Arab immigrants and Ford’s $5-a-day workday

This month marks the 100th anniversary of auto industry legend Henry Ford’s decision to offer his workers $5 a day. Historians and scholars widely credit this move by the Ford Motor Company with helping to establish an American middle class. The $5-a-day workday at the Ford factory in Highland Park, Mich. (an enclave inside the city of Detroit) also helped to establish the Arab American community in metro Detroit, currently home to the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the country.

Although there were small communities of Syrians and Lebanese in Detroit as early as the 1890s, it was the historic announcement by Ford on Jan. 5, 1914, that attracted many more Arab immigrants to the area over the next few decades. The 1920 U.S. Census shows hundreds of Arabs living in Highland Park, both Muslim and Christian, and working at the Ford factory.

Samuel Shamey

AANM Collection, Courtesy of Sandra Amen

One of those workers was Samuel Shamey (pictured right). Born in Lebanon in 1898, he immigrated to Highland Park in 1920 and began working at the Ford plant. Sam was also a member of the first purpose-built mosque in the country, erected in Highland Park in 1921 by the city’s Arab American Muslim population. He continued to work for Ford, at various factories, for the remainder of his life, passing away on the job at the age of 65 from a heart attack. To listen to a 1999 interview with his son, Chuck Shamey, who reminisces about his father’s time at Ford, click here.

In the mid-1920s, when Henry Ford built his state-of-the-art Rouge Plant in Dearborn (an inner-ring suburb of Detroit), the Arab population followed. Today, the city of Dearborn is home to 40,000 Arab Americans, who comprise about 40% of the city’s total population. Many of the more recent immigrants still live in the shadow of the Rouge factory in the South End of the city.

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