James Peters, August 4th, 2017
JP: Jim Peters.
JW: Nice to meet you. Thank you so much for coming in to sit with us. Could you start by telling me, where and when you were born?
JP: I was born in Detroit in 1940.
JW: What neighborhood did you live in, in Detroit?
JP: I lived in the Grand River/Livernois area, which was the Scottish enclave in Detroit at that time.
JW: Okay. So was it just Scottish, or was it also an integrated neighborhood?
JP: There was no integration as far as white/black, if that's what you mean. Basically Scottish.
JW: And so what was that like, living with - in a Scottish enclave?
JP: It was wonderful. It was wonderful, yeah. You know, it was - it was, you know - it was like Germans or Poles or anything else - the Scotch looked out for each other, and were all friendly, and had parties and great times together.
JW: Yeah. Do you have - so then, where did you go to school then?
JP: I was going to the local grade school in Detroit until the sixth grade, at which time we went to Royal Oak.
JW: Okay. What moved your family to Royal Oak?
JP: My father's progression in his career.
JW: What was his job?
JP: It was upgrading homes.
JP: He was a steel peddler.
JW: Okay. And did your mom have a job?
JW: Okay. Did you have any siblings?
JW: Okay. So when you lived down in the city, did you feel comfortable moving around the city, or did you mostly just stay in that Scottish community?
JP: I was totally comfortable - living in the city and living in Royal Oak. But, at that time, keep in mind, all activity was in the city, so as youth we went to the city every weekend. And we were totally comfortable.
JW: When you moved out of the city and into Royal Oak, did you note - was there a difference the community that you were part of, or did it feel the same?
JP: Different in what respect?
JW: I don't know. I guess in any respect. Was there - did you - did it feel different living out in the suburbs than it did in the city?
JP: The only difference was, there was all single homes and there was space between homes, and there was youth activities, you know, Little League and stuff like that.
JW: Yeah. So then, leading up into the early 1960s, maybe late fifties, did you notice tension in the city as you were moving around?
JP: I never saw or felt or experienced any tension whatsoever, through high school.
JW: And you went to high school in Royal Oak?
JP: No, I went to high school in Royal Oak until the tenth grade, at which time we moved to Birmingham.
JW: Okay. And was that for your dad's job as well?
JW: Very nice. So then in 1967, how did you hear about everything that was going on?
JP: Are you - you mean about the - I hate the word "riot" - I use other words. The conflict that was going on - is that what you mean?
JP: How did I hear about it?
JP: Well it - it flared up early, early that Sunday morning - let's say one - one AM.
JP: Well I woke up that morning - Sunday morning - and went and played golf all day. And got home and my wife said, "Did you hear what's going on?" No. What's going on? She told me, which was five or six o'clock in the afternoon. We turned on the television and it became apparent that they were calling the National Guard, of which I was a member.
JP: That's - how and when I heard about it.
JW: All right. So when did you become a part of the National Guard, then?
JP: Oh, in '63.
JW: Okay. So then, being a member of the National Guard, you were then sent into the city?
JW: Okay. So what - where were you stationed?
JP: I was stationed at the Durfee School. I'm not sure now if that was a grade school or a middle school. But there were three schools on one large city block - there was Durfee, Roosevelt, and Central High School. And my battalion happened to go into Durfee.
JW: What do you remember about being in the city that week? Do you have some stories?
JP: [laughter] Yeah, I have - you know. There's a million stories in the big city, right? What - I could get on a real soapbox here, or a real rampage. When we got there, it was late Sunday night. Probably ten PM or later. And we all were milling around out in the schoolyard, not knowing what to do or where to go; we were given no direction. If I can back up a minute, we reported to the armory.
JP: And all they told us on the telephone was to bring - be in uniform. Put a uniform on. Get to the armory and they were accumulating ten or twelve Guardsmen as they meandered in, and they were DSR - you know what DSR is? Detroit Streets and Railways - buses behind the armory. And after there were ten or twelve soldiers there, they'd put us on the bus and took us down to Detroit, to this school compound.
And going down there, we went down - we were on Eight Mile, the armory - we went Eight Mile, we went down Livernois, through Palmer Park, and across to the school, and about halfway down we recognized that there was a tank following us. Now we're just guys - you know, we're in the Guard to avoid the draft. And - "woah, a tank? Never saw a tank before." [laughter] When we got down there, and in the middle of the night, we're milling in the yard, and by the time we got there the Salvation Army had already been there. Was already there, already, with their lunch trucks. And they told us all to line up in a long line - there must have been a hundred or more guys lined up, and squad cars - police squad cars - were pulling up in front of us. And they were putting - there were two police officers in each car - they were putting two soldiers in the back of each car, and then you're gone. You're on the street.
No direction from an officer. No - no understanding of what we were supposed to be doing, and we were out there all through that night, through the next day, with - riding in this police car, eating Salvation Army baloney sandwiches, which was welcome at that time and coffee. We determined - and I knew that area really well, because I grew on up in that area, you know - I was comfortable there. But we were seeing, you know, smoldering buildings. We never saw any gathering of any blacks, except one call - radio call - we went, there was looting going on at a local ma and pa grocery store. Went over there, and there were like twenty people inside. It was the middle of Monday morning. You know, ten AM. The police went out and rousted all these guys out, and there was a couple - there were people from ten years old to sixty years old in that shop, and they were - they were gleaning. They were gleaners. Everything - the good stuff had already gone. And they lined them all out, there were a couple really nice cars out there, with these adults had driven up there – big 225 Buicks and Cadillacs, and the police took them all back - the cars - all back to the station.
And I hesitate to tell you. They didn't - they searched everybody for weapons. Little kids, they took their hats off, made sure there were no knives under their hats, this type of thing. Which was good procedure, I guess. But the police vandalized these vehicles, which I couldn't fathom. You don't - this is not necessary. But we're just guys. We don't - we can't talk to the police.
And the other call I remember going on that morning was a call to go to a jewelry store which was being robbed - looted - and about two blocks away from the jewelry store they turned on all of the sirens as loud as they could. We pulled up behind the jewelry store and the police said, "okay, stand out here." We had rifles, bayonets on them. "We're going in." So the police went in. Now in hindsight, I recognize that they turned their sirens on to let everybody know we're coming - get away. We don't want any confrontations.
The police came out, got in the car - "Nobody's in there." Started back down Grand River, and they - they had handfuls of costume jewelry. The good stuff apparently had already been stolen. "Do you guys want any of this?" No, no, we don't any. And we went on our way.
Back at the police precinct, which happened to be Precinct Six at that time, we went back for a couple hours. Police were coming in and out, every which way, and I only recall ever seeing one black policeman, in this whole two-week episode, and he was in the precinct. The neighborhood ladies had brought in some food for the police, and we got a little rest, and back on the streets. Let me refer to some notes here [papers rustle].
This went on for a couple days. Wednesday we got back to our school and found our way to our commanding officers, who had put us up on the - the school is a three-story building. Put us on the second floor, and Battery A in here, Battery B in this room, and we had - we had nothing. We had no towels, no soap, no bedding. We slept on the wood floor. No change of underwear. It was just - our uniform, that we had on. And they tried to get things organized by this time, and we went out on - I just happened to be the driver for the captain and the first sergeant, so when they went out, I was their driver. And we happened to do nights.
So I remember one - first night, we got a call on the radio. There was sniper activity on Oakland Boulevard. And I knew Oakland Boulevard, I knew where it was. And went over there and we noticed there was a lot of police, military activity down the street. And we weren't going to drive right into it, and so they said "park here." Well, this is like a block or two blocks away from the activity, right under a street light. And there was other - there were four or five Jeeps pulled up together there, under the spotlight.
Now, the rule - the law was - the driver stays with the jeep. Always. Wherever you are, that's your vehicle, you're assigned to it, you're responsible for it. You stay with it. And I'm looking up at this light, and I'm looking at all these apartment buildings around there, and I'm saying, I'm a good target. The only bullet I fired was to shoot out that light. Which I did. And nobody said anything about it. And while we're sitting there - now, keep in mind, there's a curfew, and there's no civilian cars on the street. And Oakland Boulevard is like two lanes in each direction. It's not divided, but it's a pretty big street.
Here comes this vehicle coming down the street, at five miles an hour. So we stopped it, and it stopped. And this black guy - really drunk - he was on his - "Where you going? What are you doing?" He was on his way to see Jerry. He was going to fix this thing. Jerry [Mayor Jerome] Cavanagh. He was going to see Jerry. I said, well, not tonight. One of the guys - we didn't know what to do with this guy. One of the guys ran down to where the activity was - which was - there was no shooting or anything going on, they were just milling around down there. A couple cops came back, with a car - with their car - and saw this guy. They went through his car and they found a shotgun. Unloaded. So they proceeded to use the shotgun on this man, and threw him in their trunk, and off they go. The last we saw of that guy. I don't know what happened to him.
I hope you're hearing what you wanted to hear - I mean, you don't like what you're hearing, but I hope it's what you wanted to hear, was that this - from a guy that was on the street.
JW: Yeah, we just want to hear your memories.
JP: While out there on patrol, backing up a step, with the police, we got a call that there was sniper activity on Grand River, which was my stomping grounds - I mean, I went to the Riviera Theatre there, I went to church there, I went to Sanders for - my grandparents were buying me cherry sundaes - big, big, you know, youthful memory. And it was the middle of the night. We pulled up, and these buildings across the street were two-story buildings. There was shops in the bottom and apartments above it. And we pulled behind this church, which I suddenly realized was my church, that I grew up in - went to Sunday school there - and I'm hiding behind snipers at my church - I - what's going on here?
It was really a shocker. And it is emotional, even today. Because even up 'til the church burned down, probably ten or twelve years ago, we'd even go down there for Christmas Eve services, you know.
But back to when we got back to our school. They decided that our battalion would patrol Twelfth Street. From Clairmount south to the Boulevard, which is - I'm not sure - it's probably about a mile. And they put two soldiers on each side of the street for one block, and you would walk to this corner, turn around, and come back, walk to this corner, and that's what you did for four hours. And there was two, on all these blocks, all the way down. And we - we got - the curfew was still on. It was like from - I don't know - six PM until five or six AM curfew - no selling gasoline or no - don't be on the streets, so on. And we never knew which - four hours, sometimes they fell at night, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon.
But the bars weren't touched on Twelfth Street. They were - the neighbor people didn't want to burn the bars. They burned everything else, for no - you know, how many people have preached on this, but it was stupid to burn your own house down, you know - figuratively speaking. The bar owners would see the soldiers on their block and say "hey," - and the doors were wide open - "You want anything, guys? Go get it. Just go get it. Whatever it is." They wanted us to watch their shops.
The hookers, after a few days, started coming out, and the - the real unattractive women would come out about five AM, six AM, to catch the guys who were either going to their first shift or coming home from the night shift. And the more attractive ladies would come out at like five PM, to catch the other shift changes. And we met - you know, we talked to them, and they were fun to talk to, you know. And the neighborhood ladies came out and set up card tables and offered us food and, you know, big coolers full of Kool-Aid and head cheese sandwiches - if you know what a head cheese sandwich is. Do you?
JW: Oh, I've heard of head cheese, yeah.
JP: It's everything within the brains and head and everything else, all mixed up, and put into a loaf, and made into a sandwich. Like a pate.
JP: First time I'd ever had it. [laughter] But we'd get hungry.
JP: So that was kind of interesting. And there was - you know, we never had a confrontation, ever.
JW: So, you felt like the community was okay with you being there?
JP: Oh yeah. The scariest thing were the dogs. And these dogs were let out, because their homes were burned, or houses - their apartments were burned, and they didn't - you know, they just let the dogs out so they didn't get killed. You know, and they were roaming around, looking for scraps, you know. And you never knew if it was going to be a nice dog or a bad dog. Some guys had bad experiences. I didn't, particularly. But as far as the people goes, it was no big deal.
After - after noon on that Monday, nothing. No bad activity. Smoldering buildings. No new fires. No new gunshots. If I can back up again - when we were in line, to become in those patrol cars - that was the line - and I think I was very, very close to the guys that got in the police cars - because I knew the guys - later, that got in those police cars - that went to the Algiers Motel.
JW: Oh, interesting.
JP: Okay. So I got very lucky there. [papers rustle] The first Saturday we got - they gave us like three hours to go home, to go somewhere. If you could make arrangements. Make a phone call, and if you could make arrangements, they'd take you back to the armory. But from there you were on your own. But you had to be back. You know, if you wanted to go get toiletries, or whatever, you know. I mean, and that was - that worked for me, because I was married and we were living in Royal Oak at the time, and that was ten minutes from the armory. And I called my wife, she left work, got me some stuff, you know, and met me. Had a chat and went back.
JW: So as someone who grew up in the city, and then in the surrounding area, how did it feel to then see all of this happening? I mean, you touched on the church a little bit, but -
JP: It felt sad. It felt sad, because I could - I had no - I never had a conversation with a black person before, you know. I never had any contact. But it was obvious that they were harming themselves. You know, I couldn't figure it out. Why do you harm yourself - the emotion I felt was sad, and I still do today, you know.
The second week after we got home and got some stuff and came back, it was just those walking patrols for another week and then we went home. They lifted the curfews. They relieved the curfews, and tried to get things back to -
JW: So you were stationed in the city for about two weeks, then?
JP: Oh yeah. Yeah, just - exactly two weeks.
JW: And were you at Twelfth Street that whole time or were you in other areas of the city?
JP: No. Other than - other than in the Jeep patrolling, we were always on Twelfth Street. Yeah. Yeah.
JW: And then earlier, you said you don't like the term "riot."
JP: I just - I just - to me, it just bothers me. Yeah, okay, maybe it was a riot - and it was a riot - probably, but I just like using other language.
JW: What words do you typically use, then?
JP: Confrontations, uprisings - I don't know. I'd have to think on that. I just - it's like certain words, I don't like to use.
JW: That's fine.
JP: I don't like to use the word "ain't!"
JW: So, after that two weeks, did you still like to come down into the city, or did you - did your attitude toward the city change after that experience?
JP: Oh, sure. We - when I say we, either with wives, or guys - we'd go to hockey games - we'd go down to restaurants. One of my wife's and my favorite restaurants was called Little Harry's, and it was like - and it was, it was an original 1920's restaurant, bar, eventually speakeasy, back to restaurant, with the grand old decor, and it was out on East Jefferson, and it was one of our favorite places. We didn't hesitate to drive down Woodward and come home. Because if you drive from Royal Oak to downtown, what is it? Fifteen, twenty minutes, if you really think about it. You know, so we didn't - so it was hockey games, and restaurants. A couple other restaurants we'd go to, but, as I said, Little Harry's was a favorite spot.
JW: But you still felt comfortable coming into the city?
JP: I knew where I was. You know, I didn't feel that I was going to go into a bad area. I could avoid them. "Bad" being where trouble might arise again, if you didn't know.
JW: Would you say that was pretty typical of the people you knew up in Royal Oak?
JP: Oh, sure. Sure. We still felt the blacks had their own areas, you know, and you just didn't go there. They didn't really come out of their areas, you know. Like, I don't know the percentages. Today Detroit's ninety, ninety-five percent black, and that's fine. I go down there. Not very often, because - not that I'm afraid to. There's just nothing for me down there. At my age, and my experiences, and my interests don't belong in Detroit.
JW: How do you feel about the state of the city today?
JP: I knew these were coming. I am thrilled with the mayor. I mean, I can't say enough about this guy. And the business leaders, what's happening. Yeah, every night we hear bad stuff on the news. Sometimes it's five things in a row that are bad. But there's an awful lot of good stuff going on. I'm delighted. The neighborhoods are never going to be what they were, you know. I do go Brightmoor quite often, if you know where that is. You look like you don't.
JW: I don't know if I know.
JP: It's okay not to know! Brightmoor is - the hood, an area - Lahser, Five Mile, Redford Theater, do you know where that is?
JW: Yes, yes.
JP: That's Brightmoor.
JP: I go down there for a couple reasons. The Scottish bakery is right down the street. The - right next to the Redford Theater there's a really cool coffee shop, and if you ever get a chance you should go there.
JP: It is really cool. A black lady owns it. She's married to a white guy. He is in charge of Blightbusters of Detroit. It's their headquarters. They have really a cool facility there. A big back - out their back door is a big courtyard area. There's a theater off of the courtyard area, it's just a swell thing going on there. So to answer your question, I think it's - a whole lot better than it was four years ago.
JW: What kinds of things do you think the city needs to do to continue to improve?
JP: Oh boy. I don't give these things thought, and I don't like shooting from the hip, you know.
JW: That's okay.
JP: I don't know. The only thing that comes to mind real quickly is more - more police activity in the neighborhoods. More good police activity. There's a lot going on, but there could be more. And there are certain areas that these guys don't want to go into. And if you drive down the streets - and when I go to Brightmoor, I drive the back streets. It's almost like sightseeing. It's almost voyeurism, and it's kind of shameful, but it's really eye-opening if you do it, and you see for real what they're talking about.
JP: And you'll see wonderfully well-maintained newer homes, next to three that are burned out. So there's effort being made. But they all have bars on the windows.
JW: Yeah. Oh, something I forgot to ask. So how long - how long did you stay part of the National Guard?
JP: Six years. That was your obligation. So I was back in '68, on the street for a week. Detroit didn't flare up in '68. You probably know that.
JP: But they put us back there as a show of force, because other cities started burning up. And they were afraid that Detroit would, so they put us there. And it was for one week. Same school, same everything. Same hardwood floors to sleep on.
JW: Yeah. And so you talked a little bit about, you know, working with the police. Do you think the police were relieved to have you there?
JP: Oh, absolutely. No question. No question in my mind. They pulled in federal troops. you know, eventually. Near the end of the first week. And these were 82nd Airborne troops that had been back from Vietnam for two weeks. They didn't - they were afraid to put these guys on the street. We never saw them on the street. They parked them down by - somewhere off of Jefferson - and they parked them - parking - they put them up at the state fairgrounds. They were afraid these guys were so conditioned to doing bad things to bad people - they were afraid of what they would do if they put them on the street.
That's - that's a personal opinion, because I never saw them. I know guys that were in the 82nd Airborne, and we've talked about it. They came to Detroit - one of my very best friends, for a long time, was in Detroit, right out of Vietnam. Never went out.
They put us in the backseat of these cars and they tell us "open those windows. Put your bayonets on your rifles and stick 'em out the windows." And this was a show of force, as they would say. That's what the police - in whose squad cars we were.
JW: Yeah. So, are there any other memories that you'd like to share with us today?
JP: I had an interesting personal thing. Right across the street from the school was a fire station. Now - rumors circulate in the military, and god knows where they start, but the thing we heard was that when a fire truck was going out on a call, they were being shot at. So, they're putting soldiers on the fire trucks. Now I didn't happen to go on a fire truck. And a couple of guys I know did and encountered no shooting.
But when - we could hear the alarms go off in the fire station. It was scary. Really scary. Now, when I got home - in Royal Oak - our apartment - my wife's and my apartment was half a block from a fire station. For a very long time, when that fire alarm went off at the fire station, I just stopped. I didn't have a panic attack, but probably close to it. And today, you would call it PTSD. That wasn't even heard of back then. The closest anybody came was out of the war, so they called it, the guy was shellshocked. Same thing. But - and I overgrew it.
JW: That's good.
JP: So - and the other thing I would share with you is that I - I promise you that there was absolutely no - zero - zip - consideration that anything like what happened could have happened. By the politicians, the police, or the military. Shown by our total lack of preparedness. Their total lack of - their total lack of preparedness. No plans. No food for the soldiers. No accommodations. No cots. No nothing. And it was - and all the emphasis was on Vietnam at that time. And we are - my battalion had been designated not long before the uprising to be a SRF - Special Reserve Force. And we started our training as a special reserve force, which really, ultimately meant going to Vietnam. They were calling Guard units to go to Vietnam, and a lot of them went. A lot of them. And we were scheduled to go not that long after. And I contend that because Detroit flared up like it did, they changed those orders for us, to keep us in Detroit. In case.
JP: Nobody's ever said anything, but that's - that was my read of that whole thing. And of course '68 they were glad we were there, but nothing happened. That - that was – and [George] Romney, he was the governor, and he had no clue what was going on, you know. And he finally called the president and the president acted to call up the federal troops, which - it was all political. It was a show.
JW: Well, is there anything else you'd like to add today?
JP: I'm sorry?
JW: Is there anything else you'd like to add today?
JP: I think you allowed me to vent everything I wanted to vent!
JW: Well, good. Well thank you so much for coming in to sit with us. We really appreciate it.
JP: Okay, my pleasure. Okey doke.