Stella Heatley, August 12th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 12, 2016. My name is William Winkel. I’m in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. And I’m sitting down with—
SH: Stella Heatley.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. Can you tell me what year you were born?
SH: I was born in 1945 in the county of Suffolk in England.
WW: What year did you come here?
SH: I came here originally to work in 1966 until 1969. After my husband and I were married—and I met my husband whilst I was working here. I returned here in 1973 and have lived here since. We’ve been married for 42 years.
WW: What was your work here in Detroit?
SH: I was a nanny, or mother’s helper, to a British diplomatic family. I had worked for them in Milan, Italy and they received notice that they were being posted to Detroit in the United States of America and they asked if I would like to accompany them. It was an adventure and I said yes. So we came in August of 1966. I came out on the original Queen Elizabeth Liner. Which was very exciting for a young girl.
WW: What was your first impression of the city?
SH: I had better explain: at that time, the British government had two Residences in Detroit. That’s not residence with a small “r”, that’s residence with a capital “R”. They were British property, flew the Union Jack everyday. They were the official home of the British Council General and the Council. I worked for the Council and our home was at 711 Berkshire in Grosse Pointe Park. The Residence of the Council General, Sir James Easton, was on Lakeland in Grosse Pointe. I came here in 1966 and worked here for them until 1969. There were two children. They were both school aged. With a diplomatic family there’s a lot of entertaining. There’s a lot of being entertained. There are official duties where they have to go to different cities within the United States. They have to go to the Embassy in London. At that time it was quite normal to employ a person such as myself to be responsible for the children whilst they were away and within the home.
The city was a very big one compared to what I was used to. Where I grew up it was a very small village, about 200 people. I had not had a lot of exposure to big cities so it was exciting to go downtown and go to big department stores and so on that I had really not experienced and the hustle and bustle of the city. At that time, it was perfectly safe to go downtown on the bus and to come home later sometimes 10 or 11 at night. Quite frequently, I would take the children downtown to Olympia Stadium, which is no longer there. I would take them to see ice shows and spectacular shows and things like that. Take them downtown, shopping and so and perhaps come home on the bus at 9 o’clock. It was quite safe and very enjoyable for all of us.
In 1967, when the riots started, there was some feeling of apprehension. We were told to stay at home. I don’t think the children went to school that day. I’m not certain about that, but I have a feeling that they didn’t go to school that day or they came home early. Mr. Churchill, who was the Council that I worked for, he was downtown. We received a phone call from him later in the day to be ready to leave very quickly, possibly by boat, and for all of us to pack a bag just sufficient for overnight or a couple of days, and to be ready to leave the house very quickly. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that but I think for two or three nights he didn’t come home. He was downtown working for the British consulate because there was great fear it would turn into a complete civil insurrection. We watched the news and read the newspapers and were apprehensive of it. My employers had experience such things in some of the countries that they had been in, but it wasn’t really expected that something like that would happen in the United States. I was probably a bit too young at the age that I was then to understand the full apprehension of it. But, it passed by and all was well. But, I wasn’t directly involved in seeing any of it, like my husband was.
WW: After that, did you stop taking the children downtown?
SH: No, not at all, no, no. We didn’t really feel that it was something that would spread once it was under control. I think people were a little bit more careful, a little bit more aware of their surroundings and so on, but, no, not at all.
WW: Did it change the way you looked at the city?
SH: Yes, yes, yes it did, yes. Because the potential for things getting out of control very quickly. I think you’ve also got to keep in mind that during that period from ’66 to ’69, it was a very turbulent period. There was the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the riots. It seemed as if the country had sort of gone crazy and was without any discipline. I think to people from other countries it was difficult to understand. Also, it was the time of the hippies and the flower children. Plum Street downtown had a reputation for really quite wild behavior. From time to time, my employer had to go and rescue young British girls who had got caught up in it. I recall one disappeared down there and was never seen again. For somebody, like yourself, your age now, it’s very hard to believe, but it was a very, very wild period. A lot of anger amongst young people. In that regard, it changed how you went about the city. I think you were, perhaps, a bit more observant than you had been before. Not quite as carefree.
WW: After leaving the city, did you have any worry about settling down here when you came back?
SH: Well let me put it this way, I didn’t come here with visions of swimming pools in every backyard and everything being wonderful. I was completely realistic about what I was coming back to. I was quite happy to come. I had met my husband when I worked here. He worked for 44 years for the telephone company, Michigan Bell, SBC, and AmeriTech. I met him first when he and another worker were putting lines through the easement of the back of the house, 711 Berkshire, where I worked. We went out together. We enjoyed one another’s company. He was going out with other people. I was going out with other people. We just enjoyed one another’s company. In 1969, I returned to Britain. The Council was a chancellor to Spain and it was a single posting. In that case, the children went back to Britain and went to boarding school. His wife stayed in Britain. Then they went to Spain for long holidays, Easter, and Christmas and so on, but otherwise they stayed in Britain. I was on diplomatic visas so I didn’t say I went back on the QE2 [Queen Elizabeth 2, ocean liner] with family, which was very exciting because it was only about the second year of it crossing the Atlantic. Henry and I kept in touch over the years. He came over a couple of times. We wrote to one another frequently. No emails in those days, no cell phones. Telephoning was so expensive that you might have done it at Christmas, but you didn’t do it any other time, it was just too much money. The friendship grew into more. We had to decide. It was too expensive to keep doing that, get married or stop seeing one another. We decided we would get married. It took a year of paperwork and interviews and medicals and so on to meet the requirements of coming to the United States as a legal immigrant. We were married in 1973 in Little Paris Church. The church was built in the 1200s. We were married there and then ten days later we had to present ourselves at the American Embassy in London to show that we were legally married to one another. They gave me all paperwork and the big x-ray and so on that immigrants at that time had to bring with them. We came to Detroit in the middle of September 1973. We live on the east side of Detroit in the home that his parents built in 1936.
WW: Do you still live in that house?
SH: Yes, very un-American. Supposed to move every five years which we have not done.
WW: Do you think the events of ’67 still impact the city of Detroit?
SH: Oh, yes, there’s no doubt about that. There’s a lot of resentment. A lot of resentment about what happened at that time. There’s still an element of anger. I think with all that is happening presently, which is exciting and long-overdue and wonderful, and in some ways I’m sorry that I am the age that I am because it would be fun to be able to enjoy it more now that at long last it is happening. I think there is some feeling that a certain percentage of the population—and that’s black and white population have certainly been left behind. I think there’s some feeling there. I go to neighborhood meetings and community meetings and so on and as much as some people enjoy and applaud what’s happening, the neighborhoods are still very, very neglected. If they don’t do something soon, they will be economically beyond being able to be rehabbed, without just bulldozing them all down and starting again. That would be a shame because the neighborhoods have beautiful homes.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
SH: Oh, yes, yes. But, you do observe that the majority of the people that are here are young, well-educated, single. But, when they decide to settle down, and marry or not marry, but have a family, the school system is not such that they would want to stay. They would seek different schooling. Although crime in the city has been going down for years, it isn’t perceived that way. Downtown is very safe. What percentage would move out into the neighborhoods? I don’t really know. It’s not [inaudible] at the moment. I don’t think there’s one house sold on our street at all. Some of them in East English Village, yes they’re selling, but very, very few.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I greatly appreciate it.