Buddy Atchoo and Michael Dickow, August 17th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 17, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. And I am joined by
BA: Buddy Atchoo.
MD: Michael Dickow: D-I-C-K-O-W.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. What years did the two of you come to Detroit? Were you born here?
MD: No. We weren’t.
BA: You want to ask one at a time?
WW: One at a time.
BA: Yeah, one at a time.
MD: Me, I was born in Iraq, North of Iraq, __________?.
WW: And what year did you come here?
WW: What brought you here?
MD: I’m sorry?
WW: Why did you come?
MD: I came here, my brother was here and I came too. I heard about United States, and I came. When I came. First person came of all the brother and sister: it was me, come from Iraq.
BA: I came in 1947 as an exchange student to study engineering, and that’s why I came. When I finished, I was really in love with the country, so I married my own people–which, she was born here–and I stayed. Then I brought my parents and my sisters, the whole family.
WW: What was your first impression of Detroit?
BA: Honestly, my impression was– I was not upset but in disbelief because the home I had in Baghdad was much better than the house I came here to. I thought the homes would be big [laughter], so that was my impression.
WW: What was your impression?
MD: I came here, I love it. I prayed to God that explain if I go down that, I would appreciate to come here. Because I heard about it and I came here and I loved it, everyday I was in United States, everyday. The greatest country in the world. The freedom’s country in the world. How could you beat that? No country in the world, no.
WW: And when you came here, what neighborhood did you move into? Where did you live?
MD: I live in Tuxedo and Hamilton.
BA: No, when you first came.
MD: First came?
BA: You stayed with your brother, didn’t you, or?
MD: Yeah, I stayed with my brother for a couple, three, four months, and my wife came. My kids, they came in ’62, so we had an apartment at that time. After a couple of years, my brother moved to different house, I took his house on Tuxedo and Hamilton.
WW: Buddy, where did you live when you moved here?
BA: First, I stayed with my cousin, and after that, I rented a room by the University of Detroit. That’s where I attended college.
WW: And, when the two of you came, did you find the city welcoming?
BA: At that time, yes. It was more than welcoming, like you are not afraid, not worried.
BA: Of course, you know, the transportation was good. Even when I used to work at Chevrolet here on Axel, I used to take a Woodward streetcar, then take a transfer, and go all the way to the East Side. And I used to work midnight shift. You see when you are a third year engineering University of Detroit, you work three months and you study three months. I used to wait sometimes 45 minutes, an hour, way on the East Side, never been bothered, never occurred to me one day somebody’s going to bother me. The difference was, later on, unimaginable for me.
WW: Did you find the city welcoming?
MD: Yeah. I work with my brother’s store, called Consumers’ Fruit Market. From the end of ’59 I work there until we bought–me and my partner–we bought the store, Consumer’s, ’63 until ’75 I stay there. And all the riot and all that’s happened, burning up, I stay there until ’75.
WW: Where was that store located?
MD: Blaine and Twelfth, Consumer Food Market.
WW: How long did you stay at Chrysler, you said?
BA: No, GM [General Motors].
WW: Oh, GM, sorry.
BA: I worked for Chevrolet Gear and Axel, and go back to school, then I worked for Douglas and Lomison Company (??) in Detroit twice – I used to go back to school and then they would hire me again.
WW: Going into the 1960s in Detroit, you had just bought your store, you were working in the city, did you sense any growing tension in the city at all, or was the city still the same welcoming place it was?
BA: To me, it was the same, tell you the truth.
MD: As far as I’m concerned. I stayed there. I do not remember, on Twelfth Street, which is the, at that time, Twelfth Street was peril (??). But I stayed I stayed there until the riot came out in ’67. They burned the whole street about a mile from my store. They just stayed at the front of my store, nobody touch.
WW: In 1967, were the two of you still living in Detroit?
BA: When I got married, I lived in Detroit for like six months then I moved to Highland Park in an apartment. And then later on, I bought a house in Highland Park. We opened up in 1957, the biggest independent supermarket in the city of Detroit on Brush and Brewster –it was the whole block. 2900 Brush–I remember. We had about 35 employees.
WW: Was this a family venture?
BA: We were five partners. Yes, I mean if you–cousins and friends, you know, but we were five partners. We bought a body (??) company, and then bought – it was on Brewster – and then bought on Brush, apartment building, and tore both of them down, and built a brand new building. 13,500 square feet. At that time, A&P was the biggest, and all these–like Kroger–all their stores were 8500 square feet. So we were almost double the size of their stores.
WW: What made you want to go from engineering to owning a supermarket?
BA: The reason, I tell you honestly: I could have worked for Chrysler at the time, $600 a month for a graduate engineer. Now, you know, we are born–like my dad–in business. We have a saying that when you work for a salary, you have few walnuts numbered, but when you work in business, there’s no limit, especially over here.
BA: So, we had to take a chance by doing this, and I figured, if we succeed, fine. If we don’t, I can always go back and get a job. [Laughter.] The name of the store was Big Dipper, on Brush and Brewster–it was a whole block from Brush all the way to Beaubien.
WW: At each of your stores, who were your clientele? Were they primarily black residents of Detroit or white Detroiters?
BA: At that time, I would say about 85 percent were black, and about 15 percent white.
MD: When I was at Twelfth Street, it was 95-98 black, 2 percent white.
WW: With people coming into your store, did you sense any tension in the community?
MD: Me, no.
BA: What do you mean by that, what tension?
WW: Were your customers and purchasing from your store, were they comfortable with you being white, or was there any antagonism?
BA: There was nothing of the sort. They only thing they were interested in was in price and service, and we offered them that.
BA: And that’s why we used to do a big amount of business. Support five families.
WW: Uh-hm. And did you continue to own your store in ’67?
BA: Yes. What happened, the day of the riot, see, we used to work like two weeks and then take one day off, Sunday. So that Sunday, it was the two partners worked together, and that Sunday, when I came, usually there would be people lining up waiting for us to open the store. I drove: there’s nobody. I was shocked, “What’s going on?” You know? I don’t know. So we opened the store, and the business was not there either. So I was wondering what happened, you know? Then, around twelve o’clock, one of the partners called and said, “Are you okay? Is there anything wrong there?” I said, “No, why, what’s happening?” He said, “They are burning Twelfth Street.”
MD: My street.
BA: So, then, later on, we usually used to close at 5 o’clock. So they said, “We don’t want you to stay there.” We closed at either two o’clock or three o’clock, and then left. At night, that night, they burned the store.
WW: Before you left, did you take anything with you, in case the store did burn?
BA: No. It never occurred in my mind that it would be burnt.
WW: Your store on Twelfth, being so close, were you there that day?
MD: I’m sorry?
WW: Were you there that Sunday?
MD: I closed Saturday night, the store. The first time I left Monday and checked, I put them in the safe that night. I never did that before. Somehow I put it in the safe and I left. I got up, well I was up, five-six o’clock, and I heard Twelfth Street is burned. I called one of my brothers, police, George Wallace I called him, he says, “You stay home. Don’t you come out here.” They burned 10-15 stores, left to right. Nobody touched my store. But they took everything: all the groceries, meat, whatever there is. And they took safe, they took it out in the street and they broke it. I ask him, I said, “You took the cash, give me the checks. You cannot cash the checks.”
We built again, I have insurance, they pay for it all. I opened until ’75, I was there by myself. Even my store.
WW: Right after your store got looted, did you think, “I’m done here,” or did you immediately start planning to rebuild?
MD: ’75 the city took the street. They wanted the street, they called it Rosa Parks Boulevard. I’m sure you heard about it, it still is, same name now. And I never lived there. I don’t know how the street now, since ’75.
WW: In ’67 when your store was looted did you immediately plan to rebuild it or did you think about going somewhere else?
MD: No, the people took everything out of the store. Then, after one week, it was clear everything was okay, we call insurance company, they give us the money, and we open just like normal. I stayed there until ’68 when Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. There happened a riot in my store too. That time was very danger[ous]. I used to have one worker, I told him, “Take me home or take me somewhere.” I stay in a pickup car and I sleep there until I moved from that last street. He took me somewhere, you know. But really nobody bothered me. I just did that because I want to make sure everything’s okay. And they broke just our windows, that’s all they did. They don’t touch everything else. Two days I went and open the store until ’75. The city took over, they said we’re going to widen the street. Everything was okay. I used to love there, I used to go there without thinking anything damage, anything. I used to open the store by myself in the street, which was ____________ (??), even police was scared to walk that street. Nobody touch me, nobody say anything. I appreciate what they did there because I used to treat them like myself and better. They ask me $10 and I give them $5, and I give them $1. I never turned nobody down.
BA: After we were burned down, we had intentions of rebuilding. It took us two years because restrictions and all that. So what we did, we made the store smaller, and we built three stores next door, so we made it like a shopping center. At the time, we borrowed money from the federal government as a disaster loan. Three percent paid in 25 years, so that’s how we built back again.
Then, during these two years, the partners each–you got to survive, you have families, you have kids, you know–so each went on his own way for a while ’til we build the store. Then even after we build the store, we did like we used to go, I would go Monday, my other partner would go Tuesday, the other one go–for a while, you cannot run the store like that. You have to be there to know what’s gong on. Because I go there, I don’t know what the hell’s going on–what they did, what they ordered. So what we did, we leased it, to a guy named Bob Coverson. He was with PUSH, Jesse Jackson, you know, PUSH: People whatever.
US: People United for Self-Help.
BA: Yeah, yeah. Because never, they used to say, well you are employing your cousins, your– well of course! Every cousin that came to this country, my cousin, my partner’s cousin, of course you give them a job. But the majority of our workers were black. So, after this happened, so we figure well, we will lease it to a black man, and even when he went to get groceries to fill up the store–you need about $50,000–the wholesale people will not give them a penny. So we have to co-sign for him to get the groceries. Two years later, he went broke. So we took the store back, and we ran it for a while, then we sold it to a Chaldean and actually we owned the building, the fixtures–the only thing the guy who leased it from us, it was a lease. He had to bring his own merchandise.
WW: Was there any talk amongst you and your partners about whether or not the rebuild or just to move away?
BA: No, no. See, like I told you, we used to do big business. Five families used to live like a king. We built homes in the suburbs. But, we worked hard. We were there 8 to 10 hours a day, every single day. Only day off you could take, two weeks, one Sunday off. So we were on top of it, each of the partners took one department and managed that department. We used to take care of it. I used to work, take care of the produce department. I would be there at 4-5 o’clock in Eastern Market to buy vegetables and stuff, then I come to the store, I had a driver with a tuck, then I go to the Terminal, Produce Terminal, where they get stuff from all over the United States. We all worked hard. And we never left unless everything was okay: you mopped the floors so when you come the second day, you open the store, and you are in business.
WW: Did either of you feel any bitterness after ’67 because of the fact that your stores were looted, and yours was burned?
BA: Of course. I mean if I tell you different, it’s not true. Sure, we had remorse. But you blame it on few people because the majority of our customers, they used to love us. We were there 11 years, never been held up, never had any problems, like real problem. The only thing they used to break the windows at night. So what we did, one side, we took all the windows and we break them. We had no, no any serious problems. Of course you catch this guy stealing or this guy this, but other than that. As a matter of fact, our manager was a black woman, one of the most trusted person. That’s why we leased it to this Bob Coverson, but he couldn’t make it.
MD: I used to work 70 hours a week. Me and my partner, we took part in it (??), because we start, we have family. We started from zero and God help us and we work very hard and me and partner, my partner he was so hard worker, he was one of the best, he was butcher, he was everything. He did everything. Much better than me, to be honest with you. But I was just talking to the people, be nice with the people, and thank God we’re still here. I don’t have no problem. They hold up the whole street, maybe mile, two miles from us, nobody touch me, nobody say one word to me, nobody, nobody. You can’t believe that. The place I was, nobody harmed me, nobody.
WW: After ’67, did you open up a new store?
MD: No, I was -
WW: Er not ’67, sorry ’75.
MD: No. I close it because they took it over, and I went I bought a store in Royal Oak for five years, four years, and after that we went to Pontiac, we bought big store over there. Trucks, there was a pharmacy in it, everything in it, meat and all that, and we stayed there until ’96 and we sold it. That was retirement, thank God.
WW: How do the two of you feel about Detroit today? Do you see the same problems that affected us in ’67 affecting us today?
BA: In my opinion, Detroit will recover provided they have security. When you go downtown, or anywhere, when you walk and you are afraid, of course you’re not going to go. But, the only time the city is going be flourish is when you have security. Like, my granddaughter is getting married in October. She’s going to get married at DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts], the reception is going to be there. So, it’s a shame. When I first came, I used to go downtown 10 o’clock, 12 o’clock, one o’clock in the morning, people walking, going, what they call window shopping or whatever, and it never occurred in your mind that somebody’s going to attack you. There was nothing of the sort. You were free, you did everything, whatever you want to go, restaurant, bar, whatever. Never bothered, nobody bothered you. So that’s my opinion. Unless there’s security, it’s going to be – You know, when I first came, the population was almost two million people. What is it today? It should have been five million. Like you take any other big cities, they doubled and tripled. Now, instead of maintaining, we went down. Now it’s less than three quarters of a million.
Everywhere you go, like, my granddaughter bought a house in Grosse Pointe, and the first time we want to go there, we went and they have this navigator and they took us through Detroit; honest to God I’ve never seen so many abandoned homes, so many burned homes. Unbelievable. You get scared. And we are driving. Tell you the truth, you don’t know. It’s a shame. I’ll be honest, it’s a shame.
WW: Is there anything else the two of you would like to speak about today?
MD: I’m sorry?
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
MD: I don’t know what more you want to ask. You have any more questions?
WW: Nope, pretty good. Thank you so much for sitting down with me, I greatly appreciate it.
MD: Thank you very much.
MD: Thank you.