Thomas Wilson, July 6th, 2016
GS: Hello, today is July the sixth, we are in Detroit Michigan. My name is Giancarlo Stefanutti and this is for the Detroit Oral History Project. Thank you for sitting down with me today. Can you first start by telling me your name?
TW: My name is Thomas A. Wilson Jr.
GS: Okay Thomas, and where and when were you born?
TW: I was born in a place called Landgraff, West Virginia. I was there until I was about six years old, then we migrated North—and I say we—the family, and we came to Detroit. My father was looking for work.
GS: Okay. Do you have any siblings?
TW: I got two brothers and I have a sister. My sister next to me is named Cheryl, my brother after her is Michael, and the last brother is David.
GS: Okay. So then where in Detroit did you guys move to?
TW: When we first got here that I can recall—and I don’t exactly remember, all I know is somewhere on the East Side. The places I do remember—and we were kind of like nomads so to speak—the first place I can visually remember living at was on Roosevelt, believe it was just off Buchanan.
TW: Then maybe about a year later, we moved around over on a place called—it was 1139 Jackson Street. We stayed there for a while, we were with my cousins at the time. We were all living together. Then we moved from there over on the Boulevard, 1269 West Grand Boulevard. That should’ve been around 1956, ’55 summer, about there. We stayed there for a little while, then my mother and father, they landed this job being an apartment building manager. We moved from 1269 West Grand Boulevard over to a street 100 Harmon, right there between Woodward and John R., four blocks south of Highland Park.
GS: Okay. So when you moved to Detroit, what was your childhood like? Was it similar to your experiences in West Virginia?
TW: Well, you got to understand that West Virginia was coal mining, and we lived, I mean, we lived out in the hills. So when we came to the city, you know, it’s all level ground, sidewalks, streets, houses, trees, and that kind of thing, but you know, when kids, you’re not really used to that kind of cultural shock so to speak. So it was like we really just went from one place to another, and when we finally landed and settled, we were over on Harmon between Woodward and John R.
GS: And what was that neighborhood like?
TS: It was funny, Detroit period was a hustling, thriving, bustling city. There were a million eight hundred thousand people in the city in that time, and I often say this, in terms of where we’ve gone from then to now, it’s obvious that the change that the winds of time has brought has not been good for the city. But, the city’s getting better, but getting back to, you know, the past. Like I said, we were up there, it’s like ’55,’56, went to public school for a couple years, then we went to Catholic school, Blessed Sacrament, right over on, I think it was 60 and Belmont. And then from there, when we graduated eighth grade, went to Detroit Cathedral, which is next door, right behind the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral. 14 years of my life, I mean from like ’57 to ’71, 14 years of my life was over in that neighborhood. I had to school, I turned Catholic, was baptized, communioned, confessed, confirmed, married a Detroit girl who lived right down the street down from us, and you know, the city’s been real good to me. Everything within reason, other than having been a transplanted West Virginian, everything I’ve attained in life literally has come from this city.
GS: Wow. Were these communities that you were living in, were they racially integrated?
TW: Well at the time when we moved, we moved into an apartment building, and, you know, it was integrated to use that word. But, you know—I’ll say the Caucasians, whites, you know—as things started to change, they started to move out. But it was a good neighborhood. You had a mixed neighborhood of professional people. You had school teachers, you had doctors, you had police officers, lawyers, and you know, it was just a good mix of people and professions, And I mean very well-kept neighborhoods. Very well-kept neighborhoods. Nice, you know, manicured lawns, you know, trees and all that kind of thing, and I mean we were a couple blocks away from Boston Edison. So you know, things were good then. Things were good then. Now racially, you know, my mother and father, they let us be kids. We weren’t caught up into all this racism stuff, you know? We knew that there were certain places that, you know, kind of like say wouldn’t serve us, but I mean, it wasn’t about pushing an angle. I mean, we were kids—I’m going to speak for my brother too, it was just us two at the time with my parents—we were happy kids. I mean, we went out, we played, I can say this, I never experienced any racial discrimination that I can recall, okay? So in terms of me saying “Yeah, I can remember when somebody said this or called me this,” no.
GS: Okay. So when did these changes you mentioned earlier, when did those become more apparent?
TW: Good question. Like I said, when we moved into the apartment building, it was a mixed building, but it wasn’t that many whites who were still there. But you know, they’re leaving. And then, you know, it became a neighborhood of black Americans, okay, and that kind of thing. And like I said, from Woodward to John R., that’s all the street. It was a nice place to live. It was a nice place to live. And as far as, like, changes, the biggest change that I saw was during the quote unquote “civil disturbance of ’67,” also known as the riot, that’s when, you know—I remember riding that night. We got down to the Boulevard, and I guess this must have been about eight o’clock at night, and I mean “Bang.” That was a Sunday night. The Boulevard just exploded with glass breaking, and we were up on Twelfth. Twelfth Street burned for like a week. My aunt is named Lucille, she was at the blind pig where this whole thing happened, and she said that it all started with a thrown bottle. You know the police were there and, you know, blind pig, you’re doing illegal stuff, so they come in on a raid and, you know from there, it just mushroomed and things got out of control and there we had the riot.
GS: So moving back a little bit, just before the riot, did you notice any tensions growing within the city in the sixties?
TW: Like I said, we were kids. My mother and father, all the racism kind of stuff, you know, they kept that away from us. We were happy kids. We went out and played every day, and like Stevie Wonder said, “With a child heart, go face the worries of the day,” and I mean, we had fun. We weren’t bogged down with, you know, somebody—my mother and father filling our heads with, you know, this racism stuff and that kind of thing.
GS: Okay. So moving to the riot itself, where were you when you first heard about the riot and how did you hear about it?
TW: If I remember correctly, I was at home and saw it on the news on television. It tickled me, that Sunday night, some of my friends, they were up on the corner and they got busted. I mean this was after the curfew had been issued, and they got busted. They were downtown in jail for four days. I remember, you know, during the course of this going on, I remember this one guy, he said “I just wasn’t out stealing for the sake of stealing.” He said his basement looked like Louis the Hatter Department Store. Bunch of suits. He said he was up on Twelfth Street, and he was in there picking out, you know, colored silk underwear to match his suits and what have you. And he said the National Guard rolled the tank up, lowered the turret on the tank, and he says “It’s two ways out of there. You can come out with your hands up, or we can pull the trigger and we’ll have to put your body in pieces in a bag.”
GS: Wow. So how did your parents react when this started?
TW: Well, you know, they knew it was a curfew, and you know, we weren’t exactly stupid kids, and we knew that at eight o’clock, we were supposed to be home. And I remember a friend of mine who lived right across the street from us, one of the amphibians was rolling up and down the street and he made a dash across the street, got to the door, stuck his key in the door, and you heard like a rifle cock, and I heard some guy, you know, in that tank, says “When we say eight o’clock off the street, we don’t mean you putting the key in the door. You go in the house.” I mean that’s how close that guy came to, you know, not seeing the next day.
GS: That’s crazy. Were you generally fearful for your community’s safety?
TW: Not really. Not really, because I mean it wasn’t like you had roving groups of people out on the street just destroying property. I mean you know, during the day, it was like any other day, it was just that with martial law, if you did not have something in your hand saying that—especially if it was after, you know, the time kicked in, that you were either coming from work or going to work, then I mean you know, you had to be real not so smart to be out there on the street.
GS: Wow. So just thinking about what you said, talking about the National Guard and everything, so when they came in, did your community feel relieved, you know, that someone was coming in for back up or was it more tense because they showed up?
TW: I guess it was kind of like, you know, fifty/ fifty kind of thing. I mean, you know, no you don’t like to see amphibians rolling down your street and that kind of stuff. But when you look at what was going on and, you know, all the destruction—because 43 people were killed during that riot. You know, I’m glad to see that they got it under control and, you know, and it was over. Because I mean, you know, you got an eight o’clock curfew and if you’re out on the street after eight o’clock without—basically it was just like South Africa—if you didn’t have a pass, you we’re going to be hauled off to jail.
GS: Wow. So kind of moving towards the post-riot period, did your perception of the city change at all?
TW: No. I mean, you know at that time, like I said, I was a young 20, I was over at Wayne State playing football and, you know, it was just business as usual. You know as far as like say jobs or anything, I mean I didn’t have a problem finding a job. I had a part-time job down at [unintelligible] after the, you know, the football season is over and that kind of thing. And during the summer time, I mean I’d go out to Gear and Axle a lot down Holbrook, get hired and work, and I know that say that there was a, you know, a lot of unemployment, but most of the people I knew and most of the people I lived around—like I said, it was a working-class neighborhood that I was in. During the summer, there was a lady who worked for the MESC, the Michigan Employment Security Commission, her name was Ms. Halnita Simmons. We would go to her for the summer and we’d fill out an app and we’d end up getting jobs. I remember one time I got a job downtown working with the Internal Revenue, just pulling income tax returns and things like that. So, you know, thing were, from my own vantage point, they were not that bad to the point where, you know, you had to have this insurrection so to speak—to use that term—but you know, I imagine—but then too, you know, we had what was called STRESS, Stop the Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets, and obviously they were being very, I guess racial in terms of the people that they were stopping, and you know, harassing them, what have you. But you know, I’m pretty sure that added fuel to the fire and what have you. But like I said, it was a mix. It was kind of like—I guess depending upon where you lived and what was going on, it was good or bad.
GS: Okay. So you just used the term insurrection, and we’ve heard when we’ve interviewed people a lot of different terms, whether it’s riot or rebellion, so what would you call it? Is insurrection more accurate than riot you think?
TW: No I would say more than likely I’d actually like to use the word—and that was used—was riot. I mean, because that’s basically what people did. I mean, they rioted. I remember up on Twelfth Street—and Twelfth was a very, very viable business community—you had restaurants, you had nightclubs and the whole nine yards, and you know people actually lived up over some of those stores that were burned, and it was probably some of the people who lived up over those stores that set the place on fire, and it’s like “Uh-oh, where are we going to sleep tonight?” You know, and that kind of thing. And so it’s kind of like some people looked before they leapt, and you know, once you jump off the diving board, you can’t get back on it.
GS: Okay, so how do you see Detroit today?
TW: Alright, from there to fast forward to today, like I said, when I was here in 1953 in this city, there were a million eight hundred thousand people in the city. As we speak today, there are roughly about six hundred and eighty thousand people in the city. We’ve lost a million, one hundred and twenty thousand plus people. That’s enough to make up about the fourth, fifth largest city, sixth largest city in this country? And that’s tax base, and that’s what really hurt Detroit. When you have that many people leave—and not only people, but businesses—there was a disinvestment of people and businesses. But I mean, you know, as I said before, the change that the winds of time has brought has not been good. And I mean, you know, Detroit, it’s doing okay now. Will Detroit be—I say this all the time—Detroit’s going to be alright. Now will it be great again? Second World War, we were the Arsenal of Democracy. Planes, tanks, and all that kind of stuff. There was this lady, a very famous popular DJ in the city, named Martha Jean McQueen. She used to do a program called Taste the Time, it came on at noon. James Cleveland would play in the background, Song Without a Song, and she would say this about the automobile industry, and she says “You put the world on wheels and don’t you ever forget it.” We were the automobile capital of the world. And then, we were the sound of young America. Motown. Now, it were going to be great again, I care not. If we’re going to be a million populated again, I don’t think I’ll live to see it. I got more sunshine behind me than I do in front. But Detroit’s going to be alright. Detroit has better days and a brighter future ahead of itself.
GS: Wow. Well is there anything else you’d like to add?
TW: You know, right now in terms of what’s going on, especially like say downtown and midtown, a lot of bourgeoning, you know development and activity, I remember Dan Gilbert said this, this is about three, four years ago, and I’m going to paraphrase a little bit. He said “If the neighborhoods are not participants in the development that’s going down in downtown and midtown,” he said “All of this stuff in downtown and midtown, it’s going to be all for naught,” and he ended that statement with this statement, he said “And failure is not an option.” And you know, Dan Gilbert, God bless him and people like him like Roger Penske and Mike Illich and, God rest his soul Ted Gatzaros and the movers and the shakers, I’m glad those people are here because they are making an investment. Dan Gilbert’s not buying up downtown for nothing. Dan Gilbert, he’s looked down the road, and he’s seen the potential in terms of what this place can be. Hopefully, I will be around long enough to see this thing coming, especially with the neighborhoods. I tell people, I say “Listen. Other than police, fire, and trash being picked up, the neighborhoods are our responsibility. Summer time comes, water your grass, cut your lawn. Winter time comes, shovel your snow.” But I mean you know, we’ve got skin in this game, and I mean things are going to get better. I mean you know, it’s not going to be the wow appeal that you see downtown, but you know, the neighborhoods, they’ve got an area called “Liv Six,” Livernois Six Mile, there’s a development that’s happening there. Just North of here at the Lodge Freeway, the old Herman-Kiefer complex, something’s going to happen there. So things are starting to happen with the neighborhoods. Like I said, Detroit’s going to be okay, it has better days ahead of itself and a brighter future.
GS: Alright. Well thank you for sitting down with me today.