Beverly St. John
WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel and I am here with Katie Kennedy. We are interviewing—Bev, what’s your last name?
BSJ: Beverly St. John.
WW: —for the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Thank you for sitting down with us today.
BSJ: It’s my pleasure.
WW: Could you start by telling us where and when you were born?
BSJ: I was born in Detroit, March 23rd, 1943. That makes me 72 years old.
WW: Did you grow up in the city?
BSJ: I grew up in the city. I did not go to Detroit Public Schools, however; I went to Parochial schools all my life.
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
BSJ: I grew up in what they call now the inner city. I grew up in the Michigan and Junction area. Actually, it was closer to Scotten because my mother worked at Cadillac Motor on Clark Street and Michigan, so that’s basically where I grew up. I remember when they had street cars—this is why this is somewhat of a fiasco to me—because they had street cars on Michigan Avenue, they had streetcars on Woodward Avenue, then they tore all the tracks out. Now they’re putting them back in because they were kind of cool to ride.
WW: What schools did you go to?
BSJ: I went to Assumption Grade School, which was on Warren just a little bit west of West Grand Boulevard, which is now a church. They tore it down. They had a rectory and a grade school and a church. From there I went to Rosary High School, which I understand is now gone. It was on Greenfield and Joy Road. It was an all-girls school that Henry Ford had bequeathed to the archdiocese of Detroit. When they bequeathed the property to the archdiocese, they also gave property to Detroit Lutheran High West. I don’t know what it is now. Rosary eventually became Wayne County Community College. That closed and they, I understand, demolished the property. But Henry Ford is buried at, I think it’s St. Elizabeth’s Church. It’s an Episcopalian church on the corner there, just a little bit west on Joy Road, and he’s buried there. That was part of his family farm.
KK: Could you describe your neighborhood and your family growing up?
BSJ: We lived with my grandmother, actually. She had like a three-bedroom home. It was just a tiny bungalow. My grandmother was widowed at a very early age and she raised six children in that house. One bathroom. My mother wanted to pay cash for everything, so we stayed with my grandmother, which was next to a living nightmare. I slept in the same bedroom with my mother and my dad and my brothers slept in another room. We lived like that until about 1957 when I went to high school. Going back, I can remember the neighborhood was mixed, but we had a lot of Polish people and they had a nice shopping center on Michigan and Junction. That was the place to go. It was kind of like a big shopping area. A lot of ladies’ shops. We had three dime shops: Nisener’s, Woolworth’s, and Kresge’s. We had Cunningham drugstores, Kinsel drugstores. We had a place where we could buy 45s and I can remember buying my first 45rpm was Bill Haley, “Rock Around the Clock.” It was just kind of neat. Along Michigan Avenue between 31st and 28th Streets, there were a lot of furniture stores, so people used to come to buy their furniture there. I can remember we had Lockman Jewelers, which was nice. Now it’s some kind of warming center or clinic, I’m not really sure. We had bakeries, Paris and Warsaw. A number of places to eat, of course. Not too far on Junction we’d walk to St. Hedwig Church. I remember, in 1957 I started Rosary High School and my family at that point moved to Dearborn. We lived in east Dearborn on Wisconsin Street. I took the bus. I graduated in 1961, then I went to Western Michigan University. Graduated in ’65. Taught for a while in Detroit. Got my Master’s Degree from Wayne State, and here I am. As far as this museum is concerned, as a kid, I would take the bus down here at least two or three times a month because I absolutely loved this place. I was so taken in with the whole Streets of Detroit, so even today when I get visitors that say, “Where should we start?” I’ll say, “Go down to the Streets of Old Detroit. It’s really the best place to start.” And of course, I’ll go to the DIA because I like those circular staircases, but I enjoyed this very much. Hopefully I didn’t talk too much.
WW: No worries. What schools did you teach at in Detroit?
BSJ: I taught at Mackenzie High School. I started at Kettering High School, which is now closed, but that was a riot, literally. Kids were just totally out of control. I couldn’t handle them, and I was a young woman. I taught high school biology and it was just—a lot of the faculty left, too. I think one of the counsel people or somebody from—I don’t know, some big organization in Detroit. His name was Lonny Peaks, I guess. I see his name in the paper periodically. He was another biology teacher, and I said, “Hey, get me out of here,” and I went to Mackenzie. I enjoyed it there, I didn’t have any problems. The kids seemed to be a little more amenable, plus it was close to my home because I lived on Wisconsin Street which was fairly close to Mackenzie, which was on Wyoming. Wisconsin is three blocks east of Wyoming. It would be up about a mile and a half, it was close. I was there off and on for about three years. I went to Livonia for a year and taught. I got married in ’68, and then at the time you couldn’t teach if you were pregnant, so I quit. Then, when the kids started getting older, it was kind of a rocky marriage so I did some substitute work. I taught part-time conservation in Dearborn Heights, and then I did a lot of substitute teaching. Did I say I taught a year in Livonia? Emerson Junior High. I eventually got onto Schoolcraft College and I taught there for 38 years as a part-time instructor. I taught biology, nutrition, and health education in the police academy. During the day, I worked in financial services. I spent 21 years in financial services. It was a year at Harvard Town, but I worked a year for the Chief Executive Officer of Roney & Company, which was a firm at the time, you know, kind of a fancy regional firm. From there I spent almost 10 years at Merrill Lynch. I did have a lot of licenses, I mean talk about a strange background. But I guess we’re here to talk about the ’67. When I was teaching in Detroit, during the summers and during the football seasons, I got a job with the C.A. Muer Corporation, which at the time owned the top of the Pontch, the restaurant over here on Washington and Jefferson, across the street from Cobo Hall. I did that for a couple of summers, and I really had a good time there, too, because I was the day manager/hostess type thing.
KK: What year is this?
BSJ: 19—let’s see, I graduated from college in ’65, so I went down there I think in ’66 or ’67. I was there both summers. When I was going to be going back, Chuck Muer, who was lost at sea I guess, you’re not familiar with that. He said as a going away gift, he would let me eat in the restaurant. They had a fancy restaurant called La Mediterinae, which was a fancy, fancy French restaurant. He said, “I’ll give you a room on the pool side and you can bring a friend and just relax,” blah blah blah. So I can remember it was a Sunday night, in August, I think that’s when it started. My friend and I—it was a guy, but we weren’t doing anything either. We were a little more inhibited back then. We were going upstairs to the top of the Pontch which I’m not sure if it’s the 25th or 30th floor, I’m not sure what floor it was. They had glass all the way around, and I looked out there and saw all these fires. In the city, there was a whole line, which I later learned was Grand River Avenue, and it was just one big fire. He looks at me, and he looks at me, and he says, “We better get out of here.” So we went downstairs to the main floor of the Pontchartrain Hotel and they had these enormous ropes. I mean these ropes were yea thick, like they would have to anchor a cruise ship or something. They were wrapped around the doors. We thought, well, what’s up with that? Still not figuring what was going on, and eventually I got home. The parts that I remember the most was the fact that I worked during the day as like the day manager or whatever, and I even have a picture someplace at home of my waitresses and me. I can remember they had the headquarters for the ’67—they called them the riots or the civil disturbance, I don’t know how they referred to them euphemistically, but anyway, the headquarters for all the big shots that were involved with trying to contain this thing was at the old fire station, which was at Larned and Washington Boulevard. There’s an old fire station, I think it’s closed now. Every day, they would come up for breakfast or for lunch, and they would discuss whatever because just as you come into the Hotel Pontchartrain, there was this huge circular table on the right hand side, and they’d all sit around it over there and visit. I do remember meeting Cyrus Vance, who was sent out from Washington D.C. to kind of organize whatever they were trying to do to halt this thing. I do remember a number of our people were working, and they were concerned. They lived in the city, especially the black individuals, because it was scary. I remember writing them notes to allow them to pass through because they had guards all over the place, you know, letting people in and out of Detroit. They were scared, and so was I. Living in Dearborn, I can remember seeing tanks, right at the city limits on Tireman/Wyoming area in front of, they used to have a place called American Blower. I think they changed the name to American Standard or something now, but I remember that, and I do remember very vividly seeing the National Guard here in downtown Detroit. It was sad. They said it started someplace in the Dexter/Linwood area, or whatever, I don’t recall. But that’s mostly the memory I have of that thing. It was sad because I know a year later when Martin Luther King was shot, that just created another minor disturbance. But this was sad. My understanding is it was over something stupid, that the whole thing erupted. But I do recall it was extremely hot. It was very humid, and you had a lot of kids that particularly lived in the inner city, the black youngsters, that didn’t have anything really worthwhile to do. No jobs, no places to really, you know, work out some of this frustration. I guess I heard they killed a guy with a brick or something or they stopped—I don’t know. A lot of it was hearsay at the time, too. You talk to one person and you’ve got a different set of stories, that type of thing. That’s really about all I remember. I feel like I’m talking too much. They said there were a lot of bodies that washed up into the Detroit sewer system. As far as the actual count, I don’t know. I think the newspapers at the time had the tendency to under-report because they didn’t want to get people totally panicked. From what I could gather, there were a lot more casualties than were reported. I don’t know.
KK: How were you affected after?
BSJ: I don’t know. I don’t really remember how I was feeling. I never had a problem going back into the city or working in Detroit or anything of that sort. I think I remember at the time that it was a sad event, that so much of the damage was done in the black neighborhoods and things like that, and I felt bad for them. Even to this day, if I drive down Grand River, there are a lot of areas that were burned out that were never restored. I kind of felt like that was kind of too bad. I guess a parallel I can take is when they bombed during the 9/11, I was working at Merrill Lynch and I saw it live on TV until the cameras went “Pfft.” That was the end of it. But now I look at the aftermath of the thing, and I thought, well, now we go to the airports and we take our shoes off, and, you know, some people get frisked and all this kind of stuff because of the actions of a few. I think it set the city back socially and economically because of the actions of a minority of people that created this problem. It seemed like we had a tremendous white flight after that. People moved to the suburbs and they didn’t want to come downtown. I felt sorry for the people that were left behind in the aftermath of this type of thing, but it did create quite a social impact. Now my family was already living in Dearborn, so it wasn’t like we up and took off as a result of it, but I think you saw a lot of people selling homes and getting the heck out of dodge, so to speak. It’s bad, you know, it was bad. I don’t know. I think even today, people are afraid to come into downtown Detroit, but I don’t know if I gave you anything of any value.
WW: Were you still teaching in Detroit?
WW: Even after what happened in 1967?
BSJ: Yep. I did, I did. I remember we had a minor disturbance in the schools, too, and they had to bring in the police. It had to have been around that time, too. At Mackenzie they were trying to integrate the school by bringing in students from the city, they were bussing them in, and then I don’t know what the heck happened, but there was a minor riot in the school. I remember some of the kids came and said, “Don’t you worry—” My name was Spizak at the time. They said, “Don’t you worry Miss Spizak, we’re going to protect you, don’t you worry.” But I did teach. Yeah, I never had a problem with the kids. I like kids, I like young people.
WW: All right, thank you very much.
BSJ: You’re welcome.
WW: Anything else? Any other comments or anything?
BSJ: I don’t have any souvenirs or anything for you, either. I just didn’t keep anything, but I know it was tough. It was tough. It was a real black eye on the city at that time because it created quite a few, it’s kind of like a ripple effect. It created problems that they didn’t even anticipate. But you’ve got a lot there to transcribe, so hopefully it will add to your repertoire. I just spoke with a lady, I transferred her to Tobi. She said she’s an old lady and she says, “I remember the civil disturbance, I want to add to it.” I say, okay, you can talk to her. I love this museum. But I’ll tell you one thing—it probably doesn’t have anything to do with that—but the last ten years I said, the city is never going to come back, not the way I remember it. And you know what? I’m wrong because it’s happening in my lifetime, and that’s a good thing. But I do remember Detroit in its heyday. I remember clubbing and all that.
WW: Well thank you very much.