Stanley Wegrzynowicz, July 23rd, 2016
GS: Hello, today is July 23rd, 2016. My name is Giancarlo Stefanutti. We are in Detroit, Michigan and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
SW: Glad to be here.
GS: Can you first tell me your name?
SW: Stanley Wegrzynowicz.
GS: Where and when were you born, Stanley?
SW: I was born here in Detroit, April 10th, 1936.
GS: As a child, where did you live?
SW: Lower east side—not the lower east side, but the east side of Detroit.
GS: What did your parents do?
SW: My parents were independent meat market owners.
GS: Do you have any siblings?
SW: I have a brother, John, who’s four years younger than me. Unfortunately he passed away about 20 years ago.
GS: What was your neighborhood like growing up? Was it racially integrated?
SW: No. Neighborhood was basically all white children. I don’t remember any ethnic spread within the neighborhood.
GS: Where did you go to school?
SW: I went to Catholic grammar schools. I’ll mention the grammar school in Polish. Its name was [unintelligible Polish word], which means Resurrection. It was between Mound Road and Conant, off of Miller Road. It wouldn’t be that far from Dodge Main.
GS: Was that school racially integrated?
SW: No. Basically the name of the parish was—we didn’t talk English for three years—so it was a Polish school and I think everybody that went was Polish.
GS: What was it like growing up in your neighborhood and going to those schools?
SW: I felt everything was normal.
GS: Moving towards the early ‘60s, could you sense any tension in the city?
SW: Well, by the early ‘60s I was out of college. There were very few—I don’t think we had a black person in my high school; I went to De La Salle High School. At the university, there weren’t very many black students. It was an all-male university.
GS: Where did you go to college?
SW: Notre Dame University. My first year I befriended a very talented athlete, Aubrey Louis. He was black. I ran track and cross-country. He was a multi-sport star. But he ran track. Just missed placing for the Olympics. He was black, and the first day I met him, he was walking with a blanket to track practice. I remember chasing him, and I said, “What are you carrying that blanket for?” He said, “I’m going to get a suntan!” And I burst out laughing, I said, “What the hell are you talking about? You’re brown already!” He said, “Don’t you realize black people sunburn?” I said, “No, I didn’t.” That was my first interesting racial interaction. My folks’ neighborhood store, we had a few black families move in from the section of Detroit called Black Bottom. We had three families, and then one interesting thing happened: a single black gentleman moved in who was—they pulled up with a small van or truck, he got out of the cab, and we could see from the store window that he was moving into the apartment just down the street. He was black. So, about seven women in the store who all spoke Polish commented: “Oh, he looks elegant!” “He’s so regal!” “I wonder what he does?” “Where’s he from?” About an hour later, after his things were moved in the building—he walked with a cane, a blind cane, so he had partial vision—and he walked in the store. I saw him coming, and our store had five steps up with no railing, so I was about 12 at the time. I ran out, helped him up the steps, introduced myself. He told me his name, which I don’t remember anymore. My mother came to the door and introduced herself, and he said, “Well, I just moved in the neighborhood.” My mother said, “Yes, we all saw you pull up. Everybody was excited.” And he thanked her and said, “Could you have your son orientate me to things in the store?” So I was walking him down through the different aisles and all the women gathered by the meat counter. My mother was on one side of the meat counter, the women were on the other, and they’re all talking about him in Polish. As he and I turned to walk past them, he turned and greeted the women in perfect Polish. He spoke Polish better than I ever did. He thanked them for all of the pleasant comments. I swear, all these women must have peed in their pants, it was so surprising! It turned out to be a great relationship. He had worked for the embassy in Warsaw, so he obviously had to learn Polish and he spoke it very well.
GS: With all that in mind, could you sense any kind of social tensions?
SW: No. None. None whatsoever.
GS: In July 1967 when the riot started, how did you first hear about it?
SW: Well, it was interesting because from the university one of my friends went into the Air Force. He had retired from the Air Force. He was one of the first air groups sent to Korea before we declared war on North Korea. He was, what do they call them when they send them and they don’t call them a fish, they’re training people and all this. His plane was almost knocked out of the sky. He landed with more holes in his plane than metal left, he said. His term of duty was over, so he did resign and then started flying for American Airline. He would be through the Detroit area quite a bit, and we stayed in touch. When he got married, I went to his wedding and he came to my wedding, that kind of thing. But he went in to the Air National Guard, and the Air National Guard trained at the airbase in Segal, Michigan. I don’t remember the name of it. The first summer that they were going to do that, I was married and had my daughter, so she was about four because I was asking her how old she was. He invited us to vacation at a cottage in Alpena on a lake—don’t remember the name of the lake—where his whole squadron of pilots rented cottages. That night, we sat around a bonfire and nobody paid attention. We didn’t have TVs out there. Nobody paid attention to the radio, we were just having a nice, relaxing time, these airmen from all over the country and their families. He asked if I’d like to go to the airbase in the morning and see what their routine is. So we got up quite early, I don’t know, 4:30, 5 o’clock to be out there. He dressed in his normal training clothes, or flying clothes. We got to the base. It was still dark. We walked into the gathering building for the pilots, and there were a few men already in there, and there was quite a bit of excitement. We didn’t know what it was all about. As we’re walking down this one corridor, they had two strands of wire run and photos, like hundreds of them, about eight and a half by eleven, they were duplicates, taken of the city of Detroit Friday. The fires started on a Friday. The riots started on a Friday, if I’m correct.
GS: They started on a Saturday, I believe.
SW: Saturday? So then did we get up there—I forget times. Whatever. The first night, we were not in the city when it started. Then the next day, I go to this airbase with him, and we see all of these pictures and all of the pilots and crews start coming in and everybody’s kind of excited about, there’s a riot going on in Detroit. I never had a sense of a need for a riot because I was still young. I didn’t comprehend all of these issues. I never had encountered them, to tell you the truth. It was a real surprise to me. As we’re standing there, talking about what’s going on, all of a sudden, we hear an abrupt “Attention!” yelled, and everybody snaps to attention. I was the only civilian, I think, there at the time. As we stood at attention, we parted ways as two soldiers or airmen marched in front of—I forget what the man’s rank was, Colonel, General, the Commander. I don’t know what his rank was, but he was a superior officer. He went up to the front of the room, they told us to face him, and he told them to stay at attention. His immediate comment was, “Gentlemen, we are at war.” I was quite surprised, of course. He said, “There’s a race riot going on in Detroit. We are now asking you to raise your right hand. You are being sworn back into the US Air Force.” Because they were Air National Guardsmen from different states. So with that, he told them, “This is serious. Be prepared for a war.” He says, “Your commanders will take over.” Now it’s a very serious mood. Each individual group was issued their orders. My friend had to go flying, and they were a camera production crew for photo reconnaissance. So I left, went back to the cottage, and explained what was going on. Those of us from Detroit were quite shocked, and of course everybody felt funny about it. I think it was two days later we left for home. Of course, I was asked to go out to the base if I wanted to see more pictures. When we left, we left, I think it was Monday morning, and Grayling, Michigan is where, I think, the Michigan National Guard trains. Hardly any cars on the road, early in the morning, and we were driving in a parade of military vehicles. Trucks with men sitting on a bench in the back with rifles in front of them. Tanks on trailers. Many jeeps, jeeps with mounted machine guns. Just a lot of various military equipment. We drove with them because we were on the east side, and they were going to the west side, and we basically had the same way then split off at our expressways here. We drove into our neighborhood and when we—we lived on a boulevard on the east side, Cadieux and Chandler Park Drive. I don’t know what possessed me to get off near—there’s a Chandler Park—and I decided to get off there and drive through the nice neighborhood, and at that park, the National Guard had set up their base with their tents and cooking things, all kinds. We headed home, and there was absolutely no traffic. It was just like the city, seemed like it shut down. We were asked to keep the lights down at night, that kind of thing. That was our experience, you know, immediate experience. I was teaching at Catholic schools at the time, high schools. We didn’t encounter much of anything because we didn’t have the—we basically had a white community. Everybody speculated and talked about it, but that was pretty much it.
GS: So you felt pretty safe with the National Guard next to you?
SW: Listen, I’ve never felt threatened in this city. With that going on, it was in an isolated area. The same thing would’ve been at that time that drive through that isolated area or close. For some reason, I never felt threatened, my wife did. But I, myself, told her, “I don’t think we have to worry,” but because they did start, and the military would drive up and down our boulevard, so you always saw them, maybe every fifteen minutes, a jeepload of guys or a machine gun would drive by. So, yeah, we felt quite safe.
GS: After July of 1967, did your perception of the city change at all?
SW: No. I just felt it’s a people problem. I personally didn’t think of it as a racial problem because I never experienced, consciously experienced race. My folks—I don’t think they ever talked about discriminatory things. They were unusual people. Generally, my dad was the most kindest guy you could know. I never heard him say a bad thing about anybody. I don’t care if it was a goofy customer or a neighbor, never once! I kind of grew up in a home that didn’t talk bigotry. It was surprising to me to hear now this is being called racial, and I started becoming, you know, because of that and all the publicity, all the articles and newscasters, you’re being brought into reality.
GS: With that in mind, a lot of people call what happened other terms apart from “riot,” like “rebellion” or “uprising,” with all you know now, would you call it one of these other terms or would you call it a riot?
SW: I would call this people get angry for various reasons. If enough people are being made to feel the same way, then I feel they’re going to rebel. Now, as history indicates, there were a lot of negative things being perpetrated against minorities, so the black people obviously living in a predominantly white city, it was a problem. I think as you see now, we even have police departments now that show bigotry, nowhere near as much as what we used to have. People had been working on correcting it, but any correction of attitude takes a long time. I feel it’s much better than it was, but it’s got a ways to go.
GS: All right. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
SW: Not that I can really think of.
GS: All right. Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
SW: I appreciate being here.