Robert Tell, July 23rd, 2016
Giancarlo Stefanutti: Hello, today is July 23, 2016. My name is Giancarlo Stefanutti. We’re in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s 67 Oral History Project. I’m sitting down with Bob Tell. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
Robert Tell: Good to see you too.
GS: Can you first tell me where and when were you born?
RT: The full name is Robert. People call me Bob. I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1937.
GS: When did you move to Detroit then?
RT: The end of 1963.
GS: Wow, so then growing up in Brooklyn, what was your community like there?
RT: Well, it was a New York City community. Brooklyn is a borough of New York City. It was great. I loved New York, I loved Brooklyn. I still do. I went to school there, went to high school there, went to college there, went to graduate school there. My undergraduate degree is from English literature from Long Island University. My graduate degree is a masters in hospital administration from Columbia, University. It was great. I grew up in Brooklyn but we lived – spent a lot of time in Manhattan areas and all the other areas around New York City. It was good.
GS: What did your parents do growing up?
RT: My father had a small factory mostly for leather goods – briefcases, optical cases, things like that; it was a small business type factory. My mother was the foreman. He was the brains of the business. She supervised the employees. They did that together.
GS: So was your community in Brooklyn very racially integrated?
RT: No, not much. Brooklyn, of course, was – we’re talking from 1937 through early 1963, integration wasn’t on the tip of anybody’s tongue in those days. There were black neighborhoods, there were Jewish neighborhoods, there were Italian neighborhoods; where I grew up there was mostly Jewish and Italians. There were a few black people around but no Asians or anybody else.
GS: Why did you move to Detroit then?
RT: I was offered a job as senior administrator at Sinai Hospital in Detroit, which was a very strong hospital in those days. It’s gone now for a lot of other reasons. I was recruited to be the equivalent of a vice president. They didn’t use those titles then but that was basically the job.
GS: So when you first came here, what was your impression of Detroit?
RT: You know what? Brooklyn was a dying city in those days. Young people don’t believe me now because it’s expensive and it’s the in place to be. My grandson lives there and thinks it is the coolest place on earth. But when we were leaving I thought the last person out should turn out the lights. We were moving to a place that was exciting; it was Motor City, cars were being built. It was a growing metropolis and big manufacturing town. I always liked cars and I was happy to get a job offer from a major Detroit area hospital. It was an adventure. It was exciting.
GS: Where did you move to in Detroit?
RT: Oak Park.
GS: Was that community similar to your community in Brooklyn?
RT: No, very little in Detroit is similar to what Brooklyn was like in those days. It was a nice, middle class, suburban city, a very comfortable city – great schools, great amenities, it was a good place to live. It was very nice.
GS: So could you sense any sort of tension growing inside? You were pretty new.
RT: We were new, but I’ll tell you, I was probably misguided. Our hospital was in Northwest Detroit, it was on Outer Drive. The community that we drove around in and I really studied the community because our hospital was part of it, was very integrated, it was black and white. Coming from Brooklyn where the areas were pretty segregated, I thought this was great. I didn’t sense any tension; I just thought this was wonderful. It’s an ideal, model integrated community – middle class people, whites, blacks living together, no problem, no tension. Little did I know! But it just looked peaceful; looked stable on the surface. Obviously, I didn’t get underneath it all but it looked very attractive.
GS: So when the events in July 1967, where were you when you first heard about the riots starting?
RT: Well, this is my story. It all has to do with the hospital. I was the administrator responsible on duty; the chief operating officers were off duty. We low level vice presidents had to take the administrative call. So I got a call from the nursing supervisor. “Mr. Tell, you really need to come in here.” That’s not something I wanted to hear, you know. Usually my calls were telephone issues. “Why, what’s going on?” I can’t remember her name. Nursing supervisors were pretty much in charge of the hospital while we were away. She said, “I can’t explain it just come on down here and meet me on the roof of the hospital.” “What?” She said, “Something is going on. Meet me on the roof of the hospital.” I said okay, so I drove down. So far all is well, no problems driving down and went to the hospital and went up the roof and met her. I didn’t have to ask her anymore because you could see it. She said, “Look.” You could look from the roof of Sinai Hospital you looked downtown and it looked like someone was bombing the city. The whole thing was ablaze. It was incredible. The sky was lit up. She said, “I don’t know what is going on down there.” I didn’t know, none of us knew what was going on. Something was going on. We figured whatever is going on is going to bring patients to our hospital. You better be alert to this and we better find out what’s going on. So, of course, we went downstairs and put on the radios and put on the TVs and it was pretty apparent that something was going on. A lot of it wasn’t all that clear, but there was a Blind Pig and the police raided it and, you know, something happened. People were mad; they’re looting; they’re breaking windows. It sounded awful. After a while we started hearing about – I may have my time sequences mixed up – police were involved, then the governor was involved. The National Guard was getting involved. Everybody was getting in on it. This really started to sound pretty bad. We started getting calls from employees. We had a large African American employee base. We started to get calls from employees due for the next shift saying they can’t get out. So here we are, there I am: I’m 30 years old in charge of the whole hospital for the first time being in a situation like this. I called my boss. They said, “Have fun! We can’t get out of here and there is a curfew coming on.” So they said, “It’s all yours!” Partly I was excited about it and partly I was scared out of my mind because all this is going on.
We knew we had to get employees in. Employees that were here started hearing about it and they were afraid they weren’t going to be able to get home. The question was how are we going to take care of the sick people and the patients – they were too sick, we couldn’t send them home. One of the first things I did was to arrange for bus transportation. We just rented a bunch of buses to ferry employees back and forth. A lot of people needed passes. We were hospital people; we didn’t need passes. I didn’t need a pass. Once the curfews went down, once the curfews were established, you couldn’t just be out on the street. We could get passes. We didn’t use it because I was there for days and days and days. I slept there for days and days and days. But the employees that came in and -- this is the story I really want to convey -- were wonderful. It was largely the black community that was rioting. These people somehow made their way into the hospital and wanted to show that not everybody rioting is looting stores. Not everybody living in that community is being violent. They wanted to make sure that sick people got care. This was very moving. They had to risk their lives to do that. I remember one guy – what was his name, I just remembered his name but I better not use it. He was the head of our messenger service, a black guy, an African American guy, very nice guy. I think he was also a deacon or something in his church, very well known in his community, and he said he’s going to ride shotgun on these buses because they have to go through areas where snipers are shooting and everything else. I’ll never forget the first busload he came back with our employees were pinned down on the floor of the bus in an area with snipers shooting and police shooting, everybody shooting, and they continued to come. They didn’t say we’re not coming in; maybe some did. But many, many employees came in and the ones that got really tired and couldn’t sleep at the hospital went home. So it was an incredible experience to see that dedication and commitment. These people were wonderful. Days went by. Most of us slept in the hospital. It was kind of an interesting experience from a hospital administrator’s point of view because hospitals are like any other big organization. People have their little fiefdoms and there’s territorial disputes and you are probably familiar with stuff like that. During a crisis everybody pulls together. Nurses were serving food to patients to employees. Department heads were sweeping floors and washing windows. Everybody was doing stuff without complaint to try and keep the hospital going and to make sure that sick people got care. That was really just the story. It got very scary. You could hear the helicopters overhead. You could see the tanks zooming by on the streets outside. There were big cannons going. My family – I was in touch with them by phone but I worried about Oak Park; Oak Park was very close to the city. They were hearing all the noises and scared for us at the hospital and didn’t know what was going to be happening. It was a frightening time but everybody pulled through. That’s basically it. That’s my story.
GS: Did you get a lot more patients during these few days?
RT: We couldn’t. We had to send them elsewhere where hospitals had room. We couldn’t send patients home and we really discouraged them from coming in to the city. There were hospitals in the suburbs that were probably more able to take care of them. There were always emergencies. Most people came to the emergency room, there were always some patients that came in. But what I call voluntary admissions – people who had choices about time or place -- did not come in during that time.
GS: You mentioned that National Guard with the tanks. When the National Guard and the Army came in, were you all relieved to see them there or were you more nervous?
RT: Stunned I think is the better word. This is America, right? What the hell is going on here? This is like a country at war, maybe this is like Europe during World War II. What was going on here? It was very frightening. I guess mixed. To some extent relief, because they were going to hopefully restore the peace. On the other hand, to see tanks in there and army helicopters and all of the equipment of war in our streets was sobering.
GS: Did your perception of Detroit change after 1967?
RT: Oh yeah. I learned first of all – my bubble was burst. The so-called peaceful neighborhood was not so peaceful. A lot of the action was not in our immediate neighborhood but what happened was “white flight.” All these nice white neighbors of the black people in Northwest Detroit took a look at what happened and said, “Oh, we’re getting out of here” and they did. By the time a few years went by it was like a 99% black neighborhood. All the whites had fled to the suburbs. The suburbs were growing and building and Southfield was developing. The suburbs were developing in all directions. Livonia was developing; a lot of places were developing. Farmington – Farmington was later. Obviously, what I saw was an ideal model integrated neighborhood so different from my segregated Brooklyn roots, it was a bubble that burst. It was probably never like that, it was just a façade. Suddenly I realized there were major racial problems in the city.
GS: So with all that in mind, a lot of people have called the events “riots” but also “rebellion” or “social unrest.” Would you call it something apart from riot?
RT: Well, I don’t know how you define riot. Rebellion and riot – there were people that were like in any civil disturbance, there were people who take advantage of it. There were good people who got hurt. There were people who ran honest stores. There were stores broken into and destroyed and looted. There were people who saw an opportunity for private gain. In all of that, there were people with legitimate grievances and had an anger that let it explode. It got out of control. Some of these employees that made a point of coming in and risking their lives to come in to the hospital wanted to make the point that maybe someone is calling it an insurrection, but from their point of view they wanted to show that not all black people are like out there looting and stealing TVs and things like that. A lot of them said that to me. There was some anger. I remember one housekeeping lady said to me, “Black people aren’t going to clean white ladies houses anymore.” She saw it as a revolution because a lot of middle class and wealthy whites used black people as maids in their homes. Even though that’s a source of income to those maids, it was demeaning to have to go clean their houses. That attitude seems to have gone today. But that was an attitude then among poor blacks that had to do that. She thought this was a revolution and that was not going to have to happen anymore. A lot of things happened in and around the city. New Detroit got started. A lot of other organizations I was involved with as a hospital administrator and we helped get started. It was part of some of the discussions that led to the renaissance and all the other things that came out of the riots. I’m not sure it did very much other than look good. I’m not sure they accomplished a whole lot. Maybe other people feel differently. I’m not sure that they did. Anyhow, yes, my perceptions of the city changed a lot at that time.
GS: How do you see Detroit today?
RT: Oh, I love it. It’s hard for me to convince my family and friends who don’t live here about how dynamic it is. It’s got problems. It still has problems. Downtown and the area around here is doing fine. The neighborhoods are still a problem. I’ve done some volunteer work in some of the neighborhoods, especially the East Side. There’s still a lot of big problems here. People who don’t know drive around and they drive through downtown and say “Oh, it was nice.” They go to the waterfront “Oh, it’s great.” They see Campus Martius and they go to the Sand and CompuServe. It all looks very nice. But if you go driving around or go up Grand River even Woodward or go through parts of Highland Park -- it’s terrible. People say to me, “How could you have done that? How can you say the city is booming?” You should have seen it before; it’s got to start someplace. We got here in ’63. It’s taken fifty years for the city to decline. I hope it doesn’t take fifty years, but it’s going to take a good number of decades for it to come back. You’ve got to start someplace. It’s starting. I’m very hopeful. I wish I was younger. I’d like to see it happen. If I was younger I would consider living in the city. There’s a lot of good stuff going on here. We always take out-of-town guests downtown to show them what’s happening. My kids live on the West Coast. When they’re here, they grew up here, they’re totally blown away by what they see. They’ve taken away an impression of the city as a place they never wanted to come back to. Wow, it’s really changing. So that’s all positive. The newspapers and the media are starting – it used to be all bad stuff – I’m starting to see more positive coverage. So your question was how do I feel about the city now? Very hopeful, very optimistic.
GS: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
RT: I don’t think so. Let me look at my written notes. I didn’t leave anything out. No, this summarizes a lot of what I said too. This is a prose poem which also says it in more flowery language. I think that’s about it. Any more questions for me?
GS: Thank you for sitting down with me today.
RT: I think it was great, it was fun.
RT: Will I ever get a chance to see this?