Donna Robinson, July 4th, 2016
JY: Hello, my name is Jason Young. I am here in Big Rapids, Michigan with Donna Robinson. Today is July 4th, 2016 and we are sitting down for an interview for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project. Thank you for joining me today.
So, could you please start by telling me where and when you were born?
DR: I was born in Detroit, Michigan. In February of 1949.
JY: Okay, and where did you grow up?
DR: Well, I grew up in White Cloud, Michigan partially and partially in Detroit, Michigan.
JY: What was in White Cloud?
DR: My parents owned a 365-acre cucumber farm. That’s where I started school and remained there until I was in the 5th grade. My father was unable to receive farm loans because of the prejudice and racism, and he ended up selling the farm and we moved to the city.
JY: Okay, so you moved to Detroit in the 5th grade you said?
JY: Okay. So where did you go to school in Detroit?
DR: I went to several elementary schools, but my final elementary school was Higginbotham Elementary School in Northwest Detroit. Started there in the latter part of the 5th grade—6th grade—sorry, and ended up graduating from the 8th grade from there. And then I went to middle school at MacDowell Middle School, it’s on Outer Drive in Detroit for the 9th grade, and when I graduated from there, I went to Mumford High School.
JY: Okay. Did you have any siblings?
DR: Yes, I do have siblings. I am number two of twelve. I have six brothers and five sisters. Yes, I do have a few siblings. [Laughter]
JY: So what did your parents do for a living?
DR: Well after my father gave up farming, he had a variety of jobs, but he was an ex-marine. One of the Montford Point Marines, one of the first black marine groups in the United States. So he was able to get little jobs, nothing real serious. He drove a truck and he worked various jobs.
JY: And what about your mom?
DR: Well, I had a stay at home mom, and she took very good care of us. She stayed at home, and raised us and took care of us while dad made the income.
JY: Okay, and what was your neighborhood like growing up?
DR: Mostly Jewish, Polish, and German community is what my neighborhood was like, and there were very few African Americans in the area that I grew up in.
JY: Was it more mixed or integrated than some other areas of the city? By a lot or a little?
DR: What do you mean?
JY: I think a lot of the people that we’ve talked to, they’ve said that either their neighborhoods were completely black or in some cases completely white. And then if they did live amongst other groups of people, it was typically black people living alongside Jewish people just because a lot of Jewish people didn’t necessarily have the same animosity towards black people that other groups did.
DR: Our community, like I said, was basically Jewish—you had the Russian Jews, you had from different parts of the country—from different parts of the world, and we had, like I said, a lot of Germans, a lot of German Jews. It was just a mixture of people, we kind of just lived among them. These were my playmates and my classmates.
JY: What were you doing in the sixties?
DR: In the sixties? Growing up and being a teenager. [Laughter]
JY: Okay. [Laughter]
DR: Yeah, being a teenager. Doing the things that teenagers did in the sixties. You know, just a variety of things. Doing school activities, home activities, and my summers were spent coming from Detroit to White Cloud. Okay, I would spend most summers in White Cloud with various relatives, and that was something that most kids weren’t fortunate enough to experience. At a time when a lot of people migrated from the south, they would go south to visit their relatives, and we would come north. [Laughter] Further north in Michigan.
JY: Did you notice any conflicts or things building up towards that July in ’67? Any tensions in the city?
DR: There was so much going on around the city, and there was so many things happening. You had the beginning of people that were getting in groups, where they were organizing and I don’t know—it was just a lot of heat, a lot of tension around you. You really couldn’t put your finger on it, but there were a lot of things going on within the police department among the African Americans, and there was just a lot of abuse as far as the African Americans were concerned, but I think a lot of it came—I think people were just frustrated. I can’t say that I actively—I didn’t actively take part in the riot, I was around, but I didn’t actually take part in it.
[Pause in speech.]
JY: Okay. How did you find out that something had happened on 12th and Clairmount, or was just happening in the city at that time?
DR: By the news. I don’t remember a whole lot of details ‘cause I was busy—at that time I was just recently married and had a child and was kind of wrapped up in my own little thing. So I really didn’t pick up on a lot of things until it was actually happening, ‘cause I was involved in my own life, my own world. There were things going on around me, and just wasn’t actively involved in it and didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it until it was a full blown riot going on. Am I making sense?
JY: Yeah, do you have any specific, or maybe not so specific, experiences?
DR: Well, I got caught in an area where I lived at, which was basically all Jewish area again; I moved into an apartment complex. And I couldn’t get out of the—my husband was stuck in one area at the time and I couldn’t get out, and I had to end up spending the night in the apartment. I called my father and said, “Daddy, I can’t get out. I can’t get out.” People were shooting out the windows, and it was just a mess. So I said, “Daddy what should I do?” He said, “Take that baby and get under the bed!” [Laughter] So the next day, at this point they had called in the military—the National Guards and everything was locked down. You couldn’t go out and drive—I think it’s called Martial Law?
DR: Okay, they called Martial Law, but until this day I think about how my father was able to come and get me in the middle of the day. And by him having been a marine and having had that marine experience, he was able to come and get me in his truck with no problem. They stopped him a few times, but he was able to come straight and get me and bring me home.
JY: Oh wow.
DR: Yeah, that was scary. That was scary. And that was my experience in the riot. Get out! Take me home! [Laughter] Yeah, it was on the news, and there was a lot going on. They were burning the stores down, they were looting, just all kinds of ol’ crazy stuff. I was like, I don’t believe this is happening. I had never experienced anything like that. There were things that were going on all over the country, riots everywhere. It was unique to me. It was a frightening time. It took a while for things to settle down, but things never were the same. The city was never the same as it was after the ’67 riots, no.
JY: I guess that kinda leads into my next question, how did the city change afterwards? What were the lasting effects?
DR: Well you had so many businesses that had been burned down. People just didn’t go back and start their businesses up. There were neighborhoods—whole neighborhoods—blocks and blocks of stores and restaurants, those kinds of places that were never opened back up again. So of course the neighborhoods would start to—well with everything gone, the neighborhoods just went down. Then you had people—I don’t know what planet these people came from—it was like a total change. [Laughter] There were people that—I don’t know where they came from! They would move in and they would tear the home—Detroit had some of the most beautiful homes you ever can imagine. Some of the most well built homes. Can you imagine people moving in a community and tearing up a brick home? Beautiful, gorgeous houses. People moved in and just literally tore—they didn’t care! Just tore the city up. It’s nothing compared to what it was back in the 60s. I just happened to grab a photo of the Detroit Institute of [the] Arts recently. I couldn’t believe the way the building looked. I couldn’t believe it. It was in the most beautiful area, all of the museums and that whole area was just gorgeous. Detroit Public Library, the main branch?
DR: That was my home. I couldn’t believe the way the buildings look on the outside. I don’t know what it looks like on the inside, because I haven’t been in there in years. I can’t believe that all of these things—well things just went down after the riots over the years. You know in ’67, what we got 40 years? 50 years?
JY: Almost 50 year now.
DR: It’s really, really been a remarkable change. Detroit was a beautiful city.
JY: And so did you stay in Detroit after that?
DR: Yeah. Well actually I stayed there for a couple years. I stayed there until about ’69 and then I moved back to White Cloud with my mother, father, and younger sisters and brothers who had moved back to White Cloud. So I moved back up here with them, and I worked a while at different places. And I even got to work at Gerber Baby Food plant. [Laughter] It sounds real cute, but believe me it was hard work. And I worked a while and then I went back [to Detroit] and I went to school for nursing.
JY: Sorry, where did you go to school?
DR: One of the places I went to school was at Oakland Community College for the nursing, and then I went to Mercy College of Detroit. Wayne State, and then I went to the University of Michigan to obtain a teaching certificate and was involved in a special program for developmentally disabled and special education adolescence.
JY: Okay, and after that did you—
DR: And I worked in nursing. I taught school for Detroit Public Schools for a few years. Basically I just worked in nursing. I had various jobs and did a continued [education] program. I did a lot of teaching in the nursing area.
JY: And so did you—I guess I don’t have to ask this, because I know you have kids—[Laughter]
DR: Do I have any children? Yes, I have four children. I have two daughters and two sons.
JY: Did they grow up in Detroit as well?
DR: [Laughter] It’s crazy. They partially grew up in Detroit and they also grew up in Okemos, Michigan.
JY: Okay, and I’m thinking I’m almost towards the end. And so getting back to the riots, or disturbance, how did you perceive it? Did you perceive it as a riot, I know some people refer to it as a rebellion or just as an uprising.
DR: I saw it more as a—[Coughing]—to be very honest with you, I couldn’t believe it was happening. I just couldn’t believe it was happening. I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought over the years only that I was there and all these things were happening around us. It was just unbelievable that this was going on. So I didn’t really give it a whole lot of thought at the time whether it was an uprising—all I know is that people were fighting, killing each other, and burning down houses and buildings. It was just total absolute chaos. We lived in an environment where I had never experienced anything like that? It was like a warzone, except they weren’t bombing us. [Laughter] Ask me that question again Jason.
JY: How did you perceive it? Because some people have different names for it so just wondering what you thought it was whether it be a riot, rebellion, or uprising. Some people use civil unrest as well.
DR: I don’t see it as being a rebellion, because the things they were doing, the people that were actually involved in it, I don’t think those were rebellious acts, I think it was more—a riot. One person took it to another level, and then the next person. People just kept going on. One person would do it, another person would do it. I’m not really getting these words together. It’s too early in the morning! [Laughter]
JY: And I think this is probably going to be one of my last questions, but is there a message that you would like to leave for future generations, either about your memories of Detroit before and after, or—there’s a lot of not only work but money going into the city, trying to redevelop some areas. So is there any message or anything that you want to offer about that for future generations?
DR: Well let me think about that. Please turn it off.
[Break in recording]
JY: Okay. So I’ll re-ask the question. So is there anything—any message that you would want tot give for future generation to avoid this happening again? To prevent it?
[Break in recording]
JY: Okay, we’re back one more time. So is there any message you want to leave for future generations to avoid this from happening again? To prevent it?
DR: Well, I would think that to prevent it is that they would become very well educated in order to assure themselves a good life and a good future, to be educated and to keep their children [educated], don’t forget their history, your past, and constantly work towards peace among yourselves, among the world. But I think the main thing is to educate yourselves and others and to love one another. That’s it.
JY: Alright. Looking at the city as a whole, a lot of efforts have been going in to do some redevelopment of some communities and to—again a lot of money and things have been going into the city to some—certain areas. So any messages just for future generations, moving forward in the city?
DR: I would say take better care of the city. Don’t let the city fall apart like it has presently. Once it’s built back up, to do things to keep it at a decent level. Get rid of the garbage. And what I mean by the garbage is people or things or communities or organizations that are not beneficial to the communities. Get rid of ‘em. And just stay focused on constantly moving towards the future and growing.
JY: Alright, thank you and lastly, is there anything that you feel we haven’t touched on that you’d like to add?
DR: No, I think this has been a pretty good interview, I don’t feel like I’ve given enough though, but I don’t know what to add on such short notice. [Laughter]
JY: Alright, well thank you for joining us and if you have anything else you want to add, you can shoot me an email or call us at the office.
DR: Oh, I certainly will. Thank you for that. Thank you so much young man.
JY: No problem.