Leala Griffith, June 25th, 2015
NL: Today is June 25th, 2015. This is the interview of Leala Griffith by Noah Levinson. We are at 25960 York Road in Royal Oak, Michigan, and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Leala, could you first tell me where and when you were born?
LG: I was born in Midway, Alabama. February 10th, 1944.
NL: When did you first move to Michigan?
LG: I moved to Michigan in August of ’62.
NL: And you went right to the Detroit area?
NL: How did you decide to move and why Detroit?
LG: I decided to move because of better jobs. I thought maybe I’ll find a better job here in Detroit. And I moved here with friends.
NL: Did you find work soon after you moved?
LG: I did.
NL: What kind of work was that?
LG: I was babysitting.
NL: For lots of different people or—?
LG: Lots of different people.
NL: What neighborhood of Detroit were you living in when you first got here?
LG: When I first got here, I was living on Warren and 33rd Street.
NL: Is that east or west side?
NL: Where were you living in July 1967?
LG: Joy Road between Dexter and Linwood.
NL: So that’s also the west side?
LG: Yes, it is.
NL: What’s your first memory of hearing about the violence on 12th Street?
LG: Well, it was one Sunday morning, my cousin called me. She told me that there was a fire on 12th Street. We had never looked out the window or anything so we looked out the window and all we could see was smoke. It was very frightening. Then we start calling friends, family, to see if they was okay or had they heard or what was going on, because we didn’t know what was going on. Later we found out that, what did they call it, looting? On 12th Street.
NL: Were any of your friends or people you were talking to around there when that happened or they went soon after? To the area where the fires and looting started.
LG: Did they go there?
NL: About how far is that? Was that just a couple miles away from your house?
NL: But you could still see the smoke?
LG: I could see the smoke as we looked out the window, you could see the smoke.
NL: There were about four or five days where the looting and fires and shooting and things just continued. What do you remember as that week went on? Especially about your neighborhood.
LG: My neighborhood. Later on that evening, the next day, all I could see, you know, was just looting at night and fires getting closer to me. I was afraid, I actually know what to do, so I stayed in my apartment. I really didn’t even go outside. We did go out the first day because there was a store across the street to get some milk and bread to live on. Stayed in the apartment.
NL: For that whole week?
LG: Yeah, four days.
NL: Were you still doing babysitting at this point? Or where were you working?
LG: I was working in Palmer Park, Hamilton and 7 Mile, I think.
NL: Okay. You just told the family that you weren’t coming to work that week?
NL: I think most people were doing things like that.
LG: As a matter of fact, they wanted me to come with them because it wasn’t as bad.
NL: Right, it was much further north.
LG: Right, but I couldn’t take the chance.
NL: You didn’t want to be outside just for that trip up to Palmer Park?
LG: Right, exactly.
NL: I see. Do you remember seeing—you said there was looting going on in the neighborhood—do you remember what kinds of things people were taking?
LG: Oh, goodness. Furniture, the grocery stores—there were three stores—food, baskets of food, and this was all night long. There was a laundry, Queen Quality, I believe. They took stuff from there. All sorts of stuff.
NL: Did you talk to anybody who was looting or who was arrested?
NL: No? Did you remember thinking or did you have any thoughts about why were people doing this?
LG: I did, I did. To me, I was surprised because as afraid as I was, we still weren’t safe. Why were they taking this stuff and where were they going with it? Didn’t ask anybody anything, because like I said, I’m still looking out the window.
NL: Right. One of the many things that led to these events in July is that there are a lot of unfair and discriminatory practices in Detroit specifically affecting black people. Do you think that that is something that led to this civil unrest, or do you think it was separate?
LG: That I really don’t know. I just don’t know. I’ve heard different, you know, but I don’t know why it started.
NL: The neighborhood that you were living in there, the Joy Road, one. How would you describe that neighborhood? Was it an integrated neighborhood or was it separate?
LG: It was all black. But it was a nice neighborhood at that time.
NL: Do you remember feeling or hearing about from friends or family or people about that type of discrimination, either by the police or in regards to housing or starting your own business?
NL: At that time, in the ‘60s—even before ’67—but in the ‘60s, after you arrived in Detroit, do you remember feeling that there was discrimination against black people in the city? Either by the police or by housing development teams and real estate?
LG: I’m sure there was some, but I can’t—like I said, I never bought a house or anything.
NL: Along the same lines as the questions I was asking, did it feel similar to where you were living in Alabama before, or was it much different?
LG: It was much different from where I came from.
NL: Can you describe the difference a little bit.
LG: It was just more freedom. Like I said, you could get a job and, you know, it was better.
NL: So in Alabama it was hard to find work?
NL: Even as babysitting?
LG: Oh, no type like that. I did agricultural work.
NL: Life was pretty segregated at that point?
LG: In Alabama, yes. It was opening up some, but it was still. That about the time of Dr. King, you know.
NL: Right. You’ve lived in Detroit since the ‘60s, since you moved here? Have you been back to visit Alabama much?
LG: Of course.
NL: When you look at how that’s developed, how Detroit has changed since then—I mean, everything is always changing, obviously, so Alabama too—do you see it following similar trajectories? Right now, 2015, are they more at the same place or does it still feel like there’s more opportunities here than there are in Alabama.
LG: I can’t say that I think. The opportunities are there. I have sisters there, and cousins, and they’re doing well with jobs and houses. Everybody’s got their own homes.
NL: Are they still in the same city roughly?
LG: Same city, same area.
NL: You said that’s Midway. What part of the state is that?
LG: Like Montgomery, Alabama.
NL: So in the middle of the state, sort of?
LG: Yeah, sort of like that.
NL: All right. Coming back to Detroit. After that main week of violence in July, the National Guard had been in, there was military. First, what do you remember about seeing that and what do you remember about the next week when you felt comfortable going outside and going back to work. Can you describe what that was like, you know, going around different parts of the city and in your neighborhood?
LG: Well, after that, the only thing you see is just the sadness of it. All the destruction and stuff, you know how things were torn down, it was just a different city after the riot. It wasn’t the same, everywhere you went, in my part of it.
NL: Is there any specific thing that you saw, maybe a building or a store or something like that, that was like a strong visual in your memory, something that stands out in your mind about making you think, oh, wow, things are different in the city than they were before?
LG: Well, I think I got the question right. More of an opportunity you said?
NL: You said, coming up on that next week, you said pretty matter-of-factly, “Things were different in the city.” Is there any specific thing that you remember seeing that made you think or feel that way? Or specific moments when you were walking around that made you think, oh wow, things are different in the city?
LG: Just like I said, all the stores.
NL: So all of it taken together?
NL: Did a lot of people in your community, in your world there, your friends and family, did they start moving out of the city at that point or moving to the neighborhoods?
LG: Yes, they did.
NL: Did you ever think about trying to move out of the city or to another part of the city?
LG: No, I did not.
NL: I’m curious. Could you talk more about that? Because a lot of people were worried or they felt things were unsafe for any number of reasons. People started leaving the city and that still goes on today. What has kept you from feeling that way, that you wanted to stay in the city all these years?
LG: I guess, there’s really no else I want to live unless I go back to Alabama, and I don’t want to go back there so I just chose to stay here.
NL: Have you moved around in a lot of different parts of the city since then?
LG: A couple moves, in Detroit.
NL: Which other neighborhoods have you lived in since the ‘60s?
LG: I lived on Globe off Livernois. The rest of them were right in the same area, because I lived at Elmhurst and Linwood, Cortland and Dexter, so I lived in that neighborhood around thirty years. I think I made just a couple moves, around the corner or whatever. Then I moved to downtown where I am now. Jefferson and the Boulevard.
NL: East or west?
NL: I know that, but it’s just for the recording. Do you remember Jerry Cavanagh, who was the mayor of Detroit in the ‘60s? I think he would have just become mayor when you first moved here.
NL: Do you remember many things about him or what you felt about him?
LG: I don’t even really remember him.
NL: What about the other—not just mayors, but people in leadership since then, throughout the ‘70s? Roman Gribbs, Coleman Young?
LG: Coleman Young, I remember him. He was in a long time.
NL: Right. Do you remember much about them or what you thought about how they were running things in the city?
LG: Well at one point, he was doing a good job.
NL: Coleman Young?
LG: Coleman Young. He kind of helped black people out as well. Job-wise and all of that, housing. Where I live now, he built those for senior citizens at these councils.
NL: I want to know your thoughts more generally speaking about Detroit, not just the main downtown, but also the other different sort of epicenters of businesses and things over time. Can you tell me first what do you remember about things looking like when you were here in 1962? Can you describe what it felt like walking around the city and where you would like to go?
LG: Beautiful. Downtown was beautiful. I went every Saturday, stores everywhere, beautiful. I looked forward to it every Saturday. Now there’s nothing there. You’ve got to go to malls. Detroit was beautiful when I came here.
NL: Are there specific things that you felt were the most beautiful? Certain streets or certain buildings or neighborhood?
LG: Dexter, Joy Road and Dexter, that was a beautiful neighborhood. And back then, I think most of the Jews lived up in there.
NL: I think that’s not too far from where my dad grew up.
LG: We lived further down where the black people all lived. That was like 33rd and—
NL: We are back for track two with Leala Griffith. Leala, you were talking a moment ago about downtown in the ‘60s when you first arrived here. I want to know your thoughts about downtown since then and what are your favorite parts of the city nowadays?
LG: Like I said, I don’t have a favorite. I don’t go downtown. Just no favorite. I like where I am, where I live.
NL: Can you talk about that for a moment?
LG: Well, it’s near Belle Isle and I go fishing down there. It’s pretty.
NL: You go onto belle isle?
LG: Yeah, I cross Jefferson and go down and fish.
NL: I have one last question for you, and that is this project is about 1967, the rioting that happened in the city in July. A lot of people use the word “riot” to describe what happened. Some people prefer that term, some historical books use it, some people don’t’ like that term. Do you think that’s accurate? Did it feel like rioting at the time, or would you refer to it using some other word?
LG: At the time it happened?
NL: At the time it happened, yeah.
LG: Yeah, I think so.
NL: Looking back at it now, nearly fifty years after, does it still feel like it was rioting? Is that the most accurate word to use?
LG: I don’t know about now.
NL: What else might you call it if you had to call it something else?
LG: What would I call it? I wouldn’t call it a riot. Maybe just people trying to get what they wanted in Detroit, jobs and houses and stuff. Does that make sense?
NL: Sure. Sounds like some people we talked to refer to it as civil unrest.
LG: What was it?
NL: Civil unrest.
NL: Yeah, unrest like restless with the atmosphere. That sort of sounds to me like what you were describing before. Is there anything else you’d like to add to our recording today?
LG: No, Noah. Thank you.
NL: Thank you very much for joining us this afternoon on behalf of the Detroit Historical Society, and have a great afternoon!
LG: Thank you very much.
[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 16:31 + 02:49]
[End of Track 1]