Bessie Ernst Williams, June 16th, 2015


Bessie Ernst Williams, June 16th, 2015


In this interview, Williams discusses growing up in a multi-ethnic community in Detroit and the causes and effects of the 1967 disturbance. She also discusses working in the Detroit school system and the changes that occurred over the years she both attended and worked in the Detroit school system. She also recounts some of the inequalities she encountered over the years and reads some of her poetry about the unrest in 1967.


Detroit Historical Society


Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI








Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Bessie Williams

Brief Biography

Bessie Williams was born May 18, 1931 in the Cultural Center neighborhood of Detroit. Bessie Williams went on to get several college degrees and worked in the Detroit school system for 43 years before retiring. She then continued to work for five years at Hope of Detroit before returning to full time retirement. Bessie Williams is also an author of a book of poetry centering around the events of 1967

Interviewer's Name

William Winkel

Interview Place

Detroit, MI



Interview Length



Melissa King

Transcription Date



LW: Today is June 16, 2015. This is the interview of Bessie Williams Ernst 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. Bessie, can you tell me where and when you were born?

BW: Well I was born over eight decades ago in the city of Detroit, and I lived here most of my life.  Educated schools here, Universities here and just done a lot of things and I love Detroit absolutely love it. 

LW: What was your birthday?

BW: May 10, 1931.

LW: What neighborhood where you born in, in Detroit?

BW: I was born in the Cultural Center neighborhood, I was very fortunate in doing that because I was on a street called Medbury just east of Woodward about four, five blocks down. And I said I was lucky because I had in my backyard -- and visit every week with my father and my sister and brothers -- the art museum on the east side of Woodward and the Detroit Public Library on the west side of Woodward. And we went to story hours here and whatever we were studying in school my father would take us to the museum. He would find an area that dealt with that particular area or subject we would sit on the floor and he would tell us about everything that he would see; it’s a marvelous background.

LW: What did your dad do for a living?

BW: My dad worked at Ford Motor Company he came to Detroit one of those people, you know the job, so many dollars a day. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t educated, he was, through high school. That was his education that is what he does, my mother was a homemaker. I had lots of brothers and sisters to grow up with.  I was the oldest and we had lots of fun.  We loved Detroit.

LW: How many brothers and sisters?

BW: Um, I have four brothers and -- I have to figure this out -- four brothers and I had six sisters but in growing up in the early years, I was the oldest, seen a lot of things that some of my siblings never saw. They never saw the east side of Detroit or not remember it. And I remember very painfully when I graduated from college my mother could not attend my graduation because she was expecting my little brother.  And she I guess she felt the ashamed because of her age and being pregnant.  I never felt ashamed of her and my father, who worked at Ford, could not get the day off without losing pay.  Nobody came and that was kind of painful for me, kindof painful for me, because I was the first one in my family to graduate.  So I’ve made it a policy that with my children and my grandchildren.  I will always and have always gone to their graduations.  Because children remember things like that.

LW: Where did you go to college?

BW: Oh where didn’t I go? I got my first degree from Wayne University, my second degree from the University of Detroit, in between I took classes at the University of Michigan.  I ended up doing some graduate work and studies at Harvard and was invited to speak at a forum at Oxford in England. So I’ve kind of been around awhile.

LW: What were your degrees in?

BW: My degrees are primarily in education.  I started out in library sciences; my masters was in education and I worked for the board for many years. I ended up being assistant director of labor affairs negotiating contracts.  I did teach and then once I left Detroit, once I retired from Detroit, I became a principal of a charter school which I dearly, dearly, dearly loved. I still write and do things.  I go over to Wayne County Community College and take classes and trying to catch up with these young folks on the computer. I’m not doing too well on that but I’ll listen to some of them talk and I have to laugh and say if you only knew, if you only knew.

LW: Now you wrote the, this book of poetry that we have in front of us.  In 1968 you published this, right?

BW: I published it in ‘67 because the riot was in ‘67 and that year instead of sending Christmas cards to my friends, I took all them and put them in a booklet like this and published it and that was their Christmas present.  It was our memory of what we had seen, what we had done and what we had felt at that particular time because you really were confined, it was all over, it was all over the city. It was, you know, you could say your parents would sometimes say things like, “This is gonna hurt me more than it hurt you” and then they would give you a whipping.  Well, the riots you can say, “Oh, I heard about that, oh I know about that,” but they didn’t live through it, they didn’t know the feeling.  It’s a totally different kind of thing.  When I think about it, when I talk about it, I become emotional, you heard me mention that I had a very large family, so when I got married, I moved away but I still had a brother and a sister, younger brother and sister who lived at home with my mother and they lived in a different neighborhood than I lived in with my family.  And with everything that was going on there were certain streets that were blocked off, one of them being Grand River and you couldn't cross certain lines and my family, my mother, my sister and brother were in a quadrant where we could not cross that line to go where they were and my little brother called me to let me know.  He said, “I just want you to know that we have to move because of the fire,” there was one about a block away from us.  Where my mother lived on Grand River there was a furniture store and a few stores down from there was a gas station.  That gas station was almost on the corner of my mother’s street.  There was fear they would burn the furniture store and the gas flames would go over to the gasoline station and they would be burnt. And we had no way of contacting them so there were hours where we really didn’t know where they were or whatever. I had a sister that lived in a quadrant on the other side of Grand River.  We were not allowed -- they were not allowed to cross that street because you had tanks and things and whatever.  And so it was kind of a horrible feeling to know they are out there so there is a poem in here called “David” and every time I read “David” I think about the call I got from David telling me that they had to go and it was a period of uncertainty. In another neighborhood I had a friend whose sister’s son had to stay in their area and so he had a motorcycle and he would ride up and down the motorcycle.  He was a young kid and the motorcycle hit a telephone poll.  I was told he was killed on that particular day because he was in --he couldn’t go out.  There are lots of things that happened, the looting and the burning and the calls that were made to, I believe it was President Johnson who was the president at that particular time when they called.  The mayor called, it may have been [Jerome] Cavanagh, and he tried to get the president to send troops in but they didn’t do it.  It was frightening because what started out on one street, which was Twelfth Street, sort of spread all the way, just spread all over the city.  It happened so fast.  Then all of a sudden it was there and we had to face it if you hadn’t done your grocery shopping.  They were looting and burning and the people were just frustrated and the cause of it was supposed to have been related to these men that the police had picked up and mistreated more and more and that was a time when we had in our city mostly white police and a lot of our citizenry was black but you cannot have a government or police force consisting of one group and not be representing another.  We see that all over this country, we see that in places all over the world where one group is dominant and unless you represent all the people; it’s a sad thing.  The schools kids who were in summer school closed schools and that reminded me of 1943 because I was around in 1943 and enrolled in summer school and that riot was devastating.  I read a little bit about it because the neighborhood I lived in, which was this cultural center.  Here we didn’t have all these things happening that were happening in other parts of the city and you just, you would hear different things.  I was so happy when they finally brought the police in or the army and where did they park them?  Right there on Northwestern High School lot, right there on Gratiot and the Boulevard  and there is a little poem in here and it’s kind of funny because it’s true. It’s true when they brought those troops in here you know what they forgot? That those men were supposed to eat, that they had not ordered food for them so that presented a kind of a problem yet it was kind of a welcome thing because we knew that some of it would be quelled. There used to be a helicopter that flew over at night and I really was so happy to hear that because I knew nothing was going to happen in the neighborhood I was in at that particular time because they could see it from that. There were other things like one night, it started to rain but you’ve got thunder and I just I woke up and I heard this noise and I could not distinguish it as thunder because of the other things that were going on around us. But then there were some things that happened that were just beautiful things.  On Dexter Boulevard there was a black woman, Mrs. Hawkins, had a women’s clothing store and I was in a particular group that was going to have a big party that November and she would go to New York to buy things Because I was a customer I said, “Look you’re going to go to New York. I say such and such and such think you could find this for me?” and she said, “Yes.” You paid down on it at that particular time because she hadn’t bought it she was gonna look and see. Well, she brought that garment back to the store that was maybe Friday or Saturday the riots started Sunday and the store was looted. All I could think about at that time was my dress but the neighbors around her were protective of her and they went into the store and everything that she had on hangers that they could take out they took out and they saved those things for her, and they saved my dress.

LW: What did the dress look like?

BW:  It was at that time it sort of came out, it was an A shape dress and it had a black underlining slip and the top was a sort of a [mock-cosette ?] but it had embroidery on it so you could see through it but, you know, the design --it was just a gorgeous dress, just a gorgeous dress and I just was so thankful for her. And then I saw after the riots you know we have over here Chicago and Linwood the big Catholic Sacred Heart and on the corner there was like a grotto and Christ was there with light and everything and I always pass by there and look at it and after the riots I passed by there and someone had painted the face and the hands black and I saw for the first time people going up those one or two steps getting down on their knees saying a prayer which made that statue more relevant to them and I thought that was just, just beautiful.  People helped people, people shared things.  Water was rationed, [noise interrupts in background] groceries were rationed and you could only get so much gas.  If they let you have a lot people were learning how to make Molotov cocktails and things like that so you could only get a certain amount.  My husband was a physician and he was in a medical building over on Joy Road and Grand River and I think it was the first time a group of black doctors had gotten together and had their own building.  And the rioters came past there but the man who was like the watchman told them, “You better not come in here” and this and that and, “You just try it. He actually stood guard so they did not bother the building. There were difficult things like that that would pop up and it made you feel so good. But there was a terrible, terrible time, a terrible feeling. One of the little incidence with my son because everything was on TV all the time.  The TV stayed on. My eldest son I guess it was, was about eight or nine at that time, we had one of those pools where you put the rubber thing, the kids were in the back yard whatever and I guess a helicopter went by and he jumped out of that little pool and ran and told me, turn on the television quick cause I think we are on TV and I had to laugh because they were showing everything and they got a picture of that. The family that lived next door, the husband had a birthday during that time, and we had taken down the fence between the two houses because we got along so well and we had like a little celebration for him but you couldn’t have a lot of people gathered at one time.  It had to be early because there was still a curfew.  So we stayed inside, you know, it was still a horrible feeling and when I talk about it I become emotional which you probably heard in my voice and I see certain pictures and it brings it back.  It’s real, it’s real to me, but to my children who are grown now and to the younger people this is not an event. It’s like something happened a long time ago except when you see things like what happened in Baltimore, like what’s happening in Washington, like what’s happening in various places, Ferguson. When I wrote this book I sent a copy of it to Robert Kennedy because he was at that time a representative in government and I got a beautiful letter back from him. I sent a copy of this to the Mayor of Baltimore along with a letter because my thing was "Take a look at what is written down here because this is what happened, this is what is now happening in your neighborhoods and this is what can happen if you don’t put other things in place. Detroit was never, ever the same.”  That was as far as I was concerned the real beginning of what we call “white flight.”  We had a very integrated city but after that time some of the real estate people, I put it on them, say “You don’t want to live here, you want to move, we have this, they have that.” Like a fear tactic almost people in certain neighborhoods saying, “We’re not gonna stay here, we can’t stay here.”  Houses that should have been repaired were not repaired.  Some places, perhaps I don’t know if they didn’t have enough insurance but they just left them there, they just left them there and nobody tended to the sheep once the gate was open.  So to me that was the beginning of urban blight as we know it, it was the beginning of our integrated, we did elect, eventually elect a black mayor, Coleman A. Young, who was there a long time.  We change the police chief and we got a black police chief.  I don’t remember, I don’t remember his name. I know Frank Blunt came after he did, I don’t remember his name but it made a difference; it made a difference in the way people were handled.  Our school system changed and we got a young black administrator, Martha Jefferson, as far as I’m concerned was young, gifted and black.  Our school system, you may not know it at that particular time, was one of the best in the country; people came to us. All that changed. Our city, which was beautiful, do you know when Edison invented the light bulb and we dealt with that, that in the world Paris was a city because Paris had lights, Edison lit up Detroit, did you know that? And it was called the Paris--

LW: of the West

BW: of the West, you’re absolutely correct.  But you see, that’s history. It’s not anymore our city. I’m hoping it will be like a phoenix and rise but those were all the wonderful things about our city. Our schools, our police force changed and they kept saying insurrection and it wasn’t -- it was a form of insurrection but you know what it was it was a lack of representation, lack of understanding and you can’t just rule and control people if they don’t have representation.

LW: Where exactly where you living in July of 1967?

BW: In July of 1967, I was living in the area of southwest Detroit near Curtis and Wyoming and the year after that we moved.

LW: Where did you move?

BW: We moved into Sherwood Forest.

LW: Have you lived there since?

BW: We lived there until many years ago.  When you get older you don’t need all of that.

LW: Now did your decision to move to Sherwood Forest, was that impacted by 1967 or not?

BW: In a way it was because we really needed, our kids were growing up and we wanted a bit more room and the area was open and our school at that particular time with our children was Jesu, so it gave us access to everything that we wanted. Plus we wanted our children to grow up in an integrated neighborhood, there’s just so much to be learned there.

LW: Now your husband was a physician.

BW: Yes.

LW: How many children did you guys have?

BW: Four.

LW: Four. You continued working after you had children?

BW: Sure. He had no problem with that and I certainly didn’t because I loved what I did. I was with the Detroit school system for about 43 years. 

LW: Now I want to just back up to this: I think it’s interesting your communication with RFK, what year was that?

BW: 1967

LW: So that same year that you wrote the poems here in this book.

BW: I sent him a copy

LW: And he wrote you back?

BW: He wrote me back.

LW: What did his letter say do you remember?

BW: Yeah, it was a very basic kind of letter.  He thanked me, he had an opportunity to read it and he enjoyed it and basically that was it. And at that particular time I think they were working on the Kerner report, or something like that, but he acknowledged it.

LW: In terms of what you mentioned about a lack of understanding, a lack of communication, you think that was the root of the uprising in ‘43 and in ‘67?

BW: In ‘43, from what I know because I was just going into intermediate school at that time, that was a true race riot and it was connected with jobs and things like that. When a lot of people came in from the South after World War One you had people blacks and whites, predominantly whites, who were in segregated areas had attitudes toward black people these are the people they were competing with for jobs you see and economics came in there so in ‘43 supposedly something happened on Belle Isle and supposedly someone threw a baby in the river or whatever you know and anyway the whites attacked the blacks, they pulled them off street cars and all that stuff you can look it up on the computers. It really was hate, it was hate. The neighborhood I lived in over here called the cultural center had Croatians and Serbians and Poles and Afro-Americans and Greeks and we were all in one big melting pot we were all, you know, same economic level everything all of us being taught in order for you to do anything or be anything you must go to school.  Common values everything and it was absolutely great. That’s the area that I grew up in. There are some people who may have lived in that area because on one side of Warren we were really integrated down near the market we were, but on some streets it was like all black or all white and so those kids went to schools that were predominantly black schools did not have, I don’t think they had access to the kinds of things that we had growing up. I went to Balch I went to Garfield I went to Northeastern, very integrated community, very, very integrated community.  And I take that working and being in that kind of environment made me the kind of person that I am.

LW: What street was your family living on?

BW: Medbury.

LW: Bedbury?

BW: Med, m-e-d, and you know what killed us? [Interstate] 94. 94 cut right through our neighborhood and it destroyed our community and our people went other places and then the Chrysler [Freeway] came through and that made a difference.  Another thing which I always said was contributed by the government. When the men came home from the war in ‘48 you had the G.I. Bill and many of our men, and when I say "our" men I mean black community, who went to college, went on the G.I. Bill.  They were going out here to Wayne University, which was one big building, and Quonset Huts.  You remember Quonset Hut, signs those little rain kind of things, ok, but at that particular time they only, also at that time were dealing with housing and the people that came back that were white had access to those G.I. loans and they bought houses and moved out and began to establish little cities like, I think of Southfield, Farmington and whatever and they left us with Detroit. Many whites stayed, and we had an integrated community in certain sections but it became sort of racially divided in terms of the community.

LW: This was in the 1940s late-forties early-fifties?

BW: Late-forties, early-fifties.

LW: So you sort of see that as the first wave of what we call now call “white flight” or segregation.

BW: Do I see that now?

LW: Do you think that that in the late-forties, early-fifties was the first wave of “white flight,” segregation?

BW: Exactly!

LW: And then later in the sixties after July ‘67

BW: Yeah, then they begin to move out they had a chance to build up their streets, their schools the universities began to put out their little, what shall we call them? extensions.  Ok because my first work for the University of Michigan, first job, first classes I took, were over here where the building on Fordham, the engineer society. The University of Michigan had a Rackham and you could take classes there, Wayne University set up -- maybe it was out in Livonia or near Southfield I don’t remember, which they had the little temporary buildings so people who lived there could go there and get their degrees. But the thing that more than anything else with the government loans for housing initially blacks could not get those and whites could. I have a book at home called The Mustard Tree that was given to me when we were getting rid of a lot of books over at the school center building and the library was right across from where my office was, and so we were invited to take a look at those books and I saw this one and it was the history of the credit union, and in there, in there, there is a whole story of the first black person to get a mortgage loan from the credit union.

LW: In Michigan?

BW: From Detroit Teachers Credit Union. The first one and I had to look at it and laugh because when that freeway came though people had to move and they couldn’t always find a place.  With my family, because my grandparents lived upstairs, we lived downstairs, my family and father had to buy a home.  They didn’t have finances.  I went to Detroit Teachers Credit Union and they helped us and that’s when my family moved over on the northwest part of the Boulevard and Grand River, so that begins to get emotional kind of thing with me, just a lot of stories there. A lot of stories, a lot of love, a lot of pain but it was still a good life in Detroit.  I love Detroit and I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it.

LW: What were some of your favorite things growing up in this cultural area near the Detroit Institute of Arts, near Wayne State, near the various museums and libraries right down here? You said Medbury is off of Warren?  

BW: No, Medbury is -- we're on Kirby, do you know where Our Lady of Rosary the Catholic Church down here with the statue on the top, that’s Medbury. You see all of the freeway in front of it? That’s Medbury, that’s Harper.

LW: So 94 really did cut right though that neighborhood then? That is where 94 is.

BW: That is where 94 is, and let me tell you what they did some of the things that they did they came though and they offered you a certain price for your home. It's like a public domain kind of thing and you accepted or you had to wait and go to court. I had a friend whose husband had a wonderful, wonderful cleaning business. They offered him a certain amount of money and apparently he didn’t accept it and he stayed and he stayed So, what they did --I say "they" I mean the government or whatever you want to call it -- they bought all the property around him the houses, when you buy the houses and the people leave, what are you going to do with the business? They kind of put him out of business, but he came though and they did fine. I belonged to a group with Northwestern, I mean Northeastern, a group composed of Northeastern graduates, okay? and the east side, we called the east side Detroiters who wrote a history of what things were like when we were here the wonderful things that we had we loved the area so much, so much. Near east side, near east side extended from the Boulevard almost down to the beginning what they called Black Bottom and you know Black Bottom doesn’t mean black people. I saw where a writer once wrote, “How can they say that name because of the soil if you know how rocky the soil was?" Well, in 1701, when Cadillac came here, there wasn’t anything down there, it was down the river. You know it was good soil and that is how we extended our streets out this way like the spokes and these were ribbon farms all around here because the soil was so good. So no, now it’s not the rich soil all the buildings and things but it was not named because black people lived there.

LW: I’d like you to read one of your poems but I was gonna ask you before that to talk a little bit about growing up in the thirties and forties here, what were some of your favorite things to do in addition.

BW: Let me tell you what we did every now and then, we’d go to a show on a Sunday. If we did, we went over to the Fisher because the Fisher Theater was a theater at that particular time and the styling on the inside was like being in an Aztec temple. Maybe once every two weeks or so our mother would take us to the show at night because certain nights if the adults came you could get a glass plate, have you ever heard about that? They had special nights and this might be they had well, ruby china, ruby glass, so the show might be featuring that so along with the ticket the adult got a ruby glass.  Next week it may have been the saucer for a cup so you could get your dishes. So that was one thing, so we would go there. We would go, went to the Art Institute we would go into the library and we played games, we played games at night. It was warm outside, nobody had air conditioning so you would sit on the steps and you would play all kind of old games.  We played hopscotch in the backyard we would play baseball, that’s the kind of things that we did. And we did go that one day a week to the library.  Get our books and we read our books, we read our books. There was one book called I Hear America Singing, I loved that book.  It was a book of poetry so I would check it out this week and then my brother or sister would take it out the next week so we kept going until we had a chance to go through all the -- We did a lot of reading we did a lot of reading, we didn’t -- and on Saturday if you were lucky you could go to the theater then because it was inexpensive.  They had they chapter pictures, you heard of the chapter pictures?

LW: No.

BW: Oh, on Saturday they had matinees and it might be a series of 16 chapters all with Roy Rodgers or Tim McCoy or whoever the hero was and there was a chapter here and you would go back because it would continue the next week so we would go to things like that. We visited and we had work to do inside the house, too, you know, and we had chores that we had to do.  People had gardens in the back and certainly during World War Two they had victory gardens things like that.  There were lots of things to do, lots of things to do. It was a great time, it was a great time.

LW: So you really go to see Detroit when it was thriving.

BW: Right, Right, Right. Christmas time everybody went to Hudson’s. The twelfth floor was magic land because it was toy land, just beautiful. Then they had a Thanksgiving Day parade, they had Santa Claus at Christmas time, just people were concerned about people and our teachers were just wonderful, teachers were just wonderful. I could go back and name so many of my elementary, not so many junior high, some high school teachers. You know they say things to us like, you've got to do this and you've got to do that and it was like, yes, I've got to do that because the teacher said I've got to do that.  And in the summer time we would play school because if it was the end of the year and the books were kinda messed up and the teacher would give you a book and you would take that little book home.  My fifth grade math teacher Mrs. Eschmann, I loved math because I loved that teacher, and we’d play school and I would be the teacher and I had, I had, I had the book and I could check their papers and things like that, but they were inspirational to us. We had a music teacher Mrs. Filler, she lived over here at the park shelter. She was magnificent. We learned all the songs. We learned the hymns of all of the armed forces, we knew the Christmas songs, Thanksgiving songs and we were just happy.  And then when we got to intermediate school I had a teacher who said lined us all up listening to us sing I didn’t have a voice so she said, “Louise, you don’t sing you hum, I’m humming” she come past me and she says “Louise, you don’t hum, you just mouth it,” and it crushed me and I said “Mrs. Fillers said I could sing.” I sing all the time and I don’t care and it’s just such a different time.

LW: But you had a good childhood here?

BW: Oh I had a wonderful childhood, I had a wonderful childhood. I hope my children did. Children today, that is another story, because they don’t respect their parents. I mean mama said it, you did it, that kind of thing.  Teachers, don’t let the teacher, nobody called you because you didn’t have telephones, you know, like that, send a note home.  Parents always would do parent meetings, just a wonderful time.  But the riots changed that.  You see some of the people never had a chance to know what Detroit was. It’s sad.

LW: Do you think, as you say, the riots changed things, did you sense anything else leading up to that time did it seem to come out of nowhere to you?

BW: Um, you know there was things that you would hear about, some people were more involved in it because they lived in other parts of the city, but we knew there were prejudices and things like that because there used to be a -- downtown there used to be a -- there was a series of restaurants, I can’t think of the name of them anyway and black people would have a -- "colored people" they called us -- couldn’t go into any of those. But I guess my parents never took us to any of those you know, but we lived over here, over here where I lived we could go and do anything but I know in other parts of the city it was not like that.  When I started teaching, my first semester I taught was in a school that was on the lower east side. We had to put up bulletin boards. I’d go looking for colored paper: I had brown, I had grey, I had purple, black. So I had to buy my materials. When I got pregnant, of course, I had to leave. When I came back from maternity leave they sent me to a school in another neighborhood. I had red, green, yellow, orange, light blue, but, you know, what I didn’t have, I didn’t have black, brown, purple and it seemed to me like you don’t give these children the bright colors they need and the kids over here who don’t need all of this, you give them all the bright colors and the dark colors I have to go out and buy. So there were, yes, there were things that I saw as I grow older that were inequities but coming up younger you don’t see, you don’t really see all of this.  I guess a very prejudiced kind of environment for some.  The police they were something else, they really were.  I can remember one night going home from a meeting.  I was on the board for Marygrove, just about 8:30, 9:00. A police car stopped me going down Seven Mile wanting to know, "Why was I over here?" "I live over here." "Where are you coming from?" "I’m coming from Marygrove." He didn’t want to believe I said Marygrove. He said, "Marygrove?" "Yes," I said," I’m on the board over there." "On the board over there?" anyway I ended up getting a ticket from him.  He said I had done something, I don’t remember what it was, but I went to court on it, I went to court on it and they dismissed the ticket, the only reason he stopped me is because I was black in a neighborhood that as far as he was concerned was white and I should not have been there and I had every right to be there because I lived there. So there were things yes, there were things.

LW: And this is when you lived in Sherwood Forest?

BW: That was before I moved to Sherwood Forest because when I lived in the area over there on Curtis near Wyoming right there on Seven Mile right down near Woodward, what was I doing there you know.

LW: So you did sense as a teacher as an educator some --

BW: Yeah, inequities, yes and I never had in all my elementary school days I never had a black teacher. When I got to my junior high, yes I had a number, when I got to high school this was the first time that something really hit me. I had -- you heard me say earlier that I love math. I love math. I had my algebra teacher. She always ask, “And what intermediate school did you come from?” and I kept wondering, why is she asking that, why is so important that she knows what schools?  And then you would say something like, maybe Garfield “mhm” what does “mhm” mean, you know. You say Griswold, oh Griswold; that was one of the white schools. That teacher in my mind had just categorized kids and as much as I love math, I passed that class with a D. I’d never gotten a D.  My mother said to me, “You’re going to summer school.  You’re going to take that class over because you are going to college.” I went to summer school and I met a young bright teacher by the name of Mrs. [Makula ?].  She was, I learned algebra up and down, she was so wonderful, she was so wonderful, she was so different in her presentations.  So yeah it was there, it was there not always overt but there are other kids that have other kind of memories because you know many of the students that were on the other side of Warren went to Miller and Miller has a great name and it was prominently black, it had a wonderful name with sports and whatever, you knew that students that were white went to Denby or they went to Cooley to learn, places like that. Northeastern was my school and I loved it, I loved the teachers I just had a wonderful time. You know, everybody can’t say the same.

LW: I want you to read one of your poems before we run out of time.

BW: I would love to I read this one before.

LW:  So this one is called--

BW: “Ode to Twelfth Street” because supposedly the riots started on Twelfth Street, and there was an interesting street so it’s called “An Ode to Twelfth Street.”  

Everything’s calm now so peaceful and quiet,
but you should have seen what they did to Twelfth Street during the riot.
It was a street of prostitutes, pimps and deceivers,
Black Nationalists, Muslims, and non-believers,
churches, nuns, entertainers and ministers,
mamas and papas and even old spinsters,
dirty children, stray dogs and cats,
loan shops and markets and people of wealth
made of the sight of the street called Twelfth.
With barbeque joints and soul food tins,
delicatessens, bars, night clubs and pig pens.
A Chinese restaurant on one corner [did stand ?]
and yes, don’t forget the old chestnut man.
Lawyers, optometrists, dentists and physicians
shared offices along with the soul save missions.
And whether you loved it, liked it, or viewed it with fear,
it thrived with life and it was held dear.
One main artery through that Negro ghetto,
a life giving artery but destruction it lead to.
A street you could stop on during the day
but come night fall, you better get out the way,
for all kinds of vile crimes that would endanger one’s health
was available to anyone after dark on Twelfth.
But it’s all gone now. In its place devastation,
burnt out frames as viewed by all of the nation,
but the people who lived near the heart of this city
cried unabashed and think, “what a pity."
For, in spite of its grimness everyone you would meet
knew about Detroit’s infamous Twelfth Street.
But it’s all gone now all buried in disgrace
and with it many dreams of the negro race.
It was synonymous with our struggle, its destruction our pain,
it was our street now but nothing remains.
It’s gone, just gone, nothing to see
but the tear streaked faces of the people you meet,
wondering what really happened to our Twelfth Street.

LW: Thank you, that’s beautiful. I’m wondering what specifically inspired that were you driving through the neighborhood, walking?

BW: It was things that I could, things that I could see, we used to live one of the places when my husband and I first got married we lived on a street called Pingree which was right off of Twelfth it was right around the corner from Twelfth, the apartment building we lived in. So we had restaurants like [Cream de Michigan ?].  You know, nightclubs everything was right there.  I knew the street, you know when we moved it was still there and there were things that we could go back for, the delicatessen, just things like that, so it was something I knew.  I could see the people.  I lived there several years; no one ever bothered me or anything like that.  At one time I heard that one of the restaurants there -- which I will not name -- was supposedly that restaurant that the Purple Gang came to because they were supposedly on Collingwood but, um, you learn your neighborhood, you walked around in it things like that so that’s how I knew that street. All these things in here are things that I -- that happened to me that I saw or that I read about or something that someone else told me about that they saw.  There’s a cute little one you didn’t ask me for this but I like this one because it's humor. This one is called “The Portable Bar” because you could go right in when they break the glass and go in stores and take out whatever was there and stuff was left and people were just walking around inside and pick up things.

LW: During the looting?

BW: During the looting. This is called “A Portable Bar” and I kinda like it.

Whiskey, Whiskey ten cents a shot,
yeah I know this whiskey's hot
but the bars are closed, you know
and one monkey don’t stop the show.
My bars portable can’t you see
picked it up yesterday and the liquor was free.
No overhead expenses,no bills to pay
free and clear man just take home the pay.
Whiskey, whiskey, stop where you are
and have a drink at my portable bar.
Page 23.

LW: So what that was inspired by people walking around inside the store?

BW: Yes, and people walking around and take things and someone saw this person who had this portable bar and hey the liquor stores were closed and everything was closed so hey you had people selling things on the street, a lot of it stolen. You know and afterward police were busy picking up stuff and people had a period in time where if they had anything you could turn it back in, you know, and it was all right. But if they caught you with anything after that you know it was time to pay the piper, that kind of thing.

LW: So you think in the sort of aftermath which you wrote about in “Ode to Twelfth Street” in particular, in all the aftermath, who were you and the people around sort of most upset with most angry at, where did you sort of place the blame for what happened?

BW: They put in on the police. They would riot through the neighborhoods, not as much my neighborhood where I lived on Seven Mile, but where I lived before. They would stop you on the street and ask you what you’re doing. They had a group called the Big Four: four policemen sitting in cars just driving down the streets. There was a place called Hunt Street Station and that was infamous in terms of the way people were treated. There was a place over here on Vernon, the Vernon Street station, where we would hear about certain things that were going on plus we had our black newspapers, we had The Chronicle, we had The Tribune, we had the Pittsburgh Courier.  There was another one but they were like black newspapers and we could once a week get the newspaper so we could see what was going on in our city and things like that. The Polish people had their  Dziennik Polski I think it was called or something like that and La Princea was part of the newspaper that you could get. The Mexican or Spanish speaking, all the foreign newspapers would come into the Detroit Public Library and I worked while I was in high school and I worked when I was in college at the library.  I told you my major was essentially library sciences and it was my high school librarian that got me a job with the Detroit Public Library and I worked one day a week on Saturday.  You could only work certain hours.  I worked at the library and they sent me to the downtown library in the foreign language department.  So all these newspapers you see them coming in, and people came in and they would read their ethnic newspapers people kept up with things that were going on.

LW: So you felt that you saw this sort of trend about police with racial profiling and things like  that. And did that exist in the Polish and Spanish speaking newspapers?

BW: I cannot speak to that because I did not live there but the neighborhood I lived in right over there we had the Polish people and the Serbian people. We even had some Armenian people lived around the corner from where we lived, we had Yugoslavs, so you know. But in certain neighborhoods you hear about things that might go on. But it was still a good city and you hear things and you hear people that go to other parts going to the South and things like that where they couldn’t stop along the roads and go to a restaurant where they had to go around the corner and drink water and stuff like that. I didn’t run into a lot of that here, I didn’t, I really didn’t. But you might run into somebody who’s my age living in another part of the city, totally different story, and when I talk to my sisters and brothers --my brother that I told you about that was born in the time right after my graduation, he didn’t live through this. My younger sister, my youngest sister whom I talk to almost daily, it was almost like I raised her she was 363 days older than my baby brother so I almost like raised her, so we talked all the time but they didn’t bother, so by the time they had grown up we had moved from Detroit’s east side over to the west side of Detroit and they went to Angell School and from Angell they started --the schools I guess were crowded then so I can’t think of where they had to go out near Eight Mile and Greenfield -- but totally different environment, totally different group of people, totally different teachers and I was in a school system by that time and I was down over here in the area that they were calling Black Bottom and I had some southern whites, I had some black students and a few Mexican students.   When I moved out here, I was sent out here to Atkinson school.  I had a lot of white students because that area was like that at that particular time.  I remember when the area started to change and I remember one little youngster, I can’t remember his name right now, I loved the kids I worked with, I loved the kids I worked with, and he came up to me one day and he had tears in his eyes and I said “Well, what’s the matter?” He said, “Oh, Miss Williams, were going to move because the niggers are moving in” and I said, “Oh, don’t you worry about it my dear.”  He didn’t see me, he saw me, I was his teacher, no idea of what he had been hearing.  That’s the innocence of children, the innocence of children and I think about them and I see many children and I call them the children with the black coal eyes because they can look at you and their eyes are just dancing and you know this child’s really got it going on in here.

LW: When did you retire?

BW: I retired almost 20 years ago and that’s when I went into the charter schools.

LW: Which charter school did you?

BW: Hope of Detroit.

LW: Where is that located?

BW: It’s off of Buchanan near Livernois and I loved that school I loved that school. Our ethnic groups we had a mixture we had Hispanics, we had blacks and we had whites and we did lots of things.  Tried to brush up on my Spanish and have people there who could serve the needs.  I loved it, I just loved it.

LW: When did you leave there?  

BW: About five years later and I came home. I had a good life and I love Detroit and I still go to church.  Sacred Heart is still my church.  We celebrate our hundred and fortieth anniversary this last Friday.  Our pastor, Father Thomas, has been there for 60 years.  I was baptized there,  my children were baptized there, my daughters were married there, married by the priest,  but they weren’t married at Sacred Heart, they were married at Jesu because we lived over there at that time but Father Thomas was still our minister so we did things like that.

LW: I appreciate you talking with me and sharing your stories and poetry with me.

BW: I hope I didn’t talk too much.

LW: No, I loved it. And I liked that you read your poems for us so other people can hear them, too. Thank you so much.

BW: You are quite welcome and I appreciate your taking the time with me.

LW: My pleasure.

BW: I hope people remember everybody has to be conscious of what they want and what other people want. I still think in our country there are people fighting, the Civil War is over so and when they talk about slavery sometime I remind people there isn’t one nationality group in this world that wasn’t sometime in their history slaves of some other group and you can not maintain a slave mentality. You remember the past but you build a future. That’s it but I thank you for inviting me.

LW: Thank you for coming, we appreciate it.

BW: I love this place, my pleasure.

LW: Thank you so much.   


Original Format



Lillian Wilson


Bessie Wilson


Detroit, MI




“Bessie Ernst Williams, June 16th, 2015,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed February 21, 2024,

Output Formats