Karen Minard


Karen Minard


***NOTE: This account contains profanity and/or explicit language.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Written Story


The first time I moved to downtown Detroit, I bought Ray Gerardin’s old house. He had been Police Commissioner during the 1967 rebellion and, after he died, and his widow succumbed to Alzheimer’s, his son sold the Nicolet Place unit to me.
The son, a prominent attorney around town, had been visibly upset after he signed off on the dwelling. It was still filled with memorabilia from his father’s old crime reporting days, law enforcement career, and lots of other bric-a-brac from family days long gone. I watched him as he looked through various mementoes picking up one then another, smiling and muttering a few words of remembrance before deciding what he wanted to keep. Most of it, he said, could go to Goodwill, but there were a few items he said he’d like to hold on to and that was fine with me.
In the basement were shelves filled with books, and a file cabinet full of notes and transcripts from that ’67 revolt that I said needed to be preserved for posterity. The lawyer agreed and offered to make sure the documentation went to police archives and so, regrettably now, I let him cart it away.
That was in January of 1993 and, over the next few weeks, I enjoyed settling into the three-bedroom, Mies van der Rohe townhouse (endearingly called then one of the glass houses; now often thought of in relation to the BASEMENT BOY) with its wide open layout, flip-top stove and floor-to-ceiling landscape views. But it wasn’t until months later that I had a chance to start going through the remaining volumes down below. The most interesting one I found there was a 1st edition, hardback copy of John Hersey’s The Algiers Motel Incident, with a hand-written inscription from the author to the commissioner dated June, 1968. Accompanying it was a Books of the Times review by Eliot Fremont-Smith with a paraphrased subtitle that read, South of Canada, It’s All Mississippi. It took me back.
During the ’50s and ’60s, my family lived on Kendall Street between 12th and 14th behind what would become Focus Hope’s famed Church of the Madonna, not far from where that infamous insurrection began. My sister and I knew the area well (although not necessarily what went on behind closed doors) because, as teenagers, full of assimilated assumptions, we often saved our bus fare and walked to and from Visitation High School on Webb Avenue passing that blind pig site en route. My sister graduated in 1965 and I followed, much to the surprise of many, two years later, one month before the uprising began.
Life changes after commencement. No longer children but still not quite adults, young people go off to explore, and establish themselves, and set the world on fire. I had always known I wanted to be a writer. My sister, on the other hand, was headed toward brighter lights. Tall, slim and buxom, a trained singer, actress and model whose photos already advertised Hudson’s offerings in newspapers, and who strutted platforms at auto shows, and was a beauty pageant finalist just as black was starting to be publicaly acknowledged as beautiful, by 1967, she was well on her way, until she learned that she was pregnant.
Of course there was the question of paternity.
My sister had been working nights as one of the hostesses at the Roostertail downtown. It was there that she met and fell in love with a radio deejay on one of the Canadian stations. He had an evening show called Bearskin Rug. When he wasn’t on air, he would visit her.
Times were different then, and one could actually rely on public transportation as I did. My job was at the Studio New Center, an art-house cinema on 3rd Avenue at West Grand Boulevard, the newest in a string of avant-garde movie houses that included The Studio One, Studio North, and the Studio 8 out in Southfield. The New Center had opened the year before with a showing of The Russians are Coming The Russians are Coming, and I had been hired by a concession company as their candy girl. I would work evening and weekend shifts and then take two buses home without predicament. Unfortunately, my sister was not as lucky.
One spring morning, when she was taking the bus home from work, some man followed her when she got off at her stop, dragged her into an alley a few doors down from where we lived, assaulted her, ripped off her clothes, raped her, and left her there next to the trash. Hence, the question of paternity.
A few months later, I would be stolen away by the Studio franchise and seated in their box office where, as a cashier, I sold tickets, consolidated daily reports and answered the telephone. On July 25th I answered the phone and was warned to get out quick because “…the niggers are coming the niggers are coming; they’re moving down your way.” I was stunned by the audacity of the caller. Didn’t he know he was talking to a black person? Nonetheless, I did get out. We all did. The manager had gotten word from the big boss uptown to close down the theater as there were rumors of snipers firing.
Back at home, over the next few days, I would read about incidents in the newspaper and try to juxtapose them with the martial law being imposed outside: the bedlam, the soldiers, the military tanks. I felt shell-shocked going through neighborhoods I had regularly traipsed as a girl. The corner store at Pasadena and 12th busted open then covered over with chicken wire; the Model Cleaners up on Davison that my family used routinely, all boarded up after having been pillaged. We lost our best clothes in that looting. Mother filed claims but never got anything back. There was so much lost that warm weather season; but, fortunately, not my nephew.
Despite all the pressure being heaped upon my sister, she refused to abort her child. Many speculated as to who the father would turn out to be; but, it wasn’t known for sure until he was born. All pink, blond and blue-eyed, he was named after the announcer, a man he would see maybe three or four times in his life but who he still resembles to this day.
Then, as now, going back and rereading the Hersey account, strong waves of emotion are not easy to overcome. More than once I have gotten into my car and driven over to that Woodward and Virginia Park locale where the manor house annex to the Algiers Motel once stood; where three black boys-Carl Cooper, Auburey Pollard and Fred Temple-were murdered that summer by white policemen because they were there with white women. But not a single remnant remains. It was all razed back in 1979 as if to wipe clean any memory of the event. How strange. We still remember the Alamo and the Lorraine Motel. The School Book Depository building still stands on Elm Street in Houston, Texas from which John F. Kennedy was shot. In fact, they’re all historical landmarks. So why not the Algiers Motel? Have not interracial relationships progressed beyond old tabloid taboos? Thankfully, the book still remains.
Two years I lived at Nicolet Place. It, too, now stands as a landmark. Coming back this last time to downtown Detroit, but on the waterfront where I can look out on our neighbor to the south, I have often thought that Fremont-Smith was right. And I have often returned to that rare edition and wondered why it was never adapted for the screen as so many of Hersey’s other books were.
The question begged an answer; so, one day I went online and tracked down Hersey’s widow. (He, himself, had died that same year I moved onto Nicolet.) She was still living in the Florida Keys where it just so happened I was planning a trip. I called her up and asked if I could visit when I was down there, explaining that I was working on some freelance pieces and wanted to do one on her late husband as well. She was very gracious as she explained that she just doesn’t do interviews anymore. No problem, I said, but I did want her to know how much The Algiers Motel Incident had affected me, and I did squeeze in the question.
She also questioned me, and seemed both surprised and perplexed to learn my ethnicity, although I could never figure out why. What was also curious was how long she stayed on the phone with me. For a woman who no longer gave interviews, she spoke quite openly and freely as we conversed for a good hour or more. The only time she seemed to clam up was when I returned to my initial inquiry. Call my daughter, she said, and she gave me her number after promising me she’d call Brook first and let her know it was okay to talk to me.
Brook was living in New York, the city to which I had first ventured the year after the uprising. My mother told me you’d be calling, she said, and like her mother she generously shared all sorts of anecdotes with me about her father, his beliefs and philosophies. So why, I eventually asked, was the Algiers book never made into a movie? She circled around the answer. I didn’t get it. I circled back. A Bell for Adano, The War Lover, The Wall all made it to the screen, so why not the motel? Hollywood has been trying to get it for years, she finally confessed, but it was the one book he said should never be made into a movie.
But why?
For the protection of the families.
Her answer stunned me. The protection of the families? Which families? Surely not the families of those dead boys. It didn’t make sense to me.
We kept in touch for a little while longer, and Brook let me know where her father’s papers were housed and even sent me a couple of artifacts of my own. One of them, a copy of his essay Time’s Winged Chariot, contains the following words. “The greed in our culture has prevented us, even as we try to live up to our Constitution, from ever beginning to treat the cancers of racism and poverty. I have tried to write about these things—but I feel that the greatest shortcoming of my life is that I have not done as much as I might have about them.”
Over the years I have learned much more about Mr. Hersey’s life and the urgency with which he wrote about Detroit’s woes back then; the simultaneous publication of the incident book in hardback and soft cover with no profit to himself; his teaching of Ralph Ellison’s work with whom he once lived in close proximity, and I believe he did far more than most to combat those cancers he saw in this this world with the limited amount of time he had with us. Now it is up to us still living to keep battling what remains.
This is a reflective piece for me. An empty nester now, my own children are grown and both have moved to what is often called the new south. And, while I try to keep current with all the trends of this twenty-first century, sometimes I feel like I’m still living in the past. I still like going out to movies, prefer paper books to Kindle, and often consider my cell phone an intrusion. I do applaud what folks tend to call Detroit’s revitalization, although it sometimes seems more like experimentation to me; and I admit I have benefited from the recent improvements in my neighborhood, although I know they weren’t done with me in mind, which is why I sometimes just have to pray to God that Fremont-Smith wasn’t right.

Original Format


Submitter's Name

Karen Minard

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“Karen Minard,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed January 17, 2022, http://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/433.

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