Cynthia Garner, October 10th, 2015
KK: My name is Katie Kennedy and I am here at the Detroit Historical Society, on October 10th, and I am interviewing Cynthia Garner about the 1967. Just to start off, where were you born?
CG: I was born in Danville, Virginia.
KK: And just some background about the early part of your life?
CG: I was born in Danville, Virginia, October 7th, 1941, and I lived in Virginia. My father came here and worked for what is known as D-Dot now. It was Detroit Streets and Railways. In 1942, I came to Detroit, and he brought all our family here. I went to all Detroit Public Schools, Mara McMichael, Northwestern, and Cass Tech. And then I also went to Detroit Institute of Technology, it was like what they would call a junior college, and then I transferred to Wayne State University.
KK: Did you have siblings here with you?
CG: Yes, I had one brother, Sterling, and one sister, Margaret. My maiden name is Phelps.
KK: And where did you live in July 1967?
CG: I lived on Scoville near Roosevelt; that’s near Northwestern High School.
KK: And what were you doing?
CG: My sister was working for the Detroit Urban League and we were trying to get in touch with her. So initially, when the riots started by her employer, the Detroit Urban League, she was right near it. So that was what we were initially doing, when it jumped off. The blind pig got raided.
KK: And what do you remember about Detroit in the mid-1960s?
CG: The 1960s prior to – ?
CG: I had graduated from Wayne State University in ’64, and had become employed as a civil servant with the Treasurer’s department downtown in the City County Building. I was single; I used to take a bus to work. I could take one bus and it would get me there. [Laughter] Chas N. Williams [Charles N. Williams] was the City Treasurer that we worked for. Then I went back to college, in Rochester, a college up there.
KK: So were you at Northwestern High School in 1966?
CG: No, I was at Cass.
KK: And did you know what was going on in Northwestern High School in 1966?
CG: What was going on at Northwestern High School?
WW: It was the school with the school walkout, with the student walkout.
CG: Do you mean Northern High School? They had a walkout at Northern. A guy just gave a speech on that, it was at Northern High School, not at Northwestern that I know of.
WW: Oh, sorry about that.
WW: And then in ’67, how did you first find out was going on in 12th Street?
CG: I guess the radio, pretty much.
KK: Can you describe your neighborhood and community?
CG: It was a close-knit neighborhood, the houses were not connected, we lived in an individual home my dad had purchased with pretty friendly neighbors. Right nearby was Northwestern High School. We could go out the back door, cut through the alley and be at Northwestern in about 3 or 4 minutes. That’s where Mara Elementary, McMichael, was also located. What was the other part of your question?
KK: How was your community like, the neighborhood? Just describing it.
CG: Okay. It was what I thought was a beautiful neighborhood. Very friendly neighbors.
WW: Did your neighborhood change after 1967?
CG: The freeway came later on. In ’68 we had to move because the freeway was coming through, so they purchased my dad’s home and all the neighbors’ homes, and we all had to move with the Jeffries freeway coming through.
KK: How did that affect you and your family?
CG: My siblings and me, it affected us okay. My sister had already moved out, I believe. My mom, she didn’t like the move, because she said, “We’re moving into a dollhouse!” It was an upgraded one, in terms of the structure, but our home was, the structure was all our rooms were huge. And she would say, “Goodbye, home, I’m going to a dollhouse!” [Laughter] She went through every room and said goodbye to each room before we departed. But we were okay with it, because we knew it had to be done. And I don’t think they gave my dad enough money for that, because he had to go in debt again when we purchased a home out in Northwest Detroit.
WW: Going back to what you said earlier, you were working as a Civil Servant at the Treasury, you said?
WW: Were you working extensively during what was going on in 1967 or in July, or were you stuck at home because the city wasn’t—
CG: Oh! I was working with the city, but I had transferred to the Recreation Department, I was working for the City of Detroit, but I was working in different recreation centers. I was working at a center called Delray recreation center. It was a lot of Latinos, African Americans, Caucasians. I worked in recreation there, and 30 years later, I was reassigned there, and the little children had grown up and they remembered me. They put on their festive colors, the Latinos did, and they came over, “Do you remember me?” and now they’re grown more than me! And they remembered me.
WW: Do you have any definitive memories from what happened during that week in July?
CG: Yes, my job had gotten temporarily suspended, and in other words I wasn’t working. The tanks were located, the people who came to put the insurrection down, they were located on Northwestern Field with the tanks and all of their armor and everything. And they would patrol, particularly those who were disobeying the law, the curfew, a lot of people got arrested just for that, and for looting and different things like that. But by the National Guard being so close by, I don’t think it deterred people from looting, although they were there.
WW: Was there a lot of looting in your neighborhood?
CG: Oh, yes. Right on the corner, West Grand Boulevard and Grand River, used to be a little shopping area. It was Cunningham drug store, Charles Furniture, and then a lot of other small little boutiques. And what happened… Charles Furniture, they were known for—just like now they have repossessed cars?—they would repossess your furniture if you got more than three payments behind. So what happened on the riot, people remembered this, and were not much in love with Charles, and they made sure they looted that Charles furniture first, and they never really recovered. They did move out to 13 Mile and Woodward, they had a store there for years, but it eventually closed. They not only looted Charles Furniture, but Cunningham, all those stores up there. There was one young man that came down our street and he had been up there in one of the shoe stores up there, and he had boxes and boxes of things he had looted. And he’s running down our street, and he sees a cab, and he tries to tell the cab driver, “Can you take me?” and before he could get it out his mouth, the cab driver said, “Hell no!” And so, as he was trying to run, all the shoe boxes tumbled, and he looked at them, and they’re all for the left shoe, the left foot. [Laughter] And he was thinking to himself, “Well, I put myself in harm’s way where I could’ve gotten arrested just for all these shoes that aren’t worth anything.” And there were a lot of people running this way, crisscrossing through my streets, looting because West Grand Boulevard and Grand River wasn’t that far, looting up there. And all of the grocery stores, I can’t remember all the grocery stores at the time, A&P was on Grand River and McGraw. They were looted, so how were we supposed to eat? All the grocery stores were looted, all the furniture stores, especially Charles Furniture store, so it was a puzzle. What became my brother-in-law, he was from Inkster and out that area, and he knew how to go through the back roads and get us food and come back, just outside of Detroit and come back before the curfew. And my mom always kept extra food in the pantry in the basement, so we did have a little supply of food on hand.
WW: How did your parents react to what was going on?
CG: My dad had been through the 1943 riot, and my mom was more concerned about my sister than anything, in terms of her safety, because she was right in the midst of it, and the telephone systems went down. I don’t know if you know that or not. But for us it did. And she wasn’t able to get in touch with her, her mom was still living in Virginia, and she couldn’t get through to Detroit. She looked on the TV and saw nothing but fires, so she didn’t know if we were safe. So basically, my mom was thinking of her daughter, my sister, whether or not she was safe. Other than that, we tried to abide by the curfew, and not loot or whatever it was at the time, but I did see plenty of looters.
KK: Going back to the ’43 riot, what does your father remember?
CG: My father was very fair-complexioned, and he worked as I told you at the DSR, and at that time he was working for the railroad. Not the railroad, not the buses, but they were on a rail line. He could put on his hat and you would think he was white. And he would tell us that when the African Americans got on, he would take his hat off so they could see his hair was like theirs and that he was not white. When the white ones got on, he’d put his hat back on, and he continued to work, but a lot of people were not able to continue to work because that to me, from how he described it to me, was a real riot against race. Whereas to me, the ’67 one was more like looting and I know there were race issues into it, later on I found out, but the ’43 riot started presumably, which we found out later wasn’t true, a black baby got thrown over the Belle Isle Bridge by a white man. Is that what you heard?
CG: But they found out that’s not even true, but that’s what sparked it, according to my dad.
KK: And going off that, a lot of people refer to this event as a riot, rebellion, uprising, which one do you prefer and why?
CG: I would say an uprising. Like I’m comparing it, the ’43 riot to what happened in ’67. To me, it was an uprising, it more people looting than actually, from my perspective, actually going after white people, but I know that was going on later. So that would be one of the differences between ’43. People were actually getting, just for being a certain color, they were actually being targeted in ’43. Whereas people were all, “Oh, we’ll go get Charles Furniture, that’s some nice furniture, since they came and repossessed all our furniture when we couldn’t pay.” To me, that’s my perspective. Did I answer that question?
KK: You did. Going back to the night in ’67, or one of the nights, what in particular do you remember?
CG: I remember at night, our homes had alleys back then. All the lights in the alley got shot out. And then you could hear somebody racing down the alley, and the next morning it was all quiet and calm again. I did not know what happened to the person who was fleeing the police. I guess they were out after the curfew, not the police, the National Guard. And then, the looters, they ran out of jail space, and when they got caught, because they ran out of jail space, they were taken to Belle Isle Zoo and put in the elephant cage. Which, they had gotten rid of the elephants by then, so it was empty. Later, what became my brother’s sister-in-law, she was very fair-complexioned, and they thought she was white, and they weren’t going to put her in the zoo, in the elephant cage, but she let them know, “I’m black!” She told them. You would look at her and you would not know, the hair and everything. So they put her out there in the elephant cage as well. It was crowded out there, they said.
KK: How did this impact your neighborhood?
CG: Well, we were still very close-knit, but as I said, the freeway came through the next year, we had to move, everybody moved in different ways, and we still try to keep up with each other. In ’68 we all had to move.
KK: What about your family, did it have any long-term effects?
CG: No. They took it in stride.
KK: And what message would you like to leave for future generations about your memories of Detroit before and during?
CG: Like the New Detroit, Focus: Hope, organizations like that. Fortunately, Focus: Hope is still around, join and get in touch with those, the ones that are trying to be peaceful and seek solutions through talk and stay up with the neighborhoods. If you don’t have a Block Club in your area, start a Block club. Get to know your neighbors, get to know the area, the community, and volunteer if necessary. Do what it takes so if anything comes up—these block clubs are very important, nowadays, and even the New Detroit was at Henry Ford and other coalitions. Focus: Hope is still around today, because Father Cunningham knew what to do with the money, was accountable for it, and then even the lady under him, after he died, she became in charge, and they still doing beautiful things. It all started, I believe, right after the riot.
KK: Great. Is there any other particular moments or memories you’d like to share?
CG: One. My husband—he later became my husband—was on leave from the military, and was about to be shipped to Vietnam. And he was very disappointed, he could hear the guns in the alley, and it sounded like combat to him. And he was about to be shipped out to Vietnam, but we weren’t able to enjoy anything because everything was closed, it was inaccessible, of course, and everything was being looted. People on Dexter would sit out in front of their buildings, the private buildings, retail, and have their shotguns there. They didn’t wait for the police. My boyfriend later became my husband, and we had two children, 3 years later—not the children, but 3 years later we got married. [laughter] That’s it.
WW: Thank you very much.
CG: You’re welcome.