March of the Hammers

May, 2006.

Along the Grand River corridor on the fringes of what could be considered the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit sat the Wilbur Wright School at 4333 Rosa Parks, at the corner of Calumet. It was built in 1929, opened in 1930, closed in 2005, and demolished in 2010. I have heard a few different names that this school originally went by: "Wilbur Wright Cooperative School of Trades," "Wilbur Wright Vocational School," "Wilbur Wright High School," and the "Wilbur Wright Trade School."

The building seemed a little weird due to the fact that it faced into the neighborhood instead of out toward Grand River Avenue, so driving by it always seemed like you were only looking at the back of it, but I imagine that's because there used to be some other building on the corner that has been demolished:

Most recently this building served as the home of the "Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts" (also known as Detroit School of Arts, or "DSA") according to a sign out front. Detroitfunk observed that this school was fully functioning c.2004, but that it was transformed into this blighted mess less than a year later. When the DSA moved out of this school, they took up residence in a modern building much more suited to their needs, at 123 Selden, behind Orchestra Hall.

Inexplicably, when it was closed all ground-level doors and windows were boarded up, while the windows from the upper floors were all removed and left open to the elements, almost as if the Detroit Public Schools was attempting to demolish the school "by neglect" (as the saying goes around here). In the case of DPS however, I think it might just as likely be a case of "demolition by stupidity."

For what it's worth, the building was still in very good shape before they closed it. Dragonball-Z murals notwithstanding...

Downstairs we found the fallout shelter, replete with its fully intact stash of Civil Defense rations, still waiting for that nuclear war with whoever...

If only they had figured out some sort of Civil Defense contingency that would have protected Detroit against a more practical know, like poverty or urban collapse—or corrupt politicians.

Annnnnnyway, speaking of Civil Defense, the Wilbur Wright School actually helped play a huge part in national defense during World War II, according to a book published in 1943 by a few Detroit Public Schools teachers.

The book was a biography about former Superintendent Frank Cody, but it mentioned how both Cass Tech and Wilbur Wright School had fully-outfitted machine shops with the latest equipment and most highly-skilled teachers to train the young ranks that would rise to the task of national defense. Even in the regular high and intermediate schools across the entire city, shop teachers were put on overtime at federal expense to train more boys for the war effort, who would in turn disseminate their knowledge as leaders in their field.

A quote from the book describes the dramatic atmosphere as the "total war" years dawned on Detroit:
A third story mushrooms atop Wilbur Wright Vocational High School. The emergency is sprung in the midst of summer vacations: wires go out recalling industrial arts teachers from Yellowstone, Palm Beach, Lake Louise, Hollywood, and Fish Lake. Overboard goes the fishing tackle, and home they come.
An article in TIME Magazine for December 22, 1941 called Detroit the "busiest educational center;" the Detroit Public Schools became, according to the book, "the arsenal for the arsenal of democracy." You have to admit that neither they nor TIME Magazine seem to have missed a beat here—the smoke was still clearing from Pearl Harbor when that statement was printed.

Upstairs was quite a surprise...a treasure trove of old vintage machine tools! [Tim Allen grunt]

According to the Board of Education's 1946 Annual Report, Wilbur Wright was organized as a cooperative training environment and was open to boys who had completed the ninth grade. "At the Wilbur Wright and the Aero Mechanics schools the cooperative program calls for two weeks of employment and two weeks of schooling during eleven months of the year," the report read, and "Practically all of the graduates of this school enter industry by way of organized apprenticeship."

Like Cass Tech, Wilbur Wright was an elite school, where students were expected to meet and maintain certain standards of excellence in order to attend. If their performance dipped below the bar, they were sent back to their regular neighborhood high school. One commenter on Detroitfunk's post, who was a Class of '61 graduate, claimed that as a result of this academic standard the school was extremely diverse, "with all races, religions, cultures co-existing in a very interesting way."

Another commenter said that in the 1980s Wilbur Wright actually served in the opposite role, as a "last chance" sort of school for the "bad kids." In fact it was this school where the "Wright" part of Murray-Wright High School's name comes from—the two used to be tied together as part of a joint program; they would take regular classes at Murray, and vocational classes at Wilbur Wright. It was also the reason why Murray-Wright's mascot was the "Pilots," referring of course to the fact that Wilbur Wright was one of the pioneers of modern aviation (the reader should note that the Wright Brothers' workshop now resides in Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, having been purchased and moved there in the 1930s by Henry Ford himself).

According to the book American Automobile Workers, 1900-1933, Wilbur Wright was the only Detroit school where students spent some of their day being trained in actual factory work. However, until 1937 the school system refused to admit black children into Wilbur Wright on the grounds that the factories that the school's program cooperated with would never accept blacks into skilled positions.

I'm guessing that the reason for the change in 1937 had something to do with the fact that that was the year the UAW successfully struck for the right to bargain with the big Detroit automakers.

As it turns out, this racial exclusion was not necessarily because the companies or plant owners were actively racist—it was more often because the white workers in the plants would protest if a black man was promoted to equal or higher status than a white man.

And they did indeed strike over it at the Packard Plant in 1943, a highly contentious event that interrupted war production and which is said to have been a precipitating factor to the city-wide 1943 Riot. Even though the UAW publicly supported workplace integration, the men on the line didn't necessarily follow was during the Packard strike that the infamous phrase “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work next to a Ni**er” was uttered by a strike organizer with a bullhorn.

Noted baseball hall of famer and Detroit Tigers pitcher Hal Newhouser attended Wilbur Wright School in those days. After graduation he went straight into the big leagues, and played on the Tigers from 1939 to 1953. He had a heart condition that made him ineligible for military service in WWII, and he subsequently became one of the best baseball pitchers of the day.

This trove of old-timey machine shop goodness included mostly engine lathes and a few mills, and a few surface grinders as well.

Most of the machines here are belt-driven, which dates them to the 1940s and '50s, some even as far back as the 1930s.

Looks like this machine may have even dated to the WWII production days itself:

The Milwaukee Model-H was a horizontal milling machine...

The Motch & Merryweather Machinery Co. was started in Cleveland, with branches in eastern Michigan. They rebuilt machine tools prior to WWII, and after the war they started building their own.

The tag in this next photo seems to indicate that this particular machine, an OD grinder, was released from the Budd Wheel stamping plant on Conner Avenue as surplus, most likely donated to Detroit Public Schools as an educational tool...

...the date on the tag is September 15th, 1975.

A search for "Majestic Tool & Machine Co., Detroit" doesn't bring up any decisive hits, though a company by that name seems to exist in Solon, Ohio.

In another room was a pile of fiberglass stocks to old Junior-ROTC drill rifles. Dummy rifles were used to teach marching and military drills (as well as fancy stunts) to ROTC students. Because what good is simply educating a young populace on how to become a cog in a vast industrial machine unless you also teach them how to march with a rifle, and obey orders? Heh...

These stocks happened to go to Springfield 03-A3 type rifles, the same kind that my school had. The stocks were made out of fiberglass because these things tend to get dropped on the ground a lot. I wonder if the machinist-trained kids in this school ever swiped one of the dummy rifles and used their skills to turn it back into a functioning weapon? Of course, back then there was no fear of kids "going Columbine"...

And here is a map of the remaining Detroit Public Schools as of August 2002, with a handy key at the bottom breaking it down by "constellation," or in other words the geographical territories covered by the still-operating high schools:

Why I didn't re-appropriate that map to my own collection is still a mystery. I added the broken hammer for artistic effect by the way, hope you like it. Actually, that's not true—I put it there to hold the map in place for the photo so the wind wouldn't blow it away. And to make a political statement about industrial education.

More hallway murals:

A large classroom with vast windows for bringing in wonderful spills of natural light:

There are a few historic photos of Wilbur Wright School in Wayne State University's online Virtual Motor City Collection: 1234, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

This riser may have been added by the Detroit School of Arts, for choir class?

One of my readers says this was the drama classroom, known as the "Black Box":

A cafeteria on the top floor, if I recall correctly:

To the roof? Yeah, why not. It was a rather hot and muggy summer evening.

I noticed that all of the cornice stones along the roofline had been pulled back so that the copper flashing underneath could be harvested...

You can bet that the Feast of A Thousand Crack Rocks was had that night...

The Maccabees Building and Wayne State University:

Here's the old Detroit Police 8th Precinct station house, once abandoned but now restored, and the Motor City Casino under construction in the distance:

From this side the school ironically resembles a factory, further underscoring the fact that it was built for the industrial education of an industrial people, in an industrial city:

Frank Cody: A Realist in Education, by Detroit Public School Staff, p. 324, 325, 513
Annual Report of the Detroit Public Schools, 1930, p. 53
Auto Mechanics: Technology and Expertise in Twentieth-Century America, by Kevin L. Borg
They Earned Their Stripes: The Detroit Tigers' All-Time Team, by Alan Whitt, p. 93
American Automobile Workers, 1900-1933, by Joyce Shaw Peterson, p. 28
Detroit Public Schools / Board of Education Annual Report, 1946, p. 13 & 18


  1. Its really too bad that skills or industrial education has gone the way of the dodo. I used to work at Lahser high school teaching kids about stage set construction and of course helping them build the sets etc... I actually went to this school, and when I, did the kids did all the work on the stage crew. We built the sets, painted etc. The school had a nice machine shop, and I learned quite a bit about machining and welding in that shop, which came in handy when I started on my career path. Going back there 20+ years later to help out with the sets. None of the kids had any rudimentary skills. None of them could wield a hammer effectively, or knew how to cut a 2x4. Not to mention they could not even handle a screw gun. When I went there 20+ years ago, we all brought our own tools, and WE did the work. Going back, I did most of the work with some other parents, and the kids were hardly even interested. The ones that were interested, I taught the best I could but they were more than useless without basic skills. One day, I needed to get some scrap wood out of the old shop room, and low and behold it was now used for storage. All of the machine tools welders, woodworking tools were disconnected and pushed into a corner. It was very sad indeed. Kids today have no useful skills other than texting and video games. We are doomed.

  2. These photos made me cry. I went there from 1997-2001 To see the choir room and the drama room (known as the black box) done like that it's sad. History was made there how could the system let it go down the drain like that....this is heartbreaking

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  4. My mom attended Wilbur Wright c/o 64 some yrs later I attended Murray Wright H.S we even had the same music teacher Mr.James Tatum.They were very good schools,too bad they couldn't do anything with those schools good report.I really had fun at Murray Wright

  5. This, l believe to be an excellent summary of this unique school. I was in the tool and die (manufacturing) program and started working in a precision boring company every other two weeks at sixteen and I loved it. My foundation in manufacturing led me to pursue mechanical engineering and industrial management degrees at Lawrence Technological University.


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