Dwight Stackhouse, July 31, 2015
Kresge’s Five & Dime Store
Note: Though it has been edited in the transcript, the audio for this oral history contains profanity and/or explicit language.
LW: Today is July 31, 2015 this is the interview of Dwight Stackhouse by Lily Wilson. We are at the Detroit Historical Museum in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Dwight, can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
DS: I was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1947, November the Fourth.
LW: And when did you come to Detroit?
DS: 1948. January of 1947—1948.
LW: Okay. And what brought your family here?
DS: The whole up south movement—jobs, et cetera. My parents, neither of them in fact landed in the factories but they both came for the rest. This was the place to be, it was the destination spot in the late 40s and 50s, even into the 60s.
LW: So what did your parents do for a living?
DS: Both were chefs. Now it’s interesting, chefs, given what they were consigned to—being African-American, it may be too lofty a term. My dad cooked for one of the institutions here in the City of Detroit, I want to say it was a juvenile home. But he was the head chef at a very posh hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Left there because of racism. And my mother for a long time did domestic work. Again, not much else was available to people of African-American descent in the early 50s anywhere in the country. But you know, all of the accoutrements, all around, there was enough to draw from, enough leavings, if you will, for people to benefit.
LW: I see. And what neighborhood?
DS: I was born—not born, I was raised roughly at the corner of Twenty-Third [Street] and Michigan. Actually on the corner of Twenty-Third and Butternut which is just one block north of Michigan Avenue. A wonderful, idyllic place, beautiful place.
LW: What was the neighborhood like in addition to being idyllic?
DS: Well, it was a wonderful mix of ethnicities and nationalities. It was equal parts Slavic, Asian-Chinese, Hispanic-Mexican and Afro-Americans and poor whites up from the south. You know when I say idyllic that’s really what I mean, the mix more than the wonderful trees and greenery.
LW: So you interacted with all of these different families, I assume, in your neighborhood?
DS: Seamlessly, seamlessly. There was no sense of racism in our little enclave. All of the children played together. The adults on the other hand they come with their own traditions. The Chinese tradition is very different from the African-American, which is very different from the Slavic and so on. So the adults sort of stayed within themselves. But the children, we were up the trees, up the mounds, running up and down the alleys, shooting marbles. It was absolutely wonderful. It will live forever in my memory.
LW: I was going to ask--
DS: Such a wonderful time.
LW: How did that shape you as an adult?
DS: I’m kind of a pan person. I don’t understand what I call the stupidity of racism or ageism sexism or any of the -isms. That level of nonsense I have no precedent for it and I don’t get it. And I think that holds me in pretty good stead in a world that’s becoming one, you know. I don’t come to the game with prejudices and apprehensions. To me, a human being is a human being.
LW: What do you do for a living?
DS: I am a master builder and a master carpenter but I actually inspect homes--have knowledge will travel, I’ve left the tools alone.
LW: I see.
DS: So if you’re going to buy a house and you want to know what’s wrong with it, you call someone like me. But more than that I’m a writer of books and novels and plays and such. Published a couple of books.
LW: What are the subjects of your published material?
DS: Well, the book is called Mother’s Milk. In addition to what I have said, I’m a mama’s boy. And I lost her when I was twenty-nine, and I may as well have been nine. Because when she died so did I and I stayed dead for fifteen years. So the book is about the saga of redemption, of forgiveness, you know, of love.
LW: Who did you feel like you needed to forgive?
DS: I needed forgiving.
LW: You needed forgiving.
DS: I obliterated a loving family, my wife, and my boys. Just ruined it. It is difficult to be father when you’re dead.
LW: So as a result of your grief, losing your mother, you feel that you were destructive in your own family unit.
DS: Oh, I was absolutely that. It is incontestable.
LW: Okay. So what’s happened in your life since then?
DS: Oh, many things, many things, I mean goodness – you should buy the book [laughter]—it’s five-hundred pages of what’s happened.
LW: The abridged version for the record, please [laughter].
DS: I’ve done so many things I don’t even know how to abridge it. I’m an actor, I’m a poet, I’m a carpenter, I’m a grandpa, I’m a great-grandpa, and I’m a good brother, good uncle, I am in love with my city and I do it under the radar, I don’t need accolades to bring the love to the place that I love.
LW: Tell me about your love for the city of Detroit--where does that stem from and tell me about your perceptions of the city.
DS: When anybody loves a place or a thing, it has to do with the relationship—the formative relationship between you and that place, that thing, that person. And for me Detroit was always sunshine and blue sky, even in the snow. I’m one of those persons who--I’m into the spiders and the sparrows, the blooming and the falling and the leaves and so on. And had it happened in Minnesota, I’d probably feel this way about Minnesota but I was here, it was here.
DS: I remember clean alleys, I remember people communicating with one another, the whole conversations at the fence post, that was very, very real. When I talk about—if you saw the video—pies cooling on window sills, that was real. There’s so many stories. I literally have many more than my siblings who were raised with me because I paid attention. I can remember—gosh—so much. The smell of the place, all of the animals I remember their names—all of the little pets in the neighborhood. I was one of those persons who – I didn’t challenge the rats any more than I did the cats—they’re God’s creatures too and welcome here.
LW: So did you see a change happen in Detroit in the 1960s, or in particular 1967?
DS: Yeah, yeah. 1967 of course was absolutely traumatic. July 23rd. At that time—when I was a little boy, my mother decided to become what is called a Jehovah’s Witness. I don’t know if you know much about them but they’re evangelizers, that’s – they knock on doors and try to convert people. And so part of my nostalgia has to do with having knocked on literally thousands of doors, been on nearly every porch between the [Detroit] River and Buchanan, West Grand Boulevard to Tiger’s Stadium. I was on every single porch—that’s thousands of homes. Now I’m on the porch as a kid, just kind of hanging out with mom but I’m feeling the place. Fast forward and I’m now a young adult and I’ve embraced this religion, simply because my mother did, I’m certainly not Christian, not very religious at all but for her there was nothing I would not do. And so on July 23 I was knocking on doors at Blaine and 12th Street which is the epicenter of the riot. And when I got there we could see cops, and barricades and people bustling about but it was too early to know what was going on. And they of course disallowed it—you can’t knock on doors here, “Get outta here.”
LW: Because of the violence?
DS: Well, because of what they perceived to be the violence which at that time so far as anyone knew, there was a blind pig, an after-hours joint where some corruption had taken place.
DS: And I think someone was hurt or shot or killed. And an investigation was going on so we had to get the hell outta there. But before that day ended smoke was rising all over the city. And within days I remember the tanks rolling up and down LaSalle Boulevard, Linwood, even Dexter. I remember the shooting—I mean really they opened up the guns on tanks and bam, bam, bam, bam, bam [imitating gun shots] all over the place. I can take you now where bullet holes still remain in residential houses. And the anger, the uproar of the people it just broke my heart, and overwhelmed the community. It simmered and smoked for days, many days it seemed. That was the first time I spent the whole night up and awake, you know, none of us could sleep so we were awake throughout the whole night.
LW: How old were you?
DS: 1967 July--I was nineteen—nineteen-years-old.
LW: So, what kinds of things, in addition to the tanks, do you remember seeing at Blaine and 12th when you were out evangelizing with your mom?
DS: Wow. Some of it—much of it is not so pleasant. There were whores still walking the streets. And I remember a particular whore whose name I didn’t know of course but I remember she was disgusting and she came up to the car—and I want to say that I was on 12th Street, or 14th—and she said, “What can I do for you boy? I’m selling ass and head. You want some? Ass and head.” I didn’t even know what it meant. At nineteen I had no idea what that meant.
LW: And you were with your mom?
DS: No, I was not with my mom at that moment but at some point I told my parents what I had experienced and of course they explained to me what that was. Part my upbringing is that I remained utterly naïve well into my twenties.
LW: Got it.
DS: Unlike my older brother and my younger brother who were very streetwise, I was just tugging on mama’s skirt, I was the good boy in the family type of thing. And another thing I remember – not that day but later that day or later in the week – was watching the looters. And I can remember being frozen by a moment when there was an old, white, almost certainly Jewish merchant. And we used to, you know, buy candy and potato chips and so on from this guy, from his store there on Linwood. And he was trying to protect his store and the lunatics dragged him out of the store, they threw him to the ground and I remember some guy standing over him with some very sharp, very heavy piece of concrete and he threw it, right at this man’s head and missed. How he missed I have no idea how he missed 'cause he was standing right above him. But otherwise that would have been--and in my mind, I saw it landing. I mean it did not, but in my mind it was as if this man’s head was crushed. And he was certainly bloodied and scarred from all else they did to him but he survived that day. And then of course people simply left, they took nothing, they simply left--all non-brown or black peoples just left. You could buy, at that time, and this goes to the conditions that we have now, you could buy a house that I could not build—and I know what I’m talking about because I’m master builder—I could not build the house for four million dollars and you could buy it for thirty-thousand because nobody wanted to be here. They just-- get the hell outta here.
LW: What do you think sparked that violence? You mentioned that things were simmering afterwards, what was simmering before?
DS: Well the question is a bit trite you know because systemic racism in America goes without saying.
LW: Of course.
DS: And so you have people who are simply disentitled, they have access to nearly nothing. It is not unlike the storming of the Bastille in the eighteenth century, it is very much like that. Except then it was the poor against the rich and it was more that in 1967 in Detroit than it was whites against blacks it was just that the blacks were predominately the poor. So when you have disallowed access to the most basic entitlements, the most basic entitlements, well that simmers and it simply boiled over—I mean in the ugliest manner possible it boiled over. But the storming of the Bastille, that historical episode was pretty ugly too.
LW: Sure. So you think that it was a lack of access?
DS: It was rampant, systemic, indifferent prejudice. It’s almost impossible for you—I think—to even imagine it.
DS: Well, because you’re a white woman in America. In 1957, there was a bowling alley on the corner of West Grand Boulevard and Michigan called Hall’s Bowling. I was not allowed in there except to shine shoes and deliver papers.
LW: Did you do that?
DS: My brother and I did that, yes. But you see at the time, this is my heritage I don’t really quite understand—this is all I’m allowed to do. My brother at the time is fifteen, I’m nine or ten. And so we don’t understand that we’re at the bottom of the totem pole, we’re bewildered. Why do these people--because remember I’m playing with kids that looked like them all the time.
DS: This doesn’t make sense to me. And the other places where you couldn’t go in, Kresge’s, downtown on Woodward Avenue. The whole colored only thing, it simply could not make sense to me because I’m having dinner with the Canfields and they’re white folks. The Perez’s are coming over and we’re making tacos together, you know. It just made no sense. And I didn’t ponder it, not then.
LW: – ‘Cause that was all you had access to.
DS: It was all we knew. But I ponder it now. And that’s my next book, by the way, yeah.
LW: What other types of things do you remember not having access to?
DS: Well, you know, in the north I did not have to sit on the back of the bus as it were. I don’t remember having such a moment. I think—I never felt deprived because I was from such a loving, gifted family that I never felt that. I do recall when my family decided to move from Twenty-Third and Butternut to Linwood and Pingree—which was movin’ on up—the whole red lining thing presented itself.
LW: Explain that.
DS: Well, you know, it was legal to not sell houses to black people in the way that it was legal to not allow us to read in the nineteenth century. And you know when you’re born into that you grow up with that most people of any color of any age and time, most people simply accept it. You just accept it. Now you do have your—how shall I say—your leaders from Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, who kick up the dust, who draw the attention to the insanity. But you have, on the other side, a group of people who are not about to give up privilege--not about to give it up. And allowing you privilege—the most ordinary kind—they feel (they seem to feel) as if they’re losing something, they have to give something up to give you ordinary rights. And of course none of that is true. But again, they’re born into something too. And they’re born into a belief, and it is real for them, that they are superior to me in intellect, physically, obviously economically. And they don’t understand that this earth is one place and it belongs to everyone. It’s just not something they understand, they’ve never been taught that in the way that the Native Americans and the Inuits understood that. It’s not understood by them. And so I can remember being a young minister amongst these Jehovah’s’ Witnesses and one of the great muckety-mucks from the headquarters shows up and they decide—well, you know how religious organizations are, there’s always prayer before everything. And so he got the idea, and I’m nineteen, maybe twenty, and public speaking was something I was good at ‘cause my mom had me doing it since I was seven. He says, “I think we should have one of the colored brothers offer prayer.” Now what is implied by that is heretofore you weren’t even allowed to pray, not in public.
LW: And your church was mixed?
DS: Absolutely mixed. Jehovah’s Witnesses are global. One of my great memories is being at what they called an international convention in 1958 in New York City and people came in their original regalia from Iceland, from South Africa, from Australia, from Italy. And it was awe-inspiring for an eight-year-old just to see that. And it mimicked, in my mind, in my young mind, my neighborhood. So I’m seduced now, and I think wow, this is where I belong. Now the dogma is a whole other thing. I honestly believe that if you think about any religion—any religion—you will dismiss it. But we’re not allowed to think about in that faith.
LW: Are you still a Jehovah’s Witness?
DS: Oh, god, I’m not even Christian. I believe that religion in all of its forms is the most grievous thing wrong with humanity. Religion is the problem.
LW: What church did you attend with your mom growing up?
DS: The Jehovah’s Witnesses. She was a Baptist and she left that to become a Jehovah’s Witness.
LW: Was there a particular congregation or building that--
DS: It was at the corner of Grand River and Henry where Cass High School is.
LW: Got it. How do you think that that some of the—in addition to religion—but also the lack of access to basic things, as you mentioned—how do you think that has persisted today? Do you think it has?
DS: Oh, absolutely.
LW: How so?
DS: It’s less glaring but it certainly remains true. And this is not sour grapes this is more a happy statement than a sad one. The current gentrification in the city, those houses were left to people—the great houses I mentioned earlier—they were, I mean, you could spend thirty grand and have a four million dollar house. But the level of ignorance in buying a house meant that it never even dawned on you that you’d have to fix a leak or put a roof on it or repair the porch. So those houses have decayed essentially because there were people in them who could not afford them. The people who left the houses were brain surgeons and politicians and lawyers. The people who inherited them, who bought them for thirty-thousand, them were school teachers, post office employees and factory workers--could not begin to afford these homes. So, we have the decay. The gentrification which I see up close and personal because I inspect six-hundred houses a year and I see it happening. The people are coming now who can afford them. They’re simply returning. The children and grandchildren of the people who fled are returning and they return with the parents because the parents and the grandparents are my age we talk from time to time about what was and sometimes we talk silently. It’s just that recognition—I know where you were, you know where I was and depending on what their point of view is, the discussion is a silent one. But there are many who really—“Let’s have a glass of wine, you know, let’s talk.” And we do that. I think this current movement of suburbia, primarily millennials, not entirely but primarily millennials, back into the city, is one of the more glaring pieces of evidence of this heritable insanity, the madness.
LW: Why is it insanity?
DS: It insanity to think you are superior to another human being. It makes no sense.
LW: How do you think that—you think that gentrification breeds this particular –?
DS: No, I think gentrification, the final analysis, which is a tribute to the millennials, if you will, is the best hope we’ve got. Because this generation of young people remind me, in some way, of what I was like as a little boy. They don’t understand racism, it doesn’t make any sense to them. Because they grew up with the Michael Jordan’s, the Oprah's, the Huel Perkins' and so on so racism just doesn’t compute, they don’t get it—it’s like what are you talking about until it’s time to share. You see they don’t understand the advantages of simply being born white. Simply being born, an accident of birth, that’s all it is. In the same way my color, my heritage, is simply an accident of birth. Which is the same case with the Muslim population that is now being so utterly denigrated—just an accident of birth. Had they been born in Cleveland that is to say without Islamic parents, they’d be Catholic or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
LW: So while you see there being a problem, stemming from the fear of sharing resources, there is still an advantage to some of the gentrification that is occurring in the city.
DS: Yeah. There’s nothing new about humans not wanting to share. That’s as old as we are. But I do think, because there are the Lily’s and Noah’s on the planet now who see the world differently, that we have a chance—we have a chance. And, by the way, the Lily’s and Noah’s come in every single color.
DS: Every single color. You’re the hope we have. As I said during one interview, not unlike this one, Detroit is acres of diamonds that is about to be restored. But it is restored by the Lily’s, the Noah’s, the Skip’s the people who give a damn who can see through shroud of madness, you can see through it, you see the stupidity.
LW: And you think that the last hurdle is overcoming this ignorance about being born a particular color and the inherent privilege or disengagement from access that may come with that?
DS: Say that again please.
LW: Do you think the last hurdle to overcome is if I have to share something with you I am thereby dis privileged.
DS: Yeah. You’re diminished and deprived if you have to share. That means you’ve given something up.
LW: And you think that that is the last—one of the last hurdles that even millennial have to overcome.
DS: My dear, you and your grandchildren will not be close to the last hurdle. Because what will happen is there will be a new classification of people. If I may put it this grossly, they’ll be new niggers And the new niggers will have nothing to do with color. “These sons-of-bitches think I need to share my shit? Fuck them.” You know? I mean that’s—there are people who simply don’t want you to have. There was an expression when I was a young man, that I can remember my grandparents or older aunts and uncles saying, “The only thing worser than a nigger is a nigger lover.” So if you’re perceived to side with the underprivileged, you become worse than the underprivileged. Now, that population has grown by leaps and bounds, people who give a damn, people who don’t understand the insanity. They don’t see a difference between me and Noah or you and Noah for that matter.
DS: And that group is almost certainly—I don’t know what the new name will be—probably not nigger but something—something defaming. Some ugly name will be assigned to people like us by the powers that be. And we will be diminished, we will be deprived, we will be opposed by the powers that be. The madness that exists because people in power want it this way, it works for them, around the globe not just here in the city.
LW: Do you think that things have improved since 1967?
DS: You can’t deny that there has been improvement—there certainly has been change. We will have to await the tale of history to see if in fact it deserves to be called improvement. But certainly there’s change. See, I can now buy a house anywhere I want it. But it doesn’t really mean that we’ve improved it just means it’s different. Because there’s a new group, loosely shaped now, that will probably be opposed and I’m probably in that group.
LW: Can you tell me about your neighborhood today?
DS: Well, it’s a very nice neighborhood. I live in an Albert Kahn bungalow that was built in 1900 and I’m refurbishing it as we speak. And there’s a lot of good activity in my neighborhood, people who care. The millennials have shown up. When I bought the place--check this out, I live in a small house, mine is the smallest house on the block because it was the first, it was just a cottage out in the woods in 1900, but if I were building that house today it would cost around six-hundred grand. I paid seven-thousand dollars for it.
LW: For an Albert Kahn?
DS: For an Albert Kahn. Because no one wanted to be there.
LW: What year was that?
DS: 1993. The guy across the street from me paid a hundred dollars for his house, it’s the prettiest house on the street. My brother lives a block away paid a thousand dollars. Now all those houses, all of them, are worth in access of one-hundred grand, some as much as two-hundred-and-fifty grand. But you see that’s the power of this insanity that I was telling you about. The house—no matter who live around it, the actual value, bricks and mortar, or in my case cedar shingles, is still the same, that’s unchanged. So the value is inextricably connected to who lives next door. And that was people that looked like me. We say—it’s a rather sad thing to say—but if I could lift that house, my house, and take it just five miles into Royal Oak, suddenly it’s worth six-hundred grand.
LW: Or more.
DS: Or more. Because I don’t live next door. Have I clearly defined madness, the insanity?
LW: The insanity? I think so, I think so.
DS: This is crazy, this is crazy. And see I won’t even bother to get to know you because you’re white god damn it. White son-of-a-bitch I won’t bother to know you. Because if I see your skin I know everything I need to know about you! See how crazy this is? This is crazy.
DS: Now we’re doing it with the Mexicans. We’re certainly doing it with the Middle Easterners. We must stop this insanity, we have to stop it. And it’s folk like us who’ll do it.
LW: What do you think the key to stopping that truly is? Do you think it’s education? Do you think its community outreach?
DS: [Laughs] Well, yeah, but it’s so much more than that. If we would embrace the tenants of the so-called founding fathers, if we would embrace the tenants of the so-called founding gods, or demigods, Muhammad, Christ, you know, do unto others blah, blah, blah, it’s so simple, it’s just so simple. But in doing it I have to give up something and sometimes what I have to give up is just too sacred. “I have to give up what my mom did, my family’s been doing this for year”—you know? That kind of insanity. Like the madness around the flag. I mean how stupid can you be to behave as if you don’t know the origins of that flag?
LW: Sure—the Confederate flag you’re talking about?
DS: Yeah, the Confederate flag. C’mon. We who are Southern whites have given each other permission to give each other to be willfully ignorant slash stupid. “And in my little group it’s sanctioned. They’re stupid, not us.” So when I say that you and your grandchildren, and even their grandchildren are not near last hurdle, c’mon--that ilk is still out there and they’re growing not shrinking.
LW: Is there anything else that you can remember about ’67 in particular that you’d like to talk to us about?
DS: Gosh—I have to go to work but I have so much to say about 1967. And that is the year my heart was broken. That day my heart was broken.
LW: Seeing that violence?
DS: Seeing that violence. And knowing in the most naive sense of knowing what it meant, but my knowing now is not naive at all, it’s mature, it’s well thought out. I know what it has meant. I simply am out of time.
LW: Thank you so much for talking to us.
DS: No, thank you.
LW: It was great.
DS: I appreciate it.