Dominic Kevin McNeir, June 18th, 2016
GS: Hello, my name is Giancarlo Stefanutti, today is June 18,2016, we are in Detroit Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Thank you for sitting down with us today.
DM: Thank you.
GS: Can first start with telling us your name and you’re date of birth?
DM: My name is Dominic Kevin McNeir, I was born January 13, 1960.
GS: Okay and where were you born?
DM: Burton Mercy, as I recall, here in Detroit, Michigan. That hospital is now gone, but yeah. In Detroit.
GS: Okay. Growing up, what was your childhood like?
DM: I thought it was very typical. As I’m understanding now, it may have been a little less typical, maybe even atypical. My parents were both from the South, my mother from Baltimore and then Virginia, and my father from Alabama. Both were educated by historically black colleges, Tuskegee and Hampton, and both went on and got master’s degrees. So by the time I was born, they had moved up to Detroit, were established as it was a middle class family. We lived in a Jewish neighborhood on the West Side of Detroit, Seven Mile [and] Livernois area on Santa Rosa, and it was, from my ideas when I’m talking about it, it an idyllic kind of birth—childhood—not birth. Childhood. We were very comfortable. We travelled, we had what we wanted. Money was good in Detroit, particularly for educated blacks at that time. So upwardly mobile family, and my family’s very connected to Motown. So my babysitter babysat for Marvin Gaye. And so I grew up in Marvin Gaye’s home as a little boy, and all the stuff that could’ve happened to a child happened to me. One of these days I’ll finish this book on it growing up, Motown For Me. But it’s something I really want my children to know. I’ve told these stories to people and they say, “You should publish that.” I just wanted my kids to know what it was like. But now that I have grandchildren too, I’ve been writing these for myself for ten years now. It was a great childhood. And I wish Detroit were like it was then. I don’t think many people really know, can understand, how it was, particularly before the riots. Parts after the riots still too, but particularly before the riot.
GS: Where did you go to school?
DM: I went to Louie Pasteur Elementary, which is in between Seven and Eight Mile off of Pembroke and I remember my favorite teacher—she’s long gone—was Onita Lewis, she also was my piano teacher so I took piano for about—forever. About ten years actually, but with her about five or six years. And then I went to Hampton Junior High, also in the same neighborhood, and then I went to U of D Jesuit High off of Cambridge. My son, when he was of age also went to U of D High. When my grandson gets of age, we’ll send him to U of D High, it is our school of choice for my family, so yeah.
GS: Very nice. You said you lived in a Jewish area of town, was the school integrated racially?
DM: Well, yeah. It was interesting, we lived closer to where the riots began—and I’m going to use “riots” quote unquote because a lot of people still don’t agree it was actually a riot, that it was other things but that term may be a little misleading when you look at the way words are used and how riot is defined—
GS: I was going to ask you about that actually.
DM: —I’m willing to yield it for the moment but I’d say riots quote unquote, I wouldn’t call it actually a riot. Nonetheless, my family lived on Monterrey off of Linwood, because that’s where our church home was, Saint Andrews A.M.E. My sister’s still here, she’s the only one here from the immediate family. And my mother spends time with my sister, me and Marilyn and my sister here and so we went to from our home on Monterrey off of Linwood, we moved to Santa Rosa right before I started kindergarten. So we moved around four, going on five. And in the neighborhood, we were the fourth black family in that block. Seven Mile, Livernois was all very Jewish, the avenue was stylish, they called the Avenue of Fashion, I’ve seen a little—they’re trying to come back—but it was avenue of style, all of the shops were Jewish, all of my classmates were Jewish, my closest neighbor across the street, the Schwieg family, they had three girls and I played with their daughters. Nora was my age, when they would do Yom Kippur and we would do Christmas, and they would do Hanukkah and we’d just exchange holidays. And we played together. I remember my first fight in elementary school was when a black friend of mine jumped on one of my Jewish friends. And my father said, “You should protect your friends,” so I bashed him in the face with my steel lunch pale, you know? I just thought that was the right thing to do. So, you know, they were picking on Aaron, I said, “That’s wrong. Don’t pick on Aaron.” [laughter] So I didn’t know there was anything in terms of racial tension at all as I grew up. Now, by the time I went from kindergarten to fifth grade, the neighborhood had transitioned, it was all black, I think that was the last Jewish family left by the time I was in fifth grade.
GS: What year was this?
DM: That would have been 19—what year did I graduate from elementary school?
GS: Just an approximation is fine.
DM: Well, ’70—’68—’69—‘around ’70 I guess. Yeah, ’70. Now, I can tell you I graduated high school in ’78, so I’m moving backwards, I started high school in ’74—’72. Around ’71, ’72.
GS: Okay. Just kind of thinking about the riot itself, you said growing up was pretty nice, you didn’t notice any immediate tensions in the city?
DM: Well, I mean, I don’t know how much you can discern when you’re eight, ’79, ten, eleven, twelve, particularly my parents were quite protective, and there were rules, they were followed. You know, so that was just kind of the bottom line, I was more afraid of my father than anybody else. And if my father said do it, it was going to be done. So we didn’t really—and my father was also protective, you know, so I never really felt threatened by anything. But, I just noticed as my elementary school, as Pastor changed, there became more tension. But it’s interesting because the tension was short-lived. All of a sudden, there were no Jews in the community. They were just gone. I don’t remember how quickly it happened but it seemed like it happened pretty rapidly. Like I said, when we moved in in ’65, we were one of four black families. By the time I got to the third grade, there was only one white family left. So in only three years, the only Jewish reminders we may have had were several of the businesses stayed for a while.\
GS: I see. So just moving into ’67, what were you doing when you first heard that the riot was happening?
DM: That was kind of interesting, because my mom’s older sister lived in Philadelphia. She had a brother in Baltimore, she was the youngest. Her side of the family was interesting because my grandfather was Native American, my grandmother was black. His father had been thrown out the tribe for marrying a black woman, so we already had experienced that kind of racism, between Native Americans and blacks. Anyway, so my parents—we went to Philadelphia to see my aunt, and it was early July, and we did this trip every year. So we would go south and east. We could go down to Alabama, well Pensacola, Florida, Mobile, Alabama, my grandfather lived in Camden, Alabama, 45 miles outside of Selma, then we would come back up east and do D.C, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Williamsburg, Virginia, and that’s where my parents would leave me. In Williamsburg and my aunt, and that’s where I would stay for the rest of the summer. This particular year, we did Virginian first, an East Coast swing, and then we went south—I’m sorry we went South and then we went East. And so we were in Philadelphia, and they start talking about problems in Detroit. Well my father was a hunter, so my father had rifles, he was, you know, a veteran of the Korean War so he had knives, samurais, and all of those things. But he was a hunter so he was very comfortable with them, we had become comfortable with them, and we knew where our weapons were, they were on every floor, they were locked up, “You don’t touch this.” I never touched it. You know, children would go play with guns, I didn’t touch them. I knew where they were, I didn’t know how to use them, I wasn’t going to try. But our home was stocked. But it was not because of the crime, because we sat on the porch then on Santa Rosa—there was a little porch [until] one, two, three on William and the weekends. All the neighbors knew each other, we were in and out each other’s homes, it was, you know, that’s what it was like. We didn’t even have to lock the doors. I didn’t even have a house key until I was in high school. You know? Because I didn’t need one, my parents didn’t lock the door. And so it was just very, very different. But as they start talking about these skirmishes in Detroit and, you know, police activity and unrest of blacks, we started noticing things. My mother told my dad to have one of our cousins go over to the house with my sister. My sister was home by herself. So Pearl is 15 years older than me, so she was in her early to mid-20s. She was working, she couldn’t get the summer off like I could, you know, school, so she stayed home by herself. Not a big deal. When all the activity started happening though, my mother felt a little uncomfortable and did not want her there by herself, so I had a couple cousins who were her age or older. And one was in the navy, he was, you know, pretty reliable with our arms and things, and she had a couple of male cousins go over to come help my sister, help her at night mostly. So the riot was over at Twelfth, Rosa Parks—it wasn’t Rosa Parks then—Twelfth Street area. And it kept moving westward. And so we could look in the newspaper, in Philadelphia, and see in the paper, it would show you how it was moving. I don’t even know how we saw the paper, there was no internet, but somehow my parents were able to know what was happening in the newspaper. And this is over four or five days. My father did not want to rush back, he was enjoying vacation. My mother was extremely nervous with my sister being home alone, even though my cousins were in the house with her, and even though they had weapons, she wanted to come back home. Well my daddy said “No it’s okay. They’re alright.” So noticed about the third day it had gotten around Fenkell. My mother said “Well it’s only a couple miles away, we really need to go home.” My dad said, “I’m not gonna be rushed home, we’re gonna stay.” So, I think a day later, there was a huge store, like a—I don’t know what you call it—a garden store—what’s the big garden store that we have—with garden supplies and things for your home, like a Home Depot kind of place but it was called Merchandise Mart. Merchandise Mart was on the corner of Seven Mile and Livernois, on the east side of the street. It took up the whole square block, and it was bombed, and the whole Merchandise Mart was gone. The entire square block was gone. So that was two blocks from my home. My mother told my father, “We’re going home now.” So we didn’t plan anything, we threw everything in the car and started driving from Philadelphia nonstop. So when we got to the city limits or close to the city limits, the National Guard was out, and you could not enter the city after night. So my mother said, “We’ll stay in a hotel tonight,” which incidentally there had places we could not stay in a hotels in the South because they didn’t let black in the South, even though it was illegal. But I remember on peeing—I’m sorry—urinating on the side of the road, my mother carrying a bucket on the side, and felling totally like “What is this?” Because I’m a child growing up in the North, but I have southern parents. So I’m learning racism. Subtle racism in the North, but blatant racism in the South. So we were going in a hotel, at that point we weren’t going to get a hotel, my father said, “Pearl’s home alone”—although the cousins were there—“I have a home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. I’m not staying in a hotel, I’m going to my house.” So we crossed into the city. When we crossed into the city, we were quickly picked up by helicopter. Helicopters had the lights on us, and my dad used to buy a brand new car every three years so I think at that point we had a Riviera that was a year old, a light greenish Riviera, hardtop, four-door. They pulled us over and they checked us, we told them what we’re going on, why we’re in town, they said, “You know, you’re illegal after curfew.” My dad started to argue, my mother said, “Don’t argue.” They went to the trunk and of course they found guns, my dad brought his rifles back from Alabama. Because we had just done the South-East trip. By that time we had four, five police cars around us, helicopters over us, they took everything out of our car. They emptied the entire car. I remember crying because they took everything. They just threw it out! Just threw it out like it didn’t matter. We had the license, the rifle—we had a couple rifles, couple handguns, all registered, all very legal, called Philadelphia, etcetera, etcetera. So the last thing I really remember about all of that, they were gonna take my dad to jail. Then my mother started crying. She said, “I don’t know how to drive.” Now she was not telling the truth, but she was not gonna let them take her husband to jail. So she said “How will I get home? I have my little boy here,” and she spun this long story and they said “Okay, we’ll let you go home, but we’re gonna have to accompany you.” And that was really what was frightening to me. So if you can imagine, we had one of those tanks in front of us, and they had a tank behind us, and two police cars on each side, and a helicopter over top, and all this noise going on from the time we entered the city limits until eventually we got somehow from Woodward to Livernois—I don’t remember around now, until we got to our home on Santa Rosa. And then, we walked in the house, the phone rang, and it was the National Guard, who then had to speak to my mom, my dad, and me, to know that we had gotten in the house, and that someone had not sneaked out of the car with these weapons, to try to go arm someone else for whatever illegal things they were going to do. The riots, quote unquote, the acts of civil disobedience kind of ceased after that. The only other thing I recall as the time went on was just seeing how many parts of the black community had been destroyed. And how no parts of the white community had been destroyed, and wondering why if we’re so unhappy with things that are going on, why are we destroying our own places? That’s what I recall. It made me very very sad.
GS: That is sad. So you called it quote unquote “riot.” What is the word that you would have instead of riot? Would you call it maybe an uprising?
DM: I guess I’d be more comfortable to say that. I mean, now I’m a newspaper editor in D.C. and we’re covering the Freddie Grey case and in Baltimore and they use the word “riots.” And I think “riots” is a term that is often loosely used. I have a good friend who grew up next to me, Terry Halcott, she was also a writer. She’s never willing to use the word “riot,” because she says, “It wasn’t a riot. It wasn’t a riot.” But, you know, if I use that term as a descriptive to talk about what happened in Baltimore, then I’d have to use it as a descriptive to talk about what happened in Detroit. The unfortunate thing about it for me is not so much—I mean for me it’s an issue of semantics, for some others it’s not. I would call it an issue of semantics but I think what troubles me more is 40 years later, the same kind of stuff that got people upset enough to bomb their own places and destroy their own businesses and hurt and kill folk in Baltimore is the same people were angry about in Detroit when I was seven. You know, police brutality, infringing on people’s rights, those kinds of things. It’s not a whole lot different.
GS: Were there any, that you could see before the riot, as a child, did you notice the tension between police and Detroiters?
DM: No. But I do remember—it just came to me too, I don’t even know where this memory came from. The Detroit police had a program called STRESS. That was the acronym. “Stop the robberies, enjoy safe streets.” I’ve never thought about that until now, and I had to do a report on it in junior high school, the year before McGovern ran [as the Democratic nominee for president], which would have been ’71, I had to write a report on it. And the only reason why it kind of comes to me is, see, I never had issue with police. I never did while I was here because eventually, my sister would marry a deputy chief of police. But by that time I’m in my 20’s now, so, you know, I graduated from U of D then University of Michigan—U of D High then Michigan then go on to start work in corporate America and stuff. But I remember the STRESS report was talking about way before the riots and subsequent following the riots, there continued to be these times where the mostly white police department attacked the mostly black citizens of Detroit. At that time, in the sixties and early seventies, Detroit was mostly black and the police department was mostly white. So there tended to be these constant flare-ups that did not stop. In fact, probably got worse. I can’t back that up with fact, but what I remember, got worse after the ’67 encounter.
GS: I see. Well is there anything else you’d like to say?
DM: No I think—So my oldest child is a daughter, Jasmine, is 26, and my baby’s a boy, Jarred, and he’s 22. So, I’ve been riding around with both of them the last couple of days, since I’m here for Father’s Day, and as we’re going around, showing them places. Pointing out things. What was quite interesting, we just went into the barber shop, my son and I, and the guy that sits down to talk with us is a nephew of Congressman John Conyers. My sister was on John Conyers’ first campaign, because John Conyers lived a block away from us on Santa Rosa.
DM: And so I’m mentioning this just to say in those days, in the Motown days, and Cornell West would call it the golden days of Detroit, when Detroit was a little like Harlem, and I like that description because it was. There was such an exchange, it was so comfortable between celebrity figures, political figures, because there weren’t a lot of them but they were just coming into their own. It was never, “I got more than you,” or, “You got more than me,” or, “He’s an entertainer. He’s a whatever,” or, “He’s a politician.” Like I said, I didn’t have to make an appointment with John Conyers, I walked up the street. His wife opened the door. And they called me Nicky from Dominic, “Hi Nicky!” You know, so it was that kind of deal. And that was all the Motown folks. I mean, The Tops, I was connected with them and The Miracles, of course Marvin Gaye, and I went to school with Gladys Knight’s kids and so we used to play together. Gladys Knight, she’d make us kool-aid and spaghetti and garlic bread and we’d play basketball in her backyard ‘cause—I was telling the guy in the barber shop today—it was the only yard in the neighborhood that had big lights that you could see at night. So it was a full court, lights on both sides, we played basketball till we dropped. It wasn’t aggression, “Well, you gotta check your gun, you’re gonna come here and hurt us, what if you lose but you wanna fight?” No! We played. We lost, we’d get mad, we’d hit somebody in the nose or kick him down and they’d get up and say, “Oh man, I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry too.” We’d just play ball again. So one of the things I really miss is just how we got along with each other. Conflict resolution was something you did by yelling and punching maybe, and going home with your nose bloody. And the next day, you got up, “Hey, let’s go play ball again.” “You think Ms. Knight’ll let us come back?” “Well, we didn’t tear up anything.” You know, we didn’t curse anybody out, we didn’t shoot anybody out. I look sometimes and just wonder, you know, have we really come anywhere, progression as a race? Because our young people now—I don’t fault anyone—but the way we resolve issues now, the way we encounter one another. It’s just so not what I experienced as a child, particularly what I experienced here in Detroit. And I’ve been riding around, you know, I see Detroit rebounding slowly, finally, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. But I don’t see it rebounding to bring more people of color here, and that, I think, is sad. You know, just like D.C., where I am now, I don’t know if D.C. will ever be Chocolate City again, you know? I don’t know if Detroit will be, you know, the place for soul for folk, because it’s not anymore. And that’s not to say change is not good, I understand change. But, as I discern Detroit, it has become a place where generations allowed property to devalue to purchase it—these weren’t black people buying this property by the way—and now, they are starting to reinvest in boatload, they’re gonna sell high, that’s what you do in econ, I get it. But unfortunately and tragically once again, many people who look like me got caught in between all of that, have lost their homes, been forced out of the city, I mean it’s a typical thing that’s happened all over the United States but it’s still wrong and it still makes me very sad. When I remember growing up on that street in Santa Rosa with trees overlooking the—arch of trees like in the Arboretum in Ann Arbor, all the neighborhood block clubs and we had parties, you know, block of the street and have Halloween parties, and block off the street and have summer parties, and block off the street and they’d open up the fire hydrants and you’d have pool parties in the street, we burned our leaves together, we cried when someone died in the family together, we exchanged food. You know, Detroit was a real, real beautiful place and I just wished my children could have experienced what I experienced, the joy I had. There was no place on the planet I could’ve ever imagined or wanted to live, besides the West Side of Detroit. Yeah.
GS: Wow. Well thank you for sharing this experience with us.
DM: Thank you, I enjoyed it. I appreciate it.
GS: As did we.
[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 28:24]