William Giovan, June 22nd, 2016
BB: This is Bree Boettner with the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Today is June 22, 2016 and I am sitting here with William Giovan. He goes by Bill. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
BB: The first question I’m going to ask you is where and when you were born.
WG: I was born on Buick Avenue at Mack in the city of Detroit on March 19, 1936.
BB: Who were your parents, and what were their occupations?
WG: My father was a dentist. He was also William J. Giovan. Actually the birth name was Giovanangoli. He changed his name after my parents were divorced to Giovan because it was easier for his patients to handle. At about age 10, my mother and uncle suggested I adopt the change when we move to a new school, you know, to have the same name as my father. I’ve been William J. Giovan since age 10. Although, I never formally changed it. My driver’s license still says William Giovanangoli, but hardly anyone knows me by that name. My passport says William J. Giovan because I actually have two names now: the name everybody knows me by, and also my birth name. My mother was born, actually, in the old country. She was born in Italy and came here with her mother and younger sister, oh, I think 1917. She was born in 1909. She was 6 years old, whenever it was she came here. Her birth name was Theodora Giselda di Bartolomeo.
BB: Oh, my goodness, what a mouthful!
WG: Isn’t that a mouthful? But my mother, of course, was very much Americanized. She was known as Theodora Giovanangoli when she was first married, but eventually she started using the Giovan name too, so she became to most of her friends Dorothy Giovan. But her full legal name was Theodora Giovanangoli. It was like two different people. You get this one name that sounds very old-world-like, but she was very active in the Italian-American community, and everybody knew her as Dorothy Giovan. The people who she knew as a young woman still called her Theodora. On legal papers she would still write Theodora Giovanangoli. My parents are both passed now. My father was a dentist. I will say that my father has the distinction of being a member of the first graduating class of the University of Detroit Dental School, 1935. That in a nutshell were my folks.
BB: Do you have any siblings?
WG: I had a sister, Joanne, four years younger than me. She passed. She married and had two lovely children, my nieces, but she passed just a day short of her 70th birthday, just a few years ago. I had a half sister and brother. After my folks were divorced, my father eventually remarried. Then there were two children of that marriage: my sister Laura, 12 years younger than me, and then a brother, Ray, 14 years younger than me. No, the other way around. Laura was 12 years younger than me and Ray, 14. Ray passed at about age 40. I still have my sister Laura. She had three children: my two lovely nieces and my nephew, and they have children, so I still have a lot of relatives around, including my cousins, of which there are quite a few still.
BB: Is your family still involved with your mother’s organization, the Italian-American community?
WG: My oldest cousin, Marlene, she was 16 months younger than me. She still is, to some extent. My mother and my uncle, Peter—I should mention him, too. Her brother, Peter di Bartolomeo. He Anglicized his name to Peter D. Bartolomeo. He was initially very prominent in the Italian American community. He ended up being the president of all sorts of associations. He was Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor. After the divorce, my mother, sister, and I lived with my grandparents and her brother and sisters until they got married off, one by one. Both my mother and uncle were very active in the Italian-American community, and they always brought me along to events. I was the oldest one, and I have more or less retained that relationship. When I was a bit younger, I was a member of several Italian-American organizations. I still am of some, but not as many as before. Now, in my older age, I’m still a member of the Italian-American Bar Association of Michigan and the Italian-American Cultural Society. I do keep in touch with events in the community. The Italian Consult in Detroit all these years has been gracious enough to formally invite my mother and myself to events, and I still go to them.
BB: I just had a mere curiosity to your ties in the community, that’s the reason I asked.
WG: I’m still involved.
BB: Going back to where you lived when you were growing up in Detroit: what was your community like? What schools did you attend?
WG: I was born on Mack and Bewick, which was my paternal grandfather’s house. I was delivered, by the way, by my great uncle, my father’s uncle: Domenico Annessa. He was a physician. He was kind of a renaissance man himself. He wrote music and played music, at one point he was making guitars…anyway, he was a very accomplished man himself. He delivered me. I lived with my mother and father on the corner of Mack and Mt. Elliott where my father’s dental practice was still located at the time. When my folks got divorced, my mother and I moved in with my grandparents on Mack and Beniteau. 3827 Beniteau. My sister was born shortly after we got there. While living there, I attended, for maybe a year or a semester, public grade school, St. Clair. Kindergarten, oh yes, kindergarten and a half a year of the first grade. Then when I was—because I wasn’t quite old enough, because of my birthday I wasn’t at the right age to start at the Catholic school. So I did that first semester at the public school. Well then, when I became eligible to go to St. Bernard’s, my mother tells me she had to make the decisions, they offered her that I could either start the first grade over or they would put me in the second grade. My mother decided that rather than put me ahead, and possibly in the company of people that were farther advanced than me, she had me start the first grade all over again. So already I’m a year behind. Can you imagine that? I went to St. Bernard’s through the third grade, and at about 1946, we moved from the Mack and Beniteau address. My grandfather had passed, so we moved to a house where the family on 11108 Craft. It’s on the corner of Craft and Duchess in the Denby area. I joined the fourth grade at Guardian Angels grade school when I moved there. Lived there for, 1946 to 1964. I went to finish grade school at Guardian Angels. I went to De La Salle High School, then to the University of Detroit for college, then one year of law school at the University of Detroit, after which I transferred and went to finish at, graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1961. This is all while I’m still living on Craft Avenue. Then eventually my grandmother passed, so then the house on Craft, you know, it was bequeathed of course to all five of the children, and it wasn’t our house anymore, if you understand what I’m saying. So my mother bought a house, God bless her. Even though she was essentially a single parent, she was very resourceful and managed to buy a very nice house on East Outer Drive. That was 1964. I was 28 years old at the time, still living at home. So she and my sister and I lived there, and you can’t believe how gratified I felt to move into this beautiful home on East Outer Drive. Where I lived, until I got married at age 42, believe it or not. After I got married, I moved to Middlesex Street in Grosse Pointe Park. Sad to say, I eventually got divorced in 2004, it was, then I moved again from there. My ex still lives there, Mary Lynn. I moved to where I live now on Rose Terrace, in Grosse Pointe Farms.
BB: Man, you’ve bopped all around the city. So we’re going to talk about the city of Detroit, the communities. As you’re growing up, in that Mack area, in your mother’s home, how do you explain to the younger generations what Detroit was like? So, like, the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s?
WG: That’s an excellent question. Beniteau is the one I remember, that was my first experience playing in the neighborhood. We played outdoors. You played with kids. There was no little league, there was no organized athletics back then, at least not for us. We rode our bicycles, it was basically playing outside as kids would do. Get into, you know, the occasional scrape with somebody else, but some of my earliest and best friendships were formed then. As always, there are some people who are closer to you than others. One fellow lived down the street, Rodger David Stefan, was his name. He was a year younger than me. We were very close. We ended up, actually, one of those years, going to a Detroit-sponsored summer camp together. I forget how long it was, a week or two. Camp Brighton, it was in Brighton, Michigan. And I believe that the city of Detroit owned that property until just recently. After I moved to the other address, I had some of my friends come over and visit there on Craft Avenue, but as time went by, we kind of lost contact. I always, always wondered, gee, what happened to Rodger? And believe it or not, just a few years ago, with the aid of the internet—I always thought that Rodger, he was a very rambunctious guy, and I thought, God almighty, I hope he’s okay, didn’t end up in jail somewhere. But I found out that he was living out east somewhere. I got into email contact with him, and I kept telling him a couple times, “Why don’t you come back?” I think he still had a son here in Michigan. He was one of these guys that would send out volume emails to all kinds of friends, so I was in touch with him by email for a long time. Turned out he had a nice career, too. He ended up being a union representative. He had married and was now living somewhere in Maryland, as I recall. You know, then there came a day when I wasn’t getting emails from him anymore, and it took me a while to realize, you know, I haven’t heard from Rodger. Well, I got in touch again by email with his wife, and she told me he had passed. I always kind of regretted that I never did get to see him again.
At age 10, you asked about what the neighborhoods were like. At age 10, I moved to Craft Street. Well, again, there were two sets of friends. There was one set of friend that lived on the very same street that I lived, on Craft, all within a few blocks. The others were a little bit younger than me, but we played baseball in the street. We do what kids do. When it got later in the night, the parents, some of them, would come out on the front porch and yell, “Come back home, time to go back home.” There were no cell phones back then, obviously. Frequently, communication was yelling down the street. I became close with a lot of them. But there was another set of friends, and those were the boys and girls—mostly the boys, of course—that I went to Guardian Angels school with. One of my very best friends lived on the next block over, Courville. I was at his house a lot. Jerry Steinbiser was his name, if that makes any difference. Then there were another group of guys that lived over there. Same thing: we would play touch football in the street, we would play softball in the street, we would play an extended game of tag where we called it the running game. I don’t know if you want to hear all this. We had a perimeter of so many blocks that you couldn’t go outside of. One team had ten minutes head start, and you’d run and go wherever you could, hide somewhere. Then the other team would come after you and if they found you, within this limited area—I don’t remember the exact dimensions, but it was more than just a block or two. If they caught you, we called that the running game. Then there was an extended version of that. We had the running game on bikes. That we sometimes did at night. So you can imagine that this was a really exciting thing. You’d get on your bicycle, and you’d go off and these guys would come chasing after you, and the game ended if and when you ended up catching the guys on the other side. The simple things, the simple pleasures, you can’t believe it. One of the great pleasures was, after we got out, got done playing softball, let’s say, on a warm evening, to walk a half a block to the gasoline station, Kraussman’s gasoline station, and if you were lucky, you had a nickel to buy a coke. We didn’t always have a nickel to buy a coke. Sometimes one of the other guys would give it to you. It was just great times.
BB: Coming up to the ‘60s, obviously ’67 is what we’re here to talk about today, but can you tell us about what the ‘60s were like? Was there any tensions that you felt were in the city? Did you feel like anything was changing? Did you feel like the riots were going to happen?
WG: No. I learned afterward, after the fact, that the ACME and population was in Detroit in about 1952. I, as a kid, had no sense of that. I’m living in a perfectly fine neighborhood. I was aware, you know, that there were areas of Detroit exclusively inhabited by people of another race. That was not much of a concern to me at the time, one way or another. That’s the way it was. What I do remember, now that you mention that, 1943—this is three years before I moved from the, oh I have to retract from that a little bit. 1943, I was still living on Beniteau. All of a sudden, there’s a riot! I’m 7 years old, but I became very much aware that this was basically a clash between the races. This was a very scary time especially for a young boy. I was reading newspapers by then, and listening to the radio, so I was hearing all about this. I was aghast. I do remember, after it was over, going downtown with my mother, I think, one day and I’m seeing armed soldiers standing around with rifles.
BB: During ’43?
WG: Yeah. Well, after it was all over. There was a military presence for some period after the hostilities stopped.
BB: You know the anniversary for ’43 was yesterday? Yeah, June 21st. Yeah, when those broke out.
WG: I have a very vivid memory about that, and all the rumors and things that were going on. That was just a terrible period. But leading up to ’67, I had no sense.
BB: You were already in law school at this point, right?
WG: I started in law school in the ’58-59 school year. Graduated, as I said, I ended up graduating in 1961 from the University of Michigan Law School. I’m trying to remember whether I was aware that there were any severe racial tensions that came to my attention. As I sit here, this is of course a long time later, I don’t remember any such thing. I knew, of course, that you couldn’t be living in Detroit and be an adult and not be aware that there was very pronounced segregation. But I am proud to say that in my family, I never heard any disparaging remarks about other races. Of course, when you’re out in company with the general community, you are bound to hear racial epithets or crude jokes, or things of that nature. Within my own family there was none of that. But to answer your question directly, I was not aware of the tensions that were building up. I became, obviously when this conflagration occurred—now, I’m already practicing law, and by this time I had already served as a judge, believe it or not, for six weeks. That’s another story. After it all happened, then you hear the story about the particular way in which it happened and tensions that were building up. I learned later, there was a lot of dissatisfaction among the black people of the city about how they were being treated by the police. I heard about those stories after the fact, and those tensions, and a lot of others, economic and otherwise, they—
BB: They came to light, yeah. In ’67, in July, 1967, how did you first hear about what was going on?
WG: Oh, very good. That weekend, I was up north with some contemporary friends. I think it was a canoe trip or a camping trip, I’m not sure which, up north. I think it was a combination of both. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, as I recall. I was driving. We’re driving back to Detroit, and I was dropping off people, and when we came—I think it was the first person I dropped off, close friend of mine who was then living in Dearborn—so we turn down his street in Dearborn, and here’s all these neighbors of his, standing out in the street in groups of two, groups of three. They’re very stolid in their appearance. They don’t have any smiles on their face. It’s obvious that they are concerned about something. So we get out of the car, and naturally we walked up to, maybe two of these people and ask, “What’s all this about?” And they explain that there’s a riot going on in Detroit. This was, coming as a complete surprise, was astounding. I dropped off all my passengers, and here I am, driving across I-94 to go home, and naturally I’m a little concerned about what I’m going to run into. I had no trouble. I could see wisps of smoke here and there in the distance but I didn’t have any trouble getting home. I got back home to East Outer Drive, and by this time, I was practicing law. There was no going downtown for three or four days. I’m watching all the coverage on television every day, fires and everything else, all the reports, but I was basically home-bound. Eventually, I got back to work. I was active in the Detroit Bar Association by then, and there was a problem: the police, as you can imagine in this kind of situation, had rounded up a whole lot of people as suspects, or caught in the act or whatever it was, so there was a great number of people, mostly African Americans, who were in custody on various criminal charges. They had to be processed, one way or another. So the Detroit Bar Association put out a request to its members, asking for volunteers to represent these folks, obviously the indigent ones first, in these criminal proceedings. Well, I volunteered, and the strange situation there was I had just finished, the last six weeks of 1966, serving as a judge on the recorder’s court of Detroit. This is a circumstance of “can’t happen again.” I had to run and got elected to a six-week judgeship on the criminal court of Detroit, which was then the recorder’s court. So here I am, I volunteered to do this work. I’m ending up being a lawyer in the very same court that I was a judge at, doing the very same work that the judge in front of me was going. I was happy to do it. I didn’t have to serve on more than one or two cases. The one that I remember, it was a case against three young African American men, and there were three lawyers on the case each of us assigned to one of the three. I can remember the last names of two of them, they were Hurley and Burley.
BB: No Curly, huh?
WG: Ten years ago, I could’ve told you the names of the other two lawyers. One of them was an older African American lawyer who, I believe, if I recall—I would eventually become a judge of the Wayne County Circuit Court—and one of the other two gentlemen who was with me on this case, I think he also became a circuit judge, for a very short time, because he was already of advanced age when he got appointed, and then he passed. I’d have to do some research, I could probably find out his name. But that was that.
BB: What was the case pertaining to, can you say?
WG: Well, I do not remember the charges. Where we represented them was just for the preliminary examination. The preliminary examination was just the procedure to determine if there’s enough evidence to hold them for trial. Our representation was just for that day. If they were held over or trial, somebody else would take over. This was so long enough ago, I cannot be clear on what the result of that was. But, you know, we did it, for that day at least.
BB: You’re working as a lawyer during this time, and you were not married yet. Along with your job, were there any other events during that week or two that stick in your mind that you saw, either things that were happening on the street or people that you also helped out with? Any other stories that you can remember form that time?
WG: The prevailing directive was “Stay at home.” So during the intensity of the several days, I was home. I do not recall leaving the house. I’m watching it all on television, I’m listening to the radio. Eventually, it didn’t take too long, matters calmed down enough. My office was in downtown Detroit. Eventually, matters calmed down enough that I was going back and forth to work as usual. And then eventually, as I say, these criminal cases, a little bit later in the year, came up. But I did not personally witness—except what I saw on television—any of the intensity of what occurred. Of course, there were a lot of strange things that came out of that.
BB: As an outsider to the whole situation, how do you refer to the events? Some people call them riots, some call them an uprising or a rebellion. How would you label them?
WG: The common reference to that event was the ’67 Riots. I think that, my impression is that the majority of both communities refer to it that way. Of course, there’s been other names applied to it in order to take some of the tinge off of it, but I think that most people, in common conversation, talk about it was the ’67 riots.
BB: So we’re going to go a little past ’67. Can you tell me how you saw the community or the city of Detroit change after ’67?
WG: Well, yes, it was my impression that this event accelerated the exodus of population from Detroit. But not just white folks. I believe after that, in the years that followed, middle class and affluent African Americans also left the city. Leaving the city in the very unfortunate—to make the disparity even more unfortunate. So you have a group of middle and/or upper class white people—including the lower, more indigent people—with an African American population that’s gradually becoming people of lower and lower income because of the exodus. That kind of disparity is never a good thing.
BB: So you definitely saw the changes then?
WG: Yes, or I heard about it at least
BB: Kind of going to wrap up, unless you have anything else to add, but one of the big aspects of this project is looking forward, and what we’re doing is sort of bringing in youth engagement in that aspect. What’s one thing that you would tell the youth of today in hopes of changing or improving upon what we have in the city of Detroit?
WG: Detroit has always been a resourceful community and has a history of resurgence from its depth. You know the city motto, “We will rise from the ashes.” The latest problems have not left us in ashes, like the great fire did, but everybody knows how bad off we were economically, and still are to some degree, and how bad the economy was. The thing that I have witnessed—I was downtown in a law firm for four years after leaving the bench. Now I’m just using a home office just to do the mediation and arbitration thing. But I saw, in those four years, a vast change downtown, at least. A whole cadre of young people. At first, there weren’t very many people around at all. There were some restaurants that were almost empty at lunch time. Well it didn’t take long, the places were filling up. So there’s already been a great insurgence downtown and near downtown. What I would tell young people is that—but a lot of them already know: This is a place of opportunity. It’s no secret to anyone to be able to say that the problem is how to make the resurgence of downtown spread out into the neighborhoods. The neighborhoods have seen serious deteriorations. I have nostalgia for my old neighborhoods, and for many years, and still for once in a while, I would go back to where I used to live, and I saw, particularly in the Beniteau street, I saw that deteriorate from a very ordinary neighborhood into something where there’s burned-out shells of houses. The big question what is it going to take to revive the neighborhoods as well as downtown? I think it’s going to work the way it did when the city was first founded: we started with a central city and gradually added. I think that hopefully that the resurgence will continue to grow, starting with downtown. I know that our present mayor and everybody else is very much aware of the need to make the economics, the improvement available to everyone.
BB: Thank you so much. Was there anything else you wanted to add today?
WG: No, no, I’ve already said more than I ever expected.
BB: You’ve given us a great history today. We really appreciate you taking the time and coming in.
[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 45:11]
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