When it comes to understanding the ties that the Detroit automakers have had to the city and African Americans − no one has a more intimate knowledge of those connections than W. Frank Fountain.
For more than 30 years, Fountain has been deeply involved in Detroit’s car world spearheading major community projects for Chrysler on a local, national and global level – many with General Motors and Ford.
Fountain, who officially retired from Chrysler in 2008, has been working for the company since 1973. He currently serves as chairman of the Walter P. Chrysler Museum Foundation Board of Directors where he heads outreach for the 55,000-square-foot facility that highlight the automaker’s contributions to automotive design, technology and innovation, as well as the automobile’s impact on American culture.
Fountain, the highest ranking African American in the auto industry for years, started his career with Chrysler after interning with General Motors while attending the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School. Prior to working with the museum, he served as senior vice president of external affairs and public policy for the Auburn Hills based company.
Fountain’s decision to first join Chrysler was prompted by the company’s strong ties to African Americans following the Civil Rights movement.
“At that time Chrysler employed 1 percent of all African Americans in this country,” he recalls. “Most of Chrysler’s plants were north of the Mason Dixon line and most of those were in the metro Detroit area whereas GM and Ford had plants scattered throughout – the country. Therefore, there were more Blacks employed by Chrysler than any other company in the world.”
During his tenure with the company, Fountain was involved in everything from maintaining and coordinating the Chrysler interface with state and local governments across the United States to coordinating strategy on issues of interest to other domestic auto industry manufacturers.
He was also responsible for Chrysler’s community relations, national education programs and the automaker’s philanthropic arm.
Fountain has served on around 20 boards and community organizations including local ones ranging from the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and Music Hall to the Detroit School Board and the board governing the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. He has also been actively involved in Chrysler’s contributions to the development of the city’s sports stadiums, loft developments, and a number of other city projects like Campus Martius.
A lot of his community involvement both locally and nationally has been fueled by a longstanding appreciation for the opportunities the auto industry has afforded him personally and collectively as an African American.
“It was the American auto industry that was really responsible for the growth of the Black middle class,” said Fountain. “The auto industry gave African Americans a chance for steady income coming from the south, and enough income stability to buy homes and to educate their kids. There is no industry that has made as much of a contribution to the economic level of African Americans like the Detroit auto industry.”
That phenomenon, however, said Fountain is changing.
“Our factories today require people with some level of education,” said Fountain. “Once upon a time you didn’t have to have a college diploma to work on the line. Today, we are looking for skilled labor. Also, with each successful retooling of our plant when we introduce a new product, there are fewer workers that are needed to run a facility.”
The implications of the changes are that there has to be more emphasis on education, Fountain noted.
“There will be jobs but you just have to be more prepared to get them,” he said. “That was not the case seventy years ago when Henry Ford needed workers because of the war and sent and recruited African Americans across the south for five dollars a day.”
Despite the changes the industry had undergone on a global level, Fountain said the automobile will always special ties to Detroit.
“To a great extent − Chrysler, Ford and GM have been global for some time and have contributed greatly to the global aspect of the auto industry,” said Fountain. “They have had production facilities and distribution facilities in every part of the world for decades and that will continue. But the heart of the industry will always be in Detroit − the ‘Motor City’.”