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Inspiring Times

Sumner's new book explores Detroit's successes, heroes, daily life during WWII

By JACK WALSWORTH/ VN EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
On November 3, 2015

When UDM professor and history department chair Greg Sumner was asked by a publisher to write a book about Detroit during the World War II era, he jumped at the opportunity.

“It’s such a rich topic,” he said.

“Detroit in World War II,” Sumner’s third book, comes out Nov. 9 from The History Press, a national publisher that specializes in local histories.

On one side, the book is about how the Big Three and other industrial enterprises in Detroit switched over to munitions and other war-related production when the country needed it most.

“The numbers produced were truly, truly miraculous,” Sumner said.

 But the book is about much more. It also deals with bipartisanship and the way business, labor and government all worked together for a common goal.

“This is very inspiring to me,” he said. “I’m also trying to be more of a storyteller at this stage of my writing. I found so many human stories. It (the book) is not just about production. It’s also about daily life in Detroit.”

That glimpse of daily life includes a look at Detroit’s impressive movie theaters (there were more than one hundred in the city during WWII), the city’s streetcar system, the national radio shows produced in Detroit and, of course, the city’s rich sports history.

 Joe Louis, the Lions, the Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, especially Hank Greenberg, were all bright spots before, during and after the war.

“You got heroes, you got tragedy, you got joy,” he said.

Additionally, a book about Detroit during WWII wouldn’t be complete without highlighting Rosie the Riveter and the new roles for women.

“That is a striking aspect of WWII,” he said. “I think it set the stage for women’s advances in the decades up to right now. Rosie the Riveter is a huge story but, in general, women had to take all kinds of new roles on and they did a smashing good job.”

Still, life in the Motor City didn’t always run smoothly during the war.

The great migration of people from the South, both white and black, led to tough competition for jobs and close living conditions.

For Sumner, one of the surprises he came across when writing the book was how racially segregated Detroit was in the 1940s.

“It’s disturbing to see how petty the racism was, how pervasive,” he said.

Eventually, the tension erupted into a race riot in June 1943, which Sumner said was the worst one in the entire country during WWII.

“When people say to me ‘the Detroit riot,’ I say, ‘Which one?’ as a historian,” he said. “For the most part they’re referring to 1967 but there was a hellacious race riot in 1943. It’s sad to see it but I also talk about the people who crossed racial lines to help each other. How the riot, and the war in fact, lay the basis for the Civil Rights movement and the dismantling of Jim Crow after WWII.”

The book took Sumner about a year and a half to write.

For information, he turned to a mix of resources, including libraries, newspaper accounts and people themselves.

“For about a year I was a sponge, acquiring anecdotes and stories,” he said.

Putting all that information together wasn’t easy.

When someone starts a book, at some point it takes over their life to a degree, he said.

“It’s like 10,000 pieces of a mosaic,” he said. “Somehow, my mind knew what it was doing and I turned it into a narrative. For me, it flows.”

Sumner made sacrifices during the writing process. It limited his sleep, his Italian-language practice, his playing his 12-string guitar and kayaking up north.

“My friends and family are all sick of me talking about WWII,” he joked.

But he also looked at writing as a way to better himself at his day job, teaching.

“I found that when I write at night or on weekends or in the summer, it helps my teaching,” he said. “It makes it richer for me. I have more anecdotes. I think a really good teacher needs to write also or needs to find some kind of expression.”

This past week, Sumner got the first copies of his book in the mail. It was a special moment when the package from UPS arrived.

“It is indescribable,” he said. “It is indescribable, possibly almost like having a child. Just very gratifying to know that this thing that you’ve been working on, kind of in a closed room for a year and a half, now it comes out into the world. You look at it and you feel pride.”

He now has book talks scheduled all around Detroit and the surrounding area, including at UDM and the Grosse Pointe War Memorial.

“Now is the fun part where I get to talk about it,” he said, smiling.

On Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, there will be a “Lunch and Learn” talk from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the President’s Dining Room. It is open to the entire university community, and Sumner will be sharing stories from the book. 

In the end, Sumner’s view of his book is simple.

“For all the warts and problems that I point out, in the end my book is a love letter to the city of Detroit, to the greatest generation, to the WWII generation,” he said. “As Detroit moves into a better future, which I think it is, we have got to have a sense of our past and the achievements, as well as the struggles, of our parents, grandparents and even further back.”

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