Leslie Cunningham, August 26th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 26, 2016. My name is William Winkel. I am in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project and I am sitting down with Mr. Leslie Cunningham. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
LC: Thank you for having me.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
LC: I was born in 1943 here in Detroit at Herman Kiefer Hospital.
WW: Did you grow up in Detroit?
LC: I grew up in Royal Oak Township which is a neighborhood of Detroit. I lived on the north side of the border of Detroit in a small black community.
WW: Would you like to talk about that community?
LC: Yes, I would. It had a great history. The community I grew up in, we had an all-black school, all of our teachers were black. We had our own police department that was all black. The fire department was all black and our mayor was a black mayor. The neighborhood was comprised of project housing at the time which was built back in the Forties for the gentlemen and families that were coming from the south to work in the plants and the neighborhoods were all family. No matter where you went everybody was your family. And at that time there were no telephones. Maybe one or two or three or four in the neighborhood but whenever you were out, no matter where you were, when you got back home, if you were undisciplined the message was there before you got back. And everybody was your parent and it was a great environment because we all looked out for one another. If one person had a car and was going someplace to the market or something, you were offered a ride and everybody looked out for each other. I had a neighbor that left an indelible mark on my mind as a child. I was undisciplined and talked back to this neighbor and he spanked me and took me home to my ma. And I said to myself when I got home I said, “Aw, he’s going to get it, man, he done whopped my mamma’s baby.” And when I got home he explained to my mom what I had done and she said, “What?” She said, “Wait, as soon as I finish my chores I’m going to deal with this.” And I’m thinking in my mind she’s going to get him for whooping my baby. And I got another whipping [laughs] so it taught me to respect, you respect your elders and you respect the people in the neighborhood. Everybody was your mom and dad and they looked out for you with care and with love.
WW: Growing up, did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood then?
LC: I was an adventurer myself. I went everywhere. There was no borders for me. I had family that lived in Southwest Detroit. My grandparents lived over in the Davidson area; they called that North Detroit so I would go there. I had family in Inkster so we would visit there. I got around a lot.
WW: And you felt comfortable moving around the city?
LC: I did. I did. I lived in Royal Oak Township, a lot of our shopping was done in Ferndale but you could – you had to walk a chalk line walking through Ferndale because there was a lot of bigotry going on there. You know, you had to walk a certain route to go to the store. If you took a shortcut through the neighborhood, you would run. People would chase you, call you derogatory names and stuff to let you know you weren’t welcome there. But we were able to get past that. We were able to work with it, deal with it, and to continue on with our lives.
WW: Did you face similar instances like that moving around the city of Detroit?
LC: From time to time I did. I did have the opportunity to go to a parochial school when I was in the fifth grade. I went to Madonna and St. Paul School on Oakman Boulevard and it was mixed. We had a lot of Chaldeans and Italians that went to that school with us. But the things I saw that were different at the time was we couldn’t go in certain stores. There was a bar on the corner of Oakman and Twelfth that had, by us being Catholic, we didn’t eat meat on Fridays so we always wanted fish sandwiches. They had great fish sandwiches in this bar but we had to go to the back door to get it. You couldn’t go in the front door to get it. You had to go to the back door. And the same thing in the city of Ferndale and the Kresge’s. If you wanted anything from Kresge’s at the soda fountain, you had to go to the rear of the counter to get it; you couldn’t go in the front of the counter to get it.
WW: Given those instances, did you notice tension in the city?
LC: I didn’t realize tension in the city until I was in my twenties. People were beginning to get frustrated when the jobs weren’t as much available for blacks as they was for everyone else. And people were getting fed up with a lot of things and I think the police played a good part in a lot of the tension because we had the Big Four that was in the city. The Big Four would always stop black people, always harass them. I had an uncle who worked at Ford, had a great job in 1955. He had a '55 Ford with a glass roof on it. We were coming from my grandmother’s house and the shortcut he would take us through Palmer Park down Pontchartain Drive and we were in the car, my mom and my brothers and sisters and I. And the police stopped it because he had this brand new car and wanted to know, “Boy, where did you get this car from?” And he’s dressed nice, you know, and he’s saying, “I work at Ford.” “Where did you get those clothes?” Those kinds of derogatory things and says, “I work.” “This is your car?” Calling my mom “girl” and those kinds of things that were disrespectful. So I did experience that. He hassled us and finally let us go. Told my family we could go on. Those kinds of things occurred a lot in the city and a lot of young black people, the police would beat you with a stick just for, “Where you going?” Just for no reason at all. I experienced it and saw a lot of that.
WW: With all these experiences, were you drawn to the social movements that were going on in the Sixties when you were a young adult?
LC: I was drawn to the social movement in a different kind of a manner. I wanted to make a change by demonstrating how I felt because, like I said, I went to school with mixed children and we never had any problems. We got along well. And I just thought that being kind and understanding my environment and what was around me would make a difference. My dad had always taught us to be a light that shined, you know. Get a good education and work hard for what you want and things could change for you. That was how I approached it. I’ve always been a people person, too.
WW: Did you have any experiences with the social movements that were running through Detroit in the Sixites?
LC: I really didn’t. The only social movement I experienced in the Sixties was here at the Home of Love with the Order Fishman ministry with [Martha Jean] the Queen and listening to her on the radio of her having us to have a different mindset about how you looked at life. A different mindset of how you experienced life and how to contribute to society and being productive and constructive and doing things that would help people as well as help yourself and to demonstrate that. This is the movement that changed me, being able to be a part of this ministry. Something that was breathtaking to me, when we first got to that march, my friend’s mom had a station wagon and she unloaded us right there. I think we were somewhere just this side of West Grand Boulevard when the march started and she told us, she said, “Now you guys need to be a part of this because black people need to have a voice. Black people need to be united.” And to hear all the chanting and to see the signs and man, it was just breathtaking. I get chills on my arms right now to see that experience and to see how people were united together for one cause and to walk down Woodward Avenue. You know that was just breathtaking. Arm in arm, locked arms, everybody had one thing in mind which was to be free and to have a voice. It meant a lot and as a teenager man I’m going, Wow, where did all these black folks come from? Because I never – there were pockets of black people in the city and I didn’t know that there were that many black people around. I’m going, Wow, man, this is great. So it was quite an experience to take that walk and to have the chance that we were Free at Last. Freedom. Freedom for everybody. It was amazing.
WW: And until the march in Washington, that was the largest civil rights demonstration in US history.
LC: It was and I’ve got the record right now, a copy of the record that Barry Gordy recorded of the march where Dr. King gave that first speech.
WW: Powerful speech.
LC: And it makes me feel good to know that I was a part of that, I was there for that. I was there for that.
WW: Where you still living in Royal Oak Township in ‘67?
LC: In ‘67, I had married. At ‘67 my daughter was a year old and I had just moved right across the border into Detroit from Royal Oak Township. I lived at Ilene and Eight Mile during the ‘67 riot and the night before the riot I was singing with a band that I was a part of and we had played a cabaret dance at Fourteenth and Oakman at Local 49 that night. The next day, we didn’t even know anything about a riot because we were that close to it. I didn't see anything there about a riot? We were just down there last night. We didn’t see anything of that nature happening and we started to listen to – my friend said, “Man, turn the radio on. It’s on the radio.” And they were talking about what was going on. And then eventually as we looked south we could see the flames and the burning going on and we basically just listened to the radio at that point and they were telling people not to go in to the area. Stay away. As a matter of fact, the light guard armory was at Eight Mile Road just this side of Hubble and we could hear the tanks rolling down Eight Mile coming from the armory and we were saying, "Man what in the world is all of the noise?" There was a shopping center at Eight Mile and Wyoming so we went up to the shopping center and we were watching all of the military being deployed and they were saying that’s where they were going with all the tanks and all. We basically stayed on the outskirts of that. Like I said, I was raised in a pretty disciplined community so we didn’t really try to get involved in what was going on down in the city because it was really a surprise to us but eventually, maybe three or four days in, we came into the city and looked at all of the destruction that was going on, that had happened and it was pretty devastating.
WW: Was it shocking for you to see the devastation given that four years earlier you saw all of these people marching together?
LC: It wasn’t shocking because there were a lot of things that needed to be changed and that rebellion was something that caused – it was a cause that made an effect for the world. People were able to see just what the needs were in black communities, what black people were going through, most of the stores like in the area where the riot started was owned by Jewish people. Matter of fact, the area of Dexter and Linwood, that was all the Jewish Community.
Unidentified speaker: Twelfth Street
LC: Twelfth Street. All of that was Jewish community. And they were in black neighborhoods, the neighborhoods had started to change and becoming black neighborhoods and they were in the neighborhoods making money but they weren’t really providing a lot of opportunities for black people. There were some opportunities but not enough to really help the masses of people and there were a lot of young people at that time who needed assistance or needed opportunities, not just assistance but opportunities to have a quality of life.
WW: Given that you’d just moved to the city, did you entertain any thoughts about leaving?
LC: No, I didn’t. My mom and dad were both raised in the city and moving north of the city into Royal Oak Township and was a stopping point for us and moving back into Detroit was just a normal thing for me. And I had an experience after I did, after I became an adult I moved into Detroit when I bought my home on Ferguson, my house was firebombed by some white people on Ferguson Street. And this was after the riots which was an experience. My wife was a fair complected lady. She was a Creole from Louisiana and these white guys thought that my wife was white and I was a black guy married to a white woman and I don’t even know their justification other than that for throwing Molotov Cocktails through my front window and endangering my family and my children. I had two boys at the time and it was quite a nerve-wracking situation.
WW: Do you remember what year that was?
LC: I’d say probably in ‘70 or ‘71. I got assistance from the NAACP to help me with that. A friend of mine at the time had moved on my street. There were only like five black families on the street and it was something. It was really something.
WW: You've used the term "riot" and "rebellion." How do you interpret the events of July 1967?
LC: I called it a riot because of the participation of – how many people participated in it. And I called it a rebellion because they were rebelling against the things that were against them: the opportunities and not having jobs or not getting assistance from anybody when you had concerns. You’d go downtown and you make a complaint, you didn’t get any response from it. And the police in your neighborhood acting like Gestapo, telling you to get off the street, asking you where you going and what you doing. People rebelled against that and it escalated into that situation: a riot.
WW: Do you think the events of ‘67 still hang over the city and the metro area?
LC: I do because just like Mr. Edding said, nothing has been replaced. There has been no replacement for anything. There has only been further denigration moving away from the situation. Black people don’t want people to give them things; they need the opportunity to have their own. We need the opportunity to have our own. I look at the fact that before ‘67 riots there were black communities that had their own businesses, that had their own cleaners, their own grocery stores. We had a lot of things of our own but it was systematically taken away, erased, gotten rid of. This is not good. And to make us feel like we weren’t worth it, “What do you know about that? You don’t need that.” I worked for the school system and I saw how they dismantled our jobs from the school system. Systematically. And the way that I looked at it was, you had a lot of minorities, black folks, working for the city of Detroit, Board of Education, earning great pay, buying homes, buying cars, putting their kids through school. And somebody took a picture and said, Oh hold up, they’re progressing too much. Let’s set something in place to get rid of this. First of all, we’re going to accuse them of stealing. Then we’re going to come in and say that the jobs that they’re doing are inferior, which was not true. The Detroit Board of Education had the most qualified black skilled people that they could find that took care of our schools. Carpenters, electricians, plumbers, plasterers, painters, people who installed glass, technicians for sound, all of that. And that was just too much money to be going into a neighborhood so it was systematically torn down. And what did that do? It put people out of work, people out in the street, people with no jobs. And that was not a fair practice. And then they said that they would bring something in that was better and then they systematically brought in a company and said this company here is going to run this system now. And then from that, that one company spidered off little bitty companies and suppliers. They created their own suppliers and gave them a name but it was all under one umbrella that same company. You buy your wax here, that company was part of it. Buy your mops here, that was part of that same company. They just used different names to systematically do that. Was that fair? Nope. But who got the blame for that? It was the black people. Saying black people are inferior, they couldn’t do that. That’s not a true statement. And then on top of that, you had the Governor, who the city of Detroit residents voted for a millage to take care of our schools, and the Governor said they don’t know how to handle that money.
He took that money, that millage money that we’re still paying taxes on right now, and said he was holding it in an escrow because didn’t know how to handle it and now the money has disappeared. He’s never been held accountable for that. Nobody’s never said anything but then our schools are in bad shape because of the people who live in the city.
WW: Given this, are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
LC: No, because you’re seeing the same thing. And it’s getting – that balloon is getting inflated a lot larger and I agree with Mr. Eddings what he said about if you don’t own your home in the city, you’re in trouble. And I thank God that I own mine. And I’m a part of my neighborhood coalition association so I can be in the mix to know what’s going on and how it’s happening.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
LC: I’d just like to say that I thank God for me being here in the Order of the Fisherman Ministry which has really helped me to be involved in my neighborhood and helping young people to understand what needs to be done that they can progress and move forward and to be an example to those around me that there is still hope.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me. I greatly appreciate it.
LC: You’re welcome.