Dian Wilkins, May 17th, 2016
WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. Today is May 17, 2016. This is the interview of Dian Wilkins for the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. We are in Detroit, Michigan. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
DW: My pleasure. I’m really glad to do it.
WW: Could you start off by telling me when and where were you born?
DW: Yes, I was born in Highland Park, Michigan at Highland Park Hospital, which no longer exists. I was born in 1943.
WW: Where did you grow up?
DW: In Highland Park. Lived there, I went to school there my entire life, starting with kindergarten, high school and on through Highland Park Community College, which was one of the first community colleges in the country. It was free, which at that time was unheard of. It was actually called Highland Park Junior College, but it is now what we call community college.
WW: What did your parents do?
DW: My father worked in a factory and my mother was a stay-at-home mom.
WW: So you lived in Highland Park, did you travel to Detroit often, seeing how the city is in the middle of Detroit?
DW: Yes, you’re exactly right. Highland Park is right in the middle of Detroit, it is surrounded by Detroit. So yes, we did do to Detroit often. My mother would take me on the bus to J.L. Hudsons downtown. We’d have lunch there. We went to many different places in Detroit. So yes, we frequently went there. There were certain parks that we went to in Detroit and other events. We went to the Fox Theater, went to the other major theaters in the downtown loop. So yes, very special events were in Detroit and we went to some of those.
WW: Growing up in the 1950s and being in Highland Park and traveling to Detroit, did you notice any tension or anything else in the city?
DW: No, I didn’t. Highland Park was somewhat diverse, not real diverse but somewhat diverse, and my high school and grade schools there were African Americans, there were Arab Americans, Muslims and non-Muslims, very few Spanish, a couple Filipinos, but there were some diversity. I, as a child and a teenager, did not notice any tensions. There may have been but I did not notice any. When I speak to some of my former classmates in Highland Park that’s what they all remember but who knows, maybe people were feeling tensions but I did not notice any particular tensions in Highland Park at that time.
WW: Was your neighborhood integrated as well or just the schools?
DW: The neighborhood as well. The city was predominantly white. I would say of our high school, for example, maybe one fifth of the class was African American and maybe one tenth of the class was Arab American, mostly Muslim, and then a sprinkling of other nationalities. I happen to be Arab American myself and I did not notice any divisions or any problems or conflicts between the groups at that time. Incidentally, one interesting thing: the first mosque, the first Muslim mosque in the entire United States, was right there in Highland Park on Gerald Avenue.
WW: Very nice! I didn’t know that. What did you do after high school? Did you stay in the area?
DW: I went to Highland Park Junior College as it was called at the time. I went there for one or two years, I think for two years. I graduated from there and then I started at Wayne State University. I was still living in Highland Park, we had lived in several different areas in Highland Park and had moved around. At that time, I was living on Moss Avenue in Highland Park.
WW: What year is this? What year did you start Wayne?
DW: I don’t remember offhand. It was right after junior college; I’d have to do the math.
WW: So early 1960s?
DW: Yes, probably. I’d have to work out the math on that.
WW: Not to worry.
DW: So I went to Wayne State for my last two years. Right in that time I also got married and I left Highland Park and my husband and I moved to the Jeffries Projects. We were there for about five or six years until the riots and after the riots as well.
WW: At that time, was the Jeffries Projects integrated?
DW: In a sense it was integrated, in a sense not. Most of the projects were African American, but not all. There was some integration and some diversity. There were two buildings that were devoted to Wayne students and I lived in one of those because my husband and I were both going to Wayne, and those two buildings were very diverse and integrated. We had people from Africa, from all over the world, that were going to Wayne State plus people from Detroit – white, black, etc. – probably predominantly white, but there was certainly a great diversity as well.
WW: So it really wasn’t much of a culture shock for you, seeing as you coming from a not an extremely diverse but a diverse Highland Park?
DW: No, it seemed to fit in. Again, Highland Park was not as diverse as we would have liked but it was still diverse. The Jeffries Projects was somewhat diverse. But you’re right. It felt a little bit separate from the rest of the projects because we were the students – even though we were a diverse group, people from Africa, etc. – and I’ll have an interesting story about one gentleman from Africa and the heroic role he played during the disturbances. But it was a very comfortable place to live and we really enjoyed it. I used to walk to Wayne from the projects, walk to Wayne and back, even at night, so it was kind of a different time. It was considered somewhat risky to do that but that’s what a lot of us did.
WW: Are there any other stories you’d like to share before we move on to 1967, either from going to Wayne or from your time in the Jeffries Projects?
DW: One little thing I can see about the Jeffries Projects is that it was a very supportive and interesting environment. I thought we all had similar goals. We were all going to college and almost all at Wayne. Two buildings were set aside for Wayne students. We did a number of interesting things, at least interesting to me now. We started a food co-op and there was one other food co-op in the city. I believe it was the Cass Corridor Food Co-Op. We started one out of the Jeffries Projects and it was great. We finally even got enough money to hire a person to run it. We would have a team of people go to Eastern Market every Saturday morning. We would give them money and they would go buy big barrels of apples and potatoes and etc, etc. We’d bring it all to my apartment and we’d divide it up into bags and then people from the projects – not just the student buildings – but all over come and give us whatever it was, two dollars a bag, and they would just walk into my apartment, pay two dollars and take the bag of these mixed groceries, fruit and vegetable etc. Also we had a company bring in a milk machine, which was a little bit strange, but we wanted the kids to have access to milk. So, one milk company, one dairy company, put in a huge machine outside of our building and you would just put coins in it and you get a bottle of milk. That was there for years. We wanted to bring fresh produce and milk to everyone in the projects. We didn’t touch everyone but certainly a lot of people had access to it. That was kind of fun and interesting. From there, there were other co-ops that were started in the Detroit area.
WW: It’s amazing. You were still living at the Jeffries Projects in 1967?
WW: How did you first hear about what was going on?
DW: If I could backtrack one second – I probably moved to the Projects it must have been maybe like 1964, something like that; 1963, somewhere in the early sixties when I moved to the Projects with my husband.
WW: Where were you when you first heard about what was going on?
DW: By then we had two little children. We happened to be in Highland Park that afternoon at my mother’s for Sunday dinner – I think it was a Sunday – but for dinner. On the way back, my husband and I – we were divorced years later – but my husband and I and the two kids were driving from Highland Park on the John Lodge freeway to go back home to the Jeffries Projects. On the way, my husband noticed a lot of smoke on the right side of the road. He jokingly said, “Okay, honey, see I told you that’s the revolution. See honey, the revolution has started already!” We saw smoke and flames. We thought at that time it was just probably a random fire. So he joked about it was really the revolution. We got to the Projects and then we thought, “No, something is going on here.”
The smoke was very heavy. We walked up to our building and there was a woman out front. Her name was Rosemary. She said, “I’ve been kind of asked to be a contact person for this building and I want to tell you to go into your apartments. There is some kind of disturbance here. There’s fires being set and you need to be cautious.” We could see there was smoke all around. We went into the building. We went upstairs. We lived on the 13th floor. We could see out the window – fire. We could actually see flames. It was frightening and strange and if we left the windows open the smoke smell was too heavy. So we had to close the windows and put the kids to bed. All night we kinda tried to listen to the radio. We talked with our friends in the building. We saw the flames, and we knew by then that there was some kind of riot or disturbance or rebellion, or something happening. So it was a very scary night.
There was this gentleman from Africa. As I mentioned there were students from all over. This gentleman from Africa, who wore traditional dress, he stayed up all night. He said, “I’m gonna guard the building.” We didn’t know what was happening. So he set up a desk downstairs. He had a gun – I don’t know where he got a gun – but he had a gun. We didn’t ask him to do this. He said, “I’m going to sit here all night and I’ll just make sure nobody comes into this building.” He did that and he did that for the whole duration of the disturbance.
I don’t know if it was necessary or not, but he wanted to do that. The next day my husband and I went out in the car a little bit and we saw the tanks rolling in. It was an amazing site to be driving in your car, in your own neighborhood, and see army tanks rolling down the street with the guns or rifles, whatever those automatic things are, those big weapons out and poised and aimed. It was absolutely stunning. We decided that day that maybe we should take the kids and leave and go up north where my husband’s parents lived. So we jumped in the car and we drove five hours up to Alpena and we got to their house. As soon as we got there we said, “You know what? We made a mistake. Our home is down there, our friends are down there, my family is down there, the kids’ friends are down there, everything we know is down there. So we went to sleep. The next morning, early in the morning, we turned around, got in the car again, and drove right back to the projects. So we came in and saw that some of our other friends had left but a lot of people were still there. Again, we saw the tanks and the smoke and it was just unbelievable what was going on.
We did not think it was a race riot. We thought it was because unemployment and haves and have nots and some people were just fed up with the status quo. There was a lot of unfairness and a lot of unemployment at that time and a lot of racism. I vaguely remember that one of the triggers was a fight at an afterhours establishment but I’m now kind of unclear about it. I think an African American gentleman was shot and killed but I’m not sure. You probably know. So we thought it was some kind of rebellion. The Army tanks were there in force, the police presence, the Army presence was absolutely frightening. We became more afraid of them than what was going on because they had guns drawn, they had rifles drawn – it was very scary. From what we’d read in the paper, I believe what we read is that there were 43 people killed in that disturbance and I think maybe one law enforcement officer, I’m not sure. The great majority of the 43 people killed were just citizens and were killed by the National Guard. That’s what was deployed was the National Guard in addition to local police and other forces. The National Guard was there. These were young people, probably not trained that well – they had never experienced anything like this. I think they were too quick to shoot and did not have the background or training to really know how to diffuse situations. So they basically killed 42 or 43 people, some of them just innocent bystanders, some that were looting, some that had nothing to do with anything. So it was a very difficult and frightening time and people that lived in the Projects, we tried to ban together. That’s the way it was for whatever it was, three, four, five days until it finally settled down, so to speak.
WW: Your husband’s comment about the revolution is here, did the two of you sense growing tensions throughout the 1960s, especially regarding employment and the police and other matters like that, or was it just like an offhand quip?
DW: It was probably a combination of both. We were kind of political at the time. We were aware of unemployment. We were very saddened about the unemployment, saddened about some of the inequities in society, unhappy about some of the racism. So we had some of those feelings. I personally though did not sense that anything like this was going to happen. No, I was surprised and shocked at that. But we had both been aware of the issues and the problems. We were both a little politically active so we were aware of issues, aware of problems, but I personally was surprised that this happened. I did not expect that to happen. It wasn’t in my experience to even think about it.
WW: The causes for the disturbances you listed – do you remember if this is what caused it right off the bat or were they later revelations to you?
DW: No, we assumed it was because of inequities in society. I don’t think it was anything about Detroit particularly, those inequities were throughout the whole country. I think we assumed, we knew, it was about certain inequities. I don’t know if it was exactly racism, unemployment, economic inequity or what, but we knew that it was about injustice and inequity and unfairness that needed to be corrected.
WW: After you returned, did you stay at the Jeffries Projects?
DW: Yes, we just stayed in our home, at the apartment, on the 13th floor. Looking out the 13th floor windows you could see all the smoke and the flames. We saw the A&P near our house where we all shopped burning to the ground. One strange thing – maybe not so strange – some of the students that lived in our building and the next building were also looting. That was one of the activities that was going on. A lot of people were looting stores in addition to setting fires. There was a lot of anger, there was so much anger. There was a lot of burning and setting fire to stores. We read some things that said people felt angry at stores because they were denied credit or they couldn’t afford to buy the food and then looting started – people stealing food and stealing record players – back then there were record players – and TVs. There were some of the students also doing looting, a small minority, but we saw a few students bringing in TV sets and other things. Now the students, at least we were all in college, and had some hope for a good life and a hope for a job. So, I don’t think theirs was fueled by the same sort of inequity and anger, I don’t know. But we all had a lot of hope. We were working on BA degrees and advanced degrees so we had expectations of getting a halfway decent job. Some of us did, some of us didn’t, but still. Anyway, some of the students were bringing home TVs and looting as well. We were looking out that 13th floor window and watching people bringing stuff in, we couldn’t quite believe it. I think it lasted four days, five days, something like that – between 3-5 days. But yeah, we stayed at the Jeffries Projects in our apartments for the entire rest of the time.
WW: How did you see the disturbance effect the city? What did you think were the instant ramifications and long term ramifications?
DW: We did see a lot of effort at some point – I don’t remember how long this took – of civic minded people trying to right some of the inequities. I believe shortly after that is when an organization called New Detroit was formed. That brought community leaders together, working class people, wealthy people, corporate leaders, whatever, to try to set a new path – how do we make things better, how do address some of these inequities, how do we prevent this from happening again, how do we get to the core of the problem so people are not this angry and don’t feel disenfranchised, how do we enfranchise them. New Detroit is still around. I don’t hear about them as much but they are still around. For years they were very, very active like with training programs and certain income inequality programs, economic things, educational things. So that was one thing that came out of it. There were other organizations that I can’t remember that did start around there at that time. There was just more consciousness of, “Okay, what do we have to do to make things better?” Now, did things get tremendously better? No, probably not. But there were efforts made and some things got better. But even though Detroit is experiencing a resurgence right now and things in Midtown and Downtown are really developing, it’s very exciting and very wonderful, but there is still a lot of poverty in Detroit, schools are poor, schools still don’t have toilet paper, I mean there still are a lot of issues and problems that are still there.
WW: How long did you stay at the Jeffries Projects afterwards?
DW: I don’t remember exactly, maybe six months, something like that, eight months, ten months.
WW: Did you leave because your degree was completed or were you just wanting to get out of the Jeffries Projects?
DW: I don’t remember exactly why we left. I don’t think my degree was completed. I can’t remember about my husband – ex-husband, later we got a divorce. We moved from there six to eight months after the riots. We moved to Highland Park. My family was in Highland Park. I know we wanted to be closer to my family because they could babysit, that’s where I grew up, we knew people and we got a bigger place. The apartment at Jeffries was very small. It was very cheap but it was very small.
WW: Did the food co-op survive?
DW: It survived after I left. I don’t know when it finally closed. I don’t remember. But I am still friends with the person we hired to run it. I’ll have to ask him more about that.
WW: Definitely. You mentioned there is still a lot of poverty in the city still but you see Midtown and Downtown coming back. Do you have any other thoughts on how you feel the direction that the city is going or how 1967 affected the city?
DW: I mean, I see so much that is exciting that is happening in Detroit right now. I’m concerned about the neighborhoods and the schools. The schools just need so much help and we’re not getting it. So I am still concerned about poverty in Detroit, the school situation for children, and other issues. But a lot is being done and a lot is going on and it’s just very exciting to be in Downtown Detroit. A lot is happening.
WW: Would you like to share anything else?
DW: I think that is about it other than it was a very historic time, obviously, and I’m sort of glad I lived through it. I mean, I was part of history. That’s the way I feel now. We experienced a very historical time and we did see some good come out of it. Tragic that 43 people had to die. It was just an unbelievable experience to see your city taken over by armed tanks and guns and soldiers and National Guard. They were doing their job but I just feel there was either training missing or something because why did 43 people have to die.
WW: Thank you very much for sitting down with me today.
DW: I have one other thing to say.
WW: Oh yes!
DW: The people that were doing the looting or rioting or protesting, whatever you call it, they didn’t kill anybody. They weren’t out to injure anyone. They did loot and they took food and other goods but it was not about hurting anyone or killing anyone. That’s something that maybe is forgotten these days, that it wasn’t a hostile thing towards people. It was more of a hostile thing towards the economy and towards stores they couldn’t access. An eruption of anger, maybe misguided, maybe not – none of the rioters were out to kill anyone that we could tell or that we heard of. So for whatever that’s worth, I just thought I would throw that out there.
WW: No, definitely. Thank you very much!
DW: Thank you. This was very interesting.