Poletown closing cuts deep

    May Ella Crouther | Ken Coleman photo

    Southeastern Michigan residents are still reeling over General Motors’ announcement that it will lay off almost 15,000 workers and close out production at five North American plants. One of them is the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, known to many as the “Poletown Plant.”

    Just before the North American International Auto Show kicked off in Detroit this week, economists said at a Lansing conference that GM layoffs announced last year will likely cost Michigan 16,000 jobs overall.

    My maternal grandmother, 90-year-old May Ella Crouther, was among the first workers to earn a salary there in 1985. During a 25-year period beginning the mid-1960s, she also labored at the Fisher Body Fleetwood Plant, as well as the Ternstedt Plant. Both were located on Detroit’s southwest side.

    Securing the Poletown Plant was a political victory for city of Detroit officials. Then-Mayor Coleman A. Young was able to persuade GM Chairman Thomas Murphy to convert 500 hundred acres of land home to a portion of the old Dodge Main Plant, which had closed two years before, and a largely residential neighborhood covering a portion of Hamtramck and Detroit.

    To make the plan happen, Young petitioned the Michigan Legislature to enact a “quick take” law that would enable cities to acquire the title to property and take possession of it under eminent domain. The law passed in April 1980 and Gov. William Milliken signed the bill.

    Upon retirement from General Motors, May Ella Crouther was presented with this gold key | Ken Coleman

    The Poletown deal was controversial because it was a land grab. Many area residents fought the move. Even Ralph Nader, the feisty consumer advocate who would go on to run for president, flew in and demonstrated against the deal.

    However, many people like my grandparents applauded Young’s effort to save and create jobs. They were Carthage, Miss., natives who arrived in Detroit during the late 1940s. Like so many African-Americans from the South, they were looking for a better life.

    Granny retired from “Poletown” during the late ’80s. She and my grandfather, Leon Sr., a General Motors retiree who died in 1997, did well. They raised four children and helped to send some of their kids and grandkids to colleges and universities across the nation.

    Like many in her generation, Granny called GM “Generous Motors” — especially when profit-sharing was the order of the day.

    I’m personally sad to see the Poletown plant closing. It helped to offer an opportunity for my family to have a better life.

    Ken Coleman
    Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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