Susan Dodd, May 17th, 2016
WW: My name is William Winkel. Today is May 17, 2016 and I am sitting down with Susan Dodd for the 1967 Oral History Project. Thank you very much for sitting down with me today.
SD: You’re welcome.
WW: Can you please tell me where and when were you born?
SD: I was born on June 29,1943 in Chicago, IL and was raised in Chicago, IL.
W: When did you first come to the city of Detroit?
SD: I came to the city of Detroit in 1964 and I had married someone from Birmingham. I went to Michigan State University, and that’s how I ended up in Detroit instead of Chicago.
WW: Where did you live when you moved here?
SD: First we lived in Birmingham and then we became students at Wayne State University and moved into the Jeffries Project because two of the buildings in the Jeffries Projects were for married Wayne State students.
WW: And what year did you move into the Projects?
SD: 1966. In October of 1966.
WW: Was the building you moved into integrated?
SD: Oh yeah. It was for Wayne State University students.
WW: Growing up in Chicago and later at MSU were you growing up in integrated situations or was this a culture shock for you?
SD: My parents had a full-time hired woman living with us who was Afro-American so I grew up in that situation. I could take the bus and take the subway anywhere in Chicago. I thought I was very sophisticated with living in an integrated environment because Chicago in many ways if you’re traveling around as a kid, it was integrated, even though it wasn’t. Because of where they lived and I could ride my bike to the Museum of Science and Industry and was very, very independent, I went through black neighborhoods. Did I have any friends that were Afro-American, no. We had, I’m embarrassed to say, a full-time woman living there.
WW: What was your first impression of the city of Detroit?
SD: I was shocked that there wasn’t any public transportation because we only had one car and that was for grocery shopping and taking vacations. Other than that we always used public transportation: the subway, the El, busses. And so it was shocking that I couldn’t get anywhere so that was first, and still remains the major impression, that you can’t get anywhere. By eight years old I was riding the busses myself. And it wasn’t as complex or as interesting as Chicago. That was my first impression. I’m not a hater of Detroit, but I do love Chicago.
WW: Don’t worry. When you were spending time in Birmingham and then moved to Detroit was that a weird shift for you?
SD: No. I liked living in the city. I preferred living in the city because, again, I was able to take my kids to the DIA, we could walk downtown because J.L. Hudson’s was downtown. They used to have concerts there. We had a lot more freedom living in the city. No, I loved living in the city. I still would prefer living in the city. We went to puppet shows, I’m very familiar with the Historical Museum, the library. We used the city and we used Eastern Market and we used Hamtramck. I prefer this location.
WW: When you moved into the Jeffries Projects in ’66, did you notice any tension in the city? You were new, but did you notice if there was any community tension?
SD: No, I walked everywhere with my kids. I walked with baby buggies, two strollers, rather. We went everywhere. What I was unfamiliar with was “pussy” was written on all the walls and I didn’t know what that was and I said to some people I met, “Gee, this girl must very popular,” and they laughed and they teased me and they told me what pussy was. And the other shocking thing was I wasn’t familiar with so-called “Rednecks” that lived on Cass Corridor. So the students sort of informed me because they would verbally say things to you when you were walking down Cass Corridor and I did not know about them but other than that, no, I didn’t notice any tension in the city. What I did notice right away that the grocery stores were horrible and there was nothing I would buy from them and finding a good drug store, which I did find on the corner of Warren and Third. I had a baby on formula and I had bought expired Enfamil from a drug store that was down the street and so I started to get very, very, very particular about where I shopped so I ended up shopping either in Eastern Market or they had a grocery store in Lafayette Park, an A&P, and I would drive over there but you would need a car. What they sold at the local A&P on Trumbull, I wouldn’t feed it to my family. And that was shocking. I thought I was pretty sophisticated and it was very shocking to find that the stores and what was available wasn’t really—to purchase expired Enfamil is dangerous for a baby. To find that, that was shocking. The fact that you couldn’t shop anywhere. This was a desert in terms of shopping and if you didn’t have a car, you really were pretty messed up.
WW: During this time were you a full time student at Wayne State?
SD: No, my husband was.
WW: Oh, okay. You were just a stay-at-home mom?
SD: And I substitute taught in the Detroit Schools.
WW: Which schools?
SD: I subbed all over the city. Spain Elementary. There were a lot more schools then but I subbed all over the city and was comfortable subbing all over the city.
WW: During this time, a lot of the schools were still one race. Did you substitute teach at white schools and integrated schools, too?
SD: No, primarily Afro-American schools. I also taught at Wayne County Community College for ten years part time and that was 100% Afro-American students.
WW: And this was before 1967 or just after?
SD: No, that was just after when they first opened up the Community College system.
WW: Okay. Going into 1967, you were still living at the Jeffries Projects, right?
SD: Mm-hmm, and subbing three times a week.
WW: Were you taking part of the food co-op that was there?
SD: We helped to form the food co-op, yeah. And people signed up to do the shopping so I signed up once a month in the morning at Eastern Market and then we had the milk co-op where we had a milk machine brought in so that people could buy fresh milk. And then we had the nursery school co-op where parents had to work in the nursery school and it was well equipped in the basement so kids had nursery school experience. My kids didn’t like it so we didn’t go, but we did love the food co-op. Having the milk machine was great because we were able to get fresh milk. The issue of food was a big issue.
WW: So going into 1967, how did you first hear about what was going on?
SD: I was real comfortable living in the city so I had a blow-up swimming pool and the kids and I were sitting in front of the project. I was tanning and they were swimming and we saw the smoke coming from over where it started and we didn’t know anything about it. Went back in the building at around six o’clock at night and my in-laws called to tell me about it, that they were rioting on Thirteenth. Was it Thirteenth?
SD: Twelfth. I used to work on fourteenth. So we said, well I could see the smoke but that was it. That’s how I found out. They called, they were concerned; we weren’t.
WW: Going through that week did you have any experiences or did you just continue to stay at the Jeffries Projects?
SD: Well, we were sort of locked in. They sort of locked down the city. We really couldn’t leave so mainly we just stayed in the apartment. We didn’t really go anywhere.
WW: And you just continued to see the different damage across the city with fires and smoke and stuff?
SD: Well, I think the third day the National Guard came in because I think the first three days they didn’t do anything and then they brought in the National Guard. By not doing anything I mean they didn’t bring in the army. Once they brought in the National Guard it got a little more serious because they were kind of scary because all of a sudden we had tanks running around, and there were helicopters and tanks and people with guns, meaning the National Guard. Other than that, the whole building applauded when the A&P got burned town. There was selection in what people were selecting to destroy and it was definitely stores that ripped off people, like the really good drug store wasn’t touched, Georgiona’s Party Store wasn’t touched but the stores that ripped off people were. And then Famous Furniture was in the middle of the projects and that went up in flames and then we saw obviously suburbanites, though friends of mine have argued with me on the subject, obvious white people who were middle class driving down to raid Famous Furniture also. It wasn’t just a black operation. We saw suburbanites. I mean, you don’t come down to Detroit in the middle of a so-called riot in a convertible heading over the Famous Furniture and you’re all white to loot furniture. And what was great about that was all this furniture got looted so people threw out antiques so we would walk up and down the allies and pick up the antiques and redo them because they wanted the new furniture. But that was a big fire. Yeah, mainly we just watched what was going on, but when the National Guard came in it got a little more serious. I didn’t feel threatened at all until the National Guard came in because then you didn’t know if someone was, say, shooting at that them, if that happened, would they open fire on us? So then we put a mattress up in front of the window at night.
WW: Were you more concerned about the actions of the National Guard than you were the looters?
SD: Yeah, absolutely. The National Guard had big weapons and they had tanks and it was intimidating. I believe they did kill some people up on Grand Boulevard, and I think that that made it a more – I understand people wanting to protect their property. I was trying to remember how it started. The police had raided an after hours party, and I believe some people got hurt and that’s how it started. I didn’t think it was – I think that the city decided to protect the property of others and brought in the National Guard.
WW: Going back, when were you and your husband collecting the antiques from the ally? Was it during that week or after?
SD: After, after. Because I was a walker and I walked all over the place and I said to him, I said, “Oh my god, you should see this dresser. People are throwing stuff out.” So we went and got it and refinished it. People who thought they had junk and had gotten new stuff were throwing it out. I walked the allies. The allies are beautiful in Detroit. I walked. I’m still walker. I can walk five miles a day. Just walking around, saw the stuff, sent him to pick it up. That was our routine.
WW: So how did you finish out that week? You said that as you increasingly got uncomfortable you placed the mattress on the window. Did you just hunker down during that period?
SD: Toward the end of the week, I think the last two days, we went out and stayed with his parents because we’d been in the house nonstop. We had two little kids and we drove out and stayed with his parents.
WW: In Birmingham?
SD: No, they lived in, I think at that point they lived in Dearborn.
SD: They had an extra bedroom and we just stayed there. Staying in was a lot of work, though then we came back as soon as the – we came back because he was working, too, and we came back the beginning of the following week because then they allowed people to go out so we came back. He was working but he couldn’t work during that period, either. You really weren’t allowed to go anywhere.
WW: What was it like coming back to the city from Dearborn seeing all the devastation as you were driving in?
SD: I didn’t notice any devastation.
WW: Oh, you didn’t?
SD: We took the expressway in, so we wouldn’t have noticed any devastation. The area where the A&P was, that was only two blocks of shops and the other area we shopped at over on Warren and Forest and Third, that area wasn’t touched so we really didn’t see other than Famous Furniture. What we did get involved with was, of course, the rehousing of people. A lot of people lost their houses and that was a bigger problem. We didn’t drive around. We weren’t interested. We weren’t that curious.
SD: I think housing was a bigger issue. I mean, the business that were, they were not – The A&P needed to go, and the ice cream shop stayed. Over where we were there wasn’t a whole lot, I didn’t think, because after the riot, they had to move people that were displaced into the projects and into our buildings, too, and it was kind of a rough group so we moved out and we moved over in about November to Commonwealth and Trumbull area, back in there. We didn’t see anything burned out. But as they moved people in who had lost their housing, it was a pretty rough group and the people who lived above us would get up maybe about one in the afternoon and be up all night listening and dancing to “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Now, I was a little naïve then, so I sent my husband up to ask them to turn it down because the Projects themselves didn’t deal with those issues. And he came back down and he said, “That guy had a knife. I’m not doing that.” So we just found different housing. But that was a problem afterwards because they were up all night.
WW: How long did you continue to stay in the city afterward because you spoke about how you began working at Wayne County Community College? Did you continue to stay in the city?
SD: We stayed in the city until Lisa was twelve and she was born in 1964. 1976. The kids went to Frenn School. The schools were the bigger problem with staying in the city. We got divorced, so I moved to Birmingham to keep my kids in a good school system. Basically, that’s how it rolled.
WW: Did you continue to do work in the city after that or did you primarily relocate to Birmingham?
SD: No, I continued to teach one night a week at WC3 and I had to work full-time. I went to work for the Head Start program in Oakland County.
WW: Okay. How do you interpret what happened during that week? Do you see it as a riot or a rebellion or a shade in between?
SD: First of all, it was going on all over the country so you don’t know how that affected people like copycat murders. I’ve wondered about that. It was a frustrating time for low-income—I’ve worked with low-income all my life and the cycle of poverty and that’s real. I think that disenfranchised people have—I think it was a combination of factors, that it was going on in other cities. They had Watts, they had New Jersey, New York, Chicago, da da da da da. And there was at that point a fair amount of unemployment in Detroit. Tasty Bread had closed down and I noticed it, the unemployment had increased. And I think that people were frustrated. The police were a real problem back then. They had big guns and they would chase people, this was a big complaint, they would chase perpetrators down the street and children would be playing and they had these huge rifles and they would shoot at them while children were playing on the street. The police were a big issue then. Police brutality, profiling, so to speak, was a big issue. I think that was probably a bigger issue and the frustration of the cycle of poverty. I was involved in politics of the time, also, and went door to door, and the people who were poor were poor and they didn’t have transportation and they were stuck in bad housing, bad grocery stores. They could get medical care because we were on a medical care plan that the United States had put forth and they had targeted that area so everybody in at least the Jeffries Project area, was able to get this medical care out of Children’s. I wasn’t a rioter. I lived there. I can’t tell you why it happened. I don’t know.
SD: Other than it was happening everywhere and I certainly don’t know the level of frustration that someone would have. It’s looking again, when you look at the Bernie Sanders and the Trump stuff and you’re seeing people who are disenfranchised, who are pretty beaten down now, so I don’t think people were as beaten down then but they thought—you had Eldridge Cleaver, you had a lot of people talking about the independence of black people. Making your own community. Making decisions for your community. So I think it was more about that. People were feeling frustrated with the police, brutality was a very big deal back then.
WW: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
SD: Only that that we stayed in Detroit, rode our bikes everywhere, walked everywhere after the riot and never felt threated. Lived in, back then Commonwealth and Trumbull was primarily a black community, did not feel threatened. My neighbors were wonderful; I had babysitters from the community, never felt threatened. Today is different. I’m still comfortable roaming in Detroit but there is an edge. It’s much different than it was fifty years ago. I don’t believe that there was the racial edge. I taught in all black schools and it was much different than it is today. I’m still comfortable walking around but I used to walk back from Wayne at night to the Jeffries Projects and I was comfortable. Didn’t feel uncomfortable. I think that the temperament has changed and the feeling that you can do better is gone. That cycle of poverty that I talked about has now gone through four or five generations and it’s really not fair. I will tell you a little story. When I worked in a school district in Berkley and we did English as a Second Language and about fifteen years ago we had the Russian immigrants coming in and the Jewish community got the immigrants really nice apartments, a car, clothing, furnished the apartments, and got them into ESL programs in Berkley or in areas that had good school districts for their children and my thought was if we could do that for everyone in the United States that was poor. Give them a good apartment, give them clothing, give them a car and give them access to a good education, we probably would be able to break the cycle of poverty and I was really annoyed about that. You can tell, I was real annoyed that we have never done that and that was given to people that were immigrating into our country.
WW: Final question: how do you feel about the state of the city today?
SD: I think that it’s booming downtown but I like to take the side roads, like I took Warren down from Grosse Pointe a couple weeks ago just to see what was going on and I think it’s real sad that we have all these vacant lots and all these houses that have been destroyed and that I don’t know where people have moved to. A friend of mine from California asked me about the Jeffries Project and I said, “Well they’re gone. Good question, where did those people go?” Where did the people go? Where are the people that were living there? I have mixed feelings about the city. I use the city. I think that it’s a city for wealthy people to use. What we’ve got now are sports arenas, restaurants, the DSO which is great, but we still have never, ever, ever addressed the inequality of people that don’t have anything. That’s never been addressed. It’s never been addressed by this city. I would love to see it be addressed.
WW: Well, thank you very much for sitting down with me today.
SD: I hope I answered some questions.