William Pattinson, 2005


William Pattinson, 2005


In this interview, Pattinson discusses growing up in various Detroit neighborhoods, his family, and race relations in the city before and after the events of 1967.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit MI






Oral History


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

William Pattinson

Brief Biography

William Pattinson was born October 25, 1940 in Detroit. He was working as an auditor at Detroit Bank and Trust in downtown Detroit during the events of 1967.

Interviewer's Name

Michele Pattinson Smiley

Interview Place

Detroit, MI



Interview Length



Julia Moss

Transcription Date



Warning: Interview contains profanity, slurs, and/or explicit language.

[Begin Disk 1 Track 1]

MPS: Hit record. I’m not even sure if this is going to work to record, because I’ve got you on speakerphone, you know. It might work. It might not. But that’s okay. I’m going to take notes too while we’re talking, so. So the first question is, what are your earliest memories of Detroit? And it’s not like—it’s just your memories of what it was like to be there in Detroit.

WP: It was totally different than you would imagine now. At that time—remember, Detroit was where everybody lived. There weren’t suburbs. There weren’t malls.  There weren’t—everybody, if you shopped and you wanted to really go shopping, you went to downtown Detroit. The streets were jammed with people all the time. Jammed. I mean, like when you go down now for the Fourth of July fireworks, it was like that every day. Hudson’s, of course, was the big department store. But it was a place where you had to have a little bit more money to go to Hudson’s. A lot of people couldn’t afford to go there. But they had—their elevators actually had elevator operators, who wore uniforms and white gloves, who opened and shut the doors. You know, it was—they had this wheel they turned to close the doors. And they were noted for their service. Even if you wanted a spool of thread, they would deliver it to your house.

MPS: Oh my gosh.                                               

WP: So it was—and there were all these movie theatres all over the place, and they weren’t just theatres, they were—like, the Fox Theatre now? That was one of my least favorites. That was one of the least ornate. The most ornate is gone, the Michigan Theatre. And it was truly a power. I mean, it was guild and gold all over, rich carpeting, and I remember throne chairs. It was just beautiful. And they would seat, like, three or four thousand people in some of these theatres. And there was probably ten of them downtown. The Adams, the Palms, the United Artist, the Michigan, the Fox, which was kind of out of the way. And I can remember it was like a quarter to go, and mother used to bring us as a special treat.

MPS: Was that a lot of money?

WP: And I remember the Fillmore, when it went up to 35 cents.

MPS: Was a quarter a lot of money, or no?

WP: Ah, darn. To hell with that. You could go to the neighborhood theatre for 10 cents.

MPS: Oh, okay.

WP: Which reminds me—just because you said that, I’m going to put this in while I remember it. People bought insurance policies at that time. The insurance man came to your house and you paid weekly, because people couldn’t afford it. So like my mother had a policy, it was twenty cents a week. So he would come—the insurance man would come to your house to collect the 20 cents. And that’s how you bought your life insurance.

MPS: It was like 20 cents a week you said?

WP: A week, yeah. And he would come and pick up the money. But downtown was a special place. That’s where everybody shopped. And I remember the big Kern’s Clock. If you wanted to meet someone downtown, you said, “Well, I’ll meet you under the Kern’s Clock.” Because there were so many people and so many—you would never find anybody. So you had to have a special meeting place.

MPS: Where was that?

WP: And as a treat, my mother would take us to Kresge’s dime store. And the big Kresge’s downtown was two stories, two floors, and in the basement floor they had a lunch counter, and there were so many people, people would line up behind your chair waiting for your stool. I mean, so you might have two or three people standing behind you, just waiting for your chair. They would stand right behind you. And my mom would buy us a hot fudge sundae. I remember that. But that was a special treat for us. We thought it was great. But that’s how crowded it was. And when you go downtown now, it’s a ghost town. But it’s where everybody went. And there weren’t buses. There were streetcars, and they ran on tracks in the middle of the street, and you had overhead wires down the street because they were electric. So they were connected to these overhead wires, and sometimes they became disconnected and then the streetcar would be stopped. But that’s how everybody traveled. It was rarely by car. Streetcar or walked.

MPS: How much was it to ride the streetcar?

WP: That I don’t remember. Because my mother paid. We were just kids.  So, I don’t know. Probably not very much. I know we walked because my grandmother lived—I don’t know, three or four miles away, and we walked. That’s how we got down there. I’m trying to remember anything else about downtown. Kresge’s eventually was the forerunner of Kmart and that’s when the dime stores—all that went when Kmart started. The first Kmart in the country was in Garden City. But it was started by the S.S. Kresge Company. And then dime stores disappeared once Kmart, you know, sort of became popular. You could get everything you wanted there. But what’s interesting is now, all these dollar stores are starting, which are really the same as the old dime stores we had when I was a kid. Only they were much bigger. But now there’s dollar stores all over the place. But it’s the same idea. Instead of ten cents it’s a dollar. Ask another question.

MPS: Okay.

WP: Another thing I remember was the streets. Detroit was loaded with elm trees, and they were huge, and they would actually form, like, an archway to a cathedral over the streets. So the trees would actually touch each other either side of the street. So it would look like you were looking down a church. You know how in Europe, how the cathedrals are with the ceilings, the arched ceilings? That’s how all the streets looked with the elm trees. Until Dutch elm disease came along and killed them all.

MPS: Do you know around when that happened? Like, just approximately.

WP: I don’t know if we still lived in Detroit at that time. I just remember it happening, and going back to my old neighborhood, and it was so awful when I saw—it wasn’t like I remembered as a kid.

MPS: Now, when you were living in Detroit, you didn’t move into grandma’s house until you were 13, right?

WP: Grandma who?

MPS: Well, grandma grandma. Your mom.

WP: Well, we lived with Grandma Penny at that time, Grandma Pattinson. My mother lived with them from the time they were married.

MPS: Okay, I—what part of Detroit is that in because I didn’t know.

WP: It was the west side. What they called the west side.

MPS: Where is it today? Like, what area are we talking about?

WP: It’s an awful neighborhood today. It’s at Fenkell and Wyoming which is just a terrible, terrible neighborhood. Most of the houses are torn down. But at that time it was a very nice neighborhood. And one thing that was interesting, and one of the things that killed Detroit, really was prejudice. I remember my grandmother saying that—and this is my Grandma Penny—

MPS: Okay.

WP: There were actually restrictions on the deeds to the houses that blacks could not buy your house, and I believe Jews as well. I remember my grandmother saying blacks will never live in this neighborhood because it’s on the deed that they can’t. And that didn’t change probably until the fifties or sixties. So Detroit was primarily a white city, except in certain pockets where blacks were allowed to live. So I never—like, I never came across a Jewish person until I went to work. When I was an adult. You didn’t see them. You didn’t know them. Because they lived in their own neighborhood.

MPS: How old were you, when you say you went to work?

WP: Well, we lived on Wisconsin. That was the name of the street, until I was about 10, 11. I went to live with my aunt when I was 12. So up until about 11. It was a two-story house—two-family house, rather.

MPS: Oh, okay.

WP: And it had one door, but separate stairs—you know, they had like a separate apartment upstairs.

MPS: Like the kind Cheryl lived in?

WP: Pardon?

MPS: Like the kind Cheryl lived in? Remember when Ashley died, that kind?

WP: I think so.

MPS: Okay.

WP: I mean, it had its own bathroom, its own kitchen, the living room, bedroom.

MPS: Right.

WP: Dining room. Because we were three kids—two kids—well, later three. The living room was changed into a bedroom. It was my parent’s bedroom, and Kathy, or my sister, lived up in there with them. And then when Colleen was born she slept in my room. And what was supposed to be the dining room was the living room—became the living room. But sometimes my grandmother would need money. So she’d rent it out, and my mother and father would have to move back downstairs, and we lived with my grandmother. And I can remember I slept with her, in her bedroom, and my parents had the other bedroom. It was two bedrooms. And that just didn’t seem unusual to us at all. It was just the way it was. We lived up or down, depending on whether they needed money or not.

There was rationing because the war was going on. You had coupons, and you could only get so much sugar, and once your coupons were gone then that was it. That was your allotment for the month. Gas was rationed. That’s why you didn’t see that many cars—people really thought twice about going somewhere. And also they stopped building cars during World War II because they needed all the steel for the war effort, to build tanks and so on. So the car companies were turned into companies to make war materials.

And that’s—because there was a shortage of men to work in the factories. That’s when women started doing that type of work. Before that it would have been considered just men’s work. And that’s when they came up with the term Rosie the Riveter. Now there were women were working in factories that had previously been considered men’s jobs. Because before that, women would never have been able to work in a factory. If they worked, it was because they weren’t married yet, and they worked as secretaries, stenographers, sales clerks, that sort of thing. But once they got married—and I’m talking about the majority, I’m sure there must have been exceptions—but lower-class and middle-class women stayed home and took care of the children if they had children, and even those that didn’t have children generally stayed home. Women just didn’t work. She was totally dependent on her husband, that’s the way it was supposed to be.

They even had separate days—I remember women had—and I don’t know, like, Monday might be wash day. They spent the day washing clothes using either scrub boards or wringer washing machines, where the clothes had to be—they were washed in a big tub, and then you had to put them one by one through a wringer to wring them out, wring the water out. And then you put them in a rinse tub and then you hung them up to dry. And I remember helping my mother once—and this was quite common—my hand got caught in the wringer and started going through the wringer. And I can remember kids, when I was little, having scars on their arms or their hands. Their parents weren’t able to get them out of the wringer quick enough.

MPS: What happened, what did you do?

WP: Well, my mother pulled mine out. I can still remember that happening. I was trying to help her.

MPS: Carly went to this thing—I don’t know, it was a few months ago with the girl scouts—and it was an old town thingy, and they had to—actually Evan went to, it was her girl scout troop—but they had to wash clothes and put them through a wringer, and she said, “Now, watch your fingers. I’m going to turn the wringer, but you’re going to feed the cloth in, do not get your fingers caught in there.” And they did it, but—

WP: Well, it wasn’t that uncommon. I remember a girl in school having scars all up around her elbow, especially where her arm had gone all the way, you know, up to the top before they could get it out.

MPS: Oh my god.

WP: And then there would be ironing day. So my mother would spend all day ironing, and everything was ironed. Sheets were ironed.  Pillow cases were ironed. Underwear was ironed. Everything was ironed. And if you didn’t do that, you just weren’t a good—I mean, that was your role. You were just not a good wife.

MPS: I have to tell you, I bought a new iron, and Shawn was laughing, she’s like, “Why are you going to buy an iron,” she’s like, “You hardly ever iron.” I said, “I know, but my dad comes every year and he always wants to use my iron and it has been ruined for like eight years. Missy burned her clothes on it when she was living with me eight, 10 years ago, and every time he comes he burns his shirt.” And so—

WP: Well, grandma always took great pride in her ironing, because she worked in a laundry when she was a teenager, and so she was—I mean, that was her specialty was ironing. And they actually—the clothes had to be starched too. I mean, after you washed them, and then you put them in this big pan with starch in it, so they would be stiff. So when you ironed them they would be—because they didn’t have permanent press back then, everything was cotton which means it was wrinkled, so it had to be starched before you ironed it so it would be smooth. So that was a whole day. And then there was cleaning day, so you spent the whole day cleaning. And then there was grocery shopping. And you had to remember that a man would never, ever think of doing any of this. I mean, it was just—a man would not do this. A man would not even go into a supermarket. That was women’s—what women did. You didn’t see men shop. Kids would go with their mother but not men. That was women’s work. The grocery shopping.

When people socialized, men and women did not mix together. The men would separate into one room. The women would separate into the other room. Where they would smoke and swear and drink and then the women would do whatever they did. And up to a certain age it was okay for a boy to be with the women but after a certain age you really weren’t supposed to be with the women. You were supposed to go then and spend your time with the men and if you didn’t, I mean, they kind of looked at you kind of funny, like, What’s wrong with you? You want to be with the women? I mean, there was so much role playing. It was just—I don’t know how to explain it but it was just so different than it is now. Where people don’t think twice about it.

But it was just—I remember the women, I mean, they listened to—remember, there wasn’t TV. There wasn’t anything like that. There was just the radio which was a big piece of equipment in the house. It was a big piece of furniture. It wasn’t just a little thing. So I remember my mother listening to the soap operas while she did her work. Her cleaning and her ironing. But that stuff—you didn’t miss her soap operas during the day. Portia Faces Life, Della Dallas, Mott Perkins, I remember them all because I listened to them all with my mother. And when you were a kid, you actually—you sat next to the radio. Maybe—and I don’t know why we sat next to it, but I would be on one side, my sister would be on the other side, listening to the radio. And I was trying to think today, Why would we do that? Well, maybe it’s because my parents were reading and they didn’t want it too loud. So that was the only way we could hear it. I don’t know. I really don’t know the reason but that’s what we did. We sat and listened to it.

MPS: They do that on The Waltons.

WP: The Shadow Knows, Batman, Baby Snookum, all those shows. And I remember hating Sundays because my father would listen to baseball in the afternoon and the opera at night. I just, I dreaded Sundays, because we had to listen to that. I hated baseball and I hated the opera.

Also, kids didn’t play in the house. In the winter we did but in the summer you didn’t want to be in the house. You would go out in the early morning and you wouldn’t come home until it was starting to get dark at night. And we just entertained ourselves. We played in the alleys, we played kick games, hide-and-go-seek, walk, release. I remember just all kinds of games. You didn’t want to be in the house. It wasn’t that your mother kicked you out. You didn’t want to be—you wanted to be with the kids. We just played outside all the time. I think we were a little better than kids nowadays at entertaining ourselves because there was nothing to distract us. We didn’t have TV. We didn’t have stereos. We didn’t have—we just had the radio.

MPS: I think that is so true. That’s one of the things that Mark and I really are very conscious of and that’s why we limit how much TV the kids watch. Honestly, my kids would sit there and watch TV all day if I let them, and I don’t, and because of that they do—they are able to play on their own. They will play for hours. Like yesterday, they played the entire day, most of it in the house because it was so hot outside, but they played. And I was sick—actually, that’s why I didn’t call you yesterday. I was so sick and I’m still sick but I took some medicine so I could call you, but—my sinuses are acting up—but they played all day, and they never even asked to watch TV. They went from one game to another. I mean, not games, they were just playing, you know? It was just amazing to me.

But then I’m in Meijer’s today and there’s this kid playing his Gameboy while his mom—I mean, he’s standing there. She’s in line to buy lunch meat at the deli counter and he’s playing his Gameboy. And, you know, I don’t know. You know, I mean, my kids were fooling around, but I’d rather have them fooling around than—I don’t know, just being totally oblivious of the world around them.

WP: I remember people had milk chutes in their house because a milk man delivered your milk. The milk truck would come by so often, every day or every couple of days, and put the milk in your milk chute, and that’s how you got your milk. And there would be this thick cream on top which would be so deep because the cream would separate from the milk. I remember it had cardboard caps on it. They were in bottles. It wasn’t in cartons. The milk came in bottles. And we would, you know, try to eat some of that cream because it was always so good.

MPS: Can I tell you, I actually remember that. When we lived in Romulus. I don’t think we had a milk chute but the milk man would come and leave bottles of milk on our porch every day. I couldn’t have been more than four or five. I mean, we moved when I was six. But I remember the milk man. I remember him coming and I remember him leaving quart-size glass bottles on the porch every day, or every few days, or whatever.

WP: There was a man who would come by periodically to sharpen your knives. He would walk down the street with his cart and he would yell out, “Sharpen your knives, sharpen your knives or your scissors.” In my grandmother’s neighborhood there was a produce truck that used to come by, you know, he would yell out and you’d go buy your fresh produce from him. There was one we called the sheeny man.

MPS: Yeah, what is that?

WP: Who drove a cart with a horse and he was a junk collector. That’s what he did. He was known as the sheeny man.


Schools were much, much different.

MPS: What did you say?

WP: Schools.

MPS: Okay, because that’s my next question anyways, is what were the schools like?

WP: You had a tremendous amount of respect and fear of your teachers. They were allowed to use—to spank you and to hit you. I mean, to hit your hand with a ruler was—especially in the campus climate, was accepted. I could remember getting my hand slapped with a ruler by a substitute teacher. It happened all the time. Or they would use humiliation to the keep kids in line. Like if you were chewing gum, you might have to stand in front of the room and put your gum on your nose in front of all of the kids. Or they had what they called the dunce chair. You had to sit in a chair with a dunce cap on your head. And I can remember my cousin telling me his teacher locked him in a close. He had to stay in the closet. Those are some of the negative things but kids were much more respectful. I mean, you just didn’t have—you didn’t dare get in trouble because you knew if you got in trouble at school and you went home, you would be in even bigger trouble because you got in trouble with the teacher. Your parents totally supported the teacher. I mean, you just learned not to get in trouble at school, period. And if you did, you would get it when you got home.

I can remember air raid drills in school. Where they would have an air raid drill. I don’t remember if a bell that would ring or what. I don’t remember now.

MPS: Was this during the war or after the atomic bomb?

WP: It was after the atomic bomb. You had to get under your desk. I remember that. Like that would save you from an atomic bomb. Or go out in the hallway and go down to the school’s basement and sit on the floor with your head between your legs. And that was the air raid drill. They would do that periodically. So often. I don’t remember—we had to do that. I don’t know when that stopped.

MPS: Did you ever see the movie Atomic Café?

WP: No.

MPS: It’s sort of a parody but it is—it is hilarious. And it’s all about—

WP: It was true, and it scared—I mean, people were petrified.

MPS: It’s all about air raid drills, and they do all this stuff on duck and cover. And they show actual video footage of government films that were put out during the time about how to protect yourself form an atomic bomb. And it’s all duck and cover.

WP: Yeah, it was funny.

MPS: It’s so ridiculous.

WP: I’m trying to think, what else about the school? I always adored my teachers except for the first grade teacher which actually affected me right up through college. I had a first grade teacher who was a witch and I remember her sending me down. We had to audition for a play and I didn’t get the part. When I got back up she said, “Did you get it?” I said no, and she grabbed my ear and yanked it. And I don’t know what else she did but after that I was petrified of teachers.

I mean, it just—I would sit there in fear that a teacher would call on me in class and I wouldn’t know the answer. So in my mind, whenever they would ask me questions, I would just go blank. And it was all back to that first grade experience. I remember that. Kindergarten was wonderful. Of course, kindergarten was much different than it is now.

MPS: Right.

WP: Stuff that kids can do in kindergarten now probably was second grade stuff back then. You’d just played. It was to learn to be social with other kids. Singing songs and playing. They had all kinds of games and toys. That was kindergarten. The kindergarten teacher would play the piano and you would sing songs, and that was it. You didn’t know your ABCs or any—that came later. None of that.

MPS: Wow.

WP: None of it. Anything else. I’m trying to remember.

MPS: Some of the stuff we’ve already talked about but that’s okay. You know, like stuff like when you were in sixth grade and then you—because the way they had the half year.

WP: Oh yeah, we had half years. Because I was—when I transferred schools I was in the second half but they wouldn’t move me up—maybe they gave me the choice. I thought I had a choice to move to seventh grade or go back and take the first part of sixth grade over, and I might have—it might have been my choice. I don’t know. To go back to the sixth and take sixth over. So of course I got all A’s. I loved it [laughs]. It really was so easy that I already had it. And of course I was a teacher’s pet. Because she knew that my father had died and my mother was sick and all us kids had been separated. so _______(??). So she kind of took me under her wing and I became a teacher’s pet. And actually she’s the one that saved me. If it wasn’t for her I don’t know what I would have done. I’ll never forget it.

MPS: What was her name?

WP: Mrs. McCall.

MPS: McCall?

WP: McCall. M-c-C-a-l-l. And I think she only taught that one year. After that she quit teaching.

MPS: Maybe she got married or something.

WP: No. She was already married. I know that.

MPS: Maybe she got pregnant.

WP: I remember the class was misbehaving one day and she actually brought her husband to school to bring control to the class.

MPS: So what do you mean by she saved you?

WP: Because I was so unhappy with—I mean, I lost my father, my mother, and my two sisters all at once, really. And lived with an aunt I hated. I never went outside. I didn’t play with kids. I just went to school and then went home. That was it. I took care of Aunt ______(??) baby. Because she was in bed with her migraines.

MPS: Who was the baby, Patty?

WP: Patty. And also, she probably had some of her migraines because she carried a bottle of wine in her purse to fill up her _____(??). She was probably an alcoholic at the time.

MPS: Okay. Alright, I’m going to go to the next question.

[End Disk 1 Track 1]

[Begin Disk 1 Track 2]

MPS: Yeah, I do. Okay.

WP: Well, like I already said, Detroit was a very bustling city. It actually won the cleanest city award one year. And it’s not the Detroit we know now. I remember when they built Northland Shopping Center, which was the first major shopping center like that in the country. It was so innovative at the time and it was written about in all the magazines and newspapers. This huge shopping center. Well then suddenly people started going out to Northland Shopping Center doing their shopping because it was new and modern and was out of the suburbs and so neighborhoods built up around it. And I remember when they were trying to buy the property to build Northland Shopping Center, my aunt’s brother-in-law owned a plot of land which he grew vegetables on there. We used to call it Uncle Oscar’s garden. And they needed that plot of land to build Northland Shopping Center and they paid him a million dollars to get this plot. Which at that time—I don’t know what that would equate to now because this was back in the fifties. So maybe, 10 million or 15 million. He was able to retire—this was just Uncle Oscar’s garden.

MPS: You’re kidding.

WP: They needed that land to build the shopping center. And again, there were no suburbs. And then the suburbs—people started moving out further because now there’s no more gas rationing. They were building cars again so now the transportation—you know, people—the transportation was there again. They started removing all the streetcars, taking all the overhead lines down, and paving over the tracks that were down the middle of all the major streets, and buses came into being, and they started having buses. I can remember some friends of my mother and father would go to Livonia. They used to call it—we were going out to God’s country. Because that really was out in the country. People built their own houses, I mean, and they were shacks. I mean, they were just—I remember my mother’s friend Margaret really didn’t have a front porch. It was just—they had open sewers behind their house which we thought were creeks or bogs. It was an open sewer.

MPS: Oh! Gross!

WP: But that was ______(??). And people thought nothing at that time also of driving drunk. And there were no seatbelts. Nobody wore seatbelts. And I can remember my friend Marvin ______(??). I can remember him weaving all over the road, driving drunk, drunk and speeding. And nobody thought anything about it. Nobody thought anything of it. It was just accepted. Men drank a lot. It was what men did.

And it was World War II that started changing things. When women started going to work in the factories, all of a sudden they saw what they could do. But things were never really the same again after that. I remember my grandmother went to work in a factory. Grandma Penny. She worked at Metal Moldings. I think was the name of the company.  A small factory. Women didn’t drive cars. I mean, none of us—we didn’t think it was unusual that my mother and none of my sisters knew how to drive. But it wasn’t unusual that a woman didn’t know how to drive a car. Because why would they have to? They walked. They took the bus. They stayed home and took care of the children. I mean, that was—they didn’t work. There was no reason for them to know how to drive a car.

MPS: You said—I want to go back to something you said—you said at first there were no suburbs. Then Northland came and the suburbs started building up around it, and then people were moving out further from the city.

WP: Yeah. And part of that was prejudice. What happened was that real estate firms would go into neighborhoods and they would offer a white family a huge price for their house to get them, to sell to blacks. A black family. So they would offer them much more than the house was worth, and of course people would take it. Not tell the neighbors. Not tell anybody. And then the neighbors would see the black family move in and then everybody would put their house up for sale. So of course the real estate companies got all these commissions for all these houses for sale. And they did that neighborhood by neighborhood. It was called blockbusting. And people began to flee to the suburbs to get away from the blacks. Because they would not live with black people. And—I lost my train of thought.

MPS: Why did we move?

WP: From where?

MPS: From Detroit, when we lived in Detroit by grandma, to Romulus.

WP: I saw an ad in the paper about—remember, grandma’s neighborhood was so nice. It was an old Polish neighborhood. But they were building new houses. I saw an ad in the paper and they were offered at like thirteen thousand dollars. I said, “Let’s go look at them.” So we went and looked and we got a new house. We ended up taking a bigger house for sixteen thousand which I didn’t know how we would ever afford it. I even thought we might have to have grandma come live with us because I didn’t know how we would make the hundred dollar payment. [laughs] But that’s why. It was just new, exciting. The house on Plainview was small. It was right up against an alley.

MPS: And by then you already had me and Cheryl?

WP: Right. Well—

MPS: Yeah.

WP: Yeah, you were born.

MPS: I was born.

WP: There was something to do with blockbusting that I was trying to—but anyways, that’s why all the suburbs came into being. And that’s why downtown Detroit died. Partly because of the shopping centers, which then started to proliferate all over the place. I mean, that became—people stopped going downtown. Oh, I know, what I was going to say is actually the 1967 riots in Detroit are what actually finished it off. Downtown Detroit started dying gradually in the fifties but the riots ended it. That was—people fled the city in droves after the riots.

MPS: Okay, I’m going to get to that in just a minute. Hold on one second. Let me see if that’s my next question. I’m going to get to the riots. So hold onto your thoughts on the riots. My next question is—actually before the riots—what was your impression—hold on. Five. What was your impression of race relations in Detroit in the fifties and sixties?

WP: You didn’t have a high opinion of blacks. They were all—I mean, you just had the stereotypes. They ruined the neighborhood if they moved in, they didn’t take care of their houses because they didn’t know how. And they probably didn’t know how because they had never owned property before. But it was a stereotype. Remember, you weren’t around them. They weren’t in your neighborhoods. You didn’t work with them. I didn’t have a job—I mean you didn’t go to school with them. When I went to Cody High School it was only four years old. It was four thousand students. There was only two black students in the whole school. The rest—what does that make?—3,998 students were white.

MPS: Yeah.

WP: So you had no association with them. And you saw what you saw in the movies which was generally—they either could dance well, they could sing, they were dangerous, you were afraid of them. They were just—there weren’t any positive images that you could think of, other than you liked the ones you saw in the movies. If you saw the stereotypical ones in—like in Gone with the Wind and that sort of thing. You liked them. But they didn’t live near you. You had to get away before they came into your neighborhood. If they started coming you would get out quick. You would see for sale signs go up all over the place if one black family moved in. And people just kept going out further and further and further. Partly because land was cheap and partly because blacks kept moving out further and further and further. Especially after the Civil Rights Act in the sixties.

MPS: Okay, that’s the next thing I want to get to actually. What did you think about the Civil Rights Movement during that time? Not what you think about it now but in the sixties.

WP: At that time, I was—the sixties—in my twenties. Then I was becoming sort of idealistic. I was in awe of the people because white people who joined the marchers. That sort of thing. So it was still a mix—there was still prejudice. Like, there was prejudice against Dr. Martin Luther King. Although now I listen to his speeches, I think he was one of the greatest speakers, certainly of my lifetime. But there was a tendency to look down on him a little bit. I was in awe and admiration of the white people that marched with them. The attitudes began to change in a lot of people when they saw what happened in the south, with the spraying people, blacks and whites, with these—

MPS: Fire hoses.

WP: Fire hoses, and having dogs attack them, and Governor Wallace in Alabama blocking the two blacks from entering the schools. I think that’s when my attitude began to change because it was the first time I actually witnessed prejudice, other than what I had heard. Other than knowing that you didn’t want to live with blacks. But I didn’t have any association with them. I didn’t know any. It seems strange now but you didn’t come across them. Unless you lived in the bad neighborhoods. If you were living in the bad neighborhoods or you would see some downtown. Then once Northland Shopping Center was built—then you didn’t see them again. Because it was all white and Jewish.

MPS: Where? Downtown you mean?

WP: At Northland.

MPS: Oh, at Northland.

WP: Jews all fled out to Northland Shopping Center, Southfield, that area. Oak Park. Because they didn’t want to live with the blacks either. So they all went out to Southfield and around Northland Shopping Center. So that’s when I first started seeing Jewish people. And then that’s where the white ______(??).

MPS: What did you think, like when—this is sort of—let’s see, when was he—what did you think, like when Martin Luther King was assassinated? This is still part of the same question.

WP: I’m trying to remember. There were so many—the sixties were probably the most tumultuous decade of my life. It started out so great. There was a great deal of optimism. Kennedy was president. He had a glamorous wife. Their children rode ponies around the White House lawn. They threw elegant parties. It was—the first three years, everything was wonderful. The dowdy Eisenhower’s, baby with their bangs. They were out of the White House. It was a time of hope, of renewal. Everything was possible. Things were changing. And then everything started going wrong. It started with the Kennedy assassination, and you could actually feel the country change. And I don’t think just—it was everybody. The hope was gone. And there was so much sympathy for the Kennedys. Many of the programs that he wanted—which would have never have passed, by the way, would have never have gotten through congress if he hadn’t died. Like the Civil Rights Act. Because there was so much sympathy over his death, Lyndon Johnson was able to get all these things passed. The Civil Rights Act, Affirmative Action, all this stuff.

MPS: Isn’t that sad, that maybe it was like part of God’s plan or something.

WP: Maybe. But it changed everything. Because Kennedy wanted it, and no one would dare block it. And so Johnson took advantage of it and got all that stuff through. Which was really, when you look back at it now, here was a Texan, probably a very prejudiced—grew up in a very prejudiced time, much more so than even—we’re in Michigan. Grew up in the deep South. And yet he was the one that pushed all this legislation through. It still boggles my mind that it happened.

MPS: I know. I’ve thought of that too. I’ve often wondered what he really thought. Or maybe that is what he really thought, I don’t know.

WP: I mean, he must have really—I mean, maybe he witnessed it more than we did. Maybe he saw—I mean, we didn’t see separate drinking fountains until I saw them on TV. I didn’t know they existed. I didn’t know there were segregated swimming pools. I didn’t know there were restaurants for blacks and whites only down South. We didn’t know. We didn’t know that stuff. It wasn’t until it was on TV, and there were the riots and people were standing up, and Rosa Parks refused to get off the bus, and all that stuff, and it was on the TV and the nightly news every night. All of a sudden it was like, oh my god. I mean, this is really our country? We didn’t know about it.

MPS: Was it scary to you? I mean like, frightening I mean.

WP: I mean, we never talked about it.

MPS: Did it seem frightening?

WP: Yeah. It felt like—not that wasn’t frightening. What was frightening was that next Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and then Martin Luther King was assassinated, and there were the riots all around—it wasn’t just Detroit. It was all around the whole country. Every major city, I think, had a riot. And it was like—you felt like, for the first time, this country isn’t going to make it. It was the closest I ever felt that our government was going to fall apart. I mean, this was the end. It just—I don’t know how to explain it but it just—too many things happened too close together, and you just didn’t see how we were going to survive. We went from all this hope to this sense of hopelessness. So when Martin Luther King was killed, it was just like, well, there’s one more. It wasn’t—Kennedy’s impact shattered me. But because it shattered me so much, when Bobby Kennedy was killed it wasn’t quite as devastating. And so when Martin Luther King was killed it wasn’t—again, it was even less devastating. Because you were starting to become immune to it. Does that make any sense?

MPS: Yeah.

WP: And then there were riots—I mean, it was just so many things going on. It was like, you go into Detroit—I remember waking up and listening to the radio and it saying there was riots in Detroit, downtown Detroit, on Twelfth Street, and no one was to go to work. You were to stay in your home. And of course my first thought was, great, I don’t have to go to work today. I was happy. [laughs] And I called my boss, and he said, “Well, I’m here, and the chairman of the board is here.” But everyone else wasn’t coming in that day. And I said, “Well, I’m not coming in!” And apparently nobody went in but my boss and the chairman of the board. But we had to go. I had to go to work the next day.

MPS: It was still going on.

WP: I know it was still going on. It was part of my work ethic. That that’s what you were supposed to do. You were supposed to, I mean—so I took a bus. I didn’t want to drive because there was shooting and everything else. I was the only person on the bus. When we got downtown they wouldn’t let us work in our building. We had to go work in another building which was owned by, at that time, Detroit Bank and Trust. And only two or three of us showed up, and all we did was sit and look out the window all day at the tanks and soldiers and the machine guns in the streets. We just sat and looked out the window all day. I mean, there were soldiers all over the streets, tanks. It was surreal. It wasn’t—it was something like you would see in a movie. There was no one around.

MPS: I cannot believe you went to work!

WP: I went to work because that’s what I did. I had to go to work.

MPS: Oh my god. So did you see anything?

WP: No because it wasn’t downtown. It was over in the bad areas where the blacks lived. Twelfth Street, that area, which they renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard.

MPS: I didn’t know that was Twelfth Street.

WP: Yeah.

MPS: Because it was at Twelfth Street and Clairmount.

WP: Right, and Clairmount. We had a branch off of there.

MPS: So where you went, it wasn’t—it was downtown, but it wasn’t—

WP: It was all over—it wasn’t quite in the downtown area. It was over a ways. I don’t know how far. A few miles.

MPS: Okay.

WP: So we never really saw any of the riots. I can remember a girl at work telling me—who lived at West Grand Boulevard. She had an apartment. A woman I worked with. She said there was shooting outside her apartment and she and her roommate laid on the floor all night because they were afraid of the gunshots. They were afraid to get shot through a window. So they didn’t even lay in bed. They laid on the floor. Of course, there were fires. Whole streets were destroyed. On TV you would see the flames. Buildings on fire. I don’t know how many people were killed. Uncle Jordy was involved in it, I mean, down there, fighting it. Fighting the rioters.

MPS: Oh, right, because he was a police officer at the time.

WP: Yeah, he was a police officer.

MPS: Wow.

WP: And that was one of the reasons that made him so prejudiced. Until the day he died he was very prejudiced, and that was one of the things, was the riots. Because of what he saw. Looting, smashing store windows and stealing stuff. How many people were killed? I don’t remember.

MPS: It was forty-seven.

WP: Okay. I don’t remember.

MPS: I mean, I just know that because I just did it with my class.

WP: It was probably three or four days before most people went back to work. But I remember being the only person on the bus going to work. Me and the bus driver.

MPS: Oh my god, I can’t believe you did that.

WP: Oh, yeah. So your answer to Martin Luther King—it means more to me now than it did to me then. We were—I think we were sort of shell-shocked by the time that happened. Too many things had happened.

MPS: I just read—well, I didn’t read it because I listened to it on tape—it’s supposed to be an autobiography but really he didn’t write the book so I don’t know how they can call it an autobiography but it is his writings and his notes and then they had—his wife had someone put it together in a book. And the cool thing was because I listened to it on tape is when they’re reading the speeches, it’s actually him giving the speeches. So there’s somebody else reading the book but they had the real—they were taped, most of his speeches were taped. And so it was just so cool. I listened to that this year before I taught about Martin Luther King. I’m like, okay, I’ve got to bone up on this. But it was just really fascinating to listen to him speak. He was a great speaker.

WP: I know, he was. And yet I don’t think it was as appreciated at the time as it is now because there was still too much prejudice in the country at that time. He was probably thought of by whites more like they think of Jessie Jackson now. Not a whole lot of respect. But blacks, of course, loved him. I’m not saying that’s true of all whites but I think it was a huge segment of the population. Of course, there’s a huge segment now that’s still saying—

MPS: Right.

WP: But did he have the respect he has now? No.

MPS: This isn’t actually on my question sheet but I wanted to ask you anyway. Because he was so different than Martin Luther King, what did you think of Malcolm X?

WP: That he was just a terrible person, a rabble rouser. I don’t know how he’s—you’d compare him to the American Nazi party or something like that. You had the same feelings about them. The Black Panthers. That they were just no-good evil people. If you thought about them at all. I mean, you would never hear anything good about them. Nothing. You just—there was just nothing.

MPS: Okay.

WP: The news was also very biased at that time.

MPS: If you ever get a chance, you actually should read his book. His is also an autobiography, but Alex Haley wrote it, but Malcolm X asked him to write it and so they conferred on it. So everything in there was—you know, it’s his autobiography as told to Alex Haley. It is fascinating. I mean, from what I read—I read the whole book and then I’ve read other things on him too—and he was a rabble rouser, and he was up to no good, but it’s just interesting. Have you seen the movie Malcolm X?

WP: I think so, yeah.

MPS: Well, it’s very close to the movie. I mean, just his whole—I mean, just by way of explanation rather than excuse. You know, if you look at his life growing up, it was horrid! I mean, his family was really a victim of prejudice. His father was murdered. His house set on fire more than once by white supremacists. His mother cheated out of her insurance money. They said the father committed suicide. They bashed him in the back of the head and laid him on the railroad tracks and then they wouldn’t pay the insurance policy. And I think there were eight kids. [phone beeps] Oh, you know what dad, hold on one second, because Shawn will not—if I don’t answer this, she’ll keep calling. Hold on one second. Hello?

Shawn: Hey it’s me.

MPS: Hi.

[break in tape.]

MPS: Okay. Shawn got lost, she’s supposed to be coming to our house and she missed our exit, and she’s like, “Okay, I went flying past your exit, how do I get to your house.”

Anyway, just if you—really, it is a very fascinating read about his early life, and then his whole tie-in to the Black Muslim Movement. And actually right before he’s assassinated—he is assassinated by members of the—they think—of the Black Muslim Movement. And he actually—partly because he broke with them when he realized that a lot of what they were preaching was not accurate to Muslim religion in general, to the Quran and the Muslim religion. And then he went and made a pilgrimage to Mecca and while he was there he said it really changed his—the unfortunate thing is he’s assassinated shortly after he goes to Mecca but he said it really changed his perception because he really looked at white people as the white devil. And he realized that there were—you know, when he goes to Mecca and there’s people of all different colors and they treat him the same. They treat him as they would treat anybody else. Then he realized not all white people are bad. But his whole life experience had told him all white people were bad. And so it’s just interesting. It’s a really, really good book if you ever get the chance to read it. And it’s just his autobiography, Malcolm X. But anyway, I was just wondering what you thought. Because the only thing I ever remember is just hearing bad stuff about Malcolm X.

WP: Right. Me too.

MPS: Okay. Let me see, where am I? Is there anything else you want to say about the riots before I go on?

WP: It was the end of Detroit, as far as I’m—it was the beginning of the end. There was always hope that everyone thought—actually up until I left, there would be periods of renewal and new buildings and the hope that the city would revive, and it never has and I don’t know if it ever will. It certainly will never be the city I remember. It used to be the fifth largest city in the United States. I don’t know what it is now but its way down there. And like I said, it won the cleanest city award. I don’t think anybody would believe that now. The beautiful trees and the houses. It was just a bustling metropolis that’s not there anymore. It’s gone. I mean, there’s people now who live out in the suburbs, probably have never even been in the city.

MPS: Actually, there was an article in today’s paper on Hartland, which is right next door to me.  Where Tracey lives, and Kelly. And it was about people—and they call it, instead of suburbs, ex-urbia—and about people leaving the suburbs to move out to ex-urbia, like the country, quote unquote, and how different it is. And a lot of these people had lived in Detroit but they’re talking about how they moved out here and they’re meeting people who have never been to Detroit, who are afraid to go to Detroit, and it just boggles their mind, but at the same time they become part of this community, is sort of what the article was—I mean, it was just interviews with all these people.

[End Disk 1 Track 2]

[Begin Disk 2 Track 1]

MPS: It was just interesting, you know, in how now their kids are sort of like—don’t want to go back into the city and stuff, you know?

WP: What’s amazing is that I worked in downtown Detroit, or within a few miles, at the medical center, from 1965 until I retired in—what was it?—19—

MPS: No, dad, it’s 2005. How long have you been retired?

WP: Okay, 2000. So from ‘65 to 2000, I worked either right in downtown or within a few miles. Actually, the Detroit Medical Center when I first went there was a much worse area than downtown. I never had one single incident in all those years. Nothing. Nothing ever happened. Not even close to an incident. Until I went outside of downtown. I mean, I was in four hold-ups but they were in branches that were in other neighborhoods. I was in a bank when they were held up.

MPS: I know. I love those stories. You know what? Someday I want you to tell me those stories but I can’t put that as part of this thing that I’m doing.

WP: Well, as far as working downtown, nothing ever happened. Nothing. Working at Detroit Medical Center, nothing ever happened. Never bothered. Nothing. And yet people were afraid to go there.

MPS: I know.

WP: And that was a period of, what _______(??)

MPS: 35?

WP: 35 years. Everyday. Year to year.

MPS: Yup. Okay. Where am I. Question number eight—we’re almost done.

WP: Let me go back just a little bit.

MPS: Okay.

WP: It was—prejudice was perfectly acceptable back then. And to say I wasn’t prejudiced would not be true because we were brought up to be prejudiced. Everybody was—I mean, that’s just the way it was. Why would a black person want to live in a white person’s neighborhood and ruin their neighborhood? We just couldn’t understand it. Why would they want to come in and ruin our neighborhood? Why would they want to live with us? Because we don’t want them to live with us. So why would they want to live there? We just couldn’t understand that. And really, my own attitudes didn’t begin to change until, like I said, in the sixties when we were following what was going on down south. It wasn’t what was going on in my own city. It was what we saw going on down south. I mean, they were so far out of line that it was just disgusting. So it was a gradual thing, where I became more tolerant. To say I was always tolerant—no. We just couldn’t understand why they’d want to live with us. Hope they knew they’d ruin our neighborhood, which wasn’t true either. Because they kept their houses up very good. I mean, even better because they thought they had to prove that they were good enough to live there, so they kept their houses up better than a white person in many cases, probably most cases. Because they had to prove that they were good enough to live there. But it didn’t matter. You would have to get out before your property values went down, and they did go down. Once the first black family moved in your property values went down. So you can’t—it wasn’t all prejudice. It was also financial issues involved there too. When you saw the value of your home declining that you spent your whole life working for, you had to get out while the getting-out was good. And houses declined in value substantially. I don’t think that happens anymore. But it did happen then.

MPS: I think one of the—one of the more—what is the word I’m looking for?—one of the more significant things that you guys ever did for—in terms of my personal beliefs in racism was when we—now, I was little, but it really had a significant—when you guys took Trina. You know, I mean, we never saw black people before that either. But I only remember it being an issue—I mean, it wasn’t because she was—I remember it being an issue because of grandpa, because he was so hateful.

WP: But he was typical.

MPS: I know.

WP: Although grandma, I’ll give her credit, she never said a word. And grandma would love to be prejudiced, and she never said—she would hold her, she would play with her. But we lived in Dearborn Heights, and I can remember—we lived on a corner—cars coming to a screech and stopping when they saw her on the lawn because they thought blacks had moved into the neighborhood.

MPS: I don’t remember that at all.

WP: Oh, yeah. And if I wasn’t with your mother people were giving her dirty looks if she had Trina because they thought she was married to a black person.

MPS: Well, the thing is, what I remember is I just was—I don’t know, like—I don’t know if I was then, I think that I was because this is the way that I feel, but I remember being proud of you guys for—because he was so prejudiced, and I remember being proud that you were like, “If she can’t come in the house, none of us are coming in the house.” And I mean, I remember that. And I was not that old. I was only, like, Carly’s age I think. I was only in first or second grade. Must have been second grade. But I mean, it was significant enough that it’s something that I still remember, and that we didn’t go over there, because—

WP: Well, it was the early seventies, so you can see the big change in my attitude even, just during the sixties.

MPS: Uh-hm.

WP: Of course, in the fifties I was a kid, so I didn’t really think about it. All I could remember was just my grandfather being so proud it was on the deed that blacks couldn’t live there. Blacks will never live in this neighborhood. I still remember that. I don’t know why that stuck to my mind. Like, why that made an impression on me. I mean, why would I care? I was under ten. But I can remember going to a restaurant, Pope’s Fish and Chips in Livonia, and of course Trina was the only black person in there. All the waitresses came over to our table to say how cute she was, and fawn over here. I guess to show—because then it was maybe more politically correct to show tolerance. But she wasn’t cute. She was _______(??)

MPS: Oh, I remember. She was not a cute baby.

WP: [laughs] So you knew that—[laughs] But it was embarrassing too, because everybody in the whole restaurant—it was so unusual to see a black person that everybody in the restaurant—you suddenly became the center of attention in this huge restaurant. And it was huge. It was a big place. And I remember all these waitresses around our table. And grandma was with us, she said, “Boy, you guys are sure getting a lot of attention.” But it was embarrassing. And you would either get one out of two attitudes. If your mother was going into a store, she either got a dirty look, or people would over-fawn over her, and say, “Oh, isn’t she cute, where did you get her from?” and that sort of thing, like to show that they weren’t prejudiced. So it was either way over the top one way or way the other. You know, prejudicial, and the other way. It was—the attitudes were sort of extreme, one way or another. There was no in between. It was just so odd, so unusual, for this white couple to have this little black child.

MPS: Okay, dad—

WP: Go ahead.

MPS: Okay. I’m skipping number eight because I already asked it. It’s, why did you leave the city?—moved to Romulus, but we already have that. So, this is more of a general question, and it’s basically—and this is during the time of—we kind of sort of talked about this but if there’s anything that you want to add, let me know. So this is during the sixties. What was life like economically, socially, etcetera? Let me read the whole question—economically, socially, etcetera. Give a context of what else was going on in your life at the time. And they’re talking specifically about the riots. Like, what else was going on in your life at the time? What worries did you have? What interests did you have? And were you surprised by the riots? It’s sort of a long catch-all question.

WP: I’ll start with was I surprised by the riots. Yeah. I don’t remember—I don’t think Detroit was the first but I still—it never occurred to me it would happen there.

MPS: I think Watts was the first.

WP: Probably, in Los Angeles. But it wasn’t—but then there were many others after Detroit. Then it was all over the country. I was still—yeah, it was a shock to me that it happened there. It just never occurred to me that it would. Because there was no warning, you know. I didn’t see any signs of tension or any more tension than usual or people being treated worse than usual. Probably because I had no contact with blacks. Although, I must have worked with blacks at the time. What else did you say? It was just a time of turmoil for me. It was a time when I really thought our country was doomed. That we wouldn’t make it. That for the first time in our history, we weren’t going to make it through that. The country was going to fall apart. Because too many major things were happening. I mean, it was one after the other. It just kept—one negative thing after another. All that hope we had in the beginning was gone.

MPS: Do you think it’s more scary than 9/11? [September 11, 2001] Or different? A different type of scare?

WP: I can’t say—9/11 was a horrible shock but I don’t feel scared by it. Maybe—I don’t know why—maybe I feel like where I live is the target. I’m more scared of what’s going to happen and I don’t think it’s what people expect. People expect another major, horrible thing, and I think it could be what could destroy the country more—and Osama Bin Laden always said his aim was to destroy the American economy which would of course destroy America. The easiest way to do it—and people say, “Oh, that won’t do it”—but it’s like what happened in London. Keep people on edge, keep these small things going constantly, until people are afraid to go places. You don’t need the World Trade Center. You don’t need major things like that to unnerve a country. People have car bombs or bus bombs or bombs going off in trains constantly. If you get people afraid to travel and afraid to go to shopping malls—I mean, that way could destroy the economy far more than the World Trade Center, or have more impact on the economy, especially when it starts happening in major cities around the country. And you see some of that starting to happen now, like in London. It’s happening in Egypt. Whereas here in America we’re more scared of the major—another World Trade Center event. And I’m more concerned about smaller incidents, a series of over and over until—you remember when those two guys, I think one of them was named Malvo [Lee Boyd Malvo], were doing those shootings and they were killing people all over? [D.C. Sniper Attacks]

MPS: Yeah, yeah.

WP: That unnerved the country, and all it took was two people and not knowing what was going to happen next, and wondering where they were going to turn up, and the country was—I mean, it was just—you were obsessed by it. You were just watching the news all the time. What’s going to happen? Where are they? Where is it going to happen next? So if they ever decide to start blowing up stuff here, I think that could do a lot to harm our economy, to harm our country, to harm our confidence.

MPS: Okay, but I got you—

WP: Another thing I worry about is an attack on one of our nuclear plants. That could kill—_______(??)

MPS: Millions.

WP: If not immediately, years down the road with the affects of radiation. That concerns me. Because I don’t think we’ve done anything—we’re so tied up in Iraq right now that not nearly enough attention is being paid to preventing further terror attacks. We’re not prepared at all, as far as I’m concerned.

MPS: Okay. I got you totally off topic because I’m not supposed to be talking about 9/11.

WP: Oh, okay.

MPS: I’m supposed to be talking about Detroit and the riots. So the other part of the question was, what else was going on in your life at the time? What worries did you have? Interests that you had during the time of the riots. They want to put it in an economic, social context, to say, you know, what was your life as an average white person living in Detroit—they’re just trying to get—

WP: Well, I can’t figure out. Now I’m trying to—we must have just—no, it was in ‘67 wasn’t it? The riots?

MPS: Yeah, I think we were still living in Detroit at that time. We didn’t move until I was a couple years old.

WP: Now, I’m trying to figure out why I was at grandma’s attic sleeping when I woke up that morning. And I’m wondering if it’s when your mother went to Czechoslovakia.

MPS: No, because she went to Czechoslovakia in the seventies. Like, ‘72. Because I remember it.

WP: Well why was I at grandma’s? Unless my memory’s faulty and it wasn’t—but that’s what I seem to remember. Waking up with my alarm and hearing the radio go off and talking about not going into Detroit that day. And in ‘67 I was married.

MPS: Yeah, you got married in ‘63.

WP: I was married for four years. So, you and Cheryl were both there. Unless we were in between moves? It could be when we moved into a house in Romulus. So, we lived with grandma for a while. The house on Plainview sold the day we put it up for sale, it sold that day. That is it. The house on Plainview, we put the for sale sign—a lady was driving by who lived down in one of the older neighborhoods, and she was scared. She’d heard rumblings that something was going to happen. And she bought our house. She wanted to move in within a week. She wanted to get out of her neighborhood and she was prepared to give us cash for it. And I said, “We can’t turn this down.” So we agreed to move out within a week.

MPS: Oh my god!

WP: In fact, it was less than a week, I think. She might have bought it on Tuesday. We would be out by Friday or Saturday. But we had no place to go. So we moved our furniture to Grandma Beale’s garage and your mother and I went to grandma’s house with the kids. And that’s why I woke up in the attic. We were staying with Grandma Pattinson at the time.

MPS: That is a great story! I can’t believe you never told me that!

WP: Huh?

MPS: I said that’s a great story!

WP: It just came to me now. Why was I there? I was trying to remember, why would I be there? But that’s—I remember now, the lady buying the house. That’s the reason she bought the house. She was scared something was going to happen and she wanted to get out. Plus she could walk to St. Thomas Aquinas. She wanted a place where she could walk to church, and St. Thomas Aquinas was at the corner. She could walk there. But she wanted to get out of her old Polish neighborhood. So apparently there were rumblings that something was going to happen. Or maybe because of riots in other cities, she thought about it. But we weren’t thinking about it. We were thinking, we just go this money, we’re buying a house. That’s what I was—things were going fine for us. It was more immediate, daily living things. We weren’t thinking about riots or—we had sold the house in one day, we had all this money, we were buying a new house, we were all excited about that. Picking out the carpeting, picking out the brick, picking out this, picking out that. It was just daily living. It wasn’t—I think we were oblivious to what was really going on around us. Because we were just living our own daily life. It wasn’t—we weren’t living in fear or even concerned about it.

MPS: So economically, what was going on for you? Good, then, right?

WP: Yeah. I mean, I did—what was I, in ‘67? I was an auditor.

MPS: At Detroit Bank and Trust?

WP: At Detroit Bank and Trust. Branch auditor. Maybe I was working downtown by then. Otherwise I had to transfer downtown by then. But we were doing fine. We were buying a new house, I didn’t know if we could make the payments, but yeah. Economically we were doing okay. We weren’t afraid of anything happening. We were excited about moving. For us it was—at last that particular time was great. Not talking about ‘63 when Kennedy was assassinated. Not talking about when Bobby was assassinated. Not talking about Martin Luther King. But at that particular moment of the riots, things were going great for us. I mean, we had other things on our mind. How are we going to put our furniture? How are we going to move? How is all this going to come together? So it was immediate living things that we were concerned with, not what was going on in the world at that particular time.

So the riots were a total shock to us. Even the lady who wanted to get out of her neighborhood didn’t alarm us. It didn’t hit us until the riots happened, like, oh my god, she was right. And I can remember at the time, Jenny Dishowitz(??) saying—I mean, everybody was petrified then, and there were all these rumors going around, and Jenny Dishowitz(??) saying, “The blacks are coming down Warren, they’ll be up here pretty soon!” [laughs] “The rioters are coming, they’re going to be—” And she was petrified, she believed it, she was petrified. I remember the rumors. _______(??) And I discounted it. It’s probably because I went to work that day. [laughs] I didn’t see anything, anybody marching down Woodward. But that was the first thing, when there were all those rumors going around that they were coming our way.

MPS: So basically, what else was going on in your lifetime? You were married. You had two little kids. Did you have any worries?

WP: Just minor financial worries. How we were going to make the house payments. Nothing major, no.

MPS: Did you actually join in any of the civil rights stuff, or no?

WP: No.

MPS: Okay. The only other question I have is—I’m supposed to ask you if there are any other issues you want to talk about, or did you expect a question I did not ask? And then the last thing is, is your perception of what happened then different from now? And they’re referring specifically to the riot. I mean, perception of what was going on at the time, is it different than how you feel about it now, and then the other stuff is—you know, any other questions—

WP: Well, one thing is—I mean, it accelerated the—I don’t know if destruction is the right word, but the ruin of Detroit. I mean, Detroit never recovered. It was like the last—although nobody knew it at the time. As I look back, I realize that was the final nail in the coffin of the city. It never did recover. People thought it would, and kept hoping it would, but it never did. That’s when people really started to flee in droves, and it never changed after that.

But it also made people pay attention to blacks, and they started getting better jobs, and started being able to live where they wanted to live, and it changed their lives dramatically. Whites avoided the change by moving, by fleeing. The blacks suddenly could get good jobs and have a more middle-class life than what was possible for them before.

It’s also for them though—you don’t see this really anywhere but for a while a lot of blacks had an attitude because the only way they got their rights was by rebelling. Many of them felt that they would have a chip on their shoulder and an attitude at work. Where they could do whatever they wanted and you couldn’t do anything to them. You didn’t dare discipline them. Supervisors were afraid to discipline and it became almost impossible to fire a black person. No matter how incompetent they were. I don’t think—maybe the last ten years I worked or more I don’t remember seeing that. But for a long time it was like that. But it’s because it was the only way they ever got anything was by rebellion. By fighting back. You didn’t get anything by being nice. Does that make sense?

MPS: Uh-hm.

WP: You didn’t get anywhere. And probably some of it was an inferiority complex. _______(??) And they probably saw many incompetent white people over the years who got promoted and got raises, did this and that and didn’t get fired, nothing was done. Years of resentment of seeing that. _______(??) So it was a whole change in attitude. One, whites had to accept them in the workplace, because they weren’t there before, unless it was a menial job. Now suddenly they were working right next to you, with you. Same job. So it was—now what you would consider normal, wouldn’t think twice about it, at that time it was very unusual and very—I mean, it was awkward. Neither side knew how to handle it. I do remember supervisors being afraid to discipline a black person. And I can remember being a supervisor, the first time I had one, he was incompetent. I had to document—I mean, every time, I had pages of pages of pages of documentation before I could do anything. But I got rid of him. Not because he was black, but because he was incompetent. But it was very difficult. And because he took advantage of that. He thought nobody could touch him because he was black. So there was a change in attitude on their part too. So it wasn’t all—white people weren’t all wrong and black people weren’t all right.

And even now, my attitudes are still evolving. When I hear the word—when I hear blacks talk about reparations it used to irritate the heck out of me. Why would—I mean they weren’t theslaves. But as I look back now and see what it did to the people and the culture, generation after generation, I understand where they’re coming from. And maybe because I’m gay I understand that a little—I understand that. I understand what prejudice can do to you, and how it can be so subtle that sometimes other people don’t even see it, but if you’re black of if you’re gay, you do see it because you hear it every day. And if you’re not one of that group, you don’t hear it, you don’t see it. So I understand what they mean.

I tell you, if I was black, I’d be furious. I would just be furious. To be treated like, especially down south, like an animal. I couldn’t drink out of a white drinking fountain, I couldn’t eat in a restaurant where whites ate, I couldn’t go to the park, for black people I had to sit in the back of the bus. But they were allowed to sit in the white section if there were the seats available, which I wasn’t aware of, until I saw a special on Rosa Parks. And I always—let’s see, how did this work?—she was in the black section of the bus, but there was a white person who got on the bus, and there were no seats available, and of course if a white person got on the bus then some of the black seats became white seats, which I wasn’t aware of. And they wanted her to give up her seat in the black section of the bus, and that’s when she refused to do it.

MPS: Actually what I read is she was in the middle section, which both sides could sit on.

WP: It was so—yeah.

MPS: Have you ever—have you been on the bus? The bus is at Greenfield Village, the actual bus that she was on. It’s small. It’s not like today’s city buses—well, you haven’t been on a city bus in a while—but it’s not like today’s city buses. It’s a small bus. I mean, smaller than a school bus-bus and so there weren’t that many rows of seats. There really weren’t. And she wasn’t the only black person in that section, there were four people. All four refused to give up their seat until the bus driver—

WP: I didn’t know that. But did you know, the same thing happened to her ten years before, and she was thrown off the bus.

MPS: Oh, really?

WP: And what was strange about it is that—

[End Disk 2 Track 1]

[Begin Disk 2 Track 2]

MPS: He talked to them, and none of them would move, and then he’s like, “You’re going to get thrown off the bus, I’m going to,” you know, whatever, “if you don’t move.” The other three gave in, she was the only one not to give in. That’s what it was. So anyway.

WP: When they started the boycott of the buses, at first it was a joke. The word spread in the black community not to ride the buses, at the boycott. And first they laughed about it, and it took a whole year before they changed the law, before they finally gave in, because they had lost so much money. Because black people for a year refused to ride the buses, and they walked. They walked to work, no matter how far it was. I mean, they would walk miles and miles to work instead of riding the bus. But it took the city a year to give in. I think it was Memphis. I’m not sure. I think it was Memphis. No, was it—

MPS: Montgomery. Montgomery.

WP: Montgomery, Alabama?

MPS: Yeah.

WP: So it wasn’t an instantaneous thing. I mean, it was _______(??) When you saw the people, saw the fire hoses on TV and the dogs and stuff like that, that began to change attitudes. People, even if they were prejudiced, they said, you know, that’s not right.

MPS: And they were doing it to children, too.

WP: Oh, yeah. They burned churches, kids died. Yeah, it was a bad time.

MPS: Well—

WP: But there’s still a lot of that prejudice down there—down here. There’s still a lot of it.

MPS: You see it now?

WP: I’m in a very liberal part of Florida but there is still a lot of it in Mississippi and Alabama. It’s not that they can’t—I mean, they don’t have separate pools or separate restaurants but there’s still a great deal of prejudice.

MPS: Alright dad.

WP: Aright.

MPS: This was fun. I’m glad we did this. This was very, very interesting to me. I didn’t actually think we were going to take an hour and a half, but we have. Actually, I think we went just a tad bit over our time, because I went through—

WP: Well I’m sure there’s some you’ll have to cut out anyway.

MPS: Oh, yeah. Well, she just said that after an hour and a half you start losing the person—

WP: Well, by repeating.

MPS: Yeah. And she said, you know, they get tired, you get tired, and try to limit to an hour and a half. But I didn’t think—I’m not going to talk an hour and a half. Actually, you know, I’m not going to listen an hour and a half. [laughs] I didn’t think you’d say that much. But it was great, this was so cool. I want to do this with other stuff.

WP: Well, I think the most interesting thing is—not the most interesting—but one of the interesting things is the role for men and women, how it’s changed. I don’t think you could even imagine what it was like. Where there was such a separation. When I think about it now, even a man to go grocery shopping would be considered effeminate. I mean, it’s just—and now it’s just so taken for granted, and yet it was—you would have been just looked at like, you’re queer, you’re a faggot, you’re in a grocery store, doing a woman’s job. A man would never help with the housework, or—I mean, that would—he would never. Or help with the kids. Change a diaper. A man would never do that. It was not what men—men didn’t do that. They went to work. They supported their families. That was their role. That was their job. And discipline their children. They took care of their wife and family. That was their role, that was their job, and because they did that they were entitled to do whatever else they wanted to do. They wanted to go out after work and drink at the bars and stay out all night. That was fine. They could do that. That was a man’s role. They were entitled to that. A man beat his wife, well, that’s his wife. He’s entitled. He can beat her. You just can’t imagine now. My mother did not know how much money my father made. It was none of her business.

MPS: You’re kidding!

WP: No. He gave her so much money, the rest was his, and he could spend it any way he wanted.

MPS: Is that why she’s so funny about money?

WP: I don’t know. But it was typical, that wasn’t—I mean, she didn’t think _______(??). That was just—I mean, that’s just the way it was. She had food, he gave her money for food, groceries, stuff. Which is why she didn’t know how much money he made. I mean, men had it pretty good. [laughs]

MPS: Yeah. [laughs]

WP: But also, women didn’t work outside the home, so, I mean, that was there—there were still a few days a week when my mother, we would go visiting, and we probably walked. Because, I mean, we would walk as kids four or five miles to different aunt’s houses. My sister and I—I can remember being in a baby buggy, me and Casey, and going to my aunt’s house. I can still somehow remember that, how I could fit in a buggy. I must have been three, four at the most. The very most.

MPS: Grandma pushing you.

WP: But we would walk. My Aunt Bonnie lived like a mile and a half away, our Aunt Aggie lived like three miles away. We would go there. There would probably be a couple days a week when my mother—it wasn’t cleaning day, it wasn’t ironing day, it wasn’t washing day, it wasn’t grocery shopping day. So she could go visit her sisters. And we probably walked there. We didn’t drive a car. My dad would probably be at work. I don’t think he would have driven her anyway.

MPS: I can’t believe all those years, grandma got rides to work every day.

WP: What do you mean rides?

MPS: When she worked in Plymouth.

WP: She had to take three buses most of the time.

MPS: Oh, yeah, that’s right. Well, she would get rides from some guy sometimes.

WP: Sometimes. But most of the time she took three buses to get to work. She started seven thirty. I think she started out at around five or something. She didn’t have any easy life.

MPS: Uh uh.

WP: Hard work in a factory, I mean, it was hard. I don’t know how she did it until she was sixty-five.

MPS: Well, this really was very cool. I’m so glad I decided to interview you, because I could have picked anyone. I just had to pick somebody that lived in Detroit, you know, and during this time period that we’re studying. It’s mostly the fifties and sixties, what we’re looking at. What was life-like. And a lot of that is the gender roles we’re looking at. And then we’re also looking at the civil rights movement, and then up through the riots, so.

WP: Well, one thing that’s interesting about Detroit is it—I mean, Northland was the first mall in the nation like that. Major mall. Kmart—it was the first Kmart in the nation, was Michigan. The first freeway in the nation was the Davison which was in Detroit. In the whole nation, in the whole United States, the first one was the Davison Freeway, which only was about three or four miles long. But that was so unique, such an innovation, a street with no lights where you could just go without stopping and now it’s so common. There was no interstate highway system. Eisenhower started the—all the highways, you know, the highways you have across the nation. Before that it was just little roads. Little highways or little two-lane highways or little roads. It took forever to go anywhere. So people didn’t travel like that do now.

[beeping noises]

MPS: Oh!

[phone ringing]

WP: Yeah.

MPS: Sorry, I cut you off, I accidentally hit the button on the phone. I’m like, oh! Get down Blue.

WP: But I can remember driving to Akron Ohio with my father and my mother, and we would go—you had to go through all these small towns. It would take like seven or eight hours. Now you can get there in three. But it was just stop and go, all the way, for all the way down to Ohio. Nobody would have thought of driving cross-country or to Florida.

MPS: Yeah, to Florida. [laughs]

WP: You didn’t have the highways like you do now. There were no major highways, turnpikes, freeways, nothing. It was just these local two-lane roads. It’s the fifties now that I’m talking about.

MPS: Yeah.

WP: And Eisenhower’s the one that authorized the building of the freeways going across the United States, east to west, north to south. But it took years and years and years to build them. And he was president from ‘52 to—Kennedy was—no, into the sixties. And that’s when he started building the highway system that we have now.

MPS: Did you vote for Kennedy?

WP: That’s another thing I hadn’t thought about, there wasn’t the transportation that there is now. Especially when they couldn’t build cars. I mean, during the war years, they couldn’t build cars because they needed the steel for tanks. So my father bought one of the first cars after the war ended.

MPS: I can’t include this in our thing, but I just wanted to tell you this, I was reading this stuff this morning or yesterday or something and—actually within the last week, whatever—I was reading this stuff and it was talking about how—just something that you said reminded me of it, actually earlier when you were talking about—let me go back and look—how blacks then could move so they could get better jobs, better living spaces. It changed their lives dramatically. Blacks could get good jobs, middle-class life more possible. One of the things that they talk about—but you also talked about it being the end of the city—these articles that I was reading were talking about how, with white flight in the suburbs, what also happened is that the jobs started moving out of the city as well. So even though the blacks are living now where they want to in the city, they don’t have the transportation because many of them didn’t have good enough jobs to afford cars.

WP: Right. And that’s intentional by the companies because that was their way of keeping blacks from working for them. Move their plants out of the city, out to the suburbs, where the blacks couldn’t go. And then they could still have their white workers and yet they were abiding by the law. Chrysler’s main plant used to be down in Highland Park, Michigan and they moved up to Auburn Hills. Their headquarters there. That was common. Well, end of story.

MPS: Okay, I’m going to turn my recorder off.

WP: Okay.

MPS: Hold on.



Original Format



1hr 46min 26sec




“William Pattinson, 2005,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed October 27, 2021, http://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/594.

Output Formats