Remembering community leader Horace Sheffield Jr.

Ken Coleman

African-Americans and organized labor have had a long and storied history in southeastern Michigan going back to the historic Flint sit-down strike against General Motors in 1936 and 1937, and the legendary United Automotive Workers’ Rouge Plant work stoppage against Ford Motor Co. in 1941.

People like Roscoe Van Zandt, an African-American Chevrolet plant worker, who participated in the Flint strike against working conditions, were trailblazers.

Another man who played a significant role during the early years of organized labor was the late Horace Sheffield Jr. A trusted and highly valued associate and occasional confidante of industry titans like Henry Ford II as well as government officials like U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Sheffield was a giant among men but always had the common touch.

He’d often say: “Never have a Wall Street mentality in a blue collar town.”

Born 100 years ago in sleepy Vienna, Georgia, a 4,000-resident town and home of the Big Pig Jig, the state’s oldest barbecue contest, Sheffield and his family joined tens of thousands of other African-Americans from the South and moved to Detroit.

They sought better opportunity during the period known as the Great Migration.

The Sheffields made a home on the city’s lower east side and became founding members of Tabernacle Baptist Church in 1920.

His father landed a job at Ford Motor Co. in 1922 and served as a supervisor there for more than 30 years until his retirement in 1961. The younger Horace earned a diploma from Detroit Public Schools and later attended the Detroit Institute of Technology; Wayne State University; and finally the University of California at Los Angeles.

Horace Jr. toiled in the gritty foundry of the Ford Motor Co. Rouge Plant in Dearborn, where he rose through the ranks and to become a union official in UAW Local 600 organization.

The tall, cocoa-skinned Sheffield, who later married the former Mary K. Otto who happened to be white and became a father of three children, fought to create the union’s Inter-Racial Committee. Later, he was instrumental in helping stage the legendary April 1941 workers strike at Ford, speaking truth to power regarding nasty and intense labor-management issues.

“Horace had the sound truck visibly and vocally supporting the union,” former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young recalled in 1995. “That was a revolutionary thing for him to do at that time and certainly brought him to the attention of all concerned.”

Sheffield continued to fight those injustices, serving as president of the Detroit Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and founding the Trade Union Leadership Council along with Robert “Buddy” Battle.

Sheffield, who died in 1995, founded the Detroit Association of Black Organizations in 1979, an umbrella coalition of 86 groups. DABO continues its work and will host its annual State of the Race Conference Feb. 5-7. The theme is “From Civil Rights to Civil Wrongs: Race and Opportunity in America.”

It’s a fitting way to continue the legacy of a warrior and bridge-builder who was a longtime Michigan Chronicle columnist, WCHB radio and WJBK television commentator, Detroit Branch NAACP director — and man for the common people.

Ken Coleman is the author of “Million Dollars Worth of Nerve,” a book about the golden age of Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood.

37th State of the Race Conference, Feb. 5-7

Events include a leadership breakfast featuring the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network; a Centennial Legacy Celebration featured former United Nations Ambassador and U.S. Congressman Andrew Young; a community forum featuring author and university professor Michael Eric Dyson; and finally, a dinner featuring author and activist Cornel West.

For information, call (313) 491-0003.