October 10, 2013
Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man is playing at the Mayfair theater in Detroit. Outside, a car is overturned, ablaze. This is not an accident. It’s June 1943 and the Race Riots are sweeping through the city.
In the early Forties, when the city’s automobile plants switched to wartime production, recruiters scoured the Southern States for manpower, drawing some 300,000 whites and 50,000 blacks to the Motor City. Racial tensions flared as early as 1941, when blacks were settled into newly built housing projects. Cross burnings and violence ensued. The tension reached its fever peak in the spring of 1943 when blacks were promoted at U.S. Rubber, Hudson, and Vickers. White workers walked off the job when blacks were allowed into the Production Department, served as plant guards or were hired as tool-makers. In late May, over 26,000 men paralyzed Packard assembly lines when a handful of black workers were brought onto the factory floor to work alongside whites.
The riots, fueled by spurious claims of violence by either side against the other, ignited on June 20 and roared for three days, until Federal troops restored peace. Blacks bore the brunt of the violence. An investigation revealed that of the 34 people killed, 25 of them were blacks. Of 600 people injured and 1800 arrested, over 75% were African-Americans. A recurring story tells of blacks being pulled off city buses and beaten. Blacks driving their cars were stopped and chased away, their cars demolished and burned.
The Riots made the local papers, but very little information traveled beyond, censored so as to preserve national morale in wartime. At best, a few American newspapers ran short items about brief cases of “labor unrest” in Detroit. It would take decades for the story to be fully revealed.
The Mayfair theater on Woodward Avenue was built as a synagogue in 1902, it’s striking Beaux-Arts dome structure the work of Albert Khan, the “architect of Detroit”. It was transformed into a playhouse and civic theater in 1922 and modified again into a movie house, The Mayfair, in 1930. The building was taken over as a performance space by Wayne State University in 1951 and now serves as the Bonstelle Theater.
The Mayfair went dark on those terrible days of June, 1943. Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and the quaint Hollywood horrors within were no match for the real monsters prowling outside.
The Bonstelle Theater on Historic Detroit.