William Charron, June 18th, 2016
[INITIALS OF INTERVIWEE:] HS
[INTIALS OF INTERVIEWER:] WC
[REPEAT INITIALS EACH TIME EACH PERSON SPEAKS]
HS: Hi, my name is Hannah Sabal. Today is June 18, 2016. We are here at the Detroit Historical Museum interviewing William Charron for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project. Thank you for sitting down with us today.
WC: You’re welcome.
HS: Can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
WC: I was born in River Rouge, Michigan, October 1st, 1944.
HS: And what was your neighborhood like growing up?
WC: I grew up in Wyandotte. I was not a post-War baby, I was born during the War. And we lived with my grandparents and when my father came home from the War, we bought a home in Wyandotte and we lived in Wyandotte. It was a all-white, working-class, mostly Polish and Italian neighborhood. Bungalow-style home. Later, when I was probably in the first or second grade, my father had built a home on 13th Street in Wyandotte, and we moved into that and then he built one down the street for my grandparents. We lived on 13th Street, Wyandotte—Colonial-style home this time. It was a wonderful place to grow up. It was somewhat insulated, it was not racially mixed—if you want to count the Polish and the Italians. I felt a little jealous that I was neither.
HS: Oh, yeah?
WC: I grew up a better person because of it I guess.
HS: What did you parents do for a living?
WC: Ultimately my mother was a secretary to the Board of Auditors in Wayne County. She was Bob Ficano’s secretary when he was Deputy County Clerk. My father was the President and Executive Director of Metropolitan Council 23 of AFSCME. He was also the International Executive Vice President, and he was the President of the largest Local: Local 101 Wayne County Road Commission.
WC: I was deeply involved in Wayne County politics when I was growing up, when I was younger.
HS: Which schools did you go to? Did you go to school in Wyandotte?
WC: I went to elementary and junior high in Wyandotte, and high school in Trenton.
HS: Okay, alright. So, moving into 1967, where were you living in 1967?
WC: Well I was living in Trenton, and my wife-to-be was living in Detroit on Mark Twain on the Northwest side. I met her in college up in Marquette and we would have never have met—I was from Downriver and she was from Detroit. We met in school and she had dropped out of school to help defray the expenses for the family for the wedding that was coming up in July. She worked as a long-distance telephone operator for Michigan Bell. It was right here on East Bethune across from the Detroit Police mounted stable. The mounted police were right across the street from that. She was considered a critical occupation, and so the National Guard picked her up from her home, brought her to work, and they took her home in the evening. She had an armed escort–that was scary–to and from work because the telephone facilities at Michigan Bell were completely surrounded 24 hours a day by the National Guard.
HS: That’s amazing.
WC: So that communications would not be interrupted in the city. It was a scary time.
HS: Yeah, I’m sure.
WC: My father-in-law owned Midwest Produce at the Eastern Market and his brother owned a liquor store on Joy and Dexter. We were very personally touched by the riot.
We were married at Precious Blood on the Northwest Side. Our reception was at Piedmontese (??) Hall on Puritan–that’s halfway between Five Mile and McNichols, between Fenkell and McNichols. I’ve never been able to find this damn letter. I don’t know what my mother did with it. But we had written permission from Gov. Romney to have a champagne toast at the reception because there was no alcohol allowed to be served or sold in the city during the riot.
WC: And they figured champagne wasn’t flammable so they allowed us to have that. People brought things to drink and they were hiding it under the table like a speakeasy. The National Guard broke up our reception at nine o’clock because there was a curfew in the city. My wife’s family had a kind of a place in Southfield at a hotel where they went, and my parents had my side down to our home in Trenton. My dad had gone down to Toledo with some of his friends and they bought things to drink. Little aside, when we were leaving, this is our wedding day, right? I forgot to grab a bottle of champagne. We ended up in our hotel drinking orange pop that I got out of a vending machine on my wedding night. [Laughter] That’s the one humorous part I remember about the riot.
HS: Just to clarify, you got married during the riots?
WC: July 29.
HS: July 29.
WC: Right in the middle of the Riot. Our rehearsal dinner was at the Pontchartrain, it was brand new. The ride down there was scary. The ride back was even scarier. We were the only people in the place. The only people in the place. Other than the paid help. They were nervous, they wanted to get out of there. It was an unbelievable time.
My mother worked at the City County Building right downtown, and my Dad’s office was at 2345 Cass Avenue, which is right in the middle of the city. Of course my father-in-law had Midwest Produce at Eastern Market and my wife had worked part-time at her uncle’s liquor store growing up. So we were just devastated by the riot, devastated by it.
My wife’s cousin, who literally ran the liquor store, I tease him about causing the riot because he used to make deliveries to the blind pigs, and it was a raid on a blind pig that started the riot, and it was one that he had made deliveries to. I don’t know that he made one that night, but [laughter]. He and his brothers rescued the bridal gown and bridesmaids’ dresses from Suzy’s Bridal Salon–I can’t remember where it was–but the buildings on both sides of the bridal salon had been burned to the ground. We got the dresses out just in time. And they had to go right in the middle of the riot area to get the dresses. We were personally affected by everything that went on.
WC: I went to graduate school here at Wayne, and I had a 12-hour class that ran over three-academic terms, it was called PPBS: Program Planning and Budgeting Systems. And it was taught by a panel of professors and one of the professors was an African American female social worker. How she got on the panel, I’ll never know. But she kept referring to the riot as the Rebellion of ‘67. I couldn’t take it anymore, I blew up at her in class one day. And the class applauded me for it. I won’t tell you what I said [laughter] but it wasn’t nice. I got an A! Which was really surprising in the class because I thought I was doomed for my outburst. But that was how personally affected everybody that lived in the city at that time was. It was really traumatic. When we saw people lose their livelihoods, lose their businesses, some lost their lives here in the city. It was such a wonderful place before that. For it to be taken away–just boom!–just like that on a whim and I’ll never, ever be convinced that it was spontaneous. There were riots going on all over the country in ’67 and ’68, don’t tell me they were spontaneous. They started and they stopped.
HS: So on that vein, your explosion at the graduate professor, how would you classify the events of 67? As a riot, an uprising?
WC: It was a riot. It was a riot. It was portrayed as an attack. There was a thing in the city called STRESS, it was a police program, and it as about safe streets, that’s what they asked of. The culture in the city–I won’t attribute it just to African Americans–the culture in the city hasn’t changed a lot, but the culture was to ignore the law. They just obeyed the laws the felt like obeying. They didn’t buy insurance. They didn’t pay their taxes. They didn’t pay their utility bills. They employed what they called “blockbusting” where they would go into a neighborhood that was predominately white or all white, and they would start offering ridiculous prices for a home in the middle of the neighborhood. Finally somebody would sell at a greatly inflated price, they would move a family into the home–“protected class family,” let’s put it that way–and they would move them into the home and they would do the same things at one or two other homes in the street, and before you knew it everybody had for sale signs on their lawn. And they bought up the rest of the property really cheap. And of course they were all rental properties, they were all owned by somebody, they were rented out, and now you see they reaped the benefit of that because all the neighborhoods, with the exception of Palmer Park and maybe part of Indian Village is redeemable, the Boston Edison area maybe is coming back, there is no, literally no hope for the neighborhoods. There is no place to shop, there is no place for the kids to go to school, and heaven help you if you have a police or a medical emergency, nobody’s coming. And that’s just the way it is. For anybody to argue against that fact, I’ll take them there, I’ll show them neighborhoods right now, I’m an Uber driver, and there are neighborhoods where I don’t even feel good about stopping at a stop sign.
The riot produced the most racially polarized city in the country, and it’s still that way. Now 1968 was a little different. Things were a little peaceful because the Tigers and the World Series and everybody was feeling good, a little bit relieved, it seemed life relief was on the way and things were smoothing out, and then they got ugly again. There seemed to be all this racial animus, and there still is. You can’t have the discussion with anybody of opposite race about the riot that was here at the time. It’s just too emotional.
HS: I was just going to backtrack a little bit. How did you–or your wife–first hear about the Riots?
WC: We were in them.
WC: We were there. I mean she worked downtown. We heard the gunshots. We saw the smoke. Then we turned on the radio and heard the reports of things that were going on. The liquor store was right in the middle of the riots. We heard from her cousins, “Hey, we have got to close the store, people are looting. Stuff was going on, people are being shot in the street.” And then the National Guard pulled into town, and the stories you heard about them, it was just unbelievable. I couldn’t believe that the city was under martial law. You can’t imagine–I don’t care what color you are–you can’t imagine how awful that is.
There was a movie I saw it recently on one of the movie channels on cable. Denzel Washington was an FBI agent, and Bruce Willis was a General in the Army and New York City had been put under martial law and they got all the Arabs and they put them in a—you know, that was Detroit during the riot! People can’t imagine how it was, but that’s the way it was. I mean you could not drive. Anybody driving on the street for any legitimate purpose was under suspicion. You stopped your car, and you got it searched. People were looking for anything, any reason. It was traumatic.
I’m not embellishing. My wife could have offered a lot more detail, I wish she could, and I wish she was here because she could’ve gone through some of the emotion that was caused at the time. I go through photographs of my wedding and it triggers little memories here and there.
We went to Toronto on our honeymoon because things were happening all over the country and I didn’t want to accidentally run into one, so we went to Toronto. We were married on Saturday the twenty-ninth, and I had to be back the following Saturday to take my test for law school here at Wayne.
WC: I took the L-S-A-T the following Saturday and it was still kind of smoldering but things had calmed down by then a little bit.
HS: So your father-in-law’s brother’s liquor store, was that looted during the riots?
WC: Yes. They did reopen it eventually, they did reopen it. It was funny. Family worked at it for a while, then they sold it. But my wife’s uncle who owned the liquor store, his son ran the liquor store, and he had a commodities business out of the Buhl Building in downtown Detroit, and they lived in Grosse Pointe, and the bartender from the Caucus Club lived right behind him. [Laughter.]
We were so deep involved in the city and in the county and everything that we took everything so personally, more so than other folks that were just suburban dwellers and weren’t really affected by it, except they may have been inconvenienced.
HS: So how do you think that the city has changed since the riots?
WC: Well, as I indicated, it’s the most racially polarized city in the country, and it still it. I feel racial tension everyday here. The African American community is still grousing about not participating in the redevelopment of the downtown area. I get so sick and tired of people standing around with their hand out wanting to participate. You have to earn it. They don’t - earn it! Go to school like I did. Do work. I had a morning Free Press route. The last paper had to hit the porch by 6:30 or you could lose your route, and there were guys standing in line for those routes back then–this is back in the 50s.
WC: [Laughter.] I would hitch-hike, I would get a ride from my neighbor to the Free Bridge at Grosse Isle; I hitched across a free bridge to Cadillac Grosse Ile Country Club. I’d always be the first caddy there and I’d catch a loop and be done by noon and I’d hitch-hiked back to Wyandotte and I umpired little league games in the afternoon. I worked my butt off. I saved money for college. I saved. I’ve done that my entire life, my whole being, my family, pursuit of education–reading was part of our culture, we discussed things at dinner, we had dinner together, we talked about things that we had read about. My whole being was dedicated to my adult life and my work ethic. Nobody handed me anything.
WC: Nothing’s changed. Everybody’s standing around expecting what? What do you want from me? I give you everything I’ve got. That’s it, the best I’ve got. I can only do what I do. I can only be what I am. You know, I’m an Uber driver, it’s what I do, it’s not who I am. [Laughter]
HS: So on a similar thread, what message would you like to leave for future generations in Detroit concerning before, during, after the riots?
WC: We have to become truly colorblind, or there is no hope here. And I mean truly colorblind. That means don’t expect something because you’re Black, don’t expect anything because you’re white. I don’t know what white privilege is, maybe I’ve seen it but not recognized it, but I was brought up in an ethnic community where people worked hard their entire lives. And they were moral and they were honest and they were hard-working, that’s all you can ask for. Nobody locked their doors there! It was that kind of town, you didn’t have to worry about it.
Detroit was that way at one time, there were a lot of neighborhoods that were that way. They lost it, they lost it. If anything they lost their innocence. I lost mine. I was so naïve I could not believe that that was going on, that that was a problem, but it was a real problem.
HS: Well that’s definitely a very powerful message, I feel. Is there anything else you’d like to add or that you feel we haven’t discussed.
WC: Not really. I’ve got lots of stories but they wouldn’t be germane. [Laughter]
HS: Okay. [Laughter] Alright, well, thank you so much for sitting down with us, we really appreciate it.
WC: It was fun.
HS: Good, I’m glad.
WC: It was fun to reminisce.
HS: Oh I’m sure.
[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 24:05]