A Community of Friends:
History of the Buck Dinner

In the winter of 1929, Maurice Sugar bagged a buck.     

Early Buck Dinner regulars gathered at Black Lake in 1969, left to right standing: Ned Smokler, Mort Furay,
Jane Sugar and Maurice Sugar. Seated, left to right: Max Dean and Sid Rosen. 
Photo from the archives of Ernie Goodman family

In 1944, Buck dinner hunters (second from left to right) Mort Furay, Ernie Goodman and Maurice Sugar were joined by many friends. 
Photo from the archives of Ernie Goodman family

This was certainly not an unusual event for Sugar, an avid sportsman who was born in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Lacking any details of the actual hunt, and ignoring the fact that Sugar was a truly remarkable man, we’ll assume that the actual buck bagging took place under unremarkable conditions.

Shortly thereafter, labor lawyer Sugar and his wife Jane, known leftists and supporters of the nascent labor movement, invited a number of their like-minded friends over to partake of the buck on a winter evening. According to legend there were some 12 to 15 of the Sugars’ friends gathered at the Worker’s Educational Camp (way out on 12 Mile Road) who sat around the table and ate the unlucky buck. 

In one newspaper article Jane remembered that it was such a bitterly cold night that the raw venison congealed. “Never did we think it would carry on for all this time,” she said in 1979 at the 50th Anniversary Buck Dinner.

Had the police managed to get word of the gathering and raid the place, they might have nipped it in the bud and saved consequent officers a lot of time arresting pickets, maintaining Red Files and other repressive activities. However they didn’t, and the friends enjoyed the warmth of the wood stove and sang songs together into the night. Each of them contributed 50 cents that went to a fund for the unemployed.

The March 7, 1932, Ford Hunger March was met with clouds of tear gas from Dearborn ­police. Later, Ford Service Department thugs attacked the marchers, shooting into the crowd. Four marchers were killed that day, with another dying later from injuries, and scores of others were injured. Maurice Sugar led the ­legal battle on behalf of the marchers. Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University

And what a worthy cause unemployed workers turned out to be that year. In September 1929 the stock market crashed, ushering in the bitter depression years and its massive unemployment. The Detroit area was particularly hard hit due to layoffs of tens of thousands of workers who had flocked here from across the country and around the world to work at auto factories.

It was in this environment a few years later that the Sugars and their friends decided to make the Buck Dinner an annual event. One that has grown to include hundreds of Detroit’s progressive activists and raises tens of thousands of dollars each year to support the work that never ends. 

Christopher Johnson, in his book “Maurice Sugar, Law, Labor, and the Left in Detroit 1912-1950,” describes early Buck Dinners this way:

“By the mid-thirties, attendance provided a means by which people who had little time, but some money, could give financial support to various left-wing causes. More important, the lists of labor-movement sympathizers would then be used in other circumstances. … What was forming then, was a reliable group of several hundred progressive professionals and intellectuals whose services would become increasingly important in the development of the labor movement.”

The camaraderie of the Buck Dinner is that of shared struggle, faith in justice and a vision of equality among all peoples. Since 1929 these ideals have brought us together to celebrate and to lend assistance to the continuing fight for everyone to break bread at the table of peace and brotherhood.

In essence, the Buck Dinner has maintained the same spirit of friends getting together for a meal, music and supporting the work of making this world a better place that Maurice and Jane Sugar first convened. And it has expanded to encourage and support struggles for justice, equality, jobs and freedom from repression in Michigan, with results that can be felt across the United States and around the world.