Sharon Schafer, June 25th, 2016
HS: Hello, my name is Hannah Sabal. I’m here in Troy, Michigan, with Sharon Schafer. The date is June 25th, 2016, and we are sitting down for an interview for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
SS: You’re welcome.
HS: Can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
SS: I was born March 23rd, 1948 in Detroit, Michigan.
HS: Where did you grow up?
SS: I grew up on the east side of Detroit, on East Hancock, and then when I was five years old, we moved to Rossiter Street near Denby High School.
HS: Did you go to Denby High School?
SS: Yes, I did.
HS: Where did you go to elementary and middle school?
SS: At the time, I went to Wayne Elementary School, and the middle school concept was not available. The Detroit public schools was working it out at the time. I ended up staying at Anthony Wayne Elementary School from kindergarten until ninth grade. Then they broke off and made the middle school at another location.
HS: What did your parents do for a living?
SS: My mother was a homemaker and my dad worked for the Sanitation Department for the city of Detroit.
HS: Okay. And what was your neighborhood like growing up?
SS: There were a lot of kids and every household had kids. It was the ‘50s, and, you know, social media didn’t follow you around like it does now. If you had problems with kids at school, there was another group of kids when you got home and life went on. But it was a white neighborhood, there were no foreigners, or blacks or Hispanics living in the neighborhood. It was on the outside area of Detroit.
HS: So it was not integrated?
HS: All right. So where were you living in the 1960s?
SS: In the ‘60s, I lived on Rossiter Avenue in Detroit.
HS: And what were you doing at the time? Were you still in high school?
SS: I graduated high school in 1965 and I took a job with Michigan Bell Telephone Company and I was assigned to work as a Directory Assistance Operator. At that time, it was called information or 4-1-1, and we were on Michigan and Cass, were the main office of the telephone company was at the time.
HS: Okay. So you were still working at the telephone company in 1967?
HS: Okay. How did you first hear about the disturbance at 12th and Clairmount?
SS: My girlfriend and I were at Hayes State Park, away from Detroit, at a beach. We had no idea what was going on. We had the radio on, was playing rock ‘n roll music all day. Never heard anything until we came home really late at night. By that time, the city was closed down. She lived in Southgate. And when I called home, my dad was blowing a gasket: “How are you going to get home?” The city’s locked down by that time. But we truly had no concept of what was going on, if there was anything leading up to it or what was happening.
HS: Did you have trouble getting back into the city on your way back home?
SS: Ah, not really because my dad came to pick me up. He had city ID. Nobody every stopped us, but if they would have, he thought he could get by because of his city ID.
HS: Do you have any memories you’d like to share with us about that time period? Things that you witnessed or experienced?
SS: What I experienced after the riot had occurred—because I worked at the telephone company—there was an announcement on the television that if you were an employee, they would like you to come into work, if at all possible, because they wanted to keep the lines of communication open at that time. Anyone that could make it to the outer malls—which, Eastland mall was the closest one for us—we went there, we were all going to work Monday to Friday, nine to six. You got on a bus, you’re the only one on Gratiot Avenue going down to Michigan and Cass. They had a uniformed police officer riding shotgun in the doorway of the bus. We never saw anybody on the street, walking, nothing on the east side.
HS: So during that time, you were working at Michigan and Cass.
HS: That whole week?
HS: Okay. Did you have any trouble there at all?
SS: No, the National Guard was on duty, basically watching the downtown stores and we were the only place, just about, that was open at the time. So they would come from their breaks—the guys would come for their breaks to eat lunch and everything at our cafeteria. They put everybody to work that was an employee. There was automated long-distance billing, but it wasn’t completely available throughout the city, so we still had automated billing. You had an operator if you didn’t have automated billing system, the manual billing would take over. Your call would go into a directory operator, and she would type in the number you were calling from, and that’s how your long-distance phone call was going to be billed then. So they had supervisors, they had management—they taught them how to do that job. They had a quickie course, and we were mainly doing that, more so than directory assistance at that time.
HS: And the phone calls that you were receiving, were they people calling from outside the city trying to contact loved ones, or was it officials or politicians?
SS: No, it was people within the city that were trying to make long-distance calls, more than likely to relatives elsewhere who wanted to know what was going on with them. That was another reason that the building was kept open.
HS: So the outside—outside of Detroit could know that their loved ones were okay, basically.
HS: Leading up the summer in July, did you sense any tensions in the city?
SS: No. I had no idea. I mean, we knew that there were problems in other parts of the country, but as far as what was going on in Detroit, I had no concept at all.
HS: So it came as a surprise?
SS: Right. To me.
HS: And what was your family doing at the time of the riots? Did they all stay home?
SS: No, my dad ended up going to work because—my brother was still in high school, he was just finishing high school, so he was at home. My mother didn’t drive—she was a homemaker—so she was at home. We were basically in the neighborhood, locally, or, like, I worked downtown during the day and my dad was working too.
HS: Were there any other things that you experienced during that week?
SS: A lot of the ladies that I worked with were absent from work because they lived in the neighborhoods nearby that was affected. It was only later when everything was calmed down that they came back to work that they said they had some pretty horrific experiences. You know, bullets going through their houses and laying on the floor, going to the basement, just in fear of their lives.
HS: Were you or your family relieved when the National Guard and then the federal troops came in?
SS: Well, yeah, you were hoping that people were going to be able to get things under control pretty quickly before it spread further throughout the city.
HS: You said you were pretty busy during that week. About how long before your phone traffic went back to its normal levels?
SS: I’d say within a week.
HS: Within the week?
SS: After it was over.
HS: Everybody has a different way they like to refer to this. Some people call it a riot, some people call it a rebellion, some call it an uprising. How would you describe it?
SS: Having not been down there to see what was going on at the time, although my father took us down there after it was all over, and, I mean, the destruction was unbelievable. Store windows smashed, burned buildings, trash all over the place. I would call it a riot. It was an uprising of some sort, civil uprising.
HS: Do you feel that the unrest affected your family or yourself in any way afterwards?
SS: Not directly. I mean, you were aware that people lived differently than you were. Kind of as a child growing up in Detroit in the ‘50s, we were protected from a lot of things. We didn’t know about divorce, we didn’t know about suicide, we didn’t know about drug abuse. We didn’t know about the hard times that poor people had because we weren’t one of them. So you were just sort of isolated, sheltered, and insulated from what was going on in the real world.
HS: So the riots kind of opened your eyes a bit to that?
HS: I know it didn’t affect your neighborhood directly, but was your neighborhood impacted at all?
SS: I’d say no. Not really.
HS: What changes did you see in Detroit afterwards?
SS: Well, the suburbs were starting to develop out here, and a lot of younger families—I’m not sure why they chose to move, maybe they wanted a new house, maybe they wanted a bigger house—we were living in a post-war bungalow. Our neighborhood was basically built after the war in the late 1940s. So if you wanted a larger home or a newer home, then you would go to the suburbs. But the people I went to school with—my parents were older when they had me—the kids I went to school with, their parents were about ten years younger than mine. They left, the neighborhood changed and turned over several times, while I still lived there to go on to Wayne State University, to college and then to medical school. Really, life went on.
HS: So your family stayed in Detroit?
SS: My parents finally moved out in 1983.
HS: Do you know why they moved?
SS: They moved because my dad felt there was crime coming into the neighborhood and they felt unsafe. They were old, they were early seventies, so they moved to Clinton Township.
HS: Is there any message you would want to leave for future generations to avoid this from happening again? To prevent it?
SS: It would be nice if people could sit down and talk instead of trying to take matters into their own hands, but I understand the politicians sometimes give you the song and dance and nothing really changes. That’s what people are angry about. Poverty—I don’t know what the solution to that is. Throwing money at it is not the answer, I think we’re all agreed to that. But that creates a lot of problems. People have time on their hands and they want things and they don’t have the ability to buy them, so that’s kind of some of it. And then the drug addiction is starting to really become a real problem. I mean, we never dreamed of doing anything like that. But, people do. And now they’re talking about making marijuana legal. Who knows where that’s going to go? [Laughter]
HS: We’ll see. Is there anything that you feel like we haven’t discussed or that you’d like to add to the interview?
SS: No, but I found the article in last Sunday’s paper about how Detroit had its boundaries restricted, whereas other cities were able to geographically acquire more acreage by luring suburbs to annex themselves into the city umbrella with the hope of having city water and city sewer and Detroit did not opt for that. So the educated people with money are the ones that lived in the suburbs, and Detroit got left behind, and that’s kind of how the city went into receivership. Which is unfortunate.
HS: All right. Well, thank you for sitting down with me today. We greatly appreciate it.