Sandra Smith, May 16th, 2016


Sandra Smith, May 16th, 2016


In this interview, Smith discusses growing up around Detroit, and how she sought to be an active member of the Detroit community. She also talks about her experience at the family-owned dry cleaners during the unrest. More specifically, she talks about the looters she encountered in the city that day. She also talks about the open classroom program she sought to implement into schools after the week ended.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Oral History


Pontiac, MI


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Sandra Smith

Brief Biography

Sandra Smith was born in Detroit in 1944. She lived in places like Ferndale and Dearborn, but constantly spent time in Detroit as a volunteer for a church. She lived in Pontiac, during the unrest in 1967, and saw the impact the events had on Pontiac as well as Detroit. She later started an open classroom program to promote diversity in local schools.

Interviewer's Name

William Winkel

Interview Place

Detroit Historical Society



Interview Length



Hannah Sabal


WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. Today is May 16th, and I am sitting down with Sandra Smith for the 1967 Oral History Project. Thank you very much for sitting down with me today.

SS: You’re welcome. It’s enjoyable to do this.

WW: Can you please start by saying where and when you were born?

SS: I was born in 1944. I was born in Detroit, downtown, one of the hospitals down in Detroit. My parents lived on Montrose right off of Grand River in Detroit. They had a duplex there.

WW: Did you grow up in the city?

SS: I grew up in the city only until I was about three, four years old, and my parents—so my father could be closer to the airport, to Willow Run, where he was going to be running a flight school, and where there were new houses being built—so we moved out there.

WW: Okay. What was it like growing up in Dearborn?

SS: It was close to Mayberry RFD, if you want to be real. It was like a real neighborhood with kids playing out in the street. When the lights came on, you had to go home. People were neighbors. Wasn’t a whole lot different when we were in Detroit, quite frankly, when we were on Montrose. I was a little smaller, and the difference was on Montrose the houses were so close together, literally, my grandmother would yell across to the neighbor to ask to borrow something, and they would stick their hands out and hand things back and forth, because the houses were built so close together and you always had the garage in the back. But we had, I remember, when I was little, the very, very much the same thing there. These wonderful old houses, they were just grand. The basement on our house on Montrose—I used to be able to ride my tricycle in the basement because it had these wonderful Terrazzo [2:23??] floors and you could ride, but you didn’t dare fall into a door; it wasn’t hollow, it was solid as a rock and things like that. But in Detroit it was very much the same. It was that very friendly neighborhood, people would walk in the streets and kids would play out and people would walk on the sidewalks and say hello, and I remember as a kid we used to play out all the time.

WW: Was the neighborhood in Detroit interracial or was it all white?

SS: As far as I know it was all white.

WW: Okay. And was it all white in Dearborn, I’m guessing?

SS: Yeah, oh yeah. Dearborn we know is all white. There was Arabs, no problem moving in. Asians, there were moments. There were no blacks living in Dearborn at all. It was not interracial. It was white. By the way, we’ve had a Muslim community in Dearborn for as long as I can remember, since I was a little kid. From our church, our youth group, we used to go over and visit the mosque, it was on the east side of Dearborn. We used to go over and visit the kids over there and they used to come visit us, and I grew up working and being with the Muslim community, learning about the Muslim religion years ago.

WW: You spoke about how your family moved to Dearborn in part so your family could be closer to the airport?

SS: Yes.

WW: Could you talk about what he was doing there?

SS: Well, he was part of the original army air corps. He went into World War II and went into the army and they had this new group that was starting, and they found that he tested out very well, and he became part of the original army air corps. One of the fun things is I’ve got his little thing that wrote out all the different things every time he flew—

WW: His log book?

SS: His log book! I’ve got his original log book, and he literally with the group there, I can tell you how they flew the planes over. They had to fly all the planes over. And they go down into South America, down to one of the Caribbean islands, over the [5:03??], it was really cool. He flew in some of the most famous battles that they had over in Western Europe. David, what kind of plane did dad fly?

David: B-24.

SS: Okay, B-24 and one of the things they did—

David: Is that the Liberator?

WW: Yeah. Wait, B-29?

David: No, B-24 is the Liberator.

SS: And one of the things that he did, he was the captain, and one of the things they did is they would tow the gliders, the pilots in the gliders. Gliders had no engines whatsoever, and they had to be on tethers. They’d take them in, and at a certain point, they’d let go, and they would glide down into enemy territory. And he was involved in a lot of battles. And the interesting part is they didn’t have a lot of guns or anything, and they were sort of like flying, hoping they wouldn’t get hit. But one of the things he did was during the Battle of the Bulge, they got all these people that took all these people in, and then things went sideways in the Battle of the Bulge, and it became evident that a lot of people that they brought in were not ever going to see the light of day again, they were going to be killed. So he and his men defied orders and sort of commandeered the plane without orders and went back in and literally got hundreds of men out. I know when he died, we can’t believe the number of people that were at his funeral that said, “Your father saved thousands of lives. There’s lots of us alive because they brought our dads back.” He loved being a pilot, would’ve loved being a commercial pilot, except he had glasses. He’s always needed corrective lenses since he was a kid. And the army said that was okay, however, commercial airlines would not allow someone to be a pilot if they needed corrective lenses. So he couldn’t be a commercial pilot. So he decided to start a flight school.

WW: And what did your mother do for a living?

SS: My mother was an artist. She was originally an elementary school teacher in Detroit, taught several, three or four different schools in Detroit. She originally had gone to school, graduated from Wayne, but then she went to what was the Society of Arts and Crafts but is now the College of Creative Studies, and her field was art. What happened was, flight school was going well except I had a younger brother, and he developed cancer when he was a year and a half old and the doctors said he only had six months to live, and they suggested that my parents stay with him, let him have a Christmas, just be with him as much as they could because he’d be dying in a few months. So my dad ended up leaving the flight school, and my mother was doing the art, and they started a small art school in our basement, which eventually grew enough that they moved into a small shop over in Dearborn, and eventually they moved into a big enough company that it took up a block and a half over on telegraph. So that’s what they ended up doing.

WW: So you grew up in the 1950s. Going into Detroit—did you go into Detroit often?

SS: Oh yeah. All the time. We were probably there once or twice a week at least. From the time I was little I’d do things, I’d play golf from the time I was little. My uncle was the designer of literally almost all of the Detroit golf courses. So when I was little I used to go and sit with him on his little golf cart, and when he went around to inspect, I’d golf. Went down to Belle Isle a lot. I remember going out and sitting out at Water Works Park and watching the boat races, the old hydroplane races, which because my grandfather worked at the old Hudson’s—love the old Hudson’s—we used to go down there at least once a week, just to go visit the old Hudson’s. One of the fun things about downtown Detroit then, especially going to Hudson’s or Currents, because you always got to dress up and wear white gloves, wear all the dresses, everybody got dressed up, it was kind of special. But spent lots and lots of time in Detroit. Belle Isle was one of my favorite places. In fact, all through my years going up, and both of my kids, their whole life, they got to spend lots of time in Detroit. I went to Wayne State, and started at Wayne State in 1964. Was in the art school, was there in the evenings, and sometimes I’d be there until 3 o’clock in the morning. That was a time when a lot of the area behind Wayne, getting over toward the Lodge and that, there were a lot of older houses that were being torn down and abandoned and we’d park over there, and I’d walk out to my car at 2 o’clock in the morning. There was one day when it was 1964, and I always went to school at night, and one day I had a class early in the day, I had something to do early in the day, so I was down there and now I don’t have another class until 7 o’clock at night, and I literally walked down Cass all the way to downtown, just walked downtown, looked around, saw thing, went and visited somebody I had met, turned around, and came back. Just walked up Cass. I felt very comfortable in Detroit.

WW: Awesome. When you were growing up in the fifties, and going into the sixties, did you notice any growing tension in the city?

SS: I didn’t notice tension. I noticed things sometimes weren’t as nice as they—things were being let go. Buildings just didn’t look as good anymore, and sometimes it would just feel uncomfortable because it’s like you got a building that’s kind of run down that I notice more than anything. I grew up in Dearborn, which was not a mixed-racial city, and my dad always said I was the contrarian in the family. I was very comfortable with anybody. There were times where I would have somebody, if I was down in Detroit, I can remember there were a couple of times when there were some people that were black that looked like, “What are you doing here?” Or they looked like, I don’t know, but I’d walk up, say hello, and start chatting. I worked with Father Coughlin, I volunteered with Father Coughlin over in the old church in Corktown. And I remember the first time he showed up, he gave me hell. “What the hell are you little white girl from Dearborn doing here? You think you’re going to be a do-gooder, you’ll come in for the day, and then you’re not gonna come back.” He just read me a little riot act, like I was this terrible person, and it was like, “Okay, I’m going to show you.” I think I spent about six months, I’d show up there as much as I could. Grabbed a couple other people I had met down at school or whatever, and we’d go down there, and he loved to give us assignments that he knew would just drive us nuts. One of the assignments he would give us is he would give us names of these homes, the addresses of these homes, that we were to go in and help the mother. And he purposefully gave us probably some of the worst places, that were some of the hardest ones that he thought would be to work with. We’d go, “Okay, we’re here to help with the kids, what we can do.” Try to do as much as we could, and things like that. I cannot believe these people—I mean, Father Coughlin sent us so I guess it’s okay—but we’d take the kids and just take them out to play so mom would have a little time to do something for herself, and didn’t try to do the do-gooder stuff, just what can we do? We get somebody, a mother who hasn’t got a husband to help her, and she needs some time to herself to get things done, so we’d do whatever we could, and pretty soon, Father Coughlin decided that I was okay, and he started giving me things to do and treated me like I wasn’t the “bad white person who was showing up, the do-gooder from Dearborn that was showing up to do stuff.” I wasn’t fighting him anymore. I spent a lot of time over in that old Corktown area.

WW: Do you remember what church that was?

SS: It was just Father Coughlin’s church in Corktown, very famous church.

WW: St. Anne’s?

SS: No.

WW: Okay. No worries.

SS: It’s the Irish church that they always have, on St. Patrick ’s Day…. I never remember. But I just know it as Father Coughlin’s church over there. That was a hard-hit area, economically. That’s one of the reasons we were over there, it was like, “What can we do?” There were people over there and it was Spanish, black, there were Mexicans, it was a real mix of people. They were always just sort of aghast. I mean literally I was out by myself, or I might have another young lady with me, and we were out there by ourselves and never even thought about that there was, you know, that we needed to worry about anything. We just went and did stuff. I guess that was what surprised them. It was like, “Okay! We’re here! Let’s go!” Just, you know, “What can we do?”

WW: Did something in particular prompt you to start doing this charity work? Or were you just motivated to do it?

SS: I had heard about him, heard him talk about something that was going on, I think we may have had a trip, our church group might have gone down there, and saw some things and he said “Hey, here’s some things that you can do.” I think that’s what we did, we went down with a church group, with a youth group, and he said, “Here’s some things that we need down here.” And so the next week I showed up, and he was like, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “I’m here to help. What can I do?” Seemed like the right thing to do. I was not one of those people that was popular in school, probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I was bullied, I can tell you all kinds of lovely stories about things that happened in school and people that did terrible things to me, and boys that would make you think you were really popular one day and invite you all to sit down at dinner or at lunch, and you think you’re finally going to be the “in person” and they dump tomato soup on you to embarrass you. I wasn’t the popular kid and decided there were other things in life worth doing and I did them. I want to thank them, a couple of kids I went to school with who made me feel so bad because I never achieved what I thought I could when I was in high school and went way past what they did when I got older because I had the motivation and I knew I could do it, and now I didn’t have to live with their constraints. I just always felt that everybody ought to have a chance. Even though I lived in Dearborn, I was very, very motivated as to why we ought to have a mixed neighborhood. I was involved in integration stuff, did a lot of marches. My parents were not quite as happy about some of the things I did. I moved out and lived with our minister and his wife for a while because my parents weren’t happy that I was working on integration issues, including fighting our mayor when there was the big brew-ha with the family, I was there with the family when the thing happened that caused the mayor, Mayor Hubbard, to go over to run over and hide in Windsor so he wouldn’t get indicted for obstructing justice and allowing his police to not help what they thought was a black family moving in and it turned out to be a black family that were movers that were moving somebody in, it wasn’t even a black family moving in. I was involved in some of that. I just thought everybody ought to be who they were and it was okay. And you shouldn’t be labeled. I felt like I had been labeled when I was a kid, and you shouldn’t be labeled. Everybody should be able to do whatever they want, whoever they were, and live up to their potential. I was my own little champion. 

WW: Going to the 1960s, your grandparents’ meat market, was that still on Grand River?

SS: No, the meat market, it was gone, I think it was gone by the time I was a little kid, it was already gone. My grandparents had moved out to California. By the time I was four, they had moved to California and the meat market was gone. My grandfather and my uncle, who then ran the meat market, they’d gone. But I owned, in the 60s, I got married in ’65, and my husband’s parents owned a—my father-in-law was a dentist—they owned a dry cleaners in Ferndale, and they branched out and bought one right on fashion avenue in Detroit. So, my then-husband and I managed both of those dry cleaners. The one over on fashion avenue—fashion avenue was wonderful back then, that’s when you had all kinds of designers, Beagle [21:49??] was there, it was a great spot. Louis the Hatter was right next door, it was really quite the interesting place, a neat place. It was right by the university. It was between the university homes and Palmer Woods were kind of right in that area. We were known for doing custom work with our dry cleaning, one of the things we did was we had a whole fleet of vans and we’d deliver, we delivered all the way down to the Fisher building and down there. We delivered all over Detroit. So we were right in the heart of everything, even though I lived here in Ferndale. We lived here in Ferndale and then we moved down to Pontiac, so I was actually up in Pontiac during the riots, which was interesting. I got to see both the Detroit area and the Pontiac, what was going on.

WW: We’re going to move into ’67 then. So you were living in Pontiac then. How did you first hear about what was going on?

SS: I wasn’t in Pontiac, I had just come back from Chicago. Was over at my in-law’s over in Battle Creek, and we got a call on Sunday morning from the manager of the dry cleaners and said, “There’s riots here, there’s riots going on in Detroit.” I don’t know if he actually called it riots, but he says, “There’s this thing going on down here in Detroit, and we’ve been broken into.” Into the car, and driving back from there, and you’re not thinking too much about it, like okay, a break in. We would always drive Southfield expressway and come across 8 mile, because we lived in Ferndale. And when you get up to the eight mile rise—and we’re coming through Detroit on Southfield, nothing. We came up on that rise, and I always remember coming up on that rise, and as we came up on that rise, all I can think of is seeing—just, the whole city was on fire. It was just heart-stopping, like “Oh my God, there’s my city. What the hell is going on?” You can’t believe it. You know what it’s like when you see a house fire and you see all that black smoke? Think of that probably multiplied by a hundred. It’s like just the whole city—and when you saw it, all of a sudden you start realizing what you were feeling all along. Shortly afterwards we got to the point where there’s that choking feeling, and it was like, “Holy God. This is not good.” It happened at like, 1 or 2 o’clock on Saturday morning?

WW: Sunday morning at—

SS: --it was like 2 o’clock in the morning—

WW: --3:55 in the morning.

SS:  So we’re coming through by before noon, probably ten or eleven o’clock in the morning, and it is just already just, wow. Drove in, and just went, “Oh my God.” At that point you go, this is really scary. When you see the smoke, you don’t know how much is covering the city. It was just mind-jarring. We drove up eight mile, went to Livernois, and cut across to the dry cleaners, and we had a full glass wall—you know, you had big sheets of glass wall—we came and one of the things we had, if you’ve ever seen dry cleaners, one of those trolleys to hang clothes up, those clothes all went right there along the glass wall. Well the glass wall, like three or four of them were already knocked out. Our manager—I can’t remember his name—he’d already been there, he’d already had someone in, they were putting up, trying to put wood up on the ones that had already been broken out. But they literally had come in and literally taken all of the things out. Probably the most jarring thing that I can remember was, other than coming up and seeing the smoke, when we first saw what was going on, was we were there trying to make sure everything was all closed up, everything was safe, sweeping up and things, and while we were there—and it’s bright daylight, mid-afternoon on Sunday, and some of our windows were not broken out, so you could still see out, and across the street were places like Claire-Perone’s [27:25??], you know all these nice shops were there. Just as I’m looking at the window—and there’s nobody on the street, no cars at all—all of a sudden, two cars come up, going north across the street, pull up across the street, I think it was Claire-Perone’s, one of the designer shops, one of the dress shops there—pull up, and it’s the first time I have ever felt uncomfortable about seeing somebody black. All of a sudden, these young black kids got out, and there was just a demeanor about them that just looked menacing. And they got out, they had bats, whatever it was they had, big pipes and all kinds of things in their hands, and they just all jumped out at once. And they went right to the windows, and started smashing the windows. There had to be at least six of them. Another car pulls up behind them, they get out, and they literally just smash those windows and immediately started going in and just pulling everything they could, throwing it in the cars, they were getting back in the cars, and they could not get in the cars for all the stuff they had in there. So they’re literally holding on, doors are open and they’re holding on to the outside of the cars, trying to drive off. It was crazy. But no worry about anybody around, nothing. They just went in and started, and you just stood there and for me, it was really jarring because I have felt so comfortable around everybody, and I suddenly felt fear, and I’ve never felt that before. And I guess it pissed me off, more than anything, really made me angry, that they made me feel that scared. Broad daylight, middle of the day. And pretty soon other cars came up and started hitting other buildings, not even thinking about us. Harry the Hatter’s next door, I had no idea, all I know is what happened across the street. It was just like, okay, let’s just go back in. I can’t remember if my husband called the police, but I have a feeling they were probably busy. I think he may have called the police, but I think he remembered them saying, “Uhhh, we’re kind of busy. That’s fine, but there’s a lot of stuff going on,” sort of blew us off. Okay, we’re on our own. At that point, we’re there and we’re thinking, what are we going to do? We’re all closed in there, and it still felt like, okay, I feel safe. And probably a half hour later I start hearing what sounds like cars behind the building. Cars stopped behind the building and next thing I hear is pounding on the back door. After seeing what was out there, I started feeling really uncomfortable. They literally smashed in and tore off the back door. I think at the time, I’m thinking, “I didn’t even know that was there!” but for some reason, before we got the place, whoever had had it before had put in like a metal jail—

WW: A metal gate?

SS: A metal gate! It was a thick metal gate, and it was locked. And all I can remember is going back to the door and there was this hand that came through and I just went up and I just said, “Get out! We’re in here! Get out!” And I heard, “I’m sorry, ma’am!” and they took off. All I can remember is seeing that hand, and again I was so angry because I saw that hand come through, and I didn’t care what came, but I do remember seeing this, no shirt, this black hand came through. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have been bothered at all, like, ehh it’s a black guy. But there was something about it, after seeing what happened over there, that just felt so intimidating and so scary.

WW: But you remembered his pleasantries! “Ma’am.”

SS: Oh yeah, “Sorry, ma’am!” and he was gone. I remember just sitting there for the longest time, just shaking, thinking, “Oh my God.” But it wasn’t like they were going to get the people, they weren’t doing anything. That was interesting. That night we went back home—he was a teacher, first-year teacher, and this was before teachers had unions, and we qualified for government subsidized housing. So we lived in a brand-new housing project on the north edge of Pontiac that had just been built. So we’re living literally on one of the townhouses that was literally just right up against the city. And by the way, it was hot, there was no question. It was hotter than hell. It had been hot all week. I remember we had gone over to Chicago, and it was hot before we left, so hot you’d have a bad thunderstorm and it’d get hot and muggy. It was really uncomfortable that week. It wasn’t any better in Chicago, either. So no air conditioning in these places, so that night we sat up with our next-door neighbors, and we were playing cards in the house. At the time, this was so—what was going on in Detroit, and nobody knew what was going on in particular, you’d hear all kinds of stories, oh my God, are they coming out? That’s was the worst part, you’d hear all these rumors on the news reports and everybody was like, what’s going to happen? We’re up in Pontiac and playing cards, went upstairs to make sure the windows were open upstairs, and all of a sudden we realized it had come up to Pontiac too, because we’re sitting upstairs and we can see the flashes and hear the gunfire outside. Oh crap. Just hang tight here, we’re okay, nothing we can do. We were not far from probably the least prosperous area, a not good area of Pontiac, and apparently some people decided that they would take advantage of the situation. It was exciting. The next day, my brilliant husband and one of the guys that worked with us decided they’d go out in the delivery truck and go. They went out saying oh they had some deliveries they had to make. Are you kidding me, you stupid? They decided they’d go up around Grand Boulevard, they went up and into not particularly good spots they should’ve gone into, and I was not with them, but I heard lots of stories from them about having to stop often because there was a big TV sitting in the middle of the road, or people running across, but they were talking about the people going in, just what looked like nice people, somebody battering the window of a store, and they’d be carrying out TVs, and they’d get it to the middle of the street and they couldn’t carry the TV anymore, so they’d drop it in the middle of the street. They were telling me all kinds of stories about what was going on, all the looting. Yeah they had stories down there. I thought, “Oh my God, they’ve died down there.” He said, “Well, we almost picked it up—well, the TV was just sitting right there…” I almost killed him. It was a frustrating time. It ticked me off that people would take, and I know they were angry, but what you had were some people that just caused unbelievable damage. It just really bothers me.

WW: How did your dry cleaners fare the rest of the week?

SS: We just closed. Closed up for that time. I don’t think there was anything open during that time.

WW: No, I mean did it get broken into again?

SS: No, it never got broken into again. No, we were fine, just that one time. It was literally those clothes right there, those people’s clothes, whatever was against the window. What they did, like they did with the stores I watched them loot across the street, they got the easiest stuff, that they could get easily. Yeah, Livernois was good pickins’! That was the big money stuff! It was good stuff there! A lot of them came, and, “Hey, let’s go down to Livernois,” but they all seemed to stop at Livernois. That was as far as they went, there and Outer Drive, nothing seemed to go beyond Outer Drive.

WW: How long did you keep your dry cleaners open after that?

SS: It’s still open. Oh yeah, it’s still going. I don’t own it anymore, but they had it up until—my husband and I divorced in ’82—’81, but the dry cleaners is still there. Harry Hatters isn’t still there, but the dry cleaners is still going.

WW: How do you interpret what happened in July? Do you see it as a riot, or what do you see it as? There is no wrong answer.

SS: The heat didn’t help one little bit, no question. If you’ve been through one of those summers. It had been the year before, let’s see, ’67, yeah that year, and the year afterwards, we had some really, really hot uncomfortable weather. People didn’t have air conditioning, buildings didn’t have air conditioning, it was really hot. I mean it was just muggy, crappy hot. I think you had some people that were just angry about everything in the world. I understand there were a lot of people in the black community that this was when a lot of things were going on. I was involved in a lot of things that were going on with Martin Luther King and all kinds of things that were going on at that time. And it was already that, things were not good. It just happened to be the perfect storm. You had a lot of people that felt like, “Hey, they’ve got…” whatever. People that just got caught up in the whole thing. Like my husband had said, when he saw people, these little old ladies running across getting the TV they had always wanted, or the toaster, or something else. What was so bad was they were destroying their own community, destroying the places they lived. And I know they were angry, part of it was there was this anger, and there’s no question, there were shopkeepers that always took advantage. You’d see them even where we were and it’d be frustrating to be shopping and see shop keeps that were obviously charging more and taking advantage of people and weren’t really nice to people, and they went after them, but then they started going after nice black man that had a business there, too. Sort of went nuts. It just sort of spiraled out of control. It’s frustrating to see how much of our own community we took apart, because they were angry. Their anger actually ended up being one of the worst things they could do to themselves at the same time. I just see it as being, it just boiled over and everybody got involved. The answer is, I think it was just a lot of frustration, and I can understand the frustration. Having been someone that’d been in a totally different way—and I’m not saying it’s anything like what the black community went through down there, the poor black community—but having the feeling that you can’t do what you want to do, or you’re not good enough, and you don’t get this, or you don’t get that, it’s going to cost you more to do this—you know, there’s a point at which I could see where that could get real frustrating. It was even more frustrating to see just what ended up happening.

WW: How do you see what happened then affecting the city now? Do you think it still lingers over us?

SS: Part of it is we—these areas that we talk about, these big open areas in the city, those big open areas are not from—you know, everybody says they’re from the crash and all that, but I got news for you. They literally became big open areas back in ’67. We literally had big areas around West Grand Boulevard, they had just bulldozed them down. It became just this big vacant area. All of a sudden there wasn’t anything there. I know one thing that happened, no question, there were a heck of a lot of people that were really, really embedded in the community and loved the community and said, “That’s it, I’m leaving.” And we’re not talking just white people. I know people that were black that said, “When I can, I’m getting out,” and they did. That’s one of the tough parts of what I see with Detroit now is so much of the brain trust that was down there, so much of the heart of the city and the people that were there that just loved the city just said, “okay, that’s enough. I don’t feel safe anymore. I want out.”

WW: What did you do after 1967? Did you continue to live in Pontiac and operate those?

SS: Ran those. I started teaching school, taught preschool and we still ran the drycleaners, but I was teaching school. Taught some in Bloomfield, then preschool, worked with the people that started the early education program in Ferndale. Did that, ended up running –one of my parents decided that you shouldn’t wait until you’re too old to enjoy life, you get to take over the business in Dearborn, so I started running their business in Dearborn, ended up doing that until we sold that. Did a lot of things. Ended up being a marketing strategist.

WW: How do you see the city now? Are you hopeful for what’s going on?

SS: I think it looks wonderful. I’ve been down there. I was down there, I got dubbed the Tree Mother for the tree planting over when they were doing the Hantz Farms. I’m out there, carrying around the trees and telling people to plant holes, or find the people that had holes and plant trees. There’s a lot, long way to go. Downtown is looking amazing, there’s no question. It’s exciting to go downtown. Getting out into the communities, it’s going to take a lot of work, with little pockets here and there. We’ll have to, but I think we’ve got to think outside the box. Just like the Hantz Farm, they had to fight to do stuff in the open areas. It is not going to come back as this great urban city. There is no way you’re going to bring all these people back into the city, there’s no way. There isn’t enough work there for them to do anyway if we did. I think we need to think outside the box in terms of different kinds of things in different areas. I love the idea of having areas that become think tanks for young new entrepreneurs, the idea of taking some of those areas like the tree farm, or literally doing some urban farming. Taking some of those areas, and even if they have some houses in the area—for instance, I was down in the area where the urban forest is, and it’s real interesting to see what’s happening with the houses there. The people are starting to feel better about them, they don’t have all this blight around them anymore, people aren’t coming in and dumping garbage, even with what they have, and they’re doing some fixing up on their houses. What’s really interesting is finding out tax values and how they’re going up, the value of those houses if you wanted to sell one is going up, so they’re feeling better about things, but I think the idea of taking some of those areas that really were hurt—I mean you can see a lot of that area, lately I went through some of that area and just went, “My God,” there was a lot more that was lost from the crash a few years ago when the housing development went right down the tank, but then I went, no, this has been vacant for almost forty years! Over forty years! It’s been vacant from when they had to bulldoze everything down from when we had the riots! This has been like this all along. I think that’s one of the things I see. For me, to talk about Detroit, my kids, my son was born the day that Martin Luther King died, they kept telling me he was a riot baby, but he was conceived a week or so before the riots, so we won’t call him a riot baby. But he was born the day that Martin Luther King was shot. Almost to the minute, as a matter of fact. And my kids, both of them—he’s the oldest one, I had a daughter three years later—I still brought them back. They lived in Detroit, I had them back in Detroit all the time. My son as he was growing up, he loved to do photography and things, and he was always prowling around somewhere in Detroit. At least once a week we were down at Belle Isle, they got to experience Detroit and all, the good and the gritty. They’d go with me down to father Currant’s church, and he’d say, “You’re bringing the kids?!” and I’d say, “Hey, I’m not going to get someone to watch my kids while I’m volunteering. They’re coming along and playing with the kids there.”

WW: It’s amazing.

SS: Ferndale is an interesting microcosm. Ferndale has a whole black community that is kind of part of Ferndale, the township, which was actually constructed after the war. I remember when I was a kid, they used to put [50:37??] huts there, right over on Eight Mile and Wyoming and in that area. They housed a black community. People coming back from the war and things like that, it literally was created as a black community. Ferndale was one of those communities, where they’re all part of Ferndale school system, and we’ve community that, I think we were the first communities in the northern states where the federal government took away all of our money that the federal government gave us. They literally took it away because we weren’t integrated. They had a beautiful school within walking distance in that area, but that was the only part of the school district that was black, and so now we were integrated. I worked with a few other people and was one of the people that got us back to having federal money. The Ferndale school district, back in the sixties, early seventies was a little on the conservative side, and they were just fine. “You’re not going to give us money, fine! We’ll do it the way we want to!” because the federal government wanted them to bus students in, and things are still a little raw from the riots and everything else and people aren’t quite sure, and so myself and a few other parents who had kids in elementary school said we wanted to start an open classroom program in Ferndale where anybody from the city could be part of this classroom. And it was going to have a whole different design in terms of how things were taught. To give that to the Ferndale school district was like, “Psh, not a chance, you can spin it anyway you want, it isn’t going to happen.” So I remember going in the year before we started the school, I took my son who was then in kindergarten, took him, and another friend who had two daughters, one was his age, one a year older, and we went over to the school, Grant school, which was the all black school, and very stern wonderful tall principal that was there, and I remember him looking at us like, it felt like meeting with father Coughlin. Like, who the hell are you, these do-gooders, what the heck are you doing, you know? And I was so frustrated at not being able to come up with something and I remember at the time the two of us were considering literally putting our kids in over at Grant School. He thought we were nuts. I said, “I want my kids to have more than a white education. You’ve got a good program here.” I loved what he was doing, it was a killer school. We talked about the open classroom program, and he says, “You know what, if you were to take your open classroom program, I would be amenable to you putting your open classroom program in our school.” So we started talking back and forth, and the two of us and some other parents really started putting together a program, and we went to Ferndale schools with our proposal for the open classroom program, and the proposal that we wanted to put it at Grant school. And the kids would then be bused over to Grant school. He said he would make room for it, he would rearrange, and we could do it, and we took it to the school board and said, “This may be your opportunity.” And with the open classroom, kids from Grant were able to be in the program too, that’s the reason we were able to get so much room because a lot of the kids in the open classroom program were from the Grant school which were all black, became part of the program, so it was a really, really nicely integrated program. We went to the school district and said, “We’ve got the agreement of the principal on this, this is what we’re going to do, this is how we’re going to do it, and we think if you put that together, it’s possible that it will satisfy the federal government. You might get your money back.” We never had a second meeting, they agreed that day. It was the coolest program in the world, it was such a cool program. The kids literally learned problem solving and critical thinking, and you learned things like fractions by cookie, learned things by doing and learned everything in a whole different way, but the neat part was—my daughter went with one of the black kids from the open classroom program to prom. They were just good friends. She still tells me, talking about Rodney and things like that. And it was just so neat, at a time when there was just this tension all over, and it’s so neat to see the kids that were part of that program and they just all sort of became a neat little group of people. They learned that everybody was normal people.

WW: That’s amazing.

SS: Yeah. And one of the neat parts, Ferndale was one of those cities that was ripe to become an Oak Park or a Southfield, and suddenly change its color and its texture. I remember people talking like crazy about moving out, neighbors gonna sell cheap, and all of a sudden, everybody’s gonna sell, and I kept saying, “Hang on, hang on, everything’s going to be all right.” And the open classroom, you started having in all the neighborhoods, somebody had been with and knew kids, and all of a sudden, the black kids weren’t coming over there from these schools, they were happy that that was there, but you’d see friends coming over. Whatever it was, people managed to not suddenly fly. There wasn’t that flight kind of thing. No, “Oh, it’s going to destroy our city so I have to leave,” kind of feel.

WW: That’s amazing, again. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

SS: Nope.

WW: Well thank you very much for coming out.

SS: I gave you lots to use.

WW: Thank you for sitting down with us today.

SS: You’re welcome. My pleasure.





[End of Track 1]

Original Format

M4A on iPhone; converted to WAV; 1hr17min


1 hr17min


William Winkel


Sandra Smith




“Sandra Smith, May 16th, 2016,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed March 3, 2021,

Output Formats