Kathleen Straus, April 8th, 2016
WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. Today is April 8, 2016. We are in Detroit, Michigan. This is the interview of Kathleen Straus for the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Thank you very much for sitting down with me today.
KS: You're welcome.
WW: Can you please tell me, where and when were you born?
KS: I was born in New York City in 1923.
WW: And when did your family come to Detroit?
KS: In 1952.
WW: Why did they come?
KS: My late husband got a job here, so we moved. We had been married in 1948. We had a toddler – a year and a half old son, and we moved here and my husband had a job – not in the automobile industry – in the cigar-making business, which I don't think exists in Detroit anymore. And then he – unfortunately, he died in 1967. That's part of the story, actually.
WW: Oh, okay.
KS: Yep. So, well -
WW: What neighborhood did you move into when you came here?
KS: Northwest Detroit. Near – west of Livernois and near Seven Mile.
WW: What was your impression of the city?
KS: I just was amazed. Well, first of all, he – he drove me up Livernois because they had all these used car dealerships and dealers – automobiles, automobiles, automobiles. And then we drove on Outer Drive – beautiful houses. I grew up in New York where there were all big apartments. I lived in Manhattan – big apartment buildings. And these were all individual houses. It looked like the suburbs to me. I thought, wow, it's really great – looked like an overgrown small town. And I met people right away – was very – very – very easy to get to know people in Detroit. We didn't know anybody when we came. And the company my husband worked for had rented – they had found an apartment for us, and it was a garden apartment – two stories – and had lots of young couples with young children, so it was a good way to meet people, and well, we did.
WW: Did you find work when you came to the city, or what did you do?
KS: No, I stayed home with my son at that time. But I wanted to learn about Detroit and Michigan, so I looked up the League of Women Voters in the phone book and found out that there was going to be a meeting right near where we lived, so I went to it. And that got me involved in Detroit from the get-go. I met some wonderful women, became lifelong friends, and one thing led to another.
WW: The neighborhood you lived in in Northwest – was it integrated at the time?
KS: It was – it was completely white at the time. Became integrated later.
WW: While you were still there?
KS: Yeah. I was there for a long time. That – well, that's a whole other story, I'll tell you later. You can ask me if you're interested.
WW: Go right ahead.
KS: We lived there – my husband died in '67, and I stayed there for another – in the house – for another seven or eight years, and then I moved up to an apartment, but not far from there – at Wyoming and Outer Drive. And was – was there almost thirty years. We were in the house almost twenty years – thirty and fifty years. And now I live in – on East Jefferson in the East side, in another apartment by the river. It's really nice.
WW: That's beautiful.
KS: Beautiful. Great view. Right across from Belle Isle. It's -
WW: Do did you become political after your trip meeting with the League of Women Voters?
KS: Well, in a sense yes. The League is a non-partisan organization. But we got involved – I got involved with the millage campaigns for the schools, and all kinds – the Constitutional Convention, and this League supported the calling of the Constitutional Convention. By that time I was president of the League. It wasn't hard to become president – anybody that was willing to take the job, I think. So I met a lot of people through the Constitutional Convention. And one of them was – was Jack Faxon, who later – I think he was the youngest delegate at the time. He had been a social studies teacher in Detroit, and he later ran for the House and then for the Senate, and in 1976, I – he hired me to be the – he was then Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, and he hired me to be the staff director of the committee. So that was, you know, fifty years later, we had become friends through the convention and remained friends, and still are, for that matter. And I got involved in politics.
WW: Proceeding through the 1950's, did you sense any growing tension in Detroit, or was everything calm?
KS: Well, yeah, started to integrate – and we were working hard to keep the neighborhood – keep – have an integrated neighborhood – we really wanted to do - that would be a great step forward, we thought.
WW: Who's “we”?
KS: My husband and I. And by that time we had another child, and a family moved in our – an African American family moved in – I went down to – to welcome this family, and the woman said “oh, I met your daughter, she was here already.” She was about three or four [laughter] and she had already gone down to meet everybody. So it was very friendly – we – we had nice neighbors moved in. The school – the school system had become – they had – people could move their child to – school of choice arrangement – so there were some African American families that brought their children. And my daughter and a couple of these children became good friends.
So at that point, it was fine where we were. And we started a community council – the Schultz Community Council, we were in the Schultz School area – tried to keep everybody happy. It didn't last that long. [laughter] Yeah, so – '67, if you want to call it the riots, or the rebellion, or whatever you want to call it – had a great effect.
WW: Well before we get there, moving to the 60's, with the different social movements, how did you see that affecting Detroit?
KS: With the Civil Rights movement, and the whole – that - all of that – well, I was involved with that too. I was active and worked with the NAACP, and the League was very supportive of integration and that kind of thing. People were getting more – people had started moving out.
WW: Do you know why they were moving out?
KS: I think they – they were – I think they did – they were concerned about integration. They – some people didn't like that idea. [laughter] And they – and some people were concerned about the schools, I think, that they would become – they would have too many African Americans, black kids in it – and they didn't want that. That's the way I figure it. Yeah, so, it was unfortunate, I think.
WW: Did working in the Civil Rights movement lead you to become a member of the Commission for – what was it again?
KS: Well, when I was president of the League of Women Voters, I met Jerry Cavanagh when he became mayor, and – we invited him to be the speaker at our annual meeting. It was held at the McGregor Building on Wayne's campus. And he came, with his wife, and it was – I got to know him. And then the League supported the city being able to levy and income tax, and he thought that was - had been very helpful, to get – building support for it, 'cause it – we always needed revenue in Detroit. [laughter] One thing led to another, and he asked me to co-chair his campaign for re-election, in '65. And so I had to resign from the League board because I couldn't support a candidate. But he said to me, “your life will never be the same after this. You're really involved in politics now.” He was right. [laughter]
So when the campaign was over, and the co-chair, the other co-chair was a close friend of his. I was not a close friend – I had met him. We became good friends, but we hadn't been – and I made a lot of good friends at that campaign, like I did with the League – some of whom are still around and we're still good friends. So I wasn't looking for a job – I had this young child still at home. Two children, one was still pretty young, and he asked me – and he knew I had been involved in these efforts to maintain the neighborhood, so he asked me to become a member of the Commission on Community Relations. That's how that happened.
WW: Okay. Can you speak about your time on the Commission?
KS: Pardon me?
WW: Can you speak about your time on the Commission?
KS: Well, that was interesting. It was quite a high-powered group, as a matter of fact. The members were Ed Cushman, who was vice president at that time, of American Motors, he later became vice president of Wayne State University. Stanley Winkelman, whose family owned the Winkelman Stores, which was a women's fashion store – I think Jim Wadsworth was on that. He was an African American minister. Several – a couple of other African American ministers. And I'm trying to think – Golda Krolik, who was an interesting woman whom I had met – well, that's how – I met her on the Commission. She had been appointed to the original interracial committee that was set up after the riots during World War II.
WW: The 1943 riots?
KS: 1943. And she was a wonderful woman. We became very good – very close. So it was a very impressive and committed group, to – to maintain good racial – race relations and make everything positive – keep everything positive, that was the whole idea – to promote good relations and help people – help people maintain integrated areas. So that's how I got to be on that. Another one who was on it was – I can't think of his name – he was a Catholic priest. I know him so well. It'll come to me.
WW: Not to worry. What year was this again? 1966?
KS: Pardon me?
WW: That you became a member of the Commission.
KS: 1966, yeah.
WW: Were you on it when the Kercheval event happened? The incident on Kercheval?
KS: I – if – if – I don't think so, because I really was not involved in that at all.
WW: Oh, okay.
KS: I just knew – found out about it after the fact.
KS: So it must have been after that. I don't remember the exact date.
WW: What work did you focus on when you were working with the Commission?
KS: Well, it was interesting – some of the things that we – you know, you're asking questions – I haven't really thought about this in a long time. [laughter] One of the things that just appalled me was – the city owned the two clubhouses on Belle Isle. The Detroit Boat Club and the Detroit Yacht Club. I think it was a dollar a year, they rented them to these clubs. And these clubs were – discriminated – they only accepted white people. And not – they didn't accept – not only all white people – they didn't accept blacks. They didn't accept Jews either. And I thought that was absolutely wrong. I mean, the city was leasing – the city owned these properties. And that was one of the issues that we considered at the – encourage the city to require that these clubs became open to anybody. So that was one of the issues. That was – it seems so amazing now, you know.
When I was in New York – I went to college in New York – we had – we had our prom – we went around to hotels to see if we wanted to use their facilities. The first question we asked was, will our Negro colleagues – classmates – be welcome in this hotel? That was, you know – it's hard to believe. Major hotels in New York City. And it took us – it took a long time to find one that said yes! So that's the kind of atmosphere I grew up in. In the north, things were segregated too. Not just the south. And it just – it's hard for me to realize that things have changed that much, and they still need a lot of improvement – but so many things were taken for granted, sixty or seventy years ago – and now they're taken for granted the other way. So that's – I guess that's progress. [laughter]
WW: Moving to 1967, you're still living on the Northwest?
WW: How did you first hear about what was going on?
KS: Well, it was very interesting. My husband had been in the hospital on Friday, for – for tests. He had had a heart attack seven or eight years before. And they had told him to come back Monday for a stress test, and so – Sunday, he was taking it easy – staying in bed – they told him to take it easy so he was lying in bed reading, and – we had television on in the bedroom, and I was up in the bedroom with him a lot, and it was quiet. No news on television.
I got a call from a friend of mine who was in Toronto on a vacation and she called, says “What's going on?” I said what do you mean, what's going on? She said “There's a riot in Detroit!” I said you gotta be kidding. I said there's nothing on the news here – there can't – that can't – must be a mistake.
WW: This was early Sunday?
KS: This was Sunday afternoon. And then my son, who was a student at Mumford High School – he was a member of a club there, and he was the only white boy in the club, all the others were African Americans, and he left to go for a meeting of the club, down in the area where the riot was going on – which we didn't know was going on – and I had heard this from my friend – I said well, be careful, maybe – we didn't know anything.
So he went down there and within an hour he was back. And he said “this is – there's no riot – didn't seem like a riot to me.” I said what do you mean? He said “seemed more like a – a - ” What did he call it? It was fun. He said there were people sitting in the middle of the street trying on shoes! He said they were looting the stores, but they wanted to make sure the shoes fit! [laughter]
So he said his friends in the club had told him “you better get out of here. It's not a good idea for you to be here right now.” So he came home. But that's how he described it. He said it seemed more like a carnival to him, than a riot.
Then I got a hold – the Commission – director of the Commission called, and they set up a meeting for the next day. And my husband went back to the hospital for his test, and he didn't want me to go by myself, so my son who was then sixteen drove me down to the meeting, and driving down the Lodge was eerie, because there was no traffic. We saw a little smoke coming up from the sides of the freeway – but it was eerie. We were the only vehicle on the freeway.
And we had a meeting and we – I – you know, it's interesting. I can't remember – I can't remember exactly what we did. We didn't do that much – it was very frustrating. I made the comment that I thought, well, if we had done a better job, maybe this wouldn't have happened. And they said “oh, it wouldn't have made any difference.” Something like that. They didn't want – they didn't agree with me, what I said. My colleagues.
But I still think that we might have been able to do something. Instead of worrying about the clubs on Belle Isle we should have been doing something more critical. But I – you know, the mayor's office, because they handled the incident on Kercheval the year before, successfully, by keeping it off the news and keeping it from spreading – they tried to do the same thing in '67. And it didn't work, unfortunately. And it spread – of course, in '67, Detroit happened after, I think after Newark and other places -
KS: Pardon me?
KS: Watts. Yeah, Los Angeles. Right. And it was a different – it was a year later – it was a different time, and it just spread really quickly. So the – it was pretty close. There were stores on Seven Mile and Livernois that were – that were looted – and attacked – but that was very close to the two nicest neighborhoods in the city, Sherwood Forest and Palmer Woods. And we were to the west of that – where we were wasn't as – the houses were much smaller, and it was much different. But it was still – still like the suburbs to me, with individual houses. So I – my friends had gotten involved in starting a food bank – services – to help the people whose houses had been burned out. It was at the Barth Hall at the Episcopal Cathedral. And they set up a hall – it was really a terrific operation, and I went down and helped at that too. But I had a friend who was involved in organizing it and setting it up. So there was a lot of – there was a lot of activity on the part of people to try to help the people who were affected by the – what was going on.
And there were – there were all kinds of meetings afterwards. The democratic party had – I was active at the seventeenth district – was then the seventeenth district – maybe it was the fifteenth then – I'm not – it was the fifteenth when we moved in, and then it might have been the seventeenth – and going to meetings and I – became, you know – became friends with some well-known African American professors and people, and I remember one – one of my friends bringing me home from one of those meetings and saying “have you got your gun?” and I said got my gun, no, I don't have a gun! He said “you should have a gun.” I said why would I want a gun? I'd be scared to have a gun. He thought I was crazy, but we never did get a gun. I've always been of the opinion if anybody's going to attack me, by the time I got the gun and got it loaded and got it, I'd be too late anyway, so – [laughter] Anyway, I was – I was just stunned that he had a gun and thought it was the right thing to do. He still does.
So – so those are some of my experiences with the – with the actual – but then the after-effects – the people, within a year, maybe two – all the white people except one neighbor across the street, and us, moved. And they had – they had been slight movement before, but it happened very quickly after the '67. So that happened all over the city. So -
WW: Did your work with the Commission continue after 1967?
KS: Well, it was interesting. I told you my husband died – he – Thanksgiving Day of '67. And then I wanted – I had to go back to work. I was a stay at home mom. Actually I had – I had, in '66, I had been hired to manage a millage campaign. I don't know if millage is part of your thing. For the schools, they had had several millage campaigns that failed. And the schools – a lot of the schools were overcrowded and they had double sessions. Mumford was on a double session. They needed to – we were trying to get another school built – a junior high, which we finally did – Beaubien Junior High – to relieve the overcrowding. And – but – but Mumford was – was not the only high school that was on double sessions like that. Anyway, we had a millage campaign, and they usually had been run by the school district. An education campaign. This time, the business community – business and labor both – thought it should be run outside the school district, and the chamber of commerce really helped fund it, and the UAW and the unions, and I was hired to be the executive director. And so that was a full-time job for a few months, and we won. That was the last one in a long time after that. [laughter]
And – but I had – that was the only paying job I had, and that was over. So when my husband died, Mayor Cavanagh called me and said – the way he put it was – “when you're ready, I'd like you to come down and help me out.” Which was a very nice way of giving me a job. So I went – after – after the first of the year, first I went to New York with my children to be with my husband's mother, we took a month – when I came back I started working for the city. I had worked as an economist for the Treasury Department in Washington and the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, so I had experience and was qualified. And I was – the job I got was the assistant director of what was called the Community Renewal Agency, which was, in effect, the grant-writing organization within the city. They developed the grants for all the different departments. So that's how I got back into the workforce.
And it was very nice to have the connection with the mayor – that certainly helped. [laughter] So – and my husband had – a year before he died, had quit his job and started a computer service bureau with a couple of his colleagues from the company he left. He was the business guy who organized it and the other two were the computer experts. The systems guy and the programming guy. And he had taken a sizable cut in income to do this, so I had thought I was going to go back to work anyway. And little did I think he was going to die six months later. So – so I was back to work, so that's how that happened.
And of course when I worked for the city, I was involved with a lot of activities to try to - the city to recover from the - the '67 – uprising, whatever you want to call it. This – this friend, I told you, he had the gun – I called it the riots a couple of years ago and he said don't use that word, that's not what it is, it was a rebellion. He corrected me.
WW: Aside from the white flight you spoke about, did you notice a different atmosphere in the city afterwards? Did you notice a change in attitudes, or anything like that?
KS: I think there was – yeah. It seemed like our efforts to keep people together were not working very well, and there was a lot of resentment, I think on the part of African Americans and also on white people. It – and it – we'd been working at this for many years. Working, trying - I have good friends – we worked – black and white – and we worked diligently, trying with the schools, we wanted to desegregate the schools. We originally wanted to integrate the schools, but we ended up with desegregating them. Now of course they re-segregated them. So so much of what we tried to do seems to have not worked. And it's been very discouraging and frustrating. It doesn't mean we stop working. We still push for these things, but it's – the mindset of people is very different. They're not that eager to integrate, I don't think. And I think that's unfortunate.
It's – it's interesting, what's happened. Nationally there's so much hostility, in so many different places. And still, and it's really interesting – we elected Obama twice – which was, I thought, a great accomplishment, but it didn't seem to help race relations – it might have made it worse. I don't know if that's a good conclusion or not, but – there are some - some people in the country who are so upset by it, and antagonistic, that the division seems to be almost worse than it was before. I can only hope that people get my way of thinking, more sensible.
WW: Do you have anything else you'd like to share?
KS: I think there are a lot of people of goodwill, who still are working to try to bring – build bridges, get people working together for the benefit of all of us. And I just hope and – I guess I'm the eternal optimist. I hope and think that people will see the light and will get – will work together. We are doing it now, in a sense, 'cause the city is really rebuilding a lot since the bankruptcy. And it was interesting that Mike Duggan was elected mayor, and he won that primary with a write-in vote, which was really tremendous. So that was a good sign of cooperation, and so things are – some things are, you know, are looking optimistic and good in the city. Young people – you know, it's interesting because young people are moving in from the suburbs – a lot of white people – and now there's concern that they're taking over – they're forcing black people out of the neighborhoods that are good. So that's – so it's got both good points – good things and bad – every – every, what do they say – every good program has a reaction and vice versa.
So I'm optimistic that Detroit will be – will come back big and strong. I don't know if there will be two million people again – they certainly don't need as many people to build cars as they did ten years ago. You know, all the things – the economy – everything that's happened in Detroit – the economy tanking, and the automobile industry going through such difficult times – and losing 250,000 and 300,000 jobs – now they can make as many cars with maybe 25,000 people. They don't need all those couple hundred thousand, so a lot of them left. Ones that are left can't find jobs. So that's a major problem. So we've got a lot of, still, big challenges in Detroit but it is encouraging to see all the activity here around here – around the Historical Museum, the midtown, and downtown is bustling, and the people – a lot of people – it's really nice to see, because when I worked down there in '66, '67, '68, '69 - there was a lot of – a lot of activity on the street at lunchtime, you know, people. There were a lot of workers. And then they – a lot of companies – law firms, a lot of different companies moved out to the suburbs. And they – it sort of fizzled. But now it's coming back, and it's exciting to see all the activity now there, and all the things that are going on. New restaurants, new businesses. So that's good.
So I'm optimistic that things will get better. I'm hopeful. There will always be people of goodwill who'll try to do – do this kind of thing. And there'll probably always be people who will fight them. [laughter] Unfortunately. Seems like people haven't learned very much from the early days of civilization. [laughter] So I think that's all – I don't think I have any more to add.
WW: Thank you very much for sitting down with me.
KS: Well, I enjoyed it. I hope this helps.
WW: It does. Thank you very much.
KS: You're welcome.