As the Roaring Twenties came to a close, apprehension about what the future held was beginning to grow throughout the world and the United States. The coming decade would be defined by uncertainty and a grim outlook. Nations just getting back on their feet after the devastation of WWI were again being pushed back into war as Hitler and the Nazi party were coming to power in Germany. In 1935, Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and in 1936, Japan invaded China. In 1938, Hitler advanced into Austria signifying the beginning of WWII.
At home, work was scarce and the future for citizens throughout the States seemed bleak as the Great Depression began to swallow the nation. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became President and instituted the New Deal to help combat the economic downturn. Despite the Depression, the U.S. continued to push forward. The 1930s brought us our National Anthem, the end of prohibition, the passing of the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act (which would soon change the face of Flint, MI).
Flint, however, stood resolute. The hardworking and prosperous city simply buckled down and continued to grow, becoming an industrial giant that seemed unstoppable. Buildings and organizations were built, milestones were attained, special programs were set into motion and auto workers would speak together with such power and unity that their voice would be heard throughout the world. This was Flint in the 1930s.
Fanfare and Flight
The city was abuzz when famed conductor, John Philip Sousa, came to Flint to conduct a national high school band concert at Atwood Stadium. Spectators gathered in anticipation to watch over 40 bands march down Saginaw St. Sousa was accompanied by composer, Edwin Franko Goldman, and over 3,000 students. Atwood was alive with drums, horns, twirling batons and clapping enthusiasts. The fanfare rang throughout the city, a boisterous announcement to the world that Flint was alive … what a way to start the decade!
In many ways, the 1930s were a continuation of the progress that started for Flint in the 20s. In 1930, the Industrial Bank Building was constructed – the city’s tallest structure for over 30 years and current home of the C.S. Mott Foundation. Flint took another step forward in diversity when, in 1931, Archie Parks became the first black police officer. Also, in 1931, while Officer Parks was walking the beat, an interior designer by the name of Cathryn Sanford purchased a fireplace in New York for the R. Spencer Bishop Family of Flint. The fireplace once belonged to Clement Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”). The fireplace still exists in the house at 515 East Street, now home to the Voices for Children Organization.
In the spring of 1929, C.S. Mott purchased land on the shores of Pero Lake, where he established the Mott Boys Camp for underprivileged boys in 1933. The camp would continue for 40 years, serving thousands of boys aged 10-14.
A banker by the name of Arthur Giles Bishop who worked with Billy Durant, William Crapo, William Atwood and C.S. Mott, donated a large swath of land to Flint for construction of an airport. In 1934, Bishop International Airport was built, making Flint an even bigger hub of commerce and industry. It was an immediate success – air shows were soon in operation and continued through the 1980s. The airport would expand many times in the future.
For General Motors (GM), the 1930s brought significant diversification and change. As the ‘20s ended, GM was the proclaimed king of auto manufacturing in Flint, the nation and the world. In 1930, the company decided to increase their manufacturing footprint by entering the airline business. The company purchased Fokker Aircraft Corp. of America and Berliner-Joyce Aircraft, eventually merging the two to create the General Aviation Manufacturing Corporation (GAMC). GM soon continued its move into aviation, purchasing controlling shares in North American Aviation (NAA). GAMC was soon merged with NAA. GM would hold a controlling interest in NAA until 1948 when it left aviation, altogether. GM moved into the railroad business in 1930 as well by purchasing the Electro-Motive Company. For the next 20 years, GM built the majority of the nation’s diesel-powered locomotives. Electro-Motive had some success and was held by the company until 2005.
The next business venture for GM was electric rail. In 1932, the company formed a new subsidiary called United Cities Motor Transport (UCMT), with the purpose of financing the conversion of streetcar systems to buses. One of the first acts of UCMT was to create a holding company called National City Lines. National City Lines purchased electric rail companies in cities all over the United States and converted them all to bus. In 1949, National City Lines landed GM (and other partners such as Standard Oil and Firestone) into trouble when the companies were convicted of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and parts. GM was fined $5,000 and executives had to pay $1 each.
In 1935, a man by the name of Frank J. Manley gave a presentation to the Flint Rotary Club, speaking about the need for after-school and recreation programs in which he outlined the concept of “community” schools. Manley believed that the active participation of each student in all schools would help cure society’s ills, that communities should present the same message to each child and education is the key. Soon, he received a $6,000 grant from the Mott Foundation. The community school concept would spread from Flint to the rest of the nation. Manley stated, “The more educated a man is, presumably the greater understanding and sympathy he will have for other people. He will have a feeling for the on-goingness of time and of his own place in it. He will strive to create that which is beautiful and eradicate that which is ugly. The development of his own being will make it possible for him to make his fullest contribution to society.” A community school both educates and provides opportunities for students using community resources.
The year 1936 started with yet another presidential visit when FDR came to Flint during his campaign and was greeted by 150,000 smiling faces. It was one of the largest crowds to greet the sitting president. Alf Landon, his opponent, also stopped in Flint and was met by a crowd of approximately 15,000. During the summer, the city held the “Progress of Transportation” Parade on Saginaw Street to the delight of thousands. (GM would also start their “Parade of Progress” this year in Lakeland, FL, visiting small towns across the U.S. until ending in the mid-1950s.) While citizens were enjoying the parades and entertainment in Flint, a movement was beginning in the background. Possibly emboldened by the previous year’s passage of the National Labor Relations Act legalizing strikes, unions pushed their recruitment efforts. In the summer of 1936, Michigan was in the middle of a heat wave and some auto-workers died due to the heat and poor working conditions. Wages were also being cut, leaving workers feeling increasingly under-valued. Through multiple spies in the workforce, GM began to hear some chatter of unionizing from its workers in Flint. Like the rest of the major manufacturing companies in the nation at that time, GM dealt with the news harshly. Earlier strikes in 1930 and 1934, were broken up by Flint police. In 1936, GM workers were being retaliated against and unions were having trouble getting to them.
UAW leaders such as Wyndham Mortimer, Roy Reuther, Henry Kraus, Eric Branoff and Ralph Dale began to meet workers at their homes in secret. Many workers soon signed up, but eventually, GM caught wind of the meetings. On December 29, UAW officials learned that, over the New Year’s holiday, GM was going to remove vital “dies,” used to make car bodies, from the plants in Flint. If GM was successful, the UAW’s position would have been weakened almost to the point of uselessness – the company could simply make parts elsewhere. That knowledge led to GM workers’ refusal to leave the plant and the Flint Sit-down Strike commenced the next day.
GM appealed to Michigan Governor, Frank Murphy to force the workers from Fisher Body Plants 1 and 2, citing property rights. Governor Murphy refused to involve the State. Legend has it that Murphy met with John L. Lewis, head of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). When Murphy stated to Lewis that he was going to shut the strike down, Lewis reminded him that Murphy’s father was once a striking mine worker. Lewis then asked Murphy what his father would do? It was at this point that Murphy decided to stay away from the sit-down strike. Without government help, GM resorted to other tactics to clear the men from the factories. The company cut the heat and electricity and prevented food deliveries. The strikers maintained discipline throughout the ordeal, with strike leaders, Bob Travis and Roy Reuther, organizing committees for cleaning, exercise and defense. The strikers got help when the Emergency Women’s Brigade began bringing them food while protesting GM outside of the plants.
On January 11, things got physical when Flint Police officers attempted to disrupt food delivery at Fisher Body #2. The night was dubbed the “Battle of the Running Bulls.” Police fired tear gas and bullets into the plant and workers responded by throwing hinges, bottles and bolts at the officers. Picketers outside the plant damaged and flipped the police chief’s car. When the night ended, 16 workers and 11 policemen were injured.
As the strike continued, it became obvious that GM still maintained some spies in the camp. Union leaders let it be known that they were going to spread the strike to another plant; at the last minute they changed the target plant, catching GM completely off guard. On February 1, the strike spread to Chevy Plant #4. Not having legal help, GM was forced to settle. On February 11, 1937, GM signed an agreement which legally recognized the UAW and GM also agreed not to harm those who had struck. After 44 days, the sit-down strike was over, its ramifications rippling across the nation and the world. UAW membership rose to almost 300,000 members, nationwide. The new model of employment would resonate throughout the world.
While GM and its workers were forging a new type of auto industry, one man was leaving it far behind. Billy Durant would let go of the wheel in 1936 forever, when he declared bankruptcy. GM honored his contributions by affording him a $10,000 annual pension.
After the violence and uncertainty of the sit-down strike, things in Flint returned to normal. In 1938, Flint Police Sgt. Wilburn Legree began his role as “The Singing Cop,” visiting community schools to teach generations of kids about safety through song. Some of his hits included, “The Boys of the Safety Patrol” and “When You Cross the Street.” A book of his songs was soon published and his voice could be heard on the radio. Legree’s songs were used in schools across the country, in Germany, Australia and New Zealand. In 1999, the State Bar of Michigan presented Legree with the Liberty Bell Award.
In 1939, Mott Children’s Health Center was established at Hurley Hospital and Flint Technical High School was opened to educate students in the technical fields. The school operated until 1958, when it was replaced in 1959 by Flint Southwestern Academy.
As the ‘30s wound down, the nation watched with bated breath the events unfolding overseas. Soon enough, the United States would join the rest of the world. The beginning of the next decade was dedicated to fighting the Axis powers in WWII, with Flint factories, workers and citizens doing their parts. The city would carry through, with the exception of one man. After one last attempt at glory, Billy Durant would finally reach the end of the road.
Other Notable Events Timeline
- Flint Council of Churches was organized.
- Flint’s Ruth Deroo won the world outboard motor racing championship.
- National Bank of Flint was organized.
- Ballenger Park was established.
- Clifford Street Center opened in Floral Park.
- The Sportsman’s Club was formed.
- The Stepping Stone Pilot Project was conducted.
- Bill Barclay of Flint won the Michigan Junior Golf Association Tournament.
British Library. (2017). The Flint Sit-Down Strike, 1936-37. British Library. Retrieved from blogs.bl.uk/americas/2017/02/the-sit-down-strike-in-flint-1936-37-.html
Chapman, C. F. (1933). Motorboating. New York, NY: International Magazine Company.
Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. (2016). Remembering Mott Camp. Mott.Org. Retrieved from mott.org/news/articles/remembering-mott-camp-an-experience-that-helped-shape-the-habits-of-a-lifetime/
Decker, L. E. (1999). The Evolution of the Community School Concept: The Leadership of Frank J. Manley. Boca Raton, FL: Florida Atlantic University.
GM Heritage Center. (2018). 1936 Parade of Progress. GM Heritage Center. Retrieved from gmheritagecenter.com/gm-heritage-archive/Featured_Innovations/1936_Parade_of_Progress.html
Historicalvoices.org. (2018). The Flint Sit-Down Strike. Historical Voices. Retrieved from flint.matrix.msu.edu/aftermath.php
Paul, C. A. (2018). Flint Sit-Down Strike (1936-1937). Virginia Commonwealth University. Retrieved from socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/flint-sit-strike-1936-1937/
Slater, C. (1997). General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars. Transportation Quarterly 51(3), 45-66.
The Flint Club. (2006). Timeline of Flint. Flinthistory.com. Retrieved from: archive.li/jzTLw
Young, G. (2009). Flint Portraits: Wilburn Legree. Flint Expatriats. Retrieved from flintexpats.com/2008/04/flint-portraits-wilburn-legree.html