Dick Billotto, July 1st, 2016
HS: Hello, my name is Hannah Sabal. The date is July 1st, 2016. We are in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, with William Winkel and we are conducting an oral history interview for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project with Dick Billotto. Thank you for sitting down with us today.
DB: You’re welcome.
HS: Can you start by telling us where and when you were born?
DB: Born in Detroit, 1944.
HS: Where did you grow up?
DB: I grew up in the Corktown area right behind Briggs Stadium, right in the shadow. We used to catch foul balls in our backyard.
HS: Oh, that’s cool.
DB: That was when I got to work at the stadium, I got to meet a lot of the players.
HS: Cool. What was it like growing up there?
DB: Oh, that was the greatest neighborhood, Corktown. We had a mixture of every nationality: Irish—well, of course, “Corktown” is an Irish name—and I went to the Catholic school, and I went to a public school for a while. All the kids that I grew up with, you name it: Irish, Mexican, Maltese, blacks—we all got along, we all loved each other. There was nothing. I never heard the “n” word, I never heard any prejudice, there was no bullying. We did have our own little gang. I was in the Stilettos, and then there was such a thing as the Bagley Boys. Other than that, we didn’t go around shooting each other like they do today.
HS: And what did your parents do?
DB: My father worked at the Fisher Body for General Motors; he worked at Briggs Stadium as an usher, since 1935 until the Lions moved to the Silver Dome. He also worked at the Olympia when Gordie Howe played hockey. Those three jobs: the Fisher Body and two usher jobs. My mom was a stay-at-home mom.
HS: Did you have any siblings?
DB: Yeah, I have an older brother, Freddie, and Sandy, my younger sister, and my youngest, Janet. Do you have some questions for me?
HS: Moving into the 1960s, were you still living at home in Corktown?
DB: Yeah, actually the freeway came through and took my house. We were at Vernor and Harrison, which like I said, the third base side of Brigg Stadium at that time, and the freeway tore our house down and we moved actually across the street diagonally where the freeway ended, and we still lived on Harrison in the neighborhood. We stayed there until I graduated from high school.
HS: What year did you graduate high school?
DB: ’62. 1962.
HS: What did you do after high school?
DB: Well, I worked as an apprentice for a printing company in a Detroit neighborhood, there. It was called George Willins and Company. I had a four-year apprentice, worked with the newspapers off and on. I got married in ’67, that’s when we bought our first house down on the west side around Martin and Michigan area. I remember, I had to give them $1000 down, and I had a land contract. $78 a month for a house payment. You believe it?
HS: It’s not fair!
DB: We paid $8000 for the house.
DB: And I paid it off in half the time because I doubled the payments. Other than that, we lived there, and then we moved to Dearborn Heights in 1977. So we lived there around ten years, then we moved out there.
HS: Were you married before the riots or after the riots?
DB: I was married in ’67, which was the year, just before the riots happened.
HS: So you were living on the west side when the riots happened?
DB: Yeah, we were all living in Detroit, all my family—brothers, sisters—we were all living in Detroit.
HS: Did you notice any tension in the city in that summer?
DB: All I can tell you is that was a year when they had a STRESS unit, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. Cops would go out in plain clothes and put themselves in situations where they would make arrests. There was a lot of—what do you call today when you abuse people?
HS: Police brutality.
DB: Police brutality. That was happening because we had a strictly, like, white police force. And I had police friends, I almost became a police officer but I was too short, thank God. But I had police officers, friends that I grew up with. Wonderful human beings, but they had a real bad problem. They were racists. And I heard stories that I don’t even want to talk about.
HS: Okay. How did you first hear about the riots?
DB: We were coming home from Metro Beach, me and my wife, on a Sunday. We had no children at the time, and it was around six o’clock in the evening, seven o’clock. The night before—Saturday—was when it all started, the big commotion with the police and Twelfth Street. Well, by that time it was twenty-four hours later almost, and we’re seeing, everywhere I turn—I’m coming down 94, coming home, going west—I see fires everywhere! Couldn’t figure it out, I didn’t know what was happening from the night before and all through the Sunday afternoon. The rioting started and there were fires starting all across the city. Then when we got the news, we realized what was happening, there was a riot actually; people were burning and looting. Then, the next day they said, “Curfew, nobody goes out.” So I went out there in the daytime, I went riding around. I was on the west side, and I rode to the old neighborhood where I grew up, because I had just moved from the old neighborhood. I went riding down Twelfth Street and I see people just running around, no police. They did whatever they chose. They were pumping gas at the gas stations for free, they were going in stores and bringing out whatever they wanted. There was no police presence. For a couple days, you know, it was, like, really bad. And then, the governor called in the National Guard, and I think the president called in the 101st and 82nd Airborne, so they were all here trying to quell the rioting. I was riding around, my wife and I, taking pictures. I went down Forest and there was a Cunningham’s that had just burned down, I have some pictures of it. Boys were out there, and I said, “Hey, young man, can you go in there and get me some film?” Because I was taking pictures. Told them I was a newspaper man, he didn’t know the difference. He brought me some black and white, and I was taking photos with it. So the rest of that week, we had people in my neighborhood walking around in fatigues and their guns, you know, these gun fanatics people, and guys on their porch all night, waiting. And my neighborhood, where it was, it was basically an all-white Polish neighborhood, there was not anything going on there. It was mainly the intercity and the main streets, so even though we had tanks coming up our street, and, you know, you saw the National Guard here and there, it was happening mainly in the mostly intercity area, where all the looting and stuff was taking place. For quite a while, quite a few days, that was happening: curfew, people were—I think there was 44 people, or how many?
DB: Killed. That was my experience so far, and then I knew a family on Twelfth Street over there, Twelfth and Temple. Kids I grew up with, mind you, don’t get me wrong. We grew up, played baseball together, it was a black family. I still knew them, they lived in the old neighborhood. I never quit, you know, seeing my friends from the old neighborhood just because I moved. They had all new furniture in their house and they put all their old furniture outside for the garbage man to take. Well, two weeks later, the police came because they heard about the furniture they had gotten free, I guess you could say. They actually confiscated their new furniture, so now they have no furniture! It was kind of funny at the time.
HS: Did you have any other experiences while you were out taking photos that you witnessed?
DB: Well, yeah, just the fact that people were doing things, no one was watching, there was no police presence; it was like everything was free for those few days until they got it under control. That’s all I can remember at this time.
HS: Do you know what your family was up to during that week? Did they stay in their house?
DB: Well, yeah, we all stayed in the house. We were all basically on the west side where it was mostly a Polish neighborhood. They had all home owners, there were no renter type, and people cared. They just stayed in their own backyard or front porch until everything calmed down. That’s all we did. We didn’t get involved.
HS: Was there a sense of relief when the National Guard and then the 101st and 82nd came in?
DB: Oh yeah, that was important that they got that under control, for sure. It was like almost a fun time for people, because it was something exciting to see the tanks going down the street. I was never really worried about problems because, like I said, it was concentrated and they didn’t start coming into our neighborhood. A lot of these gun-toters were waiting, “Boy, let ‘em come!” As if they were going to come down our street. They just stayed on the main streets with the big stores and stuff where they could loot.
HS: What changes did you witness after that in Detroit?
DB: Well, after that, I think Coleman Young ended STRESS, he put an end to it because they were definitely abusing it. Then he told everybody to hit Eight Mile Road, so all the white people left. I think he could’ve been, maybe, trying to bridge, instead of bridging the gap, he wanted to build a wall, just like our friend Trump. He wants to build a wall and say, “You white people hit Eight Mile and we’ll own our city.” Now, how many years later, we finally are starting to get it together again.
HS: How do you see Detroit today?
DB: I’m shocked. I can’t believe it. I never thought I would see it come back. Because I grew up, Detroit was a great city, I grew up in the city. I had a paper route, I was a Detroit Times carrier. I had over a hundred customers, and I delivered to people. I would go canvassing, I don’t care what part of the city, trying to get new customers. It was a fun time when I grew up in Detroit. We had parks on every corner, played baseball, they had recreation, people opening up and giving us the balls to play with. They made hockey, they would dig a hole in the winter time, fill it with water so we could skate. We had a lot of wonderful things in Detroit growing up. Great city. And then as the white flight, you lost money, you know, tax base and then the crime started because the kids were uneducated.
HS: You said you moved out to Dearborn Heights in 1977. Why did you move?
DB: Well, number one, it was getting to be where I wanted my children to have a better school. That was the main reason. And getting away from the crime that was starting to take over Detroit. They had gangs, and even though I still lived in a fairly nice neighborhood, we were surrounded by criminal activity. It was for safety reasons.
HS: A lot of people perceive the events differently. Some people call it a riot, some people call it a rebellion, a civil uprising. How do you perceive the events?
DB: Yeah, I kind of look at it as a rebellion. I could understand the folks getting upset. It’s a constant, you know, it seemed like it was white police abusing blacks and one thing led to another, and that night they had some altercations and it just grew. Plus it was a hot summer, time of the year, and that tends to make it worse. You can see all the problems that have happened. Gosh, and the riots, when they let those policemen, in Los Angeles, you had those four or five policemen beating Rodney King. We saw it on camera. They all should’ve went to jail. They all got off! Well, there was a riot. Of course, I would’ve rioted. If I was black, I’d probably be in the Black Panthers right now. I would be so upset. It’s no excuse. But I could understand them being upset. God bless them, they try to do it peacefully, but sometimes there’s too much of the, you know, Good Ol’ Boy people, they stick together no matter what. And that was awful. And I think that’s what led to OJ Simpson being released. They knew he was guilty, but the folks on the jury said, “Eh, we’ve been hung every Friday night for 200 years,” they would hang them. I know a lady, friend of mine, my wife’s friend Betty. She’s a black girl, grew up in Mississippi. Come home one day, her neighbor’s father was hanging from a tree. There was no investigation, there was no charge. It was just part of growing up in the south where they had the Jim Crow, they call it.
HS: If you had a message for future generations of Detroit, what would it be?
DB: Well, what’s happening now, you have so many people coming back to Detroit, young people, which gives us hope. There are people who are not racist, who are not prejudiced, they’re young people with decent education. I could see the black folks appreciating that, because they even voted for a white mayor and he’s doing the best he can. And there’s none of that, “Oh, I’m not voting for a white mayor, oh, I’m only voting for a black guy.” No, no. They want what’s best for their city, black or white. If they’re going to be honest, they’ll vote for them. I think it’s great, what’s happening in Detroit. Being a Detroiter, I never thought I’d see it before I died.
HS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
DB: I guess that’s enough, don’t you think?
HS: Okay, well thank you for sitting down with us today.