Michael Kasky, March 24th, 2016
WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. Today is March 24, 2016. I am in Grosse Point, Michigan, for the 1967 Oral History Project, interviewing Mr. Michael Kasky. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
MK: You're very welcome.
WW: Can you first start by telling me where and when you were born?
MK: I was born in Detroit, on September 1943.
WW: And what was your childhood like?
MK: Excellent. I mean, I lived – my parents lived in a neighborhood around Clairmount and Joy Road, and I went to elementary school at Brady. Did a year at Hutchens Junior High, then the family moved to northwest Detroit, where I lived on Woodingham between Puritan and McNichols. Transferred to Post Junior High, graduated from Mumford, and then started college.
WW: What did your parents do for a living?
MK: My father was a self-employed electrician and my mother was a housewife.
WW: Any significant experiences growing up in the northwest?
MK: Perhaps the one experience I'll share with you was – when I was going to Brady School, the – that neighborhood was starting to integrate, and the first African American person I really got to know was a girl my age, in my class, and we were taking clarinet lessons together. And the school could only afford one clarinet for the two – for the two of us. So we had our individual mouthpieces, of course, but we had to trade back and forth the clarinet. I lived with my parents in a one-bedroom apartment. And the first time I had to go to Laura Mosley's house to swap the clarinet, it was on Longfellow in Boston Edison. Her father was a dentist, and it was by far the wealthiest house I had ever been in in my entire life. So my first impression of African Americans was a very positive one – a group of people I would want to emulate.
WW: Was Mumford integrated when you went there?
MK: Very much so.
WW: Where did you go to college at?
MK: I went to Highland Park for two years, and I transferred to Wayne.
WW: What did you study?
MK: My undergraduate degree is in history, with a minor in accounting. I have an MBA in industrial relations. I also have a J.D. - all three of my degrees are from Wayne.
WW: And what year did you go to university again?
MK: I started college in 1961, and graduated – received my bachelor's degree in 1965.
WW: Growing up in the city during the 1950s, did you notice any growing tensions? Or was the city harmonious?
MK: The city was very harmonious, in my experience. In fact, when I went to Hutchens Junior High – do you know where Hutchens is?
WW: Mm hm.
MK: I would say the school was easily ninety-nine percent African American in terms of the student body, and I had no problems.
WW: You enjoyed your time in DPS?
MK: I had – I mean – I got a very, very good education, despite the fact that not all of my teachers were wonderful. A lot of them were retired on full pay. But I found to my amazement that when I started college, the work got easier. Mumford was an excellent, academically successful school. Only Cass Tech and Mumford had an arts and science program, which was an enriched program in those days.
However, I will tell you an interesting story. At Hutchens, the students were classified by intelligence scores, or something else that had been done on us. So I was in probably the top seventh grade class, at least this is what I was told. And even though the school was ninety nine percent black, my class was about fifty-fifty, white and black. And we had a math teacher who had a southern accent, and he kept going over the same material over and over again, until one of the black students, a young girl, spoke up and challenged him, saying “we've already learned this material. Why are you trying to hold us back?” And when I transferred from Hutchens to Post – in fact, my principal transferred at the same time, to the same school – I discovered that I was a little behind and had to catch up. So clearly, I was being given a watered-down education at Hutchens. Whether that was the curricula fault, or the teachers' responsibility, I really don't know.
WW: Your time at Wayne State – was there – given the social movements of the day – was there any strong feeling either way on campus?
MK: I knew that some of the black students were expressing unhappiness. And it was difficult to say – or for me to determine – whether or not that was something that was very much held sincerely, or whether or not it was some kind of ploy to manipulate the professors into getting themselves out of work, or getting better grades.
WW: How would you describe your time at Wayne State?
MK: Much more enjoyable than high school. I was more mature; I had much better instructors. Wayne State had an incredibly good history faculty there, but I also had experiences like – I remember taking an accounting class – and that curriculum was pretty white at the time. And there was a black student in there, and the first day of class, the teacher asked everybody to get up and state their name, and he said his name was Blackberry, and the teacher looked and said, “Oh, we have a Blackberry in this class.” No – his name was Barry. And the teacher made a joke about a “blackberry.” But nobody seemed to take offense at that. Now, I don't think that would happen.
WW: Probably not.
MK: The other thing that I saw was, there was a history professor there – this was now getting towards – I can't remember if this was during my undergraduate or graduate courses – I did a lot of graduate studies in history also – thinking rather naively that, if I got a PhD in history, I'd be employable – which I realized was not true, and switched things. But a number of students – of black students – who were, by that time, self-identified as militants, came up to him, and demanded to know why he wasn't teaching any black intellectual history in his class on American intellectual history. And his response was, “When the blacks develop an intellectual history, I will teach it.”
MK: On the other hand, I had another history professor who was teaching nineteenth century European intellectual history, and the reading was all original sources – this was a graduate class – on economic theories of the nineteenth century – primarily English labor economists. And a couple of the African American students came up to him and said “We're finding this reading too difficult. Can we use the textbook that they're using in Economics 101?” And this professor, who was very liberal, leaning very – had socialist values – had worked his way through college working at the Ford assembly line – turned to the students and said “of course. All you have to do is go to the Registrar's Office, tell them that you want to drop out of my class, and enroll in Economics 101.” And they stayed, and they struggled with the material, which was quite difficult. But that was the kinds of manipulation that one could see taking place at that time.
WW: What did you do after graduation?
MK: I had started working for the city of Detroit as a student technical assistant in early 1965, in what was then the Civil Service Commission. And I found the work challenging and pleasant, the people very, very bright. And I found that I had skills that allowed me to do this work, and so, after I graduated, I sat for the exam and became a professional with the Civil Service Commission. The title was then called Technical Aide. And because I was working in the Civil Service Commission, I did not know when I would take the test, and when I was suddenly told one morning, go into this room, we're giving you the test today, they did not use the existing test, but went into the archives, to a test that I had never seen before, to make sure that this was all objective and I had no unfair advantage.
And the thing was, that when I was growing up, my father struggled to make a living. And when I started college, I was looking for part-time work. A number of my friends' parents either could employee them in their businesses, or had friends who could employ them in their businesses. And I asked my father if he knew of anyone that he could recommend me to, and he was very apologetic, and said “I really don't know anyone – there's really – I can't do anything for you – I just don't have that kind of influence.”
So the fact that I was able to sit down and take the civil service test, with no regard whatsoever to who I knew, or what my economic status was, made a significant impression on me, and I became a very, very devoted advocate of the merit system.
WW: No doubt. Working in the city government in the mid-1960s, was there a feeling that there was tension in the air?
MK: Yes and no. I mean, our department had some African Americans working in it, including one senior staff member – a professional. And we were hiring more and more black people – I still have lifelong friends from the blacks I started working with in that period of time. John Eddings – I don't know if you know the name – he was a city Ombudsman for a number of years. He and I still have – get together every now and then. There was another woman who – a number of our people were - went on to either law school or medical school – they just used this as a way to earn money to go to professional school. I delayed that, primarily because I still remembered my earlier experience with my father not having any connections, and I felt that – as someone who is Jewish – and being aware of the fact that there were a lot of the white-stocking law firms at the time did not employ professional Jews, it probably was a fool's errand to go to law school at that time. I was better off working for the city, doing something that I enjoyed – something I felt I was being reasonably well paid for. But it was clear to me – it was not official policy, of course, but I was told through the grapevine at that time that there were departments that were Catholic, there were departments that were Protestant, and don't even think about going to work there. And that there were some departments that would employ African Americans and some that would not. And the Civil Service Commission was one that did have a cross-section of people. There was no – I saw no discrimination there in terms of hiring staff. Had black cohorts, Catholic cohorts, Protestant cohorts, so it was a very good group of people. But I had been told by other people, don't even think about transferring here or transferring there because they won't take you if you're Jewish.
This is before the Civil Rights Act, by the way. And I can tell you, for example, that there was pressure, for example, I remember one time I was assigned to a unit that hired white collar professionals – business-type professionals, industrial-type professionals, administrative professionals, and also recreation titles – people who worked for the recreation department or the zoo. And one day the head of the recruitment division came in and said, “We're not passing enough black people – revise the exam and put more basketball questions on it.” Which showed the level of his sophistication.
A lot of people thought that I was a communist. And I'd gone to Wayne, and that was considered, you know – by people who were older – to be a hotbed of radical studies, and I can remember one example when they were interviewing a recreation instructor, which is a professional title – one required a degree to have this job – and a woman came in, and I was told to come in and take notes. I worked for one of the few senior professional women at the time, and she was interviewing – and she was white – Protestant – and she was interviewing with another woman from the recreation department who was a very high senior-level person – and I was told that my job was to take notes and say nothing, unless it was imperative – unless it was imperative. And the applicant we were interviewing was a woman who had worked her way through university – Wayne State – in the post office. One could tell that she came from a lower middle-class background, was very, very nervous, and uncomfortable in the interview. And at one point, I heard her say, “I believe in the necessity of perpetual revolution.” And I saw the two senior women's pens starting - moving furiously – and I thought, this was inconsistent. So I turned to the lady, and said, “Have you taken any philosophy courses?” And she said, “Oh, yes!” So I said – thinking to myself, well I can't ask her about Marx, that's too obvious – so I asked her about Hegel, because Marx relied on Hegel's structure. So I asked her what she thought of Hegel, and she said, “No, I don't like him, I don't care for him, I think he was wrong.” So I went back to Rousseau, and asked her what she thought about Rousseau, and she said a similar thing. So then I asked her about Voltaire, and she said, “Oh, Voltaire is my favorite philosopher. He really sums up what I want to be.” I said, “Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Voltaire say he believed in the necessity of perpetual evolution?” And she said, “Yes, isn't that what I said?” And I said, “No, you said, ‘perpetual revolution.’” And she said, “Oh my god, I apologize! I'm so nervous!” At which point I stopped talking. And the next day I was summoned into the division head and told if I wanted to chit-chat about philosophy, to do it on my own time. They could not see what I was doing, or why I was doing it.
But again, that led to my being seen as somewhat suspect. It never affected my career, but the older staff people did have – were wary of my background and my politics.
WW: Wow. Before we move on to 1967, are there any other stories you'd like to tell from your early years in the civil service?
MK: Well I'll tell you one story, and I can't remember when this occurred, but the structure of the office was such that the director and deputy director of recruitment had glass-partitioned offices right off the waiting area for people being interviewed. And the director at that time – I can't speak for his earlier accomplishments, because I don't know about them – but at this stage of his life, he tended to imbibe a great deal, at lunch time, and we all knew not to bother him after lunch. And I walked out there, and I was talking to an applicant, and I heard him on the phone, saying, in a very, very loud voice, “If I want a gardener, I'll hire a Tony. If I want a garbage man, I'll hire a nigger.” This was overheard by everybody in that waiting area. So that told me, in no uncertain terms, that once he lost his controls over his speech – his censors – that those were his attitudes.
WW: That's sad. Where were you living in 1967?
MK: In 1967 I was still living in Woodingham, with my parents.
WW: And how old were you?
MK: In 1967, in July, I was twenty-three.
WW: Twenty-three? How did you first hear about what was going on that Sunday morning – Saturday night?
MK: Well, the interesting thing was, I had – I had gone to Amherst, Massachusetts, just before the riot broke out, to – I had been offered a fellowship to get a PhD in history. And I heard on the news what was happening. One of the interesting things was, after ten o'clock – I learned this later so we won't even go into it – it's not relevant – but I found out about it, and I called the office and said, do you need me back? And they said “Get on a plane and be back as quick as you possibly can.”
So I was flying a commuter flight and when we took off from Buffalo, I realized there was only one other passenger on the plane beside me. And as I looked out the window as we went into our landing pattern over Detroit, I could clearly see the outlines of Dexter, Linwood, and 12th Street and Grand River – that was a unique geography – all lit up in flames. And I was very, very sorry I didn't have a camera with me at the time. But that told me how serious this was and there also had been a disturbance on the east side the year before that I knew of, so I landed, and I had left my car at the time with my father, and asked him to pick me up. And I never found out why he did this, but instead of driving back from the airport on the Southfield Freeway to Six Mile Road, which would have been a route that avoided the riot area, he decided to go through downtown. And we were stopped by a very, very nervous National Guardsman, who pointed the business end of his M-1 rifle at me and my father, and fortunately I had a) white skin, and b) City of Detroit identification. But that was a little scary also. And then I went into work the next day and I was told I would be lent for the time being to a unit called Riot Intelligence, which I had never heard of before.
WW: What day did you get back?
MK: It was probably a Monday, but I – I'm not certain, that's a long time ago.
WW: So what was your work on the Riot Intelligence Committee?
MK: Primarily, handling concerns of various businesspeople and utilities in the City of Detroit. For example, I would get – I got a call from a radio station or television station, it was on East Jefferson near Mt. Elliot. And they were having a problem getting Edison to come out and do some work for them. So I called up Edison and was able to persuade them that there were very slight risks and if they wanted, I would get police protection for them. So I was doing just basic – I wasn't getting involved with the community or anything like that, I was just basically trying to deal with short-term problems that were arising as a result of the fear and violence in the city.
WW: What was the mood behind the scenes? Was there – was there a calm to the work, or was it anxious work?
MK: Well, the head of the department was a man named Malcolm Dade, who was very, very powerful in the black community, and his number one was a woman named Katherine Edwards, who was a very vivacious white woman who also had a great deal of political clout. And they were the ones who, when I dealt with them, were always a very calm presence. So I didn't really sense anything that was panic – I mean I still was able – I felt safe taking either – I can't remember which days I drove and which days I took the bus downtown – but I never felt like I was in any danger.
And I think I told you over the phone, the story that on one occasion, I was asked to either pick up or deliver some papers to the police department. And I offered to just walk over from the City County Building, and they said “no, it's too dangerous.” And told me that a police car would pull up to the building and I should take a ride in that car. And it was an older, white police officer who was driving, and we were driving northeast on Gratiot. And as he went to make the turn to go east on Clinton, there was a young black man walking across Clinton, minding his own business, not projecting any harm, or any threat to anyone, and the police officer floored the car, and aimed at him. Now whether he was just trying to scare him, or whether he was trying to actually hit him, I can't say. Fortunately, the young man was nimble enough to jump out of the way.
WW: Did the cop say anything, or no?
MK: I can't recall if he said anything or not. I have an impression that he may have grinned, or said something, but I can't be certain of that. Again, it was just too long ago.
WW: In working with the police department during that week, was there – was that the common attitude?
MK: I didn't really deal with them on a one to one basis. I did notice that they had the khaki uniform police cadets surrounding police headquarters, each holding a rifle in their hands, and I later learned that there were police snipers on the roof. I did not know it at the time. But because the Civil Service Commission only dealt with civilian employees - the police department had their own employment section for sworn officers – I had very few interactions with the police department.
WW: Who else made up the Riot Intelligence Committee that you worked on? Was there various agencies?
MK: I really don't know. I know that Malcolm Dade and Katie Edwards were the two people I dealt with. I – there was probably a – a board, that I never had any access to. And basically I just stayed – other than that one experience with the police department – I just basically worked in the office and worked on the telephone.
WW: You spoke about driving home from work or taking the bus. What was the atmosphere of the city on your commutes to work and back home?
MK: There was a certain tension, but where I lived – on Woodingham, between Puritan and Six Mile – the closest thing that happened was the torching of a furniture store on Livernois just north of Fenkell. And that was at least three quarters of a mile, if not farther, from my house. So I didn't feel any real threat. I mean, my neighborhood was thoroughly integrated at that time, but I – I perceived no threat, or people were still walking along the street, and I think people had a feeling of safety. I did not see any military in my neighborhood. I mean, I had friends – I had a friend who lived on Clairmount, between 12th Street and Hamilton, who woke up one morning to find a tank parked on his front lawn.
WW: Working in the city government, what was the mood when the National Guard came in, and then when the Army came in?
MK: We felt that that was probably a positive. Again, I saw the nervousness of that one National Guardsman who stopped my father and I, so when I saw them bringing in the 82nd Airborne, I understood immediately why they needed people who were more professional, and who were not likely to – pardon – no pun intended – trigger an incident that would create more violence. But we – the black employees and the white employees in the Civil Service Commission continued to work together. I saw no animosity, no self-segregation at that point in time. Everybody seemed to recognize that we all knew each other, we all trusted each other, we were all professionals, and we just continued to do the best we could.
WW: And you stayed on the Intelligence Committee until the end of the disturbance?
MK: I think I was there for a week. I remember it was the only time I ever got paid double-time for working in my entire career with the city. I worked on a Sunday. But by Monday everything had calmed down to the point where I could go back to Civil Service.
WW: What was the mood of the city following the disturbance?
MK: People were really reluctant to talk about it. I think that – at the time I was taking graduate level classes at Wayne – and I could see some hesitancy there for – and a little bit of self-segregation. But I didn't see any threats. I didn't see any violence. And of course I can't remember if the DRUM movement, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, started before or after the riot, but I certainly knew of its presence on Wayne's campus, and I understood what they were trying to accomplish.
WW: Did you have any more interaction with DRUM, or the League of Revolutionary Black Workers?
MK: I never had any interactions with DRUM. There were not people who sought me out, or I sought them out.
WW: Was there a sense in the – behind the scenes in the city government that we need to move past what happened?
MK: Very definitely. I mean, I'll give you one example that happened during that period of time. As I told you, my father was an electrician. And he did a lot of work for people who owned income properties in the city. A lot of what was then the inner city. And I would occasionally work with him, and help him. And I saw a lot of damage that had been done by people who lived in these rental properties and I got a sense from the owners, whom I met, that they were not malicious people or evil people, but they were simply just trying to make a reasonable rate of return on their property. And the damages that I was were extensive, and very expensive, and they couldn't really charge rents that would give them enough cushion to continually repay for the kinds of damage that were done to these units.
And I remember, I was taking an Urban Sociology class at the time, and people were talking about how the landlords were just making scads and scads of money off the backs of poor inner-city residents, and I spoke up to say that was not my experience. That these people were very – the landlords were – that I dealt with – were not extensive, they owned maybe two or three units – or houses – and they were trying as hard as they could to provide a reasonable living place for their tenants, and it was costing them a great deal of money every time somebody started doing damage to the building. And I said, you know, these people are not making a great deal of money. It's a very thin margin of revenue, and if they're really constrained, and this continues, they're just going to abandon the property and walk away. At which point I was greeted with howls of laughter. They say, “Oh no, these people are making so much money – obscene amounts of money – that this will never happen.” Unfortunately, history proved me right.
WW: How did the city – or did you have any – did you have any interaction with city officials that were dealing with the exodus – that was leaving the city after the riots?
WW: Mm kay. In the years following 1967 – lost my train of thought, sorry.
MK: Let me give you some more information.
WW: Okay, sorry about that.
MK: The woman for whom I started working as a professional – she and I bonded. And her – she had a business background and at that time I had – I had at least a minor in business, and I was able to understand and be able to do the work necessary for the people in the city who were accountants and auditors and budget analysts and tax assessors, and people in those kinds of professions. So my talents were specialized enough that I stayed in that area, and other people got involved with the departments that were more socially oriented.
WW: You continued your work with the city government and Civil Service after the Civil Rights Act was enacted.
WW: Did that change the culture that was dominating the civil service at that time?
MK: Yes. Until the Civil Rights Act was passed, occupations were classified male and/or female. For example, a bus driver had to be a male. The position – hiring position professionals – for professionals – was technical aide male, was a specialty, or technical aide female was a specialty. And now that had to come to an end. It could no longer classify based on gender, unless it was a job like a locker room attendant or a correctional officer at the Detroit House of Correction. Those were the only exceptions. So there was some resistance at the senior levels to this, because they could no longer say. “I insist on a man,” or, “I insist on a woman.” And Jackie had a lot of experience with that, that – it's being written down right now – but I can remember the same head of recruitment, who had got – who had expressed those comments when he was drunk one afternoon – came into my office one day. My boss was at lunch – and he turned to me and said, “Too many damn women are passing the technical aide exam. Put a mechanical comprehension section on the test.” And I looked at him and said, “I don't understand the relationship of mechanical comprehension to what this test – for the positions this test is designed for.” And he looked at me and says, “Kasky, if you don't want to do it, just walk out the door now.” And much to my amusement, and much to his despair, his stereotype proved wrong, and the passing grades of females actually increased with that mechanical comprehension test! And I realized – because I was directly involved with hiring professionals – entry level professionals – that the quality – the average quality of the female applicant was far superior to the average quality of the male candidate, not for any gender-related reasons, but the fact was they had limited opportunities. Men had access to jobs in the corporate world that women couldn't access, and if they didn't want to go into teaching or something like that, government was really one of the few places where they could access. So we hired a number – a large number – a high percentage of very, very talented and high-quality women who I certainly enjoyed with – for the rest of my career.
WW: What was the mood of the city in the – moving into the 1970's. Trying to put '67 behind them, with the renaissance city and New Detroit?
MK: I could see that those attempts were taking place – I, again, did not have any direct involvement with them. But one of the things that the Civil Service Commission did was, we rotated our employees. And many of them were assigned to work in hiring activities involved with the poverty program – started out as TAAP – Total Action Against Poverty – and then became the Mayor's Community Commission for Human Resources Development. And those were not really jobs anyone looked forward to, because you worked in the inner city in very dingy quarters, and somehow I was saved by that. Again, I think it was my unique skill set, that they – when they came to my boss and said, “It's time for Kasky to rotate,” she said, “Over my dead body,” or something like that because when she moved, I moved, 'cause she had a reputation as – a well-earned reputation, and a well-merited reputation because she had suffered enormous discrimination in her career, being a woman. So people – she had – she wouldn't take much guff, and dealt it out, so the administration did not want to ruffle her feathers, so she protected me for many, many years, and then there was a position that opened up in the Model Neighborhood Agency in 1969, where they needed an auditor to enforce the government requirement that no contractor's – no private sector contractor's total compensation could exceed that of a comparable government worker. So I went out to the department in 1969 and at the time, we were housed in the Architect's Building, in the middle of the then Cass Corridor, and because I was from a management department, and this was a socially conscious department, I was kind of looked at as the enemy, and there was a story that I heard from a number of people that one woman would hide under her desk whenever she saw me coming, because I was considered part of the running – I was a running dog of management.
But a very interesting thing happened while I was there. There was a program – a recreation department program – called the Metropolitan Arts Complex, run by an African American woman who had come from the recreation department. And her reputation was enhanced by the fact that her husband, who had been a professional boxer, once punched out the director of the Model Neighborhood Agency, after which he always had two police officers guarding him. Well I – that was one of the departments I had to audit. And I went out there one morning and met with the woman, and I did just what I normally did. I acted exactly as I normally acted. And I came back that afternoon, and all of a sudden the PA system announced, and saying “there's going to be a staff meeting. Everybody must come. Everybody must come to the meeting.” And the director, Sylvester Angel, who was African American, came in and said, “I've just gotten a very serious – I've had a very long, angry call from the head of the Metropolitan Arts Complex.” And I'm thinking, okay, my career is now going up in smoke. And he – Sylvester Angel continued and said that, “She said, ‘In all of her dealings with this department, she's only dealt with one person who dealt with her as a true professional, and that's Mr. Kasky sitting over there.”
Well, you know, there were gasps all among the room, but I realized then, that my presumption was correct – that if I treated people with respect and focused on work-related matters, that that was the way to succeed in government – that I was not bigoted, they were not bigoted, and as long as they felt that I was treating them with the respect due them, and I wasn't trying to screw them, that we could get along just fine. And that was later demonstrated when I finished that assignment in 1973, I had been – I had been promoted twice and came back as a principal and headed a unit. I was assigned a black female employee. There were a number of young people – nobody ever started out what was then called classification, but after a few years they were all rotated in there. And she came to work for me and there was a black male who went to work for another principal, across the – down the hall. And again, I just explained things to her, and showed her what to do that would work, what wouldn't work, what her job was, and answered all of her questions. And when it came time for me to leave the city, at my farewell lunch, a number of black employees came up to me and thanked me for all I had done for them.
And I said, “Well, you know, I don't quite understand because you never worked directly for me.” And what they said was, “You don't understand. What you taught Cathy, she in turn, turned around and taught to us,” because their white supervisors were not teaching them what I was teaching her.
WW: It's amazing. What – you spoke about leaving the city – leaving the civil service. What year did you leave the city and the service?
MK: I left in 1976.
WW: Was there a particular reason why you left?
MK: Let's go off the record.
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WW: The next set of questions will be about – talking about your role in the Jewish community. When you first moved in to your neighborhood, was your neighborhood primarily Jewish?
MK: The neighborhood that I grew up – which is the same neighborhood where Jackie grew up – we went to the same elementary school, the same high school – was predominantly Jewish, yes.
WW: As – as you grew up, did more of the community – you said it became integrated. Did most of the Jewish community leave the city?
MK: It started off by moving to the northwest. This was a time – this is something that I do in my tours – I explain that starting in the 1910's, 1920's, the population of the city of Detroit more than doubled every ten years. Strong, strong pressures for housing. A lot of housing was being built, and the Jewish neighborhood – the original Jewish neighborhood, on Hastings Street, was built in the 1830's and 1840's – wooden clapboard houses, slapped together to house the German immigrants who were coming to Detroit – the Jewish immigrants came to Detroit in the 1830's and 1840's to settle – really, the first Jews to settle in Detroit and form a community spoke German, it was only natural that they would choose to live in the German-speaking neighborhoods, and there were very little friction, from what I can tell.
But as the neighbors – as the people here accustomed themselves to living in America, and started to prosper, they started looking for better housing, and they moved north along the Hastings corridor. The people who did very, very well went into business – primarily the clothing business – and the Civil War came and they were in the uniform business – started living in Piety Hill. They had beautiful homes along Woodward and the rest of the Jewish neighborhoods started moving north along Hastings and streets parallel to it.
Now at this time – so when the blacks started to come to Detroit – they quickly learned that the people who would hire them, and the people who did not threaten them, was the Jewish community. And if you read Thomas Sugrue’s work – I don't know if you've ever read that – he confirms that point. So they tended to follow the Jews, because they were a), familiar with the neighborhoods and b), felt safe moving there. The Jews might not be happy about it; the Jews might decide to move on to greener pastures; but they would not employ the same kind of violence that was taking place in other parts of the city – you know, like Ossian Sweet's experience – and Jackie's father represented black people who were trying to move into the Grand River Grand Boulevard neighborhood, and restrictive covenants were enforced, and that kind of thing.
So that was the progression. And one of the strongest characteristics of the Jewish community is an emphasis on education. And anything that would water down, or threaten the quality of education is a reason for moving out of the neighborhood. Plus, these were people who had grown up at a time when Jewish kids were routinely harassed by non-Jewish kids living in the neighborhood, whether they were black or white, Irish, Polish – it was common knowledge that Jewish kids learned to run very fast to avoid them. So, given these apprehensions, given the fact that they had sufficient money to move into better neighborhoods, they chose to do so, and the black population followed them, because they wanted the buildings. And unlike, for example, the Catholic denomination, where people are assigned to a parish, synagogues are congregationally based. There's no hierarchy. So people felt very comfortable moving and for the Orthodox, who tended to walk to synagogue, they had enough money to sell their buildings primarily to black churches, and then rebuild as the community progressed in its northwestern progression.
And a historical fact that you might not know, was the first building bought by a congregation in Detroit to be a synagogue was actually bought from a black church.
WW: Ah, I didn't know that. You spoke about the limitations on Jewish employment in the city government before the Civil Rights Act.
WW: Was that widespread throughout the city in the early 1960s and 1950s?
MK: There were certain departments I knew I should not apply with. The water department was one; budget was another – they had a token Jew in budget – but I knew – first, I really liked the work I was doing in the civil service commission, but most of the Jews who worked for the city worked in the social action programs – housing, model neighborhood, the poverty program, community relations, those departments.
WW: Thank you for that. To tidy this up, what are your feelings on the city today? How do you think it has progressed since 1967?
MK: Well, the city has undergone some terrible experiences. I can tell you, with my experience working at the model neighborhood program – I don't know how much you know about how it functioned – but it tried to – it was an experiment in the Carter administration, to see whether or not empowering the people of poverty-stricken neighborhoods to make their own decisions, would lead to better and more acceptable decisions. And twenty million dollars a year was assigned to these programs. And I was then – well, I audited every department, so I certainly saw and experienced what was going on. And while it was a wonderful idea – this is my personal opinion – to – for the people to identify and prioritize their concerns and their needs, it was a mistake, in hindsight, to also give them the authority to decide how they were going to be implemented. I saw a lot of people who could talk a good talk but really didn't have any substance getting programs and running them into the ground, or stealing the money, absconding with it. So this is not race-based, it's experience-based, but you just can't come from being a community activist and suddenly being in charge of a department where you don't know – or business, what's involved. And they were never given that transition. So as I saw in more and more of the city, administration being given to people, who lacked experience. Now, I was very, very impressed with Coleman Young. And to this day, when someone says Coleman Young ruined the city, I strongly disagree. Coleman Young was not a racist. He knew how to employ racist language to inspire and manage the black community. But he, personally, was not a racist. Jackie and I worked on his campaigns every year – his fundraisers. And we had a lot of respect for the man, and he did things that no white mayor could ever have accomplished, such as when he became mayor, there were three employees assigned to every garbage truck. He put through – with James Watts, his black, union-experienced director of public works – they implemented the one-man packer, firing two thirds of the predominantly black garbage men. I can't imagine a white person having been able to get away with that at that time, but Coleman Young was able to accomplish that. So it – I have the greatest amount of respect for him. I saw other mayors follow him, who didn't have the respect of city employees. They thought that anybody who worked for – they thought the government and city government was the employer of last resort. They didn't realize what high-caliber, well-educated people we had – tended to disregard the advice we gave them to the city's disadvantage, and they employed people. Dennis Archer was certainly one of them – who made maybe one or two good appointments but some of the appointments he made were just terrible. Turn this off.
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WW: Thank you very much for sitting down with me today and for taking time out of your schedule.
MK: You're very, very welcome. I enjoyed this.