Raymond Walker, June 18th, 2016
GS: Hello, today is June 18th, 2016. My name is Giancarlo Stefanutti, I’m also with Julia Westblade. This interview is in Detroit Michigan for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. Thank you for sitting down with us today.
RW: You’re welcome.
GS: Can you first start by telling us your name and where and when were you born?
RW: My name is Raymond Walter Walker. I was born in Trenton, Michigan, December 15th, 1946. Kind of almost a Christmas baby. I was cheated on my birthday because it was too close to Christmas.
GS: Excellent. So when did you move into Detroit?
RW: I’ve pretty much been in Detroit all my life. My father worked for Monsanto Chemical Company as an engineer, and we moved out west to Soda Springs, Idaho in the early 50s, and then he became ill and we moved back here about 1957. We’ve been in Detroit, the Detroit area ever since.
GS: Did your mother have a job?
RW: My mother worked part-time at a credit union, and my father died when I was just a teenager.
GS: I see. Where did you say in Detroit you lived?
RW: I didn’t exactly live in Detroit, I lived in Wyandotte, Michigan.
GS: So then, what was your childhood like?
RW: My childhood was like in the 50s, and early 60s, like everyone else, you want to play cowboys and Indians. Had a couple friends down the street. We were always interested in the Davy Crockett, the Alamo, and stuff. We played army. We had a tent and we’d sleep over. Played on some baseball teams, softball teams at a park. Growing up, the family was really poor. Hand-me-down clothes, Christmas time, maybe one or two presents. I do remember one Christmas always stuck in my mind: the people across the street bought us a Scotch pine Christmas tree so we would have a tree to put up in our house as a kid. Then we always had old decorations that we used, and recycled. Growing up, it was second-hand clothes, second-hand shoes. When you got into junior high or high school, it was pretty much segregated. They knew you were poor, you don’t eat lunch with us, Ray, you go over there and eat lunch with somebody else. You know, it was that kind of a deal. I always resented being poor, and my parents were born in 1908 and 1910, my father in 1908. He fought in the Pacific for three years. He was in the first regiment, first marine division. Made a couple invasions, spent three months in China after the war. Never really held a job later on in life, became ill, and passed away—cancer. Resented being poor. I always made it a point—and they wanted us to receive an education because both of them had quit school at the age of eight because of the Great Depression in 1929, 1930. They lived in a home with multiple families, you know, everybody trying to scrape together and that. My father, when he was growing up, in the early ‘20s and that, he was a professional prize fighter. Won some state championships and that but never made, you know, the big titles. Trained with some of the champions as a sparring partner and things like that. I always resented being poor and I made it a goal in life that when I grew up I would be eccentric.
GC: A good goal.
RW: I was not much of an athlete, so I gravitated to hunting and fishing. My brother-in-law pretty much took me under his wing and taught me how to hunt. Now I raise champion field Gordon Setters, hunting dogs. One of my dogs was Setter of the Year for the Costco stores about thirteen years ago. Her picture was on their dogfood. I guide hunts, I take doctors, lawyers, dentists out. I have a group of professionals that I hunt with, and I hunt all over the United States. I have one son, he’s 37 years old, he does homeland security, he’s been shipped all over the country. Right now, he’s pretty much been stationed in Casper, Wyoming. He does airport securities, a lot of times he’ll call and say—it’ll be a Monday and he’ll say, “I’ll be gone for a week.” So I really don’t know what he does. And when the Brussels attack came, he called us two days in advance and he said, “I’ll be gone for a while, I’m going to travel.” We were used to that, so we never thought of it, and then when the Brussels attack came I thought, he’s checking these small airports, checking places to make sure that there’s no attacks or that. Sometimes he does undercover work. Travels all over. My wife was a nurse, she’s retired, of course, I taught high school at Grosse Ile High School. I’m retired. In 2009, 2010 I was the Civics Teacher of the Year for the Center for Civic Education out of Washington D.C. 2014, I was the Social Studies Teacher of the Year for the State of Michigan. I’ve won some awards from the Daughters of the American Revolution. I’ve won a couple awards from the Foundation for Teaching Economics. I’m a docent and also, kind of don’t exactly work for the Library of Congress, but I write grants through the Library of Congress, and I run seminars, training teachers to use primary sources in their classroom, and then their lesson plans are put online from k-12 or A.P. classes, anywhere from twenty to thirty teachers at a time. I’ve done that about ten times, and we have another grant out right now. We’re waiting on the results for that.
GS: That’s very impressive.
RW: Thank you, sir.
GS: Growing up, where did you go to school?
RW: I went to Soda Springs Elementary School. There was no kindergarten, so I went there first, second, and third grade. In October of the third grade, we left there and moved to Riverview and lived with my uncle and aunt for a while, so I went to one of the Riverview elementary schools in the third grade. And then we bought a house at Oak Street and 9th, and I went to an elementary school in Wyandotte. Finally, we moved to another house at the north end of Wyandotte and I wound up in the third grade—four schools, third grade—at Taft elementary. Then I went to Taft Elementary until the sixth grade, and then over to Woodrow Wilson. At that time, that was called junior high—seventh, eighth, and ninth grades and I went to Roosevelt ten, eleven, and twelve, then I attended Wayne State, as my parents wanted me to.
GS: Wow. These were a lot of schools. Would you say that they were racially integrated?
RW: Wyandotte was not racially integrated. My father always brought us up not seeing color. My father had African American or black—whatever the proper term should be—prize fighters that he was friends with. He had Hispanic friends, and then my son married a Hispanic or Mexican woman; he’s their favorite son-in-law. They treat him like a king, which I’m very proud of. Very fine people. I’m not a racist, I don’t see color, I brought my son up that way, we were brought up that way. The neighborhood I lived in in North Wyandotte, there was people that moved out from small West Virginia town and they seemed to all congregate in these couple streets and my father told me a couple of them were KKK members. He was not pleased with them. We didn’t associate with them, but, you know he told me on the side, he says, “Ray,” he says, “they’re Klan members.” And I said, “Oh! I didn’t know that!” So no, we never saw color. In the marines in 1942 – 43 in that area, the marines were segregated so the African Americans, the blacks, were CVs, and my dad, of course, was infantry; he was a combat engineer. He told us stories, he said, “They gave them World War I equipment and rifles,” and he said they sent these guys to shore at Peleliu and he said no training, and they were absolutely petrified. He said he was in a foxhole with some of them, and he said, “Just wait here, wait here for the tanks to come in, come ashore, clean out the pill boxes.” And he said, “We’ll be safe.” One guy jumped up and ran, and the rest of them jumped up and ran, and the Japanese just mowed them down in front of him. And he says they just were not trained for combat. And he says that’s race.
GS: Wow. So then your neighborhoods themselves were racially integrated, or—
RW: No, they were all white. But like I said, there were some that were Klan members.
GS: Right. Kind of moving into the 60s, did you notice any sort of tensions in your community around the city?
RW: No, Wyandotte was all white at that time. All white. There maybe have been one or two African American families. Wyandotte bordered Ecorse, and of course, that was becoming black. And Lincoln Park at that time was white, that bordered Detroit. So there was a lot of white flight from Detroit to the suburbs: Wyandotte, Taylor, Romulus, Riverview, Trenton, those areas. And they were dominantly white. Now, of course, they’re more integrated.
GS: Right. Moving to the riot itself, what was your first memory of hearing about the riot?
RW: The first memory was I had a summer job that paid for my college education. Two gentlemen hired me, John Rittnerberger and Roger [Morethaeu?]. They were supervisors for the city of Wyandotte, the Municipal Services Lecture department. I got in through a councilman and they realized that I was poor, they gave me a summer job every year to pay for my college education from the day I got out of school until the day I went back to school. And sometimes they even hired me during Christmas break. But anyway, I was working for the city of Wyandotte just as laborer, and in the electrical department you had linemen that did the power lines, the electrical lines. Some of them did not live in Wyandotte, and we heard about the riots and one fellow left work to go home because the riot was spreading to his neighborhood; I don’t remember what city he lived in, but he was afraid for his family, fearful for them. He left there to get them out. When I left work that afternoon at five o’clock, I stopped at a little mom and pop corner grocery store, on Twelfth Street across from Polaski Park. I walked in just to buy some stuff for supper and a policeman walked in right behind me, and the guy running the store says, “Get your money out and hand it to me!” because he was selling beer and wine, and they were going to shut the store down. So they shut all the stores down like that that sold beer and wine. They shut everything down. Then I went home, and of course it was all on the black and white TVs at that time, it was on the news, it was on the radio. I do remember later on, reading about Governor Romney called in the National Guard, and then Governor Romney at that time was a potential Republican candidate for the Presidency, possibly running against Lyndon Johnson, it’s 1968. He asked Lyndon Johnson to bring in the regular army, and Lyndon Johnson delayed, and delayed, and delayed bringing in help for Detroit. Romney was struggling with the Detroit police, so was Mayor Cavanagh and the National Guard, and eventually Johnson got off his fanny and let the regular army in, so there was politics being played there.
GS: Right. A lot of people call it a riot, but we also hear terms like “rebellion” or “uprising.” Would you call it a riot or would you call it one of these other words?
RW: I guess I would call it a riot. There was a lot of race tension in the city at that time, even though you had a white mayor, Cavanagh, and he was pretty liberal. But there was a lot of race tension. There was a lot of poverty in those areas. There wasn’t a chance for those people to get out of poverty, even though we still had a manufacturing industry with, you know, chemical plants, steel mills, and auto industry and that, where you could get a decent job. These people were poor. There was race tensions. At that time you had all the Freedom Marchers, and it was constantly on TV down in the south where they were hosing them with fire hoses, turning dogs on them, using cattle prods—a cattle prod is an electric shock thing that you would use, long nail, stick it into the thing and it sends a tremendous electrical shock. They can use it on bulls to control them. So they’re using those things on people, and you saw this all the time. At that time also, the Vietnam War was becoming unpopular in the United States. Johnson’s popularity was going down, he was tied to it. Wayne State had constant protests against the Vietnam War. So there was all this turmoil, racial turmoil, Vietnam turmoil, job turmoil, poverty and everything. The way I looked at it was a riot because they did the looting of the stores and stuff like that. That is rioting. My perspective, it was not so much a rebellion. But I can see there were people rebelling against the society they were in and the society that they were contained in. They were captivated almost into this abject poverty and they were going to go generation to generation to generation of poverty. And at that time also, you had Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty going on, and HUD and trying to bring social reform from the federal government into the state and help these people. But they were captured in. It was a very hot summer, and it escalated and, I think, you had some people who took advantage of the situation and said, “Hey, let’s go loot stores, let’s go steal, let’s go get some stuff, we can sell it on the black market, we can sell it here.” Matter of fact, earlier I mentioned about the Klan members in my neighborhood. My father said that two of the people—they guy living next door to me and the guy living about four houses down from us—bought stuff that was stolen from the 67 riots. And my dad was just absolutely upset about it. From my perspective, yeah, it was a riot because of the breaking and the entering in the stores and the destruction of private property. Especially of the stores that would have been aiding these people. Now, I know around Wayne State there was some rioting that went on and houses were burned down and that, and eventually Wayne State took that land and built the new athletic area in it, and parking structures and that. They’ve expanded out into those areas, and a lot of those streets don’t even exist anymore.
GS: Yeah. We were talking about this tension that you saw beforehand. Were there any changes, kind of sharp changes you could see in the city or the community around you after the riot?
RW: Not really, no. Wyandotte still maintained to be pretty much white. There where Italians, Jewish, French and Polish and everything, but it was basically an Eastern Europe city: white, European community. It didn’t change until much, much later.
GS: I see. Was there anything else that you would like to share with us?
RW: Yeah, it seemed the riots really brought on—people seemed to become aware that Johnson’s helping all these poor people, and especially the Civil Rights Acts, and the Voting Rights Acts, and HUD, and the War on Poverty’s helping all these people, and then they turn around and they riot. There seemed to be a political backlash, especially at the voting booth in 1968 against all those riots. Because it wasn’t just Detroit; it was Maryland, Chicago, California, all across the country, there were riots going on—or protests, whatever you want to call it. Revolts. There became a big split in the Democratic Party at that time because George Wallace, a southern democrat, split from the regular democrats, ran as an independent, captured several states that always went democrat, took that away from Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Nixon realized what was going on. And also in 1968, the democrats didn’t have a very peaceful convention; they had a revolt. It was on TV, people fighting and the Chicago Police beating people up, even in the convention, so, I mean, that whole 66, 67, 68, all that time was turmoil and really did not see change until the end of the 70s and then into the 80s, and then today.
GS: Leading in with that, I’m just wondering how you see the city of Detroit now with the 67 riot in mind.
RW: I see Detroit much calmer. I don’t see the race tensions nearly what they were in 67. And even when I’m talking to black people in stores and stuff like that, there’s no resentment; there’s no race. I don’t see it. I really don’t. I work with blacks, I’ve had black students. Matter of fact, when I taught high school at Grosse Ile, when I got into segregation and the Civil Rights and the Jim Crow Laws and stuff like that, I was very cognizant of my African American students in the classroom. And when I retired, those African American students wrote me cards saying they appreciated how I taught them because I knew that that was a sensitive topic to them, and they really appreciated that. Matter of fact, being a white guy, I was their favorite teacher. I’ve had several back surgeries, and they would write me Get well cards, and it was always, “Mr. Walker, we love you, we love you.” I don’t see the race. I’m sure there’re still people that are resentful in race on both sides, but I don’t see it in the public like it was in 67. I lived downriver, lot of African Americans in the stores, lot of Arabic people in stores, all kinds of nationalities in stores. I don’t really see the resentment. I just don’t. I think the legislation came along, people changed their minds through the legislation. Generations change, you grow up. And I had an advantage because of the way my father brought me up: not to see color, to see the heart of a person, to see what they are. Not to see and categorize people just because they’re black. I hunt with black people, I take black people out and they hunt with my dogs. I don’t see it. I just don’t.
GS: All right, well, thank you for sharing your experiences with us today.
RW: You’re welcome.
GS: We appreciate it.
RW: Thank you for inviting me. It was an honor.