We Need “CRT” to Understand the Midwest, TooRoundup
tags: civil rights, Ohio, Midwest, labor history, critical race theory, Toledo
Bradley J. Sommer, Ph.D. is a historian specializing in labor, class, industrialization and deindustrialization, and African American history. He received his Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University. His dissertation, “Tomorrow Never Came: Race, Class, Reform, Conflict, and the Decline of an Industrial City, Toledo, Ohio, 1930-1980” examines the various processes that contributed to both the rise and fall of Toledo’s industrial economy and working classes, while laying a framework for understanding its postindustrial present.
As Republican legislators, both state and local, continue to wage all-out war on Critical Race Theory (real and imagined) and indeed on the very idea of education, looking at the past becomes not only politically dangerous but morally and ethically essential. Disingenuous attacks on the “liberalizing” of curricula have started to politicize what historians previously considered to be statements of pure fact: the cause of the American Civil War, the existence of the Holocaust, the legacy of racism in America. Facts which most of us took for granted as facts are recast as opinions, equal in legitimacy, if not in evidence, to the most extreme conspiracy theories. Many of these now “contested” facts are easily verified upon even cursory inspection of the past. The existence of these facts, while certainly a point of attack on their own, is not at the core of Republican ire, but rather what an analysis of those facts—aka critical thinking—might possibly reveal.
A sleepy Rust Belt city, Toledo, Ohio does not immediately come to mind when we look to frame and understand these modern attacks on education and fact. Much of Toledo’s more well-known history focuses on labor moments like the Auto-Lite Strike of 1934 or the decline of the glass industry in the 1980s. A small city by comparison to other major manufacturing centers, Toledo at its peak in had a population of around 384,000 in 1970 (this number has dipped dramatically to around 275,000 now). A mostly white city, Toledo nonetheless maintained a degree of racial and ethnic diversity throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, with a mix of African Americans, many of them migrants from the South and Northeast, along with Polish, Hungarian, Lebanese, Irish, Syrian, and Greek immigrants. The slow but steady intermixing of communities was a result of shifting neighborhoods. By the 1980s, only the Black community continued to have a generally defined geographic area, although that too was loose.
At its core, Toledo was an industrial city. Industry, irrevocably tied to the city’s identity, framed the way that Toledoans saw themselves and their city, and the way it was perceived by the American public. Owens-Illinois, Owens-Corning, Libbey-Owens-Ford, Willys-Overland, Dana-Spicer, Toledo Scale, Electric Auto-Lite; corporations were synonymous with the city while their products became essential to modern American life. The corporatization of Toledo’s public image in the years after the Second World War came with some baggage. Toledo came into prominence as a union town, due in no small part to its well-known history for radicalism, a reputation earned by major strike incidents such as the Willys-Overland Strike of 1919 and Auto-Lite in 1934. An active and aware labor force defined Toledo well into the 1960s. Workers struck with increasing frequency, but perhaps less vigor, during the Second World War and the early stages of the Cold War.
This isn’t to say that all was harmonious in the Glass City during this postwar period. Far from it. Various voices within the city combated these fanciful notions, whether it was the growing discontent of African Americans over access to jobs and federal housing for defense workers, the rising militancy of workers and the corresponding resistance to racial equality, or the increasing cleavages of the city’s working-class between the AFL and the CIO, Toledo’s working classes actively toed the line between cooperation and disengagement. Black workers, major contributors to the war effort, faced constant resistance. Every time they tried to enter into better-paying union jobs, they encountered new resistance, relegated to jobs that were frequently dangerous, low-paying, or part-time. Sometimes it was all three.
Toledo’s public campaign for labor peace inspired others across the country to push for the same goal. The failure of this idea and the simultaneous failure of Toledo’s reform class to create substantive change left the city in a perilous position, struggling to find itself. Identity is tied to image and image is a commodity. Like any commodity, image can be bought and sold on the market and was highly mercurial. In the 1970s, Toledo was both buyer and seller, still making goods for the upwardly mobile middle-class family but also desperately looking for something new to hang its hat on. Years of decline within the city’s union leadership and the increasingly anti-worker policies of major employers left the decades-long façade of labor peace shattered. The means by which this was achieved fostered an animosity which ran both cold and hot, representing one of the critical themes of Toledo’s twentieth-century story: in whose image would the city be (re)made?
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