Katharine Burns, March 4th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is March 4, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. We are at the Detroit Historical Museum in Detroit, Michigan. May I ask you to please state your name?
KB: Katharine J. Burns.
WW: Thank you for sitting down with me today.
WW: May I ask you first where and when were you born?
KB: I was born in Detroit in 1940, on the northwest side of Detroit.
WW: What did your parents do?
KB: My father was plumbing and heating at one point and a pharmacist at another. My mother was a housekeeper. Home.
KB: Yeah, homemaker.
WW: Where did you go to school growing up in Detroit?
KB: All Catholic schools, Precious Blood grade school, Immaculata High School for girls and Mercy College when it was an all-girls school for women.
WW: What were your experiences as growing up in the city?
KB: It was — there is something about it that I’ve always known, but this is kind of an opportunity to kind of put some light on it. I was the youngest of four children, and I knew somewhere along the line very early that it was a different kind of family. It was not my word but I know the word now, it is racist. And I can remember driving — the family would drive to Royal Oak to visit cousins, and when we get to Eight Mile it would be like, "Roll up with your windows," and it would be like just get through Eight Mile, you know. And I remember looking out and going why can’t they have pretty houses like mine? You know and it was just for me. And the language at home. I had an uncle who was very racist, so I knew pretty early that that was it. I didn’t have the words for it, and I didn’t know what to do with it, I didn’t know the meaning of it really until much later. But I think looking back I was aware of it, on some level, as a child. So after college I — do I just kind of keep going?
WW: How did that dynamic affect your childhood, like, going around the city?
KB: I was the youngest so it made me very— and I always knew that I did things that were different. I would go here by myself. I used to run away as a little child. I mean I am talking about five-year-old child, I used to run away. And it made me very curious. And somewhere along the line I became very, very independent. And I would take the bus and come downtown, you know I was probably 9, 10, 11, by myself, and go to Hudson’s and go to Sanders and have lunch and take the bus back home. And I had no associations with blacks. None. It was a very white area; nobody ever talked about it. Certainly didn’t talk about blacks. I mean, even other ethnic groups were not very well tolerated.
WW: And what neighborhood was this again?
KB: Northwest, like around McNichols, like I don’t know, it’s probably still called Northwest. Detroit used to be identified, if you were Catholic, by what parish you belonged to so it’s kind of like that. But I always knew that something was, well why can’t— you know— that was a Mexican family you know. They seemed nice you know, and it was just— it always kind of didn’t sit with me.
WW: And you said you have a lack of associations with blacks and other minorities?
KB: No. Never. Never met a black until I probably —certainly not in grade school. I think there was one black girl in high school, and I would have to ask some of my classmates, and none in college. So there was really no association until I went to work. My first job after college.
WW: What was that like for you?
KB: It was at Lafayette Clinic. It was a wonderful job. It was just— I still love it. My background was nursing, my degree was in nursing and I hated all the medical part of it but I love the psych part of it. I did a senior project on disturbed children and interviewed at Lafayette Clinic, and we spent some time in the kids' unit. And the nursing director was black, Dr. Kept[?]. Elizabeth, I think, was her first name, and she said if you need a job after school, give me a call. I didn’t even have to interview? It landed right into my lap, and I did. I called after I finished. She hired me. And it was 20 disturbed children. So I was a staff nurse the first year. And then I became head nurse the second year and then they created somewhat of a position or title for me as administrator of something of the unit.
WW: What year did you start there?
WW: How many years did you spend there in total?
KB: 6 years. I left in 1968.
WW: In the early Sixties, given your increased exposure to other people, did you sense any coming racial tension or anything hanging over to the city?
KB: Absolutely. I really did live in two worlds. I had a roommate after college and I got my own apartment, and we lived together, and so I lived in an all-white world, it was you know a nice, white world, I mean. Fancy clothes, you know, nice events. Never came downtown. It was always kind of in the suburbs. And then I would go to work, you know, at least 50 hours a week because I was in charge of this unit, so I was there all the time. And half the staff were black. So, there I was, living in this one life over here in this all white world, that I never talked about my work. I mean part of it was psych, so people don’t want to hear about disturbed children, particularly I guess. But the other part was I never, I think if my friends were sitting here today they would be shocked to hear me say: You know, the staff that and I went down the bus station, you know, for a drink after work on Friday when they would get their paycheck, and we’d be refused to be served. I was the only white one, and I was the youngest, and they were all black, and in their thirties and forties, and the waiter or waitress would refuse to serve us. I would be furious. Very specifically one occasion one of the—she was a licensed practical nurse—she just didn't have her identification with her, you know, they said we can't serve you, so we have to leave the bus station cocktail lounge. I don't remember where we went but we went someplace else. In the black world, not in the white world. And there were numerous occasions like that, numerous, out of, what was I there? Six years, I would say? Ten, twenty, thirty occasions of that. And you know, what to do with that it was just like, it would make me so angry, and I would want to stand up and start confrontation with whoever the person was. But you know, the staff just come and say, “Burns, sit down, we’ll find another place.” You know they were protecting me, for sure, but I mean there were incident after incident. We would take, sometimes the children down to Hudson’s, you know, because it wasn’t that far, just kind of walk and we would be walking through Hudson’s, and, you know, I’d be white and there would be one of the black staff and we’d have maybe two or three kids, not a whole bunch, because that’s tough. And you know some of the kids would be black although most of the children were white, and they came from all over. But people would literally — and I still can visualize one woman — would literally stand in the hall, you know, the thing of the ground floor of Hudson’s, and click their teeth at [us]. And you know, like, how dare you? You know, how dare you be with this black man? And with these two white children and this one black child. You know I don’t know I have no idea what they thought this was. But the fact that — and I had a white uniform on, you know. I was in little nurse stuff. It wasn’t like I had some hippie thing outfit on. But none of it made sense. Or we would take the children to the zoo, you know we did. We did day trips a lot, and you know, to the beach, I don’t remember what beach we went to. But to the zoo, or wherever we take some little children's zoo some place that we used to go. And there would be those kinds of things. And I felt like — I mean I didn’t think of it in this way then. But I knew that at work I never talked about my life outside the work, and my life outside the work I never talked about, you know, what was going on with my staff, or you know this or that. You know, everybody’s got problems, and I knew about all of them because they would confide in me. I never talked about that. I think the tension within me began to really increase. And a number of times, driving up Woodward, taking one of the black staff home for something, and I would get in the car and whoever, whichever one it was — and I won’t name them because that’s up to them — but I say “Ok, we’re going up Woodward so what’s the speed limit,” and I would go 25 miles per hour, and we would get stopped by cops. I’d be driving, and they would stop, and I remember one of the staff occasionally carried a gun, and you know, and I would just take the gun and put it in my purse because if he got caught with it, it would be, you know. And they would just stop and say, you know, “Are you okay?” And then they would follow us as far as we would go, until I dropped them off. You know, this – I never talked about it then. I began to talk about it when I went to New York, a little bit, about what took me there. It’s just kind of this period in my life that had parentheses around it, and it’s great to be able to share it.
WW: Where were you living in 1967?
KB: I was living in, I think the area is called Six Mile, Palmer Park. Like, Six Mile, Hamilton. The building is still there. The apartment building is still nice, still a nice area. Merton Road. It had a swimming pool, I remember. So it was Palmer Park. You just walk around the corner to the park.
WW: How did you first feel about what’s going on?
KB: My roommate at that time worked at Children’s Hospital, and I think she was supposed to be going to work that morning and got a call, and to this day I don’t know whether she went to work or not. She got a call that there was something happening downtown. So I remember, then, that afternoon all the stuff on the television and stuff.
WW: Did you see anything from your apartment?
KB: No. No. And I went to work every day.
WW: So you didn’t leave the city?
KB: I’m sorry?
WW: You didn’t leave the city? So you stayed put?
KB: No, I would never, never have done that. It was just — no. And I went to work. I mean I never thought about it. I never thought twice about where I was driving. It’s very vague, because some memories — I remember, like, picking up staff, but I can’t tell you who it was or where they were. But they couldn’t get out of the neighborhoods. And I don’t remember how many times that happened, or who it was—I just remember doing that.
WW: You spoke about being stopped by police before hand —were you stopped by police during that week?
KB: No. Never. No. And I have no idea why, because the curfew was pretty firm. I think it was seven o’clock or something like that. But no, I was never stopped. Which is kind of interesting. Especially because I was driving, you know, down around that area. I don’t remember. I remember seeing later, obviously, the destruction, but I didn’t see any burning buildings at the time, that I remember.
WW: How did your family react to your being in the city?
KB: At that time I didn’t have any contact with my family, for obvious reasons, and lots more, but, yeah, I didn’t have any contact so, it was just like, you know, I was doing what I did. You know? And I never thought twice about it. I never thought that I was brave, I never thought that I was, you know. It was just something — you know. I was in charge of this unit. I was responsible, I was a professional, and I think this is all wrong. I had a very sense of — as the story began to unfold about what happened, it made me increasingly more angry. And the two stories, after I got the email, I remembered two stories, and they came right back. And I hope this is true, I didn’t create it. But the two things I remember were the ads on television, because all the whites went out and bought guns. They all wanted to have guns. I’m never been a gun person; still to this day I’m not. But I remember the ads and the one ad was, I think, it’s a man hears something outside the window and gets his gun, goes to the window and shoots, and it’s a child. That was one of the TV ads, in terms of trying to get people to turn their guns back in. And that was just horrifying to me. It was just horrifying. That there were people just going out to get guns. I hope you can document this somehow; [laughs] I need to know whether this is all true. And I remember the other thing – I mean, everybody blamed the blacks, you know. They’re destroying their own property. And from the beginning I just thought, you know, it was provoked, it was absolutely provoked. And then I remember kind of thinking, well, why [are] all the buildings being burned, and stuff like that. And then there was some report — and I don’t know whether it came out at the time or came out later, but it’s done by—if my memory serves me correctly again—Sacred Heart Seminary, which is out in Plymouth. They had done some investigation, articles, or something about many of those buildings were white-owned, and they charged outlandish rents, they charged a loaf of bread three times of the cost, you know, up the road a piece, and I think that’s why the rage you know took the path that they took, and I thought, "Yay for the Catholics." It was one of those moments [like] “yay for the Catholics.” Now to this day if I had my friends I knew at that time sitting here, they would totally disagree with me I’m sure. And but that's what I put together.
WW: How did this city change from before that week in July and then after?
KB: That’s almost an impossible question because I don’t — it didn’t change anything. It really didn’t. I mean, I think the staff were more — I think the fact that the staff dramatically. Did we talk about it? No. And Lafayette Clinic had some role in this, and I didn’t have a direct role in this. I’m not sure what they did in terms helping people, or serving as a mental health center, I don’t know, because I was in the children’s unit, so that was much more remote. It was much more complicated with kids. But, I don’t think I saw any change. It changed me, though. It increasingly made it more difficult for me to live in two worlds.
WW: How do you interpret what happened there? Do you see it a riot? Did you see it rebellion?
KB: I see it probably even if you compare it today it, the same thing. You know, things that were happening in the cities, you know, whether, you know, even a rage outburst against the police or against the authorities. Or in New York, you know, when it has been— the student — you know, I leave Detroit then I go to New York and I’m in the middle of a student rebellion, you know. And within weeks I’m marching on Washington. So, I took my anger with me. I didn’t see at the time any change, really. The physical damage which is still apparent, you know, in certain neighborhoods – even though I don’t live down there, you know, I come down as long as I can, and that’s just me. I can’t get one friend to come downtown with me, not one.
WW: Can you talk about your decision to leave the city from New York?
KB: Yeah. It’s part of my job. We have annual conferences for nursing in the community and in 1967 — I think it was May — I presented a paper on separation anxiety in children and our keynote speaker happened to be the Dean of NYU [New York University] in nursing. She presented her paper – her dissertation rather — on separation anxiety. I didn’t know her, I’d never met her, I didn’t have any idea what she was going to present. She had no idea what my paper was about. It was just so interesting that we were on the same page about looking at children, the dynamics of children. And so I spent a couple of days with her, you know, hosting her while she was here for the conference. And you know, she said, “You ought to come to New York and do you graduate work.” You know, that just seemed so silly to me, you know. I had no intentions of going to graduate school. None. I had a pretty apartment, was dating a really nice man, and having a pretty nice life, you know. Skiing every weekend at Boyne, and, you know, I never thought about it. And a year later, I woke up one morning and I really had not thought about it and I said “I’m going.”
[Cell phone interrupts]
KB: Yeah, so I woke up one morning and went in to work and that was July, and a month later I was in New York to go to NYU for graduate school. And then a couple months there, I was with my little outfit from Birmingham and matching suit and then within weeks, months, I was marching on Washington for civil rights and woman rights. And, you know, Columbia was just up the road a piece, so I really became a part of the student rebellion, so to speak. I became a huge activist. Really, truth be told [laughter]. And I became a marshal in Washington, in the marches. Because one of my classmates was — I don’t know how well known it was, but she was a Black Panther, and so they had all the training force so, they had meetings and trained as a marshal to keep the peace in Washington, so it was great. I mean, that — I think my move to New York allowed me to breathe, that’s the best way to say it. I never thought about that way to express it but that really is the truth, and I really became who I am today as a result of that.
WW: And how many years did you stay in New York?
KB: Until five years ago. And I actually commute back and forth. I bought a condo here in Rochester Hills and I commute ten days a week [sic] back to my office in New York.
WW: Can you speak about your decision to come back here?
KB: It was – I wanted space. It was something about—I just wanted — I lived in — I love New York. I just, you know, I arrive and [mimics heart pounding motion] my heart just beats and I’m going. But just kind of the — I just wanted space; I just wanted bigger space than an apartment. And I didn’t want to live in the suburbs in New York. I kind of thought about it and kind of looked around and that’s not me. It just is not me. So somehow I kind of thought it through and found a place here and I thought “this is great.” And you know I just commute ten days a month. So I have a small office, in a different building, and – same neighborhood, Upper Westside, and that’s my life now. So now I’m involved in some a major project in Rochester.
WW: Is there anything else you want to share today?
KB: No, thank you for the opportunity.
WW: My pleasure.
KB: It was great.
WW: Alright, thank you for sitting down with me.
KB: Thank you. That’s it?
WW: That’s it!**