Phil Johnson, October 4th, 2016
INITIALS OF INTERVIWEE: PJ
INTIALS OF INTERVIEWER: WW
WW: Hello, today is October 4, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and am up in Harrison Township and I am sitting down with Mr. Phil Johnson. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
PJ: Oh, you’re welcome.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
PJ: I was born in Detroit March 31, 1938.
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
PJ: The East Side of Detroit near the Denby High area.
WW: What was it like growing up in that neighborhood?
PJ: I had no problem.
WW: Was it an integrated neighborhood at the time?
PJ: It was not. I never went to school—I went to three of my schools: Wayne School, Jackson, and Detroit and Denby and there wes no African Americans in the schools, that I recall.
WW: Growing up on the East Side, did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood or did you venture around the city growing up?
PJ: Just same neighborhood, yeah.
WW: Growing up in the 1940s, you were really young then but do have any memories from the ‘43 race riots?
PJ: I do not. Growing up in the forties and in the fifties did you find Detroit welcoming? As you’re getting older did you move around the city more?
PJ: No, we stayed right there. I stayed living with my parents in a house on Nottingham until we got married in ‘61.
WW: What did you do after high school?
PJ: After high school, I went to work for the phone company. Downtown Detroit.
WW: What’d you do working at the phone company?
PJ: At first, I worked down in the mailroom at 1365 Cass—where the main building was. And then I went out into the field and I was a cable splicer’s helper and a lineman.
WW: And the telephone company you’re talking about is Michigan Bell?
PJ: Yes, yup. That was before somebody brought a lawsuit and broke up all the phone companies. They couldn’t—[laughter] they didn’t want them to have a monopoly on the phone service. Somebody went to court and they broke them all up into smaller companies.
WW: Skipping back a little bit, in the 1950s, did you notice any growing tension in the city?
PJ: I did not. Nope, I didn’t. I graduated in ‘56 and I never really realized any problems.
WW: Between ‘56 and ‘61 did you leave the city at all?
PJ: I worked for the phone company for about a year and a half. Then I went to work for the city of Detroit; the Public Lighting Department. Shortly after I went to work for them—in a couple months I went into the Navy—because when I was in high school I joined the Navy Reserve which they met at Broadhead Naval Armory near Belle Isle. It was a six year plan. You had four years of Reserve and two years of active duty. So shortly after I went to work for the city, I went in to do my two years active duty. Then when I got out in ‘59 I went right back to work for the city. Then I got my apprenticeship as a lineman and I did the apprenticeship for the city and then I became a journeyman and just kept working for the city until about 1976.
WW: Going back, when you left the city for two years when you were finished with your service in ‘59, did the city still seem the same to you when you came back?
PJ: Oh yeah, no problem. Yeah.
WW: And in ‘61 when you moved out of your parents’ home after you got married, where did you move to?
PJ: We moved just a couple blocks over. We moved onto Greensboro which is two streets over.
WW: And did you stay in the city because you were a city employee, or—
PJ: I stayed there because that was one of the requirements. But I did move out and still maintained a city resident address.
WW: Going into the sixties as you’re becoming a journeyman what year did you become a journeyman?
PJ: Let’s see, it must have been in the early sixties. It was a four-year program, and I think I got my apprenticeship maybe around 1960, ‘61, so probably ‘64 or ‘65. [unintelligible]
WW: Going into the mid-sixties and later in the sixties did you notice any tension then?
PJ: I did not. Even during the riot, before and after. I mean, we had African Americans working for the city. And even on the same crew in the public lighting. I really didn’t notice any tension. I just accepted them as human beings and worked side-by-side with them.
WW: Okay. Going into ‘67 then. How did you first hear what was going on that Sunday?
PJ: Well I really don’t know. Probably by listening to the news.
WW: Were you called into work on that Sunday or was there a later response?
PJ: No, I just went to work on Monday morning to my warehouse on St. Jean, right where Wayne County Community College has a facility there now. But I don’t think that they let us go out in the field. They just kept us right there.
WW: Was there a lot of apprehension by either yourself or your coworkers about going into the field?
PJ: I do not feel any. I did not feel any. So this was going on, so you just have to accept it.
WW: What was the response of your superiors?
PJ: I really don’t remember. [laughs] I don’t.
PJ: I really never had any apprehension at all. I just accepted it. We knew they would keep me over on the afternoon shift in case—see at that time the way the public light was set up—they had crews, three, four, five-man crews that would often go out to do the construction work on the city’s power system. But that all came to a halt because of the riot going on. They didn’t want people going out into the field unless they were escorted by the police or the military. So, at that time they had an afternoon shift and a midnight shift they were one-man crews. They would mostly do trouble work. If something happened that would cause the system to—power to a school or library or something. If that would get—something would happen or if the street lighting, something would happen to those circuits then the trouble crews on afternoons and midnights would go out and if they could fix it they would fix it.
So, they wanted to double these crews up. There was only usually one guy on the east side of Detroit and one guy on the west side of Detroit. So they kept me over on the afternoon shift to work with the afternoon guy. We wouldn’t go out in the field either unless there was an escort going with us. I really only remember going out one time in that week that they kept us over. There was apparently a garage fire that burnt some wires up. So we had to go and fix that.
WW: Did you spend most of your time during the unrest hunkered down or did you eventually have to go out?
PJ: We would just stay at the warehouse there on St. Jean until something would come in that you had to go fix. Then we would go out and try to fix it.
WW: What were some of the things that you had to go out and fix?
PJ: I can say the only thing I remember us having to do was fix the wire that was burnt up caused by the garage fire. At that time, the city had their own street lighting system, their own power system for the public buildings, for the police stations, fire stations, libraries, schools. So they didn’t have transformers real close to traffic signals at that time. Sometimes they would have to run a lot of wire to feed a traffic signal because there’s just not a transformer on every pole like there is now. Their transformers were on their power system and sometimes it was several blocks from a traffic signal location. They had to run a lot of wire from the transformer to the intersection that had the traffic signal. That wire is what got burnt up from that garage fire. So we had to go fix that. But that’s really the only thing other than those pictures. We had some wire we had to put back up there. But that’s really about the only times we went out into the field, is when there was a problem.
WW: When you when out in the field and you were accompanied by the National Guard or the army did any incidents happen with them?
PJ: I do not remember any incidents. I never saw any problems and I guess most of the problems did happen during the night. I just don’t remember any. I just don’t recall any. I never saw any unrest. I never saw anybody lighting fires. I do remember at our warehouse, when we were staying at the warehouse at night. When I was working with this guy on afternoons, I do remember hearing tracer bullets going through the air above our warehouse. I don’t know who was doing the shooting, but I do remember the tracers. You could just hear them go through the air.
WW: Given hearing that, how long were your work shifts? Twelve to 16 hours that week?
PJ: During the day it was eight to four, and during the afternoons it was four to midnight. So there was some nighttime’s that I was there and that’s when I would hear the tracers.
WW: And then traveling to and from work, if you worked the afternoon shift and you were there until midnight would you sleep there?
PJ: No. I would stay there from eight in the morning through my regular shift and then stay the extra eight hours and do the afternoon shift.
WW: And you would go home?
WW: Did you feel comfortable going between the station and your home at midnight given that you said most of everything–the tracer bullets and everything like that–was happening at night?
PJ: It was but I know several times I rode my motorcycle but it was right down 94 to home. I do not remember any problems getting from home to work or from work to home.
WW: Was there a great deal of work to do after the unrest settled down? Was there a great deal to fix?
PJ: I’m sure there was because those few pictures there showed whole area devastated by fires. I’m sure there were poles and wires. Usually there were Edison wires and our wires that had damage. So I really don’t remember working any extra after the week of the riot was over. I just don’t remember. Hey, I’m old!
WW: [laughter.] Well, just my final few questions being did you see the city any differently after ‘67? I mean it looks physically different, but did you feel any different about the city afterwards?
PJ: I think probably about that time that Coleman Young initiated the cross-district busing.
WW: Coleman Young was mayor seven years later.
PJ: Okay. Well, it was during that time that I noticed that, boy, people were moving out of the city. I don’t remember that but I presume that there was a lot of vacant homes then. People would just pick up and walk away. Leave the city because they didn’t want their kids to be involved in the cross-district busing.
WW: When did you leave the city?
PJ: I left the city back in ‘76.
WW: Why did you leave?
PJ: I didn’t want to live in the city anymore. I bought this piece of property and we were building a house out here. Prior to that, I wanted to try something else. You probably don’t realize it but climbing poles are very hard and my legs were giving out. Prior to leaving the city I did some studying and I got my electrician’s license. It’s two different trades—lineman works on the power systems outside and electrician works on power systems in buildings. So, I decided that’s what I wanted to do and so I got my license to be an electrician. And when I left the city I had to get another job. So since we were living out here—the Road Commission in Macomb County, they needed electricians. So I went to work for them. I was with them about 19 years until I retired.
WW: Very nice. You called it a riot earlier. Is that how you interpret what happened in ‘67?
PJ: I–what did I?
WW: You called it a riot.
PJ: Yeah. That’s the term that was used back then because there was a lot of unrest and there were a number of people who were killed. So that’s the term that people used back then.
WW: Do you still use it today?
PJ: Yeah, but I don’t talk much about it today. Because it’s what—
WW: Forty-nine years ago.
PJ: Yeah. [laughter] Long time ago.
WW: How do you feel about the state of the city today?
PJ: I love the city. We go to church in the city. We take a trip down to Moross every Sunday. We were going there during the riot. I started going to that church probably when I was 10. We’ve been going there ever since.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
PJ: From what I hear, I’m very optimistic. I occasionally have an opportunity to do some work in the city as an electrician. Sadly, I see so many homes boarded up, vacant, destroyed. But the news will tell you that it’s coming back and I really don’t know. I don’t get downtown very much. I am mostly out in the residential areas where I do work. There’s some sections of the city that are very nice, very well-kept, and others are to me—they’re run-down. The neighborhoods where people live. But I have no apprehension at all of going anywhere in the city as long as the police and National Guard go with me. [laughs]
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
PJ: I can’t think of anything.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
PJ: Okay, no problem.
WW: Greatly appreciate it.