Virginia Kelly, August 19th, 2016
JW: Hello, today is August 19, 2016. I am here at the Detroit Historical Museum recording an oral history for the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Would you say your name for me?
VK: Virginia Kelly.
JW: Alright. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. Can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
VK: I was born July 4, 1943 in Detroit, during the ‘43 riot.
JW: Oh yeah?
JW: Well, that’s funny. So then you grew up in the city?
VK: I grew up in the city.
JW: And what was your neighborhood like growing up?
VK: I grew up in the Boston Edison area. It was a very nice area. You’d be out at night, you’d never, you didn’t have to lock your door, you could let your attic fan run and the front door was open and it’d cool your house in the summer. The neighbors were wonderful. The neighborhood when my parents moved in was predominantly white. It began to change, but it remained very middle class--people down the street were doctors, lawyers...And then they cut the freeway through, and it just—the dirt and the filth, it was just…
JW: When was that?
VK: The freeway went through, I know exactly when that was. They paved, they had it paved in ‘54. And that’s when I got my racer bike. We used to race downtown on the closed freeway that was paved and then ride all the way back.
JW: That’s fun. So did you mostly stay in your neighborhood? Or you said you used to ride your bike around--did you go to other parts of the city?
VK: I rode my bike around. I had a friend that lived on the west side of Detroit, the Schaffer-Plymouth area and I used to ride my bike over there and then spend the night and then either ride back or her dad would bring me back.
JW: And so you felt safe traveling around the city alone?
VK: I felt completely safe.
JW: Yeah. Did you like to go downtown?
VK: Yes, we took the streetcar or the bus. This dates me. [Laughter]
JW: Yeah. So was the feel of the city like when you were a kid?
VK: It was nice neighborhoods, nice neighbors. Nice, well-kept homes. There was an extensive Jewish community just to the south of us, and there were refugees from WWII living in there. Jewish bakeries in Schaap-Central Street...which was three blocks over from where we lived. We used to go up there on Sundays to get the New York Times and our ice cream.
JW: So then in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, did you notice any tension in the city at all?
VK: Somewhat. Our family moved out in ‘67, they moved to Grosse Pointe Park. So, not from our neighbors certainly, they were very, very protective of us. We were one of the last white families on the block when we moved. There was some tension, there was some tension south of us, on Clairmount in an area where the Jewish families had begun to move out and black families were moving in. There were a lot of poor people down there. There was a [...] hospital, they ran a large prenatal clinic for indigent patients, and we had some problems, there were some comments made to us, made to me when I would walk down to the store. I used to walk down to Wayne State, and there were a couple of times, a few times, no real threats, just some comments.
JW: What kind of comments?
VK: About my anatomy. [Laughter] We won’t use specifics.
JW: Okay. I get the idea then. So then in 1967, what were you doing?
VK: I was working at Detroit General Hospital, in the Collections department, actually in the hospital credit department. The job was to follow up on insurance information and family contact information that had been obtained when somebody came in, but sometimes that wasn’t possible. The person didn’t have information or came in through the emergency room. And then verify insurance information and see that it got sent to the billing office. So I would do interviews with patients on the ward or make contact with their families if they couldn’t give me the information.
JW: So then how did you hear about what was going on the week of July 23rd?
VK: Well then on the radio, on the tv, on the news. The riots started just three blocks from our house. It burned down the drug store that we used to use.
JW: Do you think that building was targeted, or did it just happen to be…
VK: I think it was in the way, it was black owned. It had been white owned, and then the man sold out. He retired and then he sold it to a black pharmacist who just kept all the customers. Nothing changed. It was the same store, the same ice cream, the same New York Times, the same pharmacy. And I think, I think it was just in the way.
JW: So, working in the hospital, what was that week like in the hospital?
VK: It was exciting. A lot of fun. A little different from what you see on tv...It was realistic. I didn’t work in the ER. Occasionally they would call us up to work the admitting desk if they were shorthanded there and there were a lot of people walking in, but generally I just worked in the office and on the wards. We got to know a lot of people, you know. A lot of the patients were repeaters, with chronic problems. A lot of indigent people would come in, making claims that their bellies hurt or whatever, when really they just wanted, you know, ‘three hots and a cot,’ basically, for the night, you know.
JW: So the week that the riots hit, you said it was exciting, but do you have any stories about people?
VK: Well, I didn’t go to work Monday, it just wasn’t safe to drive, you know, to go down to the hospital area. I went to work on Tuesday, my dad took me down, and it was safe to travel then. The city, on the east side, was pretty well blocked off by the police, so you could get through. And I had an absolutely wonderful supervisor. Everybody should have supervisors like Mr. Jones, I hope his family’s listening [laughter], and he talked to us, he said “Just go up there and be polite, don’t push. Just state your reasons for being there and collect the insurance information.” And I must have talked to 20 patients that day. Every single one of them had full coverage, good insurance, I was kinda surprised. And then later in the week, that started to dwindle, as you got more and more unemployed people, from, I’m assuming the riots. But that first day, every single one of them had insurance, and good insurance. They all verified.
JW: Were the people that came in, were they primarily one race or was it a mixture?
VK: They were, at that point primarily black. And they were injuries like broken glass, broken bones. I don’t remember any gunshot wounds. I know that was, I remember several years later when I saw a diagnosis that said GSW I didn’t know what it meant. It’s gunshot wound. It was mostly stab wounds, hit on the head with whatever, that kind of thing.
JW: Were they mostly patients who could be outpatient, or did most of them have to spend the night?
VK: These were inpatients that our office did, yeah. There wasn’t credit collections in the clinic, but we were inpatient, yeah.
JW: Okay. And were most of them serious enough that they had to stay for several days, or was it mostly just a one overnight?
VK: That I don’t know, because we got the information, and then we would just work on verifying it. When they discharged people at that time, then they came down through our office just for a last check to make sure, and whoever was at the desk would just pull a file and say “okay,” you know, “go ahead” or “we need this or that.” As far as how long they stayed, I don’t know.
JW: And then you mentioned that the National Guard was stationed at the hospital too. Did that make it less stressful or more stressful for the people at the hospital, do you think?
VK: I don’t know about the patients, but at least for the staff in our office, it was stressful. There were some racial issues with the National Guard.
JW: What kind of racial issues?
VK: Like I’m white, I look like I just got off the boat from Sweden, but...and they gave all the employees a letter of introduction, saying, basically, this is the, ‘let this person pass, they work here.’ And we could safely go to Greektown for lunch or just go out and sit on the park bench or something, just get out of the building at lunch time and come back. And supposedly you were supposed to show that letter when you came back. I had mine in my hand but I never was asked for it, whereas my black coworkers were always asked for their letters. Even if they were with me or clearly identified as doctors, with a group of doctors, with a group of other people, they were asked. So the white employees would kind of just take the letters and just shove it in their faces and say ‘Here, here, read it, make sure you read it now!’
JW: So in a group of people they would specifically target the Black employees and wouldn’t ask you?
VK: They would target...and they wouldn’t, they never asked me for my letter. Which is kind of disconcerting when you’re standing next to your friend who gets asked for her letter, you know, and she’s with you, you know.
JW: Wow. And so was it, do you think it was reassuring for the patients to have the National Guardsmen there? Or do you think that was anxious for them too?
VK: I don’t know...I don’t even know if they were aware of it because it was primarily around the building and at the entrances. The doctors would have had the ultimate say in who came in the back door and who else was there. Most of the patients that I talked to were prisoners—literally—they had their ankles shackled to the foot of the bed. They had these beds with wire...crib-like, they had these footboards and they were shackled to the footboard. They had all these big bruisers chained to the bed on the gynecology ward, it was kind of amusing, but…
JW: Do you think the hospital was prepared to handle an event like this, or was this unusual?
VK: I didn’t...what it looked like and what I heard was that it ran like clockwork. I mean, being receiving, they were obviously used to major trauma, but the volume was just incredible, obviously. And they had had a riot drill prior to this, the director, Mr. Henry, said that we were going to have a riot, and word was that nobody really believed him. All and all, you know, we don’t really believe that, let’s just have some other sort of a disaster drill, you know--a car accident or something benign. ‘Oh no, we’re going to have a riot, so we’re going to have a riot drill.’ And there was a photograph taken of him leaning on the hall in the Emergency Room looking like, kind of a very satisfied “I told you so but God I wish I’d been wrong” kind of look on his face.
JW: When was it that you had that riot drill?
VK: Probably about a month before...It was in the summer.
JW: And you said that he just had a feeling that a riot was coming?
VK: He just had a feeling that a riot was coming. I don’t know who he had talked to, or he had looked at some of the injuries coming in or where he got that, I don’t know.
JW: But you said that no one else believed him, that no one else thought that it was coming?
VK: I think there was just a general feeling of ‘No, come on, that’s just not going to happen.’ But he was like, ‘We’ve got to be prepared.’ And everybody was assigned certain tasks, like, I think I was assigned...I can’t remember but I think I was assigned to take paperwork from Point A and back or something, or something benign like that that wasn’t medical, but they just...had certain people assigned...A lot of doctors were just staying there 24 hours because they couldn’t leave, or because they were needed because people were just pouring in the back door.
JW: So I’ve heard you use the term “riot”...
VK: But it wasn’t really a riot…
JW: Yeah, that was my question. Was that how you’d characterize it, or what would you use…?
VK: It was a riot when I was, at the time I was born it was a riot, but a riot has to be two-sided. This was what I would call a rebellion or uprising, yeah.
JW: Why would you call it that?
VK: Because it was not Black on White or this group against that group, it was just tensions boiling over and exploding, and it was...it had to do with police contact, as things do now. The police had raided a blind pig and it set off that spark. And it spread.
JW: What do you think the lasting implications of that week have been in the city? Do you think that there are any?
VK: I think for a while you had people talking, you know, ‘we have to make things better,’ and now we are back to kind of, we still need to make things better and we have discrepancies now. We have all the building in downtown Detroit for young professionals, primarily White, and the neighborhoods are just--they’re not being attended to. And it’s nice that all that tax—phone’s ringing—
JW: Can we pause it for just a minute?
VK: Okay. With all the young people moving in downtown, I’m sure that they are a wonderful tax base for the city. And they don’t use schools and they have very little use for the EMS and other emergency services in the city because they are young and healthy and they don’t have children. And we need the money. But we still need, the rest of the population of Detroit needs the services desperately too. We’ve seen some increases of late with the new mayor, there’s, you know, newer EMS rigs that don’t break down every five, you know, every five blocks, and the new police cars. But there’s still tension, with just the complaints that the people aren’t getting their fair share.
JW: And you mentioned that your family moved to Grosse Pointe Park in 1967?
VK: In ‘66. December of ‘66.
JW: Was it just because you wanted to move or was there a reason?
VK: The neighborhood was no longer safe. We had our windows shot out with a slingshot. I went to Wayne State. I had a night class and took the bus home, my father had to meet me at the bus stop. It just wasn’t, they didn’t feel safe anymore. And actually, our Black neighbors were encouraging us to move!
JW: So they were looking out for you...We’re calling our project “Looking Back to Move Forward.” So where do you see the city of Detroit going today?
VK: I think we’re making progress. I think people need to be more honest, and they need to communicate their feelings. And people need to listen. Like I’ve always had Black friends, now I have, as you met downstairs, I have an interracial family. My father worked for the NAACP in 1953 and 1954, so I’m used to, I was brought up to listen and to talk. That needs to spread. There needs to be more of that. The city administration just doesn’t have to say ‘well, we’ll get to you when we have the money to get to you.’ You know, more has to be done. I know they’re working forward, they’re getting rid of the old houses. But still the city services in the neighborhoods...and I also think that people in the city need to step up and say, ‘We’re not going to tolerate this, I’m gonna pick up the phone, I’m gonna call the police.’ Yeah.
The police response has improved. My car was hit by a guy that ran the red light last fall, and the police response was not instantaneous, but I was surprised at how quick--it only took them 15 minutes to get there. Now two years ago, they would’ve said ‘Well, that’s nice lady, now go to the precinct and make a report.’ But they came out.
JW: Well that’s good.
VK: And they were very polite and non-judgemental. Just said, ‘Well, we’ll let the insurance company deal with this one.’ Here’s where the damage is, you know…
JW: So do you have any advice for the city of Detroit?
VK: As I said, maybe just listen. Talk to people. I like the idea of the city council, you know, being bi-racial, being broken down by precincts, what do they call them, by areas, that are representative. I think that’s a good idea, because people will have a greater say. And I think you saw that when Duggan got in on a write-in, because, you know, we’re not gonna let that happen, we’re gonna take care of this...So I hope it will continue to move forward, it’s got to have a school system, you cannot function without a school system. And that’s been the case since I was a kid. I went to a private school. My sister went to Highland Park, my brother went to a private school. It’s just, you’ve got to have schools, because you’re not—these people who live downtown—what is going to happen when they start marrying, wanting more space, wanting schools? They’re going to move to the suburbs. I live in Grosse Pointe now, and our property values are increasing, my two new neighbors across the street are young people, young couples, one with children. They take the bus downtown to work. There’s really no decent housing in the city, for, you know, safe housing in the city. At least in their minds [...] There are some safe areas, my nephew and his family live in Detroit, just right back there on Institute. So there are some good areas but there just isn’t enough family housing in the city and good schools.
JW: Well, is there anything else you want to add, or any other memories from that week in 1967?
VK: Well, I remember talking to a man, this was later in the week, of the riot, after the riot. As I said, that first day, it was primarily, well everybody had good insurance that verified, they were auto workers, primarily auto workers with the Big Three or auto suppliers for the Big Three. There was one man, I don’t know what he did, he had some sort of a good job, he was a little older than the other ones. He came in later in the week and I went up to ask for his insurance and he was very polite and he said, ‘Miss, I’m not going to give them to you.’ And I was very surprised when he said, ‘I was bayoneted in the back by the National Guard.’ And he said, ‘I was waiting for the bus,’ either going to or coming from work, I can’t remember which, ‘I was waiting for the bus, and they told me to move, and apparently I didn’t move fast enough and they bayoneted me in the back.’ And he had a knife wound to the back. And I asked my supervisor what to do and he said, ‘At this point, just let it go, collections can send him a letter and ask for it or we can call his employer and get it down the road.’ About six months later I saw in the paper, that he had settled with the National Guard and I thought, well, that was cool.
JW: Yeah, so he was telling the truth.
VK: He was telling the truth. I had a feeling when I talked to him, he was very polite. I just got the feeling that he wasn’t trying to run something on me. You know, he just kind of didn’t fit the mold of the other guy, ‘Yeah, baby, I work at Chrysler,’ you know, he called me “miss,” you know, very polite, you know.
JW: Were there any other interesting patients that you remember?
VK: Well, I remember one very sad story. There was a fireman who had worn--and this is written up in the book “Nightmare in Detroit,” I believe—I didn’t go back and reread it because I didn’t want to contaminate my memory. But I still have the book, and there was another one too about the Algers Hotel and Siddons [?]...But there was a fireman who had worn an old metal helmet, apparently with a spike on it, and he got up too close to a wire and got electrocuted, and he was brought into the hospital and I saw his wife after they told her that he had passed away, and it was just, the whole place, it was horrible. It still makes you want to cry, it was terrible. And he was just doing his job and it killed him, wearing his helmet just for fun and it killed him.
JW: That’s too bad.
VK: And I really think that that’s about it. I mean, and they still continue to have their little riot drills, for whatever. Or not riot, but some sort of school bus disaster or plane crash or whatever, and get the medical students to act like 5-year-olds whose bus got tipped over or something. But I doubt that too many of the medical people are still there, many of them I’m sure have passed away because they would’ve been in their 30s and 40s at that time. So if they’re around, they’re in their late ‘80s.
JW: Anything else you’d like to add?
VK: I just hope that people look at this exhibit and can learn from it, and with all this stuff that’s going on in other cities with the police, and it’s just, you know, we’ve got to come to some kind of a consensus that we’re going to live together and get along. You know, you don’t have to like me and I don’t have to like you, but don’t just dislike me because I’m Black or because of who you think I am. Get to know me, or just don’t make a snap judgment and pull the trigger. It doesn’t work that way. I guess that’s about it.
JW: Alright. Well thank you so much for coming in to sit down with us today. If you think of anything else, feel free to send us an email.
VK: I’ll give you a call if I find that--the Detroit hospital used to publish a magazine, I think it was called Detroit General Herald, DGH, and it was just kind of the inside newsletter, what’s going on, who’s new, who’s leaving, who’s retiring and that kind of thing. And there was, I believe that’s where the photo of Mr. Henry is, I’m not sure. But it’s kind of interesting, and I know I had saved it for a while, and also I had saved my letter, you know, of ID for the hospital. And if I can find them, I’ll let you copy them.
JW: Yeah, well we would love to have those. Well, thank you so much.
VK: Okay, sure thing.
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