Bob Roselle, July 20th, 2015

Title

Bob Roselle, July 20th, 2015

Description

In this interview, Roselle discusses being called into the mayor’s office to handle the civil response to the unrest, incidents that he saw and heard of, and his opinion on the response in general. He also discusses how the city has changed, what it was like working for the City of Detroit, and how he perceives the future of Detroit.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI

Date

05/26/2016

Rights

Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI

Language

en-US

Video

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Bob Roselle

Brief Biography

Bob Roselle was born in the Eastside of Detroit in August of 1925 and spent many years there working as a civil servant for the City of Detroit. During the summer of 1967, Roselle was working as Deputy Mayor under Mayor Cavanagh and was in charge of the civil response to the unrest.

Interviewer's Name

Lily Wilson and Noah Levinson

Interview Place

Grosse Pointe, MI

Date

07/20/2015

Interview Length

01:11:24

Transcriptionist

Hannah Sabal

Transcription Date

05/10/2016

Transcription

LW: Today is July 20th, 2015, this is the interview of Bob Roselle by Lily Wilson and Noah Levinson. We are in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and Detroit 1967 Oral History project. Bob can you tell me where and when you were born?

BR: Born in Detroit, August 19th, 1925.

LW: Okay.

BR: Eastside of Detroit.

LW: And tell me a little bit about the neighborhood you grew up in.

BR: Pardon?

LW: About the neighborhood that you grew up in.

BR: Oh, it was the far eastside. Jefferson and Chalmers area. Went to Guyton Grade School which is eastside and then to Cass Tech for high school.

LW: And, what did your parents do for a living?

BR: My dad worked in the auto plant as a foreman and inspection, and my mother was a milliner.

LW: Oh.

BR: She would make ladies’ hats in that day and age. And she had an aunt who owned a store and she apprenticed there at age 14 and didn’t finish school. She learned a trade and then worked at it through the years.

LW: And if you could tell me a little bit about your education and the time leading up to you getting involved in politics in Detroit.

BR: Okay. Well as I mentioned I went to Eastside Public Schools all through, uh, after Cass Tech I went on to Wayne State when I came out of the service. But, I was married and had a family so I went to night school for ten years to get the degree.

LW: I see.

BR: So I had a wife and two children at graduation. But I went into the service right outta high school, it was in 19— hold on a second I gotta get my glasses. In January I went into the service and February I got my induction notice. And I served 26 months in the Army. We were overseas for seven months in Germany but I didn’t see a lot of combat maybe 4 months of it or so. I came back on July the 5th, actually landed in the harbor of New York on July the 4th, returning heroes of war and they wouldn’t let us out of the ship cause longshoremen don’t work on a holiday. But we sat on and huddled ourselves in the harbor for a day. Anyway I got married while I was home because I didn’t get out for another year and we had a home on the eastside, I got a job with the City of Detroit. I started as a junior clerk in September of ’47, for $2,621 a year. Prices were different then.

LW: Sounds like it.

BR: Anyway, then I held a whole series of titles over the years and I’ll just read them off to you.

LW: Okay.

BR: Interviewed for junior claims investigator, claims investigator, junior accountant, semi senior accountant, senior accountant, principal governmental analyst, head governmental analyst and that was in ’62. So every couple of years I changed around. And then in ’62, I was working in the buzzard room which was really close to the Mayor of government and Jerry Cavanagh was mayor, I did not know him but he apparently had heard about me. We had a federal grant for a community renewal program and he made me the appointment to run that, so I had to organize it and hire the staff and work with the Federal Government; they were in the labor department coming up with that. And after there was a study in city’s physical shape. We did—just recently, you might know, they did a windshield survey of the city and rated all the buildings?

LW: Mmhm

BR: We did that back then.

LW: Mmhm

BR: We didn’t have computers that had to rate it, it was all done manually and a map colored by hand. Anyway, Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson became president and he initiated something to identify him called The Great Society program.

LW: Mmm

BR: And in preparation for that – he introduced it in the State of the Union, which is in January, but Congress would take until fall to actually implement it, or authorize, I should say. So the feds decided to use the community renewal program which was already there and staffed and funded to do the applications for the programs and this is the application we did for Detroit. And I used the staff of the community renewal program to do it and we got funded in the first round in fact that book is being held in Sgt. Shriver’s hand at the announcement of the grants, and he is quoted in saying ‘this is the type of program they were hoping to see.’ So the city was very pleased with that. So I ran that for a year and then I had a great deputy that was black and it just made sense that that program should be run by a black person and he took over and I went back in to the finance department. But the program was called T.A.A.P., Total Action Against Poverty, and there’s all the rigmarole about it.

LW: Mhmm

BR: So then I stayed in finance and I got another appointment. I was budget director, and then the deputy control, and during that year of the riot I was deputy mayor, but I left that in July 1st of ‘68 and became a commissioner of public works [unclear] and when Gribbs took office I went back as controller and I stayed controller as long as he was mayor.

LW: Mhmm

BR: And in ‘47 I resigned my—not ’47, ’73 – I resigned from the city with 25 years of service and went to work in Campbell Ewald advertising as their chief financial officer.

LW: Oh, okay

BR: and I stayed there to age 90, year ‘90 which was my 65th birthday year and our corporate policy was you had to retire at 65 and it was part of my job to enforce it so I wasn’t going be in [unclear, followed with laughter]. So I’ve been retired since 1990, 25 years.

LW: Wow.

BR: 25 with the city, 17 with Campbell Ewald, and then 25 retired. My first wife died of a heart attack in her fifties, I have 4 children, all adults, and I remarried to a rich babe who was also a government employee and ran Cobo Hall for a couple years, she was the chief assessor. Very close to Coleman Young.

LW: Your current wife?

BR: No. She had 5 children, and she died at age 75, and I married Mary Sullivan. Joe Sullivan, her deceased husband had been a judge on the appellate court, and a lot of Sullivans, a lot of lawyers, lot of judges. We’ve been married 6 years, and she’s my age.

LW: Oh wow, okay. So you’re newlyweds?

BR: And this is her home. Yeah, we’re basically newlyweds. I’ve got two jokes, a good friend of ours said, “I asked her two questions when I proposed: Will she marry me, and will she help me up?” [Laughter] And the other one is, we spent the first night of our honeymoon getting out of the car. If you’ve seen elderly get out of a car, you’ll appreciate that. [Laughter]

LW: Oh I know. Well thank you for sharing that. I’d like to go back to the 1960s, in particular, July of 1967 and talk about some of the documents that you’ve pulled out for us. But why don’t you first start, just again telling us what your job was in 1967 in the city?

BR: At that point, it [unclear] didn’t call for a deputy mayor, it was called Executive Secretary to the mayor, but the duties were the same. And that was my job, I was executive secretary to the mayor. And I started in June, so I had only been there – I had been there a long time, I knew Cavanaugh, I was up the hall from his office as finance director, so that was my job and I was at home on the northeast side on Sunday morning. We had the kids up to go to church, about 8 o’clock I got a phone call from Connor Mallet, who was in charge of the emergency response program. Good friend of mine. And he called and said there was a disturbance, and he was calling in all of the executives so I said good-bye and I went downtown, and the mayor’s office is across the hall from the budget bureau where I used to work, so I went in the budget bureau instead of the mayor’s, we were separate, and I called in a lot of my old staff in the budget bureau, and organized answering – doing the phone log. So I was there on Sunday morning, I didn’t go home until the following weekend. When they could move, they brought food and clothing in, and we had probably 10 or 12 people in the office, and they worked in shifts, they would answer the phones and do things. And after the first 10 or 12 hours, the mayor said he would go over to police headquarters and be in charge of the military response, and I would stay where I’m at and handle the civil response. So we had to close all the theatres, we closed all the gas stations, we had to postpone the ballgame, and do all that (a lot of it’s in here, I reckon). And answer phone calls from overseas, had one from London that said that they had a report that the city was burning to the ground, I said, ‘no, that’s not really happening,’ but that was a rumor. You can see it in the phone log. The number of rumors that came in is extended. It was a very serious situation, but it wasn’t total, by any means.

LW: So, when I’m reading these rumors, for example on Sunday, at 1:43pm, there’s a rumor that there’s a person at the blind pig that was badly beaten, there’s another rumor later on that says a young boy was killed on Belle Isle, how did those rumors get started?

BR: [Laughs] How do rumors get started? In history, nobody knows the answer to that one. “How do you stop them?” is the little more difficult question.

LW: Do you think that was a mobilizing force behind some of the violence that happened?’

BR: Well it helped, but no, I think it was, as the reports will show, in hindsight, everybody agrees it [was] mistermed it as a riot. A riot seems like a lawless crowd that’s just trying to damage things and these people were stealing. It was a looter’s riot. There is, I think, something in human nature that says, if you see a $20 bill on the ground, and there’s nobody around, it has no ownership, and you take it. If you see somebody drop that 20, people with normal morality would say, “Hey, you dropped that money.” Well when you have riots and looting, ownership has disappeared. And everybody—there’s reports there were white people looting and black teenagers and of course they looted liquor stores, just right there, and furniture stores, clothing stores, and just sort of totaled them. So that’s what it turned into. It started out, and I go into more detail there, they raided this blind pig at Clairmount, up on the second floor. I don’t understand this part of it. Normally to do that, you have to put a clean clothesman in, and he has to buy a drink, to legalize it. Then he comes out and reports it, and they go in and arrest the people. The police report said after, they expected 20 to 40 people, actually there was closer to 100. Now if they’d sent an officer in and he came out someplace, there’s a missing link there. Not only were there more people there than they expected, they didn’t keep them there; they brought them down on the street. Now this is a Saturday night, Sunday morning, a very hot day in the summer. And as they brought them down, sirens—police came, backup came, ‘cause there were so many, and there go sirens, and to this day I think if you hear sirens from a fire truck or police car, you’re inclined to try to follow it, see what’s going on. And if you’re in the neighborhood, you’re going to walk over and find out, especially on a hot summer night. So the crowd gathered. And they did not get – some of this isn’t in that – they did not bring paddy wagons to arrest them and move them, so they stood there on the sidewalk for 2 hours waiting for transportation, and then the crowd got restless, and started threatening, and the cars came, and they were putting them in the cars, and the last car out, they threw a bottle through the back window. But there was a crowd; they had a couple hundred people. Police were gone, but they were a restless crowd, early, early on Sunday morning. Now the Sunday shift that started at midnight and goes to 8 o’clock at the police department is the lowest manned shift of the cycle. ‘Cause it’s Sunday midnight, everybody’s going to church, you’re not going to have crime. So we had very – the minimum number of police on, plus it was the weekend, and many off-duty officers were out of the city, and couldn’t respond and get called back quick enough. Plus a lot of other—and they name the names as they go through the report—notable figures, community leaders, government officials, were also out of town. So you did not have that easy of a response time. Anyway, we held the midnight shift on, and the dayshift on Sunday wasn’t that much bigger, so we’re undermanned again. The response is again… [unclear] The way to handle a riot is you have to overpower it physically with people, not with guns or… there’s bayonets involved here by that time. They were on Livernois, and they did get a police line out, riot police, and they had big batons about that long and that thick around, and they hold it like this, and they walk shoulder-to-shoulder, and they moved the crowd up the street. Well this crowd went up the street, down the side streets, through the alley, and came in behind. So, you know, they were so overwhelmed, numerically, that they never got control. Well, the [National] Guard came in, they weren’t much help because they’re all white, suburban country boys who didn’t know a big city, and they were ineffective. We finally got the 101st Airborne, and they were, I’d say, over-effective, because they were 50-caliber machine guns on trucks to shoot and those would just go three houses at a time. So, fortunately there weren’t more people killed inside. But another aspect that was unique was gunfire. Never in my lifetime knew organized people shooting against the police. But at night that was happening, there were snipers, so it got more response. Now the chain of responsibility, of course it’s the mayor and the city. But I talked to Romney, who was the governor, and Romney and Cavanaugh were not buddies, by any means, they just had no reason to be, one’s a democrat, one’s a republican, one’s big city, the other is state, [Cavanaugh] asked for help from Romney and the National Guard. And Romney said, as he was legally able to do, “Well you have to put it in writing, say you no longer control the situation, you’re asking for the state’s help.” Well, that was a big delay. So then, when the guard didn’t work, and that’s recorded, and the mayor told me, “get ahold of vice president Humphrey.” ‘Cause he had been designated by Johnson—‘cause there were more riots going on—to be that key person in the federal government. So how do you get ahold of the Vice President? You call the operator and say, “I want to talk to the Vice President in Washington.” And she puts you through. And of course he doesn’t answer the phone, you get a staff member, and you say, “I’m calling on behalf of Mayor Cavanaugh. He would like to talk to Humphrey.” And they say, “Well, he’s up in Minneapolis,” it’s his home state, and they gave me a number there to call. So I call up there, and got the Secret Service and told them what I need. And they said, “Okay, you give us your number and the Vice President will call the mayor.” That’s a power thing, I don’t know. But he did.

LW: He did?

BR: The mayor explained that, and that led to the National Army response. And that came in slow, always slow. They were here, the 101st, out in, I think, the State Fair Grounds for a whole day before they activated them. And the State Police had mobilized a day before they went in. In all that time, it was building up. And until the Airborne got on the street, it didn’t start down, it was always gaining. But the details of that and the locations, if you get a chance to read that, is better than my memory.

LW: So at 9:30 on Sunday morning, you were called into the taskforce office. And you were living on the Eastside of Detroit at that time.

BR: Yeah.

LW: So what did you see on your drive to work that morning?

BR: Nothing. The east side was quiet, most of that time. No, I got on Eight Mile at Kelly, probably went down Gratiot Avenue, right into City Hall.

LW: So were you wondering what was really going on? If what you…

BR: Not that early. We knew there had been civil unrest, we were not the first or the last, so we knew what the potential was. We did not realize how fast and how big it would get. As I said earlier, that was because of the timing – Sunday night, hot summer – and the lack of manpower to control it. You see in there repeatedly people calling in for fires, and we couldn’t get fire equipment into the areas, the streets were blocked. So that led to one store, you know, might raid a liquor store, but then the building next to it might have been a dry cleaners, and it’s going to catch fire, although they looted dry cleaners, but that’s why a whole block set on, it was a lack of being able to control the fires. They didn’t set them all on fire, they robbed the liquor store, set it on fire, and then it would sweep down and get into the residential neighborhoods. There was no real looting in the residential neighborhoods, why bother when you’ve got all these main streets that have so much. But I would say 80%, my guess, of the rioting was west of Woodward, or then on Woodward. Very few came on the Eastside. Certainly, it’s all there.

LW: So you’re in the taskforce office for, essentially, a week, I mean you’re just on lockdown basically.

BR: Yeah, well, he has a shower -- the mayor’s office has a shower and a little couch in there, [unclear] bring down some clean clothes.

LW: What crossroads was that at?

BR: Pardon?

LW: What crossroads was the mayor’s office or the task force located at?

BR: Woodward and Jefferson, was city hall. Coleman Young City Hall. That’s where the mayor’s office is.

LW: It wasn’t called Coleman Young Center then?

BR: No, it wasn’t.

LW: No, okay. So you’re called in, and what was your general sense? You said you could sense that it could get big, that it could get out of hand.

BR: Well the reports coming in indicated that, just everything said that we were begging for help, more policemen to come out here, more firemen to help there, and there just wasn’t the manpower to do it.

LW: So, going back to something you said a little bit ago, you mentioned that it wasn’t a riot, per se, that it was more looting or stealing.

BR: Looting, that’s right.

LW: So what do you think the definition of a riot is, and how do you think it differed exactly from what actually happened?

BR: Well, I think riots as we see and hear them today are more political, they’re not against property, they’re against government or social parties and that, and it’s almost against persons also. Now, they’ll destroy property as part of that, but that’s not their focus. They’re focused on people. This might’ve started out minor, focus against the police, but it quickly spread to property right from that location. And that’s why hundreds and hundreds of people, they were only opposing the police when they were in their way. They weren’t going out after them. Now, as it went on for two or three days, I think a radical element did grow that weren’t looting, that were shooting and that, but that was afterwards. That was certainly not the start. I don’t think there were any shots fired in the first 24 hours. Heard a lot of them after, 30-something people got shot. And violence begets violence. Somebody shoots at them, the police shoot back, to this very day.

LW: Had you ever dealt with anything comparable before in your career, before this point?

BR: No. Not many people do, unless you’re in the army, you do different wars and battles, but in the civilian life, you don’t. It is interesting, as I read back through that, the following year, in ’68, Martin Luther King was killed, and there was a great concern based on what had just happened, but there was no big disturbance on that. We did put curfews in right away, banned sale of liquor and gasoline, and it never got to be a riot. It was peaceful.

LW: This document comes from the taskforce office, and was somebody actually writing this or transcribing this?

BR: It was my staff. They were all taking notes, recording every phone call that comes in, who’s calling, what time it is, and what it’s about. If we’re going to look back on this and not remember – so we compiled those notes.

LW: I see. And then, this larger—

BR: See all the people in the taskforce? All those names?

LW: So this was the order that people reported to the taskforce office?

BR: Let me see how we set it up, it’s not alphabetical. Conrad Mallet was the #1 guy, former policeman, had been on the mayor’s staff for a long time. Then my name, then Alex Davis was the Chief Attorney, and Juliette Savage [??] was a social worker and activist. Allen Day, I don’t know who that is. Bob Knox was head of housing, and he had the housing projects and a lot of stuff out there. Denise Thresh I don’t know, Catherine Edwards, Michael Bruin. Marty Battle was a budget guy, worked for me for a long time. Just an aside—he was working at Receiving Hospital as administrator there, and he got shot and killed by an enraged citizen. Still happening today, but then it was very, very unusual. And Jim Budge, I think, was a reporter. But anyway, those are the ones that – there’s a lot of other names in here. People that called in. Roosevelt, he was probably a head social worker someplace. Carl Westin was a senator, Girardin was a police chief. Lot of repeat names in here. Bob Knox, Phil Rutledge, he was part of the [unclear], had been my deputy there. Policeman calling in, Brian Urick [??], he did community activist work for the government some.

LW: So people were calling, higher ups within police, fire, community organizations, were calling to you all to report what was going on?

BR: They were reporting in, but there were some of them calling in with questions. “What’s going on? And why can’t we get police out here?” Their questions were why they called. And some citizens called. A lady was at home with six children and they had no food and she couldn’t get out, she called. I told her to go to a local church. Then they opened Herman Kiefer Hospital, which is up at Clairmount and the freeway, they opened the kitchen there and they were feeding the policemen, and there was a lot of logistics involved when you have hundreds of hundreds of people and you don’t have normal services, you have to have an emergency service for this and that. Somebody called and said they couldn’t get gas, we had closed all the gas stations. So we told him to go to the police station and get gas. These were emergencies; there were doctors that couldn’t get into the hospital, so we had to make a plan to get gas for them.

LW: So what was your biggest challenge of being in charge of a lot of this… what was your biggest challenge?

BR: Knowing what’s going on.

LW: Just not knowing?

BR: There were the rumors you spoke of earlier, what was fact, what was fiction. Like the guy who called in from London. And you just were dealing with it really as it came up, you know there can be no… at that point, you’re not planning, you’re reacting. Trying to think of how to do things that would calm it down.

LW: From the mayor’s office, could you see anything at all, any sort of chaos at all?

BR: Yeah, you could see fires from the office.

LW: You could.

BR: The most interesting thing, it’s on the 11th floor, those days, and the budget staff where I was faced North, up Woodward, and Willing’s Clothing Store was in the next block, facing on Woodward on the east side, It was very good, Willing’s, good clothing store. And we looked out the window, and there was a car parked on the backstreet, behind Woodward, I forget the name, and were going into the store, had broken the door down, and were carrying out loads of clothing, put it in their car. But we had police in the City county building, guarding it, so two of them ran out, and the guys ran, and I saw them split up, then ‘Boom!’ I heard a gunshot. Now you wonder, who shot whom? I went down to the first floor and watched it, and one of the policemen came back with a prisoner, and they were both walking. The other one came back with his prisoner, and the guy was dragging him, shot him in the leg. He got him in a blind alley downtown, and confronted him, and the guy wouldn’t surrender, so they sat them down on the floor of the first floor, and, I think, they had to wait hours, a couple hours—well, things are going on, there’s not—you wait a lot of time today for police response and there isn’t a riot going on. It’s who’s available. Anyway, they survived. But yeah that was the most – oh, later on in the week, I looked out the front windows of the mayor’s office, on Jefferson, and there goes a state police car down and they got shotguns stuck out the window, you don’t want to have a loaded long gun in the car with four guys, so they rolled the windows down and stuck them out of the car. Then you saw the army stuff come through. They didn’t have tanks, they had trucks with machine guns mounted on them, and personnel carriers, they call them. That was the most I saw of it.

LW: The most activity you saw of it.

BR: And I had, you get a city badge back in my day, for different offices, and I had one that said “Mayor’s Office” on it, and you’d never wear it, you might carry it in your wallet if you thought, but I had to go from City Hall over to police headquarters on Beaubien to see the mayor, so I had to pin that badge on so I could walk through the streets.

LW: I see that here, that you called at 2 o’clock that afternoon on that Sunday, you called from police headquarters—it says “Bob Roselle calls from police headquarters”—so I was gonna ask you, you moved from the mayor’s office to police headquarters? No.

BR: No, the mayor did. He wanted to be where the military were, the police, the governor, and the police chief, no he was with the response.

LW: So you were there the entire time that week?

BR: Oh no, I was in City Hall. I walked over there one day because I had to see him. I walked over and walked back. So I had that badge with me.

LW: Good thing you had it, huh?

BR: Yeah.

LW: I want to talk a little bit about after the riots and your work for the city, and the T.A.A.P program. Can you tell us on the record again what that is?

BR: I mentioned I was the budget director, and Jerry Cavanaugh became mayor, and he had a brilliant lawyer with him, Richard Strickharts, who he appointed finance director. He was writing grant requests because these were the days when the government was giving out a lot more grants, but they still do, but the city hadn’t taken advantage of that. And Strickhart wrote many proposals and one was for a federal program out of the labor department called the Community Renewal Program. CRP. They got $25,000, which was a lot of money but I could hire a lot of people with that. Anyway, they didn’t know who to run it. They weren’t expecting it, they weren’t organized to do it. So Strickharts talked to Al Pelham, who was the finance director. His father, Benjamin Pelham, had been a leading black politician in the early 1900s in Wayne County. Al Pelham was the Wayne County budgeting director for many years. And my work in the city budget, I had many things to do [unintelligible]. For example, the city had its own welfare department during the depression because welfare, there was money and power in that. All the other welfare departments in the state were county; we were the only city welfare department. Well, after the war and things were getting processed, it was a burden. There was a lot of expenses doing welfare, and you didn’t need that political clout. So we wanted to turn it, the department, back to Wayne County, well, you’re trying to give away an expense, but I worked it out with Al Pelham. So now, Cavanaugh gets elected mayor, and he appoints Al Pelham to city financier, from the county to the city, and it was the highest paid black official in the city at that time. Al Pelham knew me, so he calls me in his office, and he said, “Would you be interested in taking an appointive job, and run the CRP?” And I didn’t know what it was. And I said, “Yeah, I’d like to talk to my wife first,” and he said, “You have to let me know tomorrow,” he was a no-nonsense guy. So I said, “Fine, I’ll let you know tomorrow.” I went back to my office, and later in the day I went back to his office, and he had left, and Dorothea Cross was his secretary. But she had been the secretary of other controllers, you didn’t get to pick your own secretary in those days. So I said, “Dorothea,”—we both were career people—“What is CRP?” She said, “Well, I’m not sure, but I think there’s a folder on his desk,” so she just goes in, grabs the folder and says, “Here! Read it!” And it says “Community Renewal Program.” It was a study of urban renewal and its impact on the community. Like, what happened to Black Bottom when they built Lafayette Park. So I read it, went home, talked to my wife, and decided why not? So I took it, and I had to hire the people, but again, my experience with the city for a number of years, I knew good people in the city who could help and got them transferred in. It isn’t as though you had to go out and hire people, you could have them transferred in. We had to find a headquarters and stuff, but that’s it. But then, as I mentioned earlier, when they got the War on Poverty federal program, they wanted to get it working, and when Congress passed, he wanted to start spending the money. So they had a plan to do that. And this was a whole different plan. [shuffling through papers] Anyway, there’s a table of contents, all these different subjects.

LW: Ok, so, that was all taking place leading up to July of 1967? Because you were in office for a month you said?

BR: No, the T.A.A.P program came after the riots. I should know things like that. No, you’re right, T.A.A.P program came in ’64, the riot was in ’67.

LW: You were helping to mobilize that as well?

BR: Yeah, I was responsible for it.

LW: As the city controller?

BR: Went to Washington about twice a month, and we met with other big cities, we formed a—well they had federal professional associations for all kinds of things—we formed one for people who were running the T.A.A.P programs.

LW: Do you think those efforts helped Detroit in the ‘60s?

BR: I think they did, we didn’t follow through though. Johnson dwindled away. Much like today, just, you know, good programs don’t get financed. It was an ambitious thing. When it isn’t your baby, you don’t commit the money to it, and it faded away. Well, parts of it, like Head Start, started with that program. It was a good thing. Local community centers, we called them, I had four districts in the city, and we had rented buildings and set up community centers that were supposed to offer counseling, medical care, food, what they liked to call, “comprehensive services,” or “one-stop shopping.” Again, there was pressure to get it going, and we had an abandoned police station called Petoskey, the 10th Precinct, on the northwest side, and because it was a city building, we could get immediate occupancy, except it looked like a police station. But then we had a city department, part of Public Works, hadn’t previously, called Building Maintenance, and they had all the trades—plumbing, electrician—they came and they tore the inside of the gym out, took the bars, and made it into an office. We opened it as a community center, and Romney came down, I’ve got press clippings of all this that explain it better than I can, but Clora [??] was a big civil rights union, and Clyde Cleveland was the head of it, and I bumped heads with him previously on things. I said, “Clyde, would you like to work in this program? You’re good talking to the community, here’s your chance to have a job,” which he didn’t have, “and you can be a counselor. And people will trust you and everything.” And sure enough, he took that job. He became the city councilman later on in life. He was successful. I took great pride in that, got the head of Kora [??] to work for that. It worked out well. So we got all four open, eventually. Not quite that fast. The former Masonic Temple on Grand River, big building, we turned that. And on the east side, on Mt. Eliot and Vernor, there was a big church, now it’s gone through several changes since then, but it was perfect for what we wanted to do. The east side, west side, there was a fourth one someplace.

LW: That was throughout the ‘60s? You were establishing those throughout the 1960s?

BR: Yeah, One of the other concepts of the T.A.A.P program was that you hire community people to work in there, as community relations people. They know their neighborhood. And they said, “You can’t ever do this in civil service, you gotta be under civil service, and they’ll never pass those written exams! It’s crazy!” Well fortunately, I had on my staff a man who had worked in civil service, a real good guy, probably my #3 in the department when we got him, and he solved the problem. He said, “Right now, the system calls for 70% written, and 30% experience.” So we changed the rule, made it 30% written, and 70% interview. And they don’t have to pass the written, you can interview them, and hire them, and that’s 70% of the score so we can hire them.

LW: What was the motivation behind that?

BR: We couldn’t hire local people that knew the neighborhoods that had high school educations. Or could pass a written exam. Even high school graduates, I’ve taken many a civil service exam, and they’re—well you take exams all the time. If you’re not used to them, if you haven’t been experienced in them, they can be pretty tough. Civil service used that written exam thing as an exercise in power, selection.

LW: Was any of that race-based in an attempt to diversify?

BR: No, not that I could see.

LW: No, just to get more civil servants from those neighborhoods.

BR: Well the goal of the department was having community representatives, and we had in each of these four districts a community council made up of people, and I had to meet with them once a month in the city council auditorium, and there were, a certain number of them, rabble rousers, that’s how you get to be a community leader, it’s attacking the status quo. And you’d walk up there, and you’d be Mr. Status Quo. I got along with them all, really, they all ended up being good friends, but they had to put their act on once a month, to keep their job, really. No, I think that was a good part of the program. Earlier on at Community Renewal, we had a similar experience. That program originally was what happened with urban renewal. And I hired a social studies major at Wayne State that wanted to do his doctorate paper and we put him in at Mt. Eliot, on the fringe of Lafayette Park, and it was still a neighborhood. And he lived there for three months and then wrote his thesis on that, and he said, “What you lost when you wiped it all out, the people living here, they have a social network. If they need help, they lower their shade to a certain point and people come over and ask them. If they run out of money before the end of the month, they can get credit at the grocery store,” the little corner store, and he said, “You don’t have that.” That’s how they survive in the low income neighborhoods, in his experience. That was Dick Simmons, he became deputy mayor eventually. He’s passed on; he was a great guy. I think communication is very difficult, and maybe with the electronics today that could change if they use it for good purposes, to help each other, not to hurt or fool around.

LW: After July of 1967, you remained City Controller, right?

BR: No, no.

LM: Deputy mayor I’m sorry.

BR: No, I became finance. And then in the mayor’s office, then into public works. Then back in the mayor’s office, as finance director, under Ray Gribbs. I did not know Ray. He was a northwest guy. When he took office, I hadn’t heard from him all through the month of December, and I thought, well, if it turns out I’m not going to be finance officer for the next mayor, I’ll come back into budgeting. And about a week before his sergeant, John Peddler, was acting as his aide, and he called me and said, “Can you meet with the mayor in our temporary office in the Guardian building on Christmas Eve?” It was the 24th. And he said, “2 o’clock?” And I said, “Fine, I’ll be there,” because I wanted the job. Or I wanted some job. So I went over there and I went up the elevators and I get off at their floor and all you can hear is wastebaskets being emptied by the staff, bottles clanking in it. They had celebrated all morning, and now everybody’s gone. So I’m walking down, I find the number, and it’s locked with no lights on. I hung around for about ten minutes, then I thought, well, this isn’t gonna work. I don’t know the guy, he doesn’t know me. So instead of going back the way I came, I walked to the front elevators of the Guardian building and as I come to the elevator, here comes Peddler jumping out of the elevator saying, “The mayor’s running late! He wants you to wait, let’s go back, I’ll let you in!” So that’s what happened, I went back and Ray came in and we talked for five or ten minutes, we shook hands, and I became the finance director.

LW: Under Roman Gribbs. And what was that experience like following the riots, following ’67, ’68? Can you explain some of the changes that you saw taking place in the city around that time?

BR: Yeah, it was declining financially. The whole concept, even too much [unintelligible] is government’s going to be run on property tax. That was a whole, gone many years ago. Property values and the taxes to support the government weren’t keeping up with the growth of government. So we’ve gone through dozens of special things here. We put through, back in my day, Cavanaugh, a utility tax, and we put through a city income tax, now they’ve got gambling, and for a glorious, golden period of time, you had state aide. You had grants from the state. Revenue sharing, they called it. The feds came. I’m just gonna back up a minute. One of the big changes in the Kennedy era was traditionally, for hundreds of years, the federal government only dealt with state government, and state government dealt with the local governments. Well that was [unintelligible]. A famous line in my talks would be that I can get to Washington faster than I can get to Lansing. Cause I drive to Lansing, and fly to Washington. It’s a one-hour flight. So I said why are we going through Lansing? Well, Kennedy changed that. He said, “I’ll give money directly to the cities.” And that’s a momentous change in history. And it worked to this day. There still is a big state connection, but that was a major change.

LW: Was the property tax declining because of people moving out of the city?

BR: No I think, well yeah, it was certainly part of that, but also the inflation of the cost of government was on a different track than property, cause you were doing a lot more that property tax didn’t have to do. And the expense of doing it. The property values and taxes did not go up with inflation on services. Salaries for police and firemen, pension costs, road repairs, to this day. We did a lot to try to comprehend it. When I was public works commissioner, we were still collecting garbage with a back-end truck with two loaders and a driver. And they go down the allies and shovel them. We had taken time for rubbish collection. We insisted every house have a concrete receptacle, the size of your chair there, and it had a metal lid on top to throw the garbage in, and a metal lid on the side to take it out. You’d open the door, and two guys with shovels would shovel the garbage out. You didn’t wrap it in those days either, we didn’t have plastic bags. They’d shovel it into the back of the truck. Well the time and the spillage was just horrendous. Plus those metal doors didn’t last a year. The acid in the garbage just ate them right up. They weren’t in footings, the rack couldn’t go down more than 18 inches, so rats were living under these garbage receptacles, and coming up and feeding. It was a crazy system. But the union, the teamsters loved the 3-man crews. But once you get the front-end loaders—the whole country is going through this—this was not a Detroit problem. Refuse collection was going through a big, big change, and it’s a one-man, front-end loader you see today. But besides the resistance to that, in our town, we had alleys. And those trucks were too big to go down an alley and lift them because of the power lines. So that was a physical, you had to go to front-end street pick-up and people didn’t want to take the rubbish out and put it on the street. Especially if you didn’t pick it up the day you were supposed to. But eventually it went through.

NL: Could you tell us more about how the decisions were made in 1967 that were regarding halting alcohol sales and the providing of services or not providing, the closing of borders? What was that decision making process, and who was involved?

BR: Well, it was sequential, every time you saw a problem, you tried to solve it. I think it was random, no one person was making these decisions. Police department could have, I don’t know. Close the liquor stores, it ain’t a bad idea, so that was easy to do. And I think some of the others, like stopping gasoline sales, that had been thought of before. The border thing, I was surprised. I read that in there, apparently they weren’t letting cars into Detroit that weren’t residents, I didn’t see that happen. I don’t think you can look to any one person or any one area. The police certainly had some. The fire department, they had to clear the crowds out. A lot of comments, people calling in saying—the initial reaction, by the way, was the same, in the first few hours—was, “Get the people off the street, and clean the streets.” They wanted public works to come out there and clean the streets. Apparently the idea of the debris, that was exciting. They never could do that. They never had the man power, the police power, to clear the people out. But it’s asked repeatedly. And then finally someone calls in and says, “Forget cleaning the streets. All that is irritating to see all that manpower out there.” So that’s how it goes. You learn as you go on.

NL: Could you comment on the relations between the police and the citizens of Detroit in the ‘60s before ’67?

BR: In my opinion, it wasn’t a good time. We’d had that special police patrol, what’s it called?

LW: STRESS? [Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets]

BR: Yeah, STRESS. Safe streets [unclear]. And they had this particular incident where the STRESS crew, which was a group of plain clothes guys, put one of them out on the street and had him act drunk, white guy, and stagger through the street. And a teenage black kid came up with an aerial, car aerial, and he was going to strike him. And I think in that case, they shot him. But it was that type of entrapment that STRESS was doing, and that was badly received.

NL: Do you think there’s a history of racial profiling in the Detroit police system?

BR: I wouldn’t think now.

NL: I meant more at the time of these events, the 50s and 60s [talking over each other]

BR: Oh yeah. In my mind? No question about it. They was racial profiling and everything. But the blacks particularly.

NL: Were there ever people that raised that issue or spoke out against it?

BR: I’m sure there were, but they were ineffective. Took a national movement to do away with racial profiling, took a federal law. No, the police and fire department in my early days was really white. Really, really white. Whiter than the city. It got increasingly difficult as the state was white and the city became more black. And it took a long while to overcome that. The fire department was the last to go, you know, because they lived together 24 hours, and they fought it. I think that’s long past now.

NL: What about housing opportunities for black people and other non-white people in the city at those times?

BR: That wasn’t really my thing. I lived in the city, and we had a residency rule. If you worked for the city, you lived in the city. And I’d always lived in the city, and my kids went to public schools—well, the first two. Third one came along and it wasn’t a school problem there. When he went to Junior High, his two older sisters had gone there and were outstanding students, and he was always being compared to them. So he said, “Dad, I’ve followed them all through grade school with this.” So he went to military school for five years. And then the youngest daughter came along, and she went maybe a couple grades in Detroit, our local Detroit school, but then we put her in French School in downtown, it’s still there. And we lived in the city. But when she got in tenth grade, with two to go, she said, “There’s only gonna be three people in my graduating class, and I don’t think that’s a good experience for going on to college.” So by then I had left and went to Campbell Ewald’s, so we didn’t have to live in the city, so we bought a house here in Grosse Pointe and she took two years at Grosse Pointe South. I think it was Richard Strickhart, actually, the most liberal Jewish man I’ve ever known, brilliant guy. His boy delivered newspapers in Detroit, up there around Palmer Park, and he got robbed at knife point. Comes home and tells his dad. He moved out of the city within a week. “You’re not going to threaten my kid!” You know, he’s family first, and he’s gone. That happened to a lot of people.

NL: In your work with the T.A.A.P program, did you get a chance personally, to work real hands-on with the people that that agency was providing services for?

BR: Before we began starting, we were still in community renewal then, the neighborhood services or NSO -- never heard of the organization and living here all the time, I’m ashamed of that. But it is the best youth service organizations, they’re all top-notch social workers, the guy who was running it when I got involved went on to be the dean of social work at [the University of] Michigan. They had a big project over on the northwest side where they took over an old telephone building and turned it into housing for 200 homeless men. It’s up and running now. I went to him and said, you know “poverty program, I don’t know what the needs are,” and things like that, so he arranged—we had an interview with two teenage black boys. And we introduced ourselves and were talking, and I glanced down and the one boy – well I guess I didn’t look first – I said, “What would you do if you had a job, you could earn some money?” And he said, “I’d buy a pair of alligator shoes.” And I looked down again, he had really decrepit tennis shoes on, and so his aspirations in life was a pair of shoes. And he just didn’t see above that at that point. And what was the other fellow? He didn’t have any big things either. And one summer, aside from the poverty program, June, my wife at that time, tutored—wanted to tutor in Summer school. And we volunteered, and did not get a good reception. We went to the school, they did not expect us, they didn’t know what to do with us, all black. She said, “Well, you go up to this classroom, you can sit in the class and monitor. Black teacher, all black students, junior high. And the teacher was gracious. We sat in the back. Complete chaos. She had no control over the thing at all. The kids were talking to each other, they were doing everything. They had notebooks, they were supposed to keep a journal—they still do to this day, I’m told—and they were supposed to each day write in it. Most lurid writing I had ever heard about. I mean, it wasn’t good spelling or handwriting, but the subject matter was not educational. She calls for a break, and she assigns a boy to me and a girl to June to go and talk to, and I asked the question, “What would you like?” And he said, “I’d like to have white hair like yours.” Isn’t that off the wall? I could not comprehend. So anyway that was -- I was also on the school monitoring commission for two or three years when they were trying to get civilian involvement on the rules and that, and that was a very educational experience. You know, what do you do when you throw a kid out of school? Where do you send them? Troops? Now they have alternative high schools or junior highs now. In fact, my granddaughter’s taught in one. But they had many, many logistic problems, and they had no control over it, they haven’t been able to conquer that. So I learned, but I knew outstanding black people. Cass Tech was good, black too. Certainly when I was in public works, my staff was mainly black, and they were great. I would go to give talks at night, and four or five of them would go along with me and we’d park the car, and they’d spread out just like they do for the president and see that I could walk in without being hurt. And volunteers.

NL: Looking back in hindsight at the after-effects of the 1967 riots on the city, the short and the long-term effects, is there anything specific that you think that the city departments could have or should have done differently that would have helped alleviate or minimized some of that long-term damage?

BR: Well, I think the conventional wisdom is that the riot pushed the black population out. That was the turning point. That those that were hesitant about leaving, they left in larger numbers. And now the school system has continued that drain. Mary lived in the city at that time too. She was a teacher. Probably, if it could have gotten more attention, and found the resources on housing, ‘cause I went to a committee meeting long before all this, and it was down here, off of east Jefferson, where a grade school -- and it was turning black. So we had a meeting at the church and talked about it, and a black man got up, and he identified himself as a postman, and he said, “The white people have stayed here and the more affluent ones moved, and the people that came in weren’t interested or able to keep the houses up as they should have, so then they move out. And when the blacks get in position, the home is already in disrepair, and they are now the least financially-able to fix it. And it just doesn’t stop.” But, you know, that’s – I think – a very common story. The Jewish population moved first, then the Protestant whites and Catholics, Catholics were last to move out, and they left behind them not the best properties in the world, and certainly the people coming in were not financially set. I guess finance is a very key part of that, the minimum wage, and jobs, and youth programs where they can earn summer money. You’ve gotta make an investment in people.

NL: I have one last question. In that same vein, do you have any specific ideas on what the city can do now in 2015 to continue moving forward and make progress as a city that they might not already be doing?

BR: Well, Mary’s son-in-law is Tom Lewand, works with the mayor, and her granddaughter is in the land base, so we’re in touch with the city, so to speak. I think what Duggan is doing is the right thing. It’s just a question of resources, and I don’t think people understand the logistics of the homing, the home situation. What’s the number, 60,000 homes that are scheduled to be torn down? And we were previously doing five or six hundred a year. Now they’re doing 10,000 and it’s still a five-year program if nothing else comes on the market, and I don’t think that count includes the commercial buildings, which are, many times -- in the meantime, the cost of tearing down homes has risen. Usually we just collapse them in the basement. And throw some dirt on top. But it was not environmentally sound, so now you have to get a permit that the asbestos has been cleared out, which requires a specialist to come in and certify that, that there isn’t any other poisonous subjects and that. You have to clear the site completely and haul it off to a dump. You have to put clean dirt in the hole. They were bogged down six months ago, we were talking with our granddaughter. They ran out of clean dirt! They couldn’t find clean dirt! They were trying to deal with the expressway construction, get that dirt. Now they’re finding that wouldn’t pass inspection because it had oil contaminants in some of it. It’s whether they can hold it together over the long haul. Certainly Duggan has taken a fantastic start and strategically picked the things that they could do that would make an impact, like street lighting. The idea to get in there after all these years and see street lights and put it into authority and let it raise its own bond money, and be run outside of city government was a marvelous thing, and it’s working, it has worked. I hear people say, “We’ve never had a streetlight.” Now they do. So that one thing [unintelligible] --employment program to get companies coming in town is the right thing to be doing. Get more employment in here and raise that tax base. ‘Cause you not only get the property tax, now you get the income tax. So the renters have a way to support everything. They’re battling time. That’s all. Right now, I don’t know if they’re even holding their own. If you’re losing more than you’ve gained, but you’ve certainly narrowing that gap. You’re gaining people now. They could do – well they are, I have a grandson at northwest Grosse Ile Park area in that community organization, which is funded, and they’re trying to keep the homes there from being dilapidated. And people give them their homes. Then they take in and renovate it to modern, and sell it, below market, because they can do that. Grosse Ile is not the best model, because those are substantial homes on Grosse Ile. On the eastside of Detroit—Detroit was built as a lumber town, it was built out of wood. They didn’t have to make bricks, they just cut the logs up north and floated them down the river, sawed them up, and built a house. My mother was born over by Eastern Market, on Wilkins Street, which is gone now. And they had nine children, all in one big house for that. They had no plumbing. They had to—what we call a garage, they had a stable, and an outhouse in the stable. No central heat, no central electricity. Those houses aren’t going to be renovated for anybody to move in to them. These apartment buildings you see on Chalmers street, I had an aunt and uncle who lived in one, and I remember visiting them. The rooms are six by eight, the living room would be maybe eight by nine, nobody’s going back in those buildings! And besides that, they let the vandalism out of control. That was a big mistake, which I think they’ve tried to solve by first of all, licensing the junkyards, not letting them pay cash, have to get a signature and a photograph of the seller. They could have put all those junkers out of business years ago. It seems so obvious now, that was where to stop it. Not trying to enforce it on the street. They didn’t get away with where they could sell the material.

LW: Thank you so much for talking with us!

BR: Well, you know I love to talk! [Laughter]

Interviewer

Lily Wilson and Noah Levinson

Interviewee

Bob Roselle

Location

Grosse Pointe, MI

Files

Roselle, Bob photo.jpg

Citation

“Bob Roselle, July 20th, 2015,” Detroit 1967 Online Archive, accessed January 17, 2019, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/245.

Output Formats