Collette Cullen, August 20th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 20, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I am in Detroit, Michigan. I’m sitting down with—
CC: My name is Collette Cullen.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
CC: I’m glad to be here.
WW: Can you start by telling me where and when were you born?
CC: I was born in Detroit in 1953 and my family lived on Mural when I was born. When I was an infant they moved to Fairfield, which is at Finkel and Dexter. We lived at 15114 Fairfield.
WW: Was that neighborhood integrated?
CC: It was when I was—in my first memories of it. Yeah.
WW: It was?
CC: Yes and it wasn’t just integrated, it was primarily, our block at least, was primarily African American. It was maybe 70:30. So 30 percent Caucasian and 70 percent Black.
WW: What was it like growing up in that neighborhood?
CC: Well, it was my neighborhood. So, you know, you played outside until the streetlights came on. You played under the sprinklers. You would take Sugar Daddies and squash them between rocks. You’d go play in the field and climb up the middle of the sign, the big billboard, and it was like climbing Mt. Everest. You’d go over to the chicken shop and you’d peek through the back window and see them chopping off the heads of the chickens. Then you’d hang out at Greg’s Pizzeria, hoping that they’d be friends with you and maybe you’d get a free slice of pizza. Yeah, it was just our neighborhood.
WW: Growing up, did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood or did you go around the city more?
CC: Oh, we went all over the city as a family. My grandma lived at Woodward and the Boulevard. We would just take buses on our own to see grandma. Or my dad would drop us off at the DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts] and we’d hang out at the DIA and walk down to Grandma’s. We’d go up to the avenue of fashion and go shopping. My friend and I, we would go down to the Six Mile area, which was much more affluent than our neighborhood, so we would go down there and rake leaves. My dad had a side business of black topping driveways and so we would go with him on the jobs. He would drive all over the city looking for work. When he would get those jobs, we would be his crew, bringing buckets of tar to put on the driveways. He’s squeegee it all in. So, yeah, we went all over the city.
WW: Did you feel comfortable as you were going around the city?
CC: I felt very comfortable going around the city. It was, you know, I love the city. I would go downtown with my friend. I mean, this is like an excursion downtown. We would get a bunch of bread and just feed all the pigeons or we would go to the fountains and jump in. You know, we’d just hang out downtown. Went down to Plum Street to see what all that broohaha was about. We went all over.
WW: Going into ’67, you were about 14 then?
CC: So I was 14 in 1967.
WW: And you were still living in the same house?
CC: We lived right at the corner of Finkel. Next to our house was a parking lot and then next—out our windows we could see all the businesses that were on Finkel. Finkel turns into Twelfth Street at the curve down by Linwood. There was grocery stores, banks, bars, cleaners. That was sort of our world view, always peeking out the window. Anyways, back to the question, what was the question, again, please?
WW: I was just asking if you ventured around the city and if—well, no I asked if you were still living in the same house, then. So you were?
WW: How did you first hear what was going on in July?
CC: The way that I recall it is my brother Joe, who’s older than me, his friend Tyrone called him and said, ‘There’s a riot going on.’ I think Joe called my mom from his job and said Tyrone said there was a riot. It was a Sunday afternoon. It was hot out. My brother was home from college. We were hanging out on the porch, just watching the city go by. That’s my memory from finding out about it.
WW: Could you see any smoke or anything from your house?
CC: You mean when we first heard? I mean, we saw everything from our house. Buildings across the street from us burned. They all got broken into. Everything got vandalized and looted. It was like we could see the actual riot, we weren’t just in it. More than most people, we could see it all. People running up and down the street and the cars and the tanks and everything like that.
WW: You spoke about the houses across the street from you went up in fire?
CC: No, we lived at the budding of Finkel Avenue. Finkel is the business street so no houses went up in fire, but a couple of the businesses did.
WW: Oh, okay.
CC: But, the place where we did our grocery shopping, we saw the people break out the windows and come in with the carts and filling them with food and heading back down Finkel. We had an alley right next to our house so people were bringing goods and just leaving them in the alley so they could come back and do one trip and come back and get another. We left them by our bushes.
WW: Do you remember how your parents reacted to seeing all this? Or how your older siblings reacted?
CC: You know, I think what strikes me is there wasn’t a big reaction. I think that’s always been striking to me. You know, my dad was a World War II veteran so who knows what he saw. He also himself was in Detroit his whole life. He grew up in a primarily African American neighborhood himself. So maybe it changed the perspective. This was our neighborhood and our community and I don’t know. I don’t remember them being really reactive to it at all. I know that we stood outside on the upper porch and watched what was going on. I mean we were—had to stay inside, but I don’t remember them being that reactive. I know that, from my memory, at some point they got up early in the morning and they just drove around the city and looked at what was going on. Like they took a little car tour or something.
WW: How did you react to what was going on? Were you surprised by what was happening?
CC: No. I wouldn’t say I was surprised. How would I say? I know. It just—it didn’t—it never felt menacing to me and I don’t know why. That has always been interesting to me, too. But we were kind of wild kids. We wanted to get out into the mix. It was like, wait a minute, there’s stuff to be had out there, everybody else is out there. I don’t remember being afraid. More I think I had that sort of—I was kind of a spirited, bold kid so I was like, ‘Oh look what’s going on!’ As I remember. But, I also, you know, we had kind of a sort of chaotic house. A lot of drama in our own house. I always felt like the outside world matched our inside world or something.
WW: How do you refer to what happened in July ‘67?
CC: I am one of seven siblings and each and every one of us were in that house. We all saw it. We all experienced it differently. I’m saying that to sort of set the landscape as your perceptions get colored by other peoples’ narratives. But, my brother, my older brother, the one that was working at the Dairy Queen, and he’s the one that Tyrone called, and I was telling Tobi, downstairs, that during the riot, from his story, his boss called him up and said—here me, referring to it as a riot— but, his boss called him up and said, ‘Give them anything they want.’ So my brother started making banana splits and ice creams and just handing them to anybody that was out on the streets. They didn’t close right away. They just fed the masses. But, my brother always calls it Detroit’s alternative shopping day. I guess I always called it the riot. But, I mean, that’s what the media always called it, too. There was no other language for it. But, since then, from things I read, I think about it a little differently. But, it never felt racial to me. I will say that. I think probably because of what we went through. We were the only white family on our block by that time. Nobody came and circled our house and said, hey, hey, hey. My friend, Ann, at the cleaners, she was like this sweet woman that owned the cleaners, an African American woman. She was my friend and I would go over there when I needed a little money and run errands. She would give me a little quarter and send me up to the post office, or give me some little job to do so I could make a little money. But, she owned a business and her business was at risk. During the rebellion, the riot, or whatever, she stood in front of her business with a rifle. There’s a woman that was just like my heart of hearts and she’s standing out on Finkel with a rifle, but I just felt like if there was any problem, Ann would take care of it for me.
WW: How did you feel when the National Guard, and later the Army came in?
CC: How did I feel?
CC: Well we didn’t see them directly. What we saw, I mean, I didn’t see them going up and down Finkel at all. But my cousin was in the National Guard and so at some point I remember that the tank pulled up in the alley next to our house. I don’t know if it was Eddy getting out and saying hi or if it was like he was just checking in on us. But a tank pulled up right next to the house. So anyways.
WW: After the riot ended, did you feel comfortable in the city still? Did the city change to you at all?
CC: You know, I’ve been doing a lot of writing about this and I’ve thought about it deeply through the years. It was a very pivotal year in my life because I went to a small, Catholic, parochial school. It was a community school. We went to school with—it was just dynamic. The people there were committed to social justice, activist, Catholicism. Everybody played basketball. The play that they did at that school was West Side Story. So we’re seeing on stage plays that talk about diversity. The basketball team won all-city that year. Judge Gershwin Drain was a graduate of St. Gregory’s. That was our community. It was like pulled from all over. That was our grade school. It wasn’t just that we lived in a neighborhood, but we were in this community called St. Gregory’s. Many of the people that lived in that neighborhood sent their kids to that school or stayed in that community because they wanted to be in that kind of environment. It was very diverse and they worked actively towards it. Now, I was at the age of 14 during the riots, right, and I had just completed eighth grade. Somehow, through some miracle—because we weren’t great academic students by any means, but I was one of the better students in my family—somehow, some way, I got accepted to Immaculata High School.
Immaculata High School was an all-girl, Catholic, elite school. Pretty much down at Six Mile and Livernois was a very affluent neighborhood. A lot of the judges and lawyers of Detroit, and political elites and their children lived in that community. The girls went to Immaculata. [Judge William] Cahalan, who was in the video, his daughter was there. I got accepted to Immaculata. Now, Immaculata’s at Six Mile and Livernois, you know, up by Greenfield. So, why I’m telling you this whole long story is I’m in the eighth grade, I finish eighth grade. I don’t get to go back to my community school, right. I’m accepted to Immaculata. The community school was maybe going to close. I get into this school where I don’t even fit. I don’t even know how people are supposed to act. I’m a girl from Finkel and Dexter. We’re city kids, you know. You grab a little candy, you do a little bit of shoveling snow for the old ladies to make some money. You scam for some coin downtown so you can go to Quickie Donuts because you got nothing. We were these like just ruffling city kids. Now I’m going to school with all these very beautiful, affluent people. It was diverser.
The reason I’m being so long winded with this is because I walked from Finkel and Dexter to the school that I went to. And so I walked the streets, or took the bus, the streets, to Immaculata afterwards. It was just like I was on this walking tour. I never felt afraid. I never felt intimidated. But, it was just something about, you know, there’s this whole ruin porn that goes on now. It was like a gawker at a roadside accident. It didn’t scare me, but I was influenced by it. I looked at it a lot. Just the same way when somebody behind us got murdered when we were kids. I used to go over there and just bring my little brothers and sisters and say, ‘Look, there’s blood on the sidewalk!’ But, one of the things that I think about a lot, so we’re in the riots, we see the riots. It’s worse on TV than it is right in front of us for some reason, which makes no sense to me. Because see, we’re living in a community. We have a family. We have neighbors. We love our neighbors. They love us. We have a church. I have Ann at the cleaners. So even though everything was going on right in front of us, I never felt threatened. But, the TV was scary. When we started seeing the images, it seemed like there was two worlds going on.
But back to this Immaculata piece, at the same time that the riot’s going on, for the first time ever, it’s more horrifying to me that I saw our president’s motorcade on TV, and him getting killed. And then I saw his assassin getting killed on TV. I’m seeing the images of the Vietnam War on TV. TV was powerful in that day. We didn’t have much TV access so lots of times we didn’t have a TV. We’d go to somebody else’s house so it was more riveting. All these people are getting killed. All these things are happening in the media that we never really saw that until that period of history. So that piece of it makes it really, really strange.
So now, was it scary? No, it wasn’t scary. Then I go to this very interesting school. An interesting piece of my life is that I always had a weight issue. While I’m going to this all girl school, I’m also getting—my family starts having me go down to—I have to go down to a diet doctor. So once a week, I was taking the Six Mile bus, going down, it curved down, it’d go down Twelfth Street, go down Linwood, blah, blah, blah. So I took a bus tour every week through Highland Park and down through Twelfth so I could get down to the doctor’s. It’s the visual of seeing all that that was so different. That was kind of compelling.
The other reason I mention the school is I didn’t know there were people that were different than we were. When we lived at Finkel and Dexter, we were all just poor people. We were all just barely scraping by working class people, whose daddies carried lunch boxes, who frequently got the food baskets from church, who had one pair of shoes to get through the school year, and maybe not enough toothbrushes. Then I go to this school so my own experience of the dichotomy of cultures happened simultaneously. Although that was a very lovely school, I barely could make it academically. It wasn’t so diverse, as embracing. But, it was when I was there—it was an all that kind of school—we did our concerts at Ford Auditorium and I’m a singer. What I remember almost more than the riot was—not more than the riot, but it was just this moment where I did feel traumatized was when they killed Dr. Martin Luther King. I was on a bus heading downtown. The riot was an anomaly, except now we’re seeing it on TV. We’re seeing Watts. We’re seeing it from all over the world. Now, Dr. King got killed. You could just, this pulse in the city that day, I don’t even know how to describe it. We had just had a riot and now the peacemaker, who had been advocating for peace and justice, got slaughtered in a city that’s already been traumatized through race and oppression. And that day was disturbing.
WW: Did your parents ever think about moving out afterwards?
CC: We did move out, but that’s what was so weird. They already owned the house. They owned this house. But, they didn’t move until after the riot, it’s like finally—or the rebellion or whatever—it was like my dad finally convinced my mom we could leave.
WW: Where’d they move to?
CC: Unbelievable. Grosse Isle. So you know Grosse Isle. Grosse Isle during the riot, the rumor is that they put the bridges up so no one could get across. But, the house, it was like the hut house. It was a falling down old farm house. In the summer of ’67 was the riot. I went to Immaculata for a year. In ’68 they sold the house on Fairfield and then moved to Grosse Isle. At some level, that was more traumatic. For me, I was a very independent, autonomous child. But, I was kind of wild. I was kind of like taken to the streets and so was my brother. We were kind of free souls. Maybe we were a little at risk, if that makes sense. Just, you know, at risk somehow of not following society’s rules.
But, we moved to Grosse Ile, and all of sudden I’m a 15 year old whose been taking buses all over, going anywhere she wanted, and I’m prisoner like I’m on Alcatraz already. It’s an island. I can’t get anywhere. I can’t even—I’ve told you already I love cookies and sweets—I couldn’t even get a candy bar without walking two miles. I couldn’t go anywhere unless I begged my mother to take me. Then, I went to an all white school. I’d never been anywhere where it was all white. That was like, does this make sense? That was somehow more unsettling. I didn’t know what the cultural norms were in an all white school. I knew what the cultural norms were in my neighborhood. That’s kind of what I’m saying. Like at Immaculata, I’m living at Finkel and Dexter, I’m going to this local Catholic school, I knew what the cultural norms were. Now all of a sudden I’m an adolescent. You’ve got to find your culture, your clan. I’m first put in an all girls school where I don’t know the cultural norms and once I figured them out, I don’t belong anyways. I don’t have the money to belong or even the prior knowledge to know how to conduct myself in it. There’s some sad stories that went on there. Then we moved from there. I now live on an island. We’re bussed off the island to go to Gabriel Richard. Now I’m at this all white Catholic school that kids are coming from—that was more traumatic for me. I didn’t know what the cultural norms were there either. I just wanted to come back to Detroit and that’s what I did as soon as I could. Plus, even academically, if this makes any sense, at St. Gregory’s, I was a decent student. At Immaculata, I failed everything. At Gabriel Richard, I was barely passing. It was like too much social-emotional pressure to know everything else. I mean, I passed. There was a lot of acting out on my part, at that point. A lot of acting out.
WW: Do you continue to live in the suburbs or live in Detroit?
CC: I think that’s a good question. I came back to Detroit. I lived in Detroit. I went to Wayne State. Before there were ever urban hipsters, I lived at my grandmother’s house. She let her grandchildren all live with her. There’s like 15 of us that lived with her down at the Boulevard and walked or took the bus to Wayne. That’s how I got through it. Then I’d go down to Grosse Isle and do cleaning on the weekends so I could pay my tuition and then I’d come back to Detroit and live at Grandma’s.
So moving forward to your question, and where do I live, I live in a ringed suburb, but it was an active choice. I think about it a lot because I always wanted to be in a community of diversity. There wasn’t any communities of diversity in Detroit. Plus, I’m an educator and there were no schools I could send my children to when they were born, in Detroit. People who stayed in Detroit of affluence knew the schools weren’t able to serve the kids because of many deep reasons. So I raised my family in Dearborn. But, I chose Dearborn because it is diverse because of the Eastern European population, its proximity to Detroit, its more working class background, and so, there you go.
WW: How do you feel about the state of the city today? Are you optimistic for it moving forward?
CC: Am I optimistic? That’s a good way that they word that question. Am I optimistic about it moving forward? I have a very interesting view of the city. I worked for the universities and I’ve worked for Teach for America so I’ve been in the schools in some of the most intriguing neighborhoods. I’m not talking I’m hanging out on Woodward Avenue down at Campus Martius. I’m talking I’m going into these EEA [EAA: Education Achievement Authority] schools watching these children’s educations get —not get. One day I drove out of a school through security and they opened the gate and the guy sitting on his porch picked up a rifle and shook it at me.
Am I optimistic? Am I optimistic? When we include all of Detroit, I’ll be optimistic. When we’re just keeping it sort of at the epicenter? No, I’m not optimistic. When I see that Wayne State—when I see people can’t afford to live in their neighborhood anymore because of the gentrification of midtown, no, I’m not optimistic. When I go into restaurants that are, “Oh, they’re all that” or when my friends who live in the suburbs are like, “Oh, let’s go to Detroit” I’m like, Detroit’s been there. I’ve been going for the last 40 years. All of a sudden because there’s a Whole Foods, you’re going into Detroit? I’ll be optimistic with projects like this where we’re asking deep and reflective questions. I am optimistic because of my children. I can see where—we didn’t just live in the suburbs. We lived in Detroit. They went to Belle Isle before it was made a state park. They went to the DIA. They went to the Historical Museum. They went to the riverfront. We were city people. This was our city. We went on our Thanksgivings down to Focus: HOPE. We went and fed people at the Mother Waddles soup kitchen. We went to urban churches. I go to a beautiful church now. If you want to be optimistic about Detroit, go to the nativity and see the kind of community they have there on the east side. Those things make me optimistic. I’m optimistic that my daughter, who’s lived all over the world, she’s lived in Germany and Amsterdam, she’s trilingual, I’m optimistic that she bought a house, not in midtown, but she bought a house right at the corner of—between Hamtramck and Detroit. She’s created a performance space that isn’t just like, “Oh, the artists are moving in and it’s an enclave” but she created a space called Joe’s Garage where she opens the door to Carpenter Street. She’s got all her music system and people come in and do music with her. I’m optimistic because of her. Because she understands that when any voice is oppressed, we’re all oppressed. See, I get very philosophical about this. So yeah, it’s all pretty. But, if I think the restaurant is really lovely, I ought to vet it. I ought to vet it with my eyes and if they’re not making equitable hiring choices, then I’m not being the right person to be in Detroit. So we all ought to be vetting the city and asking everybody to raise the bar. See, there I go, I can get very outspoken about it.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me. I greatly appreciate it.
CC: There you go.