Esther Middlewood

Title

Esther Middlewood

Description

Esther Middlewood worked as a communication specialist for the US Army Tank Command in Warren. She and her parents lived in Detroit and she remembers seeing the destruction in her neighborhood in July of 1967.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society

Date

08/09/2016

Rights

Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI

Format

Text

Language

en-US

Type

Written Story

Text

“This can’t be real,” I thought as I looked down Livernois at a US Army tank coming towards me on the opposite side of the road. Uniformed soldiers patrolled the sidewalks passed boarded up widows. The scene looked more like a city in Europe during World War II, but I lived in the United States. How could this be happening? It was July 1967 and race riots had broken out in Detroit. Violence and destruction ruled the day and night.
Let’s go back in time to provide some background for my experience. I began life in Livonia, attended public school, and had no contact with anyone from another culture (let alone a different color). I had no knowledge of racial issues except for those I studied in history classes—like the Civil War. Of course, that had ended years ago—or so I thought. Everything changed in 1959, when Dad took a job with the Fred Wood Funeral Home in Detroit.
The funeral home stood 8450 at Plymouth Road, just west of the junction of Grand River Avenue and Oakman Blvd. Although both black and white people lived in the neighborhood, the two groups didn’t mix. They might greet one another on the street, but no social interaction occurred. Nevertheless, it presented an entirely new life experience for me since my social world had no diversity. I graduated from high school in Livonia in 1960 and moved into the funeral home with my parents. I began working as a teletype operator in the catalog department of Sears, Roebuck, and Co. where I walked a couple of short blocks to work.
Dad made some rules for my behavior in the neighborhood. I could not carry a purse to the nearby A & P market. I stowed my money in my shoe. We actually witnessed a woman being knocked down and robbed from the window of our apartment in the funeral home. The thief, a young black man, ran through a nearby store and got away. The incident certainly raised my awareness of potential danger and I became more cautious. Dad also insisted that I not be out alone after dark.
In 1964 I purchased my first automobile and subsequently applied for a job at the US Army Tank Command in Warren. I also began volunteering at the USO in downtown Detroit. Since I worked second shift as a communications specialist, I drove home alone around midnight—from Warren to the funeral home. Eventually, Dad asked me to stop volunteering at the USO on weekends because he didn’t like me driving home from downtown at night. The roads coming home from work were safer--in his opinion. Yet I continued at the USO for several months, getting to know many of the regular visitors and even visiting some of the nearby military installations. I especially enjoyed meeting the guys from the Coast Guard station on Belle Isle.
Since I worked for the Federal government, the work environment was biracial. I liked my coworkers and we got along without conflict. Then came the onset of increased racial tension in the city and everyone became edgy. The summer heat added to the irritation and frustration of everyone concerned. I, like many others, didn’t understand why I was being blamed for something over which I had no control—just because of the color of my skin.
Then, the night came when my supervisor announced that it would not be safe for me to go home. I made arrangements to spend the night with a coworker and drove home in the morning. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Senseless destruction littered the streets closer to home. When I drove into the funeral home parking lot, I noticed military personnel on the roof of the Michigan Bell Telephone building on the other side of the street. I later discovered that they were guarding a communication center and watching for snipers. Over the next few days I had the opportunity to talk to some of the soldiers (I can’t remember if they were from the 82nd or 101st Airborne units). When I resumed coming home at midnight, they watched out for me each night and, in exchange, I brought them snacks from the A & P market. Their watchful eyes certainly gave me an increased sense of security.
During the height of riot activity, I observed people walking down the sidewalk carrying television sets and other boxed appliances. I concluded that they had been looting nearby stores. Since my parents and I lived on the second floor of the funeral home, we were left alone. Perhaps superstition can be useful in some circumstances???
I do not honestly believe that the riots solved anything! Of course, that’s a matter of opinion. Perhaps someday people will learn that hatred and violence achieve only destruction and more hatred. We are all part of the human race and not one of us is perfect.
As a side note, I relocated to the Washington, D.C. area at the end of 1967 and got settled just in time to witness the 1968 race riots in that city. Gratefully, I lived in Arlington, Virginia, and could view the destruction from a safer distance.

Original Format

Email

Submitter's Name

Esther Middlewood

Submission Date

08/08/2016

Files

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Citation

“Esther Middlewood,” Detroit 1967 Online Archive, accessed November 22, 2019, http://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/348.

Output Formats