Mary Ann Flanagan, February 7th, 2017
WW: Today is February 7, 2017. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's Detroit '67 Oral History Project. And I am sitting down with –
MF: Mary Ann Flanagan, a sister of the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
MF: It's nice to be here.
WW: Would you like to share your story?
MF: Yes, I would. I was a young sister in nineteen sixty - seven? eight, was it? And I was studying at the University of Detroit. But it was a Sunday, and so my parents had come to get me, to spend the day with them, and they were driving me back to St. Gregory's Convent in Detroit. And as we were coming in from Dearborn – which was just a regular, steady drive, as usual—all of a sudden we began to notice smoke that was kind of ahead of us.
And my dad was a little bit concerned about continuing on, but we did, and he returned me to St. Gregory's. But at that time we began to realize that we had kind of driven right into the center of a lot of agitation and a lot of activity that wasn't usually there in that neighborhood. So I entered St. Gregory Convent door and the sisters had said, "How did you get in? There's a riot going on right around us!" And so they took me up to the rooftop of St. Gregory's Convent, and from that vantage point, I was able to see – you know, I'm not even sure of the correctness of the street, but it possibly could have been Woodward. It was a major, major street, and what we saw was just like – sofas were just walking down the street like bugs. But under them would be people carrying these sofas from the furniture stores along the route there that had been—windows had been broken and everything had been taken out.
So it was a strange, strange, sight, like these walking sofas. I will never forget it. But also, as we were learning from the radio—a description of what was actually happening, the seriousness—truly began to come upon us, that this was going to be a real crisis for our city.
I grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, which is kind of well-known. I grew up under the vantage point of Governor Hubbard, who was –
MF: Pardon me, Mayor Hubbard, who was a notable racist. In fact, I went through twelve years of Catholic education at Sacred Heart School and had never met an African American ‘til after I graduated from that school. Because it was such a racist city I never really moved outside of Dearborn and had no association, until I entered the congregation and then began education— graduate education at the University of Detroit.
So it was just a striking memory I will never lose, from that day. Kind of the initiation, I think, of the violence, was first of all just – the stealing and the breaking into places, and then just the walking of the sofas down the road. Then later we gathered—it had become violent, and further down into the city there were the fires and the ransacking of homes and so on. It was a sad day.
I had a certain understanding of being one of those racist individuals, though, who never participated in any kind of interaction with the black community. Why they would be—why that community would be so angry at us? It was understandable, really, to me. By that time I—as a sister, had done a lot of study on racism and systemic violence and so on. So—but at that time, it was just a very shocking day for me to see this acted out. And as I say, I will never forget that day. That would be my story.
WW: Where was St. Gregory's?
MF: You know, golly—it was some fifty years ago, I'd have to look on a map to see its exact location. It was on the west side of Detroit. One of the bigger Catholic parishes and during the summer many sisters who did not teach there resided there, when they would be going off to graduate education at U of D or Marygrove and so on. I'm sorry I can't help you with that detail of the geography. I'm sure I knew it then, but I don't know it now. [laughter]
WW: So the rest of the time did you just stay hunkered down?
MF: We did. We—it was like, we knew the city was kind of exploding in its own way, and so I recall that we did not go on to school, graduate school, that Monday or into that week, 'til it had kind of been agreed that the violence of it was over. But it—it was a—truly, a frightening experience. One that you could have an intellectual appreciation of, but one that emotionally was still—you were on the underside of history for the first time, and you were kind of kept imprisoned. Which would have been what many African American persons do experience in our society—did at that time, especially, and still do in some ways.
WW: Did it change the way you saw the city? Did you feel comfortable in the city afterwards?
MF: I would have to say, following that summer I was missioned to Atlanta, Georgia, so I actually did not stay in the city itself. But when I got to Atlanta, my new ministry there, I was constantly being asked about— "You were in Detroit, you're from Detroit." Everyone knew that this was a very signal event that—of a racist explosion, as it were, that for many people was frightening. I don't think, because of my—hopefully, my initial commitment to fight racism—if I had stayed in the city, I would have asked to work in the city.
Actually, I later was a professor at the Marygrove College, which is pretty much an African American community there, and I was never frightened. I was not ever frightened to go there, and actually even I was there the night before one of our sisters was murdered in that very neighborhood. I was the last person to see her, as we both were teaching evening classes at Marygrove. And I went to my car, and she went—kind of through the neighborhood to go back to her home, and she was murdered that night.
So—I think she was a woman who was convinced she would not leave the city because of its violence, and its violence killed her. But she was a witness to an effort toward integration and toward a statement. And my congregation, in respect of her values, told the judge, when they had caught the murderer, that the congregation pleaded that he would never be given the death penalty, as a statement of how we believed that too many social circles, too many social systems, gave shape to that young man, as part of a racist society.
But it did leave me changed. My awareness of that, those historical events, they were very few, but maybe they were more strident because of my growing up in an absolutely, totally white background, and being almost embarrassed by it. Remembering my father was one of the first leaders of the diocese to try to have circles of communication in Dearborn about racism itself, and some of his lifetime friends were both shocked and angry with him for doing this.
WW: Thank you so much.
MF: You're welcome, you're welcome. I kind of—those are broad-circled ideas but I hope it gives the Society something of a feel for it.
WW: It certainly did.