Gene Scott, August 11th, 2015
Lily Wilson: Today is August 11th, 2015. This is the interview of Gene Scott by Lily Wilson. We are in Livonia, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Gene, can you tell me where and when you were born?
Gene Scott: Gene was born in 1933 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and moved to Detroit in 1956.
LW: And what brought your family to Detroit, or what brought you to Detroit?
GS: I finished college here at the University of Detroit. And then found my wife here and we got married the year after we got engaged. By then I was finishing graduate school.
LW: Where were you in graduate school?
GS: In Wayne State and the University of Iowa.
LW: And what were your degrees in?
GS: Journalism and sociology.
LW: So where were you living in 1967?
GS: Probably in the Plymouth-Southfield area of the city.
LW: Can you tell me what your job title was and what you were doing for work then?
GS: I was a publicist, or on the verge of becoming what they called the supervising publicist. Actually, we were all PR grunts for the administration, as it turned out. But at the time it was serious public information and we promoted visitor information for people planning or coming into the city. As well as all the department publicities that were—we coordinated it with the media and newspapers and TV.
LW: What department?
GS: Department of Public Information.
LW: So in July 1967, what was your sort of day-to-day job?
GS: It seemed to me I was still, maybe —I probably was one of a dozen or more publicists that worked on the staff at the time. There must have been at least-and I had a group of departments whose publicity I was responsible for. But during the week of the disturbances, as some people call them, I was probably, like everybody else, given assignments. And for at least four nights in a row my assignment was to coordinate media activity at DPD headquarters.
LW: Okay. So during the week of the riots, so starting with July 23rd, around that time, you were in charge of coordinating, essentially, press conferences and things of that nature?
GS: And updates on, actually, number of fires, casualties—and it was almost like an hour to hour thing. The thing I didn’t like about it was I had three or four nights in a row where I didn’t go home from there until midnight and the drive home was scary as hell. It was some nights.
LW: And this was for the Detroit Police Department? That was one of the departments that you were in charge of?
GS: Yeah, they just moved us over there. I probably worked with Lieutenant Fred Williams who was a PIO [Police Intelligence Operations].
LW: So tell me about where you had to report for your job and about that drive home.
GS: I probably reported to wherever Fred Williams worked in the department. And we manned several phones where we either received or returned calls to media. It seemed like every hour or two we were updating them on something—who was seriously injured and what not, how many people, and some officers—and then there were some firemen too that got shot or injured. Some were not actually—they’re just injuries from trying to do their job, accidents that occurred. It was all lumped together. And I can tell you right out here that there were a lot more than—people that actually eventually died that weekend. I don’t know if anyone ever got an accurate count because some of it was connected with that week or two of activity and some of it was either side of that time period. People that died of wounds or whatever. There were some others.
LW: So you’re saying that more people died than were reported?
GS: Probably so, because the serious injuries—they didn’t succumb to their injuries until weeks later. By then we had nothing to do with reporting that kind of thing. Like I said before, at that time we were a department—our primary mission was to work with the Detroit Convention Bureau to encourage people to come and enjoy the city. In fact, we even opened and ran a six or seven day-a-week visitor center in front of Ford Auditorium before and after all this was going on.
LW: The number of deaths that actually occurred, was there nervousness in the part of the police department to report the actual number of deaths or fatalities and injuries for fear that it would incite more violence?
GS: I don’t think the police department necessarily had full control of that. Henry Ford and Receiving Hospital, people there, that hospital staff had probably more control over that kind of thing. Because obviously when they admitted people that were on the verge of dying or maybe had minor wounds—that was part of their intake information. So they probably had more control of that. And that’s why, I think, the eventual numbers—I think there was between forty and fifty people allegedly died, and there probably were more. That, by the way, details on that came out later and you should get yourself a copy. I’m sure –w hat me and several of my colleagues put together, it was called the Mayor’s Development Team Report of the 1967 Civil Disturbances. That was the title of the thing and it’s about an inch or so thick.
LW: When was that published?
GS: About a year and a half later.
LW: So 1969, maybe?
GS: Yeah. I guarantee you’ll find that in several libraries and the main library sure must have several copies. Sorry, I couldn’t locate my copy. I have one but I’m not sure where it is.
LW: We can locate one, that’s okay.
GS: Yeah, it’s important because they—some of the statistics that you’re talking about will be summarized.
LW: So the real numbers, so to speak?
GS: Yeah, because the reported count and associated counts are going to be different on that.
LW: So the reports that were coming in, was there anything in particular that stands out to you in terms of things that were coming to your attention during that week in July 1967?
GS: I think that the people on our staff, the more senior people-the people who were just support staff, they got time off. People like us that were hardcore publicists, who worked day-to-day with media feeds, we knew we were stuck. And so, there were some people that, in a sense, got a vacation, while we got not 24/7, but it was probably twelve on and twelve off all that week.
LW: What was the most -- what were some of the things that stood out to you, the reports that were coming in?
GS: The constant correction of the information, I’ll tell ya.
LW: So like what, for example?
GS: Where there’s a whole block of buildings on fire and it’s on Hamilton or what was then called Twelfth Street, which is Rosa Parks Boulevard. These weren’t the only parts of the city and there were corrections on locations all the time. I have the feeling that a lot of the people calling in were new to the thing and I think that there were people that—I had the impression that people that were new, fairly new to the department, were suddenly… had this thing, you know, you weren’t lucky enough to be with veteran firefighters or policemen every time you made a run.
LW: Sure. Okay.
GS: Sometimes that’s probably where the confusion and corrections came up. I remember the feedback being that, you know ‘cause— but this was stuff being relayed in to us so that when the media called we were closer to being accurate, hopefully.
LW: So the calls that were coming in to you were coming from police and fire and then you would have to put that in some sort of report –
GS: Summarize and–
LW: –to give to the media. I see.
GS: Sometimes it seemed like it was every hour and middle of the night. Maybe it wasn’t, but I don’t remember working past midnight so somebody else took the next shift.
LW: Was there ever a time that information came in and you thought “we can’t tell media about that?”
GS: Oh yeah, we held back, we held back—there’s going to be a correction coming within a half hour or something like that. Am I uncomfortable with that? And I know I was uncomfortable about driving home because there was only a portion of the freeway that now takes you out to the west side, there was only a portion of it open. And I remember seeing smoke and fire in the distance at twelve-thirty at night and I’m driving home and believe me the hair on my neck was standing straight out, I swear to God [laughter].
LW: So did you see anything on your drive home that made you particularly fearful or was it just the general environment?
GS: It was just the general environment. Nothing was going on that close to home, but nevertheless, my wife and I moved our family to their [grand]parents’ home in Garden City and it was discomforting coming back because that far out you could still see the smoke and fire in the distance.
LW: Wow. So you for that week or two, you moved your family out to your in-laws’?
GS: Yeah, for a couple of days, anyway.
LW: Back at work-again the shifts were much longer, you mentioned, than normal-twelve hours on average. What was the general sort of attitude of the people that you were working with? Were people nervous about reporting some of the information that you were getting in? Were police and fire hesitant to share information with you?
GS: I honestly don’t remember specifically, but a general impression I had was older people were more nervous about what was going on and what it portended to develop to be. I think we had the impression that we were being occupied by outside forces and that probably made us more nervous than the fires and the shooting that went on because it was, at that time, many times more than what went on in an average week, of course.
LW: So who were the outside forces that you felt were occupying the city?
GS: Well a lot of us had been in the army and the idea of, not only armed troops being in the city, but people with machine guns and tanks. Things that they in other parts of the world are fighting wars with were coming in like -and the specter of that probably made—I think it excited the young people, maybe some of the younger people, but the older people and my black colleagues, as well, because a few of them lived near the scene of the thing and when phone service was off and on and then they’d check in back home, they were just as nervous as the rest of us, if not more so, and understandably.
LW: So do you think it was necessary to bring in those armed troops and machine guns and tanks based on what you saw and heard?
GS: At first, yeah. We had the impression that it might have—and I don’t think it settled down completely even after roughly a two week period. I think it just didn’t suddenly stop; it eased and eased as a day-to-day thing, as I remember [unclear]. But nevertheless, within that two week period, after everything first started, I think it was a Friday night, it might have been no more than ten days, we reopened our visitor center downtown and one of the ladies that was visiting from Canada came in to get some map or something from our visitor center and she said, “Oh by the way, I got a new visitor promotion slogan for you if you want to pass it on.” We said, “What’s that?” She said, “Come to Detroit this summer, it’s a riot.” She thought she was being funny. We didn’t take it so lightly. [Laughter] Not then, it was just that week afterwards.
LW: So the weeks before we started recording you mentioned that there was some activity and some things that were going on before what was actually considered the riot. So tell me about what that was and how you came to know about various things that were going on.
GS: Well, I think there were a series of drug raids that probably… you know, when several days in a row there were drugs raids that were going on… I think when that kind of activity accelerates, you know that there could be some serious trouble in the days ahead. That was not the only time that was worrisome. There were time when that would build to a crescendo; there would be a whole bunch of arrests, as there still is occasionally today. You have to remember that there were a lot more people living in the city then and we had a much larger police force too.
LW: So the drug raids and the various arrests you heard about through your job, is that right? Because the police would call in the reports and you would get them.
GS: Yeah, and police department news conferences weren’t always held at police headquarters. Sometimes they were held in the mayor’s office or nearby. In fact, if I remember right, we may have even had larger news conferences than that that might have been held across the street in Ford Auditorium. Or was it—I’m thinking of something else. But the beautiful part about it was if the plans weren’t already in the works, Hank the Deuce, as we called Henry Ford and his colleagues, signed on the dotted line and Renaissance Center got started and it was like coming back. And it was nice. And it was getting nice for a long time. The trouble was the residue of public information about what went on that didn’t fall off as fast as the enthusiasm about the new things coming. We’re going through that again today to some extent and you’re wondering whether the buoyed spirits of all the new things being done in the city are being responded to. You don’t have a good reading on it too because, to be honest with you, I think we have lazy media by comparison to the media that I trained up to work for. It’s harder to dig out stories about nice things going than it is about bad things. You can work off a police blotter and you don’t have to scout around to get sources for something good happening at some church or hospital or something like that, as opposed to crime and where the latest major police or fire run was. There’s hardly any research connected with it by comparison to the other kind of news reporting. So I think it’s kind of getting lazy on that. Maybe that’s what sells. The trouble is it’s also defined by what sells to the public. I understand that.
LW: I’m curious about the information that you had access to, as far as the drug raids, maybe many arrests, in the weeks, maybe months leading up to July of 1967. Were those things reported on in the news or did you speak to the press about those things?
GS: No. That was not my day-to-day thing. We found ourselves in a relatively new role helping—well, like the city needed, to give you an analogy, the powers at play felt that we needed outside military, or some other kind of help for the police department. We’re reporting and media contacting and that was done by police PID, the PIO [Police Intelligence Operations] section of the police department. That’s only basically two people and we were like another twelve or so, our force. They needed more. The police and fire needed—the police particularly needed more outside help, and the police, even though it was part of the city, the DPD PIO people, they needed [inaudible]. So not of all of us, but most of us, the twelve of us that worked—we were the publicists and everything. We had assignments and we were around the clock.
LW: So do you ever remember a time thinking that information that’s coming in, whether in July of ‘67 or the weeks or months leading up, do you ever remember information coming in from police or fire and thinking this information is going to be a problem if the public hears about it? Do you ever remember a case like that?
LW: Can you tell me about that?
GS: No, because I wasn’t high enough a level to know the details and speak about it without possibly being inaccurate about it and I wouldn’t want to do that. That was done at a higher level. I know there were several holding areas in the city because they didn’t have enough jail space for the arrests that they made. I’m not sure but I think when we thought a couple of recreation centers were being used as holding areas, I think that that was not information that should go out to the public because that’s too close to some of the neighborhoods in possibly some cases. I don’t remember the details. What I mean by holding area, might just been for a couple of days, but a couple of days can make a hell of a lot of people nervous.
LW: So people that had been arrested for rioting, looting, stealing, even other violent activity, that were being held in various places throughout the city. You didn’t want the public to know where they were because that would cause nervousness. I see. Okay. Was there anything else of that nature, even if you can’t give specifics, that you remember thinking this is not good if the public finds out about it?
GS: I think the thing that bothered me was at that time we had as many as twelve conferences or our major organization meetings and exhibits in one same month at Cobo. In the ensuing weeks and months some of that was canceled.
LW: And these were meetings, just,—
GS: People from other parts of the country coming in.
LW: Coming in for conferences. Okay.
GS: That was the downside of it because at that time we—me and one or two of my colleagues, promoted colleagues at Cobo Hall as part of our jobs, and now they have high-priced PR firms doing what we did, and yet there’s fewer conferences and exhibits than there used to be. That’s a turn in things. I think what we enjoyed—people from other parts of the country, organizations, group tours, groups, organizations came in and the months and years afterwards the groups came in and they wanted tours of the city and people in my department were some of the people that stood up in front of the bus with the little PA system on the bus and pointed out the places we were going to. And that activity picked up because people wanted to see what this notorious city that had all this trouble is looking like. Oh that was something deep. To take them through the old part of Elmwood Park before—west of downtown, I mean east of downtown—to take people from New England through there, and pointing out that you’re looking at homes that were built before 1900. And they’re saying, “So what? You come to New England we can take you through a neighborhood where the homes were built before 1700.” [Laughter] That was kind of a nice experience—and, by the way, around that time the city was supposed to be, I think it was the site of the Olympic boxing trials. So there were good things coming about. Our notoriety put us, you know, like, “Hey, they’re repairing the situation and it’s quieting down,” and the positive aspects of what came in those years afterwards was something that we relished dealing with, I think. I could go on forever but more people think they’re healing, they’re fixing things, there’s some beautiful development projects being developed and everything. It kind of parallels a lot of what’s going on the last couple of years. It’s too bad, for instance, the light rail project’s a hundred years too late for the city. But it’s better late than never some people are saying, other people are saying ‘well so we’ll see.’
LW: So the general sense of things following July of ‘67 after things had calmed down, as far as the news that you were getting back from police and fire, did you notice a spike in violent activity after ‘67 or was ‘67 sort of the apex and then things balanced down after that? As opposed to before July of ‘67?
GS: I don’t remember. I honestly don’t remember. I think we were glad not to have to go back and take shifts at the DPD for that week, and actually it was more than a week. It was really two weeks where we were on the twelve on and twelve off schedule with a lot of things. It’s getting to be a while ago, but one thing I think that came about it—there were probably, at that time, with those couple of years around there, there were probably more white than black in our staff. Probably a lot more. I think in the next ten, fifteen years or so it might have shifted by then, but the department got smaller and there were budget cuts. But still we had a balance of people or it might have been more so, and I’ll tell you—we may have had only one of a dozen people that were uptight about working with us and that was probably a much younger person who had no exposure to a lot of relations with other people there. Maybe their first job or something.
LW: You mean young black people that were working with you?
GS: Yeah. Most of them, we operated on a casual basis. In fact, until just a few years ago I used to see them. One of them we used to go golfing together until not too long ago. My wife and I, ever since we’ve been in this house, over twenty years, we used to have some black friends that we probably got to know around that time period. But we moved out of the city years later.
LW: When did you move out of Detroit?
GS: Around 1990.
LW: Okay. And why did you move in 1990? What sparked that move?
GS: Nervousness about being in the city. There were problems. My brother was shot at in that driveway of our home on the night we were having a rehearsal for a wedding.
LW: What street was that?
GS: Lehman Street in Northwest Detroit. Got our next door neighbors. We must have had those same next door neighbors; they were black. They must have been there ten years or more with us. That wasn’t the problem. It was somebody coming through the neighborhood that caused some kind of a problem.
LW: So you stayed in Detroit for a relatively long time after this time period.
GS: Yeah, but the market was good. And we were going to make a move; it was a good time to make it because markets, as you know, they go up and down. And we got wind of that, and probably wanted to take advantage of that, too.
LW: Is there anything else about July of 1967 that you want to share with me?
GS: I really want to encourage you to get a copy of the development team report because it probably goes into detail about, not just the statistics, but the areas of the city that were hit hardest with the conflict, with the fires and the shootings and the looting and the whatever; the places that were hit hardest. I think there’s a whole section that deals with that, and I don’t know whatever happened to it, but, one of the federal projects that centered on the area where everything allegedly started which was Virginia Park Rehabilitation Project, they called it. The development team report is going to tell you, give you more background about what went on before and since, and what was planned, and what they were asking the state and the federal government to help them with in specific areas, as well as—not the city in general but—and there were other areas besides Twelfth and Clairmount, which is Virginia Park. There were other areas where there was concentrated rehab housing and business rehab, commercial rehab.
LW: Following July of ‘67?
GS: Yeah. And that’s addressed like a bunch of line items almost in the one section of that report. So I encourage you to do it. Plus it wasn’t all that what happened in that—to me it’s more and more like a two week period, not just that week. It was two weeks, from that awful Friday night. Maybe eight or ten days later things started to taper off, but anyway. I think I can tell you more about the pleasant things that went on just a year later having to report to the media on the schedule for the events coming up at Cobo Hall. This is just a year or two later. Sending the media the schedule that now some high-priced PR firm charges them hundreds of thousands of dollars to do. We just sped the media the information and our fourteen conferences and events coming up in the next month. Like three years earlier there were only half that many things, and so, you got tens of thousands of people coming in to the city for these events. In addition to all the sports activity, this was in addition to that, of course.
LW: So you saw that as a very positive sort of way to bounce back from ‘67?
GS: Yeah. That was a part of helping put your past behind you and the feeling that we tried to give to people. In fact, a couple of media, they had promotions and slogos [slogans] built around that. I can’t remember—Channel 7 had a couple of the stations. There might have even been a period when the real estate section of the paper had a lot more to brag about. You know, new things, new projects starting up, you know, so. Sometimes I think Carl Calderman[?] and the people that ran the news real estate section, they had to make some hard decisions because they couldn’t fit it all in there. There was probably time in those next couple of year, you know? I kind of remember those positive things about the city, and I may be wrong, but I think Hart Plaza and the weekend concerts and festivals started roughly about two or three years later in ‘69 or ‘70, I think. I mean, that filled up every weekend for the summer.
LW: Did you see a continuation of that push toward positive things throughout the 70s and 80s when you were still living in Detroit and working in Detroit?
GS: Oh yeah.
LW: You did? Okay.
GS: Yeah, and I think it was met with more enthusiasm back in the 70s.
LW: Okay. A desire to move beyond what had happened in ‘67?
GS: Yeah. Just between you and me, I think there’s something wrong in our society. And I think drugs and gambling are at the root of it because a hundred years ago in the city—right now I’ve seen documentation, there were roughly 700,000 people living in the city a hundred years ago. And a hundred years ago there were 14 murders in the city, not three or four hundred, just to give you one example. Something is behind that. And did you know that then, people that had slot machines had to build false floors so they could hide them if any of the sheriff or the police or anyone were coming. So, it just shows you. And I do believe that sending something in the mail with the word bingo on it was forbidden. It was a hundred years ago. I think that the drug problem in the country, and here, has accelerated since World War II. Probably replaced the boozing. [Laughter]
LW: So you think drugs are to blame for the rising crime?
GS: Yeah. Drugs and gambling. Both of them make people more desperate. Not everybody wins. Nobody gets what they want easily. Some people have to pay more than others for the same thing. It’s all part of that market game. It’s just one more market where there are some people get what they want with a little effort and some other people more. There’s degrees of disappointment and joy as it turns. It’s too bad, but that’s a big part of it, it’s not all of the factors. I think gambling really didn’t come along until after all this that we’re talking about, so drugs probably played a big role in what happened in ‘67.
LW: Yeah, it could have, certainly.
GS: And happened before on different scales of activity. There probably are other times in the history of the city where there’s been things that could have accelerated to that.
LW: Is there anything else you want to share on the record?
GS: No. I just hope that lessons are learned by all this, and that we don’t have to deal with even one dishonest politician that we seem to have. There’s always a few. It would be nice, and we’re talking about ideal world situations, you know? I wanted to mention that too when I was talking about a hundred years ago in the city when—I don’t remember about the drug situation, so much as gambling was prohibited. A hundred years ago there were probably twice as many people proportionally going to church on Sunday, not just for once in a great while events like Easter and Christmas, or something. I think there were more things that kept people on the straight and even, than we’re faced with now. Yeah, that’s about it.
LW: Well, thank you for talking with me today. I really appreciate it. Thank you for sharing and remembering.
GS: Yeah, okay.