George Ramsey, October 10th, 2015

Title

George Ramsey, October 10th, 2015

Description

In this interview, George discusses his early memories of the 1943 Detroit riots and his memories of growing up along Hastings Street and then Twelfth Street. After discussing his experiences during the unrest, George chronicles his experiences as a tour manager for Motown and his subsequent work in television.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society

Date

11/16/2015

Rights

Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI

Format

audio/MP3

Language

en-US

Type

Sound

Video

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

George Ramsey

Brief Biography

George Ramsey was born in Detroit on April 8, 1938. George grew up along Hastings Street and then off of Twelfth Street. After serving in the Air Force, George returned home to work as a mail man. After the tumultuous week in July 1967, George left the USPS to work for Motown. After crisscrossing the country with Motown, George returned to Detroit and began working in television.

Interviewer's Name

Tobi Voigt

Interview Place

Detroit Historical Museum, Detroit, MI

Date

10/10/2015

Interview Length

33:21

Transcriptionist

Zach Shapiro

Transcription Date

11/05/2015

Transcription

TV:  Okay here we go. Hello my name is Tobi Voigt. I’m the chief curator at the Detroit Historical Society.  Today is Saturday, October 10, 2015 and this is the oral history interview of George D. Ramsay Senior.  So welcome, and can we start by why don’t you tell us a little bit about where and when were you born and where did you grow up?

GR:  Well I was born ironically about a mile from here on Warren Avenue between Hastings and Rivard Street and it’s now Chrysler, but anyway I was born in 1938, April 8, 1938.  I lived there for the first eighteen years of my life.  My first memories of growing up there ironically were the riot in 1943.  I remember that distinctly because I was about five years old and at that time Detroit had a lot of fruit trees in our back yard we had a lot of fruit trees, so I was playing in my backyard and I heard the noise around front and I ran around front and my mother was standing on the porch and I saw this crowd of black men on the other side of Warren Avenue and they were throwing bricks at cars that you know had white folks driving in them and so I stood there in shock and then my mother let me go and so she ran down to the side walk and a white guy had been hit and his car had been hit and he came out of his car bleeding  and my mother directed him to behind our house.  That was the juvenile detention home, still some of it is still there in existence, but she directed him to that to get away from the crowd and the crowd ran up to my mother and I distinctly remember this, they saying something to my mother but she said something back to them and they turned and left.  But I mean at five years old, it was embedded in my life so that was my first memory.

TV:  What were you feeling during that?  When that was all going on?

GR:   I was kind of fearful of it at that instance — and I don’t remember too much more I think right after that instance,  my mother might have made me go inside in the house, but I remember after the riot had subsided she and I took a walk along Hastings and because we had lived there for 10, 15 years so my mother was known along the strip there and my dad was working in the post office, which was you know a pretty good job, obviously, at that time, but he had died in 1940.  So like I said, we walked along Hasting Street and then I came on back, but anyway that was my first memories of growing up in the city of Detroit as a kid.

TV: Wow.

GR:  And like I said I was only less than a mile from the [Detroit Public] Library, the Art Institute so my friends now, this is what we did, we spent a lot of time in the Institute of Arts you know we would walk, we’d stand there and watch the mummies  of course a very big exhibit and the knights, they had the horse and they had the I guess that that’s still in existence at the museum, I haven’t been over there in years, but it was so fascinating to me as a kid growing up and I think that it impacted my life because culturally I think I’m tuned to that because of how I grew up in the Art Institute and the library.

TV:  I’m going to put you alright we’re rolling.

GR:  Do you want me to continue just talking.

TV:  Absolutely.

GR: Okay.  So growing up here, like I said,  me having been born and I lived in this community, so my friends and I and I have a dear friend now he’s deceased his name was Ron Milner, he was a local playwright, a black playwright, probably Detroit’s most popular playwright, such and such, but we grew up as kids went to high school and elementary school together and we often talked about how important this community was because he became a great writer and we used to talk how much time we spent in the library and in the Institute I mean the Institute of Arts I mean we used to call it – what did we used to call it?  Anyway, but Detroit at that time had almost two million people there so it was quite busy and we had a lot of activity going on in the neighborhood unlike like the situation might be now, but I was a paper boy and when I turned 12 I became a paper boy and I delivered papers along Hastings Street you know which again the popular street in Detroit for the black community. And I had two blocks on Hastings Street with my paper route and I often talked about the businesses that are black businesses and how important it was to us culturally and it wasn’t a lot of robbery we had a lot of ways to make money we called ourselves hustlers not in the negative sense because we were always hustling things.  That was during the time when we could sell newspapers to the fish markets, this what they wrapped the fish in, we could sell coat hangers to the cleaners, you didn’t find a lot of glass and materials in the street you know iron, steel, things were still being recycled shortly after the war ended so we had a lot of ways to make moneys, and growing up as a kid, shoe shined, we had a little portable shoe shinning stand, we’d walk up and down Woodward Avenue primarily or one of your major thoroughfares trying to shine shoes, but it was just a lot of activity that was all positive growing up because it stemmed from I think the cultural  awareness that we had as people growing up then it was a lot of dancing a lot of singing a lot of festivities.  Every week there was a reason to celebrate for some reason so Detroit was a very, very stimulating city during those years and for myself like I said I just loved being – having said that I was born in Detroit when I ended up in the military. We often talked about how important Detroit was during the war years this was the Arsenal of Democracy and Defense, so I personally took a lot of pride in the fact that I came out of Detroit especially like I said when I went to the military because prior to that during the school years we celebrated after the war, after the Second World War.  On our bikes we had flags, people had decorated their cars with flags as a matter of fact there was a lot of businesses selling flags.  You know you would drive down the street and there was a person that had a stand on the street and they were selling flags.  It was a very, very enriching time in the history of Detroit, so I’m happy that I [was] able to experience that like I said I’m 77 now. I see Detroit, the growth, I see the newness of it I enjoy it, I relish it, and I welcome the change that’s happening.  Some people seem to say that it’s replacing the old, and that’s how life is you know.  The new replaces the old, the young takes the place of the seniors and this is what’s –  our generation is come and gone and Detroit will be a city that is gonna be driven by technology it’s not going to be a city that was driven by just muscles and labor as it was when I was a kid again during my formative years up until the seventies and eighties you could still get jobs in Detroit; there was a lot of industry, but now the technology is taking over so that’s what Detroit is of the future it’s a town with technical design and people that can understand the importance of education.  So again I guess we’re talking about how Detroit was and like I said I experienced the one riot in ‘43, but when I came out of the service in 1960, I started working at the post office.

TV: Let me ask one quick question going back because you had mentioned you were born around Warren and Hasting Street, which we all know now is the Chrysler Freeway, so how did that, was your family still living there when that came in? How did that impact your family?

GR: Oh no, well I went in the service in 1956 and they had just started demolition  starting the whole process of demolishing that community, so my mother and them, they moved over to the west side near Henry Ford Hospital in 1956, so that’s when the Chrysler freeways was built during that time, but when they moved over on Kipling Street about two blocks from Henry Ford Hospital off West Grand Boulevard and Twelfth, so when I came back in 1967 we would call it a riot, but really it was a rebellion , because in ‘43 it was a race riot, but in ‘67 it wasn’t a racial riot. It became racial  in the sense that the black community was attacked by the police and you had National Guard men came in and they did some things that was uncharacteristic you know for law and order people. But anyways the riot in ’67 I remember that, and the irony of that was I was on my porch in ’67 with my mother when it first happened, because it happened – it began on Twelfth street  which I was only living two blocks from Twelfth street and it was a neighborhood  a grocery store that one of the Chaldeans owned it at that time, it was on the corner of Poe and Pallister and that was one of the first stores that was hit  that Sunday morning , because that’s where, you know they started doing some milling around that Saturday night, from my understanding was that Sunday was when it really broke and like I said the grocery store around the corner from us was one of the first ones that the alarms went off, and then it was a party store on Delaware and Woodrow Wilson — which again is only a couple blocks from where we were standing, that alarm went and we noticed it was ringing and the police were not responding to it so myself I went up on Twelfth street and I was sitting in front of  St. Agnes church which still sits there on the boulevard – I mean on, where it’s Rosa Parks now but it was Twelfth and Pallister and I was sitting there that Sunday morning and I was watching the crowd, they were milling, they was coming down, this was – I noticed black and white guys carrying – distinctly saw them carrying couches down the street because it was – you know this community was integrated, you still had whites and blacks that were living in that community all around that Twellfth Street. So it was not racial in the sense that blacks and whites were attacking one another, they just took over the town, you know, I think it was one of the situations where most the police department was off enjoying the summer and it just happened at that time when they could not respond and then it became racial that Monday, I remember distinctly because like I said I was a mail man. I delivered mail out of a north end post office which still stands on Milwaukee and Woodward and my route was down on Leicester, Kenilworth, and Owen.  I delivered from Woodward to Oakland, but my friend, another friend of mine, his route was on Virginia Park and that was where they had the infamous Algiers Motel. This is where the police officers killed these three black men in the motel there, and that Monday — I think they shot these boys that Sunday they said they found them in a room with some white girls from Toledo, Ohio. I think it was, but anyways the police officers August, Prieve [Paille], and Sincy [Senak] I believe that was their names.  I remember Officer August distinctly because on my route there was a school down on Leicester. I think that was that school, Algiers school and the National Guard had their equipment down on the school grounds and these police officers was there protecting them from that standpoint, but August —these guys were police officers— and I remember that Monday when I saw him, no it was a Tuesday because we didn’t deliver mail that Monday after the riots, that Tuesday, when I went in to deliver mail I saw that, and I remembered his face because they publicized him all doing the town investigative of the killing, but it was horrendous the way they did these guys because one of the boys’ body was on my route at the funeral home the Wilson Funeral Home on Owens and Brush, I think it was. But, the undertaker there he told me that the boy’s body – I mean he said they shot down – he said the boy was on his knees in the begging position because they shot through his arms through his groin to his, you know to his private areas, but anyways it was just terrible, that was the worst thing about the riot from my standpoint. But another thing that I had on my route was a fellow named J. Edward Bailey. I think that was his name he was a black photographer and he worked for Detroit News and a friend of mine who was a coworker that Monday after the riot we didn’t have to work that day. We came to the post office and they told us to go home, etcetera, so this friend of mine he had a car, I think he had a Ford, he had a convertible and so we got in his car and we decided to ride down Twelfth Street  you know because everything had subsided you know they came in and the police — and so we were riding down the Twelfth Street and I saw Mr. Bailey walking and I knew that he was a photographer so I called him and he came and got in in this friend of mine’s car and what we did, he had the convertible and so Bailey was able to sit in the back seat and take shots until some guy saw us and he told us to stop because he said it would be kind of dangerous. But,  anyway so Bailey got out the car and we left and we went and drove around the city just looking at some of the scenes, but anyway Mr. Bailey ended up winning some award he had some of the only or some of the best pictures that was taken of the riot and I quit shortly thereafter the riot I resigned from the post office , but prior to me resigning when he found out he won that award I jokingly told him that he needed to give me some of that money that he made. But so those were some of the major memories I have of the riot again that Algiers Motel Incident and having one of the boys’ bodies was on my route. I didn’t view it, you know, but again it was not a race riot it was a rebellion it definitely was a rebellion and a lot of the instances that happened from my understanding is that a lot of the store owners set those building on fire because it was an insurance factor. As an example, I had on my route it was a pawn shop that was on the corner of Owens and Oakland and as a mail man often times I needed some money, so I had a little diamond ring and I would pawn my little ring and I’d get it out, and just then I had pawned my ring prior to the riot and when I went back there to get it the pawn guy he said that I lost my ring in the riot so I mean, that happened and I couldn’t tell him – because he had insurance that would cover the losses and a lot of the things that people supposedly lost they kept themselves in a lot of the pawn shops.

TV: Really?

GR: Oh yeah.

TV: But his store was still standing he just said he was looted.

GR:  Right, right, he said that when he came in and it might have happened, I don’t know but I’m saying I know I lost my little diamond ring, I didn’t do any looting, I got looted you know?  But I mean I knew people that supposedly got a lot of loot out of it and some guys, a good friend of mine said that they were driving down Grand River around Oakland, I think Oakland Boulevard, and when they got at that corner some people broke into – it was a jewelry store, Meyers I think it was and so they said they parked their car went in there and looted also, so it was a lot of that happened like that. There was a lot of looting done in the early parts of the day but I know that they talked about snipers. I know the only snipers, actual snipers that they took out of there were some guys – some white guys that was on the corner they had a house it was over on Euclid and La Salle Boulevard. It was a nice, stately home. They had tanks in front of this house because these guys had some weapons and they didn’t have shotguns, I  mean these guys had rifles at that time and it was unusual, but it was not a lot of black snipers. I mean you hear people talk about the snipers, but I don’t think that they  could convince me that there was black snipers; it might have been someone up there trying – but I know that that was one group of – and these were some white guys that were radicalized you know because in Detroit at that time you had a group called the White Panthers who were similar to the Black Panthers, they would challenge the community— I’m not saying that these folks were but what I’m saying is there were a lot of radical white guys and John Sinclair, these guys came out of the same struggles that blacks came out and they had a lot of philosophies.  Yeah but that was one incident, you know what I mean, one thing about the riots is characterized by the sniping and it was not a race riot.

TV:  And it’s interesting – I’d like to know a little bit more about – you mentioned it was not a race riot but you mentioned a couple times that it was a rebellion, could you talk a little bit about what made it a rebellion?

  GR:  Yeah it was true because, again, they had a group of police officers called STRESS, Stop The Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets, and the concept was good you know, they need something [unintelligible] but anyway and these guys, their primary job – I think one of the police officers’ name was Peterson, I think he ended up shooting three, four, five people. But, what they would do is the police would take advantage of us in many ways and STRESS was one way they would try to set you up – if you stopped to ask them for a cigarette they would – you could be accused  of attempted robbery and you could get shot dead, I mean these things happened and it wasn’t like every day some people you know but it certainly happened and police you know were doing the same kind of thing then that you here about police officers doing now with the exception of they’re killing more blacks now shooting black but you know they took advantage of us if you were a black male and we didn’t have a lot of black police officers at that time. And because at one time, we had an incident over on the east side in Detroit the police station over on Jefferson, this is after the riot when some black police officers challenged some white police officers with how they were brutalized the prisoners and so that was one of the things that came out of the riots because we ended up getting more blacks on the police force because I know –  I was working at the post office three guys that I worked with the resigned from the post office and got on the police force.

TV: Really?

GR: Oh yeah, because it was very important, our generation would go around and police ourselves, you know, and right now it seem like you don’t have that same kind of attitude about your police department. You have some complaints about your police departments and you should want to police your own community and that was what was  and because again  because we came out of the revolutionary mindset supposedly and that was one of the things  the self-governance: who you wanted to police you and so that was one of the facts that led to the riots because folks were working, there were jobs, there plenty of them you know you could get a job.  The brutality they inflicted on us and the lack of movement  and we was restricted in a lot of ways to certain areas only but you know it never was a race riot it was it definitely was a rebellion because folks were upset, very much so. 

TV: So you were so you had mentioned that you went in the service in ‘56 and you got out in ‘60 then you came back and started working for the post office?

GR: Exactly.

TV:  Were you living with your mother?

GR: Yeah right because I didn’t get married until I was 60 years old you know. I had kids out of wedlock. So I stayed with mom because we had a two family flat and it had an attic apartment so, which it was great for me because I was single and I didn’t want the expense of the house, and when I stopped working at the post office and I started working at Motown you know, I left the post office in ‘67. I went  to school when I went to Fleetwood and got injured then I started at working at Wayne County Community College and when I graduated I moved out to California I worked at Motown you know for—

TV: Motown when it was in California?

GR:  No I started here yeah.

TV: Oh what did you do for Motown?

GR:  I was just the road manager for some recording artists. 

TV: You were just the road manager?

GR: Yeah right, but which was great because like I said having grown up having been around so much music culture that was what I gravitated towards. You know I was always singing and I played in my high school band and sung in its choir and I came out of Northeastern High School that I refer to as Motown University simply because so many artists from Motown went to Northeastern. Barry Gordy had attended, I don’t think he graduated, but so yeah and it was always — and like I said this fellow Ron Milner who I spoke of earlier today we talked of  that even he was a writer and he wrote for Motown but Barry Gordy – Motown started right around the corner from my house on St. Antoine, it ended up moving to the Boulevard, but Barry Gordy’s fist business was right in this neighborhood here but this is where it all started, it’s all about the culture Motown came out of the cultural community of Detroit. See it didn’t just spring out of nowhere it was a reason in my opinion that Motown because there was a theater called, the Warfield Theater.  It was comparable to the Apollo. Barry Gordy, I thought, I think Barry played piano there on one of the empty shows and Hastings Street and his father his family were business folk, so it was a lot of reasons that I think Motown developed in this community because again it was part of the — because right now they call it the cultural center back then it was just the neighborhood but yeah.

TV: So you started with Motown after ‘67?

GR: Yeah right I started with because a fellow a friend of mine at the post office his name was Freddie Gorman and Freddie was a mailman he and I was in a high school band together and he was one of the writers on the song “Please Mr. Postman”.  He wrote that while we were carrying mail.

TV: Really?

GR:  And so he started singing in the group The Originals and there was some songs that were  moderate successes and so he asked me to come work with them after I quit the post office and I said well ok and I thought about it and I went there with the guys and I loved it and I fell in love with it because it kept me close to the music and I enjoyed that role that I played  and then I did that for like two or three years with them. Then my son was born and I went back that’s when I went back to school was when my son was born and I stayed there for a couple years and when they moved out to California they asked me to come move out there with them and I went out there with them and I started working with Lamont Dozier , Holland- Dozier-Holland fame, you know. I worked with Lamont and worked as his road manger so it was just great, but it all started from that day on the cultural center, where we are now.

TV: That’s amazing.  Any really good road stories of being on the road with them?

GR:  Oh yeah, some things.  One story I like to tell, first time we went to New York with these guys, we were playing at a— No, this was in Newark, New Jersey. And we were playing with this guy, he had a bar and my job as the road manager, normally I just  sit in the dressing room, but this guy had an office; he didn’t have a dressing room and so the guys had to change clothes there and one door in one door out. And so they went out there and when they were getting ready to perform and they had a shake dancer on the show— you know a female shake dancer— and so when she finished that you know the guys went out there and they did there show. And so we’re sitting there and I’m sitting there and she walked and disrobed and started drying her clothes with a towel! Well I had never been around nothing like this before, so I found champagne bottle and so I picked up the champagne bottle and poured her a shot  and threw it down to drink, but it was champagne cologne, so they started calling me “Champagne  Ram” after that.  You know?  But, I mean there are a lot of different things some things that I won’t, I can’t talk about, but yeah it was a lot of fun I really, really enjoyed it and like I said I lived out there it was Lamont , Holland-Dozier-Holland fame and he exposed me to a lot the activity that I normally wouldn’t have seen got a chance to go to Hugh Hefner’s house. Aretha Franklin cooked a dinner for us, met Boz Scaggs, Henry Mancini; it’s just so many folks that I was able to say I was in their company. Have Henry Mancini say, “It was nice meeting you, George.” [laughs] “Come on Hank.” So yeah, have a lot of good memories of my life at this stage and I’m writing about these things you know that I’m sharing with you. So that’s why I’m so enthused about what you’re doing here I think that it’s so great for you to encourage folks to talk about the riot and other aspects about their lives and such you know.

TV:  Okay, so you were in California, so how did you get back? I mean you’re here.

GR: Well, I got, you know, like I said my youngest son, you know I had two boys, but my youngest son — I had him out in California with me when he was five. I thought that his mom was going to let him stay with me, but she wouldn’t she wanted me to bring him back and I brought him back and I really didn’t want to, because I enjoyed being a father. My dad died when I was two, you know. So I really missed that aspect. So, I was out there, I stayed out there for him until he turned seven, no, six or seven. So I just had to come on back. I came on back to be with my son. And then you know I’m happy that I did, but I you know, I was disappointed in the guys because I didn’t move out to California just, you know just – I mean you enjoy the sights, back then during the seventies it was a much different community, a much different world even, but I always wanted to do something that was a little more satisfying to me.  Once they stopped traveling, they didn’t want to travel, they didn’t want to sing, so I said let me come back to Detroit.  A friend of mine had a television show and I started working with him and I started working with some folks developing television WGPR television. Yeah, it was just getting started then, so I had an opportunity I had just gotten a very fast a broadcast license. I had a license, so it kind of fit right in there and then with the entertainment background I had I always wanted to do something with television. And when I was in California, I was in the minority writers’ workshop, when I was in California, Warner Brothers sponsored it and Lamont Dozier he ended up marrying a woman named Barbara and she had been a secretary at Warner Brothers and one of her jobs was reviewing the scripts. And so she and I she knew that I had been writing for a little bit, so she convinced me for us to sit down and do a movie to try and write a movie. So we did that and we got registered with the Writers Guild, but we never did anything with that.  I enjoyed that you know I enjoyed that writing and I enjoyed things of that nature you know I enjoyed what you’re doing and enjoyed, so I just had a great life.

TV:  How long were you at WGPR?

GR:  Well, I wasn’t with them I worked with another fellow that I worked with Jim Ingram. He worked with a television show that aired on WGPR years ago which was great because we interviewed Rosa Parks, we interviewed a lot of— because Jim was a very articulate guy very community oriented. He had been deputy chief of police. He was one of Coleman Young’s earlier supporters, so I mean I was on his coat tail, so we had a great show, I mean a great television show. And then Jim died unexpectedly in 1994, but yeah, so I came back to get involved in what was happening here in Detroit.  Like I said love it that’s why I love what you’re doing and what’s happening here with the city of Detroit you know the future looks good.

TV:  Good. Anything else you want to share any thoughts about today, lessons learned if any from 1967? 

GR: Well, again the thing that I hoped would come out of that even with these turbulent times that we’re going through now that still you know Detroit is still a great city you know America is still a great place to be, you know. And when I joined the military, in the interview I was doing through the Library of Congress, I told them I didn’t join the Air Force which I did for four years, I didn’t join it because I was black I joined it because I was an American and that’s how I view myself and that’s how I view everybody that’s a part of Detroit or anywhere else is being American.  I’m just pulling for America.

TV: That’s great.  Well I don’t have any more questions for you.

GR: Okay, yeah I appreciate it.

**

People

Dozier, Lamont
Sinclair, John
Bailey, Jay Edward
Ingram, Jim
Parks, Rosa
Young, Coleman
Scaggs, Boz
Mancini, Henry
Franklin, Aretha
Hefner, Hugh

Files

IMG_4900.JPG

Citation

“George Ramsey, October 10th, 2015,” Detroit 1967 Online Archive, accessed November 22, 2019, http://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/104.

Output Formats