Muriel Earl and Albert Colbard, June 29th, 2016
GS: Hello, today is June 29th, 2016. We are in Detroit, Michigan. My name is Giancarlo Stefanutti and this is for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
AC: You’re welcome.
GS: Can you first tell me your names?
ME: My name is Muriel Earl.
AC: My name is Albert Colbard.
GS: Could you tell me where and when you two were born?
ME: I was born in Detroit, Michigan, 1948, February the 10th.
AC: I was born in Detroit, Michigan, May 10th, 1950.
GS: Okay. Where in Detroit did you two grow up?
ME: On Clairmount, between 12th and Woodrow Wilson.
AC: Same spot. Even though my family wasn’t originally from the east side. We moved east when she was 5 and I was 3.
GS: You moved from the east side when you were five?
AC: She was five. I was three.
GS: Were there any other particular reasons why you guys moved?
AC: Just better situation. At that time it was my parents and my grandparents.
GS: What did your parents do?
AC: My father worked for the DPW. My mother was a stay-at-home mom for a little while. I’m the youngest of seven kids, five boys, two girls, including this young lady right here. She’s the sister just above me.
GS: Oh, okay. What was childhood like? Was it just kind of normal? Playing with your friends?
ME: Happy, happy childhood.
AC: It was a happy childhood. As I said, I’m the youngest, and so forth. I don’t remember a lot of things when we first moved over there. Somewhere that sticks in my memory really started kicking in. It was a beautiful neighborhood. Trees and, I started to bring some pictures, but if you’re doing an interview, don’t make no difference, but it was a happy childhood.
AC: She has a better memory of it.
ME: Lots of kids in the neighborhood.
AC: Lots of people.
ME: Lots of people.
AC: Lots of businesses.
ME: Lots of traffic down Clairmount.
AC: Lots of traffic down 12th. We were right off the corner of 12th and Clairmount, seven blocks—no, seven houses.
ME: Seven houses.
AC: Seven houses off of the corner. Seven houses, then an alley, then a business in fact, Buddy’s BBQ, then 12th Street.
GS: That’s a pretty busy area.
AC: It was a very busy area.
AC: It was a thriving neighborhood when we moved over there. Businesses from the next block over, Atkinson all the way down to West Grand Boulevard.
GS: Was it a racially integrated neighborhood?
AC: Yes, when we first moved over there, it was a Jewish neighborhood, and it was slowly becoming more black. But once again, she has a better memory about how it was when we first got there.
ME: Yeah, but gradually the Jewish people started to move out, and it became a black neighborhood.
AC: Predominantly black.
ME: Yeah, predominantly black. But we had two houses where the people were hangers-on, from the Jewish race or [unintelligible].
AC: Mr. [unintelligible] was Jewish on the, couple of houses down the street from us. And then the house on the—
ME: Remember the guy with the big belly down by Audrey—
AC: By Audrey Dunright, yeah. Okay, him. Then on the next block over was the Jewish shelter.
AC: Remember there was a Jewish shelter? Two houses that sat next to each other and these guys, as kids, they reminded us more of refugees. The odd-looking clothes, and so forth. They didn’t speak complete English. Broken English. You could tell a lot of times, when they spoke, they spoke in the, I’m going to say the Jewish manner and so forth. But it was an integrated neighborhood for a little while. Very busy. We had business up and down the block. Just up and down the block. I told my sister, I want you guys—this is a picture of the riot, but you can see all the different—
ME: That’s just when it started, when we were milling around.
GS: Wow, that’s crazy. Where did you two go to school, growing up?
AC: Crossman elementary.
ME: Hudson’s Junior High.
AC: And then Northern High School.
GS: Okay. How were those experiences?
ME: They were good.
AC: They were good. I think they were just normal as any school could be. Growing up and so forth, you had the, for lack of a better word, the good kids, the bad kids, the older kids, the younger kids. As she said in the beginning, we had immense amount of numbers of families in the neighborhood, almost on top of each other. Almost all the houses were two-family dwellings. Almost. But most of them were two-family dwellings, so we had a lot of people in the neighborhood.
ME: We had quite a few apartment buildings—
AC: Yeah, apartment buildings and so forth—
ME: It was two bedrooms, on the next block from us—
AC: Between Woodrow Wilson and Byron, and they were just dotted throughout the neighborhood itself. Not so much our block, our block from 12th to Woodrow Wilson, all the family dwellings from Woodrow Wilson to Byron, you had a few apartment buildings. And in between Byron and Hamilton, there was no apartment buildings, all family dwellings and so forth. Then the next block, had an apartment or two. So it was different apartments. On the next block from us, a few four-family flats, a couple of apartment buildings, so it was like that almost throughout the entire neighborhood.
ME: And these apartment buildings were huge.
AC: Huge, a lot of people.
ME: Huge apartment.
GS: Wow. Did your siblings go to the same school?
AC: Not all of them, but some of them from the—my oldest sister, my oldest brother, and my middle brother all went to Central High school. I forgot which high school Fred went to. That’s our second oldest brother. But the last three, my brother Marlin, my sister and myself, we all three went to the same schools.
GS: Moving towards the early ‘60s, could you sense any growing tension in the city? Was there some sort of change in the atmosphere that you could sense?
ME: I wanted to say that I don’t know what year it started, but the riot started like in LA. We were conscious of that. Now my self, I never thought it would reach Detroit.
AC: My experience goes back to about ’62. She would’ve been 15, I would’ve been 12. And my middle brother had a friend of his, and his friend’s name was Albert. My name is Albert. So that was kind of a connection, he was always nice to me. In ’62, late one night, I don’t know what was happening, but he ran from the police along this—Herman Kiefer Hospital, on a street called Byron. And there’s a dark street, and the story we were told is that he was shot in the back of the head. The graphics was, back of the head, came out his eye. I remember his name was Albert and he was a really good friend of my middle brother. That for me was the beginning of me paying more attention to what was going on. You started hearing, you know, more things of black people getting beat up by the police or things happening within the black neighborhood. And I think I started paying more attention—one of the words that hit me back then were blind pigs. After-hour joints. As I started progressing and getting older, not much older than 12, I realized that it was one right across the alley from us. Never knew what it was. I just always thought that the man that owned that place just partied every night, and especially hard on the weekend. But that’s what it was. It was after-hours, an after-hour place. We were told at one time that at least once a year, they raided his house. But all the rest of the time during the year they left him alone. The same thing was going on. That made no sense to me. Just being young, I really couldn’t put it into what was happening, but I really realized that something was wrong with that. Every morning, people would go to his house to buy liquor—except they didn’t sell liquor on Sundays back then—but they would go to his house early in the morning to buy liquor from him. His place would be open all night long. Sometimes we would be in bed and we’d still hear the music playing.
ME: Yeah, he had a jukebox, right in the middle of his living room.
AC: A jukebox. You could hear it playing. He was a very nice guy. His name was Mr. Rory. He would take us on one of the holidays—
ME: Fourth of July.
AC: Fourth of July, he would take us down to the Eastern Market, and he would buy, 12, 15 watermelons, and give them out to the people in the neighborhood. Just being nice. He was something else, he was truly something else, but that’s another story. It was just, you know, he was a nice guy. We grew up with his kids—matter of fact, we’ve just seen his stepson about two weeks ago, and we got a chance to stop and talk to him, you know, just different people. I’ll go back to ’62 again, that was the beginning of my consciousness of what was going on. You started hearing more often, you would see the cars stopped on 12th Street by the police. You’d hear about people who got roughed up by the police for one reason or another. To say that I see it really happen, you heard about it more than you would really see it, but every now and then you’d see the different cars. It was just stories throughout the neighborhood. That was a thriving, unbelievable neighborhood. It was fun during the day, but very dangerous at night.
ME: They had police cars, four officers to a car, and they were called The Big Four. They drove around the neighborhood, and they gave some people grief. I looked at them as bad, not good. I thought they used to sort of pick on people.
GS: Your parents and the general community, were they always kind of nervous or unsure with the police before ’62 or was it really after this story about your brother’s friend being shot in the back of the head?
AC: I could never say that they were nervous. I’ll be honest, giving that I put them on a pedestal. My father wasn’t a very nervous person, so forth. He was a very cool, collected type of guy. But I remember when I was growing up, we got the speech about how to handle yourself if you were stopped by the police, and so forth. As I said, I was 12 years old; I never did anything to get stopped by the police other than, you know, they would ride by and give you the look and so forth. But my brothers, being older than I was, that was a different thing. You hear about how they may have been chased up off the corner, something like that. I couldn’t say, not a huge amount of stories from them about how they were roughed up by the police and so forth. My sister and I were joking not too long ago, and we told the story to each other about how one time my older brother got drunk and he was in a store, and the people that owned the store called the police on him. Well, honestly, the police were nice enough to bring him home. Evidently he told them where he lived and they brought him home and so forth. They brought him home, and my mother told them, “Bring him in.” They put him right there and so forth. So it wasn’t like they did anything to him, not that we know of. You get little stories like that, but then you get the other stories of how you heard somebody else got beat up or jailed or they stood on his neck or something like that. I’ll say it again, being the youngest, I didn’t see a heck of a whole lot of it, because I was in the house, on the porch at that curfew time the way my parents told me. But my brothers, they were a good seven, nine, ten years older than me, so if I’m twelve years older, 22, 21, and 19.
AC: In this way, it was a very great neighborhood because we grew up with neighbors who looked out for us, neighbors who told on you if you did something, neighbors who was able to, I’m not gonna say beat you, but accost you and bring you home and so forth. It was a very decent neighborhood. It was great. As you get older, so forth, a few things change here and there. As we got older, you can see the changes come about. You can see them come about.
ME: Then, I’m trying to think what year—was it the drugs that—
AC: That helped change that? Yes. I think I heard about as a kid, you see somebody and you wonder, why’s this person sitting on the ground, nodded out like whatever? But it don’t hit you, you think he’s just sleeping, he’s drunk even, whatever. But slowly but surely you started hearing the thing about the drugs. Even the drug houses. It started changing. Some of the people who you thought were really nice people at one time, now you can see that attitude about them changing. A house or two getting broke in.
GS: Moving towards the riot, where were you two when you first heard about the riot?
AC: At home in the bed.
ME: Our older brother came in and he woke my mother and myself up—well, he tried to wake him up too—
AC: And I wouldn’t get up.
ME: But he said, “There’s a crowd milling around the intersection of 12th and Clairmount.” We looked down there, and they were milling around, and it just started to grow bigger. It started with about thirty people, and then it grew to sixty, a hundred, and then, I mean, it was just, the whole intersection was full of people.
AC: We have to stay, to start off with, we stayed half a block from where it started. If you look at this picture here, at the end of this picture, going this way, is where we stayed. See where it stays the drug store? [unintelligible name]’s Drugs? That’s the corner of Clairmount and 12th. We stayed seven houses off that corner. So when that happened and my brother came, as she said, he told them about it, and I refused to get up because I’m asleep.
ME: It was around 3:30 in the morning.
AC: And I was sleeping, I didn’t want to get up. They went outside and they seen it, and after a while I get out of the bed, I could hear the noise, people’s voices. I finally got up, put on some pants. I remember walking to the front door, and I looked to the front door, it was people standing there on the sidewalks, looking down to where they were. My mother and my sister on the steps and sidewalks and people talking to each other, “What’s going on?” As I walked down the porch, I looked that way. By this time, the crowd had gotten bigger. She said it was lighter when they first got out there. It was bigger when I got out there. And you could see—and it was still dark, but slowly the sun started coming up, and you could see all these people up and down, and you can hear the voices.
ME: You could hear the voices, and as the day went on, if you looked down to Hamilton one way, you could see police cars just sitting there, not doing anything. Because the people hadn’t really gotten started yet. On the other end, at Linwood, you could see police cars down there, just sitting.
AC: Just sitting.
ME: So, I don’t know if it was about noon, or a little later, they started breaking in the stores.
AC: Actually, they started throwing stuff at the police first, and if you move forward in time—we didn’t know why the police left—but we’d always heard that they were given orders to just move out of the neighborhood. As they moved out of the neighborhood, the looting started taking place and you could see all the people up there. I’ll be honest, she was 19, I was 17. My mom grabbed me in the collar and said, “If you leave off this porch, I’ll raise hell.” Being scared of my momma made me stand there, so my job was just to protect the house. But you can see all the people—a lot of people, not all of them—going towards 12th and Clairmount, and whatever was going on, was going on. You could see the police cars pull in, then everybody was scattered, then they would pull back out, and it would start all over again.
ME: As the day went on—cause I stayed on the porch the whole day, because I couldn’t believe what was going on—and as the day went on, we saw very strange sights, like people going down the streets with washing machines—
AC: Televisions, big bags of groceries, and you wondered, what is going on? You started to hear from different people in the neighborhood that they were breaking into the stores. They were now breaking into the stores. Looting, as they say. They were breaking into the stores. It just went on. As I said, the police would show up, the people would run; they would pull back out, and everybody would start all over again. It was something to see. I remember as a kid—she mentioned how the riot in California, Watts, California, was about 1965. And I can remember watching that on television, and in some ways it was almost the same way: the police would show up, everybody would run. You’d see them breaking in, the police would jump out their cars and arrest a few people here and there, pull them away. People breaking in and come back again to start doing the same thing, over and over. From my vision, from standing on the porch with my mom, standing in the front yard, looking, that’s the way it looked to us. We kept seeing almost the same thing. That’s the way I was seeing it.
ME: This one guy that I know, he stopped in front of the house because my grandmother wouldn’t let anybody come up on the porch. He had a brown bag, paper bag, and he opened it up, and it was brimming to the top with jewelry: watches, and rings—
ME: He hit the pawnshops that were on 12th. It wasn’t exciting or anything to me. I was just totally amazed to see what these people were doing. I had one brother that was in the thick of it. Did Frank go up there?
AC: Frank and Fred, yeah. They’re our older brothers. They didn’t live at home anymore. They came to check on the house, to make sure we were all right in the house and so forth, and then they went to go do what they’re doing.
They would actually come back to the house and give us tidbits of information on what was going on up there, and so forth. I can remember my brother told me, “I’ll be right back, but go open the back door.” I had no idea why he wanted me to open the back door, so I go to the back door, and I go back out to the front, and I’m seeing what’s going on and so forth, and he come running to the side of the house, waving at me. I cut through the house. I said, “I opened the door,” and he said, “Come downstairs.” We all came in, he had a couple leather coats and some other stuff. I went, “Oh, my god.” But he would tell us the stories of what was happening, who he ran into, who went down. We saw people cutting through the alley carrying couches, carrying chairs, carrying dinette sets, refrigerators. This one guy had a refrigerator on a dolly. On a dolly! It was, I’m going to agree with her, it wasn’t fun, but it was amazing, and kind of shocking, the things that you said. I told my friends when we were growing up. Something inside of me really wanted to go up there, but I had more fear of the little lady at the house than I did to go up there and see what was happening. Honestly, we got a good view of a lot of things that were going on other than the natural of it. You could see people going by, the police and all that. I didn’t want to be involved in that part right there.
ME: The next day was the real horror story, because they started to burn. What did they burn?
AC: The first thing was this place that says Byzan’s Sales Company. It was a furniture store, and they sold a lot of things. That’s the first thing they set on fire. We couldn’t say why. Like a lot of merchants that were on 12th Street, they gave a lot of credit to a lot of people. I’m not saying that don’t make them an angel, or to set them on a table, pedestal, or whatever, but they gave a lot of credit to a lot of people. Everybody was not with them burning them up, whatever happened. I couldn’t begin to tell you what happened. Maybe some of the older people, so forth, could tell you. But that was the first place they started burning up. From that point, that point on, it just got horrible.
ME: Bigger and bigger. That’s when I got scared. I was scared when they started to burn.
AC: It burned, and that had been a furniture store, but it was a blaze. It almost looked like the blaze you see on television, when you watch the forest fires. Hot blaze. The strangest thing was that you had embers that were burning, and the wind was blowing, so it was taking the embers down the block. I had to get up on top of the house with the water hose and wet the roof down so the embers wouldn’t get on top of the roof. That’s the way it was. It got worse because it went from one side of the street—this is the side of the street that we stayed on—it went from this side of the street to that side of the street. As she just said, now it got really, really serious. Because then you have the fire department coming to put the fires out, and somebody started shooting at the fire department. They would leave and just let something burn.
ME: Then we got calls from relatives that live in different places in the city, and they were rioting too. I don’t know how it got word to them, but it just seemed like the whole city was burning.
AC: We had a brother, my brother right above her, he was in the military in Italy. And he read a newspaper in Italy—because he could speak a little bit of Italian—and it says, “Detroit burns to the ground.” He was constantly trying to call home, constantly. That was on a Sunday, when the riots started. He tried to get to us that following Sunday?
ME: It was a long time.
AC: A long time, a week before—he was worried, he was over in Italy and just reading, “Detroit burns down to the ground.” That’s what he said the newspaper was saying and so forth. It was unbelievable. It was something that you go through that you’ll never, ever forget in your life.
ME: Then—I’m trying to think—about the third day, they called in the National Guard, so now we’ve got all these soldiers, you know, all around, trying to get some sense of order or something. At night, when we would go to bed, it sounded like machine guns shooting up and down the alleys around there.
AC: What that was was they actually did shoot. They came down the alleys and shot out all the streetlights. You remember in mama’s bedroom? We were in my mother’s bedroom, in the back of the house, and we had to lay on the floor because we didn’t know if they were shooting in the houses or whatever, but they were shooting out all the lights that were in the alleys. The lights that were on the streets. This way, they can’t be seen because now you got sniper fire from the people, I should say. From the people, there was sniper fire, and they were ordered to shoot out all the lights. You couldn’t be able to see them. It was horrifying. It got to be worse and worse, and from day one, we thought maybe this was going to last just a day. The next three to four days got worse. You kept getting the stories, people who were burned out. One of the ladies I went to junior high school with, she stayed down at Euclid and 12th. Two houses off the corner. Those two houses got burned—
AC: Yeah, four houses off the corner. I can remember them, that the story that was told when we got back to junior high school was that they had to hold this young lady down because she thought her brother was in the house. He was actually in the back of the house on the other side of the house. She thought he was in the house, and it just got worse. A lot of the places that we used to say we could go in as kids, as teenagers, now were burned down. Not every one of them, but the majority of them, a lot of them were burned down. The fact that now you hear this shooting from the police, the National Guard, you hear the sporadic shots of people shooting back at them, so you do best to lay on the floor. We had to lay on the floor. We slept on the floor.
GS: When the National Guard came in, did you and your parents feel a sense of relief or not because it was more shooting?
AL: None whatsoever.
ME: Especially when they started shooting up and down the alleys and things.
AL: You had thought that something would happen or some kind of order would come in, but it wasn’t. It was like they came to protect the property, not the people.
GS: Moving towards post-riot, the post-riot period, how do you feel that Detroit changed atmospherically after that? Did it change atmospherically, do you think?
ME: Yes, I think it changed.
AL: I don’t think it did.
ME: You don’t think it changed?
AL: Nope. One of the things that happened, there was still that sense of unbelief, that sense of nothing really changed. One of the things that happened in the city was, even though there were jobs in the factories, there was no jobs in the city. It’s no different than when you stop and say, anybody can’t go to college. So some people can get a job. It was either a job or college, and there was nothing in-between. Either you got a good job at the factory or you went to college. But the things in-between, such as working at liquor stores, working, there was really nothing like that to take. They had no—I don’t even know if summer jobs were a big thing for kids back then—but we know in the suburbs, a lot of the kids in the suburbs had summer jobs. There were no summer jobs in the city of Detroit.
ME: I felt like the atmosphere changed because the people were stupid. They burned down their own neighborhood, which served them, like the stores all up and down 12th. They destroyed it. The first time I saw it, I was on a bus coming home from work—because I went back to work on, I believe it was Thursday—and when I saw how horrible it looked, I could not believe it. I couldn’t believe it! There was just narrow steel—
AL: It’s like going back to see your house, and your house is burned down. That was your neighborhood. No different than anybody. You had pride in your neighborhood. I can say, as much as I—it was a love-hate relationship for me, for that neighborhood. I loved it because it was busy, there were so many things to do. I hated it because you see the things rolling downhill and it wasn’t being taken care of. You hear these stories about the police were getting kickbacks for this, or they weren’t doing anything, some people will say, “Well that’s them. Let them do what they’re doing.” You can see that little parable of so, what are the young people supposed to do? I wasn’t asking nobody or telling nobody to raise us up different than my parents were trying to raise us, but the authorities, the people in charge, it just felt like they didn’t care. As long as it happened down there, and it stayed down there. It was no different. You hear the stories again that the National Guard, where was it—8 Mile? Where was it on 8 Mile where we used to go?
ME: State fair.
AL: State Fair, it was at the State Fair Grounds. It was there at the State Fair Grounds that was one of their holding spots. They stayed there. And they really stayed there because they didn’t want you to go across 8 Mile. They didn’t want anything to go across 8 Mile. They blocked off a certain part of Woodward going downtown because they didn’t want you to go downtown. Hence for me saying they protected the property and not the people. That’s not the people.
ME: And they killed people, too.
AL: You heard a lot of stories of things going on. I was never there to see it happen. One of my good friends that I grew up with was caught up in a situation not too far away. Two of his friends got killed. Not in front of him, but the same two people that walked into this place with him. Five of them, only three of them walked out. They found them murdered. But the last time they seen these two other guys, they were with the police. You hear a lot of stories. I can’t confirm not a one of them, but you hear a lot of stories of things that went on. It just didn’t have a explanation.
ME: I can confirm that four young men that I went to high school with, they were killed in this Algiers—
AL: That’s what I was talking about. The Algiers Motel.
ME: On Woodward. I went to school with those poor guys.
AL: One of the guys that walked out, I was in elementary school all the way through high school with him. He was one of the guys that walked out, but he said when they made them leave, they walked out with nothing but their underwear on, because they made them take off their clothes and everything. He said it was the most scared he’s ever been in his life. This guy turned out to be later on in life, he was part of a very popular singing group not only in Detroit, but throughout the country. It was a group called The Dramatics. Guy named Ron Banks, he was one of the lead singers. I grew up with this guy, and he was one of the ones that was in the Motel at that time.
GS: It’s crazy.
AL: It is when you stop and think about it. I don’t think it did great because to me they’re back on the same track that they were. Building downtown, but doing nothing for the neighborhoods. Letting the neighborhoods sporadically get a little bit of this, and downtown get all of that. I understand that it takes a whole neighborhood to build the neighborhood, but you have to have people with jobs. Everybody can’t live off of welfare or the unemployment for so long. You have to build something so that people can have jobs, can have things no different. The thing, to me, the thing with the minimum wage. Today’s age, you can’t make a living off of $7.50 an hour, $9 an hour. If you’re one person, you maybe can live off of it, but if you’re a parent, a mother, a single mother, a father with a family, you can’t live off of anything like that. And it’s happening all over again. You would think that we’d have learned or something, but you can see it happen all over again. There’s construction everywhere, but where’s that construction leading to? From there back downtown. From downtown, to just so far.
GS: Was there anything else you would like to add?
ME: Today, I see young people, especially, that don’t care. They don’t care about their neighborhoods, about going to school, and I say they were taught—I mean, they weren’t taught to have manners or anything. They follow their parents through the system on welfare. They have no pride about themselves.
AL: My father taught us that you make mistakes, but you learn from your mistakes so that you won’t do the same thing over and over and over again. I can see the same mistakes being made over and over and over again. It’s the same thing. The schools that we went to, I can’t call them bad schools. I learned. I loved school, elementary school to high school, high school to my couple years in college. I love school. But as she just said, there’s no emphasis on the parenting. There’s no emphasis on the schools. It’s almost like the schools are babysitters. Honestly, when you stop and look at it a little bit, back in our days, that’s what they were then, also. Not all of them, but just some of them, because it got to the same things. Teachers thought they were being taken advantage of. They were just kids. You shouldn’t have to have a teacher to teach your kids about manners. That’s something you shouldn’t have at all. You shouldn’t have a teacher that has to bring toilet paper or paper towel to a school. That’s something that now the system is supposed to take care of or whatever. There’s something wrong with these not being addressed, and it’s going back to the same thing again. The suburbs are thriving and the inner city is dying.
GS: Well, thank you for sitting down with me today.
AL: You’re welcome.