Michael Schiavi, August 28th, 2016
CL: Okay, this is Carri Lee and I am in Northville, MI with Michael Schiavi and we are talking about the riots of 1967 for the Detroit Historical Society oral history project. Well, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for us.
MS: You’re welcome.
CL: And let’s just start by asking you where you were born and when?
MS: I was born in Detroit, MI in August of 1947.
CL: And how did your family come to live in Detroit?
MS: Well my grandparents on my mother’s side came right after World War I and my father came from Italy in 1939 and my father lived in Dearborn and my mother lived in Detroit. My mother went to Commerce High School and she was working as a secretary at the same factory that my father had a job and that’s when they met, before World War II, and then they got married after World War II.
CL: So what, what area of Detroit did you live in?
MS: Well, I grew up for the first seven years on Livernois and Fenkell area.
CL: And then where did you move after that?
MS: Well we moved to West Chicago and Southfield area near Cody High School. That’s where I went to high school
CL: And what year did you graduate from high school?
CL: So, when you were living in that area, near Cody High School, was it integrated or was it a white area?
MS: It was white. It was only white.
CL: And did you notice any racial tensions in the city in terms of like what, what areas you were allowed to go to or what areas you wanted to go to?
ML: Well, I wasn’t really allowed to go to many areas. So, we didn’t really have much racial tension because we never saw any black people. Then when I started to go to Wayne State in 1966, or '65, then obviously I noticed a big difference because Wayne State was in the heart of the city. People were there were all different races and that’s when I, my first exposure to multi-racial climate
CL: Was it surprising to you that it was so different?
MS: Oh, yes.
CL: That close by.
MS: Yes. It was.
CL: And then, so leading up, after you moved from your, well you lived at your, near Cody, but you commuted to school or you lived at school?
MS: Yes. I commuted to school, took the Warren bus every day to school.
CL: And when you were at Wayne State did you feel different moving around the city than you did when you were back near your neighborhood?
MS: Well, you get used to it pretty fast so it really didn’t bother me much. I, I wasn’t a candidate to be mugged because I didn’t have any money or anything. So, no I didn’t really feel afraid or anything. I didn’t, I didn’t have any worries at all.
CL: Okay, and then did you always live at home the whole time you went to Wayne State?
MS: Yeah. Yes, always.
CL: Okay. So when you were going to Wayne State did you, were you part of any groups or anything?
MS: Oh I was in, I was in a lot a groups at Wayne State. I was in the Mackenzie Union and then I was in a fraternity at Wayne State
CL: Which fraternity?
MS: Tau Kappa Epsilon.
MS: So, yeah I was, I was really involved in student activities.
CL: And what was Mackenzie Union?
MS: Well that was the Student Union and we put on all the dances, concerts, a lot of recreational activities went through the Union, Mackenzie Union.
CL: And so—
MS: It was basically the men’s student activities.
CL: Oh, okay. So when you were going to school and planning all this did you notice tensions leading up to 1967 or was something like was about to happen in ‘67 completely off your radar?
MS: Well, there was other riots in other cities. That was a big eye opener. I believe the Washington riots and the Newark riots were before the Detroit riots but I’m not quite, I don’t, I may not be remembering that correctly. But there were other riots, so when it happened in Detroit everybody was shocked but kind of expected it, too, because the conditions were pretty ripe for a riot. The black people were really, oh there’s just all the horror stories that are all true, that they were treated by the police, well everybody was treated by the police poorly, really. And, so really, you know, the marches down South, it had to happen. It was, it was, it got out of hand quickly though. The National Guard came in. There was a lot of burning. Our fraternity house on Wayne State’s campus burnt down. We lost our house that day. So, it was, it was a shock and an eye opener, but it, if you look back it could be expected. Now for the white people, we were, like people like my parents, they we were really in shock because they had no contact with black people at all. So when that happened, their first reaction was to move, which they did. They moved to Livonia.
CL: And what year did they move to Livonia?
MS: They moved to Livonia in about ‘69 or ’70.
CL: So their move was in direct correlation to those happenings?
MS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. That really gave them the push.
CL: So when, backing up for a second to when the, you were saying “black people were treated poorly and kind of had to happen like the other cities”. Do you mean just in terms of racial discrimination or did you witness anything specific from police or any other—?
MS: I never really witnessed anything myself but every day in the newspaper, you know the Black Panthers had a real presence on Wayne’s campus at that time and they had a newspaper that came out weekly or every other week, and we used to read that and there was a lot of, there was a lot of fear down there and a lot of hatred and for, in the black community, and the radicals just pushed it and it was a powder keg and it just took one little spark to blow the whole thing up.
CL: And I know you had mentioned in a conversation we had previous to this interview that the police were kind of viewed as people that just kind of, quote, “busted heads” so—
MS: Oh, yeah.
CL: —what gave you that impression? Is it things you’re reading or things that you’re seeing?
MS: My only experience was not racial it was anti-war. It was an anti-war demonstration on Wayne’s campus. People were burning the American flag. There was a lot of students watching this, they weren’t really agreeing with them. It was just, they were just watching them do this and they, the Detroit Mounted Police came in and they beat the hell out of everybody. Students who were participating and those who weren’t. I got hit with a night stick on my elbow.
CL: So, your impression was there was, it was a powder keg because of discrimination and then the police were also kind of violent. Would that be fair?
MS: Yes. They were violent. There was a unit I think was called STRESS [Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets]. They busted heads first and asked questions second. There was always something in the newspaper about those guys beating people up and it just sooner or later it had to happen. There was just not a way for those people to live anymore.
CL: How did you find out? Were in your house or, your fraternity house, or how did you first learn that the riots were occurring?
MS: Probably through the TV or the radio because it was during the summer and I was working at the time and living at my house.
CL: Your parents' house?
MS: My parents' house. And just a few of my fraternity brothers were still living in the house on campus because there was no school then. It was August I believe.
CL: So did you try and go down there to your fraternity house when you learning about it or did you just stay away until you knew it was safe?
MS: I stayed away and after about three days I went down and, to look at, look at the fraternity house, and then when I got home I got into a lot of trouble with my mother for going down there [laughing]. Because the National Guard was still in, you know, patrolling the streets and there were curfews I think. So she was probably right.
CL Did, what did the fraternity house look like when you got there?
MS: It was smoldering. The whole back end had burned. It was smoldering.
CL: Do you know who burned it, or how it got burned?
MS: I believe it was just a Molotov cocktail type of thing, like all the other houses.
CL: Did you see any other buildings on Wayne State’s campus that got burned?
MS: Well, the off-campus, right, yeah there was a lot of houses where our house was that were burned. A lot of stores, broken windows.
CL: And after everything settled down, did there ever become a point when you felt comfortable going back down there?
MS: Well, yeah, school started that following September and really I didn’t have any problem going down. Things had calmed down quite a bit.
CL: And was it your impression, also from your parents' experience, that that was the impetus for what we now call the “white flight”?
MS: Oh yeah. There was a lot of things that lead to white flight. That probably was one of the bigger ones.
CL: And what year did your parents move to Livonia did you say?
MS: ‘69 or ’70.
MS: So, what is your impression of the city after the riots until now, with the quote “revival of Detroit”? Do you think stayed the same from ‘67 on or is it still the same?
MS: Well there’s two Detroits. There’s the downtown Detroit that everybody talks about that is so great, and it is. But the problem is, is you have to get there and those neighborhoods have only gotten worse through the last 30 or 40 years. There has been no investment in the neighborhoods. Many blocks are abandoned. Some with just one or two houses. I remember going to see my grandparents' house, they lived on Santa Rosa, that’s at Livernois and Finkell where I lived. And I probably went there in the Eighties and that whole block was pretty well gone. That, the whole block, my grandmother’s house was gone and it was just garbage and it just was terrible, terrible. And obviously I never went back there then.
CL: Did you or your family ever have conversations about what you thought would make Detroit better after you left?
MS: No. No, that, my parents gave up on that. And, and, I did too. I ended up living in Detroit for a while after I graduated from Wayne State but then I got married and in 1973 moved out to Plymouth and I’ve been in, you know, Western-Wayne County ever since. So I’ve never moved back to Detroit because terrible school systems and it’s unsafe.
CL: And do you think there was a huge difference in Detroit right before and right after the riots, or do you think it had been declining from some other previous point in time?
MS: That, I don’t know that. I don’t know that. I, I do know that one of the things that was better was when the Tigers won the World Series in ‘68. And I was downtown when they won that final game and it was really pretty cool. Black and white people together sharing beer and anything else, wine, or whoever had anything they would share it. It was a big party. There was really no incidents and that, that was a good thing, the Tigers won the World Series. That was, went toward healing a little bit but the neighborhoods need massive investment to bring it back to where it was in the Fifties and Sixties when I was a kid
CL: Okay, Is there anything else that you remember or that you want to sure?
MS: Okay, well, thank you.
MS: Thank you.
CL: Okay, bye.