Bruce Foster, August 19th. 2016
**NOTE: This interview contains explicit language and/or profanity
WW: Hello, today is August 19, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project and I’m in Detroit, Michigan and I’m sitting down with Mr. Bruce Foster. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
BF: You’re welcome.
WW: Can you please tell me where and when were you born?
BF: I was born at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, January of 1949.
WW: Did you grow up in Detroit?
BF: Until I was seven years old.
WW: What happened when you were seven?
BF: We lived near Schoolcraft and Southfield, and the proposed Southfield Freeway was going to take our house. So my dad figured he should sell the house and move before that happened. So we moved to the suburbs, Walnut Lake, in 1956, I believe.
WW: Do you know why your parents chose Walnut Lake?
BF: I think my dad—I had older brothers and they lived in the city and I thought—I think he thought because he was so busy at work, he was involved in the union movement and credit union movement, specifically. He was busy and gone all the time. He thought it would be nice to have me grow up on a lake.
WW: Get to go to work and come back on a lake?
WW: [laughter] What’d your mother do for a living?
BF: She actually had an education. She had a teaching degree and she worked, before I was born, in Detroit Public Schools as a secretary. I don’t think she actually ever taught. But, by the time I was born, she didn’t work at all anymore. She was just a homemaker. I shouldn’t say she didn’t work; she worked at home.
WW: Growing up in Walnut Lake, did you make trips to Detroit? Or was Detroit foreign to you?
BF: No, we came to Detroit quite a bit. I had aunts and uncles here, went to the doctor down here. Pretty much, you know, came down here quite a bit.
WW: Being 18 in ’67, did you travel around the city with your friends? If you did so, did you sense any growing tension in the city?
BF: I don’t think I sensed the growing tension. I did come down here starting probably when I was 15. We used to sneak down here. First, we went to a couple of the burlesque places on Woodward, when we were young. But, more importantly, I was pretty intrigued by jazz music and blues music. I started sneaking into clubs when I was about 16 years old. My friend from Walnut Lake, actually, and I used to come down and go to the Chestmaid at Six Mile and Livernois and see John Lee Hooker and many other blues people. I just always felt very comfortable. I mean even being the only white people in the club, I was always treated wonderful and just never felt threatened.
WW: Were you still living in Walnut Lake in 1967?
BF: Yes, that was the last year I lived there, I believe.
WW: How did you first hear about what was going on in Detroit?
BF: As far as the riots?
BF: Probably on television.
WW: Were you surprised by what was going on?
BF: Yeah. I was a bit surprised. I knew about Twelfth Street and the poverty and everything so I don’t think I was as surprised as some people. And I had seen, even though I didn’t understand the tensions going on, I certainly saw the racism.
WW: Did you come down here at all during that week?
BF: Not down to where the riots were, no, just to the Sixteeth Precinct.
WW: What was going on at the Sixteenth Precinct?
BF: I think it was sort of a command headquarters for the police. It’s where they did some staging, put food together for the troops, I guess, and the police, just a sort of command center. I’m not sure what the police called it, but it seemed to be an organizing area.
WW: What were you doing down there?
BF: I was just so curious what was happening, why it was happening. I didn’t really comprehend the whole thing. Having a brother that had been a Detroit Police officer, I just was curious. I wasn’t on one side or the other, I don’t think, I just didn’t understand it. But, I wanted to be part of it. I wanted to help in some way. I think I was pretty naïve about it. I just wanted to do something.
WW: Did you do any volunteer work while you were down there?
BF: Yes, I did. They gave me a pass so I could come into the city. I just offered to do whatever they wanted so I remember carrying boxes. The first day, I spent, I don’t know, several hours on the first day, and I came back the second day and I worked in a room with a bunch of people who were putting together lunches or meals, I guess for the police and probably the troops, too, just making sandwiches and putting apples and bananas and whatever in the bags. I immediately started hearing people talking, being very racist, using the “N” word repeatedly, I realized, that’s not why I was there. It scared me. One person, even, that was right next to me, wrote a little note and showed it to me that said, "Kill a nigger for me." And I was just astounded. I couldn’t believe it. This is not where I want to be. I think I left within the next hour or two and never went back. It didn’t occur to me that it was whites against black. The news at first, just said it started out on Twelfth Street in front of a blind pig, and I just thought it was criminals, I guess, against the police. Then I realized it was a whole different thing.
WW: So how do you interpret the events of ’67? Do you see them as a riot or do you see them as a race riot? Or a rebellion?
DF: I see it as a rebellion. To this day I see racism all the time. It’s shrouded in, people use different words and everything, but we still live in a racist society. I think the last few years it’s gotten worse again.
WW: Did you stay in Walnut Lake after? You said it was your last year there.
DF: Yeah, I graduated from high school. My parents actually sold the house and moved to Florida. I moved back in the city, lived in a couple houses. I spent a lot of time in the Cass Corridor, lived a couple places, Hubbell and Schoolcraft, a house with some friends. Eventually I lived in Southfield and Royal Oak. I got married in 1979. We’ve lived in Royal Oak and Ferndale for a while. But, we moved back to the city in 1992 and we’ve been here ever since.
WW: So you didn’t feel unwelcome or uncomfortable moving into the city after ’67?
DF: Not at all. No, I was at Tiger Stadium for the 1968 World Series. I didn’t have tickets, but I was outside.
WW: [laughter] How do you feel about the city today? You’re a Detroiter again, do you have plans on staying?
DF: I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the metropolitan area. I love the city and I hate the city. I retired from the City of Detroit. I worked there for ten years. Basically, I’ve been involved in low income housing, for the last, pretty close to thirty years. Since I retired, I’m volunteer with a group called Detroit Eviction Defense. Basically, we just do whatever we can to help people stay in their houses, stop both tax foreclosure and mortgage foreclosure. That’s the part of the city I don’t like. It’s wonderful what’s happening in Midtown. I’m fortunate to live in Woodbridge, which is a popular area. Downtown has gone crazy. But, the rest of the city is really suffering.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
BF: I’m optimistic, but I mean, I think it’s going to be, it already is, people want to move here like crazy, be part of the renaissance and everything. But, there is a part that isn’t experiencing that renaissance right now. I want to see, you know, the neighborhoods. More importantly, I want the state to stay out of Detroit. I want the education system to go back to complete public education with enough funding to make sure that every kid, no matter where he comes from, who his parents are, gets an education. That’s the only way that’s going to solve the problems here.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today, sir. I greatly appreciate it.
BF: You’re welcome.