Fran Seikaly, July 25th, 2016
HS: Hello, this is Hannah Sabal. I’m in Detroit, Michigan. The date is July 25, 2016. I’m here for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral history Project with Fran Seikaly. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
FS: Oh, you’re welcome.
HS: Can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
FS: I was born on October 14, 1946 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
HS: Did you grow up in Grand Rapids?
FS: Yes I did.
HS: At what point did you move to Detroit?
FS: I did my first year of art school, Kendall in Grand Rapids, found out it was not accredited, so transferred down to the Society of Arts and Crafts.
HS: Which is now the College of Creative Studies, correct?
HS: What did your parents do in Grand Rapids?
FS: My father was a payroll supervisor for Fisher Body, my mother was a housewife.
HS: What was your neighborhood like growing up out there?
FS: Typical middle-class slice of white bread. Yeah. There were no Jews, there were no African Americans, it was all Dutch.
HS: What was it like then moving into a city as integrated as Detroit is?
FS: I loved it.
HS: Could you tell me about that?
FS: It was wonderful. I come from a very small town where a field was my backyard and came here and all the cultural things, I love.
HS: Great. Again, what year did you say you came to Detroit?
FS: I came in late ’65.
HS: Late ’65, okay. What year did you graduate from the Society of Arts and Crafts?
FS: I didn’t graduate. I was in advertising, and I had friends who worked in a big advertising agency, [unintelligible] Head of Associates in Detroit, “Got a job for you.” So I stopped going. I quit and started working in the advertising agency, found out I hated it [laughter], if you don’t work for two weeks, everybody drank. I mean, the hangout place was the Caucus Club. If a job came in, you’d work for 36 hours straight until the job was finished. So I said “No, I can’t do this.” I went back to school, went to Wayne, got a bachelor’s in art education and then got a fellowship and got a master’s in special ed.
HS: Cool. Fantastic. So coming into the city in ’65, could you sense any tensions?
FS: No because I dated a black guy. There were no tensions. I mean, I would go to—he was in advertising also, and we’d go to a place called Foster’s Lounge for lunch. There was a little bit of tensions because I was the only white girl in there, but it really wasn’t anything.
HS: Can I ask what your parents thought about you dating a black man?
FS: They didn’t care.
HS: Oh, wow. [laughter] Compared to my family, that would’ve been a problem for my mom but—
FS: People are people, you know? We’re the human race.
HS: Yeah. Alright, so in ’67, were you still at school or were you working at the agency?
FS: It was a transition. I had quit from College for Creative Studies—which it is now—and I was starting to work at the advertising agency.
HS: So how did you hear about the events in July of ’67?
FS: I lived on the corner of Woodward and the Edsel Ford Expressway. The apartment building is still there, and I lived up on the third floor. Sunday afternoon, an acquaintance came over—wasn’t a boyfriend, just a friend—and said “Here, I have this for you,” and he tried to hand me a gun. A handgun, a Wather PPK and I said “Why do I want that?” he said “You haven’t heard what’s going on?” I said “No.” I didn’t have a TV, didn’t have a radio, didn’t get the paper. I don’t think it was in the paper then Sunday morning. He said “Oh, well, this riots are going on,” and I said “Oh you know, thank you very much, but I don’t want it.” That evening, Sunday evening, I was on the third floor and my apartment faced west, the whole horizon was on fire. There was a Transient Hotel across the street—it’s no longer there—and that evening, the Woodward Avenue buses were still running, coming from north down south on Woodward. They’d stop, and three, four, five, six, ten young African American men would get off with one suitcase and go up into the Transient Hotel. I’ve since figure out they were probably going to be looting. Then that night—it was either that Sunday night or Monday night—I saw tanks, army tanks. There was nobody on the streets by then. Army tanks going north on Woodward one after another. Then later, there would be convoys of army big trucks filled with young African Americans that were going down to jail. The jail downtown. The next day—I think it was either Monday or Tuesday—I had a friend who had friends that lived in Palmer Park. So I got on a bus, a bus was running during the day. I was going out to Palmer Park, straight up Woodward. The few of us that were on the bus sat with our heads below the window line, we scooched down. Crowley’s was an upscale department store on the corner of West Grand Boulevard and Woodward. They had broken in and the mannequins were in the middle of the street, like there’d be an arm, there’d be a torso, there’d be a head, it was very surreal.
HS: That’s weird.
FS: Yeah, it was very surreal. Then I got to Palmer Park, got off, went to the friend’s house, stayed there for a few days, and there were convoys of army helicopters flying overhead. Then everything kind of got back to normal and I came back and—
HS: Was there, like, a difference between where you were staying at Woodward and Edsel Ford compared to being in Palmer Park?
FS: Very tense, and there was nobody on the streets by the time, you know, a day later, two days later. You just didn’t go out on the street.
HS: And how were you feeling during this time, were you worried at all or pretty nonchalant about it?
FS: You know, I was young and dumb. [laughter] I was like 20, you know, just turned 21. The only thing that I was nervous about was taking that bus north, and so the few of us—I can remember maybe there was five people on the bus, you know, scooched down.
HS: Were your parents still living in Grand Rapids at the time?
FS: My father was dead, my mother was in Grand Rapids. I think she was oblivious to what was going on.
HS: Okay, so no frantic phone calls or anything?
FS: No, no. I didn’t have a phone. [laughter]
HS: Alright. [laughter]
FS: We would write letters. Yeah. I would’ve called her if I needed anything.
HS: Was there anything else that you witnessed or experienced that you wanted to tell us about?
HS: Okay. So looking back on the events, would you describe them as a riot or would you call them an uprising, rebellion?
FS: Well, I think it started when they busted a blind pig. That’s where it started from, and so it was just an opportunity. Things were very unsettled because of what was going around the country in other cities, and it was just an opportunity to get back at the man.
HS: Alright, and how have you seen the city change since then?
FS: Well, I live in the suburbs. We come down all the time. I have no fear of coming to Detroit. I must say, a lot of my slice of white bread friends will not step foot in Detroit, and I just say you know, “I lived there. If you are aware of your surroundings,”—I have a daughter, I told her “If you’re in the middle of a field, don’t assume there’s nobody there. Always look 360 degrees around you just to be safe.” So I’ve never felt scared, never felt uneasy. I mean, I go to the DIA all the time, we come down for dinner. My daughter went to CCS, lived down here. She was an RA at CCS and one of her friends came to visit her, and it was like eleven o’clock at night, and he said “Come on, let’s go for a walk,” and she said “Are you crazy? You don’t go for a walk,” and she said “You hear that? Those are gunshots.” [laughter]
FS: And he was from the suburbs. You know, you just learn to watch out for yourself.
HS: When did you move out of the city?
FS: Probably—I have to think—
HS: You can ballpark it.
FS: Ballpark, early seventies.
HS: And why did you move?
FS: Got married. Yeah.
HS: And he wanted to live in the suburbs?
FS: I got a job teaching out there. Although he went to law school at U of D, so we moved out there. I was teaching out in Holly, in the cornfields. [laughter]
HS: Oh geez. I had to think for a minute, “Where’s Holly?”
FS: Out in the cow pastures, yes.
HS: So where do you see the city headed?
FS: I don’t know, I can’t tell the future. [laughter]
HS: Okay, well how do you see the city now then I guess? Compared to then?
FS: I wish it was like this when I was living down here. You know, I would have to take a bus out to Royal Oak to grocery shop because there was one little corner store and the meat was always spoiled and it was not a good, you know. The place I lived, the washer and dryer were terrible, so I packed my dirty clothes in a suitcase and go to Highland Park to the laundromat. I love Detroit.
HS: So you think it has more opportunities now than it did then?
FS: Oh, absolutely. Oh, yeah.
HS: And—this will be my final question—what advice would you give to future generations with regards to Detroit?
FS: [laughter] That’s a very open ended question.
HS: Yeah. We’ve gotten a wide variety of responses.
FS: Treat everybody like they’re your brother and your sister, because they are somebody’s brother, sister, mother, cousin. Be kind.
HS: Perfect advice. Is there anything else you wanted to share today?
FS: No, this has been very, very satisfying for me, because I’ve told this story you know, to some people and they look at me like “You lived there? You went through that?” Or else, they don’t say anything at all. They can’t comprehend.
HS: That’s how I felt for a long time.
HS: Well thank you for sitting down with me today.
FS: Oh, well thank you.