Brenda Perryman, March 19th, 2016


Brenda Perryman, March 19th, 2016


In this interview, Perryman discusses growing up attending multi-racial parochial schools in the Detroit area, as well as a life-changing car accident and her role in the events of July 1967.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI




Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Brenda Perryman

Brief Biography

Barbara Perryman was born in South Carolina in 1948 but came to Michigan six weeks later and considers herself a native Detroiter. A playwright, author, and former teacher, she graduated from St. Theresa's High School in 1966 and then attended Eastern Michigan University. She was present in Detroit for the summer of July 1967, and her brother went missing during that time.

Interviewer's Name

William Winkel

Interview Place

Detorit Historical Museum



Interview Length



Julie Vandenboom

Transcription Date



WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. Today is March 19, 2016. We are in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's 1967 Oral History Project, and this is the interview of Brenda Perryman. Thank you for sitting down with me today.

BP: Pleased to be here.

WW: All right. Can you tell me first where and when you were born?

BP: Okay, I was born in Kingstree, South Carolina, and I was just there for six weeks, because my grandfather was sick and my mother was living in Detroit – my parents were – and so that's how I ended up in South Carolina. But basically I'm a native Detroiter and I was born in 1948.

WW: Can you tell me about your childhood growing up in the city during the Fifties?

BP: Well, it was very interesting because I grew up over near Dexter and the Boulevard — West Grand Boulevard — and I started kindergarten over there at public school – at Marr — and at five – it was a little different in the city because, you know, we lived in a duplex, and we felt pretty safe, even – it was an interracial neighborhood at the time. And going to Marr, I was about four blocks from it, and we felt so secure, I guess. I think about my mom and dad, they felt so secure. There was a furniture store named Charles Furniture that was up on Grand River near the Boulevard, and my mother would send me up there to pay bills at five years old. I always had a key to the house.

WW: You said the neighborhood was interracial. Was it that way the whole time, or did it get increasingly more interracial as you were growing up?

BP: Well, more – one race. Well, I was only there until about the fifth grade. And yes, people started moving out and so forth, but it still had some white people there. White and black, everybody kind of lived harmoniously for the most part. The one incident I remember – well, two incidences, really – it was across Dexter, we'd walk up, if we walked up across Dexter for another block or so, we were at Grand River. And if I walked – Hogarth, I lived on a street named Hogarth – and there was this one white man who kept on calling me to his porch. And I went over, I said, “Yes, yes, yes,” and it just didn't seem right because he bent down like he was trying to kiss me and I ran home, seriously, and my mother called the police.

Another thing that happened in that neighborhood: I was pushing a wagon down Dexter — I had a friend in a wagon – and this man came. He was a white man, and he knocked against me, and I fell on the ground, and the wagon was going and it dragged me, and I still have that mark on my thigh. And then I found out later on, because I was doing research on Dr. Ossian Sweet, for a play that I was commissioned to write, and found out that in that particular neighborhood, there over near Tireman and other streets, there were – there was like a Tireman Improvement Association. And they were running like – black doctors who used to move over there, I guess it was a decent neighborhood. They would go in and start moving the doctor's furniture out and everything and make the doctor sign over the house to them. So they – blacks weren't really – they didn't really want them to live in that neighborhood. But anyway, I went to Marr School until third grade, and then transferred to St. Theresa's, which was right on Pingree area. I'm Catholic, and so I started going to that Catholic school I went there fourth and fifth grade, and then we moved further down Dexter, and maybe that's a little bit of dealing with that flight, we moved to a street named Clemens, and I went to St. Gregory's, for up until the tenth grade, and then eleventh grade we ended up moving back over near St. Theresa's and I graduated from St. Theresa High School in 1966. Which at that time, more than half our class was white, so it was still in the neighborhood so people were still coming. It was an interesting dynamic that was going on at the time, I think.

WW: What did your parents do for a living?

BP: My mother was a licensed practical nurse, and my father worked at Ford Motor Company until he was fired for running numbers. And my mother – the interesting thing, too, was my mother could always go over to Ford and ask him – ask could they give him his job back. She did that three times, and they did.

WW: What was it like growing up and going to a private school in Detroit at that time?

BP: Well, at that time it was – we had a good time because we didn't notice certain things. But you have to understand, I ended up graduating from college with a degree in speech and dramatic arts and dealing with theater and stuff like that, and in – at the Catholic school – which I enjoyed it – but when there was a little play, we just got little roles. And a nice girl, Mary Zukowski she would always be the Virgin Mary in the play, she would always – you know, they'd always pick – well my mother told me something very interesting yesterday, and something I had never heard. But – it makes sense now. In 1965, I think it was, I went down to Hudson's. My mother is darker-skinned than I am, and she went to get a part-time job because she was already a nurse at Henry Ford Hospital. And another friend of mine, she was darker-skinned, she went, and I was the only one who got the job, and my mother said, because I was light enough to work at Hudson's. And I never thought about – I never put it together that way. And my mother was one, my mother – she's never a person to play the race card. For her to say that —;

But then, too, she had an experience. She came up in South Carolina. She went to college at South Carolina State.

[background: Sorry.]

She took a – she took a test – a civil service test to work at the post office, and she got the highest – they sent her a letter, she had the highest grade on this test. So she got her suitcase, and everybody said goodbye to her so she could go to Charleston for the job. She got there and she told them her name, showed her paperwork, and they said, “You’re Pearlie Burgess?” She said. “Yes.” “Oh, it's another Pearlie Burgess.” So she had to get on to that bus and go back home. It was – you know. It – but she never carried that with her. That's what I noticed about my mother. Because up here, she had white friends and black friends, and so I kind of grew up like that also.

And so, I wasn't looking for racism, you know. Oh yeah, that's going to happen. First - my first idea of what racism could be was watching the Little Rock [Nine]. I was – it was on television. My mother was watching that, and I said, “What's going on?” She said, “They don't want the colored kids to go to school with the white kids.” I said wow. I thought that was strange, because I went to school with white kids. You know, I said it's not like this?

So, growing up, the — what was so good about growing up in Detroit was the fact that you could – we felt free to go anywhere. And when I come over this way, I think of the fact that I used to take, as a grade schooler, I'd take the Dexter bus down to Cass and I guess it's Putnam or whatever this next two – second – next street after Kirby, just before you get to Warren. I think it's Putnam or something. I'd take the bus and then I'd walk down here and right next to the Maccabees was the Detroit Conservatory of Music and I took piano lessons there. Mind you, I said, I would get on the bus, I was like eight, nine years old. And I'd come down here and I'd – and I'd go back with my music book. And I don't know why – you know, like I said, I always had the key to the house and my mother – my parents would be home but – that's what they raised me, to be pretty independent and navigate pretty well.

WW: So you said your first experience with racism was watching the Little Rock —

BP: It was noticing that there was supposed to be a difference, yeah, that's right.

WW: Did you begin to see racial problems in the city after that, or –

BP: Not initially, because — my best friend's name was Andrea Sarkisian, you know we went to St. Theresa's, and we were just best friends. She was white, I was black, and we just kind of never talked – noticed – well, talked about it. And our role models were people on television, and there were very few people on television of color. There was a show called Beulah with a black maid, at that time, when I was a little girl, but most other shows, like the Life of Riley and all these shows, they didn't show a black family, it was always a white family, and kind of getting into the drama piece – Disney. Disney was like a salvation to everybody. As far as growing up in Detroit, we had the Thanksgiving parade, everybody wanted to go to Hudson's to see Santa. I mean, things just seemed sanitized in a child's eye.

WW: Throughout the 1960s, being a teenager then, how did you experience social movements that were going through the city?

BP: Well, my first initial social movement was my love of Motown. I've got to be honest. I have to be honest. I'm like an aficionado, and just hearing – well, I need to talk about radio, because it was really important to hear music and all this and then, as a grade schooler, American Bandstand was on, so that was a cultural phenomenon, watching kids dance and all of that. But then as the Sixties went on and progressed, the music was beautiful, we weren't feeling really in it – we were teenagers having fun, that's basically it, and going to Belle Isle and Tanglewood Drive, which was down there at Belle Isle.

But we never – I'll never forget going out to Sterling Heights, though. Bunch of us jumped – we went out to Sterling Heights to this park and we were all just sitting in the cars, and all of a sudden, we heard, “Let's get 'em!” It was a group of white men, they started chasing us. We had to crank up the cars and go.

But as far as the movement, we heard – started hearing about Martin Luther King and all that, and he was in town, but didn't – still didn't know much about it. But I did – one day, I was walking from – to the bus stop – a different bus stop, I was downtown, went to Baker Shoes to buy some shoes. And there was a crowd from around the Book Cadillac, and I asked a man, I said what's going on here? He said, “President Lyndon Johnson is here. Would you like to meet him?” I said, well why not. I went up there, and I said, “I'm Brenda,” and you know, he said “Pleased to meet you,” and he shook my hand. He had the biggest hands! And I have large hands, for a lady, but he had the biggest hands, and he was so bow-legged, it was like you could put a basketball through his legs, and just very friendly, very, very friendly, and that was just a weird thing. I said I'm the humbug – here's the president of the United States.

Another thing, in the Sixties, I worked in the Ford hospital in the summers, because my mother worked there so I got a job. One day I heard Governor Romney was up there, in the hospital, I said, “Hm, I'd like to meet him,” and I remember having a little white bag with some gumdrops in it. So I went and knocked on the door, said Governor Romney. My name's Brenda, I work here, but can I come in? He said, “Yes.” So I came in, I sat down, and he asked me, “What school do you go to?” We were talking, I was eating my gumdrops, and I spent my lunch hour with him, just talking. Isn't that something, though? When I think about it in these terms, I say wow, how did that happen? But I was just talking, and then he asked, “Can I have some of those gumdrops?” Sure. Next day I got a call, down to where I was working, saying, “You gave the governor gumdrops!” I said, he asked for them. “It messed up his barium test,” she said. I said, Oh my god. I – but I don't – what do I know of barium? All I know is the governor of the state of Michigan asked me, could he have some gumdrops.

But as far as movements, I wasn't in any movement until I got to college. And when I went to college, well, I guess I had a little something to – to prove to myself because I remember telling, Sister John Damian, a nun, I said, “I'm going to Eastern Michigan University,” and she said, “You won't make it a year.” I – you know, I taught for 39 years, and I never told a student they won't make it. But I guess – so I went up there, and when I went to Eastern, and I guess I’ll get into the activism. I went to Eastern, and was up there three weeks – I couldn't believe a community of kids, and no parents. You know, the freedom I felt, even though we had to be back in the dorm by a certain time. But there were not – not a whole bunch of black people on campus, but it was enough of us to party, and sit in the union, and do all those good things.

But after three weeks, I went to a dance, and my boyfriend, who was here, he'd gone to St. Cecilia which was another Catholic school in the area – and he said, “Listen, if you get a ride –“ because people would come up from Detroit to go to the parties – he said, “If you get a ride down here, to Detroit – I'll give you a ride back to Eastern.” I said, “Oh, that sounds like a plan.”

So these people would come up – they were going back – I asked, can I get a ride. They said sure, so I got in the backseat of the car. It was an Oldsmobile Spitfire or Starfire – it was a nice car, but it was a convertible, but the top was up, and I got in the backseat and when I was in – they got lost getting out of Ypsilanti, so they said Brenda, get in the front because you probably know the way. I didn't know the way, but I said oh, a little more leg room. Got in, and so there were three people in back, two in the front, and we were going down I-94, and when we got towards Rawsonville Road, all I remember, because I was looking out the window – I remember the car kind of going off the road and then I looked to the driver. I think the driver fell asleep. And he woke up and he took the wheel over to the left, and we went across the road, turned over three times on – in the embankment in the middle. And after – I remember that so vividly because as we turned over, I said to myself, well, this is it. And then when we landed, when the car stopped, I couldn't believe I was still alive. I heard the other people in the back moaning, the driver was kind of moaning, and I remember feeling my tooth. I said, well, god, all I have is a chipped tooth, I feel pretty good, but I was on the floor between the glove compartment and the seat. And as tall as I am, my knees had hit the glove compartment and everything in my back backed up there. And I was on the floor, as tall as I am, I'm in this area, and I said get me out of here!

And they got me out, and you know people pulled over to the side of the road, too. They got me out, and as I laid there, I said, lay my legs down. They said, “Your legs are laying flat.” I said no they're not, because I felt like I was laying on the ground in a sitting position. And they kind of lifted my head a little bit so I could see and I saw my legs and my knees bloody – both knees, bloody. And I said oh my god. So what – a guy came over to the side of the road. He said, “Look, you live across the hall from my girlfriend at Eastern. What's your mother's number, I'll go to a phone and I'll call her.” Do you know I actually thought twice about calling my mother because I was sneaking home! And I said – so I finally gave him the number, and they took me to Wayne County General, and then, after a while my mother came. And I remember saying, “Mother,” she said, “Shut up.”

She told me to shut up because she was getting me out of that hospital and having me sent to Ford where, once I got to Ford they gave me the Last Rites. And I was kind of messed up – I was really messed up. Because it felt like I was laying on big boulder, and anyway – I ended up having an eight-hour operation, and when I woke up I saw my family, and I also saw – I remember saying, I'll teach you to dance. And so, anyway, time went on in the hospital, and after a few weeks, I had surgery – surgery all down my back, because my spinal cord was compressed and wrapped around several vertebrae that were knocked out of whack, and all this caused for the paralysis, and so during the operation they had to pick everything out around the cord and let the cord slither back into place. What an operation, isn’t it? So they didn't think I was going to walk again.

One doctor came out of the room with his fingers crossed, another one said all we can do is wait, and another one said, “Do you have somebody who could push her around in a wheelchair until she gets familiar with it?” So, I was kind of halfway given up, gone. But, as time went by my cord started to heal, I guess, or something started to heal, because I moved my big toe. The doctors started jumping around, and they started the therapy.

And I would say that accident happened like October 1, I was able to get out of the hospital Christmas Eve, so I went to midnight Mass and I could barely walk. I had a steel neck and back brace on. I remember going to Communion and I could hear people crying in the church, because I guess they thought I was never going to come back, and I did. I knew it was time to take things a little more seriously, that's why I told that story, that little piece of story, because I lived for the day. I didn't live for the future, I didn't live for the past. I had an excitement about life, but I needed to put it somewhere. And so, I – in fact, I recorded everything about that accident, the person I became in a book that I finished called She Who Limps is Still Walking. And anyway, so, while I was on campus, okay – the riots started – okay, to make up that time, of missing school, I had to go to summer school, summer of '67, and I happened to be home a weekend. My activism really started the next year, with Martin Luther King's death. But that accident helped me to be at Eastern summer of '67 but be home the weekend of the riot. So I mean, is there another question about -

WW: Oh yeah. Where were your parents living then?

BP: Well, my parents had separated. Both lived – living in Detroit. My mother lived on South Clarendon, over near Grand River and Joy Road area, which is funny because the Grande Ballroom was two blocks from us, and the Grande Ballroom, around '69 or so, Janis Joplin would be there, and all these people. Before that, we had - the Temptations would be there – we had to get fake ID, because we had to be 17 to get in. Fake ID was really easy – we were erasing stuff. It was a real – it wasn't real sophisticated, but – just to see the artists. And at the time, also, I remember St. Cecilia in the earlier Sixties, Dionne Warwick came to perform there at a sock hop and the white kids threw pennies at her. Yes.

WW: That's sad.

BP: And she became a star.

WW: How did you first hear about what was going on?

BP: As far as what – the riot?

WW: Yeah.

BP: Ironically, my boyfriend and I were at the Fox Theater that Saturday night, on a date. We always came back home, driving down Twelfth. Twelfth was the most interesting street in the world. You see the colorful individuals, the – the pimps were – we just – I mean, it's like living vicariously but safely in a car, and going down – we said look at this. You know, you could kind of slow down but it was – it seemed like it was 95 degrees that night. It was so hot. That's what I remember, it was hot and muggy. And he said, “God, if a riot ever started, it'll start over here.” I said, “Yeah, I guess you're right about that.”

So we went on home. Six o'clock in the morning, the next morning, the man who was supposed to take me back to college – because I was home for the weekend – a friend of my mom, who lived on Twelfth, above Dr. Perkin’s office, he said, “I don't know if I can get over there because there's a little riot going on over here.” Now this is like six o'clock in the morning. Six or so hours after we had just driven down there. And so I kind of waited around – my mother told me – until about eight so I could call my boyfriend, you know, I said – there's a riot on Twelfth. He said, “You're kidding.” I said no. He said, “I'll be over to get you.”

So he came over. And as we got closer, we had to park a few blocks away. Wow, this is something, so I remember the dress, and everything I had on that day too. Just a little sundress. But we walked up to Twelfth, and we started walking down the street, and as we walked down the street, they had already broken some windows out, and all of this, and I remember passing a record shop. And you know, we had the 45 records. And I picked up a record, wow, this is my jam, you know. I said, I better put it down.

And so we keep on going, walking down, and then the National Guard was standing at Virginia Park, they were standing straight across Twelfth like that, so we were coming this way, this side of the street. And, see, I'm using this – so imagine yourself coming down – and – from where you are sitting. Anyway, the National Guard was – so we said we'd better stand around. So we just standing around watching people – some people still, they're breaking windows out and all, and I couldn't get over this, and then milling around. I said, the cops are out here, the National Guard is out here. Nobody's doing anything to anybody.

So I turned around and looked in the grocery store. I said, “God, look at all those cookies on that shelf. Sure would like to take some cookies back to school.” So anyway, kept looking. Next thing I know, some guy I did not know came up to me. “Here are your cookies!” Look at those Fizzies. Fizzies were little – they were like the size of Alka Seltzer tablets. And you drop them in a glass of water, and they create a little fizzy pop. You know, soda. I said, well I could have gotten some Fizzies. Next thing I know, somebody else came - “Here's some Fizzies.” Then everybody starts running in this store, but I didn't run in. I said oh my god, even my boyfriend ran in. I said, “Gee, what's happening? They're going to get it. They are going to get it.” They didn't get it. And we ended up with four grocery bags full of stuff. He said, “Come on, let's go.”

So we had to walk, and I remember the helicopters above, and it was such a thing, and people just wave – we waved to the helicopters. It was – it was something so surreal, I can't even – I really can't. What was this we were doing? So he took me home and he took the stuff to his house. I don't think I got anything I took up there. I don't even know if I took the cookies. But some man told me, said, “Look what you started.” I said, “I didn't start anything. I was just saying it.”

But anyway, that was – so, he took me back to school, and it was hard being back to school knowing what was going on down here, because my brother, who – he worked at – he had a little part-time job, he's two years younger than me – he took his car – he and a friend of his went out to Inkster. He asked my mom, “I'm going out to Inkster.” He goes out to Inkster, so the next day I get a phone call in my dorm room. My brother hadn't returned home. I said oh my god, what is going on? Because he went to Inkster. So my mother called my father, and everything. My mother started looking, trying to call people, see if they’d seen him. “No, no way.”

And I remember, too, another thing, the tanks were going down Davison. I mean, they were all over – it was just so surreal, do you get – it was like a war zone, in a way, in the summer. And you know what amazed me too? I don't think it rained that entire week. I know it didn't rain at Eastern and Eastern was only thirty miles from here, but I don't remember any rain. Every day seemed sunny. The police got serious about it I guess by that Sunday night, they got serious. People had to stop this, and because my boyfriend – he and his brothers went back over there and one of his brothers got hurt. He was trying to loot and put his hand through a window or something.

But anyway, I was away from all that. My main concern was my brother. Where was he? They're out searching, searching, and then that Wednesday my mother – and I stopped going to school – I told the teachers, I cannot come in here. I've got to wait to hear from my mother, about my brother. And my mother called, and she said – oh, and another thing, she was still working at Ford Hospital, and one day there was a sniper on one of the roofs of Ford Hospital or something like that. I remember hearing that on the news, and as far as media is concerned, Bill Bonds was the one who kind of – we were – we could be voyeurs, kind of listening to him, or we thought, so we'd watch him every day. It seemed like he was on all day, all night. All day, all night he was on, talking about the riot and showing and say, “Oh look what's happening.” He started kind of editorializing. “Look what's happening.” But he was the face of the riot.

So, my mother called. I said, “Mother, what's up?’ She said “I just came from the morgue.” I said oh god, I just fell on the floor, I was – I just – oh – and so my girlfriend who was there, she picked up the phone, she said, “Miss Louie what? And oh, okay, Brenda, he wasn't there.” You know. I – [laughter] I totally fell apart, I fell apart. And, as I said, they were searching. Finally, that Friday, now remember this was Sunday night he went missing – that Friday, my mother was on the steps. She and father – I think it was Father Moran, the priest – just passed away within the last two years – they were sitting on the steps of 1300 Beaubien, where the police department was, and she heard a big mouth coming out of there saying, “I sure am hungry,” and it was my brother.

She beat him down the street. She just went – and they said the prisoners on the bus were just laughing, they were just having a – what – oh, in the middle of this, just before all this happened, and she discovered him – my dad – I think it was that Wednesday evening or something – he found the car. Just the car. Right, right. And that scared them too. Because you find the car and not the occupants. And he was picked up for curfew. But the bad thing about that is how you going to pick someone up and not let them call? He and his friend were in a cell with about twelve other people, twelve or fourteen other people. Not only black people – white people too, and they were about to get into it at different things, and they were given bologna sandwiches. I mean, it was real cramped quarters, and everything- they had so many people. Now some people got locked up for serious – more serious offenses, but yeah. He was really hungry. My mother said, “I got your food for you.”

So that – that was – I'll never forget. I'll never forget that. And the city – you watched the difference in the city right after that. And then, when Martin Luther King died in April of '68, I was in class at Eastern, was in an evening speech class, and somebody came to the door, asked if they could see me – and I said yes – I was the only black person in the class, and they said, “Martin Luther King just got assassinated, blah blah blah,” so I turned to the class and the teacher said, “Martin Luther King just got assassinated” and one white boy in the class said “That's just like someone getting hit by a car to me. I don't give a damn.” And I said what? The teacher said “Brenda, go on, go on.”

That night we kind of galvanized. Everybody just kind of marched around, and there was this one little guy we called Cricket and Cricket got up on the car, he said “Don't march! Don't do anything!” Somebody knocked Cricket off the car. But, so Eastern canceled classes for a couple of days. And I noticed another thing, when I was going back to Eastern that Sunday, the day of the riot, there were people coming from Ypsi or Chicago or whatever on I-94 and they had trailers hitched to their cars – empty trailers. And then there was someone down the street from my mother then – they burned their old furniture, they took it all out in the back, because we burned things in the alley then. The garbage was burned in the alley – our trash, paper trash. In Detroit, that's where it was. They had the garbage cans, but the paper trash, they had, you just burned it. And they burned their furniture, moved new furniture in, then the cops raided the house, took the furniture out. Yes. It just seemed like people from miles around saw what they called opportunity.

WW: We've heard a couple other stories like that.

BP: Huh?

WW: We've heard a couple other stories like that.

BP: Right. And so, from then on I became active. I even was kind of active in the SDS, I guess, the SDS – is that the Students?

WW: For a Democratic Society.

BP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was. And because it was coming a time, when Richard Nixon started rearing his head, and they were talking about the silent majority. I said, what is this all about? I had a new discovery of what it was to be black. You know, I said, let me pay attention to this, something I hadn't really paid as much of attention to, and I got into Nina Simone real heavy. I was the first girl on campus to have an afro. And I'll never forget the day I wore that afro. Everybody was looking – looking at me. I mean, it's just – and I said I've got to dress cute every time I wear this afro – you know, I was real self-conscious of the afro, I said I don't want to look like a boy, you know, but I wore that afro and I remember my cousin – he was going to Harvard at the time – and he said, he said, “Are you militant?” I said, “I don't know. Maybe. Maybe not.” [laughter] I just said that.

But yeah, I started getting involved. That's when I started getting involved with things. And I was – it's funny now – and I was telling somebody this – or mentioning it on my show yesterday – that you would have thought I was – you know – if Bernie Sanders would have run at that time, I had the same philosophy. I had – I guess – a lot of socialist philosophies for a minute, and – but, you know, things evolved into something else as time went by. And my whole thing with all of this is injustice. I never quite knew, though, why I wasn't feeling that tension in Detroit, that people said was there, when the riots started. I think it just started – didn't they bust a blind pig or something?

WW: Mm hm.

BP: And I just thought that people just started fighting and protesting and it kind of evolved into something else. I don't think, initially, it was meant – see, people call it, and I have discussions with my friends, who say “Well, the rebellion —” I said, that wasn't a rebellion, that was a riot. It was a riot. I was there. I saw it. A lot of people – they weren't talking about injustice. I was talking to everybody on the street that day. I can't tell you about what they were talking about, but 40-something people got killed during that time. Mmhmm. I remember that so vividly, and my mother had to take the bus to work, I was so worried about her, too. And I mean, she would – she missed a day looking for my brother but still, you know, she had to go to work, and – Detroit was a city, too, that when she worked afternoons and get off at 11 at night, she could still take that bus home and walk home, and she did not – she never was robbed, she never was accosted. But the fear was in us, from the Big Four. You've heard about the Big Four? STRESS [Stop The Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets], all of a sudden, the – huh?

WW: STRESS was afterwards.

BP: After – yeah, it was after the Big Four. I'm just going on - just thinking – and the thing about it was, I had an encounter with the Big Four but my encounter was because in 1969, I got married, I was just 21. And we lived – my husband, he was in the Army Reserve, and we went to – so I lived in that part, with that flat – upstairs flat – of Dr. Perkin’s office. That's where my mother's friend lived who was on Twelfth. And we kind of rented it out from him, we kind of sublet it. And I'll never forget this – this – it seems like drugs started exploding. I mean, you heard more about drugs, and all of that. And I was taking the bus – I was still at Eastern – I was taking the bus from Twelfth, where I was – I had to take a couple of buses so I could get to Telegraph and Fenkell, and a girl would pick me up at Telegraph and Fenkell and all this, but one night – I think Johnny Carson was on, I'm pretty sure – and I heard at the – remember, I'm over a dentist's office – I heard boom! Boom! Against the back door downstairs of the dentist's office.

It was kind of winter time; it was icy. I said oh my god. I've got to call the police because the dentist's office had been robbed for drugs before. I called the police, I said somebody's trying to get in, and I gave them the address. And so I went downstairs to the front door so I could see the police when they came. Well, I don't know what happened. I didn't see the police, but all of a sudden I see these men coming down the same stairs to my living room, and it was the Big Four. I said, “Ahhhh!” They said, “We're the cops.” So they said, “We want you to go downstairs with us.”

Apparently the people had gotten the back door open, but then they ran. So I said okay, I will. So I went downstairs – we went downstairs. Took me through the dentist's office – how would I know what was missing? Anyway, as we came back out of the dentist's office to get ready to go back upstairs to my house, I heard what I felt was a little crackling of something. I said you didn't check the basement. And nobody was down there, but I – it was crazy. My - Oh! The sound I heard, I know what it was. When my girlfriend – she was my roommate at the time, because my husband was gone and I needed someone to help with the rent. The – I let the Big Four out the back door and there was a big thing to put over the back door and everything. So we were going upstairs I hear this crack – I said, they didn't check the basement, run! And I pushed her, and she said “damn, you didn't have to push me!” I said get upstairs, get upstairs, and we locked the door, and I ran to the window, and I remember going to the Big Four – they were out there and they jumped out the car, all four of them – I let them in the door. What I heard was really the crackling of the ice on the side of the house as they were walking. It was crazy.

But the tension – because at that time, also, so many people were getting killed around us. I mean, this – Detroit totally changed. It was totally changed. You could be at a place where – you could be an innocent bystander. Everything changed. Everything changed after the riot. And maybe reality was striking or something, but I was seeing a lot more than I ever knew. And then people – and so, at one point, I remember writing – well, I wrote a play that my students performed, it was called Sixties Girl, and in the play, I have a white young lady and a black young lady who had grown up together walking down the street, and she said “You're moving?” the black girl said. “Yeah,” and the white girl says “Yes, I'm moving to some place called Southfield.” And she says “Southfield, I've never heard of that.” And see, at that time, and it was interesting because the play I was doing was at Southfield High, because I taught 22 years at Southfield High – and I wanted to let people know what was going on in '68 Detroit and all. So – we were still – oh, and as far as socially, before all this we were having the waistline parties, all kind of parties in the basement. It wasn't shooting – just everything changed. Even the music changed. “War, What is it Good For? Absolutely Nothing.” “What's Going On?” The music changed. Everything changed. Our so-called innocence was gone. We had to really look around.

WW: Thank you very much for sitting down with me. Do you have anything else you'd like to add?

BP: No. No, I don't think so. You know, if there wasn't a question, I'm good, I believe. I'm good, I believe. But it just – I hated how it changed. That I didn't feel the safety anymore. Because we used to go on bus dates, before – say the boyfriends had a car – the boy would walk over to our house, we'd get on the bus, come down here to the movies, then go back on the – get on the bus. I mean, it was – I never felt unsafe. It just changed.

WW: Thank you very much for sitting down with me.

BP: I'm sorry I made the story so long.

WW: No problem at all.



William Winkel


Brenda Perryman


Detroit Historical Museum


Brenda Perryman 67.jpg


“Brenda Perryman, March 19th, 2016,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed May 18, 2021,

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