Phyllis Rogers, May 8th, 2017
PR: Phyllis Rogers.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
PR: Okay. I was born in Detroit, Michigan, December 30, the very end of the year, 1949. And I was born and raised in Detroit, and I still, as an adult, I live in the suburb area of Detroit. But my entire life I've been within the perimeter of Detroit for residency.
WW: Growing up, what neighborhood did you live in?
PR: Okay, I grew up in the Virginia Park, Grand River neighborhood. 4337 Virginia Park, right off of Grand River. I grew up there. I went to Angel Elementary School, McMichael Middle School, and by the time I went into middle school - McMichael Middle School - my parents, being upward mobile middle-class blacks, they bought a home in northwest Detroit, which was over on Greenlawn and Six Mile, which is now - which is, McNichols is Greenlawn, McNichols - they bought a beautiful four bedroom, two and a half bathroom brick home in that area, so that I did not have to go to McMichael Middle School or Northwestern High School. So at that point I went to Bagley Elementary, because I was in sixth grade when they moved. I went to Hampton Middle School, and I graduated from Mumford High School.
WW: Going back to the Virginia Park neighborhood, what was it like growing up in that neighborhood?
PR: When - as a small child - we moved over there. My parents bought the house when I was four years old. I can remember, at four they bought the home there. And at that point it was a - it was an integrated neighborhood, and we were probably, maybe the second or third minority family to move on Virginia Park, and I went to Angel Elementary School, which was an integrated elementary school, up until I would say, maybe I was - I went to Angel in kindergarten, started then, and maybe by the time I was in third or fourth grade, it was predominately African American students there. Growing up in that neighborhood, it was a lot of fun. Growing up in that neighborhood we went to - we were members of Second Baptist Church in downtown Detroit, but when my parents were not able to go to church, we went to churches in the nearby neighborhood which were Presbyterian and Lutheran and Episcopal churches.
We had a lot of fun growing up there. I was - my parents, being upward mobile African American family, I was a member of the Girl Scouts, my brother a member of the YMCA. So we were quite active people. And I guess, to be realistic, when you're talking about that particular era, you're talking about the late fifties - middle fifties, late fifties, early sixties - we really were considered, more or less, affluent people, you know, from that era. My father had a printing business. We always had a new car. We would buy from the showroom of General Motors. Once upon a time the old GM building had showrooms on the first floor, and we would buy cars and what have you. I was a ballerina. I went to dancing school - Tony's School of Dance Arts - so I was - I was an exposed child. Very exposed. Not limited to the perimeters of the neighborhood.
WW: What did your mother do?
PR: Okay. My mother, by profession - she was a laboratory technician, which is now, they call them medical technologists or phlebotomists, you know. They call them that now. But she was a laboratory technician. She worked at Receiving Hospital. And my mother worked until I was maybe about five, and then she - she stopped working at that point. And my father's business was able to support the family.
WW: As you're moving around the city, you're going to the GM showroom, you're going to dance school, did you feel comfortable moving around the city, growing up?
PR: Yes. Yes I did. Yes. I felt very comfortable moving around the city. I guess I'm referring to my younger years. I - if there was segregation, discrimination, I wasn't aware of it. I was not. I was not aware of it until we went south. Because we would always take our station wagon - my dad's station wagon - we'd travel and visit my grandparents, who were in Jackson, Mississippi. So that's when I was aware of segregation. Right. But no, I didn't feel - personally, I didn't feel discriminated. Growing up, the only time I did, when I - when I look back and reflect and think about it, is when we moved from Virginia Park to northwest Detroit, which was Greenlawn and between Six and Seven Mile. I did feel the first bit of discrimination there because when I was enrolled in Bagley Elementary School in sixth grade, I was the third African American in the class. And I - they were all Jewish students, and I remember then feeling, the first time in my life, feeling being discriminated against at that point. The only thing that was a survival to me - it just so happened that the teacher was African American. An African American male. But prior to that - no, I didn't. And it could have been that we stayed in our own private world. You know, that could have been it. You know, our social activities, the perimeters of those things were within the African American community. The church we went to was of the African American community. So I guess things that were going on around me, at such an early age I was not aware of, to be honest.
WW: After - well, you felt discrimination in school, did you feel discrimination in the rest of your neighborhood?
PR: In the rest of the neighborhood? Basically, no. No, I did not. Because we - when I look back, I was 11 or 12 when we moved over there - 12 - something like that. Yeah, 12. And no, I didn't feel discrimination in the neighborhood, because at that age you develop a couple of friends, and you more or less, as the kids say, you run with those few friends. And then I did have a couple of Jewish friends, you know, and you know, with them being young too, we rode our bikes. We went to school together and what have you. And when I look back and think about it, the Jewish youngsters that befriended us - and I think about that a lot - were typically children that the other children didn't like. And I'm very serious about that. You know, it's a strange thing when you look at it, that a lot of times, minority children who move into a neighborhood, when they have friends that are among the majority, those are typically kids that are not accepted that much by their peers. So they are more welcoming to the minorities. So the couple of Jewish friends that I had, I cherished their friendships. They were always there but it was because the other kids did not like them.
WW: Going into the 1960s now, after you made your move to northwest, do you remember Martin Luther King's march down Woodward?
PR: Yes, I do. Yes, yes. In fact, my dad, who was a very avid photographer - he had a 35-millimeter camera and my gosh, he loved taking pictures - he was down with the march. He and my brother went. My mother didn't let me go, but I watched it on television. In fact, we went down Woodward to the area of where they were marching - my mother, and my two younger sisters, and I - and we watched it. But we did not march. But yes, I do, I totally remember that. Yes.
WW: Do you know why your mother wouldn't let you march?
PR: Probably, I'm thinking, with us being girls, she was so protective. She wasn't going to march, we weren't going to march, you know. But my brother could do what he wanted to do. He'd go around with my dad. Even though he was three years younger than what I was. You know, a lot of times the female parents are kind of protective of the daughters. If I'm not going to be there, then you're not going to be there, you know. And at that point, I was not rebellious. You know, and sure, she said I'll take you around. And we were on Woodward Avenue and some of the side streets and we were watching the people march, so that was fine with me.
WW: So as you're growing up on the northwest side, do you begin experiencing any other instances of racism, as you're growing up?
PR. Yeah. Later on - which is so interesting, that you asked that - after I went to Bagley School for one year - that was sixth grade - seventh grade we had to go to Hampton Middle School. So, we had to walk down Curtis, and we crossed Curtis, you crossed Livernois, and then we were in a whole different world over there. Those youngsters in that area lived in Palmer Woods, and they also lived in Sherwood Forest, in the university subdivision. So, these were people that were very, very affluent, you know, in that day. So, yes, I did experience that. With me going to school in Detroit, there were a lot of things that I really had to catch up on, you know. I can recall being embarrassed in a Spanish class. I had never had Spanish at Angel Elementary School. And you know, the kids speaking Spanish and me not knowing any Spanish. I think maybe that was the first time I had experienced educational humiliation, you know, was there. And then I went on to Mumford High School. And Mumford High School, during the time I was there, probably was 40 percent minority, 60 percent majority, and if there was - there might have been, when I look back, a lot of - yes, it was. I'm going to tell you a couple incidents. Yeah.
There was discrimination there, but it was kind of low-keyed discrimination, because we had African American teachers, you know, as well as, you know, whites. Whites and African Americans both taught there at the school. I can remember my high school counselor telling my mother - he was a white male - you know, I did very well - I don't know why I did so well in vocational education - I liked to sew, it was kind of a trendy thing, then, to sew - clothing construction, food preparation, things of that sort. And my mother had goals for me to go to college, and she said maybe you can become a home economics teacher or what have you.
But he told her, the best thing for me was to go down to the Pontchartrain Hotel - they had just built the Pontchartrain then - and then work with the chefs or the cooks at the Pontchartrain. Which my mother was so insulted, she could not believe that he said something like that, simply because I got decent grades in the other classes. I could see it, you know, now, as an educator, I look back at it. I said I could see maybe someone saying that, if you were not successful in the academics. But if you're successful in the academics, why would you even say that, you know? Which back then, was a sign of discrimination. Totally a sign of it.
And then he suggested during the summer that I work at a campsite with Jewish kids and learn how to cook and prepare food. You know, which my mother was so insulted. You know, she's doing well in mathematics. She's doing well in science. She's doing well in all the academic classes. Why would you even suggest that? You know, because it was the trendy thing to do with African American students.
WW: During this time, the civil rights movement is going in full swing. You mentioned Martin Luther King's march. Did you get caught up in any of the other social movements that were going on? Other Black Power, or anything else?
PR: Okay. The only time I did would be after the march, during that period, which you're talking about, before the riots. You know, the riots happened in 1967, I was 17. So no. I didn't get caught up in any of that; I was too young. However, you know, once I went away to college - you know, you're talking about graduating from high school and going on to college, when I went to college in 1968, which was after the riots, yes, I did get caught up in it. Absolutely.
WW: We'll talk about that in a moment.
PR: Okay, all right, okay. I'm jumping ahead!
WW: As you're in high school, do you have any run-ins with the Detroit Police Department, or anything of the sort?
PR: No. Zero. Zero.
WW: Did you send –
PR: You know, I'm going to backtrack. I guess it wasn't - yes it was. Okay, I'm going to backtrack. I can remember in high school, a couple of kids influencing a lot of others, you know, during one of the class periods, we're supposed to be in gym, they said let's go over to the store. Never done anything like that. So, we went over to the store to get candy. And I remember the police stopping us and getting out ID and saying you're supposed to be in study hall and we were at the store. And we cried, and they said okay, you're fine, you're fine, we're not going to tell your parents that you're at the store buying candy, and you're supposed to be in study hall. We cried so, and they said okay, just don't do it anymore. So that was the only run-in I ever had. Yeah, I never had any run-ins with the police.
WW: Fun story.
PR: It was. And I think about that all the time. They were - they were nice about it, because we just boo-hooed and you know, we showed them our report cards. We were doing fine in school. They wanted to know why you were there, why, because we decided to try it. Everybody else was doing it, you know, and we got caught. That's a good gift for you.
WW: Going into that summer, in '67, did you remember sensing that the community was on edge? Did you sense any tension?
PR: No, no I did not. No. No, not at 17 years old. No.
WW: Going into '67 - you were still living on the northwest side in '67?
PR: Yes. Yes, I was still living on the northwest side. Oh yeah. Yeah. I was still living on Greenlawn. You know, I can tell you the day of the riots if I'm not jumping ahead.
WW: That's my next question. Do you remember how you first heard about what was going on?
PR: Oh yeah. I remember how I first heard. First of all, it - we had left church and I remember we - I had asked to go to a good friend of mine's house that was over on Eight Mile and Santa Rosa. So I went over to her house to visit, and we were walking - we would like to do a lot of walking up and down Eight Mile, and just walking and talking, you know, like 17-year-old girls would do. So we had stopped at a restaurant to get some hamburgers to eat, and walk and talk up and down Eight Mile. And we all of a sudden - we saw all these trucks that were army vehicles going down Eight Mile. So, we thought it was a parade. So, we saw all these guys and army trucks, and I remember, we were waving at them, eating our hamburgers and just waving. And we just kept seeing them going down Eight Mile, you know, all these trucks. So, we got back to my friend's house and my parents were there, and they were screaming, "Where were you?" Just right up on Eight Mile. And they said "It's a riot. The people are rioting in Detroit. You've got to get in the car immediately. You must get in the car." And I got in the car and I - they took me home. And during that time of the riots, you know, it's very, very vivid in my memory.
They used Northwestern High School, and Central High School, because of the vast grounds of it - those were used as landing grounds for the helicopters to come in with the, you know - to try to control the civil disobedience. And I got a chance to see a lot of the riots, because - or the aftermath of the riots because my father had a printing company. It was called Mays Printing Company - it was a printing business. And it was over on Oakland Avenue.
And he liked to take pictures a lot. So during the days, during the riot, I remember it as if it were yesterday - everything was so calm during the days. You would see sometimes after-smoke, or what have you. But as soon as the sun set, that's when all the disturbance would go on. When the sun would set. And in the morning, after the disturbance had happened, my dad would go out with his camera and he would snap all kinds of pictures. And we have a library of pictures, you know, during the riots. And he would snap all kinds of pictures and he would show us the disobedience - the civil disorder. You know, that had happened during the night.
And what my dad did, you know, because, you know, he was - I guess he was the kind of person who was like a Christian peacemaker, you know, that's the way I would look at him as - he printed up signs, and the signs said "Soul Brother." That was a cliché back then - you know, it meant that you were not - that you were either for minorities or you were a minority business. He printed up signs saying "Soul Brother" and he would take these signs and give it to, during the day - and I would help him do it - we would give it to minority business owners to put it in their windows, so that therefore during the evening, that their property would not be destroyed. My dad even gave policemen those signs, to put in the back of their cars, that said "Soul Brother." Yeah.
So he did that, like as a community thing, and we would go all up and down the street - he and I - that's when I decided when I was a little older then, maybe two years older than the time when there was a march - two or three years older - so I was kind of more of an independent thinker, and I would tell my mom, I said, yeah, I want to go, I want to go, you know. So, I would go and I would help him do that.
So we looked at all the disturbance during the day. All the destruction and the devastation that had happened in Detroit. We photographed it. We talked about it. My dad was a great talker. He had a degree from Wilberforce University in journalism, and he also was a Tuskegee Airman, so he talked a lot. You know, we had a lot of communication, and we would talk about what was going on.
We would go all up and down Twelfth Street, we'd go all around the east side, we would go all over the area that was once called the Valley - that's where his business was, on Oakland Avenue - and just photograph everything.
WW: Did the way you look at Detroit change because of '67?
PR: The way - say that - rephrase that for me.
WW: So, growing up you were comfortable moving around the city -
PR: Yes, yes.
WW: You were happy.
WW: Did '67 change the way you felt in the city?
PR: You know, you're talking about, in terms of being positive about the city, did it change? At that point, probably - yes and no. The reason I'm saying yes, is that I was devastated over the destruction, you know, of the city. It was a very hurtful thing. It was - some of the things that were destroyed, during the riot - I'd actually cry when my father would take me down there and we would look at it. I would just cry and cry, you know, because I couldn't believe what had happened. But then, I guess when you look at the aftermath that would happen, is that the riot did basically, you know, demand that the public begin to look at the injustices that were going on in the African American community, you know. Because they now looked at the injustices. A lot of things opened up - different opportunities, you know, where you had more minorities in the police department, more minorities in the fire department, you know, and what have you. You had more neighborhoods that begin to open up, because the reason these neighborhoods opened up, and more minorities were living in neighborhoods that were middle class, because the - the whites moved out, you know. They left. I mean, it was a mass exodus, you know, of leaving Detroit. You know, they went to suburban areas like Southfield and what have you. They left. But no - there were a lot of things that did open up to us because of that.
WW: Throughout this interview you've referred to '67 as a riot. Is that how you’d frame '67?
PR: Yeah. Yeah. We use that word, instead of civil disorder, we would call it riots. That was exactly what we called it. Riots, in '67. And use that term, you know, which is not a good term, you know, to use. You want to sound more intelligent about it, just say, you know, civil disorder, but we didn't say that. We called them the riots. And I see too, when I look at the media a lot, they use that term also.
WW: Are there any other experiences from that week you'd like to share?
PR: Let me think. Any other experiences. Now I can tell you this happened, too, you know, because of the '67 civil disorder - okay, I'm going to be more professional about the term that I use. That you had a lot of black businesses - you know, back then we called them Negro businesses - you know - that were very financially profitable, that, because of things that opened up, they dissolved. They really did. You know, I can recall an African American, his name was Barthwell, I wish you could meet his daughter too - if I could get her number. Her dad owned a chain of drugstores in Detroit, and what have you. And because of the - the riots in '67, so many other things opened up, so he had a lot of blacks that - they just lost their businesses, because things opened up.
And you know, it's an interesting thing when you look at it. Of course, integration, you know - there are so, so many - more than what I could count - an astronomical amount of positive things - but then you also have a little cluster of things where people were hurt by it. I can recall a hotel in Detroit which was very, very profitable, called the Gotham Hotel, you know, which was - these people were very, very wealthy in the community, with their hotel, with their restaurants, and what have you. But after that, it just opened up the doors for us going to the hotels downtown. And we just abandoned those things.
You know, my dad being a printer - we were not affected by that. In fact, our business grew, and grew. After the '67 riots my dad's business moved from Oakland Avenue to Livernois. We were Livernois and Six Mile - Livernois and Puritan. Right over by U of D [University of Detroit]. He bought a really, really big building, and they - Mays Printing Company - and he was - at that point, my dad became one of the largest - in fact he may have been the largest - or surely, one of the largest - minority printers in the Midwest. And it was because of the disturbance in 1967, where he didn't feel safe there, and then the doors opened for us to come northwest. So, we headed northwest, and he bought a building northwest. He bought a mid-sized building on Livernois near Puritan, and within about four years the building that was what - four doors down - opened up, which was maybe, what - ten times the size of that building. He bought the whole thing.
PR: Sure did. Yeah. He bought the whole thing. And that was because of the - what had happened.
WW: In talking with your neighbors in northwest, what was the mood in the community regarding '67? Did you see a lot of flight from that neighborhood?
PR: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because we lived - as I said, on Greenlawn between - right near Marygrove. Greenlawn and McNichols, and it was a really, really integrated neighborhood at that point. Well, I'm going to say the majority - I mean, there was only maybe 30 percent African American - but I saw our other neighbors move, move to the suburban communities. Very rapid movement. Very rapid movement. Yes.
WW: So earlier in the interview you mentioned that after you went to college, you became involved in the civil rights movement?
WW: Did you become involved in the civil rights movement because of what you saw during '67?
PR: Basically. You know, it's an interesting question you ask. No. No, not because of what I saw in '67. It was because maybe the mood on campus. The mood on campus, where we - were basically, I guess maybe in 1968, fighting two battles. It was a battle - the Vietnam War, so I was part of a lot of protests you know, against the Vietnam War, and then I went to HBCU [Historic Black Colleges and Universities], which is the African American college, historically black African American college. I went there -
WW: Which college in particular?
PR: I went to Lincoln University in Missouri, which is an HBCU, and we were, I guess, being college students, of course you're always socially aware of what's going on, and complaining about everything. A lot of things you are complaining about need to be complained about, and some of the things you're complaining about don't need to be complained about. You know, it's just part of the atmosphere of a young person that age. So, we were basically - basically we were fighting three battles: Vietnam War, the restrictions of females on campus, because we were under curfew and all of those type of things, and then also, we were fighting segregation. And it was more segregation in Missouri than there was here.
And then I would say, probably more than 50 percent of the students who were, at that particular HBCU, Lincoln University, more than half of them were from the southern states. So, a lot of the things they were telling me, you know, that were going on, I was not experiencing it here. But sure, I sure fell in line and protested. In fact, some of the protests that I was in, they were very violent protests. I can remember Lincoln University in Missouri, where the campus was firebombed. And I was there. I was there. The student union was burned down. You know, people at that point, young people at that point were very sometimes, violent, in their messages. That particular message was about curfews, and treating females different, you know, like a second-class citizen. You know, compared to the males and what have you.
You know, and then we would go - we would leave Lincoln University in Missouri and we would go up to - they called it Mizzou back then, what you're talking about, University of Missouri - and we would protest against the war in Vietnam. So that became a very - a guess a dominant force in my first two years in college, you know, to participate in that. But my last two years I transferred to Western Michigan University, and that's where I graduated from, Western. Which was an entirely different climate, you know.
WW: How did it feel going from Lincoln University to Western?
PR: Well, at first it was a - in the beginning it was a major adjustment, but for some reason, miraculously, I fell in line quite quick. You know, I enjoyed Western. I made friends at Western, I became part of a sorority at Western, and I guess the whole attitude completely changed. I left Lincoln, Missouri, simply because my major was education and back then, you know, you're talking about in the early seventies, it was to your advantage if you were going to teach in a certain state, to have your degree from that certain state. If I were going to live in Missouri, then of course it would be more advantageous to graduate from school in Missouri. But if I was going back to Michigan, which I was going to do, coming back home, it was more advantageous, and you could get hired quicker, and all of that, to have your degree from here. So that's why I came back.
WW: Just a couple quick wrap-up questions. Did your parents think about leaving the city after '67?
PR: No. No. Never, never. Because at that point, we were living in northwest Detroit, which was almost, at that point, was almost like a Promised Land. You know, you're in these big, beautiful brick homes, you know, that were two-story brick homes. Our home was very, very nice. You know, you had this beautiful first floor, you had two and half bathrooms, four bedrooms, a large backyard. No, they had no intentions of moving. In fact, that was kind of almost like a bragging right.
WW: How do you feel about the state of the city today?
PR: I am - I'm becoming - I'm pleased with the state of the city, dealing with, I would say, downtown and midtown. To me, they've made really - just tremendous improvements on this environment. But more needs to be done for the neighborhood. And I think that our current mayor is - he's trying, and he's making progress, he's making progress.
You know, I - when you think of it, I guess, in terms of economics, you know, you're trying to get people from out of state to come to Detroit, so of course you've got to develop downtown and midtown, you know, to make the city more attractive. But if he could do more for the neighborhoods then I think we would flourish more.
WW: So you're optimistic for the city moving forward?
PR: Yes, I am. Very much so. Very much so. Yes.
WW: Is there anything else you'd like to add today?
PR: Let me see. What else would I like to add today. That's it. I guess the only other thing which is interesting, you know, I told you that I was a ballerina, okay. And you know, I look back at it and it's kind of funny. I've dance over here at the Art Institute - they called it an art institute, versus a museum. I danced over there. I've danced at the Historical Museum, and I guess back then there was a lot of segregation, and you know, I was in the Nutcracker - they called it the Negro Nutcracker, you know. And I danced in things like that. I danced at the Fox Theatre, and what have you, but back then was a lot of segregation.
And you know, as kids, we were not aware of it. We were very happy, you know. Very happy. And then you'd hear the adults, you know whispering that you couldn't dance here and there. I went to a school called Toni's School of Dance Arts. And Toni would try to get certain venues for her recitals, and they would not let her and I - you would hear some of the older people, you know, talking about it, but we were quite happy.
So that, I guess that's the only other thing that I would say, you know, dealing with segregation that I, you know, experienced. But basically, I'll just say my parents kind of shielded me from it. But I saw it when I went south. I saw things when I went south. In fact, I was going to tell you that I might have things too that my father took pictures of when we went south. So, you can see the drinking fountains. Yeah, he took pictures of the - it would say "colored," it would say "white." And he would take pictures of those drinking fountains.
You know, I guess my father just had a vision, and it's very interesting when I look at his vision. He had a vision. He would say that one day your children are not going to believe what you're telling them. And my mother would always say, she'd say, "Ah, it's going to always be this way. It's going to always be this way." And he said no. "I really feel that if I take pictures of all these different things that when our children have children, they're going to look at them in amazement." His vision was absolutely correct. Because when I tell my children of the things that I saw in the south, and they always have me tell stories, you know, when we traveled south - they look at me and their mouths drop. And they say, "Are you for real?" Absolutely. Yeah. So, he would photograph these things, just photograph like mad.
WW: Thank you so much for coming in today.
PR: You're quite welcome.