Mary Jo Johnson, April 28th, 2017
Julia Westblade: Hello, today is April 28, 2017. My name is Julia Westblade. I’m here at the Detroit Historical Society recording an interview for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I’m sitting down with –
Mary Jo Johnson: Mary Jo Johnson
JW: Thank you so much for coming in and sitting down with us today.
MJ: I’m happy to be here.
JW: Good. Can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
MJ: I was born in Dearborn, Michigan because my grand-grandfather had come from Ireland, worked on the Chicago Road and then bought property there and so by that time my grandfather was farming. I was born October 14, 1941 so just before Pearl Harbor and my grandfather subsequently stopped farming because he couldn’t really get people to help him but I spent a lot of time on the farm with my grandmother canning and with him, which was wonderful. He also went to work in the Willow Run – he called it the Bomber Plant – during the war, so I remember taking him there. Everybody didn’t have a car so I remember we did a lot of chauffeuring.
JW: So you grew up and you stayed in Dearborn?
MJ: I did. I went to Catholic school in Dearborn. I was the oldest of six. My father worked for Ford Motor Company so I feel like a real Detroiter because of all this. Until I went away to college, I lived in Dearborn and I graduated from high school in ’59, from college in ’63. So, when I was a kid, when my grandmother was still running the farm, we used to go downtown to Hudson’s and she would get everything she needed. I was very used to going downtown with my mother and grandmother, going to Hudson’s and Himelhoch’s and I remember the first dance I was invited to was on Grosse Isle and I remember coming down the day after Thanksgiving to Detroit to look for a dress. My mother was really good about stuff like that. And we had to turn around and go home because we couldn’t find a parking place and come back another time. So, I feel like I knew the city and when I was in high school and college, we would come down for dates. I remember the Gas Light Restaurant, the Pontchartrain Wine Cellars, the Pontchartrain Hotel. So, I feel like I knew the city at that point in time and then when I graduated from college, I went away to school to a girls’ school in Indiana for two years and then I went to U of M [University of Michigan] and gradated and took a job teaching in Highland Park. That was my first job which was an excellent school system at the time. It had – It was very integrated. Almost even black and white and a lot of Jewish teachers and administrators who were very competent. So, it was a good place to start teaching. I taught there for about five years and I was slated to go overseas to teach in a military school and I kind of chickened out when they got to the point that they were shipping my car, I just wasn’t that brave. Anyway, at the time I taught in Highland Park I was living downtown in Lafayette Towers. Not 1300 but there was Lafayette East and West – I think they’re still there. I lived in Lafayette East with my cousin whose father was a traffic referee in Detroit, John Carney. He was my dad’s oldest brother and ran for judge. At one point in the year we had this huge “Carney for Judge” sign in the apartment. He didn’t make it but he was kind of a talked-about traffic referee because of the way he handled people and there would be stories in the paper about John Carney. He was a very good guy.
JW: Yeah, so it sounds like you felt safe moving around the city and comfortable and enjoyed it. Was that typical of other people in your neighborhood growing up, or did most people in Dearborn stay in Dearborn?
MJ: You know, that is a great question. I’m trying to think. I mean, my family obviously came down and my parents never gave us any warnings about coming down for movies. Grand Circus Park had movie theatres. And our family, one thing I should mention, in my uncle, Tom Daley of the Daley Farm, reminisces is a reference to either his father or grandfather – I should have looked it up – having lunch once a month with the Inkster Superintendent of Schools and my grandfather and his family were always very tolerant and my grandfather had great empathy for what African-Americans were going through. They weren’t quite as tolerant about Hillbillies. That was the negative connotation. And now I see maybe where that comes from, too, because I think a lot of Southerners were moving up here during the War and after and it was probably a really different culture to them.
So, that’s what brought me to ’67. I was still single. I wanted to look up whether I was still teaching in Highland Park at that point. I think I was teaching summer school because I have this recollection. But the thing I definitely remember – and I hope this is an accurate memory – but on Sunday night after the initial start of all the action, I went to a Tiger baseball game with a date at the old Briggs Stadium or Tiger Stadium and when we got out, there were some kind of rumblings about something going on. Then we went to get something to eat because it was dinner time; it was an afternoon game. We went back to Dearborn, went to what I think was Ford Road to a bar and at that point the bar was closed. And I don’t remember what happened after that, but I know by that time, I think, Wayne County businesses, at least that served alcohol, were shut down.
JW: Before we get too far into ’67, so you said you were living in the city and you were teaching in Highland Park at an integrated school. Did you sense any tension in the city in the early sixties leading up to all of that?
MJ: You know, that is not my recollection. I’m sure there was, though, and I’ll get to an incident later on when there really was, but I remember teaching with a guy from the South whose father had been a dentist in the South and I remember him talking about life in his community down there and it was like, really? They were not integrated but they were very middle class African-Americans. And he’s the only African-American I can really remember except the last year I was there were had an African-American principle, Bill Bray, and I should see if he’s still – is that right? No, Bill Bray? Anyway, I could find the man’s name. He was great. He was very competent, very dignified, great role model for kids. But there were, when I first started at Highland Park, it was a junior high and I could tell there were girls, there was a little group of girls that really gave me an awful time. I mean, they were just really – and I was naïve and not equipped to handle them. But for the most part, the kids were good. I remember coming in to school once and some kids were absent from my eighth grade class and I said something about where’s so-and-so? And they said, “Oh, they got picked up for stealing a car last night.” And I remember a woman having her purse be, what do you call it, assaulted in Highland Park on Woodward near the Sears store but on the other hand, we used to go to – for a while I had a group of girls at the YMCA after school and we also used to go to a bar or restaurant after that. My good friend Lois Stock then, she and her mother and her sister all were teaching in Highland Park. So, Lois and I were the ones who became friends and I remember because there was this strike in Highland Park and Lois’ mother was – Lois, I don’t remember, Lois’ mother was very anti-strike but I had one of the most renowned teachers in Highland Park was a journalism teacher at the high school and he was very highly respected and I remember going to his house and he lived in a little – it was obvious to me that teachers weren’t paid very well if this was the best you can do for this man who was so good. So I went on strike and that was a little touchy because I used to go to my friends the Stocks’ house for dinner. I would always make the salad because I lived in Dearborn and it was kind of far. That’s about – in terms of conflict – I mean, Dearborn had a reputation, a horrible reputation, for “Help Dearborn Clean” and Orville Hubbard and all that. And I was aware of that but not as – I didn’t really know what that slogan meant besides he did run a clean city literally. I was aware that Inkster was Inkster and it was African-American people and it was poor. That’s what I come up with in terms of that kind of memory.
JW: So then, going into ’67, you were at the Tigers game, came home and saw the bars were closed. So when did you first hear officially what was going on?
MJ: You know, that is a great question. I can’t even answer it. I don’t know. I mean, it just gradually – probably the newspapers. My parents were both great newspaper readers and I wish my memory were clearer after that. I think I was teaching summer school in Highland Park. I think I remember after a couple days going into summer school and one of the African-American councilors, Carl Petway, was saying, “Yeah, they have guns on one side of me and guns on the other side,” which was unusual. Then everyone didn’t walk around with a gun. I was volunteering at Receiving Hospital in the children’s ward and I would go on Sunday and I do remember not being able to get near the place because of the National Guard troops. What I remember is more general after that which are these materials. [note: referencing physical materials she brought with her] It was a wake-up call that something was drastically wrong in the city and the churches started to kind of become a little more active and that’s how I first remember getting involved after ’67, after the incidents was my parents had a neighborhood gathering and, like, talking about what’s the problem, can we do anything about it? And I remember my mother and my sister and I going down to a parish in the city, I think it was St. Rose’s, and working with kids on Saturday. Doing just activities. My sister became an art teacher; she was younger then and I do have a picture of her with a kid from down there and my mother was very empathic and she was also a first grade teacher so she was passionate about education and upset that the education wasn’t what it should be.
Okay, so – oh, so, my father was – how did that work? My brother was at Michigan. My brother became our free-spirit, civil activist person. He marched on Washington and he was four years younger than I was. When I was at Michigan, they were starting funding, raising funds for is it SNCC?
MJ: SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] on the Diag. I remember the buckets being out. So, where was I going with that? Anyway, I remember my brother pushing my dad and saying, “You know, the solution to this is open housing. You have to let people buy houses in good neighborhoods and then you’ll have people who are going to be okay.” And my father, who had six kids, worked sometimes three jobs – he was Ford Motor and he would work at a local bowling alley, he was paying tuition for these Catholic schools, and he was going, “Look, I want to be fair, but this is my wealth. My wealth is in my house. Whatever assets I have are in my house and I cannot afford to have the property values go down.” So that was the point of disagreement, however he did write this letter, which I have here to the Dearborn Free Press because – and it was – it promotes good education for African-American kids, with a little bit of self-interest, because he said if you funded parochial schools, if government money could go to parochial schools, then African-American kids could get a better education. And the letter is here and then the post card he got in response is here and it’s quite ugly. [pulls out physical materials she brought with her.] So, this is the letter. It’s just really one page; there’s only a little bit on the last part. And this is the response. How you had to type on a post card but –
JW: We can look at these when we’re all done. Oh wow.
MJ: And actually, I was thinking about it, I copied them because I thought you’d probably rather have the original source if you’re collecting things.
JW: Okay, we’ve got release forms and stuff that we can have you sign and if you want us to take copies and send them back we can do that as well. So we can talk about this –
MJ: The only copy I really need is the post card because it’s not a very good copy that I have.
JW: We can talk about these when we’re all done.
JW: Yeah, okay, so, I’m trying to think. No, it’s okay. So then, back in 1967, you mentioned that the National Guard was at the hospital and you couldn’t get in here.
JW: So was it a sense of relief when the National Guard and when the federal troops came in or did it cause more anxiety in the city, do you think?
MJ: I remember, especially after seeing the presentation, the PowerPoint, I do remember all the political ramifications of Cavanagh. Cavanagh was a rising, shining, young star for mayor. Romney, I have a picture of myself with George Romney because I belonged to the Young Republicans because that was a good social group when I lived downtown. And my cousin, who I lived with in Lafayette and George Romney and I at some function. So I remember that and I remember that Johnson was a Democrat and that Romney really didn’t want to bring federal troops in and kind of had to be talked into it. I think Cavanagh wanted the federal troops. Anyway, I remember all that but, you know, not specifically just generally. Oh yeah, I remember that. And I get mixed up were the troops or the tanks that I saw at Receiving Hospital or Children’s whatever, but I think it was – anyway, were they Michigan National Guard or were they federal troops. But it would have been the following Sunday so by that time, maybe federal troops would have been there. And I’m not a real detail person so that did not occur to me to worry about it at that point.
JW: That’s okay.
MJ: I was just like, oh, I’d better go home.
JW: So, you said that it was a couple days before you went back to work so did you stay in your apartment for those couple days or did you go around and see what was going on in the city?
MJ: I know I didn’t go around and see what was going on in the city. And I only lived in that apartment for one year so I’m trying to think if that was the year but it was. I mean, I could have been back home in Dearborn but I had an apartment in Dearborn before and after and I lived at home at first. I lived with my parents and drove and then at one point had the apartment in Lafayette Park and then gave it up after a year. And I forget why exactly. I think my cousin and I weren’t living the same lifestyle exactly and that was – although she worked for United Foundation and she worked for the head of United Foundation whose name you would – he was well known for being that. And United Foundation was a bigger deal then. I mean, every work place, you signed up to give out of your paycheck and they did a lot of good things. But she was kind of partying and I remember thinking, I don’t think this is going to work for me.
So where did we go from there? Oh, my next kind of vivid memory is I was engaged to be married and at some point when they were going to send my car overseas, I had resigned from Highland Park and so I taught in Dearborn Heights for a year and that was a lot of African Americans. I could tell really the school didn’t compare with the schools I had been at in Highland Park. And then ended up teaching in Indian Village because I was going to be living in Grosse Pointe; that’s where my fiancé was living – my husband. I had been living in Dearborn at that point so I taught at Nichols School on Burns in Indian Village and, again, a mixed faculty. Mostly white but the principal was very committed, very good. He let me do a lot of experimental things as much as I knew how to do at that point but the assistant principal was an African American woman and I remember that she used to stay after school and practice. She was a beautiful pianist and I liked her a lot. And that they had really good teachers, mostly, but the first-grade teacher was really an alcoholic and stayed – you know, it didn’t even strike me as much then as it does now. Those kids had crayons and that was it and nobody – I guess they couldn’t do anything about it because nobody did. The teacher across the hall was amazing and older – probably my age now, Mrs. Sharite – and known as a good teacher. I remember the school councilor – it was a K through six school – but in the spring, at some point, they used to have this called “Audiotorium” and I don’t know exactly what the point was but I think it was like a little drama class but it never was given a priority. So, at Nichols, they had a sub and this sub was a woman who had been a nun and she was really trying to do something with it. I remember taking my class and seeing her with her kids in costume and seeing a performance. But I didn’t know her very well. She went out for lunch, came back, and was still in her car when someone came up, some kid, and asked her for a light and he shot her.
JW: Oh my gosh.
MJ: I guess he expected – so, she was in the hospital. We were still at school. We stayed for lunch and the faculty room was right above the main entrance to the school so the first we heard were all these sirens and cops on motorcycles coming up right in the entrance. We gradually found out what happened. My parents were very upset because they knew it was the school where I was. My husband-to-be was very upset. I finished out the year and I’m not really so sure I would have left except where I was living in Grosse Pointe, my aunt was on the board of trustees taking over a school from nuns who couldn’t staff it anymore and it was becoming an independent school which became Grosse Pointe Academy and I think I went there the second year. They were Grosse Pointe Academy for one year. They were Academy of the Sacred Heart then Grosse Pointe Academy for one year and then I went and that was building from the ground up. It was really exciting even though at the time we didn’t always consider it exciting. It became a really thriving, independent school which was purposely integrated. We had a lot of kids originally Detroit kids. They were scholarship kids but by the time I left, Judge Young’s kids were there – he lived in Grosse Pointe Park. I know three doctors’ families, Dr. Oney – I could name the other two if I thought about it. [Abudo Ngang?] was one of them and they had three kids and one, [Emo?] went to Harvard. So, there were middle-class blacks moving into Grosse Pointe Park and, actually, that is one of the things I want to check because Bill [William Winkel], is it? When he did his presentation, I question because he said none of the suburbs were integrated except Southfield and actually Grosse Pointe, from all appearances, is becoming integrated. The Park [Grosse Pointe Park], the Woods [Grosse Pointe Woods]. I have a good friend from League of Women Voters who lives in the city, so I think I want to look up the numbers on that.
But anyway, I loved teaching at the Academy because of the families I met from all over. So, that’s where I ended up my career and that’s probably – I retired in 2006. But, you know, I would see the news. The people I saw at my school were not those people. They were people who wanted a good education for their kids. There were – I still see them on Facebook and there were at first a lot of teachers’ and administrators’ kids. Scholarship kids because the nuns had this SHEP program, the Sacred Heard Enrichment Program, where they would bring girls in the summer for some kind of enrichment and then they kept a lot of the girls for school for scholarships. In fact, I just went to a funeral of one of the girls. Sonja Scott was a rising star and she was at Purdue - went to Country Day and then she went to Purdue and was driving home, fell asleep at the wheel and she became a quadriplegic for the most part. But she was so dynamic, as they said at her funeral. She did more things from her wheel chair with her computer however she managed it. But that kind of incapacitation takes its toll and she died young. So, the principal and I from the Academy went to her funeral in the city.
JW: So, you moved to the Grosse Pointe area –
MJ: I did.
JW: - to work at that school. Did you feel safe coming back into the city after that or did you mostly stay in the suburbs?
MJ: You know, we came down to the [Detroit Symphony] Orchestra or wherever the Symphony was which was Orchestra Hall. Orchestra Hall – no. We did. We came down for stuff: plays or concerts and I remember my husband taught at the law school, Detroit College of Law, when it was here. Before it was part of Michigan State, it was in Detroit; it was a very old law school in Detroit. A lot of politicians from Detroit started there. But they had a benefit for whatever, I can’t remember – no, it was a benefit for Orchestra Hall, that was it. The faculty and their spouses came down and I remember because Orchestra Hall was freezing cold. It was like this time of year and I was like I’m never going to get warm. I was pregnant for Chris who is now 40. So, yeah, we came down. I think probably not as much to the downtown after but I still used to come down.
I remember – oh, Grandpa’s funeral we needed a black mantilla. I came down to Hudson’s because you had to wear mantillas in the Catholic Church then. And shopping was a tradition. It was cool to come down and when I was working in Highland Park, I would go to Hudson’s, check the sale and call my mother if there was anything she should come down for. She got her hair cut downtown because it was someone who was really good with naturally curly hair and then I got my hair cut downtown, too. So, stuff like that but once – then you get into – fast forward 10 years, right? Martin Luther King comes to Grosse Pointe and that was – I did not go to that. And it’s kind of funny that I didn’t go but I don’t think I was aware of it when he came to Grosse Pointe South High School. I just heard about it after. That’s kind of where I am unless you can think of what else. I wish I remember things more clearly.
JW: That’s okay. When you look at the city today, do you think that ’67 still hangs over the city or do you think that they’ve moved on?
MJ: Boy, that requires – here’s how I’d answer that. I went to a Wayne County Community College scholarship dinner and there was a black professor from Harvard. His name was [Randall] Kennedy and he was from the Harvard Law School. And I was, like, oh, I really want to hear him and he talked about perspective. And he said, “I think things have come a really long way.” He said, “I remember when my mother used to have to get the fried chicken lunch ready before we started our trip down South because we wouldn’t be able to stop in any restaurants along the way.” And people went, “Oh, yeah.” The older people there would remember that. But he said, “My students say, ‘What do you mean we’ve come a long way?’ and have an entirely different perspective.” So, I guess that’s the way I look at it and I think there’s a black middle-class in Detroit that has grown and thrived and I guess it’s the neighborhoods. And I think for everybody that’s kind of common knowledge. I’m most upset about the schools. There’s a guy who’s a docent here who went to school in Highland Park and his kids ended up going to my school, so that’s how I knew him. I saw him at the ’67 thing the first time and he was talking about how good the Highland Park schools were and how he liked his teachers and how they made him want to learn and we were just – the school nearest my neighborhood is a disaster. They don’t have a functioning library for one thing. I brought books over and she said, “We can’t use the textbooks because we have our own.” And I said, “Well, maybe you want this stuff for the library?” And she went, “We don’t have a functioning library.” The woman who was my principal, who is also a very good friend, her son came back from Germany. He was the head of the department at his American school in Germany. He couldn’t get a job here – this was in the last four years – and Walter went to work at Marquette School which is the one near me. Sheila said, “And he’s teaching social studies. He doesn’t have anything will you”– and I had a lot of materials so I brought him maps and stuff and the kids were great but the building was dismal, there was not much discipline, and you could tell there wasn’t a lot of learning going on. My friend now goes once a week to that school and is trying to set up a program for them where we just go in and do literacy. Do reading computer programs which I’ve done at Epiphany down on Conner for the nuns who taught me. She said it’s just so disruptive that you have to take the kids out of there. She said there are really a lot of kids who really want to learn but they just can’t deal with all the noise and chaos and the school wasn’t fully staffed, Sheila said, at the beginning of the year. The person – some people aren’t doing their jobs and it’s just sad because – oh, and I got acquainted with that school because I was tutoring – this is after I retired – I was tutoring at Epiphany Education Center which is down in the Samaritan Center on Connor near the Capuchins, actually. These three nuns, elderly nuns, they were retired. They ran the greatest program and they do great things with these kids. I still do their summer school with them. But they – now where was I going with that? Oh, I know. One of the women who was also a tutor there had been widowed and wanted to get back teaching so she finished her degree. She got a job at Marquette and she didn’t have books. So Academy changes series so I got books and took them over and that was the first time I saw Marquette and then when Walter started teaching in the middle school there, I brought him stuff. But it’s just so troubling to me the state of the schools and what happened and how it happened and how far down they went and these kids are never going to catch up. They are never going to catch up unless they’re very exceptionally driven. It’s just the caliber of the school and so I have really – if I’m going off the track, let me know. I have really mixed feelings about charter schools but taking kids through here, I do see that the charter schools often – the kids are very well-behaved so I think there’s more discipline often. Like those boys who were going through. They were really into it and that’s a charter school in Detroit. And I had some little girls, they were third graders or something from a charter school and then it’s just, you know, you worry about the school and because that’s what’s going to – the city has to have that or they’re not going to really become a great city, I think.
JW: Well, is there anything else from ’67 that you remember that you’d like to add?
MJ: I know, I went way off ’67, didn’t I?
JW: Oh no, it’s okay.
MJ: No, I remember it was kind of a wake up call. That’s my perspective on it. We need to, everybody needs to do something here. And my friend, Barb Carley, I don’t know if you’ve interviewed her, she was living in Redford at the time and she said her family took donuts and whatever to the National Guard troops when they were in her neighborhood and she said her father stuck it out for as long as he could but once it got too rough for them to go to school and back, he sold and they moved to Grosse Pointe.
JW: Well, is there anything else you’d like to add today?
MJ: I wish I could think of more but I’ve probably gone way beyond the beyond.
JW: Oh, you’re okay. Well, thank you so much for sitting down with us today. We really appreciate it.
MJ: Oh, you’re so welcome. It’s really good to – just the effort of recall is good and since I taught history, I think oral history is wonderful and I love this project. I’m thrilled about this project.
JW: Oh, good.