By Bob Campbell
Standing tall in the heart of Flint’s downtown are monuments to the city’s celebrated past. William C. Durant. David Buick. Louis Chevrolet. Albert Champion. You know them by the companies they created—Buick, Chevrolet, AC Spark Plug, and, of course, General Motors. And, believe it or not, they all ran the streets at one time or another in Flint, Michigan.
Flint—the birthplace of General Motors—was once home to the greatest concentration of GM factories in the world. At its peak, GM employed about 80,000 people. Like many who grew up in Flint, I had family and friends who all had family sprinkled across GM’s vast industrial landscape here.
My father and brother worked at AC. (Eventually, I would be employed there, too, first as a high school co-op student and then later as a skilled tradesman.) Over at Chevrolet is where neighborhood friends Mark and Jeff’s father worked. And Fisher Body is where Butchie and Bo’s father worked. Then there was Buick, where my Aunt Marion had an office job at the old division headquarters.
The abundance of industrial might and wealth also made Flint a key weapon in the nation’s Arsenal of Democracy during World War II. Later, during the Cold War, we took it as a morbid badge of honor that our city was likely very high on the Soviet Union’s target list if there were ever a nuclear exchange. In fact, my father said he had prepared to evacuate the family from Flint to our cottage in the Thumb during the height of the Cuban missile crisis.
So these automotive pioneers not only put Flint on the map but did much to help define the American Century. Thus, it’s understandable that you’d find statues of them—Durant, Buick, Chevrolet, and Champion—in the General Motors Automotive Pioneer Plaza on the city’s main street. They’re legends, with stories about them told over and over.
Among the giants on Saginaw Street in downtown Flint stands my Uncle Melton. Chances are you won’t see him. But I can assure you, he’s there. His contributions to building this city are far less understood, but here’s what I can tell you.
His name wasn’t really Melton—his legal name, that is. It was Sam. Sam Jones. How Melton Eaton became Sam Jones is also the stuff of legends, a walk through the history of a city where he (and men like him) made his presence known.
To a child, Uncle Melton was a large, barrel-chested man with wide shoulders. In a 1956 black-and-white photograph—when he would have been nearly sixty years old—he still had the bearing of a prizefighter.
His voice was husky and loud for no reason at all, in that way of men who had worked many years on the factory floor. When Uncle Melton thundered, “Hey, Bobby,” I didn’t know whether to run and hide or not. Usually, he was just saying hello, but it sounded authoritarian, frightening.
He was a dark man, too. That he always seemed to be dressed in a white T-shirt and dark trousers, and seated in the muted daylight of his living room, only served to accentuate his ebony complexion.
I don’t ever recall seeing him laugh or smile broadly. He seemed to have the perpetual glare of a serious man—not that he was a mean or angry person. He was a retired working man who was, perhaps, more than a little set in his ways and protective of all that he had accomplished.
When I knew him, he and his wife, Addie Mae, lived on Park Street. The white, two-story Cape Cod, a common style of residential architecture in Flint, had burgundy window awnings and shutters.
The house sat within old Floral Park, a well-established residential enclave on Flint’s south side that bordered downtown. The area was home to a great cross-section of working-class, merchant-class, and professional people who happened to be black. (Way back in the day, a Lansing native named Malcolm Little was said to have spent quite a bit of time in the Floral Park community, too, in the years before he became Malcolm X.)
Uncle Melton’s home always felt different than ours. Devoid of brats running about, it was serene, with that plastic-covered living room furniture and that tan double box fan sitting on the floor that never seemed to be on. And I was certain that he raised chickens because whenever we visited, mama or daddy always left with a dozen or so eggs. But my sisters and I never spotted any chickens during our brief visits to his house. There wasn’t a chicken coop tucked behind the home; just a regular ol’ backyard with grass, some shrubs, and a shade tree.
The house on Park Street still stands today even though most of Floral Park was all but erased to make way for the I-69/I-475 interchange, a controversial urban renewal project—one of the hundreds of transportation infrastructure projects in cities across the country used to eliminate black residential neighborhoods perceived to be slums by government and city officials. Though the memories are vague, I can still recall the thrill of seeing bulldozers and other heavy construction equipment clearing huge swaths of land just north of Uncle Melton’s Park Street home while still too young to appreciate all the history and memories that were also being hauled away in those great big dump trucks.
Melton Eaton was born 1898 in Mobile, Alabama. He shared the same birth year as my paternal grandfather, who was raised in Georgia. Both men came to Michigan, albeit separately, during the Great Migration of blacks from the South that began in the 1910s. A former sharecropper, Grandpa moved North sometime after 1923, bringing with him a young wife and two small children, including my father. They settled in the old St. John Street neighborhood that once stood where I-475 and hundreds of acres of a largely vacant industrial park exist today.
Uncle Melton’s migration story is less clear. But I am quite certain he came North, like many of his contemporaries, in search of better wages, a chance to own property, a right to vote, perhaps, and a more dignified existence. Along with the new challenges and opportunities, many of the blacks who settled in Flint would also encounter Michigan’s particularly nasty brand of discrimination and segregation.
As a young reporter for the Flint Journal in 1993, I had chronicled the story of such men, who had fled the economically depressed and racially oppressive South to settle in places like Flint where there was a demand for workers to meet the needs of the city’s rapidly expanding automobile factories. The labor shortage was exacerbated by the drop in European immigration, which was halted during World War I. Many white Southerners also migrated to the industrial North during this time.
One man I interviewed was ninety-one-year-old J.D. Dotson. Dotson, who retired from General Motors in 1967 after forty-four years, told me that GM would send “man-catchers” south to find able-bodied men to work in the factories.
“They would be brought up here, free, in box cars from Cincinnati,” said Dotson, who was born in Flint in 1901. Dotson started at Flint’s massive Buick complex in 1923 as a laborer in the foundry division. “Every ‘other’ job I applied for, I was told ‘it’ was a white man’s job,” he said.
Another man I interviewed, Oscar Barnett, quit his job at an Arkansas sawmill after the owner refused to give him a raise, saying “Ain’t a n—– in the world worth $100 a week.” So, in 1953, Barnett relocated to Flint, hitching a ride with the “Robinson boys—T.J. (Thomas J.) and Leon—[who] were boot-legging boys up here.” Barnett found work at the Buick foundry, too, and soon learned that he could send about $100 week to his wife back in Arkansas by working overtime.
But the money was anything but easy.
“Oh man…it was hot,” he told me. “When I started, the foreman said, ‘I’m going to put you on the merry-go-round.’ The only merry-go-rounds I heard of were at the carnival.”
The “merry-go-round” was a large turntable fitted with brake-drum molds, and his job was to pour molten iron into the cavities between machine cycles.
Uncle Melton also worked in the Buick foundry. Prior to WWII, and for a time afterwards, the foundry, custodial work, and other such jobs were among the few positions open to black men in the industry. He retired in 1965. I have no idea whether Uncle Melton worked on the “merry-go-round” inside the Buick foundry or not. I also do not know his mode of travel from Alabama to Michigan and if a “man-catcher” was involved in his travel arrangements.
However, I do know that it was sometime after his retirement—the late ’60s or very early ’70s—when he rescued a neighbor from a house ablaze on Park Street. His heroics even earned him an interview with the Flint Journal. To prepare, he did what you’d expect a man of his generation would do. Uncle Melton put on a suit and a pair of sunglasses to conduct the interview.
His heroism and interview preparation became part of family lore. I tried, with- out success, to locate the Flint Journal article about his actions on that day for this piece. I even enlisted the help of the collections curator at Sloan-Longway Museum, where the Journal archives—the so-called morgue, in newspaper speak—are now housed. Though quite helpful, the curator finally reported back to me several days later what I had discovered on my own, searching the microfilm collection at the Flint Public Library: “Without the date or a clipping file, I am afraid we would be stuck searching through each page of the paper from the years you mentioned,” he wrote to me via email.
Maybe there was never an article written about him. Or if there was, maybe it was nothing more than a news brief with the individuals never identified by name. [e.g., ”A man yesterday rescued a man (or) a woman (or) a child from a house fire on Park Street in Flint. The victim was treated for smoke inhalation. The house sustained minor damage. In other news…”] After all, no one died and the house wasn’t destroyed. So I can imagine the city editor’s reaction when the reporter returned to the newsroom: “That’s it? It’s a brief.”
But the rescue story, confirmed by my much-older sister and brother (both teenagers at the time), lives on. That missing piece of documented history is symbolic, too. It fits well within the African-American oral tradition of handing down stories from generation to generation because journalists and historians at the time weren’t as likely to record the history of black people, who were considered outside the “mainstream.” It’s also emblematic of a man who was there, even if there’s no record of it.
Uncle Melton wasn’t really my uncle. He was actually my mother’s first cousin, making him my cousin, once removed. For a time, he shared a house with my maternal grandmother, mother, and aunt on Liberty and later Wellington streets in Floral Park. Known as “doubling up,” this was a common living arrangement among black residents in Flint and elsewhere because of housing shortages related to racial segregation.
When I asked my mother why we called him Uncle Melton, she said it was because he was old enough to be her father. And as far as I know, he never had any children of his own.
Second, when Uncle Melton died in 1973 at St. Joseph Hospital, it happened on December—Pearl Harbor Day. Thirty-one years earlier on that same day—a year to-the-date after the day of infamy—my father was inducted into the U.S. Army and went on to become a decorated combat veteran in Italy during World War II.
I was just nine years old when mama got off the phone and announced that Uncle Melton had died. Although he had been sick for some time, the closing of an era had already begun. Automotive pioneer and philanthropist Charles Stewart Mott—one of Flint’s most powerful corporate and civic leaders—had passed away just ten months earlier in February. Melton’s death also occurred in the midst of the first Arab Oil Embargo, which sent the price of oil through the roof and caused gasoline shortages nationwide, and dealt the first of several body blows to the city’s main industry.
Meanwhile, funeral preparations began in earnest for Uncle Melton. However, when his brief obituary was published in the Flint Journal days later, the name ”Melton Eaton” was nowhere to be found.
There were the familiar names of “Wife, Addie Mae”; two brothers, “W.C. Eaton (Effie) of Mobile, Alabama and S. Mack (Henrietta) of Luskin, Texas”; and “2 nieces, Mr. and Mrs. Clarence (Rose) Campbell and Mr. and Mrs. Shed (Marion) Hudspeth all of Flint” in the write-up. But the name at the top read: Sam Jones.
“Why is Uncle Melton called Sam Jones?” I asked family members. “Who is Sam Jones?”
With the slightest hint of a smile, my father, in a response directed at my mother, replied: “Tell him.”
Mama proceeded to explain. “When your Uncle Melton went to get a job at Buick, the person doing the hiring looked at him and said: ‘What’s your name? Sam?’
“Melton replied, ‘Yeah!’
“The guy said, ‘Oh… Sam what?’
“‘Jones. Sam Jones.’”
Sam. It was a racial jab, no doubt; the name most likely shorthand for “Sambo” or “Little Black Sambo,” a derogatory term for blacks common to the era. Uncle Melton counter-punched—making it clear that he was nobody’s dummy and nobody’s punk—and left with a promising factory job.
I can believe it, too. For me, that ’56 photo of him standing tall and erect in that double-breasted suit says it all. Eventually, his legal name became Sam Jones. In doing so, he took the derogatory slur and made it into a dignified name with a paycheck to boot. But within the family, he would be forever known as Melton.
I distinctly recall my mother’s undeniable affection for Uncle Melton. He was something of a father figure for her, especially since her parents had divorced when she was a small child. And, although he never told me, I’m certain that my father shared my mother’s fondness for him, too. The reasons, I think, stem in part from a shared experience that one comes to appreciate with age. Their experiences were not the same, but they came from a familiar place.
My father was working as a janitor at the old AC plant on Industrial Avenue when fear spread after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. When he returned home from the war in 1946, daddy went back to AC and was promptly handed a mop and pail. But the former staff sergeant, who had earned his stripes, Combat Infantryman Badge, and Bronze Star fighting Nazis in the segregated U.S. Army, said no thanks. Daddy instead “took the dirtiest, filthiest job” at AC, which involved moving a train car of scrap metal manually using a handcar, because he said he wanted something more than janitorial work. He felt he had earned it.
Uncle Melton was like that, too. He was a man of his times. He put in his years of service and did what he was felt was necessary to acquire a better life for himself and those for whom he cared, to secure his slice of the American Dream in a booming industrial Mecca.
As Flint strives to remake itself from the remnants of itself former self, I wonder what crosses people’s minds when they see the statues of automotive pioneers on Saginaw Street, or when they recall the ’36-’37 Sit-Down Strike that gave birth to the United Auto Workers. I wonder how they picture Flint in its “heyday.”
For me, the usable past contains far more than those individuals immortalized downtown. It also embraces Uncle Melton, whose fighting and enduring spirit helped build the city and drives it still. His soul lives on, not unlike the countless other men who helped build Flint and whose presence demanded respect.
Though you don’t see any statues of men like Melton Eaton, a.k.a. Sam Jones, in downtown Flint, he was a giant nonetheless. Standing on Saginaw Street, I can assure you, he’s there. ■
This essay is excerpted from Happy Anyway: A Flint Anthology, published by Belt Publishing.
Bob Campbell is a writer based in Flint, Michigan. He worked as an electrician at AC Spark Plug and later a staff writer for the Flint Journal, the Lexington Herald-Leader, and the Detroit Free Press. He grew up in the Elm Park neighborhood on the south side of Flint.
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