Ivory Williams, August 15th, 2015
TV: This is Tobi Voigt with the Detroit Historical Society, I will be the interviewer today and my interviewee is…
IW: Ivory D. Williams, native Detroiter.
TV: Great, that’s – so, I figured that would be a great way to start today; ask you a little about when and where you were born and about your family.
IV: Okay, well… I was born in Detroit, in fact, I’m one of eight children and I was the only one that was actually born in my house. All my siblings were born in a hospital, but I’m the eldest and was born in the house at 323 Leicester at the north end of Detroit in 1949.
TB: Great. What was your family like? What did your parents do? What was it like growing up in Detroit?
IW: Well, I had a great time in Detroit growing up; it was a fun time to be a kid. On Leicester Street, I always remember that street because it was full of trees. You would enter – and there’s only three blocks of Leicester:from Woodward to John R, John R to Brush, and Brush to Oakland. And if you entered Leicester from either end, you can look through what seemed like a tunnel of trees all the way down. So many trees that when there was a light rain, you wouldn’t even get wet. So as a kid, everyone in that neighborhood – the north end – everyone knew everyone else. And during that time period very few people had cars on our block, so we were able to play in the streets a lot. ‘Cause every like third or fourth house there was a car parked all the rest was empty space. And in that neighborhood we had alleys, so, sometimes on the weekends we got to play in the street. That was a fun time for kids, but most of the time we were either in the backyard or we were playing in the alleys. We played baseball, football; we were too young to play basketball back then.
TB: That’s good. What do you remember about Detroit in general? I mean, I know your neighborhood, but Detroit as a city in the mid-1960s.
IW: Well in the mid-1960s, I was sort of coming of age. Okay, from a preteen to a teenager and my world was my neighborhood. So there are a lot of things going on, just television. We had three channels: 2, 4, 7, and PBS. But basically, I got some information from the news that there were some serious things happening. Civil rights, the Vietnam War was going on, but from a kid’s perspective that was just news. It really didn’t affect me. So my world was my brothers and sisters – we were raised by my grandmother and my mom – and my friends. And that was it, day to day until near the end of high school when it started getting serious. So we’re just playing. You know, making skateboards out of skates and pilfering tires from kids’ bikes and baby carriages. And doing those kinds… just playing marbles, Cowboys and Indians. We would strip trees of branches and with string make our own bows and arrows and top guns. So, that was it.
TV: Wow. That’s good. When you submitted – you talked about your grandmother and we will get to the story. I want to ask more about that. But, can you tell me a little about what your grandmother and mother were like? Growing up with them?
IW: Yeah. I idolized my grandmother. My mother was my mother, okay? She was sort of the disciplinarian of us all, you know? So she was mom, we all loved mom, but mom was mom. But, my grandmother, that was the person that I idolized because she was older. She rarely talked, but when she did talk it was like that old E.F. Hutton commercial, when grandma talks, people listen. And she would sit and rock on the front porch in a little [green or gray] and white tin – or I guess it was a metal, maybe aluminum – rocking chair and I would just sit and play, but always with an ear and eye to grandma. My mother would say, “I don’t want you hanging around that one. That one’s a bad person. [chuckles] Don’t hang around those kids. But grandma, she wouldn’t talk that way, she would say things like “I’d watch that one” and that was it. And now, I didn’t listen to mom, but grandma “I’d watch that one,” and then by watching and observing, I’d see what she meant. You know, “this person wasn’t that good of a person to hang around”. She would say those one-liners, those little zingers, real quiet she never yelled, but she was a force to be listened to.
TV: Was she born and raised in Detroit?
IW: No. Grandma was born in 1903. She would say nineteen aught three. She didn’t use zeros. No. She was born in nineteen aught three in Bedford County, Tennessee. She got married – and I actually got her story out of her – she got married on December 26th, the day after Christmas. She met a guy – my grandfather, George Claybrooks – she was born, her name was Annie Tucker. She met George Claybrooks, he lived in Williamson County, Tennessee. They got married on December 26th and they were the sort of people – and I got this from my relations – that they were headstrong and if you know anything about Tennessee (the backwoods of Tennessee in the Jim Crow South), being black and headstrong was not a good thing to be. So after a few months, they –and these are her words – “we had to skedaddle outta there.” [Laughter] And that’s how they made their way to Detroit.
TV: So this would have been nineteen-teens or early twenties?
IW: Yeah. She was born in ’03 and twenty years later… yeah, early ‘20s. And then in the 1920s, they got out. They rented a house on Melbourne Street, which is on Detroit’s east side. That is where they had my mother and my uncles. Then they finally bought the first house in our family at 323 Leicester on the north end; where I was born and where we grew up.
TB: Oh, that’s great! So tell me how did you first hear about the unrest that was starting to happen in those July days?
IW: Well, actually… I started hearing about it and thinking about it maybe a year or two earlier.
IW: Because things were happening in other cities: there was the Watts thing, there was some stuff going on in Newark, New Jersey and… I didn’t understand it, but stuff was happening. Me… That brought me to thinking about some of things that were happening here, because – now, let’s see, in ’66, I was in the eleventh grade and I started thinking about what was happening outside of me that was affecting me. Particularly the police. It was sort of a way of life, you know? We were taught don’t mess with the police, you know? We were taught that the police were not our friends, you know? But everywhere we go, you know – you watch TV programs, you know the first thing you do, you know, “call the police!” But you know, that wasn’t our experience and as a teenager growing up it was just… we call it the tax of living. You know the living tax for teenagers. And we’d be playing and the cops would stop us just for no reason at all. I don’t know if you know about this, there was a group of policemen we called them the Big Four. Have you heard about that?
TV: I have, yeah. I don’t know much about them.
IW: Okay, well… There were four of them. They drove around in a car, in plainclothes. If we were just… sometimes they’d let us go and sometimes they’d just stop. “What’re you doing?” And we’re not doing anything, they’d just harass us. Nothing would ever happen, but it was just a harassment kind of thing. When we were having fun, then they would just destroy our fun and we would talk about it for the next couple of hours, you know? But those were the kind… We did hear about of somethings happening to other people – that were serious – but never happened to us. So, there was an atmosphere of tension – didn’t quite know what it was – somehow it was related to the Watts and the Newark, ‘cause we were always, you know… “One day, you know. You’re gonna get yours.” – that kind of attitude. Didn’t know how they were gonna get theirs or whether we would play a role in it, but that was the atmosphere. And then, I graduated on June 22nd, 1967. Okay? From Northern High. More than just a block away, I lived on Leicester. The next block is Clairmount and Woodward is where Northern High is. So I lived on Leicester, one block over, south is Clairmount. You go west on Clairmount (from Woodward), there’s Second, Third – there is no Fourth, Fifth, or Sixth – it jumps to Hamilton, then Woodrow Wilson, then Twelfth Street. Which is where this thing happened. There was a Sunday morning, it was nice. The whole week had been hot – the whole week. I woke up on a Sunday, one month later – from graduating – I think it was the 23rd of July. My mom and grandma – every Sunday morning… we hated it, every Sunday morning – they played gospel music. Either played gospel music [or] James Cleveland. The same song, they were, you know, records. It was [g-something] they had playing so much [chuckles]. Or, they would play the radio. Martha G. McQueen – I bet – she did gospel stuff on Sunday. Well they were playing the radio this time and then it was interrupted – and I’m laying in bed. It was Sunday morning, like 7 or 8 o’clock Sunday morning, and they’re talking about this disturbance on Twelfth Street. We didn’t know, still weren’t paying any attention to it and got up – they were still talking about it, this disturbance on Twelfth Street, and all morning. Then we went outside and that’s all everyone else was… there were no, we didn’t see any visible signs of rioting or anything because Leicester is tree covered [chuckles], grove and sunny, you know? We’re just stretching, “What’re we going to do today? This Sunday morning.” Then by one o’clock or noon that’s when we knew it was serious, you know? Even the news commentators on TV were talking about it. So that’s what led up, you know? ‘66 things were happening outside. There was tension in the city. Prior to ’66, I didn’t notice it, but as a teenager I did notice it. Also in ‘66… this maybe related because as a twelfth grader in ’66 I was part of a group at Northern High that led the very first walk out in the country – at a high school. In the eleventh grade, we were supposed to see our councilors to find out what we were going to do when we graduate and go on to college. Well… I wanted to go to college. I had taken college prep courses – you know – all the way through the eleventh grade and I wanted to see what I need to do in the twelfth grade. Well, the councilor said, “We’re not sending any black people to college.”
TV: Was the councilor white?
IW: He was white. Okay. “We’re not sending… So your father…” – and this was just before my father left us. He worked for the city as a garbage man – and he said, “The city needs more garbage men,” you know, “and you would be perfect for that. So we have enough people going to college; you’re not going.” So, I was bummed… I’m sixteen, I don’t know anything. I had to take what he said. We’re sitting around outside – me and my friends – we found out that all of us had that same speech from our councilors – there’s about seven or eight of us, you know. We had all gotten that same speech. So we said, “You know… we need to do something about this.” So, we had this plan, “like three days from now… a Thursday or a Friday, the whole school… we’re just gonna get up out of our seats and walk out. We’re gonna go around the school and then we’re gonna come back in. So, don’t tell anybody.” The teachers didn’t have a clue. For the next few days, we’re telling all our friends – all over the school – “that at eleven o’clock on Friday… we’re gonna walk out – just get up and walk out – and we’ll meet you out front.” So, here it is, eleven o’clock. I’m in my class, so I get up and I walk off. I just get up and walk out. You know… the teachers looking at me - didn’t say anything - [as] I just walked out. The hall is completely empty. I go down to the front of the building. I walk out the door, there’s the six seven or eight of us standing there [hearty laugh]. Nobody else, you know. We’re laughing, “Oh boy, that didn’t work.” And we were just about to go back in – we were deciding whether to go back in school or play hooky. And none of us played hooky, you know, that wasn’t us. So… just as we were about to turn around, the doors just burst open! Everybody came out of the school, you know, everybody, we were… The thing was, we had no plans for what we were going to do [big laugh] afterword. So, we marched two or three time around the school, you know, chanting “we want education” – all that kind of stuff. Then no one came back in school, we went home. It was front page news for the next two weeks, both the Detroit – I think it was the Times at the time, and the Detroit News.
IW: The principal called us the N word and all that stuff. The bottom line was… we won. We wanted to get rid of the rid principal, get rid of the councilors, and no reprisals against the few teachers that actually supported us. It was us against the NAACP, cause they disapproved of what we were doing. It was us against our parents, “What do you mean, you’re jeopardizing your education!” And it was us against the Detroit Board of Education. Finally they relented; they got rid of the racist principal and teachers. They got some… They didn’t take any reprisals against the teachers who supported us and we got the curriculums that we wanted! [Proudly slammed fist on desk] That was written up in a book by Jeffery Mirel [?]. That was ’66… April of ’66.
TV: I want to ask you couple more follow up questions about that so that I can understand the context. So at this time… your neighborhood here – and, I exactly where this school is, because it’s now the women’s school, right?
TV: What was the neighborhood makeup like? Was it a majority African-American neighborhood? Was your school an integrated school? Was it mainly African American students and white teachers? Help me understand the context a little bit better.
IW: It was… I’d say 99 percent African-American. There were only two people in my school that I knew were white. One guy was Billy – cool dude, he was on the baseball team – and there was a white teenager who was our age that… you didn’t even… it’s one of those you don’t even see – she was one of our friends. She played marbles with us, baseball… didn’t even think, there was never any racial thing the entire time we interacted with each other. So, there was no… The only racial issues were when we had to deal with government. Like, when we had to go to the city county building for something. I remember going with my mom we went and had to wait – even though we were there first – we had to wait while they served all the white… We went down at nine and we didn’t get served until like three o’clock in the afternoon. But other than that, that was it. So the school was 99 percent, the neighborhood was 99 percent black which was unlike the other high schools. The businesses were… I’d say half and half. We had three grocery stores. Goldberg’s – he was a Jewish guy, best guy in the neighborhood, everyone knew Goldberg you know. He would give us credit, you know. Like, “your momma owes two dollars or something [chuckles] and that’s it. Then there was two black candy stores – or grocers – and then there was another… a white guy who owned it, but they were just owners… color didn’t even play into it. And they all moved out after the thing.
TV: Really? After the summer of 1967?
IW: Yep, all of them.
TV: That’s interesting.
IW: And the schools, by the way were mostly… We had a lot of black teachers, but they were mostly white teachers – and good teachers too. I mean some of my best experiences… Mr. Mims – my science/physics teacher – loved the guy. And my English teachers – the white English teachers – I loved them. I mean they actually taught, you know? But there were some like the councilors, and unfortunately the principal – who you know was the leader of the thing.
TV: Yeah… interesting. Okay, sorry, thank you for sharing that, that was really interesting, that helps me understand the context. So, help me understand your personal experiences about the starting and how your family heard what was going on and your neighborhood did. Your neighborhood was not physically – I’m asking, I guess… Was your neighborhood physically impacted by…
IW: You mean the destruction, or?
TV: Yeah, what happened in your neighborhood? Okay, so?
IW: No, okay, Leicester is three blocks, okay - Woodward to Oakland. There were no businesses outside of those few candy stores… there was no businesses. But Oakland, that was like a business/entertainment strip, you know. And that’s where… there were some… rioting, breaking into the buildings – you know, the glass – and the looting. That’s where it occurred, on Oakland. Now with my grandmother – and this was the incident that stays with us – me, not only me, but my family – because we were poor and it didn’t matter everyone knew we were poor. We’d go “Hey, mom wants a cup of sugar.” And we’d actually take a cup and they’d give us a cup of sugar. So, about two days into the rioting… these guys – it was about three guys – we knew them. I’m sitting on the porch with my grandma. So they’re coming down Leicester with these boxes – you know – filled to brim with food: cereal, oatmeal, all that kind of stuff you know. And there coming… they come right to my house and as they come into the walkway – you know, they’re smiling… “Hey, Mrs. Claybrooks – that’s my grandmother last name – we got some food for you, for got some food for you.” And I’m sitting there on the steps. And as they turn into the walk way, I get up… I’m gonna help them bring the food in! [big laugh]. And grandma gets up and she walks to the edge of the porch… she tells “y’all get on away from… get on away from him.” Just in a mean voice, mean stern look. And they’re stunned… “It’s free?” She’s, “get on away from here… get out.” And she just throws her hands up and they walk on and I’m stunned myself, you know. “Grandma, you know… We’re hungry” – we hadn’t eaten. And that’s when she said, “It’s never right … to do wrong.” And when we look back – you know – over our lives and we hear all the excuse that people use, you know, for… because they don’t have any food, “we’re gonna rob the store.” Because, “I need my children… I don’t want my children not to have things, you know, I’m do something.” But it’s not worth it and you have to time to look back over that to really understand the impact of just a one liner like that. So, we live our lives like that, you know. Yeah, we want good thing like everyone else has and there are opportunities where you might be able to get away with it, but it’s what you do when people aren’t looking that tests the character of folks.
TV: That’s incredible.
IW: And that’s grandma! [laughter] That was her best lines to me, but she was full of little things like that.
IW: And that helped us get through that period of ’67.
TV: Yeah… yeah, wow. Is there anything else regarding what happened in ’67 or if and how it influenced your life or anything else really you want to share about your experiences?
IW: Well, about that… It’s just… I don’t see any institutional change, okay? We still have a difficult time talking about race and um… even though we have an African-American president – you know – he’s just a person with a title and a position that really has nothing to do with us in the city, you know. He can have some influence on some of these, but as far as relating with people. With um – I call them the spirit attitudes – I don’t see that. Now, the upside is this. Because of exposure, because of a lot of integration… I spent time in the Navy, you know. I’ve been affected by other attitudes – you know – which is a good thing. People aren’t as restrictive or as repressive as I thought they were when I was in my teens and twenties. Yeah, so… Time will be key I think, you know, people keep doing the right things, then race will become less of an issue over time. And that’s part of my message as a story teller.
TV: Yeah… good.
IW: This is good… getting these stories out. It’ll help with the conversation I think.
TV: That’s… kind of the key thing. Anything else you’d like to say for the official record?
IW: Um… not really. Give me a buzz any time something pops in your head.
TV: I will, I will.