Posted on 03/03/2009

Photo taken on March  3, 2009

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Ford Motor Company
Henry Ford
Highland Park
African American Man
Vintage Portraiture
William Perry
Also a friend of Henry Ford

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First African American Hired by Ford Motor Company

First African American Hired by Ford Motor Company
[photo taken around 1890]

In February 1914, William Perry went to the Ford Motor Company automobile plant in Highland Park, Michigan. The 61-year-old African-American bricklayer had developed a heart condition and could no longer continue working at his trade. In an era before Social Security and retirement plans, Perry needed a job to support himself and his family. When Perry arrived at the Highland Park Plant, he asked to speak to Henry Ford.

This was not the first time that William Perry and the famous industrialist had met.

Many years before, during the winter of 1888-89, Henry Ford had hired Perry to help him cut and saw wood. Henry Ford—newly married and living on timberland given to him by his father in rural Dearborn Township, Michigan—was making a living selling lumber. To cut down the trees, Ford and Perry used a crosscut saw, a long blade with handles at both ends that took two people to operate. Henry Ford remembered William Perry as a man who worked hard and did his job well. They developed a mutual respect.

In 1891 Henry Ford and his wife, Clara, moved to Detroit where Henry began working as an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company. William Perry became a bricklayer and by 1904 had purchased a home for his family on Pearl Street in southwest Detroit.

When his health made it impossible to continue his work as a bricklayer, William Perry remembered having worked for Henry Ford and thought him an honest man. So Perry went to the administration offices at Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park Plant to speak with him. Henry Ford indeed remembered Perry and, after talking with him, gave him a tour of the machinery in the Power Plant. Ford then informed the powerhouse superintendent that Perry would be working there and to “see to it that he’s comfortable.” A handwritten note on Perry’s employment application stated “Mr. H. Ford is interested in this party.” William Perry became the first African-American employee at Ford Motor Company. He remained on the payroll until his death at the age of 87 on October 9, 1940.

The Perrys were the only African-American family living on Pearl Street in Detroit and the neighbors were aware of his connection to Henry Ford. When William Perry died, Henry Ford visited Perry’s widow at the family home. It was tradition for the deceased to be laid out at home and for mourners to come by to pay their respects. Ford’s visit caused much excitement in the neighborhood, but no surprise.

William Perry’s friendship had a significant influence on Henry Ford. In later years, Henry used the metaphor of sharing a crosscut saw to explain his belief that African Americans and whites should work together with “the colored man [sawing] at one end of the log and the white man at the other.” At the time that Ford hired Perry at Ford Motor Company, few industries would employ skilled and semiskilled African Americans. The only industrial jobs open to African Americans were those that whites refused. These jobs were usually dirty, hot and strenuous.

Beginning in the mid-1910s, Ford Motor Company hired increasing numbers of African-American workers. They held jobs in virtually all non-salary job categories and earned the same pay as white workers. Eventually, African Americans even held supervisory and white-collar positions. A 1919 Ford Motor Company policy statement expressed the views of Henry Ford and his son Edsel on employment: “We have learned to appreciate men as men, and to forget…everything else outside of human qualities and energy.” For the most part, Ford Motor Company practice followed this philosophy. By 1926, over 10,000 African Americans worked for Ford Motor Company—more than half of all African Americans employed in the automobile manufacturing industry at that time.

Cynthia Read-Miller
Curator, Photography and Prints
Henry Ford Museum