Lucille Watts, June 21st, 2016
GS: Hello. This is Giancarlo Stefanutti and Hannah Sabal. Today is June 21, 2016. We are here in Detroit, Michigan. Thank you for sitting down with us today.
Could you first start by telling us your name?
LW: My name is Lucille Watts.
GS: Okay. Where and when were your born?
LW: I was born in Homeville, Virginia in 1920.
GS: Awesome. What was your childhood like?
LW: My childhood? Oh it was a happy childhood. When I was small I lived in with my grandparents. Of course Virginia at that time was segregated. No different I guess [laughter]. It’s segregated in Detroit, so, not a big deal [laughter].
GS: What did your parents do?
LW: My parents?
LW: My father died before I could remember. But they were people who were in farming. My mother moved to Ohio. I went to Ohio, I guess, when I was very small and then I went back to Virginia because my mother married again and my grandparents did not think that was such a good idea for me [laughter].
GS: Gotcha, gotcha. So then when did you move to Detroit?
LW: I came to Detroit in 1952.
GS: Oh wow, okay. What were the reasons of coming to Detroit?
LW: Nothing special. I had a friend here, and she seemed to have been reasonably happy [laughter]. I decided that this was the place that I wanted to be.
GS: Okay. So when you moved into Detroit in the 50’s, what were your reactions to the city? What were your opinions of the city at the time?
LW: I beg your pardon?
GS: What were your opinions of Detroit when you first moved there?
LW: Well it was firmly segregated, which I was surprised because I had come here from Ohio, and it wasn’t quite as segregated as Detroit. But I adjusted to the situation.
GS: And where in Detroit did you live?
LW: I lived in several places, but most of the time I lived in Arden Park & Brush.
GS: Okay. And did you have a job at that time?
LW: Yeah, I was in the fashion field. I had been trained in modeling and fashion.
GS: Oh, very nice. And how was your job?
LW: It worked out fairly well for me, but it wasn’t very challenging.
GS: It wasn’t? [Laughter.]
LW: [Laughter.] So I went back to school.
GS: Oh, okay, and where’d you go to school?
LW: I went to the University of Detroit to get enough credits to go to law school.
GS: Wow. Very impressive. So you went there. After school, where did you go? What did you do?
LW: Well, after I got out of law school I practiced law.
GS: Right. Right, yes. [Laughter.]
LW: Until I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and I realized that the kind of practice I was in, I was not going to be able to do it too well because I was working out of Wayne County Circuit Court and Oakland County Circuit Court and there was way too much for somebody who had arthritis. So I decided to run for office.
HS: Which area of law did you specialize in?
LW: Mostly real estate. Well I did a lot of domestic relations.
GS: This is kind of backtracking a little bit. But when you came to Detroit, you said it was a fairly segregated area compared to Ohio. I’m just wondering what in Detroit was more segregated than in your experience in Ohio?
LW: Well when I came here, black people were not really going to downtown restaurants and things like that, and I had been accustomed to doing that kind of thing where I had lived. As I say, I adjusted, let me put it that way.
GS: Okay, so moving into the 1960’s, so the early 60’s–could you sense a feeling of tension in Detroit?
LW: Actually, I was the most surprised person in the world.
LW: I was downtown meeting with a client in a downtown hotel, I don’t remember now exactly which one it was. But in any case it was a Sunday evening. And I came out and saw all these people running around, smoke. I was really frightened, I couldn’t imagine what was going on. I lived at Seven Mile and Birchcrest at that time, which was pretty far out of the ghetto. I went home, and my husband was away on business, so I went home and locked the door [laughter], and stayed home until–I don’t know how many days, maybe it was a day or two. I don’t remember. I had a motion scheduled for two o’clock in the afternoon in the Flint Circuit Court. I got up and got in the car and went toward Flint, and I saw the National Guard coming in, which also surprised me. [Laughter.] And I went to the Court in Flint, and they told me that they had adjourned my motion because they heard about all that’s going on in Detroit and they was sure that I wasn’t coming. [Laughter.]
HS: So the first that you heard of the riots was when you came out of the hotel after meeting with your co-workers?
LW: Yeah. I didn’t know and I didn’t even understand what was going on. I was frightened and I didn’t really understand anything about what was going on.
HS: I’m sorry, go ahead.
LW: Go ahead.
HS: At the time of the riots, you were still practicing law, you had gone into office yet?
LW: My office was in the Great Lakes building which was on Woodward and–what is that?– Pingree The Great Lakes Building took up a block on Woodward.
HS: So you were still practicing then?
LW: Yeah. Because I represented Great Lakes Land and Investment Company, Great Lakes Mutual Insurance Company. I was not practicing law for fun, I was practicing for a living.
LW: So when I came back, I came back home because the house I lived in at that time was in a white neighborhood and I wasn’t really afraid, but I was home alone, because like I said my husband was away on business. I stayed there until the President of Great Lakes called me and said one of our agents–Great Lakes insurance agents–had been picked up by the police, and that I should go and see about him. So I went–he was at Fort and Green –that was the police station. I was never a criminal lawyer, but it was my job for the company, so I had to go see about him. And when I got to Fort and Green, National Guard was in front of the building with their bayonets across the walkway. I just parked my car at the head of the walkway, got out and walked and went. I went up to the walkway, and they just open up. [Laughter.] And I went on it and took care of my job and got my client out of jail. [Laughter.]
GS: Oh wow.
HS: That’s awesome.
LW: Then, I realized that I had an obligation to do something more than stay home with my head covered up. [Laughter.] So basically I joined with other black lawyers in the community to try to get folks out of jail because they were picking up black men in the street for reasons and no reasons.
HS: For being black men.
LW: They picked up so many of them that they would them in pens down in Belle Isle like cattle. We worked to get them out. And that was about my experience with the riots.
HS: Did you have a lot of clientele after the riots?
HS: Did you have a lot of clientele after the riots?
LW: It had nothing to do with the riots. My clientele was not that kind.
I’d like to show you a picture.
HS: Oh, yes.
LW: Of the founders of Great Lakes Insurance Company because I happen to have things fairly well together because somebody’s working on a book about me.
HS: So you said that you got together with other black women in the community to try to help the black men out of–
LW: Black, black lawyers
HS: Black lawyers.
LW: Yeah. It wasn’t that many women because when I went to law school, there wasn’t a whole lot of women going to law school. In fact, there were only two at DCL in the daytime when I was there. One of them washed out. [Laughter.]
HS: Ooh. So you were the only one who made it through?
GS: When you were doing this, how were the police reacting to you?
GS: How were the police reacting to you and the other lawyers trying to help out the black men that were being arrested?
LW: I never had any problem with police. But women usually don’t I guess. [Laughter.]
GS: And how did your neighborhood react during the Riot? How were they feeling?
LW: Well the neighborhood where I lived, they were all white anyway. So nobody was concerned. We was so far–at Seven Mile and Birchcrest–we were way out of the area where there was anything going on. If I hadn’t had to go downtown I wouldn’t have known anything was going on.
GS: Oh, I see.
HS: You said your husband was out of town on business.
HS: Did he contact you? Did he hear about the riots when he was out of town?
LW: I don’t remember him being that concerned. No.
HS: For the same reason that you were so far out of it anyway?
LW: Yeah. I’m sure he called, but I don’t remember anything special about it. Because he was an international rep for IUE on Walter Reuther’s staff.
GS: So thinking post-riot, could you sense a change in Detroit after the riot?
LW: A lot of things changed. But most of them didn’t affect me in most ways that I can think of. And there were a lot of promises made and a lot of committees formed, and most of it didn’t happen, as you already know.
HS: Do you think racial tensions got worse after the riot?
LW: No, I don’t think so. But I think you’re dealing with a perspective. I guess I’m a person who kind of lives my life without getting too far into other people’s business. [Laughter.]
HS: That’s a great way to live life [laughter].
GS: It is. It is. [Laughter.]
LW: I always say I don’t want to know your business unless I’ve got you on the clock [laughter].
GS: That’s good. So we’ve interviewed a lot of people and they’ve had a lot of different terms for the unrest: you know, some people call it a “Riot,” but other people call it “Rebellion” or “Unrest” or “Uprising.” Do you have a term for it that you would call it, or would you just call it a riot?
LW: I go along with the idea of an uprising. There’s always been a lot of tension I guess with the police and the people on the street. And that hasn’t changed all that much. It’s still a problem. And maybe not as much in Detroit as some other places. And a lot of the reason for that is Coleman Young, I think. Coleman Young made a big change because it was a lot of tension with the police before he took office.
LW: And Coleman was very close to my husband at that time, and the reason I say “at that time” is because after he died I married someone else. But I still carry the name. His name was James Watts. And that name may come up because he was the DPW under Coleman Young.
HS: I think I may have come across his name–I think I’ve come across his name and someone else’s.
LW: He took a leave of absence from the UAW and went to work for Coleman when Coleman got elected.
GS: M-hm. So just kind of looking at Detroit now, what are your opinions of Detroit at present day? Do you think a lot has changed?
LW: I think Detroit has an unfortunate situation going into the bankruptcy. We were lucky to get the kind of turnaround team that we got. Unfortunately, this is not going to work too well unless they can get the education system under control. I don’t think we can do that unless we can get it from Lansing, can’t get it local, because Lansing has taken over and has been in charge for too long. And unless you have a good education system, you’re not going to be able to attract the kind of people you need, because those kind of people have children going to school.
HS: Aside from education, are there any other factors that you think the city needs to work on to return to how it used to be?
LW: Well, I suppose housing, but we’re not in desperate need of housing I don’t think. I think we’re in desperate need of education reform. That’s the way I’m seeing it.
GS: Do you have anything else you would like to add, or any points you’d like to make?
LW: Not particularly.
GS: Alright. Well thank you so much for sitting down with us today.
HS: Yes, thanks for inviting us here. We greatly appreciate it.
LW: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 17:38]