Melvin Dismukes, August 3rd, 2017
WW: Hello, today is August 3, 2017. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I am in Detroit, Michigan, and I am sitting down with Melvin Dismukes. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
MD: No problem, glad to be here.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when you were born?
MD: My name is Melvin Dismukes, born in Birmingham, Alabama, 1942. Nice area that we set up right across from Vulcan there in Alabama, and I think the little area down below us was called Homewood. I was there until I moved here in 1948.
WW: What made your family come north?
MD: Things in Alabama was getting a little rough. I was always a little kid, there was very friendly, you know, got along with everybody. The area we lived in was on a hill, and I went down in the little bottom valley there and always played with the kids down there. The kids back in the forties, they were all white. Some people didn't appreciate me being there in the area, so most of the time after visiting some of the kids and their parents, right down to having dinner with some of them, I would get chased back up the hill to where I stayed at by some of the white teenagers that was in the area. They’d chase us up – they’d chase me up, at least – with a BB gun, and when I whistled and the cousins heard me coming back up the hill and knew what was happening, they got chased back down the hill with rocks. I had a cousin, he could knock the head right off a chicken. If Uncle Walt would come out and say, “I want that chicken right there,” and Johnny would throw a rock and hit that chicken right square in the head with the rock, that’s what we had for dinner, the chicken. [laughter]
WW: So, when you came up, came to the North, did you settle in Detroit?
MD: We settled in Detroit, not far from here. It was called Adelaide Street, right here at Woodward Avenue and Adelaide, and we were right off of John R, or we lived between John R and Brush. Big apartment building, I think we stayed on the fifth floor, and must have had about four bedrooms in the one unit that we stayed in. Real nice, real nice area, right across Hastings Street was the elementary school called Bishop, I went to Bishop Junior High School there for a while, until we moved from that area, but real nice neighborhood. We walked up to Woodward Avenue, we had every movie theater you could think of was up there, the Rialto, the Fox, and Colonial, all of them was there, and we’d go to the movies on the weekend, was basically what we did as kids, and right around the corner there on John R was a Chinese restaurant that we always, every weekend we definitely went in and shrimp fried rice and shrimp and stuff from the Chinese restaurant. So that area was beautiful, real nice, real nice area to live in. After that, we had maybe four families living in that apartment building, and everybody was moving in from Alabama, we had some people that moved in from Chicago, and then after we started getting established, we moved to the east side of Detroit. I moved to the east side of Detroit, where we lived on Baldwin Street. Baldwin was right off of Canfield, the next busy street would have been Mack Avenue. Went to, I think it was Myra Jones was the elementary school that I was in, I was still in elementary school, stayed there for quite a while, my mother and my other siblings, they moved to the Jeffries Projects, I stayed there with my grandmother, which I was in junior high school by the end, I went to Barbara Junior High School. One night, I ended up getting into a little hassle with some teenagers that had jumped one of my cousins. No one got hurt or nothing, but it was just a fact that a black kid fighting with some white kids creates problems, so when the police came through, they made a report on it, I don’t think there’s anything showing that it was a report made up on it, but they did tell my grandmother that I would have to move and stay with my mother; I couldn't stay there with her, cause she couldn't handle me, which I don’t understand that, because at the time while I stayed there with my grandmother, I worked at a little grocery store right there, Canfield and Townsend, had been working at that grocery store since I was about ten years old, packing groceries, stocking the shelves for them, so I was really no problem. I never got in any trouble as a kid, not much. After the police insisted that I move with my mother, I went over the stay with my mother at the Jeffries Projects as a teenager. By then, I had left Barbara Junior High, went to Jefferson Junior High, which was over there, right off of John C. Lodge and Selden. Went to Jefferson Junior High while I was there. I always was doing some type of work, always doing some type of work. Now I knew staying with my mother, I was told that if I wanted to continue to work, nobody in the neighborhood could know that I was working, because they were on set income, so if they income changed, they could either get thrown out or go up on the rent, which she couldn’t afford, so most of the time when I left the house, I was known as the preacher, because I was always dressed nice, I carried a little leather briefcase, and when people would ask me, “Where are you going?” I said, “On the way to church.” And every once in a while, I would give them a little scripture from the Bible, because as a kid I was a Jehovah’s Witness, which we sold Watchtower and Wait magazines and Bibles, right there at Hastings and Vernor Highway, that was before I-75 went through. So, I would give them a few scriptures, they never paid attention to it, so I would go to work. Worked at a little supermarket, I worked helping out there at the church, and would come home. Later in my life, still staying at the same place, I started running teenage dances at the little elementary schools; I ran the teenage dances there. Not long after that they built Wigle Recreation Center, so we moved from the elementary school to Wigle Recreation Center, where I ran teenage dances, roller skating, and we also handled basketball and baseball right there at Wigle, working with Miss Williams and Mr. Jackson, and we had another younger parks and recreation worker named Mr. Lee, and the people were very instrumental in keeping me straight and narrow. If I had any problems, as far as for fighting, because I was known as the preacher, they said, “You shouldn’t be fighting.” I had Willie Horton, your baseball player, he didn’t live in the Jeffries Projects, but he was always over there, and whenever we had teenage dances he was usually in the area, so if we had any problems with fights and they want to get them broke up, he just went out to the back and I whistled, and then I get Willie, Willie Horton, another kid named Herman Lee Winder, they would come over and break up any fights that we may have there. “You shouldn’t be fighting, Preacher,” so that’s pretty much it. After working with the baseball, I had a girls’ baseball team that I worked with, a boys’ baseball team, and I even worked with the basketball, some of the students there for basketball, even co-ed basketball, we had that also at the time, boxing, had taken boxing in the basement at Wigle Recreation Center, Emanuel Steward taught me to box, Willie Horton also boxed, but I was never a boxer because I kind of grew up with the judo, so if you punch me in the nose enough and I see blood, naturally would throw you and then start pounding on you, so that was pretty much it as to there. After leaving the Jeffries Projects, after leaving Jefferson Junior High School, I went to Northwestern High School, and I was at Northwestern for probably not even a year before one of my counselors, H.P. Brown, claimed that he had seen me cut in through one of the doors – we had a tunnel we had to go through to the lunchroom – he claimed he’d seen me cut in through that tunnel, and kicked me out of school, out of Northwestern, so I went from Northwestern to Chadsey, went over to Chadsey, where it threw me way behind when I went to Chadsey. Pretty nice, I’d taken mechanical drawing, I’d taken a workshop, so you learn pretty much a trade that time at Chadsey, and Chadsey was still the same way as Northwestern, kind of a mixed school. But at Chadsey, we’d taken driver’s training, I remember one of the kids, Speedy, Speedy and I had taken driver’s training at the same time, our driver’s training instructor, Mr. Dobie, also taught driver’s training, can’t remember which school it was at, one of the schools in the area, but he also did the mechanical drawings, so we worked with him, and as teenagers he would let us drive from school to school under his supervision, and so we always enjoyed that, really, really nice there. Some of their football players, Heywood, I can’t remember what his name was now, but Heywood was one of these guys that would take swimming with me, and he would take people and throw them into the pool all the time. So, one day he threw me into the pool – I can’t swim – so when I finally got out of the pool, he must have had me by a hundred and fifty pounds, because he was a big football player, I threw him into the pool, and he was struggling to get out of the pool. We finally got him out of the pool, and he said, “Man, why did you do that?” I said, “Why are you always throwing people in?” He said, “It’s just being fun, just being fun.” I said, “Well, it wasn’t fun to me,” because I can’t swim, and neither could he. After that, we became super nice friends, and they had a game there at Chadsey, always taking the new students, taking money from them. One day, we’re walking down the hallway, and one of the stilettos, there was the stilettos that was there, one of the stilettos popped a knife on me and wanted my lunch money. He had asked me for some more lunch money and I refused, and that’s when he popped the knife, and I took the knife from him and slapped him in the head with it, and then closed the knife back up. I was also into karate, judo, disarming people, and I guess he went and got a few of his friends, they come back and I guess they all was going to jump me, and one of the guys in the gang with him, I can’t remember what his name was now, he was a young white guy that went to Jefferson Junior High School with me, he said “Man, are you crazy,” he told all the guys, he said, “that’s the Preacher, you don’t mess with the preacher.” [laughter] That’s pretty much how my life went. Wherever I went, most of the people didn’t want to mess with me, because if they ever fought me, they knew that they were in for a fight. I never wanted to fight people, I was always a super nice guy, so that’s pretty much it as a junior high school. Volunteer work at the recreation center, there’s a write-up in the Michigan Chronicle about it, and I think Danielle, one of the book writers, she’s going to try to get me the information as to where I can go, I would like to get that article, I lost the article through the years.
WW: Are you talking about Professor McGuire? Danielle McGuire?
WW: We’re going to backtrack a little bit, ask you some questions to fill in the gaps. When you first came to the city, what was your first impression?
MD: My impression of the city was one beautiful place. It was definitely much better than the dirty red clay and the dust of Alabama. We didn’t have sidewalks like what they had here, the sidewalks and the walking the street and your merchants. The merchants was all super, super nice, there was a little bit, little hint of prejudice that just depended on where you went, and then at that age, you figured, you know, if it’s going to cause a problem to go into a place, you don’t even bother to go there, and I think that was mostly when I was in the Jeffries Projects, was where you were seeing the problems, because Third Street was a redneck area, and it just was a whole lot of restaurants and bars that would have the undesirables hung around outside, and they would create problems for the black kids that walk through, but other than that, I always thought Detroit was beautiful. The beautiful stores, the merchandise sitting outside the store, completely different than what I was used to.
WW: When you came north, were you expecting to face racism as you did in the South?
MD: Not really. The racism that we’d seen in the South was completely different than here. You see the racism in the South during the night. That’s when your KKK came out and you had the little nasty things. Most of the time during the day, they were always super nice. When I left Alabama, I guess they had a shooting on top of the hill, where the KKK had came up and decided to burn a cross on one of the houses up there at the top of the hill, and I guess the people in that area had had enough of it, and they opened fire on the KKK, and left a few of them up there on the hill until the FBI got up there that afternoon to unveil some of these bodies, and to show you the difference in it, one of the grocery store owners was one of the bodies that was there, along with a couple of the policemen that was there, and these policemen were always super nice to us during the day, you know. The grocery store owner would give us candy and pat you on the head all time, which none of us really liked, but then to find out that they were involved with the KKK, it was kind of hard to accept. But here in Detroit, it was just open. You go into a restaurant, and you could tell right away when you walked in that they didn’t want you there, you know, right down to if they served you anything, they would end up breaking the dishes when they went back to the kitchen and stuff like that. Other than that, it’s a big difference, big difference.
WW: Did you have any more run-ins with the Detroit Police Department after they said that you should leave your grandmother’s house?
MD: No, the next time I had a run-in with them would have been at Wigle Recreation Center. While we were there at Wigle, I walked in one day and the Big Four was there. Big Four harassed all of the kids in the neighborhood. They didn’t bother me because really, I was no threat to them. I didn’t get smart with them, I didn’t try to run from them, went about my business, so anyway, after walking into the Recreation Center, they were beating one of the young kids. Rotation Slim was beating the kid, and it was Rotation Slim because he had one kid glove that he put on when he decided that he wanted to whoop somebody. So, I asked him, “What’s going on?” He said, “This little shit,” which he didn’t say shit, he used the n-word, “is going to tell me what his name is.” I said his name is [Owatonna ?]. He said, “that’s what the little shit’s been trying to tell me.” That’s his name, [Owatonna]. So [Owatonna] had been telling him all that time that that was his name, but he never wanted to believe it, because [Owatonna] was a real light-skinned kid, but he was part Indian, and that was his name, [Owatonna]. Other than that, I never had any run-ins with them until ’67, that’s it.
WW: As you’re growing up throughout the 1950s and early sixties, are you picking up on changes that are going on in the city, as in like regarding the Civil Rights movement or anything else?
MD: Picking up on the civil rights movement, which really as a young teenager didn’t bother me that much. I did walk with Martin Luther King when he was here, which we had to, the ministers constantly told us, you got to be able to turn the other cheek if you’re going to go out there. And we just made a joke of it. Yep, you can only hit me twice, I’ll turn the other cheek, and after you hit that, I don’t know what’s going to end up happening. But you know, we went through it, it was all peaceful demonstrations, and the only problem we had I think was when we got downtown, close to Cobo Hall, we had a few people that was on the sidelines that was harassing us as we were going down, and it was kind of surprising to me that one of the motorcycle policemen, white guy, that was on the side. He read these guys the riot act, you know, which calmed them down right away, which some of the other areas which you had went through was like the policemen didn’t care. You know, they’d just sit back and let the people do whatever they want to do, as long as they didn’t come out and physically try to hurt someone. That’s pretty much it.
WW: Where did you go to high school?
MD: Went to Chadsey.
WW: After you graduated from high school, did you stay in the city?
MD: Yes, I still continued to stay in the city. I didn’t move out of the city until after the riots. I was working for a company called Miami Patio Stones; we made patio stones. The business actually started in our garage when we lived on Baldwin, and now they have a big business over on Shoemaker Street, so that’s where I was working, making $1.75 an hour. Good money. I always had, I think, a check each week, ran about $175, and I always $200 or $300 dollars on me as a kid, until one day, a guy came down from a construction company, and he said, “I see you here, you’re a pretty hard worker.” He said, “Why don’t you come down to Kaufmann and work with them?” I said okay, because things were beginning to slow up there for the summer, so I went down to Kaufmann, WJC Kaufmann, applied for the job, they give me the job, and I worked there. My first week after receiving my check, I went to the guys, said, “Wait a minute, you must have made a mistake on my check.” He says, “What do you mean?” I said, “Look at this, this check is over $500.” He said, “What do you expect, you’re making five dollars an hour.” I said, “Nobody pay five dollars an hour,” at that time, you know, cause every job I had worked on, I worked at Miami Patio Stones, a $1.75, worked at Boulevard General Hospital, they were only $1.50, one of my aunts got me the job there. So, it was just surprising to get paid that amount of money for what you were doing. While working there, I was on the job one day and they were welding anchors on a concrete angle iron so they could build, in the factories they always used the angle irons along the concrete, so they were building these things and they had most of the white guys that was there was trying to weld them. Our foreman Corky, Corky would come through with a sledgehammer and knock them off, so being the only black guy there, I’m laughing at them, and Corky come over. “What the hell are you laughing at?” I said, “I can’t believe they can’t weld that.” “Can you weld?” I said, “Yes, I can weld.” So, I went over, I welded the anchors on, he couldn't break them off. “Where in the hell you learn to weld at?” I said, “I did go to school, you know, Corky.” And after that, I became a welder, which pushed me into eventually going down and being certified. They sent all of the white welders down to be certified. Jim Folly, which was a mason that was very instrumental all the way through my life, Jim Folly came into the shop, and I was the only one working. He said, “What are you doing working?” I said, “Because nobody else showed up, so I’m working.” “They didn’t tell you what other guys went to.” I said, “No, nobody told me anything.” “You’re supposed to be downtown taking a test for certification as a certified welder.” I said, “Nobody mentioned it.” So Jim went upstairs and raised hell about it, and then the next day I went down taking the test as a certified welder. Passed the test, passed the welding test, the whole bit. At that time, that would have been back in the late fifties, there were only two Negroes in the whole state of Michigan that was certified as welders. I did iron work by Fabricated Steel, I went out to some jobs and I set steel. As long as I was in an area where nobody, none of the iron workers would see what we were doing, because they wouldn’t allow me to join the union. So after working about 13 years as a laborer getting iron worker’s rate, they told me, “Mel, you can join the union if you want to now.” I said, “Oh, they opened it up.” He said yeah. I said, “So what do I have to do?” “You have to take a pay cut from $15 and something an hour down to $5.50 for three years as an apprentice.” I said, “Are you kidding?” He said, “Yeah, that’s the way it go in the union.” I said, “I quit,” so I finally quit after that. So I worked for Sears, Roebuck, and Co., I worked for Sears at that time too, as a part time security agent, which I became a manager, I was manager with Sears, security manager for Sears for about 20 years, worked as a private investigator for about 13, 14 years with a company that we did mostly insurance fraud cases. The owner of the company, Jack, I can’t remember Jack’s last name, we had an expense account. I never used mine; I just did my work, because I didn’t have time to use the expense account because of working two or three jobs, so I would get my job done, and boom, back home to get some rest to get to the next job. One day, I guess Jack decided to use my expense account. We had a case that was going down in Monroe where I had to wine and dine one of the guys that we were investigating, had to wine and dine his sister to get information as to where he was working at. Found out he was working up at Kellogg Steel or someplace up in Chicago, so I got all that information, so I used the expense account, which threw him off, since I never used it, he used it, which threw him in the red on his account, so we had a big argument about it, and I quit. In the meantime, a bit prior to that, he was always asking me to become a partner with him, but every time you ask him about partnership, I said, “Okay, let me get an attorney to come in to look at your paperwork, and we’ll go from there.” He never could find the time, but we went to different places and we were able to get contracts with some of these places, and after that I had quit, and then finally I got a call back from him and he wanted me to come in to talk to him about starting back to work. I went in to work there to talk to him, secretary told me, “Only reason he wants you back here is because all of those places that you guys went to, he introduced you as a partner, so all the paperwork was sent back to you, it wasn’t sent back to him, because they wanted to deal with a minority on it.” So, he ended up losing a whole lot of those contracts because of it being that way.
WW: We’re going to backtrack a bit. You like, launched forward on me.
MD: [laughter] Sorry.
WW: Not a problem. Where were you working in ’67?
MD: ’67, I was working for WJC Kaufmann Construction Company, I was doing private investigation work, and I also worked for State Private Patrol, that’s the private police outfit. We patrolled Highland Park, we had a section of Highland Park, which was a real classy area at that time, whole lot of doctors and lawyers lived there. Our scout car that we drove was given to us by the Highland Park Police Department, because they appreciated us working in the area, saving them a whole lot of trouble. We also ran a scout car in what we called Conant Gardens, which was a very affluent area at that time, doctors and lawyers. Won’t believe it now when you look at it, but we patrolled a scout car there, and any time we had a problem in the area, Detroit never came into that area, unless we called for them, or if they looked down the street from Seven Mile and see our flasher going. If our flasher’s going, then they come down. But during the night, say from six o’clock on, you never see a Detroit car in that area unless we call for them. That was basically where I worked at then. Stayed pretty busy.
WW: So going into the week, well, going into that summer really, did you anticipate any outbreak of violence or anything coming?
MD: Yes. I worked at one of the supermarkets that we worked at private security also, Lenny’s Supermarket. Lenny’s Supermarket was located on Fourteenth Street and Davison. Right behind Lenny’s was a house that a whole lot of Black Panthers lived in that house. I was the only security agent that was working in that store that would stop the Black Panthers from doing anything. They would always say, “You’re just being an Uncle Tom. The other guy doesn't bother to stop us.” They’d come in, just pick up merchandise, and walk out. I said, “You’re not going to do that as long as I’m working here.” So I was constantly getting into fights with them, and I told Mr. Davis just prior to the riots, I said, “I can’t work in this store if I’m working by myself. I need somebody to cover my back.” And I couldn't get anyone else to come into the store and work with me, they can only afford one person in the room, in that store, but I did find out, because I used to do collections, and I told him, I said, “You know, you can put two people in here.” At the time, he was only paying us six dollars an hour, six dollars and fifty cents an hour. I said, “I’ve done the collections, and you’re making over $15 a person for working this store, so you can afford to put another person in there.” But he never would do it, so I had quit, and the Sunday prior to the riot, if you want to go forward, the Sunday prior to the riot, I had already quit that Friday or Saturday I’d quit that, and I’m sitting at home and sitting out on the front porch, and watching the neighbors keep carrying stuff into the house. “Damn,” I said, “they must have a sale going someplace on merchandise, because these guys are constantly coming in with merchandise.” Even with new cars, they pulled up in front of the house with new cars. And I finally got a phone call, I think it probably had to be about one o’clock, Mr. Davis called me and asked, “We need you to work tonight.” He said it’s a riot that broke out. I said, “I quit, I’m not working for you any longer.” And he said, “We’re part of the civil defense and we need every man that we can get, and we need you out there to work.” I said, “Okay, fine.” So, I got dressed and I drove into the Lenny’s Supermarket that was located over on Woodward Avenue, one block up from Virginia Park, I can’t remember what the name of the street is now, but I decided to work there, where I worked with two other officers that was there, I was a sergeant on outfit, so I was pretty much in charge. That night, the National Guard moved into the Great Lakes Building, which was across the street. Great Lakes Building at that time was a whole lot of offices, and they manufactured a whole lot of drugs in that building, so they had to make sure that they protected and made sure nobody broke into it and stole anything. First day went fine, second day, you know, went fine. We got a few curfew violators. You would call for curfew violators to get picked up if you got them. I think it was Monday, one of the lieutenants came through and asked me do I know anything about the bodies in the building up on Woodward Avenue and the Boulevard. And I didn’t know anything about it at the time, but then I started thinking, all the curfew violators were being booked at Belle Isle. I had one guy that we had stopped that took a gun off of him that was parked, it would have been north of the Great Lakes Building. I took the gun off the guy, we got into a little fight there, I had him handcuffed waiting for a scout car to pick him up. The first police officer that came there to pick him up, I’d run into the guy before but not like this. The police officer that came to pick him up had a shotgun. He’d taken a shotgun and shoved it in this kid’s mouth because the kid kept running off at the mouth. Knocked his teeth out, didn’t shoot him or nothing, just knocked his teeth out, and I made mention to him, “You know, he’s already handcuffed.” He said, “He’s going to learn a lesson.” You know, so I just left it alone. I’m private; he’s police. They take the curfew violators away, and thinking back at it, they were back in less than ten minutes in the area again. Later on that night, we stopped about six guys that was headed in from John R, this is after the curfew time. National Guard had him stopped there, and they were giving the National Guard a hard time, so I stepped out the store, and when I walked out the store, they began to call me a few names. One of the guys I was a little suspicious of because he’s wearing a jacket, and it was hot, you know, and finally the guy reached back, to the back of him, and I charged the guy and hit him and knocked the gun out of his hand, so that’s another one we caught with a gun. And right after that, I found out that the National Guard didn’t even have bullets in their guns anyway. They didn’t get bullets until Wednesday. So, with that incident, and same guy came to pick this curfew violator up, and he’d come right out the car, already policeman’s standing there, they’re not doing nothing, but when he pulled up in this car, he got out of the car, [imitates pow sound] right in the guy’s face with the shotgun, with the barrel of the shotgun, and began beating up the guy. I said, “You know what? This is not necessary. The guy’s already handcuffed, he’s no problem.” And same thing. “They’re going to learn that they’re going to have to just learn a lesson right here. They’re not supposed to be out here.” Left, same thing, back in less than ten minutes, and that’s when it started dawning on me. I said, “I am not sending any curfew violators in, because I know something is happening,” especially after the lieutenant talking about the bodies. That’s probably where all these kids are ending up at, in the basement, shot. So, I stopped sending curfew violators in, I started making people walk down the center of Woodward Avenue, when you get to your street, put your hands on your head. If you’re arrogant and wanted to be a real a--, then I made you take your shoes off, put your shoes on top of your head, and they walked till they got to their street. I said, “Once you get to your street, turn and go down your street, nobody’s going to bother you.” And the lieutenant said the same thing, he praised me for doing that. He said, “None of the guys were stopped, they just let them go, because they had their hands on their head.”
That Tuesday was when I was inside making myself a Salisbury steak like we normally ate when we were there. Put it on the warmer and made up the steak, and one of the guys came in and said that someone had shot at him. I went outside to find out what had happened. After getting outside there, you could hear gunfire coming from the area of the Algiers, Virginia Park area. National Guard showed up over there to find out what had happened on the corner, and they heard the shots also, so we started headed toward the Algiers, the other two guys that was working with me stayed at the store because we had to protect the store, needed somebody there. Went across the street to the Algiers, gunfire was still coming from the building, lots of gunfire, we couldn't tell where the gunfire was really coming from. One of the policemen that was in the area with us told us to take out the streetlights. I would say I had a rifle, I didn’t have a shotgun, so the guys with the shotgun took out the streetlights. I had one guy what I thought was a sniper, because I’d seen a flash from a window in the Algiers, it was up on, I think it was the second floor. I fired at that guy, I missed the guy, that’s the only shot I fired during the whole riot, second shot I fired with the rifle. Prior to that, I fired my first day on the job on Sunday, I fired the rifle to get some people off the streets, you know, and they wouldn't move, and they wanted to play the honky town thing, so fired the gun, the gun had never been fired before, so the barrel was full of oil, and when it went off, and there’s this dust you get flames coming out of it, and they hollered, “He’s got a flamethrower,” so they all turned around and started running. So, getting back to the Algiers, after shooting at the guy, the guy ducked, and didn’t have to fire my gun anymore after that. By the time I got into the hotel, I came in through the back door, I think one Officer Thomas from the National Guard must have went in from the front door, because I went in through the back door and I was the only one walking in. It was kind of like a maze when you walked in, you walked in through one doorway into a little room, then you went off to the side, you walked into another room, and then you went back to the other side, two, three more rooms until I finally got there, and it was dark in the rooms, no lights was on. After I got to the third room, that’s where I encountered one young man lying face-down with a knife close to his hand. Looking at his body, you could tell that all of this was blown away. There’s bone matter next to his body, and looked like the blood was already beginning to congeal, so that guy had been there for a while. My judgment at the time, I had been there for a while. After walking into the lobby, one of the policemen that was standing there, I asked him, I said, “What did he do? Try to cut someone?” And the police officer that was there, can’t remember who it was, he said, “Sarge, take a look in the back room,” so I walked into the back room. Before we get to the back room, the knife part was something which when you first started working security, and even some of the policemen was probably told the same, if you accidentally shot someone, make sure you had a pocketknife to drop it, so that was a thing when I thought about I’d seen, seeing the pocketknife, because they kind of smiled when I said it, and the guy said, “Sarge, take a look in the back room.” After getting into and going around the lobby, which people was already lined up in the lobby, what they were asking where was the guns, I walked past them, went around to the back room, and when I walked into the back room, there was one body, a teenager I’m assuming, there, and the teenager looked like he was sitting all the way at the back wall watching television, sitting at the side of the bed, and someone walked in shot him three times, boom boom boom, I assume with a .38. Went back out into the lobby after seeing that, I found out later that that guy was still alive, but I didn’t know that at the time, I walked back out into the lobby where they were questioning everyone about where are the guns. The two girls that was there, one of the girl’s dress was already ripped, so I don't know when that all happened, it was that way when I walked in the lobby. I had a confrontation with one of the guys there in the lobby, where I asked him to calm down, you know, just calm down so we can get out of this stuff. So eventually we end up, myself and one of the officers, Officer [Robert] Paille, we went upstairs, and they tell me with one of the guys from the wall went also, we went upstairs and searched the different rooms on the second floor and the third floor trying to find guns. Never was able to find anything. Went back downstairs and the officer that was in charge that was doing most of the telling of the other officers what they wanted to do, I told him, I said, “You know, there was no guns up there.” “Well, they’re going to tell us where the guns are at before we leave here.” I was in the lobby for a little while while that was going on, real violent. They had mentioned something about a broken shotgun, I never did see a broken shotgun there, never seen that, but while I was there, a shot rang out from outside, so that gave me an opportunity to leave the lobby, because it was a little uncomfortable for me, the things that was going on there. You know, they never used the n-word while I was there, you know, but you could hear it when you were upstairs, but once you got down to the lobby, things kind of calmed down a little bit when I walked down to the lobby. I left the building along with some of the National Guard, and we went to a home probably about three doors down from the annex of the Algiers, where the State Police had caught the sniper that was out there shooting, and they were dragging him out, and they drug him out, and dropped him on the lawn right in front of the house, so that the coroner would be able to pick up this kid real easy. So State Police must have got another call, because they all jumped in the car and took off right away. We turned, the National Guard and myself, we turned and headed back up toward the Algiers. Before we could get back up that way, gunfire broke out coming from Woodward Avenue coming toward us. We could tell it was coming toward us because we hit the ground, bullets were flying all around us. We melted, my little big ass shrinked four inches, you know, to try to keep from getting hit. Finally the gunfire stopped. We headed up toward Woodward Avenue, still looking, trying to see who’s doing the shooting. When we got up there, the only people there was the policemen that was standing in front of the Algiers, and asked them, “Who was doing the shooting?” They said they came out to try to find out who was doing the shooting. There was nobody there in the area but them, so someone from the Detroit Police Department did shoot at us that night, probably trying to take one Officer Thomas and I out because we may have seen too much happening in the building. Headed back toward the building, a gunshot I heard from inside of the building. Once I got back to the Algiers and talked to them about who was doing the shooting, I tried to reenter the building. They prevented me from reentering the building by every time I headed toward the door, one of the policemen or two of them would step in front of me blocking my pathway to get back into the building. So I finally seen what was happening, I said, “Okay, fine.” So we’d taken the two girls that was at there—
WW: Who’s we?
MD: One Officer Thomas and I, taking the two girls back over to their apartment, to where they were staying at in the main section of the Algiers, which would have been where the swimming pool and the dancing and all that other stuff was going on, and then we left and went on back, he went back to the Great Lakes Building, I went back to the store, and the next day—
WW: Not there yet, sorry. What condition were the girls in by the time you got them out of the hallway?
MD: One of the girls had blood on her head, which she had been cut, and her top was ripped, she had, I don’t know what kind of tank-like top, I guess that was ripped, and she’s trying to hold her clothes up on her, and the cut on her head, I don’t know how she got the cut on her head, it was that way when I first walked into the building, so other than that, they were just shocked as to having to go through all they went through, and we told them, they wanted to know whether they would be safe there. “You’re safe here, nobody’s going to come over here and bother you.” And like I said, went on back to my job, and the next day was when I found out. Next day—
WW: Not there yet. A couple more quick follow up questions. You mentioned that everyone was in the hallway by the time you entered the building. How long did you wait before you entered the Algiers?
MD: I would say within, from the time that I left the store, I would say that I was probably in the Algiers within 15 minutes from the shootings.
WW: Why did you leave the store?
MD: I left the store because the initial shots was at one of my men, and I wanted to try to find out who was shooting at him, and then getting up with the National Guard, and everybody was moving that way also to try to find out who’s doing the shooting.
WW: Okay, you can go to the next day.
MD: The next day, one of the lieutenants came through, and I think it was the same one that I always talked to during the night, and he asked did we know anything about the three bodies in the Algiers, and I said, “Three bodies?” I said, “I was there,” I said, “but there was only two bodies in the building.” And he said, “Oh no, it’s three bodies in there,” and then I started counting, I said, “I remember it was seven men and the two girls, and I did see the two girls go back to their apartment, and I could have sworn I’d seen seven guys, so I don’t know where the other body came from,” so that was pretty much it.
And later, I ended up getting called to go down to the police department and talk to them about it, so I’m thinking, okay, that’s nothing, just going to go down and tell them that all I seen was two bodies, I don’t know where the third body came from. So got down there, and one of the guys, the sergeant, Clifton Casey, was a sergeant I had worked with in the Tenth Precinct when I worked at the Twelfth Street Lenny’s Supermarket. I used to go down with him and his partner, his partner [unintelligible], shorter than Casey, and whenever we go down to the city on shoplifters there’s someone have to go and pick up the warrants. It’s not my job to pick up the warrants, but since Clifton Casey and his partner was always busy with the other young females that’s down at the courthouse, I always picked up the warrants, and when they finally got to court for the case, I had the warrants and everything for them. But after meeting Clifton Casey this night after the riots, he doesn't even know me. He don't know who I am, so I asked him could I make a phone call, I made a phone call, called my family to let them know where I was at, and I would be there in a little while. Later on during all of the interrogation with him about the three bodies there in the building, he’d tell me that they want me to stay until the FBI get there the following morning, they wanted to talk to me. I said, “Okay, fine.” So he had told one of the officers to book him and take him upstairs. One of the white sergeants that was there, he said, “What do you mean? You probably got prisoners up there when this guy is sent in, and he’s not going to go up there in lockup with those prisoners.” And I told him, I said, “Well, I’d like to make a phone call and try to get an attorney in here.” “Well, you made your phone call.” I said, “I didn't know that I was being charged for first-degree murder for three people.” That’s when I found it out. And the one sergeant, the white guy, he told me, “This is my f-ing desk, you sit here, you call whoever you have to call.” He said, “To hell with them, cause they’re trying to railroad you.” So I called my mother, and my mother got in touch with John Ira Jones. John Ira Jones was an attorney that handled all of the church affairs at St. John’s Church at Woodward Avenue and 75, so he was able to get in touch with a criminal attorney to come down to try to get me out of this. The next morning – I never went up to a cell, probably before daybreak, they sent me to the Fifteenth Precinct, which was Conner and Gratiot Avenue, sent me over there, where I went through the real hard interrogation. You had the guys really being total assholes, the way that they were acting, trying to get me to admit that I had killed the three teenagers that was there. Namely, he said, “Well, you carry a .38.” “Yes, I carry a .38. Everybody in there carried a .38.” At that time, the police issue was .38, so everybody carried a .38, and I never would admit to doing this. In the meantime, my attorney is trying to get to me, this had to be probably between eight and ten o’clock, they moved me from the Fifteenth Precinct to the Fifth Precinct, which was located over on Jefferson, pretty close to Conner, probably about eight blocks down from Conner, near the Jefferson plant over there, where they went through the same thing, the interrogation, I think that was the first time that I met anyone from the FBI was there at the Fifth Precinct, same thing, trying to get me to admit to killing the boys that was there, and I wouldn't admit to anything. I guess by then my attorney had finally tracked me down, and they had no choice but to take me down to 1300 Beaubien to the courthouse, where I was arraigned for first-degree murder.
Before they could start the arraignment, one of the prosecutors from upstairs came down, and he said, “Dismukes,” he said, “I want to put the name with the face,” and he told the judge that was there on the case, he said, “Your honor, there’s no way that I am going to pursue this case,” said, “I can go to my office and find records where this man should have killed the people that he found, that he brought in, they should have never let him get to the station, period, and now you’re going to tell me he killed three people for nothing.” He said, “No way. We’re not going to pursue this case,” so they dropped it. The prosecutor that was handling the case said that they had other charges against me. The charges they came up with a couple of days later was assault, assault on one of the boys, the one boy that I tried to calm down in the lobby, I guess now he’s charging me with assaulting him. I did hit him in the back, not the back of the head, I hit him in the back with the butt of the rifle, just pushed him back up against the wall to stop him from turning around and making it harder for himself. So after going to court on that to listen to all of the charges against me for the assault charge, I couldn't believe the stuff that I was supposed to have done to this young man, and I’m telling my attorney the same thing, and the doctor, they had a doctor, came in and testified that if he had been hit they way that he claimed that he was hit, and my rifle had a cushion on it, it wouldn’t have really hurt him that bad, so after the attorney talked to him for a while, and the attorney just told him, said, “Okay, we have no further questions of this doctor.” The doctor got off the stand and started heading out of the court, and he told him, “But Your Honor, I reserve the right to have him to sit in the lobby until I need to call him back to the stand again.” And the doctor had to sit there for two days before he called him back in. In the meantime, he talked to all the witnesses that supposedly was testifying against me, I had people that wasn’t in the Algiers, but yet they’d seen me the next day, and they claimed that my knuckles was all bloody from beating up people, et cetera. My knuckles was not bloody. After calling the doctor back to the stand, after a couple of days, my attorney told him, “So well seeing that no one wants to introduce the rifle that my client was carrying, I’m going to introduce the rifle.” So he’d taken the rifle out of evidence and taken it over near the jury stand, where the jury was sitting, and he’d taken it and dropped it on the little pedestal there, he just dropped the rifle on the pedestal, and the rifle sounded like a rock hitting the counter. Even the jury was startled when he did it, and the doctor kind of looked up kind of funny, and he asked the doctor again, he said, “Do you want to give your testimony again, as to you said your client wouldn’t have had that severe of a bruise if the rifle hadn’t had a cushion?” And he had the doctor feel the cushion? And the doctor felt the cushion, began to sweat, that part I had to laugh at because he was sweating so bad, and then the doctor changed his whole story. He said yes, if the young man was hit the way he claimed he was hit by me, his head would have ended up into the wall, which would have had damage from the front of the head and from the back of the head. I weighed 225 pounds, his head was six inches from not concrete, it was kind of a tile wall, but there was a heavy tile wall, all the old buildings had that in it, so there was no way that his head wouldn’t have hit that wall if I had hit him as hard as he was hit. The jury, once out, less than 15 minutes they were back with the verdict of not guilty on it, and we went from that to the conspiracy trials: conspiracy to violate people’s rights, conspiracy to murder, all of that, and it’s just hard to sit there with three policemen that you know was guilty of doing something there in the hotel, which they, [David] Senak, [Ronald] August, and Paille, they kind of admitted what happened in the building. So that was when I’d seen my first trial, the conspiracy trial, was the first time I’d seen pictures of the bodies, and that aggravated me even more, because the young man that I’d seen in that room was in the corner, like I said, shot three times. Now this young man has been drug from that corner to the foot of the bed, his body is flipped over, all of his chest is blown away to hide the fact, which they admitted in the back chambers that Ronald August shot this guy, so that must have been the first guy to run all his shots was with this .38. He thought that they were joking, and he went back there and actually, he thought they was serious about shooting the people, and he went back there and shot him. I kind of felt sorry for him a little bit, but then after seeing the way they mutilated that kid’s body, that was rough. Right next to him at the foot of the bed was the third body. There was only two bodies in that building, in that room, when I was there, so where the third body came from I have no idea, but he had also been shot with a shotgun. Not mutilated like the other, [Carl] Cooper, no, Cooper was the first body.
WW: [Fred] Temple was the body found in the room, and then [Aubrey] Pollard was—
MD: The one that was dropped in later.
WW: Who was killed by August because he didn’t know it was a “game”?
MD: Yeah, so after seeing that, that was when I realized that this was just not right, and then you got to sit there through all of these trials, you know, Mason, Michigan, Flint, Michigan, Detroit, and the federal court with these guys and you know, it’s very uncomfortable to sit there knowing that if they’re found guilty, you’re going to end up going to jail also. In two of the trials, I think it was Mason and also Flint, the jury had asked the prosecutor to take me out of it, if take me out of it, they would give them a verdict. Well, of course they wouldn't do it. Up in Flint, they went completely wild. Avery Weiswasser was the prosecutor there in Flint. Avery got me so mad I wanted to get up and hit him, but they went completely wild on trying to, after the jury asked them that, of trying to connect me to the case. Like I said, they had witnesses came in and these witnesses testified against as to what they had seen me do. I had never seen these people before in my life. When the attorneys was all done with them, we found out that the first time these people had ever seen me was the day that they were there in court, through a seven by eight window from the hallway where they looked in where one of the people from the prosecutor’s office pointed me out to them so that they would be able to come into the courtroom and testify that it was me. That was just a rough part of going through the trials and everything with them. My thing up in Mason, Michigan, they tell me Mason, Michigan was a prejudiced area, said it was a KKK area. I didn’t notice that when I was there. I walked the street, I had no trouble walking the streets, I went to different restaurants there, had no trouble. I had dinner at one of the restaurants right around the end of the trial, some people that I knew, mafia people that came up for the trial, and the last day of the trial they took me there for dinner, we were found not guilty. On the way back to Detroit, I drove the Mustang or something, I don’t know what I was driving now, but anyways, we stopped at the expressway, to enter the expressway to go down, one of the guys that was with me that had taken me to dinner stopped one of the State Policemen and asked him to block the entrance to the expressway for at least 10 minutes, 10 to 15 minutes until we got on the expressway to leave , and I looked at him and said, “You think he’s really going to do that?” He said, “Yeah, they’re going to do it.” So supposedly State Police blocked the exit so that nobody would come down, and the only way anyone could come down behind me, because they kind of feared someone would try to hurt me, on the way nobody could come down behind me, they had to drive a half hour up the other way to get onto the expressway, and we also had the same thing in Flint. The Black Panthers, I’d gotten into a fight with one of the Black Panthers down in the lobby having lunch, and he had said the same thing, he said that if we were found not guilty, they would kill us before we left the courtroom. So when George from the city found out about that, a few guys showed up there in Flint the last day of the trial, and walking down our way along with the federal marshals, and someone bumped me and I just thought that, oh no, this is it, and it turned out that it was Gino and some of the goons from the city, and the federal marshals turned around and they looked at him, these cats were all dressed nice, just like they were, and Gino or one of the other guys that told them, “You’re responsible for those guys; this man is our responsibility.” The marshals never questioned who they were or nothing, they just walked on. I never realized how much power those guys had until then, along with the Masons in Detroit, my case in Detroit where one of the Masons came in, he was there at most of the trials anyway, and he would pretty much tell me what was going to happen before the trial was even done, and then he came and apologized that the jury was taking so long to come back. He said, “They wanted to come back sooner, but they figured they better stay a little longer.” Said they had already made up their mind before the case was even done as to what the verdict was going to be. And then the other cases, like I said, the only verdict they would have got a guilty verdict if they had removed me from the case, and they wouldn’t remove me, so that was it. It just was rough having to go through the trial with them knowing they were guilty, especially Senak. Senak was the policeman that used to pick up the curfew violators and was very brutal with them, so I knew him prior to the Algiers, and then after seeing him there and his attitude continued there the way it did on the street.
WW: Did you continue to stay in Detroit afterwards?
MD: No, I would say within a year I had moved out of Detroit. I first moved out to Clinton Township where I worked at the Sears anyway. There in Clinton Township for a while, then moved from Clinton Township to Auburn Hills, and I retired from Sears, Roebuck, and Co. in 1988, and I was still staying in Auburn Hills. But after retiring from Sears, it was kind of a rough deal at Sears. Sears, I had a whole lot of problems there, racial. When I first went out to Sears, they had told me that I would have problems with the neighborhood people, because it’s a predominantly white area. I never really had a whole lot of trouble with the patrons that came in. My racial problems was in the building. Our store manager Mr. Cumberford, I probably shouldn't even talk about him, but he was a type of manager that, you know, no matter what I did, it wasn't good enough. He would try to compare me to the other stores as to how they’re doing things and how I’m doing things. I wasn't catching enough employees, et cetera, et cetera. My first year there at Sears, they had the personnel director to come in for human resources to talk to me because they said that I was doing nothing but firing minorities when I was there, and we sat down and went through the records of people, because I ain’t had pictures of the people that was fired. They had lost thirty-six employees – I started there in August and lost thirty-six employees by December – so after looking at the record, they found that there was only two minorities there. It was just anything they could do to get me out of the store, because it got to the point to where they were losing people, where they would tell me to watch you because you’re a black guy. Watch him because we think he’s stealing and they have a whole lot of shortages in that department, and I would sit there and watch him and just your mannerism was telling me that you really wasn’t doing anything wrong. So when you left your job, I’m still waiting there for whoever’s relieving you, so I find some way of watching this guy, and this guy just looked very suspicious to me, and then you sit there and you watch the guy. The first thing you do is go to the cash register and you pull money out, go get change and you could tell by the amount of money you pull out, that’s not the amount of change you brought back. And then finally I was able to get this guy to confess to embezzling about $12,000, and turns out that he was the son of one of the auditing managers there in the store, and all the employees that I was busting was employees that was well-known there in the store, very good friends with the store manager and predominantly white, you know, and I would catch them doing something wrong. Well, it would warrant them leaving. If you’re just a regular manager in the store, I can recommend firing you, because I suspend you, and then it’s up to human resources to do it. If you’re a staff member, like I was a staff member, I couldn't do anything to staff members, so any time I found a staff member doing something wrong, you would have to go to the store manager, and in this one case, this one staff member, I had him dead to rights as to what he did, but him and the store manager were real good friends. Somehow overnight, he produced receipts showing that this person had actually paid for the stuff. You know, okay, fine. No ring-up on the receipts, but they produced receipts.
WW: We’re going to backtrack a little bit. Given that you were shown so close to the police officers that were involved at the Algiers, did you receive any pushback from the community?
MD: My pushback from the community was that I was an Uncle Tom. Nobody wanted to believe that I was not guilty of – they believed that I was guilty of everything that the news media or the police department had accused me of. There was lots of threats against me. My mother, I think what saved my brothers and sisters, my siblings, was that my name was Dismukes, their name was Harvey. So, my mother told them never to mention, don’t mention my name, because she was also afraid of the same thing. I didn’t know until a few weeks ago, my mother even changed the way she used to dress. She was wearing kind of like a Muslim getup to hide the fact, because just in case somebody knew her and connected her to me. That was the biggest problem with the community. Nobody wanted to believe it. I did try to go to the Dexter Theater where they had conducted that mock trial of the police officers.
WW: It was going to be at the Dexter Theater, it was moved to the Shrine of Black Madonna.
MD: Okay, and the guys that was there, they told me I better get out of the area. But then I found out later that they didn't try me, they tried the picture of three of us. I was told there was a picture of all four of us there, except they only had the white police officers there, so that was pretty much it.
WW: Did you have any contact with the three Detroit police officers during the trial, or did you just show up to the courtroom together.
MD: We showed up at the courtroom not together, we just happened to be there in the chambers together, you know. And like I said, some of the talking, the first part of the trials, they did a little talking about what happened in the Algiers, but after that, nothing, I think. Everybody was just trying to get through it without being convicted. Paille, I have no idea what Paille did when he was in there, they said he did a few things, but Paille was like the little gentle giant. He was a real tall guy, big guy, but he was the one that was instrumental in going through the building helping me to look for guns, you know, and we wasn't able to find anything. Senak, there was no shock at all to what he did, and even prior to that, I mean, the people, they had admitted that he had killed, you know, yet he has never been charged with anything.
WW: Just a couple quick wrap-up questions. Multiple times throughout this interview you said “riot”. Is that how you view ’67?
MD: Not really. I view it more as a rebellion, because you had both black and white out there looting the stores, and they were all doing it together. I don’t know of any incidents where they had any fights of black on white or white on black, other than the policemen, that was the only one where there would have been the violence. I think it was kind of an equal opportunity for everybody, and then Detroit was like a powder keg at the time. You had a whole lot of the teenagers and adults, also, standing around on the street corners, and they’re out of work, and you could tell that any little thing was going to touch off something. I didn’t expect it to be a rebellion like that, but I thought that any little thing was going to make them mad and we may have problems. That was one of the reasons that I wanted to get out of the work that I was doing, because I could see that with the Panthers. The Panthers, they were just crazy, crazy.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
MD: No, that would be pretty much it. Just 50 years of going through all of this here, I’ve talked to the news media, I’ve constantly, every three to five years, somebody would get in touch with me and ask me about this, and they would leave the house and they would print something completely opposite as to what I had to say, and right now, I can’t remember the young man’s name that came to the house on the behalf of Kathryn Bigelow, and he talked to me, and I talked to him, and I told him, “You know, there’s no reason to even talk to you, because I did this for 50 years. Nobody ever said anything as to what I had to say, they printed just the opposite.” So, he had asked me, he said, “Would you mind if Kathryn Bigelow come out and talk to you?” I wondered who was Kathryn Bigelow, and he had to explain to me who Kathryn was, and she showed up a couple weeks later with her little entourage. She came in, the lady was very level-headed, she sat down at the table, played with my dog and cat, and she talked to me, and then every once in a while I’d say something, and she would go back to her notes, and she said, “You know, this was rumored, but nobody ever admitted to it.” I said, “I’ve been admitting to it for 50 years, and nobody ever printed it.” And when she was all done talking with me, she said, “I will assure you that the people will hear your story.” I guess that’s what started all of this. It was just hard for me to believe, although back in the sixties, a black person doing anything, you could find yourself in jail for the rest of your life, you know, and luckily I made it through that. I never got into a while lot of trouble, you know, and I was always respectful of the police, but there was a few of them out there that’s rogues, and you’ve probably still got them out there now that’s rogues, you know. I always ran with a whole lot of policemen: Dick Lear, Ron Davis, Ken Blue, all those guys, they were all friends of mine, so you know, so we went fishing together, and et cetera, et cetera. It was just hard to believe that you had some policemen out there that was just that rotten, you know, because these guys was just super nice, they would give you the shirt right off their back, you know, if they had to. When I was, back in the sixties, I’ve been married four times, so I ended up being in and out of court, child support a whole lot, and they were always there. “Melvin, since you’re parking downtown, we’ll take you down there,” and not thinking about it, but it was nice that you’re taking me down there, because by them going in the courtroom with me, I don't know what the judge was thinking, but my case was rushed right along, so that they could end up leaving with me, so they was always. Any place I went that there was a threat against me, one of them was there, you know. Right down to telling the people, “You want to meet Dismukes?” Here he is right here, and then usually people get up from the restaurant and leave. Not all policemen are bad, but we still got some rough ones out there, and I just happened to run with some good ones.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
MD: Okay, no problem.