In the Name of the Father
The Fauntroy family moved from Washington, D.C., to Detroit in 1969, two years after the city’s most violent race riot, and a year after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Howard was five. The Fauntroys had been known in D.C. as a prolific family of Baptist ministers. A cousin in King’s circle had mentored Howard’s father, and faith and civil rights laid the concrete on which they preached. In Detroit, the Fauntroys knew no one, but upon their arrival, First Baptist welcomed them as family, and the city became their home. It was only a matter of time before Howard’s father met the fiery C. L. Franklin, whose eulogy he later delivered and whose daughter, Aretha, Howard still calls “ReRe.”
Perhaps Howard was too young to remember why his father chose to move to Detroit, but his mother has a theory of her own, and like most things in the city, it has to do with the car industry. Her husband, she says, came to Detroit to serve and educate a black populace made vulnerable by its dependence on a single trade. “You could get a high paying job in the industry without even a high school degree,” says Mrs. Fauntroy. The black church came to represent those who didn’t have much of a formal education but did have money—a precarious place to be when the industry collapsed.
It began with the Great Migration in 1917, the same year First Baptist was founded. That summer, thousands of African Americans fled the rural south for jobs in Detroit’s new car factories. Ford had offered five dollars a day for unskilled labor—an offer extended, on occasion, to black workers. By 1920, the city’s black population had grown from a few thousand to over forty thousand. When the U.S. joined World War II and Detroit’s car factories transformed into “arsenals of democracy,” as Franklin Roosevelt called them, the population swelled again, auto plants integrated more than ever before, and racial tensions grew. Riots erupted as blacks moved into white middle-class neighborhoods, and many whites fled north to the suburbs. By the time the Fauntroys arrived, the city’s population had fallen and blacks comprised roughly 45 percent.
The family bought a red-brick house in an interracial, upper-middle-class district in northwest Detroit, and Howard’s father began as pastor at First Baptist. At the time, Hamtramck was largely Polish, and the church’s membership was shrinking. To his congregants that year, Pastor Fauntroy Jr. wrote, “We are challenged as we attempt to move the influence of the church beyond these sacred walls into the communities of our land where people live and work and play, where men are still crying for want of bread. The world will only be moved by the church when it sees something different and extraordinary in our presence in daily life.” Five years later, he moved First Baptist to the new brick structure on West Seven Mile. The church had a red, carpeted sanctuary, fitness center, chapel, courtyard, offices, and classrooms. And over those first few years, the congregation grew.
If Mrs. Fauntroy’s suspicions are correct, her husband knew what would follow. The early signs came at the beginning of his pastorate, in the mid-seventies, when the automotive companies announced the first “reductions in force.” Several congregants lost their jobs. Many families, white and black, left Detroit. Hotels, houses, and offices were abandoned. But First Baptist remained largely intact, and it wasn’t until Howard came home to become pastor that he saw his city had changed.