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William Perry

"Mr. H. Ford is interested in this party."

Handwritten note on Perry’s employment application

The late Mr. William Perry was the first African American to work for Ford Motor Company. In 1888 -1889, William Perry and the late Henry Ford worked together during the early winter months of sawing trees for Henry Ford’s lumber business.  Perry was a hard and dedicated worker, who later developed a strong relationship with the Henry Ford.  Over the 50+ years of their relationship, Perry changed and shaped the way Ford viewed the relationship between colored and white people.

Perry was born near Windsor, Ontario.  When hew was 25, Perry was hired by Ford to help him clear timberland in present-day Dearborn Michigan.  The two men worked together and used a crosscut saw for this operation.  From there, Perry went on to become a bricklayer.  By 1891, he was recognized as skillful at his craft.  He pursued this form of employment until a heart condition precluded his ability to perform such laborious work.  Perry and Ford had remained friendly.  So, Perry decided to ask for a position at Ford Motor Company.

On February 9, 1914, William Perry had a meeting with Henry Ford to discuss the possibilities for employment at Ford Motor Company. By 1914, Henry Ford was becoming one of the greatest automotive manufactures in the world. The meeting took place in Henry Ford’s office and both men began to inspect the process of automotive machinery at the plant. It was after the meeting that the late Ford hired Perry. Ford made sure that Perry’s job was a comfortable one and not an overwork position at the Highland Park manufacturing facility. Prof. David L. Lewis said “In this way William Perry became the Ford Motor Company’s first African American employee, the forerunner of hundreds of thousands to come, among them the late Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Detroit’s mayor Coleman Young.” On William Perry’s employment application were the words, “Mr. H. Ford is interested in this party”.

In the beginning, William Perry was hired because of his friendship with the late Henry Ford. From there, William Perry became the “opinion man” for the Ford Company’s employment for African Americans.  This process began at the Highland Park plant, then at the firm’s location at the River Rouge plant in Dearborn Michigan.

Perry, worked at Ford Motor Company for many years however because of his failing health issues he left the Ford Motor Company and died on October 9, 1940. The significance of their friendship inspired Henry Ford to write in is notebook that, “African Americans and Whites should work together with, the colored man sawing at one end of the log, the white man at the other.”  This special note is preserved by the Henry Ford Museum.

Some automotive historians have said that William Perry still holds the record for having been Ford’s Motor company oldest and active African American employee that made history by being the first African American to be hired by the Ford Motor Company.


William Perry was Born in Ontario, Canada.


Hired by Henry Ford to cut timberland trees for Ford's Dearborn, Michigan property. Perry and Ford used a crosscut saw to work together to clear the timberland trees.


Perry was recognized as well-known brick layer and skillful craftsman


William Perry purchased a home for him and his wife on Pearl Street in Southwest Detroit.


William Perry was hired by Henry Ford to work at the Highland Park Plant. He became the first African American employee hired at Ford Motor Company.


Henry Ford passes a radical policy to hire more African Americans as skilled laborers for Ford Motor Company. He references his work experience with William Perry as his inspiration to hire more African Americans.


Over 10,000 African Americans were employed at Ford Motor Company


William Perry Dies on October 9, 1940 at the age of 87 years. Henry Ford pays tribute by attending Perry's funeral

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