John Crissman, July 11th, 2016
Note: The audio is broken into two tracks
HS: Hello, this is Hannah Sabal. I am in Detroit, Michigan. The date is July 11th, 2016 and I am conducting an oral history interview for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project with John Crissman. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
JC: It’s a pleasure.
HS: Can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
JC: I was born in 1939 in Detroit, Michigan.
HS: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
JC: I grew up in Charlotte, Michigan, out by Lansing.
HS: Out by Lansing, okay. And what did your parents do for a living?
JC: My mother was a housewife, and my father was a traveling salesman.
HS: What was your neighborhood like growing up?
JC: Small town, middle class.
HS: Was it integrated?
JC: It was a white town. Small town.
HS: Where did you go to school?
JC: I went to MIT for my bachelor’s degree, then I went to West Reserve for my medical degree, and then I went to the University of Michigan for my surgical internship, then I transferred down to Detroit Receiving Hospital, July 1, 1967.
HS: So you had just moved to Detroit in July of ’67?
HS: And what was it like moving into the city?
JC: It was Detroit. It was a segregated city; there were certain areas you couldn’t live in. I ended up living near Chandler Park. I commuted downtown, which was maybe four miles.
HS: When you moved into the city, did you notice any tensions?
JC: I talked to a lot of my patients at Detroit Receiving Hospital. I remember one old black lady. She took me under her wing, and she said, “Doc, be careful. There’s something going to happen this summer, and it’s not going to be good. So watch your step.”
HS: So this woman knew that something was going down.
JC: The undercurrent in the black community was there was a lot of unrest.
HS: Were you working when the riots started, or were you at home? How did you hear about it first?
JC: I went to a Yankee-Tigers double header, and when we were coming home after the came toward Chandler Park with a friend of mine, I saw the smoke and I wondered if something had started.
HS: This was on Sunday?
JC: This was on Sunday. I wondered if something had started or—there were a couple fires for sure. We got home, and we’re watching my TV, and we’re watching another ballgame, and I still remember this—this big section came across the TV: “Would the Pontiac National Guard please report to their armory.” And I knew what had happened. I knew the riots had started; had no idea where, when, how much, and then I got the phone call that, about an hour later, to come down to Detroit Receiving Hospital.
HS: When you heard about the events, did you think back to the black patient that you had who said something was going to happen?
JC: Not really. We knew something was amiss. I’d heard it from a number of patients, but I remember it from this one lady specifically.
HS: You went into work on Sunday?
HS: What was that like?
JC: Actually, it was pretty quiet. There was a paradox because the emergency room basically closed down, because there won’t any of the routine, ambulatory emergency room patients coming in. The first night was reasonably quiet until, maybe late in the evening. But the only things we saw were major trauma.
HS: What was the atmosphere in the hospital like? Was it tense? Nervous?
JC: Nothing. I mean, Detroit Receiving is a trauma hospital. There’s patients all the time. In fact, it was kind of ironic, as I said before, it was kind of a little more quiet. Then the major trauma cases started rolling in. Now I was a new kid on the block in surgery, so my responsibilities were not to go to the operating room, but to take care of all the post-surgery patients and all of the patients out on the wards. I did do some of the initial triage in the emergency room.
HS: The traumas that you received, were they mainly GSWs [gun shot wounds], or—?
JC: Most of them—there were a few gun shots, a lot of stab wounds, and all various kinds of trauma. One of the memories that I have that’s the strongest is that on one of the wards, we had all of these young, muscular black males. It was like 90 degrees in there, they were all sweating in there—glistening, actually—they all had had abdominal operations, and they had all had tape on their abdomen, and they were basically laying in bed. We had these little stomach pumps going, “Tch tch tch tch tch” and there are like 40 of them. It was an eerie kind of situation to be in. The patients were just great. They knew they’d been hurt, they knew they’d been operated on, they knew they’d been saved, and they were very grateful that someone was taking care of them.
HS: I’d imagine so. What else do you remember from that week? Did you work most of that week?
JC: I was at the hospital, I think, for four straight days. I have many memories of those four days. One of the burning memories is that so many people were arrested and the jails were full. You’ve probably heard this before, but they put buses on every corner, and then they would put a port-a-john over the sewer inlet, and you’d look out there, and I don’t think these guys got fed very often. But they were all out in front of the hospital, they were all through downtown. You’d look out there once in a while and see them, they’d be allowed off for handling the bathroom activities, and I guess they got some food, but they were basically incarcerated on the buses.
HS: Anything else? Any other stories?
JC: Oh yeah, I got lots of stories.
HS: Please just go for it.
JC: It was about the second or third night, we were in the recovery room where all the patients come after they’ve finished their surgery, and it was on the fourth floor of the old Receiving hospital, and it had frosted glass windows. We were in the recovery room, and we heard a funny noise, “Ping!” Didn’t think anything of it. I think I was the only physician in there with a number of nurses, obviously. Then we heard another, “Ping!” and everybody started looking around. “What was that noise?” When we heard a third one, we realized that someone was shooting at us from across in a parking deck. We immediately hit the lights and pulled all the patients out into the hall, then informed—they had a police command post on the first floor of the hospital—and we called down and told them that somebody was shooting at us from the parking deck across the way, and the police went out and killed the guy.
JC: Which was fine with me.
HS: Well, I mean, he was shooting at you, so…. That’s intense.
JC: Probably one of the most interesting parts of it was when it first started, it was all handled by Detroit Police force, and they became overwhelmed, obviously. Governor Romney called in the National Guard, and these guys looked like somebody off the street that someone had put in uniform. It was a mixture of characters. Some overweight, some underweight, not very military in manner or deport. They did the best they could. Then President Johnson shipped the 101, I think the—
JC: The 82nd airborne, put them out at Selfridge, and we knew this! We heard about all this downtown! And he held them there for a day, just to embarrass, I think, Governor Romney. When they released the Airborne into the city, it just shut the riots down. These people used to come in, a number of the non-commissioned officers and some of the soldiers would come in and eat at the cafeteria of the hospital. So I got to know them, got to talk to some of them. Very impressive, very tough, very lean, and not somebody you’d want to—
HS: So they appeared more professional than the National Guard?
JC: They appeared frightening. They’d all just gotten back from Vietnam. They were obviously very, very controlled, commanding soldiers. We had one kid that got into the emergency room. He was about 18 years old, maybe 16. Can’t remember, overweight, and just scared out of his mind. We couldn’t figure out how he got in the emergency room until we talked to him. The story he related to me, who was trying to take care of him, was that his brother—these are two white kids—his brother had driven up from Ohio with his brother, found an apartment, and were shooting at soldiers. The airborne were running around town in jeeps with 50 caliber machine guns on the back, and if they had any fire from an apartment, they’d just start blasting the apartment. They killed the older brother, who was the sniper. This kid came running down out of there. They probably would’ve killed him, except that he stumbled and fell on the steps and knocked himself out. This kid was so scared that he was going to get killed, and he came very close to it.
HS: From your understanding, they came from Ohio specifically—
JC: This is what the boy told me, that the brother came up to kill some cops or army people.
HS: I don’t know what to say to that.
JC: Well, we just saw it in Dallas.
HS: Yeah, that’s true.
JC: There’s nutcases out there, there’s no question about it.
HS: That’s why this project is so relevant, you know? Any other experiences? Note-worthy experiences?
JC: Let me think. I’m sure there’s more, but I can’t remember them all.
HS: That’s fine. After the riots ended—I know Detroit Receiving is a trauma hospital, but did the traumas go down at all after that week, back to their norm?
JC: Well, everybody in the city was basically holed up, particularly in the black community. Anybody that got ill had no place to go because you couldn’t move. As soon as the riots ended, there became more normal movement, and we saw an upswing in emergency room routine traffic. That was, I guess, basically a sign that things were returning back to normal. Now, I lived on Dickerson right across from the golf course on Chandler Park. We were sort of at the edge of the black community. There was a public housing on the other corner, off of six mile. There was a big liquor store there, and that liquor store got hit and cleaned out. I came home, and I told my wife—and we had a young baby—I said, “If you have any problems, keep the car gassed, just go north.” I came home, I think, on a Thursday night and there were just lines of people sitting on their porches with deer rifles, waiting for someone to come across Chandler Park, so I felt comfortable that my wife and child were safe.
HS: So your wife and child didn’t have any problems then?
JC: No problems at all.
HS: Was your neighborhood affected at all?
JC: Well, the liquor store about 800 yards away was robbed. One of the funny things that came out of this was all the liquor stores were completely wiped out. And about six weeks after the riot ended, we started seeing alcoholics coming in with chronic pancreatitis, which is a complication of drinking, so the conclusion I reached is a chronic alcoholic, given all the alcohol he wants, will develop pancreatitis in six weeks.
HS: Yeah, that makes sense. How long did you live in Detroit for?
JC: Just that one year, ’67-’68. Then I went into the military. All male physicians were drafted in that era.
HS: Did you end up serving in Vietnam?
JC: I did not, I’m not sure why. I was a trauma surgeon at that time, even though in my first year, but that was the most popular medical specialty at that time, they wanted partially trained general surgeons. But I didn’t go to Vietnam.
HS: When you returned from the service, did you continue to live in Detroit, or did you move somewhere else?
JC: I went back to Cleveland, where I went to medical school. Then I returned to Detroit in 1981, and I’ve been at Wayne State since then.
HS: You are the Dean of the medical school?
JC: I was at one time.
HS: Okay, that’s awesome.
JC: Actually, 1999 to 2004.
HS: You were the dean during those years?
HS: That’s great. You’ve been in Detroit a fair amount, then. Have you noticed any changes in the city?
JC: The blacks now provide a majority of the leadership in the community, and I just came from the DAC—The Detroit Athletic Club—and I know a lot of the prominent black, both politicians and entrepreneurs and business people. That certainly is a welcome relief, there’s a lot of black that have very prominent roles in the community. I drive through the east side almost daily. The ghettos, though not as heavily populated, have not changed a great deal. There’s still tremendous amount of unemployment, young blacks walking around with apparently no role in life, and that has not changed.
HS: Where do you see the city headed?
JC: I think that the rebirth of downtown and of central area, where we’re sitting today, is a huge step in the right direction. I think the real crucial element is going to be restoration of the public and charter schools. If that’s accomplished, I see Detroit resurrecting itself and young families moving back into the community. But I think it’s all going to be crucial as to how public and charter—I include charter under public education—I think it’s going to be very crucial to see how that does.
HS: If you had a message for future generations of Detroit, what would it be?
JC: Well, I think everyone has to continue to work in the direction they have. One of the saddest parts is so many, particularly the black male population, has been lost to society for various reasons, and I wouldn’t even pretend to be able to interpret those, but I think that’s really a sad element. If anything could be done to restore that, I think it would be a huge move in the right direction. I think Detroit—if it gets its educational program back together—people don’t realize, back in the ‘50s, Detroit Public Schools was an excellent organization.
HS: That’s what I’ve heard.
LC: Yeah, and they’ve lost all of that wherewithal and experience, so forth. But I think Detroit has a future. I think it’s going to be slow in coming, but I think it’s clearly headed in the right direction.
HS: Sounds optimistic. Do you have anything else you’d like to share with us today?
LC: I could go on for a long time, but I will end it at this. I probably fulfilled what you needed.
HS: Oh, definitely, yeah. Well, thank you for sharing your stories, we really appreciate it.
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[Beginning of Track 2]
HS: This is a continuation of John Crissman’s story.
JC: One of the patients I took care of in the intensive care was a fireman. He obviously was fighting a fire and he was on one of these elevated lifts, and they lifted him into a power line. He was essentially electrocuted. He had electrical burns in his frontal lobes and both of his eyes, and out his left arm. I took care of him for a number of days. As I mentioned before, I did all the scut work, because I was a young guy on the service, so I got to take care of all the patients after surgery. He lived for about five days, eventually died, and I remember his wife coming in. I can’t remember if they had any children; of course, they wouldn’t have come in. But it was a very sad situation. Subsequently I got to know some of the fire chiefs, and they remembered the incident very dramatically as the one fireman that was killed in the riots. That’s it.
JC: That’s the only story I forgot.
Note: The audio is broken into two tracks