Girard Townsend, June 12, 2015
Note: Though it has been edited in the transcript, the audio for this oral history contains profanity and/or explicit language.
NL: Today is June 12, 2015. This is the interview of Girard Thompson by Noah Levinson. We are at 250 McDougall Street in Detroit at the River Town Assisted Living Home. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Girard, can you tell me where and when you were born?
GT: I was born April 23, 1951.
NL: And where?
GT: I was born in Wayne, Michigan—Second Street and Van Born.
NL: Where did you live in July 1967?
GT: I lived on Saint Jean and Mack.
NL: What neighborhood would you say that is?
NL: And what were you doing at that time?
GT: When the riot broke out I was leaving Saint Jean and Mack going on to 2717 Blaine and 14th. I was leaving my girlfriend’s house and I was going over to my brother’s house and he lived on Blaine and 12th.
NL: How far away was that?
GT: That’s coming from the Eastside to the Westside.
NL: What do you remember seeing, hearing, and noticing that day?
GT: It was 3 o’clock in the morning, I was leaving my girlfriend’s house where I was staying with her on Saint Jean and Mack. I was on the crosstown bus going down Clairmount to 12th. And, at the time, about three in the morning, I saw someone laying out in the street, and the guards had him covered up. And there were a lot of guards with the shields and the masks, and they had the street blocked off, 12th and Clairmount. And they said at the after-hours joint that they had threw the white girl out the window, from my understanding. Anyway, so when I got off the bus I just went on into my apartment because I was living on Blaine between 12th and 14th, went on in my apartment with my girlfriend. We had caught the bus. Got up the next morning, I hear fire department, fire engine, I smelled smoke and stuff. So I came out the apartment and I looked down the street, I see people running with televisions, clothes, all kinds of clothes, pants, refrigerators, stoves, little kids carrying micro–, not microwaves, but carrying all kinds of stuff out the grocery stores. And they was looting and everything was on fire on 12th. So somebody said, “It’s a race riot.” It never was a race riot. It was us. Black people destroying their own property where they live and looting in the stores that they go into every day. And they was burning up the stores, they was breaking into the jewelry stores, breaking into supermarkets. Wherever we could steal at, we stole. But it wasn’t such thing as a race riot, it was everybody looting and stealing from where they lived at. That’s what it was. There was not black people fighting no white people. None of that. We used that riot to steal and loot our own place where we lived at. And I watched this because I was one of the looters. I was seventeen at the time. And my wife was pregnant with my daughter which is forty-seven, and it been forty seven years ago. I was eighteen, sixty-four now. And we just destroyed everything where we lived at. We didn’t go out in the white people neighborhood and do none of that. I’m keeping it real, everybody grown. We stayed in our neighborhoods. Tore up 12th Street, 12th Street was the worse street we tore up in Detroit because we burned out everything on 12th, supermarkets, liquor stores, pawn shops everything that we used every day in our normal lives the stores that we went into every day we burnt that down stole out everything out the stores. Put everybody out of business. We broke into jewelry stores, supermarkets, liquor stores, clothing stores. We just burnt up everything on 12th. You go down 12th now, I’ll tell you something, I’ll say from Clairmount all the way down to the Boulevard, all the nice stores and stuff that’s on 12th, none of that’s there now. Everything is burnt down. Only thing over there now is they got, little- you know how they had little shopping malls in the neighborhoods? They got that and they built up a lot of new houses from the state, and they built up the new condominiums, but there ain’t nothing over there now that there used to be on 12th 47 years ago cause we burned it down. We burnt out everything, every building where we used to have to go to take business or either go shopping and get food and stuff. We burnt it down. We burnt down our own neighborhoods. We burnt down the grocery stores, supermarkets, clothing stores. And we make people – a lot of people said the ’67 riots, where for white and black races, none of that, no they weren’t, never was, not like that. I don’t care where you went to in Detroit, there wasn’t none of that. It was looting. We used that riot for an excuse to rob and steal and loot where we lived at, in our own neighborhoods and that’s the gospel. The reason I know that ’cause I was a participant in it. I was stealing too, I had clothes, refrigerators, stoves, putting ‘em in the back of my car and all that. One time, me and my brother we stole a TV and the guards was coming, my brother got scared, he dropped the TV down and I still had it, so the television fell on top of me and the guards came past, they seen the TV on me, lifted the television off me and went on about their business, and I drug the TV in the garage and waited till night and come back with the car and got it. That’s why my back’s kind of messed up. Anyway, that’s the truth. And I got a daughter name of J’wanda. See my wife was pregnant with her during riot. And we took liquor out the liquor store. And we transferred the liquor on the bus, and we took it and sold it…and stuff. And my girlfriend was pregnant which I married her, in ’67 she was pregnant with my daughter. And she had my daughter whose name of J’wanda in July and she was a ’67 riot baby. Got a daughter right now, she’ll be 47 next Monday, July, right, it’s June—yup, she’s a riot baby. My wife, I married her, in ’67. Yeah, I was 18. I know 47 years ago, that riot was horrible. And I think the guards shoot up some people’s cars and stuff like that, but it was after curfew. We wasn’t supposed to be on the street, and they were still out there stealing and looting and stuff, and the guard shot and killed some people. But it was never a race riot. Whoever told you that is wrong. The majority of the black people coming, they gonna tell you it was n------ stealing and looting and tearing up their own stuff where they live at. That’s right. That’s what we did. But it’s the gospel, I’m just keeping it real with you. Anything else you wanna know?
NL: Yeah, I’m curious. So I’ve heard you describe these events as a riot, but then you also said, they’re not a riot.
GT: It wasn’t a riot! It was you that named riot, like it was white and black. It was never no white and black issue like when they say “riot” it’s black against white and such. It wasn’t that! We use that name when they say, “Oh, it’s a riot out there.” So they used that to loot and steal and destroy their own property. You hear me? They used that to loot and steal from their own neighborhoods and property. It was never a white and black issue. So they say, “Oh, it’s a race riot.” Oh no it wasn’t. It was stealing. They used that name, “riot,” like it was a white and black riot. There was none of that. When they find out everybody talking about a riot, they start burning up, stealing, and looting. They use that riot for looting and stealing. That’s all that was about. That’s the gospel. And the majority of people that’s my age, they’ll come in and tell you the same thing. They used that riot to loot and steal because they didn’t know better. A lot of these people older than me, and I’m 64. But I was participating in that riot. I was doing that same stuff. I was in the jewelry stores and that, getting some of the fake jewelry, the supermarkets getting food, in the appliance store getting appliances. I had an apartment, it was full of every kind of stolen stuff. I was participating, I was 17. That’s what I was doing, and I saw white people doing none of that.
NL: What do you think, before July of that year, what was happening that sort of led to that moment? How did it get to be that extreme?
GT: As far as I know, they tried to say when the white girl got thrown out of that blind pig. Blind pig back in that day were after-hours joints with alcohol. So they throw the white girl out the window at Clairmount and, between 12th and Blaine on Clairmount. And that’s what I thought, the police had the streets blocked off. They threw the white girl out the window, and then that’s where the riots supposedly started at. They started on the west side. Some people say they started – what I saw started on the west side, on 12th and Blaine between 14th and 12th on Clairmount. On Clairmount you go 12th and then you go 14th.
NL: What about before that night at 12th and Clairmount? Before that, earlier in the year of 1967, let’s say. Was there a lot of hostility in that neighborhood?
GT: Are you talking about like when Martin Luther King was alive? When did he pass, when was he murdered?
NL: 1968, I believe, is when he was assassinated.
GT: Well, I think a lot of that came from Martin Luther King in the south and stuff, it resonated up here. That’s where a lot of it, I believe, came from. In Detroit, it wasn’t no race riot, but a lot of hostility came from—he got assassinated in ’68 right? A lot of that kind of originated up here in the cities. People you know, talking about the white people. You know how that s--- goes, you know. I think of a lot of it came from that. But it wasn’t a race riot here in Detroit. It wasn’t that. It was us stealing and looting and burning up our own places where we liked to go and shop and live every day. We set it on fire after we stole all the stuff out (laughter). We did.
NL: How have you seen Detroit change since then?
GT: I seen them build up a lot of low-income houses. Then the drugs wasn’t like it is now. When they built up all these low-income houses, where they tore down all the houses and stuff on 12th and put up all the condominiums? Here come the drugs, here come that crack s---. And when that crack s--- came out, man, it just messed up everything. But it was never—I ain’t never seen a race riot. They might have had them down south; I never lived in the south. I saw a whole lot of pictures about that s---. I never seen nothing like that in Detroit. When we was in Detroit, we just burn up our own s--- we used that for an excuse to loot and steal and stuff. A lot of hostility could’ve come from the assassination of Martin Luther King, and it resonated up here. You know. It’s strongly possible, I never thought about it either until you just said that. But, a lot of that could’ve been, you know. But it wasn’t no white and black thing, I can’t stand why they say riot, race riot. It was a something that – we used that to rob, steal, and all that. It wasn’t a race riot. Might’ve been down south in Alabama and all of them down there. You know it could’ve been that, it was like that down there, but it wasn’t like that here. ‘Cause you know black guys had white girlfriends and everything at the time. 1968, up here? Yeah. We was doing our thing, but you couldn’t do it down south, you know. It’s altogether different, but anyway, I believe a lot of the hostility came from Martin Luther King’s assassination down there. It made the people up here mad. But we weren’t killing no white people or none of that. We were stealing. Man, there were little kids running with meat and stuff in their hands! It’s horrible. We used that riot to gain profit and stuff for ourselves. That’s what we used that riot for. It wasn’t no white people and black people fighting and killing each other. If there was, we wouldn’t have been stealing and robbing and burning up that s--- just keeping it real. I was in it.
NL: I want to ask you, so knowing what you know now, we’re looking back at almost fifty years since then
GT: 47 years ago.
NL: If you had a chance to do it all over again, do you think you still would have participated in it that way?
GT: I don’t know. I don’t know what to say to that. In my state of mind, like the majority of the people, they used the riots to gain. You know we getting free this, we getting free that. We can burn it down and take all that stuff. You know, we used that. We used that to loot and steal from our own stores that we lived in every day. That’s what we did. And then they do it now, all the time.
NL: You think so?
GT: Yeah, they’d do it all over again, if it’s free. Come on, let’s keep it real.
NL: Free is free.
GT: Yeah, it’s free! We’ll do it better this time. We’ll do it better this time.
NL: All right, Girard, thank you so much for sharing your stories with us today.
GT: Okay, buddy.
NL: Take care.
GT: All righty.