George and Willetta Stewart, July 23rd, 2016
JW: Hello, my name is Julia Westblade. Today is July 23, 2016. I am here in Hillsdale, Michigan conducting an interview with George and Willie Stewart for the Detroit Historical Society for the Detroit 1967 oral history project. Thank you so much for agreeing to sit down with me. Mr. Stewart, can you where and when you were born?
GS: I was born in Topeka, Kansas. September 20, 1931.
JW: And Mrs. Stewart, when were you born and where?
WS: I was born in Bad Axe, Michigan and it was May 3, 1933.
JW: Alright, when were you married?
GS: March 15 – that’s not right. March 21, 1953.
JW: Great. Can you tell me, in the 1960s, where did you live?
GS: Akron, Ohio. Well, Tallmadge, Ohio which is a suburb of Akron.
JW: How often did you go into Detroit when you lived in Ohio?
GS: Probably at least once a year?
GS: Because we would go up to her mother’s.
JW: And where in Detroit did she live?
GS: She lived in Bad Axe up in the thumb.
JW: So you would drive through Detroit to get there?
JW: Did you often stop in Detroit and explore or anything?
GS: To eat sometimes. I stopped one time to put snow tires on the car but other than that, no.
JW: In the early 60s or even in the late 50s, what was your impression of Detroit?
GS: Big city. I don’t know. Good place to stay away from. But I followed the Detroit Tigers and at the time probably the Lions, too. But I don’t anymore.
JW: What made you want to stay away from it? Just because it was a big city?
GS: Just a big city, yeah. And you’d hear things about it as far as crime is concerned so.
JW: And what about you, what was your impression of the city?
WS: Probably about the same but a lot of people who graduated from high school up in the thumb area would go to Detroit for work and we have one, I have one who became very involved with politics and she was an assistant to an assistant in relations. I have lost track of her but it was interesting to know that she was involved.
JW: Going into the summer of 1967, can you tell me what you remember of that week in July?
GS: Not specifically other than that at that time we were heading up to the thumb to her mother’s but we were going to stop in Dearborn and pick up her aunt. That’s why we were in that area.
JW: What did you see?
GS: Nothing. Really nothing related to the riots. In fact, we were going up Telegraph when we got pulled over by the police, the Dearborn police. They wanted to know what we were doing there. That’s about the first that we really realized that there was something going on. He took us, didn’t he, to where your aunt was living?
GS: And escorted us there and then escorted us as far as he could and then told us to get out of there! [laughs]
WS: He was very emphatic. He wanted us out.
JW: And that was as far west as Dearborn. Wow. Before you had left for that trip, did you know that there was anything going on?
GS: I don’t recall anything. I suppose we saw it on the news but it didn’t register with us or anything otherwise we might have not gone through there.
JW: Do you remember what day of the week that was that you were driving through?
WS: I think probably.
GS: Because I was working. Probably got off work and packed up and took off just to pick her aunt up so I got some time off and spent the weekend up there.
JW: After the cop told you that you needed to get out, did you pay attention more to what was going on or did you just kind of say –
GS: Well, naturally. I won’t say we were eyeballing everything but we were probably more alert and noticed more.
JW: What do you remember hearing on the news about what was going on?
GS: Hearing about it?
JW: Yeah, what kind of stories do you remember hearing?
GS: Up until that point, we hadn’t heard anything. Or we just weren’t paying attention. I think we probably switched the radio over to WJAR just to keep track of what was going on while we were going through but we just kept on going north.
JW: Did you avoid Detroit on the way back then?
GS: Yes, cause we had no reason to go coming back. We had no reason to go through Detroit coming back so we avoided it.
JW: Did that experience change your impression of Detroit at all?
GS: No, I wouldn’t have said – not mine. It was just something that happened. I did pay much attention to it.
JW: You were still willing to drive through the city after that?
GS: As long as there wasn’t any riots going on. [laughs] And I am sure we did go through Detroit. Isn’t that were I put the snow tires on the car?
WS: Yes, just south of Detroit.
JW: Did your impression of the city change at all after driving through?
WS: Well, I was probably more cognizant of it having been a riot but it does seem like maybe I would stay away more. However, on the night that we got stopped, it was a little after dusk and my first inclination that something was going on, it was dark. There weren’t any street lights and just seemed ominous and eerie.
GS: Hardly any traffic.
WS: Right. They were told to go north, too.
GS: It was us going down Telegraph Road wondering why we were the only ones there. The policeman took care of that. He was real nice.
JW: Do you have anything else that you’d like to add about what you saw while you were there?
GS: Well, we really didn’t see anything other than Telegraph Road was deserted and everything was quiet and –
JW: About what time of day was it that you were going through?
GS: About nine o’clock.
JW: And what about you? Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
WS: Well, Detroit was always something to be aware of and be careful when you were there and that didn’t change.
JW: Do you think that that’s still the case now?
WS: In some cases, probably but also I think a lot of the people have moved out farther and moved out to some of the little suburbs that’s around. My best friend’s daughter lives in Sterling Heights and off and on I see sometime about someone living in Sterling Heights so it must be quite a growing community.
JW: Yeah, I think so.
WS: It was an interesting evening, that’s for sure.
GS: We weren’t scared or anything as I remember.
WS: It was so quiet and nothing moving.
GS: We found out either on the radio or from the policeman that the riots were downtown Detroit and we were in Dearborn which is quite a bit west but they were taking precautions.
JW: Interesting. Alright, well, thank you both so much for sitting down with me today. I really, really appreciate it.
GS: You’re welcome.