Joann Castle, December 16th, 2015
Born in 1937 and raised on the west side of Detroit, Joann Castle is a retired healthcare professional and former labor and community activist. As part of a radical Catholic network challenged by the civil rights struggle, she and her first husband moved from Taylor Township back to Detroit in early 1967 to provide charitable services in the area surrounding Blessed Sacrament Cathedral as well as to raise their children in a diverse environment. She took in several foster children. After the 1967 civil disturbance she cofounded Hourglass and later helped to create a group named Control, Conflict, and Change. When the movement died down, she and her second husband Mike Hamlin, co-founder of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, focused on serving people through other avenues in the community.
WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. It is December 16, 2015. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. And this is the interview of Joann Castle. Thank you very much for sitting down with me today, Joann.
JC: Thank you for having me.
WW: You’re more than welcome. My pleasure. Can you first tell me where and when you were born?
JC: I was born in Detroit, Michigan, in May of 1937.
WW: Where did you grow up?
JC: In Detroit. I lived in Detroit until I got married in 1957. We moved briefly to Taylor Township because we needed to find an affordable house for our growing family, then we moved back to Detroit.
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
JC: When I was born we lived on Larchmont near Grand River and West Grand Boulevard. I lived there with my mother and then we moved to Wisconsin Street, where I spent my preschool years with my dad’s family. Once I started school we lived on Meyers Road, between Schoolcraft and Davison. When I was in seventh grade, we moved farther west, near Southfield and Joy Road. So all those years, I was in the city.
WW: Very nice. What did your parents do for a living?
JC: Well, my mother was a housewife. She never worked outside the home until after I was married. My father was a clerk at Chrysler Corporation, until after the war, at which time he started selling cars. He loved cars, and he sold cars until he retired.
WW: And who did you marry in 1957?
JC: I married Don Castle, who was also from Detroit. He was in school at GM Tech, on track to become a manager at the Ternstedt Plant, which is in southwest Detroit.
WW: And what prompted you—you said you were expecting children—so why did you move to Taylor?
JC: Because we needed a house. And Don found a house that was foreclosed on, that we could move into without putting any money down. We didn’t have much money and we were having a child that year, so we needed some space. We just walked in and start making payments. No approval necessary. We stayed there, probably seven years. We birthed six children while we were in that house.
And by that time, the civil rights movement was taking some shape. We had a priest at our parish who you’ve probably heard of, Father Bill Cunningham. Father went to march at Selma, and he walked across the bridge with Martin Luther King on that second attempt to cross the Edmond Pettis Bridge. He gave a sermon about it the following Sunday. I remember him holding up this picture in Time magazine that showed him and his friend, Father Berg in the group on the bridge. He gave a stirring sermon on why Catholics needed to be witnesses for Christ, and that we needed to live and represent our beliefs.
This was also the period of Pope John XXIII, who—very much like Pope Francis today—encouraged people to get involved in society and seek more just humanity. So, we got involved in working with Father Cunningham, beginning with mentoring college students at Eastern Michigan University.
Fr. Cunningham was an activist. He developed a program where Catholics from the suburbs—Taylor Township was a suburb—that encouraged whites from the suburbs and blacks from the city to pair up and get to know each other. He believed that in getting to know each other, we could overcome some of the antagonistic beliefs that were being expressed at the time. Our family was paired up with a black family in the city who lived close to the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral. They invited us to come and spend time with them.
Ultimately, through these activities and what was going on in the broader environment—, Emmitt Till, Little Rock, the Sit-ins, Martin Luther King, Birmingham, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Malcolm X—a group of radical Catholic families and Catholic clerics came together to discuss what could be done in the Detroit area to bring people together. And it was during those conversations that I decided I wanted my children to be exposed to what I would call the “real world” and have them grow up in the city.
WW: Was the group integrated? Or was it—
JC: [Speaking at same time] No, not at that time. But what happened—I don’t know if you are familiar with Eleanor Josaitis, who worked with Father Cunningham in starting Focus Hope—Eleanor was a neighbor of mine in Taylor, and as our efforts began to take shape, she and her husband put money down on a house near the Catholic Cathedral. Her family planned to move to Detroit so that she could work on Focus Hope with Father Cunningham. But it happened that their family’s reaction was so bad—her mother expressed that she was going to take her children away if they actually made this move—and her father’s business partner, who was his brother, said that he would put him out of the business if they moved. So here they had put money down on a house and they were going to lose that money if they didn’t move.
We were spending a lot of time in the city. In Taylor, we felt isolated from meaningful activity so we expressed that we would like to buy the home that the Josaitis’s were losing. A priest who heard us mention this offered to loan us the money if we wanted to move. The whole purpose of the move was to be in the city and advocate for making things better. We took the money from Father Berg, and bought the house.
WW: What year was that?
JC: That would have been early ’67 because we moved in near the end of May. We got to know our neighbors, who were all very welcoming to us. This was a big old house in the Boston-Edison neighborhood—it was almost 100 years old. In those few blocks in Boston-Edison there were a handful of white families that stayed even though white flight was underway, but the surrounding area was totally black. We made adjustments to life in the surrounding area and put our children in the parish school that was primarily black—with white nuns as teachers. It was a new cultural experience for all of us but my husband and I agreed that it was important for the children to experience other people and to understand that there were other aspects to the world.
We had moved from a 900 square foot house into this three-story hulk of a home where we planned to continue our community work. Within a couple of weeks, I took in three extra children when a friend of mine died and I kept them for a month or so. Others would come.
WW: What did you and your husband do for a living at the time?
JC: I was a housewife and he was working at General Motors at the Tech Center. So—I had six children and the oldest one was seven, something like that— I was pretty busy but I was home all the time. It was intended that the new house would be a place where people could come when they needed something—when they needed food or shelter. We knew the priests at the cathedral, so we had a lot of coming and going. Sometimes people would knock on the parish door and ask for help and they would send them to us.
WW: Where were you when you first heard about what was happening on July 23rd, and how did you find out about what was going on?
JC: Well, we were at home. It was a Sunday, and we had visitors. A woman that I had known from high school, she and her husband were moving out of the city. They had just sold their home on the near east side because they felt unsafe and they were going out west. They were going to spend the night with us. All our children were in the back yard playing, and all of a sudden they started squealing. They were all excited. I went to the back door to see what was going on, and there were bits of paper falling from the air which the children were trying to catch. To the west, I could see that the whole sky was black, and I could smell smoke. So, I called the children in and tried to get through dinner.
It got dark, and we still really didn’t know what was going on. My husband went out and turned the car around in the driveway in case we needed to leave quickly. By then we could hear the sirens. My friend’s husband was totally freaked out. He was standing—we had this big kitchen window that opened out—and he started shouting racial slurs out the window. I had to calm him down. Then, I went up and put the kids to bed and tried to reassure them that we were all together and they were not to worry. We did sleep, but before we went to sleep the gunshots started—we could hear them. When we woke up in the morning, our friends and their kids were gone. They must have left in the middle of the night. I never heard from them again.
By then—it would have been by Monday morning—we had a pretty clear idea of what was going on. Then we had a priest from our parish in the suburbs knock on the door. I think it was Monday. And he said there was all this looting going on he had an assignment of going to people’s homes when they requested help. People needed things: they needed milk; they needed diapers; they needed all the essential things. The assignment he had been given was to go to people’s houses and confirm that they actually needed these things. And then he would facilitate the distribution. He asked if he could stay at our house that week so he’d be close and he could go back and forth to the food distribution center.
I think it was the next day—we were listening to the radio, and the governor had said that he was sending troops, but we had already heard them come. The tanks came rumbling in the night. One was parked on the lawn of the house next door to us. We had no clue what was going to happen or how it was going to get resolved. We were hearing about the deaths and the sniping.
We had another friend come through, a priest who was stationed in St. Clair Shores, Father Moloney. He was trying to reach his family’s home, which was on Dexter Boulevard, right in the middle of what was going on. But because of the burning fires and police barricades, he couldn’t get close so he came to our house. He slept in the day and at night he and a friend would go to the fire station to assist the firemen. I believed they helped cook at the fire station. So we had a few people around.
And some of our neighbors—a gentleman from across the street, Phil Gordon, who worked with the NAACP—he and his brother, Lincoln, lived there. Phil had gone over to 12th Street to see if he could assist in a resolution. He told us, the police were teasing him asking, what was he doing on the outside of the barriers, they need him on the inside to deal with some of the youth that were out of control. Throughout these days, Phil was one of our major points of information. We’d meet with him and the police would come and tell us that we couldn’t be outside congregating. And so we’d wait until they were gone and then we connected. We were trying to keep up from Phil’s inside point of view what kind of danger we were in. There was an article in the Free Press—or maybe it was the News—that indicated that blacks were going to attack the homes on Boston Boulevard, and we were in one of in those homes.
And so Don and a man from a white family down the street decided that the women and the children had to leave. Get out of there now! And his wife and I went to Taylor with nine children to stay in the house of somebody that was on vacation. Then, we both decided it made no sense to be running away. We were creating problems for the kids—we were making them think that they should be afraid. So we turned around and came back. We were warned that we were going to be targets of blacks on the freeway, and they wouldn’t let us back in—but the freeways were deserted. There was no threat to our coming back.
We talked with neighbors about things that they had seen. We were sharing information. They told me that the looting was not just by blacks that it was blacks and whites together. And over time talking with Phil and our neighbors, we could see that it wasn’t what I would call a race riot. Black folks were mad about how they were being treated. They weren’t going to take it anymore. And later, when I spent some time reading up on these analyses of what really happened, I could understand people—with the urban renewal going on; the lack of options for places to live, people were getting pushed into substandard housing; there was hardly any grocery stores; they had no transportation; they had no jobs—and they were pissed. And the police treated them so badly, which I saw a number of times when I lived in the city. And they just exploded. And so I agree that it was a rebellion. We as a society haven’t figured out how to deal with these things, and we need to.
WW: How did what happened in 1967 affect your view on your charitable work? Did it change the way you wanted to approach your charitable work, or did it just reinforce what you believed that needed to be done?
JC: Well, it reinforced that there was a role for us to play. The first thing that happened afterwards is one of the priests that I knew brought me a child who was homeless after her mother had a mental health breakdown in the middle of the disturbance. Someone took the child to the nuns in a nearby convent and they kept her a couple weeks and then decided they couldn’t continue to take care of her. The priest brought her to me. I went to Catholic Social Services and got a foster care license so I could keep her. Then, there was another young woman, a teenager who had run away from a halfway house where she was being ill-treated and we were able to take her as well. So that became part of my life, taking in these foster children.
The Catholic Church played a reluctant role in the aftermath of the rebellion. The archbishop was being pressured to do something to make a difference for people who were very needy. My husband and I teamed up with a seminarian that we had met at one of Father Bill Cunningham’s retreats. We started this program called Hourglass. And the idea was to lobby—that’s the best word I can think of—to lobby the archbishop to do something. We received support from a network of radical Catholics who were sympathetic to the needs of disenfranchised people and their anger about their oppression. We decided to have a meeting to see if we could get enough people together to do something meaningful and we formed this organization called Hourglass.
Hourglass wanted the Catholic Church to turn over their boarded up properties abandoned by white flight to the black community for recreation centers for young people or for educational programs or services that the community needed. We had the first meeting about this idea at our house. And that would have been in the fall of ’67, shortly after the civil uprising. More than a hundred people showed up, these were white people. It was just amazing, they all wanted to do something.
Catholics across the Detroit Area donated more than a million and a half dollars to the Archdiocesan Development Fund for alleviation of conditions that caused the rebellion. The Archbishop was looking for proposals to fund.
By spring of ‘68, Hourglass connected with Sheila Murphy from the Catholic Worker. Sheila grew up in a Catholic Worker house She was young and talented. At the time, she was a student at Wayne State. Because her parents had been active with the Catholic Worker for all of these years, she had a lot of connections in the community to people in the city administration and to higher-ups in different places. And she hooked us up with a black youth group on the East Side, under, Frank Ditto.
We had our first demonstration in May of ’68. We called it ‘a Witness’ in support of the concept of black self-determination. It was small, maybe 60-75 people, blacks and whites together in support of the concept of black self-determination. Then, we put together a proposal for funding our idea of community centers for black youth and submitted it for funding consideration by the Archdiocesan Development Fund. As a first step, the Hourglass Board presented the proposal to Bishop Gumbleton who came to our house to say how pleased he was with our proposal and he recommended it to the Archbishop.
Frank Ditto worked with young people over on Kercheval on the east side where he was training them to be community leaders. They were looking for facilities where they could expand their program. With the Archbishop’s approval we chose a church in Ditto’s area that we wanted to turn over to the black community for his program. We targeted a parish gutted by white flight with only a handful of white members left and a lot of unused space. But when people from Hourglass and representatives of Frank Ditto’s group went to meet with the parishioners, they created such a ruckus about young blacks using their church facilities that nobody could even present the proposal. So that was the kind of situation we were working in. Our proposal was abandoned by the Archdiocese but ultimately Frank Ditto’s efforts were funded by New Detroit.
WW: In the early 1970s you were you were the chairwoman of Control, Conflict, and Change?
WW: Can you speak to that a little bit?
JC: This was a book club. And it came about—I have to tell you a couple of things to get to that.
JC: After I got divorced, I was working with a seminarian Tony Locricchio, who was a partner in the Hourglass effort. Tony discovered mismanagement of funds distributed to Detroit by the Office of Economic Opportunity—the OEO—which was the federal program that funded President Johnson’s War on Poverty. In Detroit, these programs were administered by the Catholic Archdiocese. A lot of money had been misspent which resulted in the closure of some community programs. For instance, there were people on the payroll that didn’t work on the programs—almost twice as many people on the payroll than reported. It was a really big deal. And I got involved in that by trying to prove that this was true. And that’s where I ended up in a confrontation with the Archbishop Dearden.
WW: What year was that?
JC: I believe that was 1968. After we discovered this scandal and the Church got away scot-free, Tony and I gave the information to three leaders of the Black Manifesto group who were exposing the role of Christian Churches and Jewish Synagogues in the oppression of blacks. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Black Manifesto, it was based upon reparations—it was during the Black Power movement—and based upon the theory that reparations were due to black people for the church’s complicity in slavery.
WW: Oh, yeah.
JC: So, after our meeting with the Manifesto group, I kept running into one of the leaders of that program. We talked a lot about what needed to be done in Detroit and we became good friends. He was in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. They were looking for a group of whites to work with them, and to give them access in different kinds of ways to promote their ideology and to protect the work that they were doing. He initiated the idea and promoted the organization of the Motor City Labor League to bring the white left together. Sheila Murphy was the head of MCLL. Frank Joyce, from People Against Racism, worked with her. I was an incorporating officer of the Ad-Hoc Action Group a group working against police brutality that preceded the Motor City Labor League and then a member of MCLL.
WW: What was the name of the gentleman that you met, one of the leaders?
JC: Michael Hamlin. Yes, and five years later, I married him. As we got to know each other we started talking about effective ways to build a base of support for the League, to educate white intellectuals and workers and to raise consciousness, to introduce a working class perspective to the community. This would be a book club where blacks and whites would come together, read books, and we’d have the book author or a presenter on a related topic and draw people together for discussions. And that was how the Control, Conflict, and Change Book Club started in—I think it was December ’70, if I remember correctly.
JC: Okay. So Mike and I put together this program, and we started with the list of Hourglass people and 350 people showed up to the first meeting. It was just phenomenal. Ultimately around 700 people participated in this book club. People in this city wanted to make a difference, they really did. I love this city. So we carried on that program. I did it out of my house. The speakers a lot of times stayed at my house. We had to move the book discussion meetings from the Highland Park church—because it was too small—down to Central Methodist on Grand Circus Park.
We trained our table discussion leaders before the meetings to manage group discussion and to promote the teaching points we wanted to emphasize. By the second year of this program, we were experiencing—well, we knew that our activities were being monitored. We knew some of our phones were bugged and we had infiltrators working on the inside. We had assigned seats for the discussions and we had a special table where we put disruptive people. In some of the police reports they complained about the seating arrangements, they couldn’t circulate.
So, then about a year and a half, or a little bit more, into the program, I’m still doing it out of my house, I was still taking care of my six kids, and it was getting overwhelming, and people were eating my food when they were there for long meetings. So it already pretty tense. And then one night we had a meeting at Sheila’s apartment, with some people from the League and people from MCLL. And at that meeting they discussed that Ken Cockrel was going to run for office, and that MCLL was going to support him.
Well, we had spent—I mean, how many years talking about change coming from the bottom up—and I had the impression that we were being asked to support some goals that were not in line with the purpose of the organization. So that’s where the breakdown started. And I ended up asking for leave because I was exhausted, I couldn’t think my way through this. And I didn’t feel I had the power or the support to do anything about it. But ultimately I wrote a paper trying to explain my position. I asked people to find another coordinator for the book club, and I resigned from the general staff. And I just had to pull in and take care of my kids.
WW: You pulled out of the general staff of CCC or—
JC: No, MCLL. Well actually both. At the time, CCC was under the MCLL umbrella.
JC: They appointed someone to take over the book club, and I was going to train them. And then I wrote this position paper which leaked. And they put me out. Actually I asked for leave and they said no. And it just broke me, the whole thing.
So anyway, then Jim Forman—I don’t know if you saw that in the archive file —Jim Forman, who was from SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], came to town. Jim had been a leader in SNCC. He’s the one who wrote the Black Manifesto. And he came to Detroit, as did many during those years. Many, many people moved to Detroit, because many believed that the revolution was going to start here. Jim came to Detroit to join the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The League had plans to develop into a national organization called the Black Workers Congress.
WW: Um-hm. I have a note on that. I don’t know where it is.
JC: It might be, if you did see it, about the “Black Economic Development Conference”.
WW: And the Black Workers Congress grew out of the Pan-African Congress, right?
JC: I don’t think so. There was this meeting, and they called it “BEDC”—the Black Economic Development Conference. And that’s where the Manifesto started. The Manifesto was written to raise money for the development of a national organization. The Black Workers Congress was supposed to pull together the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and their affiliates across the country. My husband Mike was to be the chairman of that Black Workers Congress. But there was so much chaos politically among the Left at that point, and the Black Workers Congress never really got off the ground. I know they had one large convention in Gary, Indiana, Atlanta and some other locations. But the left was splintering. During these years, Mike and I had a child. We’ve been married 41 years now.
WW: What year did you get married?
So, the League split, and MCLL split. Some of the people went into the Communist Labor Party. and some of them went into the Congress. And then everything was—the whole Left movement and the Black Power movement—it was all falling apart, everywhere. And we had to reorganize our lives. So I went to work at a hospital, Metropolitan Hospital, which was a UAW hospital—two hospitals and eight health centers. And Mike became a social worker. After he got his degree, I went back to school and got a Masters in medical anthropology. So, I worked in health care advocacy for 27 years.
WW: That’s a fantastic life story! What are your thoughts—you lived in the city ever since, correct?
JC: Yes. Well, no.
JC: We left the Boston house in 1985, I think. All my children had left except Mike’s and my small child. The neighborhood was so bad, and I was starting to travel for my job, and we just couldn’t let our child come back and forth from school by himself. So we moved out to Bloomfield Township for a few years, until he finished school, and then we came back.
WW: Okay. And you’ve lived here ever since?
WW: What are your thoughts on the way the city has grown and changed since your work in the 1970s? That is a very big question, I am sorry.
JC: It’s still bad in the neighborhoods. Really bad. I mean, we’re creating a situation where we can bring people downtown—it’s true that we need the tax base. And it’s exciting to see people on the street again, and to see Midtown, but that’s not helping people in some of our neighborhoods. And it’s tough. It’s tough. We are seeing the same old problems with housing, the same problems with lack of employment, essential services and fear of crime. I think Mayor Duggan is doing a good job under the circumstances but we’ve got a long way to go. There is progress in some neighborhoods for instance, Grace Boggs’s area out there on the East Side, where young people are involved. There are other communities that I’m not as familiar with but I meet people in different places who tell their stories. .
I think the ideal of self-sustaining and entrepreneurship is good for Detroit but it’s limited. People in Detroit are resilient, and bad as things are they still love their city. I don’t know where it’s going now.
WW: You positive? You—
JC: I’m always positive. I think we have to struggle; we have to be active, because if you don’t it just gets worse. I’ve convinced myself that life is about struggle. Of course, this is easy for me to say because I’m in a life where I have a lot of opportunity. I can see the difference opportunity makes and I feel an obligation to a play a role in helping others. We need to keep working. We need to support each other. Projects like what you’re doing here are hopeful. The university and the medical groups getting together is useful. We need capital to solve some of our problems, but whether Gilbert is the answer—or other Gilberts like Ilitch—we might end up like Paris, with all the have-nots pushed out into the suburbs and find ourselves in the same situation that we were in originally. The churches need to be more active. In the ‘70s, the churches—including and maybe primarily the black churches—were doing a lot. We need neighborhood organizing from the ground up and good people to run for office. Hopefully there will be opportunities in Detroit for young people today, I think they’re looking, and you can’t blame them, they’re looking for stability. They are looking to make a buck and build some skills. And I don’t see the number of young people in community work that there were back in my time. It’s necessary; I hope they can be inspired to give back to their communities.
WW: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me, I greatly appreciate it!
JC: I appreciate the opportunity.