Favorites from The News’ photo archives
Retiring photo editor spent hours in the newspaper library, learning the stories behind the photos
Detroit is a tough town. If Detroit were a person, I like to imagine it as an old boxer. It may be on the ropes, but it always manages to come back swinging.
I formed this view of the city in the fourth floor library at the old Detroit News building on Lafayette and Third. Under the care of head librarian Pat Zacharias and her colleagues, the history of the city was lovingly preserved there in grey steel cabinets containing clip files, index cards and photographic prints.
I started work on the photo desk at the paper in the fall of 1998. Detroit was a shell of the place I used to visit on day trips from Ann Arbor, where I grew up in the 1960s. Downtown was mostly boarded up. The big Hudson’s flagship store was imploded to a pile of rubble about a week before I arrived, and the air was still dusty around the site. The city’s burnt-out houses and vacant lots were shocking and depressing.
But soon I found the fourth floor, and my view of Detroit began to change.
I would go upstairs to the library to dig up a photo, and Zacharias would introduce me to her stash of oversized archival prints, or the many drawers that contained the history of the Ford family and all their factories, and fill me in on their stories. I met Joe Louis and Gordie Howe, the Supremes and Sparky Anderson. I saw the city streets full of people and the Art Deco skyscrapers when they were new and sparkling. A search that should have taken 10 minutes stretched into an hour as I soaked in the history and images of a town that once powered the country.
As I prepare to retire from the paper, I wanted to take one last dip into the archives and showcase some of my favorite photos, the ones that I have come to love over the last 18 years.
Every picture tells a story, but for the back-stories, I looked up Pat Zacharias, who left the paper in 2007.
The photo of a car full of happy Detroiters celebrating the end of World War I was one of her favorites.
“When there was a momentous event, people went downtown,” she said. “It happened during the World Series, it happened during the war. … Rather than listen to it on the radio at home, they wanted to be with people, so they would go downtown. You can see images of these people, beautifully dressed, with hats and suits and that, just these tens of thousands of people ... I love that picture. The joy in their faces. It’s just spontaneous.”
A 1915 photo of skaters on Belle Isle also struck a chord with her.
“A lot of times people worked on Saturdays. Six-day weeks were not uncommon. You would put on your skating outfit, men and women both. I have beautiful images of my mother in a velvet double breasted jacket, and skirt and hat, only for skating,” she said. “ You would go to Belle Isle, and that would be your recreation. And in the summer they would go for the music ... because it was free, and it was a place to meet and greet.”
The 1930s produced some great photojournalism in Detroit. There is the image of the bootleggers whose car fell through the ice on the frozen Detroit River, a favorite route for rumrunners smuggling in booze from Canada during Prohibition.
The famous photo of members of the notorious Purple Gang hiding their faces behind their hats is also of that era. The Purple Gang was an organized crime group and the sons of Jewish immigrants to Detroit.
“They got their name because one of the butchers down in Greektown, when commenting on these guys, said, ‘Yeah, they’re the purple gang. They’re like rotten meat.’ And rotten meat was purple,” Zacharias said. “Their claim to fame, unlike some of the Italian gangs in other cities, was they never left anyone alive who could rat on them. So if they went after someone, an innocent bystander wasn’t left to tell the tale. They were ruthless. “
There are many photos in the archives documenting Detroit’s place in the history of the U.S. labor movement. Perhaps the most famous is the three-picture sequence showing the Battle of the Overpass at the Ford Rouge plant in March 1937.
In the first photo, United Auto Workers organizers Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen, along with other unionists, stand smiling on the right of the frame as three members of Harry Bennett’s Ford Service Department — the company’s private security force — approach. They are carrying long sticks.
The union men were smiling, Zacharias said, because they weren’t expecting trouble. Detroit News photographer Scotty Kilpatrick had suggested taking pictures of them handing out leaflets to workers because it was a neutral spot.
Then the company men attacked. The second photo shows five of them setting upon Frankensteen, pulling his jacket over his head as they beat him.
The third photo shows Reuther with his arm draped around the shoulders of a bloodied Frankensteen. The two gaze defiantly into the camera.
Kilpatrick hid the glass negative that showed the beating under the seat of his car. The Ford men came for the photos, grabbed his camera and pulled out the glass negative and smashed it. But he had put in a blank.
The photos were published in The Detroit News and then all over the country.
“Pulitzer at the time had awards for print journalism,” said Zacharias. “They saw that image and said we need a category for photography. So even though this photo did not win the Pulitzer, that category was created as a result of this photo.”
The News went on to win the first Pulitzer Prize for photography for a picture by Milton Brooks of unionists confronting a strikebreaker during the 1941 walkout of Ford’s Dearborn Rouge Plant. That year Ford signed its first collective bargaining contract with the UAW.
The Detroit News library was once considered one of the best newspaper libraries in the country, Zacharias said, right after The New York Times.
Detroit News founder James Scripps came from a family of publishers, and “had a great respect for history,” said Zacharias. “(Newspapers) really are the institutional memory of the community in which they served.
“Other papers may have had clip files, but they never indexed them and cross-indexed them, whereas we had the index cards. And you could look at that index card and get a synopsis on any subject or individual. It would have the date, the section, the page number and the column in which the article started.”
Like many city newspaper libraries, the News’ collection has been dispersed. The negatives were gifted to the Reuther Library at Wayne State University, where you can see them under the online Virtual Motor City collection. The clips, index cards and negatives from recent decades were donated to the Archives of Michigan in Lansing. The prints were sold to a private company, but many of them were digitally scanned and made accessible to the News, which retains their copyright. They form the basis of the history photo galleries we publish every Sunday.
And though the old newspaper building itself has been sold, and the paper has moved into more modern digs, I’m sure that fourth-floor view from the old library must still be there, where you could see the Ambassador Bridge and imagine Detroit when it was young and thriving. The view has probably changed over the last couple of years, as many parts of the city are starting to show new life.
Never count out Detroit.