Opera composer turns to jazz and solves a mystery

By Robert Musial
The Daily Oakland Press
March 7, 2004

It's not your everyday opera. For one thing, the music is jazz. It's also not every day that an opera is set in Detroit - and one that uncovers the hidden story of a murder in an auto plant.

Of course, composer Steve Jones had no idea what he was getting into when he began the work, which this weekend is having its sold-out world premiere at Marygrove College in Detroit.

"It's been a very eye-opening journey," admits Jones, 49, a Washington, D.C.-area jazz pianist and activist.

It's also been a journey in which he has a personal stake since the murdered man, the Rev. Lewis Bradford, was a distant relative.

Set in Detroit in the 1930s, the work captures a time of unrest and also of hope as America struggled out of a Depression, a struggle that ranged from the bread lines to the boardrooms as workers sought to improve their lot.

Jones had heard family stories from his brother, Peter, a songwriter who had turned one of them into a song. It told of Bradford, a Methodist minister who died mysteriously at the Ford Rouge Plant in 1937.

Working as a welfare worker at a downtown Detroit soup kitchen, Bradford had broadcast a weekly radio show called "The Forgotten Man's Hour" on WXYZ, interviewing laid-off workers and the hungry in a city where the unemployment rate was 41 percent and four people a day were dying of starvation.

The minister soon found himself in sympathy with union organizers, a feeling he did not hide after he took a job at the Rouge plant in 1936 to pay for medical care for his sick daughter.

In those days, the sprawling Ford plant was run by an ex-prizefighter named Harry Bennett who employed thugs and prison parolees in his feared Security Department.

In May 1937, Bennett's men brutally beat Walter Reuther and a handful of UAW organizers passing out union leaflets on the Miller Road overpass that led into the plant. The resulting publicity gave Ford a black eye and the union organizing continued.

In late November, Bradford tried to set up a meeting between Henry Ford and an English activist, Muriel Lester. Two days later, Bradford was found in a deserted area of the plant, fatally injured in what company officials said had been a fall.

His family, who believed otherwise, fled Detroit after the funeral.

At Jones' request more than 60 years later, a two-month search by Cassandra Lee, a helpful Wayne County Medical Examiner's employee, turned up Bradford's autopsy report. It showed he had suffered multiple skull fractures.

"This was no accident. This was a homicide that was never investigated," confirmed county pathologist Dr. Carl Schmidt. "There's no way in hell that he fell."

But who did it will likely never be known.

The finished opera, "Forgotten: The Murder at the Ford Rouge Plant," traces Bradford's story and the story of labor in Detroit in the 1930s. Among those bringing the play to life this weekend are members of the Matrix Theater company, Motown musicians and director Elise Bryant, whose father worked at the Rouge plant for 30 years.

"If Lewis Bradford in any kind of way is looking down, I think he'd be smiling" Jones said Friday.

Ironically, today's performance takes place on the anniversary of the March, 1932 hunger march on the Rouge plant, in which five marchers were shot and killed by plant guards and police.

(Contact Robert Musial at (248) 745-4786, or e-mail musial@oakpress.com.)