Celebrate Black History: William Perry, first African-American worker at Ford Motor Company

For me, the excitement of the year 2003 is still a vivid memory.


That year, Ford Motor Company celebrated their 100th anniversary – an important milestone for this American company and for the history of automobiles, to be sure. But it was also the year The Henry Ford received a large framed portrait made in the 1890s of a man named William Perry. It seems Perry was the first African-American worker hired at Ford Motor Company, and that Henry Ford himself had a personal hand in his hiring.


But I’m getting ahead of myself – let me give a little background first.


In 1964, Ford Motor Company donated its historical records to our institution; today, this collection forms the largest business archives open for public research, encompassing millions of documents, publications, product literature, oral histories and over half a million photographs from 1890 to 1955.


Now, back to 2003. Because of the company’s centennial celebration, we received many offers of historical material relating to Ford history. For me, the most unique offer was the framed photograph of William Perry, which had been created and sent in by a local family who had been his neighbor.


I knew about Perry because of the research that the noted historian David L. Lewis did beginning in the 1950s.  He later published an article about Perry and Henry Ford, “Working Side by Side” in the January/February 1993 issue of Michigan History Magazine. But no images of William Perry were found during Dr. Lewis’ research.


Part of my work includes researching the background of offered acquisitions to verify historical material prior to acceptance into the museum’s collections. For this 1890s portrait, I needed visual verification.


I mentioned my research to a colleague in the Benson Ford Research Center, who said an archives collection had just been cataloged that contained a group photo of workers at the Rouge powerhouse.  On the back of the photo, just one employee was identified – and it was William Perry.


Rouge Power Plant employees with William Perry, 1940

This 1940 photo of Rouge Power Plant employees verified the framed photo of Perry that we had received. (From the collections of The Henry Ford)


Before this cataloging work, the description for this archival material did not include this connection because it was only a note on the back of one item.  As part of the cataloging process, the archivist perused the material and correctly identified the name William Perry as the first African American worker to be hired by Ford Motor Company.  The finding aid for this material now includes this fact.


With this crucial evidence, I could confidently recommend adding this 1890s portrait of William Perry to the museum’s collection. This experience inspired me to write a Pic of the Month entry about the relationship between Henry Ford and William Perry…where you can read the rest of this inspiring story.


Cynthia Read Miller is Curator of Photographs and Prints. In addition to the privilege of working with the amazing objects in our collections, she finds that discovering more about them adds to the excitement.


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