Barbara Williams


Barbara Williams


In this interview, Williams describes her childhood growing up in a primarily Catholic, all-white neighborhood. She gives stories of her first interactions with African Americans and Civil Rights members, and how the interactions shaped her world view. She explains what the city was like before, during, and after the events that occurred in the summer of 1967 from a local point of view, and is wholly optimistic for the future of the city.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit MI




en- US


Oral History


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Barbara Williams

Brief Biography

Barbara Williams was born on May 12th, 1950 in Detroit at Mount Caramel Hospital- Catholic Hospital. Williams grew up in an all-white neighborhood on the northwest side of Detroit before moving into a new neighborhood with her family to attend High School. Afterward, Williams worked at a retail store downtown and would use the bus to commute. Williams and her family completely left the city in the late 1970’s.

Interviewer's Name

William Winkel

Interview Place

Macomb, MI



Interview Length



Celeste Goedert & Matthew Ungar & Kyle Phillips

Transcription Date





WW: Hello. Today is August 11th, 2016. My name is William Winkel. I am in Macomb Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. And I’m sitting down with—

BW: Barbara J for Jean Williams.

WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.

BW: [Laughs] You’re very welcome.

WW: Can you please tell me where and when were you born?

BW: I was born May 12th, 1950 in Detroit at Mount Caramel Hospital- Catholic Hospital. Not there anymore. And we lived in northwest Detroit first on Warwick which was bounded by Joy Road, West Chicago, Southfield and Evergreen. And then we moved in 1959 to be in the St. Mary of Redford Catholic Parish which had a high school which my parents wanted us to be educated affordably at the time all the way through high school and that was just south of Grand River between Greenfield and Southfield.

WW: Was the first neighborhood you grew up in integrated?

BW: Not at all.  

WW: Would you like to share some stories from growing up in that neighborhood?

BW: It was a fun way to grow up. I have to say all of my little friends were white. I had one Jewish friend who was also white, but frankly there were black people but they were far, far away [Laughs]. Our parents had both grown up on the east side and I have to say… Definitely got a negative slant on black people from my father who was flat out—I called him a ranting racist. He was, I mean a good person, good man and good provider, surprisingly college educated, white collar worker, but oh boy was he prejudiced! And talk around the house out of the blue, I mean, there were no black people around, so What’s your problem?  And it was a happy childhood I would say. There was tension between my parents, but as far as having a—provided for and nice kind of 50s childhood playing out on the streets, freeform without adult supervision just basically being called in. My mother didn’t work outside the home, so mom was always there and it was, I’d say, almost the cliché of a 50s [Laughs]. A 50s childhood.     

WW: How many siblings did you have?

BW: I have five. An older sister, two older brothers, two younger sisters. I’m the second middle child.

WW: And what did your father do for a living?

BW: My father was an accountant at first, Nash-Kelvinator and then later that became American Motors on Plymouth Road in Detroit.

WW: And you mentioned that your move to your new neighborhood was prompted by a high school?  

BW: Yes, it was the affordability of a Catholic school education all the way through 12th grade. And my sister, the first born, she’s eight years old, born in ’42, so my father just figured everybody would go public school. Cody High would have been where she went, where I should would have gone. She was a favorite of the nuns at St. Susan’s and they wouldn’t hear of it, so they kind of caged together a year scholarship to Rosary High which is, again, is not there—another Catholic Central school that’s gone. But it was a girl’s school, it was basically in that same neighborhood—the Joy Road area… I think Joy and Greenfield. And he realized my brother, the next one was three years younger, so he was not going to be able to afford a central school like Catholic Central or U of D, so the plan was to move us to St. Mary Redford Parish which was a real powerhouse at the time. It was a huge parish. It was so huge it had two satellite parishes, and each of those parishes had grades one through eight and so those graduates fed into the high school that we all went to—I graduated from, you know, my two brothers and my two younger sisters and I.

WW: Wow.

BW: Yep [Laughs].

WW: Was your new neighborhood the same as your old one?

BW: Yes.

WW: All white?

BW: Yep, all white and as far as my classmates go, I’d kind of jokingly say that probably the most exotic ethnic group would have been Italians. It was very much, you know, Irish, Polish, Italians- a few Chaldeans, but it was all white.

WW: What was your new neighborhood like for you growing up—was it a welcome change or was it the same old?

BW: No, it was definitely a step up in terms of—the house was much nicer. We didn’t have as nice a house as, say, a couple blocks to the west of us. There were subdivisions like  Grandmont Subdivision and houses were very nice, it was right off Grand River so as a grew older I could use the bus line which was, at that time, very dependable to go to Greenfield and Grand River, go up to Northland to shop with my friends.

WW: As you were growing up, did you increasingly travel across the city?  

BW: Yes, but was essentially downtown and back. As I think my mother first let me and a friend go downtown. At the time there were the great movie palaces and there was always some big deal at Christmas time, a Disney film. And so, I think I was maybe 13 or 14 and she let me and my friend—go with my friend on the bus downtown. It was fun. There was no worries. I would say that was probably the first time I was aware of black people being on a bus or being downtown. My first contact with black people would have been in downtown Detroit cause at the time there was Hudson’s. We’d go down there on the bus and interact with—not much—but be in contact with black people at least. You know, superficially.

WW: When you went to areas that had black people in it, did you feel uneasy…given your upbringing?

BW: Not really, not downtown because it was, I’d say, kind of neutral ground. People were there to shop or for recreation. But, for the most part, that area of northwest Detroit was very segregated. I think was a combination of both segregation and racial discrimination and the fact that heavily, heavily Catholic, and black people in general are Catholics and in big numbers, but obviously discrimination. I mean, the neighborhood was white.

WW: After you were 13, you were able to go downtown. Did you go anywhere else in the city?

BW: Well, other than Northland to shop, or as I got a little older I developed an interest in movies, I’d say 16 and 17. I used to hit some of the art theaters, there were a lot of them. There was one on Hamilton, but I got myself around on bus quite a bit and my parents let me. I think a lot of it was because with all those siblings, I could take care of myself whereas other parents might have forbidden that entirely. But I was on my own and I didn’t have a car like a lot of kids do as soon as they turn 16, but I got around pretty well. I was a very good student, good reader—precocious reader. When I got into high school at St. Mary’s we had the really early to mid-60s, or mid-60s to late 60s, and you had a lot of progressive social consciousness or movements, social justice movements. At the time, you had young lay teachers. Very progressive and they definitely exposed us to other points of view, if by nothing else through reading. I know I read James Baldwin at a fairly young age. I know I read Malcolm X’s autobiography. I don’t know if that was college, but I certainly was exposed-at least through reading-to the injustice towards black people.

WW: As you were reading about the injustice and the injustices that were going on, did you begin to see it more and more throughout the city?

BW: I would say, through reading the papers, police brutality or police incidents. I’m just trying to put this in, we’re talking, like- well, the riots were in ’67, and I was certainly aware of things going on at large political movements. In the city itself, no. I would’ve gotten my information from the papers. We got both papers and, of course, TV and radio.

WW: Did you begin to join or sympathize with any of the movements you were reading about?

BW: Well, I would say I was more curious about the black power movement I’m obviously a little frightened about. And then, of course, Dr. King was very inspiring. Of course I heard of things like the black girls being—the bombing of the church, so I was aware of awful things like that.

WW: Did you sense any growing tension in the City of Detroit?

BW: I can’t really say other than- I was thinking about the riots or rebellion of ’67 and, again, I first heard about it on TV or papers. I know at the time both papers were on strike and there was some kind of really bad rag that came out of- I forgot where it was, but we got our information and I guess I would have to say the riots came out of the blue for me. And I think it was from that, I started working backward to see the cause.

WW: When you said it came out of the blue for you, in general or in that particular time? When you heard about the bombing of the church in Birmingham, did you anticipate something like that could happen here?

BW: No. No, I think I still have kind of a, you know, That’s going on someplace else kind of a blind spot there.

WW: You were still living-

BW: I was living-’67- I would’ve just finished my junior year in high school, so I was living with my parents. We all got a little nervous although we knew it was far, far away. At one point there was a Grand River and Greenfield there was as shopping center somebody had broken into a jewelry store and for a moment we thought, Oh, it’s coming this way. Which was ridiculous, but that’s the kind of , I would say, insulated thinking that was going on there.

WW: Do you remember how your parents reacted to what was going on?

BW: I’m sure very negative. I don’t recall what my father said, but it was very, Bad black people. My mother never really expressed any prejudice, and I think part of it was she had grown up. Her family was very much affected by the depression, so everybody was poor and they lived around black people, you know, other poor people at that time so I can’t say she was pro-black people, but she never said anything negative. Like I said before, my father was just kind of a ranter and I would suspect a lot of white fathers at that time were.

WW: Do remember the mood of your neighborhood? Was there a certain amount of stress or apprehension?

BW: Yes, very much so. I think there was kind of like ridiculous expectation that it would come, come into our area, they would come in and that was not gonna happen. But, you know, the hysteria, of course.

WW: Did either you or any of your older siblings venture out and try to see what was going on or did all of you stay home?

BW: I think all of us stayed home. The only one I could see maybe doing that was my brother Dennis, the other middle child. We did not have access to the family cars, so I don’t think so.

WW: Did you see anything there firsthand?

BW: Did I? No.

WW: How do you interpret what happened?

BW: Well, the account was the police raided the blind pig and the people, the partiers were fed up with it and decided to strike back, they’d had enough. I mean, it was hot summertime. And it was much later, I found out, I didn’t realize until later that the party involved a couple of guys coming back or going to Vietnam and it was a party for them, which makes it very ironic at the least. I remember being pretty shocked when the National Guard came in. George Romney, the governor at the time, ordered them in. Of course pictures in the paper were shocking, the fires and the destruction. But my thought was that people got fed up. I guess a lot of people can’t understand destroying the area that you live in, but now it’s an act of desperation, I realize.

WW: You said you were shocked when the National Guard came in?

BW: M-hmm.

WW: Why were you shocked?

BW: Well, I’m pretty sure there were tanks. I mean, it was the military. That was extreme [laughter].

WW: How did you feel when the federal troops came in?

BW: Gee, I forgot about that. Maybe I’m conflating them with the National Guard. I just remember the tanks, the rifles.

WW: Did you have a National Guard presence in your neighborhood?

BW: No. Still at that time, it was a very segregated, very isolated, insulated. There was a sense of it being kind of far away, which was a little delusional in retrospect.

WW: And afterward, did your family ever speak about leaving?

BW: Oh yeah. They did not leave right away- I mean- people were growing older. My sister graduated college in ’64 and she moved away to Bay City where she got her teaching job, my brother- well, this is moving forward to ’68- my brother had to enlist in the Marines to avoid being drafted right after Nixon was elected, and then I graduated high school in ’68. Before I went to school in the fall, I got a job working retail at Crowley’s in downtown Detroit. And I took the bus, and it was a big adventure for me. And it was the first time, really, I interacted at all with black people and worked with them, and I mean, mind you, that was barely a year after the riots. I had read in the meantime, and again, precocious reader, I read the book The Algiers Motel by John Hersey which was a big deal at the time, and I knew I had it in paperback, and I did look it up and I found out it was released as a paperback at the same time as a hardback. I just wanted to clear that up with myself [laughs]. I had some contact with- what I would consider slightly militant- one of my coworkers, she had her hair unnatural and- I think I might have been trying to impress her with my copy of The Algiers Motel and so apparently I was developing a little social consciousness, or superficially, at least. And I left it by where we put our purses, I left my book there and she noticed, and she commented on it, so I was pleased, again, superficially. But I worked with older black people who thought I was a jerky little kid [laughs], but me as a fairly emerging young adult, that was my first contact with people other than myself. It was very interesting, very exciting. I can’t say I made friends or anything, but the exposure was good for me and it was very, well- it made in impact on me.

WW: So, after ’67, you didn’t feel any trepidation about venturing back into the city?

BW: Apparently not. I think sometimes, my father, racist as he was, he certainly didn’t forbid me from going down there and his first priority was Make yourself useful. Get a job. So I did, and that’s always struck me as a little ironic, for as anti-black as he was, he didn’t seem to have any problems with his daughter going downtown, so it worked out.

WW: Do you still believe the events of ’67 still affect the city today?

BW: Yes, yes. Definitely. It devastated the city, it led to white flight en masse. I didn’t leave until ’77 and I was earning money as- I started my career, and I really felt bad about leaving Detroit. At one time, while I was still living with my parents, I had put money down on an apartment in the Grand River and Lasser area, which was an area that I really liked, it was farther west than where we lived, and then I got talked out of it and lost my deposit, and I still feel kind of bad that I left the city. But, that’s the way it worked out. I’m single and on my own, so maybe being out in the ‘burbs was a little safer. But my parents didn’t leave their home- we were all out of the house by then- and they left, I think, later in ’77 or ’78. And they moved to Farmington, and lived in an apartment until my father died and my mother lived in the same apartment for a while, and naturally moved into a senior home in Berkley. She died in 2011. But, I do think Detroit is always a black-white clash, and I think white people leaving the city en masse left the city, economically a mess. And blacks tend to blame whites for moving out, and whites blame blacks for ruining the city, both of which are ridiculous. But if you wanted to put more blame, it would be was whites moving out, because that really upset the economics and people like to blame Coleman Young, but, I think it was time that there was a black mayor in there. I think he stayed on too long, but it had to become a city run by black people because the black majority. I sometimes think today, with all the young white people moving in, being entrepreneurial and all that, I’m getting this same impression that there’s this kind of blind spot. It’s great for us, so it must be great for everybody. My biggest concern about Detroit is the neighborhoods, because a lot of them are really a mess. I occasionally go once in a while if I’m in the area- I’ll drive down my old street. While the block is in nice shape, the surrounding area, not so much. I can’t imagine a kid my age, at the time, a black kid, running around like we did with our friends, and it feeling perfectly safe. I don’t think- what is it, 40 years later? 50, 50 years, that the same problems exist, and I’m not sure what can be done.

WW: Are you optimistic something can be done?

BW: Not so much, to be honest with you, because the odds are so stacked against- I mean, you need education, you need people to be trained to have jobs with livable incomes, incomes you can live on, raise families on. They’re just not there. I thought that after the perfect time to have done something like a WPA or a CCA was after the financial crash in 2008. I mean, I still think it would be great if you could come up with like a works progress administration. Give people jobs to repair the roads and clean up the neighborhoods, but it’s just that politics get in the way. It’s really a shame. I hope Detroit’s okay, I mean I still- I go into Detroit when I feel like it, ball games, concerts, et cetera, but I do feel like a bit of a- not exactly a carpet bagger, but a little bit of a deserter sometimes. I go down there, enjoy myself, and shoot back I-75 to the suburbs. But, I think I’m a little too old to be a pioneer, so to speak, like younger people are. I do hope something can happen, not sure what.

WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?

BW: I don’t think so. There’s a lot more to say, I think I pretty much said- for my part. It remains a big mystery to me as to what will happen with the city and the area. You need- it’s just so sprawling, and you need, again, public transportation that goes tri-county. And there seems to be just so much opposition to that, with the racist undertone, of course. And something has to happen. Don’t know if the younger generation, millennials, getting empowered. Don’t know if that’ll happen. Still too many old people, their old ways. I’m sorry, I’m obviously looking at two young people [laughs].

WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today, I greatly appreciate it.

BW: You’re very welcome!

Original Format



29min 15sec


William Winkel


Barbara Williams


Macomb, MI




“Barbara Williams,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed January 25, 2022,

Output Formats