Freeman Flynn, December 18th, 2015


Freeman Flynn, December 18th, 2015


Freeman Flynn discusses growing up in Detroit, his opportunity to attend Wayne University, and his training and experiences during World War II as a scout plane pilot, which led to his love of flying as a civilian. Freeman describes being a teacher and school principal during a period of sweeping demographic and social changes in Detroit. He also discusses how industrial hiring practices in the Detroit area during and after World War II led to racial tensions in the city, and how his school and surrounding community were affected by the 1967 civil disturbance. Also discussed is the creation of School–Community Relations department and the role he played in it.


Detroit Historical Society


Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Freeman Flynn

Brief Biography

Freeman Flynn was born in 1920 in Worcester, Massachusetts, his family moving to Detroit in 1928. A swimmer in high school, he attended Wayne University in Detroit and served in the Navy during World War II as a scout plane pilot on the USS Maryland. He came back to Detroit and taught in the Detroit Public Schools while earning advanced degrees. He was principal of Hutchins School and due to his strong ties to the community was named head of the new School–Community Relations Department. After retirement from DPS he served many years in the school system in a volunteer capacity.

Interviewer's Name

William Winkel

Interview Place

Bloomfield, MI



Interview Length



Mark Kwicinski

Transcription Date



WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. It is December 18, 2015. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society, Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. And this is the interview of Dr. Freeman Flynn. Thank you for sitting down with me today.

FF: Good morning.

WW: Can you tell me where and when you were born?

FF: I was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1920 and my family came to Detroit in 1928. I went to Northwestern High School when I got to high school age. It doesn’t exist now. There’s a church there on the corner of Grand River and the Boulevard. The school was a part of a complex: an elementary school, a middle school, a senior high school, and a teacher’s college, all on one corner. And I attended all of them, one way or another. And from there, basically, I was involved in swimming as a competitor. The coach was the best coach in town, and one thing happened, I was working for him as a lifeguard in the summertime at country clubs, and—I graduated from high school in 1938—and I worked that summer with him, and when we finished summer off, we cleaned the pool and we went back to normal things. The day after we came back, I saw Leo walking down the street coming in to my house. I wondered what was going on. When he got there he told me he got the job as a coach at Wayne University as a swimming coach, and he had a job for my tuition and books, and hurry up to get down to the university because school started in a couple of days. I said “Okay.” Nobody had said anything to me about going to college in three years of high school. Nobody had said to me, “Would you like to go? Can you afford to go? Where would you go if you could go?” Nothing like that. But Leo came down and said, “I’ve got a job at the university. Hurry up and get down and get registered because school starts in a couple of days.” I said, “Sure.” So, I had to ask the Dexter bus driver where Wayne University was because I didn’t know where I was going to go to college.

I’ve looked back at it a number of times and have thought that the whole business was fortuitous. It just fitted in. I got down there, and the athletic director was looking for new athletes coming in. Before I knew it I was signed up in education, training to be an athletics teacher. Took me two years to realize I really didn’t want to be a gym teacher. And the Air Force reduced its requirements for candidates, and I applied with the Air Force in 1940. Notice the date. I applied to the Air Force in 1940, and I was turned down for overbite. You had to be pretty. You had to meet their standard of handsomeness that the West Point candidates had. Anyway, I got turned down. I went back to school, put a third year in. By the way, we had a very good team. We couldn’t swim as freshmen, but we could swim when we got to be sophomores. We had a gang there. We took third place in the national championships.

WW: Very nice.

FF: We beat Ohio State, who was Big 10 champions. My favorite memory of that is that, I was sitting on the bench, and somebody behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, but just where is Wayne University?” And we beat their team by one point, which was a real triumph. Anyway, the next year, a year later, I was down on Grosse Isle with my coach. There was a Navy training program just starting down on Grosse Isle at the airport. I went down there and talked to the doctor. He said, “We’ll take you. But you’ve only got one year more of college, why don’t you finish that. It’s going to be a long war when it happens. And we’ll take you at the time.” I said, “You mean that?” He said, “Yes.” I went back, got ahold of the counselors, changed from a health education major to a history major—American history. I graduated a year later in the spring. But what happened in the meantime was December 7 at Pearl Harbor. So after Pearl Harbor I went down to the Navy to sign up. They said, “You want to go right away, or you want to wait awhile?” I said, “Wait a minute, there’s a war on!” The Japanese, all this stuff. “Not enough airplanes; not enough pilots and instructors; not enough hangers; not enough airports; not enough nothing! So we’ll put you on a waiting list”—which they did. So the last six months in college I was on a waiting list with the Navy.

I did not meet the woman that I married until two weeks before I graduated. I would never have met her if I had gone into the Navy. We only saw each other for one day a week because I was working down on Grosse Isle. I didn’t have a car. I came back one day a week off. I was sleeping down there at the country club. Anyway, to make a long story short, the war began on December 7 and they asked me again, “Do you want to go, or do you want to wait awhile?” Well, at this point I wanted to get the degree, and I did. I went into the service at the end of the summer, in September. And I went to various places, University of Iowa. They have a flight school in Washington, a small place in the right in the bend of the big bend of the Colorado River—not the Colorado, what’s the river that flows into the—? Well—

WW: Mississippi? The Mississippi?

FF: No, no, the one that flows west into the Pacific at Fort—

Betty Flynn: Columbia.

WW: [Speaking at same time] I don’t know.

FF: [Speaking at same time] The Columbia, in the Big Bend there. There was an airport. We went from there down to Corpus Christie, which was a finishing place. And I qualified to fly seaplanes, basically off a ship. And, I graduated in the middle of the summer of ’43, was sent to Hawaii in the fall. And in October I reported aboard a battleship. I had never seen a battleship before. I had never stepped on a Navy ship before. I didn’t have the faintest idea what we did. And I was in a waiting unit for assignments. Two guys came over from this ship, and said, “We’ve got a vacancy. We have three pilots on board and two airplanes. We’ve got three pilots.
When we lost one—he had finished his time on board. So we have a vacancy. You want to come aboard the Maryland?” I said, “Sure, but I don’t know—what do you do? What’s happening? What’s the world doing? What’s the battleship doing?” Well, they’d been in the Fiji Islands. They had been sitting at an anchorage. Nothing was happening there. The war was far away from them. They would go out one day a week and shoot at targets. And according to their comments, they went out, everybody came up on deck to watch them go off a catapult. The catapult blew them off with a 5-inch shell. It started from a standing stop with 58 feet on the track, and you were flying at 74 miles an hour. That acceleration is a little much! Anyway, they said everybody comes up on the deck to see what’s going on, in hopes that one of us will break our necks so that there will be some excitement. I made the mistake of responding to the captain of the ship when I met him, when he wanted to know how much time I had in the air. I was a smart-ass, if you will forgive the expression. I told him – he asked me if I knew what my duties were aboard.  I said, “Yes sir, I understand we’re here mainly to entertain the crew.” And you can imagine the glaze that came across the man’s eyes, and he thought to himself, “Oh Lord, protect me. I’ve got 2,800 men on board a 38,000 ton ship, all of them dummies [laughing]—just like this one.”

At any rate, I reported about the ship. I spent a year, year-and-a-half on the ship. It was a pretty dynamic experience. We were in five assault landings in the Pacific, and one major battle of major ships at night, battleships at night. And I finished that and then came back to the States, and I was instructing at Pensacola. The war ended, and I had a brand new wife. We had married as soon as I got off the ship and we came home. And I was working at Pensacola, but because I had the necessary points, I got out of the service in September after the Japanese surrendered. Came back to Detroit, made one phone call to the Detroit Public Schools, and I had a job. It was a substitute position, but it was full time at Cooley High School. And that turned out to be a pain. Because I was brand new, because I was a senior taking graduate classes at Wayne part time, and working in Detroit Schools. I met the chairman of the History Department—he put me to work teaching as a part-time teacher, working with freshman students and others. And I became a docent for the Detroit Historical Museum. I think I was the first one. It was in [Governor] Soapy Williams’s house. His parents’ house was the Detroit Historical Museum until the Historical Museum was built. I was the only docent there, and I think I would have punched somebody if somebody had called me docent. I didn’t really know what a docent was, but whatever it was, it didn’t sound legitimate. [laughter] So, from there I graduated with a master’s degree, and I had started work at the University of Wisconsin on a doctorate. And I thought I wanted to teach history in a college. But I had been going part time, and some others had been going full time, graduated, and I got to, I knew men who were leaving then the school with jobs, and their jobs all seemed to be places like Southern Illinois Teachers College, you know, places that didn’t seem to be very important schools, with jobs that didn’t seem to be very good. And I was making more money as a teacher than what I was going to make as a doctorate in a small town or in a small college someplace. I had seniority already with the school system, and there was a difference—you had to have a master’s degree to teach in the secondary schools. And I finished my master’s, so I got the raise in pay. The principal I was working for—

WW: And what year is this now?

FF: It’s 1947–48.

WW: And you weren’t here in—you were still in the service in 1943, so you weren’t here for the race riots then?

FF: Well, not—not that riot. I was principal of a school for the ’67 riots.

WW: We’ll get to that.

FF: You want to jump over to that?

WW: Oh, no, no, no. We’ll get to that later.

FF: Well, what happened, I was working as a teacher in a classroom. I worked and I switched my doctorate from history to education, from the University of Wisconsin to the University of Michigan. I was following a man who had been my advisor at Wayne, who had moved over to Michigan. Purely because he going to Ann Arbor and was on the staff at Ann Arbor, I decided that I wanted to go there.  So I switched there and I got my master’s degree from Wayne in 1948; I got my doctorate at Michigan 10 years later, in ’58. One of the guys in my little lunch group that we had—that totaled five or six men at the time—he said, “You know, we’ve got to buy ‘Free’ a gold watch.” Somebody said, “Why?” He said, “Well, for ten years of faithful service.” [laughing] It had taken me ten years from the time I got out of the Navy until the time I got the degree. I got the degree in ’58, and in the process I had worked in two schools. One of them was Hutchins School, which was a school that fed into what was Central High School. And that school was a—I was really into working in Detroit at the time because with the riots that had happened while I was in the service, with the stuff that happened when I became principal. I became principle of the Hutchins School in 19 —let’s see now, four years from ‘64 would be 1960. I worked at Nolan Junior High, I worked at Hutchins for four years, and I worked one year down at Miller.

WW: Were those primarily white schools or were they integrated schools?

FF: Nolan was a primarily white school, largely Italian kids. A big Italian community fed it. And Nolan, when I left I wanted a change, and I wound up with a change, that brought me into Hutchins. Hutchins had started and been an Anglo-Saxon community—upper-crust, fairly wealthy. The first house that was ever owned by Henry Ford was in that community—the Boston Edison group.  And the school, the community had been a quality place with a lot of support. But during World War II, basic changes took place in the city. The requirements for the Navy, for the military, were graduation from high school. The construction of the plants to supply the military, places like Willow Run and so forth, were all manned initially by white people who had come to Detroit looking for jobs. But when the war started, most of those men had been in schools where they had gotten a high school degree or certificate.  And they had gone in and been drafted. Every last person of my age, in my neighborhood that I had as friends went into the military, except two guys who had polio as children. They were the only ones that didn’t get drafted. Their jobs were given up and the companies in town had to find people to replace them, and they were digging away in the South looking for people who had not been put in the military. There were a lot of men in the South who had gone to inadequate schools. They had not graduated from high school, but obviously they had the ability to do the work in the job that they were being recruited for. They were replacing men who had high school certificates. The high school guys went in the military. A bunch of black men—primarily men—came north and picked over, picked out the jobs. The war ended and here were the factories full of black employees, white guys coming back looking for their jobs. It caused a lot of friction in the town. There’s no question about it.

The riots that took place in ’43, during the war—I came home with a pilot’s license and had a couple weeks leave just after those riots took place. And skipping from there back to my job, I was at Hutchins—which had this history of being a place where upper class white people had lived—which had changed from that to a large portion of Jewish kids. A large Jewish neighborhood came in and took over houses being abandoned by white people. And the black community flooded into that area. When I was there for four years ending in 1958, the school was two-thirds Jewish, one-third black kids, and hardly any Anglo-Saxon kids at all, period. I worked for five years as an assistant principal at Cadillac School ending in 1964, and was promoted to Hutchins in ’64. And Hutchins had changed from the school that I had been in—which had been primarily Jewish kids—was 100 percent black. And it was the best job I ever had. It was a better job—even though I’d feel like I was walking into a cold shower going to work every day, there were so many problems to deal with—but it was a place for, we had an eager family of teachers, a lot of young men who were eager to be serving in a real place. And who were working in a sense of payback—they were young teachers, they felt an obligation to the faculty and to the kids. And I was the chief go-man at the top of it. I was the principal there ’64 to ’68. A number of things happened which somehow or other made the powers that be think that I had some connections with the community that were valuable. For instance, Martin Luther King came to town; he’d been set up at Northern High School, which was just half a mile from where we were, on Woodward. And he was going to speak to the kids there, and the dumb principal said, “We’re sorry, we can’t have you come and speak to the kids, we don’t have somebody who’s going to speak for the opposition,”—for the Republicans. King was coming as a Democrat, the principal said, “You can’t come.” I got a call from one of my counselors, who was a member of the— [watch starts beeping] I’m trying to remember the name of the pastor of that church, it’ll come. She was in a church who was inviting King to appear there and so forth, and her pastor was King’s man in Detroit, lining up places for him to be. His place—

WW: Is your watch going to stop, the beeping?

FF: Oh, this thing is going?

WW: Yeah.

FF: Dumb clock!

WW: Sorry about that.

FF: Anyway, I got a call from her saying, “Martin Luther King is in town, he can’t go to Northern High School. Can we do something to get a few kids out on Twelfth Street because he’s going to be making a stop at the Congress on Racial Equality,” whose offices were on Twelfth Street. I said, “Well, I tell you, no I won’t get a few kids over there, but I’ll take the whole school.” So we took 1,800 kids, we walked over a block to Twelfth Street. And the only concern I had was my superior. I called and said, “I’m going to take all the kids out today.” He said, [chuckling] “Be sure and call the police and make sure they know so they can control traffic.” So I did, and we took 1,800 kids, and they were up on the rooftops of the building itself. When King saw what he—instead of adults it was a bunch of kids, we didn’t know what he would do—he spoke to them about – "Work hard, make something of yourself, get an education, and do what you’re doing."

Anyway, we walked back to the school, and things were okay. But, as the principal of the school, I had an English teacher, a musician, rather, as a music teacher, and he was a failure. He just didn’t do anything. And he left me. I was glad to see him go for another school—he went to the suburbs. And I got a young kid, who had been active in the Golden Gloves and stuff. His face was battered up. He was a tough-looking guy, but he was a first class teacher. And I said to him, “Look, what I want, I want our kids to get as much exposure to the instruments that they can get. I don’t want you to make a band. If you get a band out of the place, that’s fine, but don’t make that the important thing. Teach kids to play so that when they go to high school, they can get on the band in the high school and have that experience from a decent background of instruction.” He agreed, and in 1967 there was the most ungodly noise you ever heard coming out of the auditorium. He had his band, he had 60 kids up on the stage, and they were working to learn to play together. But he made a really good deal out of it and a number of businessmen who had special things going on on Twelfth Street asked if the school could provide some kids to play some stuff outside of their business when they had a special day. And we had become, in a very short time, we were providing services back to the community that the community wanted.

Well, the reason for talking about this was what happened: the school was robbed in Easter time when school was out. [unintelligible] Okay. We had somebody come in with a ladder, and they climbed from the ground level to the top of the swimming pool—one of the swimming pools, we had two pools—and from the top of the pool to the top of the gym, they were on either side of it. And they went from the third floor up to the fourth floor on the ladder, and went in the storage room where the instruments were stored. And they stole all of our instruments. And something that we had worked on and tried desperately to improve was killed right there. A day or two later, a kid came in to the teacher, told him, the teacher came down with him to me and said this is what he saw: he saw a man coming out of a house one half a block from the school, with a big instrument with a big red H on it. The man who had stolen the stuff lived just—or was associated with whoever stole it—was half a block away from the school. He went down to Twelfth Street, and he went into a hock shop down there, and sold it to the hock shop. I called the police. We went, the teacher and I, went over in my car to watch what happened. Before the police got there, that kid who had reported this thing said, “It’s too late. Look out in back.” The truck had just left with stuff from the hock shop. Now—one of the first places to burn in the riots of ’67 was that hock shop. I think I know the kid who did it, and if I had been standing next to him, I would have helped him. The stealth of our instruments took a tremendous disservice to the kids and the community as a whole, and I was really uptight about that.

At any rate, when the riots took place—

WW: Before we get to that, you mentioned after you got back from the war there was racial tension between white and black workers. Did that continue for you? Did you continue to see that racial tension through the Fifties and early-Sixties?

FF: Yes. I have some black kind of strong prejudices—I guess maybe they are—about the automobile people. They solved their problem during the war by inviting men from the South to come and get a job here. And the men came. They served in the factories, primarily when went from white to black workers. The war ended, and the black workers’ jobs went out the window. Many of them had come and bought houses and gotten a place to live, and so forth, and here’s the invitee, if you will, the invitor who brought them here, walking away from them and their jobs. That had a tremendous effect on the unions. There was a lot of anger, back and forth, and the condition at the school changed from having been white Anglo-Saxon to a Jewish community. In the middle Fifties, this city had—there was a French area, there was an Irish area, there was a German area, there was a whole bunch of southern Europe nationalities.

[His watch starts beeping again] Take this thing off [referring to his wrist watch] and get rid of it. Now I can hear it.

[Addressing Betty] Put that in your pocket, will you honey?

Anyway, the city was just pockmarked. You could tell what kind of a community you were in by the churches you could see. The churches all varied, and so forth. And so the community around Hutchins—which had changed to an all-black community—had just been doing what the whole city had been doing. And it was predictable when the first black people moved into a community, it was predictable within four or five years that that community was going to change. I’m watching this community right here, because there are some black neighbors that we have here. I think the white community has a tremendous responsibility to look—they didn’t, they have never looked at—the white community in Detroit has abandoned whatever area it was in when black people moved in to join them. There’s no exception to that. And because of my involvement with the riots—I was not involved with the riots, but my school became a center for the National Guard. And then when that was over, why, an incident—the National Guard moved in, they couldn’t find the switches for the floodlights in the parking lot, so instead of finding a light switch to turn them off, they shot them out, so that people wouldn’t be able to get close up to them, with guns and so forth.

But for some reason or other, I had a reputation in the community as being working with the community, and after the riots—

WW: Before we get to “afterwards,” I’ve got those questions folks say on that week: Where were you when you first heard about it? And how did you first hear about what was going on? Where were you living?

FF: Where was I living?

WW: Yes.

FF: I was living in the area—you know where Northwestern Highway and Five Mile would be in Detroit?

WW: Uh-huh.

FF: That’s where I lived.

WW: Okay.

FF: And I was able to buy a wartime house built for the GI Bill guys, a small place on an empty lot. A number of the builders had come in and built about 10 or 15 houses like this. I found one after I had my first child. We were living in downtown on what used to be—what is now Martin Luther King, that runs through Detroit. We were between Second and Third Avenue in downtown Detroit, on—Stimson was the name of the street, but Stimson became Martin Luther King Boulevard. And this was, I could walk from there up to the university. My wife could walk up there and come back. She was taking classes there, also. We were just outside the immediate university area. But in the [chuckling]—it was a rather difficult place in town. My father-in-law, when we were in the summer time going to the University of Wisconsin, wrote us a letter and said, “Things are the same in your old neighborhood: somebody was a butcher, [watch starts beeping again] and he had butchered his own wife.”

WW: The watch is going off.

FF: Honey—

BF: I can’t hear it, [laughing] but my hearing aids don’t work that well.

FF: And I’m not sure about this watch because it—

BF: You want me to take it upstairs?

FF: Yeah, we don’t want it here.

WW: Thank you.

BF: Get rid of the darn thing.

FF: Anyways, the apartment we lived in was downtown, and we bought a small house in another area of the city. And we lived there from 1948 to 1988. My wife died two years after we moved into an apartment in this area. We moved out here. I was retired, and we looked for a place and it turned out we had a next door neighbor, one of the group of guys that I knew when I went in the Navy. We had been friends for all of these years. They had bought that. We visited them. They said the house next door was open for sale. And we found this. We also had a place in Massachusetts. And my first wife and I had made a deal when we got married, that we were going to live on a teacher’s salary, no matter what. Even if it wasn’t enough, we were going to live on that. But we were going to take our summers for ourselves and our kids. And it worked out very well, and we had gone to Massachusetts a couple times, and we wound up buying a little place. It was so small it had a bathroom but didn’t have a shower. It didn’t have any hot water [chuckling]. And it was a tiny place, but it was a summer cottage, and it was easy walking distance to the ocean.

And we decided we really liked it. We bought it, and then because my kids got bigger, like everybody’s kids do, and I had a mother-in-law who wanted to, who needed to be with us in the summertime, we needed more space and we found a barn. And a farmer’s barn had burned down, and a real estate man had bought the farm. After the barn had been rebuilt, the farmer died. It was a brand new barn sitting there, but it was a barn. It had a dirt floor, and the real estate guy camped out upstairs in the loft. Well, here was a great big place, and my kids were getting bigger, and my mother-in-law was still with us—it promised to have enough space for everything.

WW: Nice. Jumping back to 1967, where were you and how did you first hear about it, hear about what was going on in July?

FF: In Detroit?

WW: Yeah.

FF: Well, that was the summertime. The riots took place in the summer—

WW: So you were still in Massachusetts then?

FF: No, I was in Massachusetts, yeah, and I was not—my assistant principal was home and he took over. Reg Cicailo was a real sharp guy, and he took over what had to be done there for the building. But after the event—the superintendent was a person I had known fairly well—he knew of what I had done with Martin Luther King, he knew what I was trying to do. And he created a business, a department called School–Community Relations. Which I’ve always thought was an oxymoron. And he offered me the job downtown to run this, along with the president of the NAACP. He was going to be the boss and I was going to be the guy that did all the work. And he left us after a year, and he went over to the university. And I had a department with six different units in it. Called School–Community Relations, and I did that for 15 years. I ran school elections, millage elections, and we did a number of things.

I met with an awful lot of people who were community people. I have a favorite story, which—can I put in there?

WW: Go right ahead.

FF: My first wife—my first wife died in 1990, and Betty and I married five years later—we were in an airport going someplace, I don’t remember where. And she looked over and she said, “Gee, I’m glad there we’re not in that [unintelligible] in that airplane, I’m glad were not going there,” because there was a guy wearing army camouflage stuff with a beard, and he really looked like a tough character. She said, “I’m glad we’re not going with him.” And I said, “Wait a minute, I’ll be right back.” And I went over and said, “Tom, come on over and meet my wife.” And so he was a nice man and we talked until we got on the airplane. And that was the end of it. But I got involved in the city with a lot of people who were doing different kinds of good things. And trying to do good things.

WW: What was your first impression coming back to the city from Massachusetts after what happened?

FF: After what happened?

WW: Yeah, so—

FF: It was very strange to see a tank come down the street and go by the school. The first day I was there looking out I heard a rumbling outside and this big tank going by. I wound up—there was some money coming into the community, and an organization called the Virginia Park Group was put together to try to influence how the federal money that was coming into the neighborhood was going to be used. Well, because I was running the school that had the most kids from the neighborhood—who were identical to the neighborhood—I got to be a member of that group. And things were not going very well. We had to have a chairman, and there were a couple people who wanted to be the chairman. The community was breaking up into groups. So I got together as many as I could get together, that I thought that I could talk to, and asked them to come to lunch at school. I’d pay for lunch. We had I guess 30-some men come over to the school, and I spelled out to them, “Look, I’m a member of this group because I’m principal of this school. I’m in the neighborhood. You’re here because you have a business here, or you live here. We have to do something because the money is going come here and we’re going around and round in circles. We’ve got to put an organization together, and we’ve got to have a chairman. And I would suggest—I don’t want to have any part of being on one side or another, I’d like to leave the lunchroom for you when you finish your lunch, I’d like for you guys to make up your mind who you’re going to support, and do it, if you can, and I’ll thank you for it.” They did. They chose a member to be the chairman, and always in the meetings there was a black man who was a priest for an Episcopal church there, there was a white priest for St. Agnes Church there, and me. The three of us sat together in the meetings most of the time. The chairman used to refer to us as “Father so-and-so, Father so-and-so, and Father Flynn.” [laughter] I was part of that group. He didn’t even see the fact I was a teacher.

However, at one point, because of things that were happening, we had a PTA that was all black men. It was the only PTA in the city that was all men. And it was the only one in the city that had a president that was a man. PTAs were women’s business in the schools, but I put together one that was all men, about 50 men. Shortly after I did that—the superintendent used to have meeting of all the principals and central staff people once a month in a school someplace, and after I put my bunch together—I got a call, “Will you host the superintendent’s meeting for two months away in your building?” I said, “Sure.” Well, they came in, and the normal thing in one of these meetings would be the principal would introduce his PTA president and everybody would clap and he would give her a little flower or something to wear, and that would be the end of that. So we had a meeting for that same group and I had about 50 men there—I invited the whole darn PTA group. I had about 50 men there, and I invited them and I introduced all of them by their names and their jobs, and somehow or another that got translated into “Free knows how to work with people.” And the superintendent asked me then to go work with the School–Community Relations thing, after the riots. And I was only a principal there four years, but it was the best job I ever had. I liked the people I was working with, we were working with difficult problems, and we were looking for new solutions. Yeah—

WW: How do you interpret what happened in that week?  You called it a riot, but do you see it strictly as a riot, or you talked about how you sympathized with the people who attacked the hock shop? Do you see it as a rebellion of sorts?

FF: Well, I’ll put it—let me give you another little thing. The PTA lady who had been—who eventually wound up being the PTA president—was a lady. She and her husband, who was a preacher, had moved in a house on Clairmount. You know where Clairmount—

WW: Uh-huh.

FF: They had a house on Clairmount. Six months after they moved in, somebody burned down their garage. They were in an all-white neighborhood. When the riots took place, somebody burned their garage. It was black guys doing it this time. Whether they knew what they were doing, whether they knew why they were doing it, I have no idea. But I knew that the garages were burned 20 years apart, by white guys in one instance and black guys in another. And I’m struggling to answer your question because I don’t know that I ever thought of it in terms then as having any consequences other than the fact that I was the principal of school and so knew more of what was happening in the school. I liked the job I had, I really did. The superintendent asked me to go downtown. I did so reluctantly. By that time I had my doctorate, and I guess I was also—I had also been elected as the president, the first president of the Administrators Union. When the teachers got the right to unionize and to speak as a group, a number of our people went to a workshop at Michigan State College during the summer. I think this was after the riots. A number of people went there and they spoke in terms of, “We’re administrators, we’re not being involved in the kinds of deals are being made by the teachers’ union and school system.” And the instructor of the class, whatever it was, said, “Well, if you’re not getting any activity, why don’t you make you a fund and start your own union?” I was the first president, and—

WW: And what union was that called?

FF: It was the—I’m trying to think of the—it’s been so long now, it was made up of the senior staff members downtown, and the principals and administrators of the schools, plus the men and women who were counselors at the schools. In other words, anybody who was not a teacher and in the teachers union became a member of, of the — our initials included — well, it will come to me sometime.

WW: No problem.

FF: It’s gone now, I think. The situation in the schools now—because of the private schools and charter schools, and so forth—it’s a different place. The school that I was proud of, the school that I was the principal of for four years, the school that I identified with, more with my lifetime career, now is a wrecked shell. There is not a single piece of glass in the building. It’s been empty for six, seven years now. And the community has—some kids in the community have been angry enough about the school so they busted up all the windows. When I left the school there were one, two, three, four principals who became principals in the building after I left, before the building was closed down. And it’s the kind of thing that you take a look at and you say, “I was proud of being the principal there. I was proud of the things we were doing, but obviously some people in the community didn’t share that.” Who they were, I don’t know. Were they our kids that had bad times with somebody in the building? I don’t know that. All I do know is that the school was closed when we got down to 250 kids instead of 1,800. At 250 they closed it because it wasn’t reasonable to run a school for that number. And we, I hope, when I quit, when I retired, after a year or two I needed to do something, so—

WW: What year was that? What year did you retire?

FF: I retired 19—I retired when I was 65, yeah—

WW: So 30 years ago now?

FF: Yeah, I’m 95. Yes, I retired when I was 65—no, 63. I was convinced that my lifetime experience was going to be ended when I was about 71, 72 years old—that’s what men seemed to be dying at. And I was very surprised. After I had been retired for a couple years, I went back to the school and told the principal I needed to do something. And I said, “I’d like to start up a chess club or something.” And he said, “Well, what I’d like to have you to do is do some counseling.” I said, “Aw, c’mon Peter,” he was a black guy, “Aw, c’mon Peter, I’m a white guy living in the suburbs now, kids aren’t going to know how to handle me.” He said, “Free, I want you do whatever you want to do. Come and do whatever you want to do in the school. You want to start up a chess team? Fine, okay, good, come on in.” So the first day, I went to the school to be a volunteer in the building. The principal had 30 kids lined up for me to do counseling! So I had to work my way through that to put a chess thing together. And I put nearly 20 years in the school building with kids playing chess.

WW: Nice.

FF: Got a story for you.

WW: Go ahead!

FF: It involved my wife. Actually, I was doing stuff at what was the old Northern High School, as well as at Hutchins with kids, and about six girls surrounded me. They had not known me, I had not been in their building before, they didn’t know much about chess or anything, but they wanted to know who I was. So they gathered around and wanted to know everything. So I explained that I was married, I had four kids, my wife and I had four kids, and the girls interrupted. “Do you have any grandchildren?” I said, “Well, yeah, I guess I’ve got nine grandchildren and I married again. And the woman I married has three grandchildren, so I guess I’ve got 12 grandchildren.” And the kids stopped. It was absolute dead silence. It stopped. Finally one of them said, “What’s going to happen when you go to heaven?” I don’t know what I said to them, [unintelligible] but Betty insists that Francis will say to me, “Thank you for taking care of them.” But the kids are curious, you know how kids—especially girls, and nothing is more curious than a 12-year-old girl. They want to know everything about everybody everywhere. And I worked with kids at that age very—well, for 20 years or so. And I enjoyed it. Only stopped because we moved from Hutchins to McMichael, and it was—McMichael was called “Hutchins at McMichael,” and we never got any more kids. McMichael had never kept any kids who were being—from schools being closed, so when they closed McMichael it was only about 300 kids in it, and—

WW: Ask you a couple follow-up questions from while we were coming up earlier. Going back to the National Guard at the school, did the school—besides the floodlights being shot out—face any other like, damages? Because there are stories when the National Guard left Central High School, they left it a wreck. Was your school similarly affected, or not at all?

FF: The only wreck that they left was that they couldn’t find the switches for the lights in the parking lot, so they shot them out.

WW: So your school was otherwise untouched?

FF: Those holes are still in the overhang in the roof.

WW: Oh, wow. And then the Virginia Park Association—your thoughts looking back, was it a success? Because they’re still in operation today. Do you have any thoughts on that?

FF: Say that again, I’m missing something.

WW: Your work with the Virginia Park Association—

FF: Yeah.

WW: Its starting out. Because they are still in operation today, what are your thoughts on them?

FF: I don’t know, I have not—I’ve lost my touch with the schools. Because of the chess thing I was doing, I got involved with chess, we moved from Hutchins to McMichael School, and finally it closed. We left McMichael, and McMichael is now a training program for the police department. The school system as I knew it and the people who were working in it—my friends are all old and retired from—but the structure for administration is such that the union for administrators has gone out of business, and there are no things which gather and pull the schools in Detroit together, in any way, shape, or fashion. There is no superintendent for the schools. There are three different kinds of schools in the system. And I’m—as I say, I go by the building, and take a look at it every once in a while. And I have so much emotionally, psychologically, intellectually tied up with Hutchins School—to see it the way it is, I’m at a loss to tell you where are we. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. And it was the best job I ever had, even though I was only there four years. I went in—

WW: You certainly made the most of it.

FF: Hmm?

WW: You certainly made the most of those four years.

FF: I think I did. I hope I did. I know that I have a few friends still alive who were on the staff, I see once in a while, but they don’t know any more about what’s happening in Detroit than I do. In order to know something, you’ve got to be involved with some kind of responsibility, either as a teacher or an administrator. You have to be in some way in contact with [something] larger than your school itself. You need to know from the people in the other schools in the community what’s going on in their places, so that you can compare what you’re doing, see whether or not you need to change it into that, whatever. And as I say, the job I had in School–Community Relations, which I spent so much time at, it was an interesting job, but the city was changing so fast that the job was changing all the time.

We at one point, we inherited a deal where we reviewed all the books that our school, or our schools, were buying to see whether or not there was derogatory stuff in the books in terms of what people were experiencing in the schools. And the superintendent wound up making some testimony before Congress, about the problem of the content quality of books which the schools purchased. Most—and it still happens—most books are approved by a Texas company, a Texas organization. And they approve of things for spending Texas’s money. And, as a consequence, the publishers meet Texas requirements before they put books on the market. And if you’re in a market that is responding to an organizational structure such as Texas’s, you’re going to make them [unintelligible] some problems. And the books that we reviewed, many of our department heads and people wanted those books for their service that they were providing the school system, and often times they would be missing connotations and work, items in the books that were negative. And I think we had a pretty good thing going there. We had a team of people examining the books and seeing whether or not, even though the department wanted them, whether or not we could afford them, and the kinds of commentary and pictorial information that was being delivered from them. And that doesn’t exist anymore. Anyway—

WW: Is there anything else you would like to add, any commentary from—

FF: Well, no. What happened is I flew in the Navy. I quit flying. Because I have a place in Massachusetts, my kids and I got into sailing. I sailed for many years, and we raced and had fun with it. I used to think I was the reason we were gaining trophies from our racing, and then I ran out of crew because my kids grew up and left the house and weren’t there in the summertime. The trophies stopped coming when I was having to depend on somebody else to be crew for my boat. And I learned a lesson, I guess. It was my crew that was earning the trophies, not me. And when my first wife died, Betty and I got together, and I started flying again. I flew for my own personal pleasure. I flew gliders from 1990 up until the last couple of years. I only fly with somebody who is a qualified pilot, not because I feel I need him, but I think the young people in the group—we have a lot of younger people learning how to fly, they see this old goat coming in, going out and flying. When I come back from the flight, I have to have somebody help me climb—get out. I can get in the thing, but I can’t get out of it. And with gliders, you don’t fly them, you wear them. And when somebody sees two great big guys go there and lift an ancient character out of the airplane, that’s not good advertising and not good for the organization. So I don’t fly much anymore, but I love it. I need to be up high and I like to see a distance. I need to know where I am in the world—

WW: That’s awesome!

FF: As an aside on all of this, when I was a kid I read everything in the library about the South Pacific, about Captain Bligh and the Bligh experience, and that kind of thing, and the guys who went to sea with whalers. And look what happened. I learned how to fly. I reported to the Navy, they sent me to the South Pacific, and there I was, looking over the stuff I had read about and knew about before I ever got there. And it was a marvelous experience. And that—I’ve had two lives: my flying and my sailing life, and my teaching life. And I guess another life, a life as a father and family member. There’s been a lot of stuff in the last 95 years [chuckling].

WW: I thank you for sitting down with us today, greatly appreciate it.

FF: Yeah.

Dr. Freeman Flynn: FF

William Winkel: WW

Betty Flynn: BF



William Winkel


Freeman Flynn


Bloomfield, MI


Freeman Flynn.JPG


“Freeman Flynn, December 18th, 2015,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed February 21, 2024,

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