Victoria Roberts, January 15th, 2016
KD: This is Kalisha Davis. I am interviewing Judge Victoria Roberts on January 15th, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan. You’re a Detroit native, right?
VR: I am.
KD: And were you born here in Detroit?
VR: I was.
KD: Okay, so where were you born exactly?
VR: I was born in, what was Women’s Hospital and I lived on the east side of Detroit then. I lived on Joseph Campau. I was born November 25th, 1951.
KD: Awesome, so does your parents reside on the east side also?
VR: They did, my parents came from the South, and they were part of the great migration of blacks from the South. My dad is from New Orleans, Louisiana. My mom from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and they both worked in a defense plant in Tennessee. I understand from talking with them that there was a facility that was opened in the Detroit area, and so they moved and continued working in those jobs for a short period of time. My father ended up working at Great Lakes Steel and my mother was a domestic worker; she took in ironing, she cleaned houses and she had six children along the way.
KD: That’s what I was going to ask you. Where are you in the line up? How many sisters and brothers do you have?
VR: I have six sisters and brothers, but only six of us not seven of us grew up in the same household.
VR: And, I have two brothers who are older than I, I have one sister older than I that I grew up, and then I have another older sister and then I have two younger sisters.
KD: So you fall somewhere in the middle?
VR: I’m somewhere in the middle, the peacemaker.
KD: The peacemaker? [Laughter] I can imagine. Now what are your parents’ names, and your sister and brothers names?
VR: My father’s name is Manuel Roberts. My mother, her name is Grace Roberts. They’re both deceased. My oldest brother, named after my father Manuel Roberts. I understand my parents came to Detroit around 1943, 44, and my oldest brother was born here in 1945 and he is deceased. Then I have a brother who was born in 1946, Ronald, and he now lives in Pasadena, California. My sister Patricia Roberts was born in 1948, and she’s deceased. I came in 1951, my sister Joanne Roberts was born in 1955 and my sister Teresa Roberts was born in1958. And then the sister I did not grow up with, her name is Doris Jennings and she lives in Maryland. But everybody else who is living, with the exception of my brother who lives in California, is in the Detroit area.
KD: Okay, so they stayed here for the remainder of their…
VR: Yes, my brother is the only one who migrated, he went west and I went to law school in Boston and came back, but everybody else stayed here.
KD: Okay, and what types of work do your siblings do?
VR: My brother Manuel was a mechanic at Ford Motor Company. Started doing that right out of high school -- he didn’t go to college, although he was very smart, and he stayed there for 30, 35 years, retired from Ford Motor Company. My brother Ronald, ended up going to Eastern Michigan University, and then went out to the University of Southern California and got an MBA, and has worked in a number of positions using his master’s degree, comptrollers of companies and he is retired now. My sister Patricia worked for the Department of Social Services, which is now DSS, I think, and she graduated from Wayne State University with an, I think her undergraduate degree was in -- you know what, I’m not quite sure. Maybe it was social work, I think it was social work. So she worked for the Department of Social Services for many, many years before her death. And then there’s me, and my sister Joanne is a manager at AT&T right here in Downtown Detroit and she did get her master’s from University of Michigan-Dearborn, I think in management. And then my sister Teresa is a court reporter and she’s working for a judge now in Wayne County Circuit Court. So that’s us. My sister Doris, who lives in Maryland, got a PhD in education and she was an educator. She’s retired now also.
KD: That’s awesome.
KD: So what did you – ‘cause it sounds like, well most of your brothers and sisters have college degrees and are educated and even graduate degrees. Was that something that was emphasized by your parents, by your family, like where did the motivation…
VR: Where did that come from? You know, I had this conversation with my sister not too long ago. My sister Joanne, because she has a son that just graduated from Adrian College and she called me early in the morning and she was talking about, she says, “you know, our generation” talking about our sib ship “was the first that graduated from high school” and most of our children have all gone on and graduated from high school and college and gotten advanced degrees. My dad finished the 9th grade only in Louisiana, my mother finished the 10th grade only in Tennessee and so they were not formally educated, although both very smart. My mother eventually got her GED but that was after all of us were in school and it wasn’t until the mid-sixties and then after she got her GED she ended up working for the J.L. Hudson Company in their warehouse as a merchandise checker, all those little tags that you seeing hanging on clothes, that’s what she used to do, that was her job after she stopped doing domestic work. But my parents, my dad particularly was quite emphatic about education, you know even though they themselves were not educated, they knew the value of education. My father worked in a steel mill, he worked at Great Lakes Steel, he worked on Zug Island, which is a filthy place, and would come home filthy, ended up, his hearing was very affected because of the noise in the plant and he was there for 35 years. And he would always say he didn’t want us to work as he did; he didn’t want us to come home dirty. So education was very important to them. They didn’t know a lot about helping us with applications to college, didn’t know the first thing about it. I know that I navigated that all on my own. But I knew that it was important to them and I think we all got a very strong work ethic from our parents and a very strong sense of the value of an education. So somehow, some way, you know we all managed to do it, they didn’t have any money and so we were all on our own and some of us got scholarships, some of us didn’t but everybody managed.
KD: That’s what it sounds like. That’s pretty awesome.
KD: Now where did you live in July 1967?
VR: I grew up on the East Side, I was born 1951. In 1960 I lived in the same house on Joseph Campau for the first nine and a half years of my life. In 1960 my parents moved into what is known as the Boston-Edison Community. And we lived on Edison, we lived between Linwood and LaSalle, and in fact, my parents are both deceased. My dad died in 2006, my mother in 2007, and we still own that house. We’ve been trying to sell it [laughter] but we still own it and you know my mother, my parents both got quite ill later in life, but we did not put them in nursing homes. And we kept them in their home and we had people coming in to take care of him, and take care of them. But I say that to say that my mother died in 2007 which is when we went through the economic crisis, the mortgage crisis, and the house when we had it appraised in 2007, appraised at about $40,000 and we were not prepared to just give it away.
VR: And so we held on to it and rented it out with some success. So we moved in 1960 to that house on Edison and that’s where I was living in July of ’67 when the riot happened.
VR: And it started just a few blocks from where we were living.
KD: Right, exactly, yeah on 12th and Clairmont.
VR: So we were between Linwood and LaSalle then it was 14th and then it was 12th and Edison was two blocks from Clairmont. Atkinson and Clairmont, so we were about four blocks away from where it started.
KD: So you were in middle school?
VR: In ’67? No, I was actually in the -- I had finished the 10th grade and was going into the 11th grade in the fall of ’67.
KD: So you talked about your parents’ occupations, you talked about your siblings. What do you remember about the city during that, not even that period of time but maybe mid-1960’s, what was the norm for your family, how did you interact with your neighbors, what kinds of things did you all do?
VR: Yes. Well my family was a blue collar family, my dad in a steel factory, my mother doing domestic work, but we were in what was considered to be, you know, a middle class neighborhood. And I attribute that to my mother primarily, she tried to scrape and save as much as she could and somehow they managed to come up with a down payment for a house in Boston-Edison. And I do believe that at that time they paid about, that house cost about $13,000, which was nothing but a lot to them. And our neighbor, our neighborhood was changing then, you know it had been a white neighborhood primarily, like most neighborhoods in Detroit and it was becoming, it was shifting, and there were a lot of black middle class families moving into Boston-Edison. And so our neighbors were school teachers, they were doctors, and there were not a lot of blue collar people. I think we felt that, we felt the class difference, living on Edison. And I didn’t have a word to describe that, I just know that I felt it.
KD: What high school did you go to?
VR: We were at, I and my young sister were at Visitation and when we were on the East Side we had been at St. Elizabeth. My father was a fallen Catholic but it was still important to him that we get a Catholic education. And I believe at St. Elizabeth, at the time Catholic schools have always had tuition but I think at the time it was $50 a family. So we were all able to go to St. Elizabeth. When we moved, I and my younger sisters ended up at St. Elizabeth. My sister went to, let me see, I was in the fifth grade. My sister went to Durfee in the middle school and Durfee was on that campus with Central High School, Durfee Middle School and Roosevelt Grade School. So she was at Durfee, my brothers -- I think they stayed at Northern on the East Side for a period of time and then they ended up at Central.
VR: So the three oldest were at a public school just a block away from Visitation, and then the three youngest were at Visitation. So that’s where I was in school in July of ’67, had just finished the 10th grade. But you asked me about being in that neighborhood and how it felt.
It felt a little isolated because we were in a minority, being a blue collar family. At Visitation the makeup of the school was primarily white even though the neighborhood was not that, and I think the reason for it was that it was a very good school and a lot of people whose families had lived in the area for a long time continued to come there, even though they were coming there on the bus, even though they were coming from suburbs now. They continued to come in and be part of the Visitation community and that was true from 5th grade on, I remember it was still true when I was in the 9th grade, when I was in 10th grade. The high school was predominantly white until the riot happened. And dramatically, in September of ’67, when I went back to school following the riot the school was overwhelmingly black.
KD: Where were your friendships? You talk about issues related to your class?
KD: Compared to the majority in your neighborhood. Were your friendships at school? Were they in the neighborhood? Were they somewhere else?
VR: That’s a very good question. I certainly had friendships at school, people I regarded to be my school friends, and there were people on the block also that we socialized with, that we played with. I have to say as I reflect back, probably my closest friends in high school were people that I went to school with, rather than people in the neighborhood.
KD: And so you talk about them being majority white, did you feel any sense of tension coming from them?
VR: I didn’t. I didn’t feel, I didn’t feel any tension that way. I think the tension we felt more was a class tension than a race tension.
KD: That’s interesting because your family moved to the city just after or before the race riots?
VR: You mean to the West Side?
KD: Your parents you said they moved here in 1943, so the race riots in the city -- I believe were in 1943.
VR: Yes, you know I didn’t have any knowledge of that; it wasn’t anything my parents ever talked about. I could tell you when we lived on the East Side on Joseph Campau it was pretty close to Hamtramck and it was a very mixed neighborhood. St. Elizabeth, when I was there in the grade school, that was a predominantly white school also. But I can’t remember feeling a lot of race tension then. I can tell you a story and it is unfortunate, we had, we lived in a wood frame house on Joseph Campau and I had -- there was a white neighbor next door to us. Then two doors away a black family and there were kids in that family that we played with all the time. I can remember the boy’s name being Junebug and the girl, she will go unnamed, right now, but I can remember and they were a family of brown skinned black people, right. We were light, you looking at me now, my father was from New Orleans and was a quote “Creole”.
VR: And you know ‘good hair’, and I say that in quotes also. And he was very light skinned, in fact I had relatives in New Orleans who had migrated to California and were actually passing for white. And he married, almost to his regret, because he would say things that were quite regrettable about my mom, who was a brown skinned woman from Tennessee. And she had quote “nappy” hair, and so he ended up with these children who were, you know, light, most of us, and with different grades of hair. I happened to get “nappy” hair. My sisters had, depending on who you are and what your view of hair is, some people would say that they had a better grade of hair. But I can remember, and my mom, so I had nappy hair, but my mother pressed it all the time and it was long so we had, I had long pressed hair. And I can remember walking home from lunch, for lunch from St. Elizabeth on the East Side and it was only two blocks so we came home for lunch my mother was always home, because she was doing laundry at the time, she was doing ironing for people. And we would come home for lunch. I can remember walking home and this girl who lived two doors away from us, walking behind me and taunting me and telling me “You think you’re good, you think you’re better than everybody cause you’re light skinned and cause you have long hair” and she actually attacked me a couple of times as I walked home from school.
KD: Wow, even with your siblings around?
VR: No! I don’t know why but the time she chose to attack me I was by myself.
KD: Oh, she knew.
VR: And so she knew, and she would just walk behind me, she would taunt me and this was long before we had a name for it, today it’d be called bullying, right. But that was it, that was the taunt, “you think you’re better than everybody ‘cause you’re light skinned and because you have long hair.” And so I remember that, I remember -- that sticks out in my head more than anything, more than anything that could be categorized as racial tension in the late 50’s early 60’s, before I turned 10 and before I moved to the West Side. And then after the move just feeling that class tension when I was in Boston-Edison
KD: I can imagine. So, we talked a little bit about norms, but what kinds of activities did your family do together? Did you all shop anywhere in particular? Was there any sort of entertainment that you remember or maybe the family looked forward to?
VR: I can remember that we would [laughter] on many Sunday afternoons drive around Belle Isle. Just drive endlessly around Belle Isle, and my father liked to drive. And so we would get in the car and we’d drive. Another driving activity I can remember is at Great Lakes Steel, he’d get two weeks of vacation and every summer until, I’d say ’61 ’62, we would all pile in the car and we would drive to New Orleans and spend my father’s two weeks of vacation in New Orleans. I remember that. There were not a lot of family activities that we -- things we did as a family. My father was a troubled person, and he was an alcoholic. He had I think a lot of regret about how his life had turned out, he certainly experienced the -- I think for the lack of better word at this moment, experienced the madness that a lot of blacks did during that time period who didn’t have the benefit of being able to complete school, or have opportunities open to them, even though he knew he was -- he was a very smart and very capable man -- and I think he felt pigeon-holed and felt he didn’t have a lot of opportunities available to him. And I think he felt trapped also, as I said earlier, about knowing that many of his relatives were passing for white and having a better life, as he regarded it a better life. And he was not able to do that once he married and had these children that he couldn’t pass off [Laughter] as being white people. So he was a very troubled, very troubled person, and I think that, I don’t know all of the reasons why he became an alcoholic but I do think that that contributed to it. And I think that, as I talk to a lot of my friends my age who came from blue collar families, black families, so many of our fathers were alcoholics.
KD: I can imagine, because did he have certain experiences even on the job? I know having read a few things about discrimination that, workers faced among, you know, and that is what kind of stemmed or led to the race riots. You know that black people weren’t given the same leadership opportunities and be earning the salaries they deserved. You know there were systems put in place to create some barriers to—
KD: to really…
VR: I don’t really know the answer to that because he certainly never talked about anything that had happened on his job.
VR: I think to the contrary my father was a member of the Great Lakes Steel Workers and at that time unions were incredibly strong and it feels like they were striking all the time. Because I can remember, you know, they provided food for the families of people who were on strike so we would have powdered eggs, we’d have powdered milk and canned meat and stuff that was really nasty. But I can just remember them being on strike a lot. But I say that to say that he was a member of a union and he would often go to work drunk and probably today it would never have been tolerated. But he was a likeable person and people, I think, did a lot to protect him and would find a place for him to sleep, a corner for him to sleep so that he wasn’t working and endangering himself or others. And I can just, I can just remember him talking about that and as years went on he became even more troubled. We had more interaction with people that he worked with and who were in the union and who did a lot to protect him and protect his job. They knew we had a big family and they protected him, he never lost his job. Got suspended [laugh] but he never lost his job.
KD: So I’m thinking about a question related to how your family may have understood city government. You had brothers, how they may have related to law enforcement. Thinking about like, leading up to what happened July 1967. What was your families’ perception of city leadership and the ways in which they were interacting with particularly the African American community in the city, but, any other…
VR: I know that my brothers as young teenagers in the city had several encounters with the police. That didn’t seem like they should have happened. For example like I can remember my older brother had a drop top, red, red with a black top, a convertible and he had a girlfriend. I remember, and this one particular incident he was telling us about, he was driving, he had the top down, it was in the summer, he had his arm around his girlfriend and he was stopped for that and pulled out of his car for that.
KD: Oh wow.
VR: And given a ticket for that. I remember him being just exceedingly mad about that. My other brother, I can remember him just telling us about times when he had been stopped by the police and it just didn’t seem that there was any reason for that. My brothers were never arrested, they were never in any kind of trouble. But I do remember that kind of discussion about police harassment and didn’t have a sense of how widespread it was probably until the riots did happen. But I think that, you know, we were fairly insulated, I mean I can remember just being on my block and playing, you know, and a few people that we were in touch with on the block during the summer, and I don’t really remember a lot that was going on that precipitated the riot. My information came later and has come even later than that as I find out more about the history of Detroit but then when I was, what 15 years old, didn’t have a lot of knowledge about what was going on in the city and my parents were not – they were not engaged in community groups, community activities, so I didn’t have that perspective either. They were just working people, they didn’t go to meetings, community meetings in the evenings. It just didn’t happen.
KD: So, how did you end up first learning about what was happening?
VR: I can remember that night just hearing a lot of gun fire, I mean we were that close to it and then on the news, hearing that the police -- just conflicting stories, I think. There was one story that the police had invaded a blind pig, I think that was what we were hearing more than anything else, and that shots were fired and people were killed and it just kind of escalated from that. So I remember, I don’t remember much about anything that precipitated it and I don’t remember anything other than the news accounts in the first few hours following it. I remember being told you know we just need to, you just need to stay in your house and then the gun fire just continued, I remember that. And I remember us being just on the floor, for what seemed like hours in that day and a couple days after that. The other thing I remember about it is that we were at Edison and Linwood, was Sacred Heart Seminary and it’s still there and that was used by the National Guard as a headquarters and so, another vivid memory that I have is of tanks just rolling up our street all the time. There were tanks and they had men on them who were standing up with guns, rifles poised and they were on all sides of these tanks and they were just rolling up this residential street. I remember that, I remember also that we lived near Joy, well Clairmount, Clairmount when it got to Linwood became Joy Road, and Joy Road intersected with, I think, the Boulevard, if I’m getting this right…or, intersected with Grand River and that was a commercial strip there and that’s where we shopped, that’s where a couple of grocery stores were, that’s where the post office was, there was a cleaners there that we used. And I can remember once we finally ventured out, all of those commercial places with their, you know, the windows smashed in and at the grocery store people just streaming out with cartfuls of food and people streaming out of the cleaners with handfuls of clothes and I can remember [laughter] I was just a child, a child, right? I remember my mom had bought me this really nice pink suit for Easter in 1967, at the time the riot had broke out, that pink suit was in the cleaners and so were up there and I’m thinking, you know, somebody probably took my pink suit and I’m crying about my pink suit. And of course everything was stolen from the cleaners and I never got the pink suit or anything else that had been put in there. But that’s -- those are my memories -- the tanks rolling up, people looting, taking things from the grocery store, taking things from the cleaners, taking things from all the other commercial establishments and just, you know, sporadic gun fire, I remember that. And once we went out it wasn’t for long, I mean we came back and I can remember pretty much being barricaded in the house and only going out to sit on the porch and to watch these tanks roll up and down the street.
KD: Right. I can imagine how chaotic something like that must have felt especially for your parents trying to manage these 6 children. ‘Cause what – like how did they react? Was there certain rules? Like you said you really weren’t allowed to leave the house, like did your dad – was he going to work in that period or was everyone pretty much hunkered down at home?
VR: No, my dad was still, I believe that he was still going to work. I don’t remember him being hunkered down [mumble]. My dad always went to work, I remember that about him and I think that’s part of where our ethic came from. He might be drunk but he was still going to work. He may have stayed up all night and come in at 4 o’clock in the morning but he was getting ready to go to work.
KD: He was gonna be there.
VR: He was gonna go to work. So I don’t remember him not going to work during the period of the riots.
KD: Okay, let me see.
So there’s this discussion like even as we are working through the exhibition and the project itself where there’s a discussion around how to refer to this period in time. So I’ve heard you a few time refer to it as a riot. Some people call it a rebellion or an uprising. Like, is there a term that you think is best to describe this time in history and if can you share the why you think it?
VR: Yeah. You know I haven’t given a lot of thought to what to call it. I know that it has historically been dubbed the 1967 Riot and I think that was a term that caught on, that stuck, and all of the uprisings that were happening across the country, I think were referred to as a race – as a riot, as race riots. So, you know, I don’t know what to call it and I don’t know if it’s so important. We know that it happened and we know that it happened for a reason and that at least in Detroit it was an incredible turning point for the fortune of this city, for the direction of this city, for race relations. It was, you know I think we hit bottom, I think we hit bottom. What is so, what was so incredible to me, and I mentioned it before, was just the mass exit of whites from Detroit in such a short period of time. My school -- not a lot of white families still living in the area but a lot of white students commuting to the school because it was a great school -- and they didn’t come back in that short period of time, they made a decision that they were just not going to enter the city of Detroit. And those who were still living here put their homes on the market and they left. That was so dramatic to me. To be sitting in a classroom that only four months before I had left and it was pretty integrated and then I come back and it’s 95% black. The other thing that happened was that the Archdiocese of Detroit, and maybe it had been in the works before the riot happened, but the Archdiocese made a decision to consolidate a lot of schools. And so that consolidation coincided with the Fall of ’67, post-riot. So I went back to school no longer at Visitation, I was at St. Martin de Porres High School, and it had consolidated, 3 or 4, I think, Catholic schools. Small, losing population I guess I’m not sure about the reasons why. But I went back and did my two years same location but at St. Martin de Porres and that’s where I graduated from.
KD: So, this actually, this question actually, this is a great transition to this question as far as how this affected your life, how did things change for you? How did it impact your family? Were there thoughts and feelings about what had happened, that maybe led to some decisions that your family made or that you made? Maybe pursuing a career in law? Or is there anything?
VR: I was actually very interested in journalism and I got my undergraduate degree in journalism and had always been a writer. I wrote poems, I wrote short stories, I wrote a play in Latin. So that didn’t change, I still wanted to be a writer. It felt like not a lot changed within my household. As I said, or eluded too, there were a lot of other things going on in my household that were far more important than, at least to us, than what was going on, on the outside. There were very significant issues that we were dealing with. My mother was very distracted from what was going on on the outside. So we had significant things going on inside my home. But I do remember, so that was in ’67, and Martin Luther King was killed in April of ’68, I think and that hit me hard. That hit me hard. I think that there were a lot of discussions at school about race relations immediately in the Fall of ’67. I think those came about because of who the principal was of this now consolidated school. And my principal was Joseph Dulin who was the first black principal of a Catholic school in the United States and he was militant, he was militant. At one point -- I think I had graduated already --but at one point Dulin and others had taken over and barricaded and chained because they felt the Archdiocese was not paying enough attention to education, now that, in the city of Detroit, now that all these white people had exited. So Catholic education in Detroit following the riot had a very different population and Dulin was very aware of that, you know, because he was the first black principal to a school that comes into a high school that was all black. And so I think that he, he more than anybody else in my life at that time, really caused me to start thinking about race and about discrimination. And he made us feel that we were being discriminated against in our education by the Archdiocese of Detroit because the population had changed and there just wasn’t the same attention going to be giving to our issues.
KD: So when you think about how he may have inspired you to consider those disparities and look at, and I know this is a whole other conversation, so I don’t want us to spend too much time, only if you want to. But the education system now in the city of Detroit and what young people are facing all of the problems and how like academic achievement is not even on the checklist as far as what has been achieved. Which in my mind, especially as a young advocate, gives me a sense of rage to know that our young people can’t even depend on having a decent education on their way out so they’re not prepared for life in the 21st century.
KD: So how? I’m trying to think of how to relate the two, because I think there is definitely a link between what was happening for you and where we are today. What would you say about that? Like how, how have things kind of progressed or regressed in a way that now, you know, on the other side, you know, we have thousands of young people that are impacted by decisions that are being made within the education system. Does that make sense?
VR: No, I understand exactly what you are saying and I think it is regrettable what has happened in education because in some ways it doesn’t feel much different than 1967, ’68, ’69. I think there was a time when it was possible to get a very good education in the city of Detroit. My –I’m 64 years old, my contemporaries who grew up here most of them went to Detroit public schools. They got great educations, they did well in college they were competitive. You can’t help, you cannot help but accept, I think, that there is a real racial component to the quality of education. I think about for example the fix of cross district bussing that people were talking about. As if, as if, you are not going to be able to improve education unless it is with white people.
KD: Right, right.
VR: Bring the white people back into Detroit and quality of the education is going to improve, ship us out to the suburbs where education is already of high quality. But there is that racial component to what happened in Detroit in the decline of the public schools and it’s directly connected, I think, to the exit of whites from the educational system. They exit and we can no longer depend on a quality education for our kids, and that began then and it is continuing. You know, we have teachers, and I have a view that I won’t express it, we have all of these teachers on strike right now and a lot of it has to do with class size and conditions in the schools that they say are deplorable that children shouldn’t be exposed to and that resonates, it has merit. But why are we talking about those things? Why are we taking about not having running water, faucets, shower facilities, rodents, not having adequate supplies; I mean, those things are just so basic. And they’re not available and they’re the same kinds of things we were talking about in ‘60’s, in the ‘70’s, and it hasn’t been sufficiently addressed. And it is going to be, I think, the main hindrance to attracting middle class families with children to this city. When you can get all the young millennials and people who are not interested in families and starting families that you want, but that’s not – but they’re gonna be a transient population. You want to get people here who are invested, who care about education because they’re going to have children and who want to stay here, who want to be part of a community. That’s what you want and it’s going to be hard to get that unless there is some serious attention and investment given to education and public education. We can talk forever about charter versus public and what that has done to the public school system, and I don’t get that either because the Detroit Public Schools operates charter schools and that is all very mysterious to me. But there’s so much to be said about education. Once I started practicing law and I moved into Rosedale Park and I lived there and I raised two children there, and lived there from 1977 to 1997 and my daughter went to the Open School out on Telegraph & 7 Mile from K to 8th grade and then she went to Renaissance for high school and it was a great education and I would always monitor what friends, what the education was like for friends who had their kids in private schools and I felt that she was getting a very competitive education, but the Open School was a unique experience.
KD: Yeah, it was.
VR: And we had to stand in line to get her into that school and it was just totally unique. It had a race balance that it tried to maintain. Parents were required to come in and put in x hours a week or your kids couldn’t stay in the school. And it was just a wonderful, wonderful experiment and I had no complaints about Renaissance. But we were part of a, you know, we were part of a community and we were part -- we lived in Rosedale Park and people -- there were families, people were very concerned about education, they were immersed and that’s what you want. That’s what you want in all of the areas of Detroit in order to, for it to experience the kind of renaissance that everybody is hoping for. That’s not going to happen without the education system being overhauled.
KD: So we have a few more questions left and I think we’re ok with time.
KD: So I guess my first question is along the lines of, what would you say to future generations about your memories of Detroit before 1967, during and after? I think that’s the first question. Like what would you want them to know about that time in our city’s history? What’s most important?
VR: Um, I think it’s important for people to know that things are cyclical and that history is very informative. And for many of us who think that what is going on today is brand new and no one else has ever experienced it, it is – you know it’s just a false sense of reality. And, so we have a history here, some of it very rich, some of it very, very troublesome, and I think it tells us there are some problems here that are endemic that need to be addressed or we’re gonna remain in this cycle. What I don’t like that I’m seeing now -- I love the resurgence, I love the renaissance, what I don’t -- but there are problems in it, there are some problems that are very troubling. I don’t like that enough attention –I believe that there is not sufficient attention being giving to affordable housing. I do see all of the companies that are in the Detroit area that are coming back to downtown Detroit and hiring, I look at the makeup of the work force, and it looks very, very white to me. I go in all of the restaurants, to the entertainment venues and it looks very white to me. In some of our communities, they’re being transformed and I think that they’re certainly was a wish that whites be attracted to live in Detroit, to shop in Detroit, to use all of the entertainment venues and that is certainly happening. But my question is, at what cost? And I don’t know that – I think that a part of what, that something else that needs to be a part of the discussion though is this, and that is the effect of the so called “War on Crime” that coincided with the riots that started in the mid ‘60’s. That “war on crime” decimated the black communities, it really did. And so now we have all these families that lost fathers to prison, because of some severe and harsh law enforcement policies and severe and harsh sentences and it really, it just tore our community apart and when do we recover for that? One of the affects now is that, we have so many black men with felony records and they can’t get jobs because of that. What are we going to do about that? So, all of these parts, they’re absolutely related, race riots, race uprisings, whatever you want to call it, the “War on Crime,” the exit of whites from communities -- all of those things are related and they all need to be addressed in a way that is going to somehow repair -- they just have to repair what has happened in the black community, or Detroit is not going to experience the kind of renaissance, the kind of inclusive renaissance that so many of us hope will happen.
KD: So this is my last question, and, because I didn’t want to sit down with you and not talk at least for a moment about your experience as a mediator in regards to the bankruptcy. Because that, that within itself, is another important turning point for the city. And I know, like, a number of people, and rightfully so, believe that, you know, the bankruptcy is a result of dysfunction that has existed within the city for, not just ten years, but, you know, forty and fifty years, going back to this period in time, that you know, that we’re talking about today. What … are there ways to maximize opportunities, like we talked about some of the ways in which there are some imbalances already, you know, the bubble of diversity among residents and work force development particularly for African American men, problems within the justice system and those imbalances. Like how do you, on the other side, you know, of something like a bankruptcy for the city that had a great impact, how do you begin to move in a direction that is – that creates more inclusive opportunities for more people?
VR: Well, certainly I think that, I think that educational opportunities, and not just for higher ed in the university sense that we’re accustomed to thinking about, but educational opportunities to develop workforces need to be expanded. I know for example that, now we’re seeing just this resurgence of building and construction and because that was something that didn’t happen for a long time here, people were not interested so much in going into the skilled trades, the building trades, and that used to be a place where people could made a really solid living and raise a family, you know and live in Detroit and have a very good quality of life. And now on a lot of these construction projects, as I understand it, they’re unable to find Detroiters with those kinds of skills. And so if there is a real commitment, I think, to making this an inclusive city and a city that tries to employ as much of its residents as possible, I think that that is one area that employers need to give some attention to, developing some apprentice programs, not so much, the focus doesn’t always have to be on a university education but creating other opportunities. I think also that… I think that something has to be done to address the criminal records that are a bar to employment, and I know that in some instances an employer can get a credit or a tax break if it hires people who have criminal records. I don’t think that a lot of potential employers know about those tax breaks and I think that they have to be, they just have to be marketed in a different way. And I think employers have to feel like it is, this is someone that we could take a chance on because just getting that foot through the door is the hardest part, if somebody can get their foot through the door and, you know, as a federal judge and somebody who sentences people all the time, it’s one of the hardest things that I do. I just know that employment opportunities and a lack of them are a primary reason why people are recidivists and find themselves back in prison. And so what, what can we do? What can we do first of all to stop sending so many people to prison in the first place, and then what can we do to get them back integrated into their community, integrated into their families so that they’re not headed back to a prison as their next place to live. So I do think that employment opportunities and making it possible for people to create their own wealth in a legal way, they don’t have to engage in criminal activity for their wealth, is huge in this city, just removing the barriers to employment, maybe making it easier for people to expunge their criminal records if they don’t have violent crimes, and if they have otherwise shown that they’ve turned their lives around. So I think that that is – I think that that is going to be, I think that that is big. I think the other thing is housing and affordable housing and I know a lot is being done to remove the blight in the city. But I do think we have to make certain that when developers come in, that they are required, they are absolutely required to devote so much of their space, a certain percentage of it, to housing that is affordable. Affordable for, you know, a family that has a mother and a father and children. Affordable to a single parent with children. Affordable to people who are only making ten dollars an hour. There just has to be, what is affordable? And you have to look at your population, and it’s going to be a different number depending on what your population is. I know that there are cities that have made a decision that ‘we’re gonna wipe out homelessness within a certain time frame.’ I don’t know if I’ve heard of that kind of initiative in the city of Detroit and I think it would be a worthy initiative; there should not be people living on the street in this day in age.
KD: I agree.
VR: We have, I belong to a church that every winter there are a number of churches that set up what they call a rotating shelter and so for a week period, people who are homeless rotate from church to church to church, and it gives them a place to sleep and gives them three hot meals and we do entertainment and things in the evening but I’ve been doing this for about five years now and it is just very sad to see the same people showing up. You know sometimes people, you know, events happen in their lives, circumstances develop, they find themselves homeless -- but four years later…
VR: They’re still rotating through shelters.
VR: And so many of them, you know, are mentally ill and don’t have adequate treatment. There are just so many things that have to be attacked on so many levels, and, new buildings going up and new arena and that’s great and it’s glitz and it attracts a lot of people to the city and it does provide a lot of jobs. And all of those things are good and should continue but the real hard stuff, the stuff that isn’t glitzy, needs to be addressed.
KD: Where does the responsibility lie for that? For addressing those issues, like we can -- I believe in personal responsibility, I believe in, if there are ways that I can help someone, if I can create an opportunity for someone, then it’s my responsibility to do that. Right? But how do you impact that? Create that kind of connection or make an impact on a larger scale where you are actually seeing that kind of result, you know. Is it policymakers, politicians making decisions, is it community members come together? And there’s been, you know, because there’s so much division, you know, right now around things like water and education and everything that’s happening in Flint, like how does a community come together? The way, and you know, it’s just a question I’m throwing out there I’m not expecting you to have the answer.
VR: Well, I do think that many pieces of this are part of a big picture that policy makers and leaders need to have. But there are so many small items and pockets in that big picture. You know I think about communities like Roseville and Sherwood, where you have people that are very, very engaged in their community. And sometimes when you look at that big picture it seems absolutely overwhelming and I know, as having been the leader of a number of organizations, even in an organization which is doing something not on a grand scale, you have to break it down and break up and you have to find somebody who is interested in your pieces, and it may be just a little piece but if I can get somebody to do that little piece then, they’ve contributed, and they feel they’ve contributed, and they haven’t been overwhelmed and you know a lot of people are not big picture people. They live in a community and they want their community to work, they want their community to function. Figure out how to break this big picture down into those kinds of concentrated focus efforts that can engage the entire community but in their space. The other thing, you know, is certainly money. Detroit needs a ton of money. I think about, I think about all of the wealth that is in this country, all the wealth that is possessed by people who have Detroit connections, you know the entertainers, the sports figures, and you know, just millions and millions and millions of dollars, I would love to see, you know, them come together. And maybe, you know, school by school, you know, “we’re going to make sure that this school has sufficient recreation, we are going to make sure that this school art programs, we’re going to make sure this school has a physical ed facility”. That can be done on a school by school, case by case basis. I think that, you know, so many people -- it’s easier not to think about things like that. It’s easier to just, you know, live your little life and not think about other things that have to be done and other people who may need help who aren’t as fortunate as us. And there just, I think, has to be a way to attract that wealth, to have people say, “this is how I’m gonna use my money” and to know there is something, a small piece of the puzzle, that they could devote their wealth and attention to. And make a difference. But a place like Detroit which has so many issues, I do think the efforts that we see in so many communities and community groups, it’s huge, it’s big, it needs to be done and we can’t always depend on the politicians. And we can know, you and I sitting here can look at the city, and we can know what needs to be done but then where do you start?
KD: Right, Right. Well is there anything else you would like to share that I didn’t ask?
VR: No, that was a lot. That was a lot.
KD: [laughter] I appreciate it. That was awesome.
VR: Thank you. Thank you