Larry Charfoos, August 18th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 18, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. And I am in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. And I am sitting down with—
LC: Larry Charfoos
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me, Larry.
LC: Oh, I think it’s important what you’re doing.
WW: Can you please tell me where and when were you born?
LC: I was born in Detroit on December 7, 1935.
WW: Did you grow up in Detroit?
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
LC: My parents moved around so I was born on a street called Washburn. Then I lived near Bagley School on Curtis. Then I lived near Durfee on Tuxedo. Then we came back so I went to Mumford on Santa Barbara. Those are all Detroit streets.
WW: Mhm. Growing up in those neighborhoods, were they integrated?
LC: Not to my memory.
WW: What was the make up of them?
LC: Seemed like 90 percent Jewish.
WW: Yep. Were the schools the same way?
LC: Yes, to my memory. I’m sure Mumford was the first one to even show signs of integration. I don’t remember whether Durfee had an integrated aspect of it, but not of memory.
WW: Growing up in Detroit, did you tend to stay in your neighborhoods or did you venture around more?
LC: Yeah, up to high school we were neighborhood, sure.
WW: Once you went to high school, that’s when you started venturing around the city?
LC: Well, we could drive. [Laughter]. Once we got a car, I’m sure we wandered a little further apart.
WW: What did your parents do for a living?
LC: My dad was a lawyer, may he rest in peace. My mom was a housewife, except during the Second World War.
WW: What’d she do during the Second World War?
LC: We were so proud of her. She sold tote tickets at the racetrack. Dad had been taken up—drafted, when he was 35. So off he went, so mom took a job.
WW: Very nice. After you graduated high school in the Fifties, did you stay in the city?
LC: No, I was off to U of M [University of Michigan].
WW: Ann Arbor?
WW: When you came back from U of M- Ann Arbor, did you notice any growing tensions in the Fifties?
LC: Bare with me for a moment, when I get back from Ann Arbor, I had practiced law for—no I went to law school. Sure. No, I don’t remember any tensions in the city when I was at Wayne Law School.
WW: You went to Wayne Law School after U of M?
LC: Yeah. Class of ’59. I want to start out—you know, we’re dealing with memory here. There’s absolutely no question that at U of M there was racial attitudes. I’m not qual—yeah, I’m qualified to say that they were bad enough that we actually formed an organization to specifically protest the handling of students who are literally put out of school for dating Black Americans. They violated some technical rule at the dorms, but they were put out. We were outraged. So we formed an organization and it had some standing for a while. But, like all things, it disbanded.
When I got to Wayne Law School I had some Black American friends and we’d be walking—literally walking, I remember this so distinctly. We’re walking on the east side of Detroit, probably John R, no big deal, we’re minding our own business. They got stopped. For what? The only thing I knew is they were being treated differently.
WW: Was this a shock for you?
LC: Eye-opener. Life’s not the same for everybody. We’re still young, you know. The Ann Arbor experience should have—well it did. It gave me a sense of the problem. These on the street stops of perfectly proper people really opens your eyes because it looked like the police had a different attitude as to who you were.
WW: After you finished law school, did you stay in the city?
LC: I did for about two years—three years. Then I departed to ’66 or early ’67.
WW: Where’d you go?
LC: Chicago. And other places around the country. [Laughter].
WW: After you came back, given that absence, did you sense any tension then? Or no? Was the city still welcoming to you?
LC: I was engrossed in work. My entire trip was from the 1300 Building in Lafayette Park. I bicycled to the First National building so that was my exposure. And no, there was nothing that is memorable downtown Detroit during that time until the riot itself.
WW: Well, going into ’67 how did you first hear about what was going on?
LC: Well, I lived in an apartment building, 1300 E. Lafayette. It’s still there and still a fine building, I’m sure. Word just spread. I mean, people came out and started talking about it. It was radio or television, whatever we had at that time. It was no—well, we had one other thing, the minute we heard about it was because of our height. We could see the fires.
WW: Was that a shock to you—seeing the fires?
LC: Well, yeah, of course. We didn’t expect it.
WW: So you didn’t except any violence that summer in the city?
LC: Not until it actually happened.
WW: Okay. What were some of the first things you heard about what was going on? Do you remember?
LC: Rioting. That’s literally—it was with, of course, they had had a bust of an all night place that I would never have been near. Further up. I did have to drive through it about a day or two later to rescue somebody from a Michigan Avenue location, I don’t remember the exact location. But, you could see, the city was in riots. It was clear. No big secret about it.
WW: Did you interact with it any other times during the week?
LC: Well we had a very unusual experience during this period that I’m sure most people would have chosen to join us. We walked across the street to my cousin’s apartment in the Towers, Lafayette Towers, they have a swimming pool about the seventeenth floor. You literally were at the swimming pool while you’re looking at the fires because we couldn’t go downtown for a while. There were days—I don’t know if it was Marshall Law or just sensibility. But, whatever way, we weren’t going down to our jobs. A swimming pool.
WW: Do you actively refer to it as a riot?
LC: Without a doubt. 100 percent. I mean, I drove through it, right up Michigan Avenue. I don’t remember how far, but far enough to see buildings, see people running and looting. I had no business being there, but I had a rescue job to do.
WW: As it’s going on, are you thinking to yourself, this will pass? Or I’ve got to get out of here?
LC: Never thought of leaving. I was surrounded, subsequently of course, by oodles of people leaving. But, at that time, because I was an established law office, I was doing fine and there was no reason to leave.
WW: So oodles of people from your apartment were leaving, you said?
LC: No, more—there were two large groups that I started noticing leaving. But, not during the riot. Subsequently months had to pass. They had to give up their leases, they had to give up their homes. They had to give up—but there was two large crowds that left that affected my life. One was the Jewish community that lived in Detroit, just about vanished over the border. And the practicing personal injury lawyers, which was my field, vanished, too, over the borders. We were almost by ourselves for many years in our work and in our downtown activities.
As I mentioned earlier, but it’s not on this tape yet, it was just after the riot, within the year or so, Dennis Archer joined me in partnership. Later I became Coleman’s lawyer on a number of his problems. I’ve stayed totally Detroiter.
WW: Do you still live in the city?
LC: Nope, grandchildren made me be out here.
WW: What year did you leave?
LC: Oh, it’ve been—let’s say, 10 years ago. It’s just—you couldn’t raise children on East Jefferson. Not very realistic. Two good-looking step-daughters and you didn’t want them walking down the street sometimes.
WW: Going back to ’67 a little bit, what do you think caused it? Do you know?
LC: Do I know? No, I don’t know. But, I can guess, like everybody else that was involved. Failure to have a plan in place by the authorities that have to deal with those kind of problems. To quietly and peacefully handle whatever they were doing that got out of hand.
WW: Was there relief for you when the National Guard and the Army came in?
LC: I just remember they were there and I assumed that they were beneficial to have at the time. Nothing I could do except look at them. Didn’t carry—no, we didn’t have a gun then. Guns came later after that.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to share today?
LC: Nope, I can’t think of anything that’s important. Yeah, I’d like to point out the new areas in Detroit that are rebuilding now. They’re well known, I’m sure. I’m equally involved in that kind of activity. It’s the first time I’ve seen the city of Detroit breathing again since the ’67 riot. It was a long drought.
WW: I was just about to ask you after this, how do you feel about the state of the city today? Are you optimistic moving forward?
LC: It’s a long-term job, because again, we have the underbelly problem of a lot of poor folks disproportionate to the size of our population. You don’t change that overnight, you have to work hard at it. That’s a big job, and it looks like it’s being handled, but I’m not qualified to have an opinion.
WW: Okay. Is there anything else?
LC: I’m done.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me.