Kathy Conlon, July 23rd, 2016
JW: So, here we go. All right, hello. My name is Julia Westblade. Today is the 23rd of July 2016. We are here at the Detroit Historical Museum for an interview about the Detroit 1967 project for the Detroit Historical Society. Can you tell me your name?
KC: My name is Kathy Conlon.
JW: All right, thank you so much for sitting down with me today. Can you tell me where and when you were born?
KC: I was born in Detroit in 1942
JW: All right and so then you grew up in the city?
KC: I did.
JW: All right, can you tell me where you grew up?
KC: I grew up on the east side of Detroit which was actually just inside Grosse Pointe Park, but, it was so close that I had a lot of dealings outside of Grosse Pointe. I was mostly in Detroit.
JW: Okay and then can you tell me about that neighborhood? Was it an integrated neighborhood or no?
KC: No. No, it wasn’t.
KC: And I went to a Catholic school which also was not integrated
JW: All right. What was that neighborhood like just growing up? Do you have any memories that you would like to share about that?
KC: It was a pretty average neighborhood for the time. Of course when you go to Catholic school at that time there’s always an “us and them” factor. So, in that time it was like the Catholics and the non-Catholics and I had friends who were non-Catholic [laughing]
JW: Sorry, I was going to shut the door.
KC: But there wasn’t so much, as I said, there wasn’t, there was not diversity in the neighborhood at all. And I didn’t experience that until I attended Wayne University and that was from 64 to 68.
KC: And I’m sorry, no it wasn’t, I made myself younger than I actually am. It was from 1960-1964 I attended Wayne and had to ride the bus all the time, you know, so I was going through Detroit constantly from my home in Grosse Pointe Park.
JW: Yes, so you travelled around the city a lot not just in college but when you were growing up too?
KC: Oh yeah, well yes, whatever was within walking distance, and so you know we walked to the movies and which, like the Cinderella Theater on Jefferson Ave. in Detroit and other, you know, other venues, and I came downtown on the bus all the time to go to Hudson’s and, and I came to the DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts] so, all by bus.
JW: Yeah, and then what, what did your parents do for a living?
KC: My father was a policeman in Grosse Pointe Park and my mother had worked in the plants during the war and then gave up her job when she got married and became a full-time housekeeper.
JW: Do you have any siblings?
JW: Ok, great. So then what do you remember in the city in the early 60’s? What was that like?
KC: Oh in the early 60s, in the late 50s and the early 60s the downtown was vibrant. The streets were crowded. It was the place to be and you dressed up to come downtown. You wore a hat. You wore gloves and a handbag and you felt quite grown-up when you were a teenager, you know, doing that by yourself with your best girlfriend and shopping at Hudson’s. Yeah, it was fun.
JW: Yeah, did you notice any tension in the city leading up to the later 60s or…..
KC: Not, not really, as I said, I kind of embraced the diversity at the University. I felt, I felt like I was getting a taste of the real world. When, you know, I had been kind of sequestered in this all white environment and I made friends and it was just a whole different experience for me that I embraced.
JW: Yeah. So then getting into the summer of 1967, how did you hear about what was going on?
KC: Well, my husband was a Detroit Firefighter and I was a Detroit Public School Teacher and I was teaching summer school and we heard over the radio that things were happening and my husband called into his fire station. He was off at that time, and they said you’re called in to duty immediately. So, he went in to the fire station and I went to my summer school job, which was on the east side at Lilibridge School, which is very close to St. Jean on Kercheval on the east side, and as I drove up it was kind of surreal because they had bivouac troops in the school, and so there were tanks on the playground and that’s why I say it was like looking at a Magritte painting or something where it just didn’t belong and yet was, was there within my vision, you know, and then in the school was also the surreal part went on because here we were in this cheery, colorful elementary school environment and there were armed, uniformed men in the halls. And there was National Guard and a lot of them had never even been in the City before and they were quite, I think, shaken by the whole experience. They didn’t know what they were confronting and they were looking for some time of normalcy I think. So, all the young teachers, the young female teachers, were being visited by these young men in uniform who just wanted to talk and they would bring, they would bring things, they had nothing really to give but I ended up with K-rations and C-rations and a gas mask. That they, you know, like these little tokens, you know, that they felt they had to leave because we talked to them and so it was very strange.
And then it was strange afterwards because, when I went home, my husband was called to duty, and usually a firefighter is working 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 3 days off, and they were called to duty, to be on duty, constantly for 24 hours with no breaks. And also, to expedite their service and to keep them somewhat safe, they evacuated the fire stations and took all the men and the trucks and put them, on the east side anyway, at a play field at Alter and Warren called Corrigan Play Field. And the trucks were all lined up around the inside perimeter of the play field behind a high cyclone fence and the men would lay down on the grass next to them trying to get some sleep, which was nearly impossible because of the stressful situation. And they were on duty – there’s a fire station directly across the street and there was a loud speaker and the men would be called out from the loud speaker in the tower of the fire station and so we could visit them but we couldn’t go inside. We could stand outside of the fence. It was, it still moves me. And so there all these families were, you know, wives and children and other relatives clinging to the fence. Trying to be sure of the men inside and waiting for their Engine or Ladder truck to be called out from a loud speaker, which was constantly going. So like Big Brother you know. And my husband had been stationed at, right close to Wayne State University at Cass and Alexandrine and he was Engine 13, and Ladder 11 was also housed at the same fire house. So we would watch as they went out, kind of in rotation, you know, the one side of the playground field would empty as trucks were called out and I’d be waiting to hear “Engine 13” called, and we could see as each truck went out it was getting closer and closer to his engine. And they were called out, and we could only stay until curfew and then we had to go home. And during one of those nights a man on his rig was shot and killed. They had a National Guard soldier assigned to each truck, but these guys, at least the one on my husband’s truck, they were petrified. They were young men. No experience with this. Never been in the city. And now they’re there, put into this very, very stressful situation and he told me they were only given one round of ammunition. I doubt that they wanted to get into a firefight anyway, but the man on my husband’s rig was killed, so at the end of this very stressful time, when things finally quieted down, then they had the funeral for his buddy. And then having come off four days without sleep, of constant duty, constant action, the firefighters from his house stood at attention on either side of the coffin for all the days that the body was laid out and then the coffin was placed on a fire truck. His ladder truck. And adorned with black bunting on the truck. And then there was a slow progression from the funeral home to Elmwood Cemetery and I think they planned the route to pass by all the possible fire houses. And as we passed by, we were in a car behind the truck, the fire houses were also draped in black. And they tolled the bells on the truck. So it was very mournful procession all the way to Elmwood Cemetery. And then at Elmwood, all the firefighters in their uniforms, their dress uniforms, assembled in ranks near the, where the fire fighters memorial was and where the burial was going to take place. So, the families stood up on the hills. Elmwood is a very hilly cemetery so the, the actual ceremony was taking place kind of in a valley ringed by low hills where the families stood. And all the men stood in rank and file at attention. And after all the stressful days, these days, you know, and the playing of Taps and everything, the men were standing at attention and some of them just started to faint. They just collapsed and, you know, the other men held their positions. And, at the time, I thought it was from exhaustion because it certainly would have been a good reason, and, you know, at least four of them in this several hundred, you know, assembled firefighters passed out. Just fell to the ground. But now I’ve, since then I have learned that it’s because of their knees being locked, and blood not getting to the brain, but it was just so dramatic. It was so, you know the sun was shining on this strange scene that I’m sure I’ll never witness again. So, anyway, it was all very, very moving.
JW: Yeah. How long after the riots broke out was his funeral? Did they have to wait a little bit?
KC: No, not that I recall. No, because it followed right on the heels of this constant duty. And so, you know, I could see them, the men were standing on the other side of this coffin for hours and they were just exhausted. So I think it was as soon as things had quieted down and the curfew was lifted. I don’t really remember that part.
JW: Yeah. That’s ok. So, besides waiting for your husband outside of this field, did you just stay in the City or –?
KC: I lived in the City and, yes, our area was unaffected. So, you know when, I mean, most of the inner city was dark. Either the lights had been shot out, or the lights were turned out, so that snipers were not revealed or the people who might be shot by snipers were not revealed [laughs]. So, but ours was not affected. So…
JW: Could you see anything from where you lived? Or was it too far away?
KC: No. It was too far away.
KC: Now, you know, I watched television avidly and worried about my husband and the other men that I knew from his station. And then the closest I came to it was you know, at my school, in summer school. But as far as the, as the violence itself, no, no. I had friends that lived in the area. Friends that were, that lived actually around the school where I taught and they said that they, you know, they were being very careful. I offered to let them come and stay with me but they said no that they felt all right there, but they did hear gun shots close by. But now in Detroit that has become a fairly, you know, not, not usual, but not uncommon thing unfortunately.
JW: We can pause for a moment if you would like.
JW: All right. Let’s see, and you said that your father was a policeman. Was he active at the time?
JW: Ok so he had retired by then?
KC: He had retired in 1960.
JW: Ok. I’m trying to get back my train of thought. You had mentioned the term “the Bivouac Troops”. Bivouac Troops. That’s not a term I have heard before.
KC: Oh it’s a, it’s an Army term, so, you know, where they sleep.
JW: Oh, ok.
KC: So they were, they were living and sleeping when they weren’t going out in tanks and I don’t know that I ever saw the tanks. I was in a classroom of course. I never saw the tanks move. And I don’t know if they did at night or what they did. No. They, there’s a club on the river called the Roostertail and it’s owned by the Schoeniths, and the Schoeniths opened up the Roostertail to have a free buffet like 24 hours a day I think for the National Guard and any other police or fire that are able to get away, but that was not, that was not in the cards for the firefighters anyway. I can’t speak to the others.
JW: And then you mentioned that the National Guardsmen that you saw all seemed young and maybe inexperienced?
KC: Oh yes.
JW: So was it a relief to you when the National Guard was called in, or no?
KC: No I didn’t feel, no, I felt sorry for them. To be thrown into this very stressful situation and unknown territory and given one bullet and a gun, you know, and I don’t know what they expected they were to do. I don’t know. The firefighters felt very protective of them. So, at least the ones that from my husband’s house, and I’m sure probably it was the men, they tried to keep them safe instead of the other way around. So, yeah, to go into an area that’s under sniper fire and with a truck with lights and sirens --
JW: [Unknown, inaudible, person enters room talking to interviewer] Ok if he waits down by the desk someone will get him. OK. All right. Well I think we’re close to being done here. So tell him someone should be done soon. Yep, sorry about that.
KC: That’s ok.
JW: So, I’m trying to think. Lost my train of thought again. So I guess looking back at it we’ve heard people use the term “riot” to describe it. But we’ve also heard other terms like “uprising” or “civil unrest” or “rebellion”. How do you define what happened?
KC: I think, you know from the time I heard it, I mean, when I was there, they called it a riot, a race riot, and so it has always been for me the 67 Riot. I know there are other terms that have come up since then but my reference is for what I saw on TV and, you know, what they were categorizing it as then. So, you know, it has always been “the riot”
JW: Ok, and then so we’re calling our project that we are looking back to move forward. So, do you have a message for the Detroit of the future, or something that you would like to kind of share with people who live here now?
KC: Oh my. That requires some thought. There are people who think that we are all done with racial division, divisiveness, and I think that’s incredibly uninformed. I have friends, and that I’m very close to, that, that we can speak quite frankly about these things and by that I mean African-American friends. But when I’m not with them and I’m with other people, not my friends, I find we tend to form friendships with people who are like ourselves. So I have, in addition to diversity in my friends, I have friends who also embrace diversity. And when I’m with people occasionally who are not like that, white people who assume because I’m white that I share their prejudices I find that very alarming. It’s like, this isn’t over. It isn’t. You know we have not achieved equality as long as there are people that still think like that. And when, when I encounter it, it’s always like a smack in the face. It’s like, ahh, right, that’s, there are people still thinking like that, which I find to be quite appalling and rather depressing. Cuz’ I think when is this ever going to end? You know I’ve seen it all my life and I don’t know what, what the answer is. I mean people talk about peace and unity, and it’s seems like so many empty words. I mean I’ve heard all this peace and unity stuff, I was, you know, I was in the 60s. I’ve protested. I’ve done all those things, and yet, I, at the core there’s still this rottenness. So, I don’t know if I have words of wisdom. I have hopes. I know my children don’t think like that. And I would hope that their children don’t think like that. But, I also think that there are, there’s generations of hate also being passed down. And I think we’re seeing that in this current election. People who express their hate in the open, unashamedly, unabashedly, and again that’s like a big slap in the face. Wake-up. It’s still here. And now it has become a brand. It’s how some people represent themselves. So, I wish I could give words of wisdom but I don’t think that that’s, I don’t think I will live to see to complete unity and equality in my time.
JW: Have you seen Detroit change since 1967?
KC: Oh yeah. I have. The, the atmosphere. Of course everybody points to downtown and all the things that are happening over here in the University area, seeing all the changes, the positive changes that are happening pretty much at the upper end of the scale. But I sold a house in Detroit three years ago in a neighborhood I loved, with neighbors that I loved, but my husband and I are both physically challenged for various reasons and we just couldn’t keep up this, it was a three story house. It was just too much for us. And I hated to give it up but we moved to a one story so you know, to accommodate our physical needs. And the house was listed by the bank at a very, very low price and it was a very large house. It was over 2500 sq. feet. Perfectly maintained. As I said, beautiful neighborhood, beautiful neighbors. Diverse. And, but the bank listed it as being in a “declining neighborhood” because it was in Detroit. And the, we had offers for more than we were asking but the bank appraised it at $30,000 less than we were asking. And I, my only thought was that they have labeled this neighborhood and are contributing to the decline. So while we’re, because of their appraisal, you know, not encouraging people who could afford more to take the house and be able to maintain the house and maintain the neighborhood and perhaps even enrich the neighborhood. So, the increase in the affluence of the center city and the University areas is all very notable but the perimeter of all this, beautiful neighborhoods that are in terrible decline, there’s such a, a difference, a huge difference, between what’s happening downtown and what’s happening on the outskirts in the neighborhoods. Not the lofts, or the apartments that are being redone here, but in the beautiful houses that are all around that are falling into ruin and being abandoned because they can’t sell them and the banks won’t allow them to be sold in fact. So, yes. I have seen a difference.
JW: All right. Well is there anything else you would like to add about your memories from 1967?
KC: No, I don’t think so. I think that’s it. It was, it was a strange time in my life and still have pictures in mind that are very clear and sharp of those times because it was so out of the ordinary. So extraordinary. And, I don’t know, and it was sad to see the decline of those neighborhoods too because places around my school, places of business, left either because they were, they were looted or they were, they were afraid, and then there were no more businesses around there. You couldn’t go to the neighborhood restaurant and grab something for lunch because it wasn’t in business anymore. So, I guess there is nothing else I’d like to add [laughs]
JW: All right. Well, if you think of anything you’re more than welcome to contact us or email us more stories or anything like that. We would love to hear them.
JW: But thank you so much for sitting down with us today.
KC: You’re welcome. Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW 27:37
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