Connie Boris, 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. I’m in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. And I’m sitting down with—
CB: Hi, my name is Connie Boris and I grew up on the west side of Detroit near Michigan Avenue and Loniel. I majored in mathematics at the University of Detroit. It was during that period that I encountered one of the most traumatic, life-threatening events of my life. In fact, it was almost unbelievable, I could not believe what I was seeing. I should mention that all of my life I’ve always been for the underdog. I always fought prejudice. My best friend was an African American woman who was majoring in mathematics at the University of Detroit with me. We also lived a few blocks from, it was a white neighborhood, but we had an entire block that was totally African American. We all got along. When I saw what was happening in Detroit, I really couldn’t believe it.
The not so good part happened around July 22, I think it was a Sunday.
CB: 23, a Sunday, in 1967. I remember the 22 was kind of key, it was my brother’s birthday. I was invited by a friend of mine at the University of Detroit, by the name of Judy Merlot, and I’m amazed after all these years I can still remember her name. But her parents drove us, to of all places, Camp Dearborn, which is up in Milford, to enjoy Sunday and be at the beach and have a great time. In the afternoon, word had spread that there was rioting in Detroit and it looked like we were not going to be able to get home. I started to worry about my parents, whether or not they would be okay or not. So as word spread, I know where Twelfth Street and Clairmont was because we had relatives living not far from there. I heard on the radio that it was a blind pig that was being raided by the Detroit police. Evidently there had been some false rumors spread and pretty soon there was like gang, and bottles were being thrown. On the news, on the television, black and white at the time, we could see fires erupting in the City of Detroit. Then we heard there were snipers on the bridges. We said, ‘Snipers on the bridges?’ We won’t be able to get home. So Judy Merlot’s parents said, ‘We’re not going home. We’re all staying at Camp Dearborn.’ We stayed there for three days then her dad had to come back.
By this time, there was, the state police had been called in, the National Guard had been called in. Then, of all things, something I never thought I would ever see, the 82nd Airborne with tanks. So, to make a long story short, as we were driving home, we’re Catholic, we prayed all the way home that a sniper would not get us. When we got home, I felt relieved because my parents were okay. But then I had to go back to school. It was about four days later, I started back at the University of Detroit, taking math, so I really got to go there. I can’t miss any day for class. Primarily because I’m working two jobs to put myself through the University of Detroit so I wasn’t going to miss a class for anything. As I’m driving down Livernois Avenue I saw a tank with the 82nd Airborne paratroopers with guns and bayonets. I said, I don’t believe this. This is the Detroit I love. What are we doing seeing tanks? I could see this in a war in Europe, but I can’t see it here on Livernois Avenue, near the University of Detroit. This is one memory that I have never gotten over. The other thing that I’ll always remember is when we were in class is that there was a group called the Black Action Movement. It was a group of black males who came in right during the math class and shoved the professor, tore down the project screen, tore it down, and started to destroy all of the desks. I thought, I’m out of here. All of the students ran out of the classroom.
I think the University of Detroit was, I would say, far ahead of its time in giving free tuition to African Americans. I think I was in the exact same economic background as the African Americans were, but I could never get a scholarship. That’s why I had to work two jobs to put myself through. I eventually got a PhD in civil engineering through the University of Michigan, but it was all due to the University of Detroit, and the great, critical, analytical thinking skills that came from the Jesuit priests who are phenomenal teachers. So that’s pretty much my thinking. It’s something that’s stayed with me for a very long time. You could see the results of what had happened. To see the firemen being attacked on the news for trying to put out fires, to see all those homes destroyed, all those businesses looted. You had everybody taking advantage of breaking out windows to steal from a person who worked hard to establish a business. To me, it’s stealing, it’s wrong, and I was amazed the pictures on TV showing from white and black young males and females to grandmothers with blankets full of things that were stolen from the buildings. I don’t think anything justifies robbing other people of their homes and of their businesses. I think that’s a sad chapter because the Detroit, Michigan, that I knew, drastically changed.
We never, ever locked our doors at night, never. I grew up never locking the back door, but after the riots, we locked the back door. Life had changed. I know that’s a simple thing, a very simple thing, but you started to—and I think to this day, I always watch my surroundings. I will always watch it. I always look behind me and I shouldn’t have to live— you know, I shouldn’t have the feeling. But, you kind of grew up that that’s what happened, later. It changed from a bucolic, thirty-foot lots, where you walk, you’re close to your neighbors. Black or white, you walk to the store, and now the stores have closed. And what else has happened is the churches started to close. The church that I grew up in closed. You saw that throughout Detroit. So much was closing. Your major department stores, your churches, the whole city unraveled.
I’m very happy to see it coming back. We owe that to your generation, to the young people, who see the value of Detroit. Detroit is famous. Detroit helped win World War II. We were the Arsenal of Democracy. Without us, I’m not sure you would’ve won World War II. It was us. My dad worked in a bomber plant at Willow Run producing things, B52s. You know, this is phenomenal. You know, we produced the stuff. We stopped making cars, we’re making tanks. We’re making Chiefs. We’re making bombers, you know. That helped win World War II. It seemed like that wonderful heritage. We got the reputation then, of being a murder city for a long time. That was bad. People didn’t want to come to Detroit. But, this younger generation, thank God, is starting to rebuild Detroit, clean up the neighborhoods, and so on. Okay.
WW: After you graduated from U of D, and you went to U of M, did you come back to live in the city?
CB: Okay, I did not. I did not. I came—that’s a good question. That’s a very, very good question. When I got my PhD, I was offered a wonderful job that I always wanted in Washington, D.C. So I lived in Washington, D.C. for 13 years. Then, my parents, though, never left Detroit. They never did. People were afraid, I know a lot of the friends that I went to school with at the University of Detroit, they left. They wanted their families to be safer so they went to the outlying areas, out of Detroit, to protect their family or so they thought. My mom and dad never left Detroit. They died in Detroit, both of them. We still have the house in Detroit, but I live now—when we came back from Washington, D.C., we came back, my dad was dying and I wanted to be here, to be with him. We looked for homes and there were only three available. We wanted a place with good schools. That was key. We wanted good schools. Detroit did not have a reputation of having good schools, so we moved to Grosse Pointe for the school system. We looked at Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, and Grosse Pointe. We loved Grosse Pointe, automatically, just like that. Although, I didn’t know much about Grosse Pointe when I was going to the University of Detroit. I had friends, and yeah, I visited Grosse Pointe, but we were west siders all the way. You know, that’s what we were going to be.
I want to just say one other thing though that, you know, how life kind of goes in a circle. That area, Twelfth Street and Clairmont, is not far from where I did a lot of work after I came back after 13 years to Detroit. I did a ton of work on a super fun site. It’s an extremely hazardous waste site, doing the engineering to clean up a really bad site. The site was really bad. In fact, it’s not far from where this picture was taken on Warren Avenue. What’s interesting about it is that it’s all African American. We had to fence the site so that people would not get contaminated. It wasn’t so much to keep them out, it—well, it was to keep them out, but mostly it was so that they didn’t get their feet full of soil because the soil was heavily contaminated with PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls. It’s not a good thing to have. In that time period, it took us about four-and-a-half years to clean up that site from beginning to end. I was out at that site a lot every week. Because I became fixture in a neighborhood that was almost totally African American and I am amazed how close we became. It got to the point where, and I can honestly say this, you don’t see color anymore. You don’t see it. You see Mr. Clark. Or you see Mr. Williamson. You don’t, you just don’t associate color. If you’re with them all the time, with these folks, they protect you, and they did.
I had to do the security, make sure there was no breakage in the cyclone fence or whatever. One day, I was walking along, the fence it’s Warren and Buchanan, is where the area was. There was a Rottweiler and it was tracking me down. It was stalking me. Mr. Clark caught it. He took his gun, he didn’t shoot the dog, but he shot over the dog’s head. He saved me from being mauled by a Rottweiler. The same way with the other fellas, I mean, we all looked out for each other. Somebody needed a loan, okay, give me ten bucks. They’d pay me back whenever they can. It was just like the old neighborhood used to be before the riots, you know. Even in my dad’s family, he grew up up-north in Elmira, not far from Gaylord. Next door neighbor was Joe Allen and his family. They both had 200-acre farms. They helped each other. Joe Allen was black and they got along like this. We really can get along. Sometimes I think, you know—we’ve come an awful long way from the old thinking of, prior to the ’67 riot. We have come a long way, we’ve really—again, even at the U of M, one of my best friends, African American. We helped each other throughout our school, our classes and whatever. So, you know. Okay.WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me.