Skeleton Crew

The Long Road: a timeline of the Motor City

Burgess Byrd as Faye and Brian Marable as Reggie in
Skeleton Crew at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati

In riveting new drama Skeleton Crew, a makeshift family of auto workers strains to stick together as they navigate the impending closing of their small factory. From the award-winning playwright of Detroit ’67 comes a powerful and compelling story of courage and camaraderie in blue-collar America.

Walk the line⎯this timeline, that is⎯to see Detroit’s pivotal role in the birth of American automotive industry and modern labor practices:

1900s-1920s

In 1896, the rumbling of Henry Ford’s first automobile echoes through the streets of Detroit, Michigan, however, his real breakthrough comes in 1908 with the Model T. Between 1900 and 1925, auto manufacturing plants including Ford, Cadillac, Chrysler, Dodge, and Olds pop up all over the city, with General Motors (GM) nearby in Flint. 

In 1914, Ford institutes $5-per-day wages (double the existing pay rate); in 1926, he reduced the workday to 8 hours, and establishes a 3-shift system. These changes are pivotal in the birth of the American middle class.

White workers are scarce in the 1920s due to WWI and the Immigration Act of 1924, so the auto industry hires black workers, most of whom were migrating North due to an agricultural slump and continuing Jim Crow practices in the South.

1930s-1940s

The Great Depression leads to New Deal labor legislation, providing increased financial security for autoworkers. However, black autoworkers have limited access to these government programs. Meanwhile, the pay gap between white-collar and blue-collar workers increases.

In 1935, national auto plant delegates meet in Detroit for the founding convention of the United Automobile Workers of America (UAW). Over the next three years, autoworkers stage sit-ins and walk-outs to fight for union rights at their companies. Major auto companies grow fearful of rising union power and in response decentralize their plants.

In 1942, auto companies halt civilian production to produce military equipment for WWII. More African Americans move to the city and racial tensions flare, resulting in deadly race riots from June 20-22, 1943. 

In 1944, The UAW calls for full employment and equal pay for women and formulates a program for returning GIs.

Ernaisja Curry as Shanita in Skeleton Crew at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati

1950s-1960s

Detroit is now the 4th-largest city in America and claims 296,000 manufacturing jobs. As portrayed in Dominique Morisseau’s play Paradise Blue, the city gentrifies due to the WWII economic boom and racial tensions. But as WWII ends and production slows, more auto companies move out of Detroit. 

Founded in 1959, Motown Records (Motown, a portmanteau of motor and town, also becomes a moniker for the city) produces 120 Top 20 songs throughout the 1960s, shaping the trajectory of popular music. 

In 1961, the UAW wins paid hospitalization and sick benefits and an agreement for no discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, or national origin. 

As depicted in Dominique Morisseau’s play Detroit ’67, years of police brutality and racial unrest erupt in five days of violence in the sweltering heat of July 1967. By the time the bloodshed, burning, and looting end, 43 people have been killed, 342 injured, some 5,000 people left homeless, and nearly 1,400 buildings burned causing roughly $50 million in property damage. More than 7,000 are arrested as both the National Guard and the Army are called in to restore order. 

1970s-1990s

In 1973, Detroit elects Coleman Young, the first black mayor of the city. The 1973-1974 gasoline crisis leads to financial ruin for Detroit auto companies as smaller, fuel-efficient, foreign cars rise in U.S. popularity. More than 22,000 Michigan government employees join the UAW in 1985, and over the next 20 years, the UAW fights for workplace equality in the midst of financial crisis. Detroit’s debt rating slides in and out of junk status, and the city falls into serious urban decay. 

2000s-Present

In 2008, President Bush gives a provisional $17.4 billion bailout to GM and Chrysler; they declare bankruptcy in 2009, and the Obama administration provides financing guides through the bankruptcy proceedings. The auto industry’s collapse during these years ravages the Detroit metro area, with a staggering 17.1% unemployment rate reported in July 2009. Though remnants of the auto industry remain in the city’s architecture, GM is the only major U.S. auto company with headquarters still in Detroit proper. 

Between 2011-2013, the state’s attempts to intervene in the Detroit government result in complications. Restructuring specialist Kevyn Orr files a Chapter 9 bankruptcy petition on behalf of Detroit in 2013, making it the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in history. 

Billionaire entrepreneur Dan Gilbert moves his company Quicken Loans to Detroit in 2009, starting a slow revitalization effort that helps improve the city’s credit and removes state oversight by 2018. In spite of this so-called “Detroit Renaissance,” the city still has some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the country.

Get an inside look at Detroit, 2008, with ETC’s production of Skeleton Crew, playing now through May 11.

Brian Marable as Reggie, Ernaisja Curry as Shanita, and Amari Cheatom as Dez in
Skeleton Crew at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati

Sources: U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, The Week, Reuters, UAW History, Detroit’s 2019 State of the City Address, RE Journals & The History Channel.

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