Bruce Carr, June 18th 2016
HS: Hello, this is Hannah Sabal. The date is June 18, 2016. I’m here at the Detroit Historical Museum with Bruce Carr for an oral history interview for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
BC: I’m glad to do so.
HS: Can you first start by telling me where and when you were born?
BC: I was born in Tennesee, where my father was born, Christmas day, 1938.
BC: And then our parents moved us to Detroit when I was five years old. I grew up in the Livernois-Finkell area. We were there for nine years. All of my public schooling was through the Detroit Public Schools, from kindergarten through graduation from Cass Tech.
HS: Which elementary and middle schools did you go to?
BC: Clinton elementary, which is no longer in existence, and likewise Post, which is no longer there.
HS: I’m sorry, what was that?
BC: Post Middle School. At that time it was called Post Intermediate School. Then my parents moved us to Royal Oak when I was not quite sixteen, but I had already started at Cass Tech in the printing curriculum, and I told my parents I would like to stay at Cass instead of going to high school in Royal Oak. And the tuition was $256. I said to my parents, “If you’ll let me go to Cass Tech, I’ll pay my own tuition,” out of what I was making as a part time employee bagging groceries at one of the supermarkets. They said, “Okay, if that’s what you want to do, you can.” And so I completed my high school years at Cass Tech, came out in January of ’57.
HS: And why did your parents move from Tennessee to Detroit?
BC: It was the early 1940s, and pure and simple, people were almost on the edge of going broke. Detroit was known as the arsenal of democracy. People from all over Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta and other impoverished parts of the United States would come here, and I’m told it was much easier to get a job than it was to get a house in Detroit at the time, or even an apartment or whatever else. Fortunately, my dad had a friend who lived right behind the house that we bought, close to Livernois and Finkell, so that’s how we ended up being there.
HS: Okay. What did your parents do for a living?
BC: My mother taught in rural schools in Tennessee until they got married, my parents got married. My father was also a teacher in rural schools, and he had a farm of about 110 acres, but again it was just so much more difficult to support a family on their limited earnings, so they came here. Hundreds of thousands of other people did. And US 25, along with several other routes, became known as the Hillbilly Highway because of so many people who came from Appalachia up here. I was in Ypsilanti a few weeks ago, people from the church there were talking about how they had friends and family that came over from Paducah, Kentucky, over on the western side of Kentucky, and there was a bus that ran from Paducah to Detroit and back to Paducah, or vice versa every weekend. Rather common thing. Detroit was essentially a melting pot that brought together people from all different backgrounds, different nationalities. And one of the things that struck me as a five-year-old kid coming to Detroit was the extreme diversity, the nationality diversity. Living in the hills of Tennessee, I never met anybody who was of any recent European heritage. Nobody was Greek, nobody was Polish or anything else like that. There was a small number of people that were African American, but just very, very small. Then we moved to Livernois and Fenkell, I had my first experience of eating baklava because there was a Greek neighbor right behind us. I had the first experience of meeting a Jewish family because there was one right across the street with a youngster same age as me. One of the things that amused me a little bit was when they had parent teacher conferences, some of the parents would go, and they were not able to speak English, so the kids would go and be the interpreters for the parents. I thought they probably had a little inside advantage. They could probably tell the stories the way they wanted it told instead of maybe the way the parents want it told. I didn’t have that advantage.
HS: Now just out of curiosity, in Tennessee with your parents, was it a crop farm?
BC: It was a crop farm, mostly corn. It wasn’t anything big agricultural like they had today. Like almost everybody else around us, everybody did the same thing.
HS: And did your parents continue teaching when they came to Detroit?
BC: No, they did not. My father got a job in 2 or 3 different factories, and then he ended up going to a place called Shedbarsh Foods [6:16 sp??], which was on Dexter avenue, just north of Davison, and he stayed there for 34 years. He could have gotten some credits from Wayne State or some other place and got a certificate to teach, but he chose not to do that. And my mother only taught one day in her life when she got up here. She was a substitute teacher and then she decided she didn’t want to continue. She said it was too hard on her nerves.
HS: Can you tell me a little bit about the neighborhood that you grew up in?
BC: In Detroit?
BC: Like I was saying, it was quite multinational. At the time, there were almost zero African Americans. The closest African American community was about a mile, mile and half away. My parents had African American friends through their church, so oftentimes people from the churches that were predominately African American, churches that my parents belonged to, they would get together for social occasions. And there were a few African Americans from the town of Livingston Tennessee, which is the county seat of the county where I was born, and sometimes they would get together. But there were not any African Americans at Clinton or at Post when I was a student there. It was not until I got to Cass Tech that I had any experiences with African American teachers or any significant number of African American students. Some other things about memories of being in Detroit at that time, everything was really close together. The house we lived in was built in the early 1920s, standard 30-feet lots, so they’re all scrunched together. We had a retired Detroit police officer on one side of us, and then on the other side of us, there was a building, three floors, and two recent graduates from U of M, University of Michigan lived in the basement, and he was an architect, then there was a physician on the second floor and a dentist on the third floor. So if we had any medical or dental problems, we didn’t have to go very far. And then Livernois and Fenkell was the crossroads of two major streetcar lines, so they would go clanking and clanking all night long, and it took a little while to get used to that. Everything practically was in walking distance, so we had one car, we didn’t need another one. My mother would easily walk to get her shopping, there were what were called dime stores that would be similar to dollar stores today. Kresge’s was—course the same Kresge that later on became Kmart and the Kresge Foundation—and then Neisner, and Woolworth. Neisner is long gone. Woolworth became famous with the Woolworth Building in New York City. And Kresge’s, like I said, became Kmart. And incidentally, in case you want a little more history, the original Kmart is in Garden City, but there’s no historical marker in front of it.
HS: That’s unfortunate.
BC: I could easily walk to school, and one thing that’s a little bit humorous was that back then, there was a guy that delivered milk, and he had a horse-drawn wagon. And so sometimes I would get a ride to school on his horse-drawn wagon. [Laughter]
HS: That must have been fun.
BC: It was. I remember as a kid, when we would go out to the playground, it seemed like they had the tallest swing sets. Again, when you’re five, six, seven years old, everything looks big. Today, as I was reading, very, very few neighborhoods are walkable. Now there’s a big effort to try to get more walkability in Detroit, and other communities. At that time, you could go anywhere you wanted to go on the bus. Now, that’s another story. People, I thought, were a lot more friendly, they’d sit on their front porch, talk to each other. You don’t have that kind of connection nowadays that was true back then.
HS: All right, so we’re going to jump ahead to 1967. How did you first hear about the events of July of 1967?
BC: Well, first of all, I taught in Detroit Public Schools, starting in 1964. I began teaching at Mackenzie High—no, I’m sorry, ’63—I started teaching at Mackenzie High in ’64. I had a summer internship with the Detroit Urban League close by to here, over at the corner of Mack and John R. I was one of about four or five young teachers who were fortunate to get that. It was under the leadership of Dr. Francis Carnegie, PhD. Very fine gentleman. And then there was a man by the name of Roy Levi Williams, who was just a year or so older than I am. So we became good friends, and Roy lived over close to Clairmount, maybe a little south of Clairmount, and 12th or 14th, one of those. It was just south of the main disturbance area—well, I’ll call it “riot.” When I heard about that by the way of the news media, my first thought was, “How’s he doing?” I had his phone number so I called and he said, “Well, there’s flames all around here, but we’re okay on our block.” And we talked about how some of the neighbors had taken their garden hose and they were spraying water all over the house to try and protect it. That was like, maybe, half a mile south of where the main rioting started at the infamous blind pig. Okay. About half a mile north of there, at the corner of what is now Rosa Parks and 12th street and Webb, a place called World Medical Relief—and I’m wearing one of their shirts at the moment. It’s the largest building in the neighborhood. Seven floors, plus the basement, and it’s built like a fortress. Not intentionally like a fortress, but it was originally built as a storage warehouse for one of the automobile supply companies. Rock solid. National Guardsmen came in and they went up to the top of that building, and while the whole neighborhood was in flames, they were standing on top with their guns and essentially putting out any of the—what shall I call them?—any of the—shall I use the term “insurrectionists?” “Rioters?” Whatever would be most appropriate to say—again it was like the advantage of being on top of a fort when you’ve got other people who are rioting on the ground. I had a responsibility with the Detroit Urban League. They asked me to go take pictures. So that was with a standard 35mm camera. So I was walking all through the area without any weapons, without a police escort, and I was walking right down streets like Linwood; Rosa Parks, when it was 12th; 14th, all around there, taking pictures. And some of the memories that particularly strike me are so many of the people who had their individual businesses, most of whom were Jewish, Jewish shopkeepers, and they were just standing, heartbroken, as their buildings were still smoking from all of the damage. And there were firetrucks from everywhere. Obviously, Detroit Fire Department. All the suburban fire departments. They came from as far as Grand Rapids, Saginaw, Lansing. They came from Ontario. Certainly Windsor, and probably a few other communities not far away. They came from Toledo. Then the national guardsmen were all over the place, in addition to Detroit police. They came from all over the state. When things got worse, after the governor called out the National Guard, and president Johnson called out the 101st airborne from Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Essentially, the responsibility of the 101st was to quell the disturbances on the east side, and the National Guard was to take care of the disturbance on the west side. It took about a week before—they were here for about a week, maybe slightly more than a week. I don’t recall the exact dates, I’m sure that’s something you could easily find out. I took these pictures, and I gave them all to the Detroit Urban League. I’m not sure what happened to them after. I don’t have them, I wish I did, otherwise I’d give them to you. But then, several other things happened, like for example, a lot of these guardsmen came in so quickly that they didn’t have a chance to pack socks and underwear. So one of the things I was asked to do was to go to J.L. Hudson’s downtown and I had a letter to authorize me to do this, pick up all the socks and underwear you can. They gave it to me, and I brought them back, and then the National Guardsmen were happy to get that. We were living just south of eight mile, one block south of 8 mile, between Southfield freeway and Evergreen, right next to the athletic field for Henry Ford High School. There was an electrical substation just slightly across the street from us, just barely across the street. They had National Guards there because it was part of the electrical feed, and they didn’t want anything to happen that would cause all the power to go out. So one of the things we’d do sometimes is we’d go over there and take them some sandwiches and other things, and the guardsmen really appreciated it. And I did meet some of the people that were victims. And what was also interesting was returning to teach at Mackenzie that following September and to say the least, there were a lot of stories. There were students who had, in some cases, lived in the area where major damage took place. Mackenzie was on the periphery. We did not have anything immediately in our neighborhood. Central High School, that’s another story. Central High was right in the middle of it, as was Northwestern and a few of the other schools, and of course the elementary and middle schools. Central neighborhood in particular. But many of the students had grandparents or aunts and uncles or they had other family, friends, church connections, people who they knew who were in the middle, where their houses were burned up or seriously damaged. And then I’ve got a friend I know through the rotary that I belong to in Farmington, and he’s a physician, retired physician, and he talked about how he was working at Henry Ford Hospital, and the Lodge freeway was shut down, and the National Guardsmen would come and put him and the other physicians into armored vehicles and they would take them down to Henry Ford Hospital and then they would bring them back at the end of an extended work shift because they didn’t want the physicians to be victimized. It had a major impact. There are some things that were for the good, especially the New Detroit, I’m happy for that. Detroit has in many ways gone through a renaissance for the better. You look out here and you see the new railroad track that’s under construction, and even in the neighborhood where we originally lived, over by Livernois and Finkell, although it’s an old neighborhood, many of the houses are vacant or torn down, there’s some new housing, thanks to a pastor on the same street where we lived, and he was somehow able to get some grant money to go around and buy vacant property, or property that was virtually ready for demolition, where they had been originally 30-foot lots, he combined them into 60-foot lots and get nice new houses with an attached garage and driveway. I’ve been through there several times and from what I can gather, no problems. I’ve got a friend who’s a pastor very, very close by there, and he says that that’s the case.
HS: That’s awesome.
BC: I wish the same thing were true in more places. People always hear about the negatives in Detroit. That’s an example of a success story.
HS: Do you have any other experiences that you wish to share with us about what you saw in 1967 or heard?
BC: I guess I’ve told you most of them, I’ll probably think of some more after I leave here. I know that my family was very concerned for my safety. My wife and I were only married for 2 years at the time, and we didn’t have any children yet. We tried to do what we could to help. I will say that teaching in Detroit did change somewhat, Mackenzie changed. There were a lot of families that moved out of the city following 1967. The Mackenzie neighborhood took a major hit, not because of the rioting itself, but people were just simply afraid. The school population went down, not just there, but all over. What else to say? Like I say, good things have happened. I’m happy about that. I salute everybody. In the words of the city motto, “We shall rise from the ashes.” I think if I didn’t say it exactly right, I came close to it. You’ve got it right out here in front. After the destruction in, 1803, something like that?
BC: 1805. Well, I was two years off. Do I get a pass for being that close? [Laughter]
HS: Yes. You mentioned that your family was worried about yours and your wife’s safety. Was your family no longer living in Detroit at that point?
BC: No, they had moved to Royal Oak. They were living in Royal Oak at that time. I also had family members in Tennessee and they were concerned when they heard. The whole country knew about it because it was all over the national media. There are people, unfortunately, who still believe you can’t do anything in Detroit, everything is shot, but I’ve had a lot of out-of-town guests who come and they say, “Well, tell me about Detroit.” And I say, “Okay, you tell me what you want to see and I can probably show you. You wanna see the good, bad, or ugly? I can show you some of each.” And I like to show them places like right here. I like to show them places like where I grew up. And I show them the new houses as well as the old. I show them places like over around Sherwood Forest and U of D. I had a man visiting me from Tanzania, a country in east Africa, last summer, and he wanted to get some medical supplies for medical relief, and he had a little extra time, so we were driving down the Southfield Freeway, and I said, “Let me show you another side of Detroit.” And so we got off and drove through the Rosedale Park neighborhood and he said, “Oh, I didn’t know there was anything like that in Detroit.” These kids were having their little street fair, and they had their own park, they were all having a great time. “Oh, you mean this is Detroit too?” Yes, this is as much Detroit as any other place is. Of course, Belle Isle—oh, the other thing! A story you’ve probably heard about how Belle Isle was closed off, and they were using Belle Isle as a place to hold inmates until their court dates came up. Am I right or wrong on the Belle Isle elephant house? I can’t remember if that’s true or that’s false.
HS: I’m not sure. I’ve heard people say that it was, and I’ve heard people say that it wasn’t.
BC: I can’t remember definitely one way or the other, you’d probably have to look it up on Google and determine. But certainly Belle Isle was closed. I also covered part of the east side for taking pictures with the Urban League. I just wish there were some way of getting those pictures. But you’d have to contact the Detroit Urban League and see if they have any records of them. Another thing that’s not related to 1967, but I had my master’s thesis in history from Wayne, and I wrote my thesis on a topic called, “Negroes in Detroit in the 1890s.” Before the ghetto in Detroit. At that time, the term “negro” was used much more commonly. That was right about the threshold when the term “negro” was fading out, and then “black” was coming in, and now, of course, I say “African American.” I was debating whether to say “negro” or “black,” but “negro” was the more commonly used term at the time, so that’s what I said. But it’s on file across the street at the Burton collection. It’s also on file across the street in the Walter Reuther Library. And I also had another interesting experience when I was writing that. I went over and interviewed a gentleman who had the responsibility of editing the Michigan Chronicle in the 1930s. He lived on the eastside, couple miles from here. I went over to his home, and he had back copies of the newspaper in these big binders and he said that when he was publishing the paper, he would, every week, send a copy to the Detroit Public Library, right there, and the Detroit Library always kept the news, always kept the Free Press, but they would throw away his papers after getting it because they didn’t think it had any historical value. So he was very happy when I got his several bound volumes, put them on a cart, and brought them over. So instead of getting them there, because they threw them away, I gave them to the Reuther collection. They were very glad to get them, so at least they’re in a safe place. I don’t know if they put them on microfilm since, but at least they got them. That’s my one little grudge against the Detroit Public Library.
HS: I want to backtrack just a little bit. You said your family moved out of Detroit into Royal Oak—
BC: In ’54.
HS: ’54. And why did they move out of the city?
BC: Why did they move out of the city? It was largely because of a church. They were particularly interested in a church in Royal Oak and felt it would be a nice place for my sister and I, who was four years younger than me, to grow up in, so I was part of that church until going off to college.
HS: And then you and your wife no longer live in Detroit, correct?
BC: We live in Farmington Hills.
HS: And when did you move out of Detroit?
BC: We moved in ’76.
HS: And why did you move out of the city at that point?
BC: We moved, well I have to be honest and say better schools.
BC: We started off at Pitcher school, but both my wife and I are retired educators and we just felt that there were more opportunities for our children in Farmington schools. And I might also add—nothing that’s any secret about that—that many, many, many other African Americans have done the same thing. I have African American neighbors who live next door to me. Few years ago, there was an African American lady who was retired from the Detroit Police who lived two doors away. The church to which my wife and I belong, it has a membership that’s roughly half and half between African American and members of European descent. The flip side, I’m very happy about the fact that an increasingly large number of people who are of European origin are coming to live in Midtown and Downtown Detroit. I was at a special event at 2nd Baptist Church in Detroit, which as you probably know is one year older than the state of Michigan. I was at a special event there not quite a year ago, and I met a biracial couple and the guy was in medical school here at Wayne State. And they said, “We’re looking for a church, we just thought we would stop by, visit your church and see how it is.” I don’t know if they stayed or not, but at least it was nice to meet them. To me, that’s an encouraging sign. As I’m sure you know, about two or three years ago, National Geographic magazine had a special 23 or 24 page article about the resurgence of the neighborhoods of Detroit. Not talking about midtown. Not talking about downtown, or even Corktown—well maybe they mentioned Corktown, I don’t recall, but the neighborhoods of Detroit. I thought that was very hopeful, and some of my friends who are out of town say, “Everything’s going to pot in Detroit!” and I said, “Do you know anything about National Geographic?” “Yeah, we know about it.” “All right, do you get National Geographic? Well check out this particular month, if you don’t get it personally, go to your local library, pull it out, read it there, see what it says, then let me know what you think of the article.” I’m very happy about that. And then, you were asking about the community where I was born. Like I said, I was born on a farm. And the county where I was born has a county seat in Livingston Tennessee and it has a population of about 4,200 people. Only about 6 or 7% of the population of Livingston are African American. They’ve been there since, way over a hundred years. Now, you have a town 100 miles east of Nashville and the population is overwhelmingly white, small Hispanic, but it’s like about 6 or 7% African American. What would you think would be the likelihood of them having an African American mayor?
HS: Probably slim.
BC: His name is Curtis Hayes. He was elected once, twice, and in the last month, he was re-elected for the third time.
BC: Every time he gets a bigger margin. Last time he was elected by a two-thirds margin.
HS: Wow, that’s impressive.
BC: So when some of my friends say, what’s going on in Oberyn County, Tennessee? I say, “Do you know anything about Mayor Curtis Hayes?” I’ve met him twice now. Fine guy, and his wife, she is of European descent, he is of African descent. That in itself says something because I remember when I was a kid down there the worst thing that could possibly happen would be for anybody to be biracial. And that was something that was set up here, I mean when I was in high school, I remember my parents thinking that could be the next worst thing to sin itself. That’s one side of the coin. The other side of the coin, you know, Mayor Duggan, the margin by which he was elected. And from what I’ve heard, if he were running for re-election today, he’d probably be in with a landslide.
HS: Probably. Getting back to the riots or disturbance, how do you perceive it? As a riot, rebellion, uprising?
BC: Well first of all, there were a lot of cases—I’ll use the term “riot.” But I guess one of the things that surprised me was that—and I know it happened in 1943, I read the records of that—but one of the things that surprised me was that it could’ve happened sooner. I was thinking, okay, how are we in Detroit so fortunate that it did not take place?
HS: Did you notice any tensions in the city leading up to the summer of ’67?
BC: Not of immediate sense, but just kind of an underlying, “That might be possible” kind of a thing, and particularly after Los Angeles. I’m thinking, thanks to God that we’re not there. And once everybody saw Los Angeles go up in flames and you realize, Detroit, how are we saved? In that sense, I was not surprised—although I was surprised about the immediate thing—and of course the blind pig story. Naturally there have been a lot of changes in the Detroit police department since and I think the police commissioner’s doing a fine job from everything I’ve heard about him. I would consider it an uprising—well sometimes it becomes a hard distinction, like South Africa, when Nelson Mandela led his uprising, or the Civil War. Well, the war’s a war, although I remember when I was a kid, some of the other youngsters down there called it the War of Southern Rebellion or the War of Northern Invasion. Never could see that. When you get a large number of people who basically take the law into their hands, they’re not elected to anything, and they basically say, “Well, we’re going to seize the power.” And then they burn up not only—well, they burned up their own neighborhood, in most cases. Very, very few white homes were burned up, as I recall and from what I read afterwards, very, very few. Businesses, yeah, there were a lot of Jewish businesses. But very, very few homes. When you think about burning up your own neighborhood, that’s certainly a problem. And then of course, a lot of it was caused by flames going from one building to another, particularly with them being so close to each other. I know there have been several books written on the subject as well as scholarly publications. I read two or three of them.
HS: There’s actually a book attached to this project, too, that’s at the publishers right now.
BC: Okay, I’ll be interested in seeing that. Who was the one that wrote the one about four or five years later? There’s been about three or four. You may know more than I on that. Anyway, I don’t know what the grade is on my interview today. Do I get at least a D-?
HS: Oh, definitely. [Laughter] I just have two more questions for you. How do you think the city has changed since the events in ’67?
BC: Well, I referred to some of that already. There has been very major white flight. There has been a much broader increase of metropolitan Detroit. Detroit no longer—when you think of Detroit, I remember as a kid, I’d ride my bicycle from Livernois and Fenkell out to what is now Northland Shopping Center. It was all empty land. Our neighbors, the [unintelligible] had their vegetable gardens out there. They’d ride the Dexter bus and then they’d get off the bus, they’d plant their garden, and then they would come back, and that was in addition to what they put in their backyard. Northland Shopping center, built in 1954, of course it’s now closed. Now, you say what’s Metro Detroit, you’re talking about going as far as Brighton, you’re going up to Clarkston, you’re going to Chesterfield Township, going south to practically Monroe. Well if you want to go official, you’ve got Wayne, Oakland, Livingston County, you know. So the population density is much less and I don’t know hardly anybody except right here in the immediate area who builds their home on a 30-foot lot. And virtually everybody’s got—if they can afford it—they have two cars. I do. We had a simple one-car garage, and we had an alley behind it. Nobody has an alley behind their house anymore. So those are some of the things that have changed. As I mentioned, the neighborhood in which I live is in Farmington Hills. Our school district is very diverse. We’ve got 80 different languages in the district, and we’ve got probably somewhere between 35, 40% African American, maybe slightly more. Dearborn—Orville Hubbard—everybody remembers anything about Orville Hubbard knows that he was number one when it came to racism. Now, there are African Americans that live in Dearborn; I happen to know one. One guy, in particular. Cass Tech got an invitation to go to Washington for Obama’s inauguration, and if I remember right, did seem like Martin Luther King High School did also. One or the other. In order to try and keep more people from leaving the city because of the schools, Renaissance High School was established, and basically that’s why it was put up, on West Outer Drive. And if we lived in Detroit, our kids were high school age, we probably would’ve sent them to Renaissance or Cass Tech, unless they objected. Again, I’m just really happy about some of the positives that are going on. And again, it’s not just here in midtown and downtown. Just down the street here, about a mile, is Ecumenical Theological Seminary in the old Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church. My wife and I were there for graduation three weeks ago. We parked on Edmond street because we had to shoot out of there to get to Grand Rapids for a high school graduation reception immediately after. Anyway, we were there and we were looking across to see the new Hockey Town arena that’s under construction. And I remember when I was a kid at Cass, all those buildings were completely occupied. Then they were abandoned. Now that’s the hottest property that you can find anywhere. There was somebody that wanted to get half a million dollars for a house that had been appraised for about $7,000 only about two or three years earlier.
HS: Oh my gosh.
BC: So that’s an example of some of the changes. And there are people who are white who are moving into the city. Not by a large number, but some. So those are some of the changes that have taken place in recent years. So it’s a mixed bag.
BC: And I’m glad that the Detroit Historical Museum is doing well. At least I hope so.
HS: Oh, yeah. All right, is there anything else you’d like to share with us today?
BC: Well, I appreciate the opportunity of being here and reflecting on some things that I’ve not thought of for a long time.
HS: We appreciate you coming in. [47:20]