hours, recreation is more important for the negro in the North than in the South. On the other hand, he is beset by many vicious attractions entirely new to him and there is not the restraining influence of his family, friends and those who know him. I am sorry to say, but it is true, that he gets the warmest welcome from the worst element of the negro community, the saloonkeeper, the poolroom proprietor, the owner of the gambling club and of the. disorderly house.

The only way to counteract these vicious influences is to provide the immigrant negro with wholesome recreation that will satisfy his natural instinct for active amusement and society of his own kind. The Detroit League some time ago inaugurated a ten-cent newcomers’ community dance held every Tuesday in a public school in the heart of the negro district. A committee of young colored men hand printed cards about the street where most of the immigrants collect and place them tn the hands of newcomers, inviting them to the community dance, where another committee welcomes them. The rougher the type the heartier the welcome. The League also develops athletic features for the immigrants especially basketball. The first colored basketball team, not a member of which was a native of Detroit last winter, played against strong white and colored teams and lost only one game.

A department for the suppression of crime is necessary in a program for the assimilation of the negro immigrant The assistance of the local police should be solicited from the outset It should be impressed upon them that they must not, as they are prone to do, let matters go from bad to worse in a colored community until conditions are so acute that drastic and unusual measures are necessary The appointment of colored detectives should be urged to filter from the community as soon as possible the inevitable floaters, crooks, bums and adventurers who are parts of every hegira. The league has persuaded the police commissioner to appoint a special officer selected by the league to work entirely with the newcomers It is his duty to mingle with crowds on the streets where the newcomers congregate and urge them not to make a nuisance of themselves by blockading the sidewalks, boisterous behavior and the like. He is also provided with cards directing newcomers to the office of the league when in need of employment. The league itself keeps a close watch on the negro underworld of Detroit and immediately apprises the police when dives are developed especially to prey on the immigrant.

Much strength can be added to the program and much energy saved by enlisting the aid of every possible organization in the city whose functions can in any way be construed as touching on negro migration. The Urban League found the Board of Commerce, the Board of Health, and the Recreation Commission of the city exceedingly willing to co-operate. An organization of colored college students known as the Young Negroes Progressive Association has been the finest possible agent in the development of all the different activities.

In the adjustment of the negro a definite place must be given to the development of industrial efficiency. The welfare of the negro in his new environment depends upon the opinion that the community has of him. The more trades and occupations negroes become familiar with the more efficient they will be as a race, and the greater an asset to the community. Therefore, the league has endeavored to get them into as many different kinds of employment as possible. It also uses every opportunity to develop individual efficiency by calling the attention of every negro employee to the fact that he must be punctual, zealous and ambitious in his work. These points are always emphasized when a negro is sent to a job.

In pursuance of this object the league, with the assistance of the progressive association is carrying on a movement which I think, is unique. Representatives of the two organizations visit the various factories where large numbers of negroes are employed and talk to them during the noon hour on the necessity of creating the best possible impression at the present time, so that they may be certain of retaining their jobs in the future.

Source: National Conference on Social Welfare Proceedings On-Line

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The proceedings of annual meetings of the NCSW, 1874-1983, are available on the web thanks to a digitization project undertaken by the University of Michigan Library, with assistance from the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota.  The web site for this resource is:



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