Sandra Langford, July 1st, 2016
Giancarlo Stefanutti: Hello, today is July 1, 2016. My name is Giancarlo Stefanutti. We’re with the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project and we’re in Detroit, Michigan. Thank you for sitting down with me today. Can you first start by telling me your name?
Sandra Langford: My name is Sandra Hamner Langford.
GS: When and where were you born, Sandra?
SL: I was born in Detroit July 5, 1952.
GS: Where in Detroit did you live during your childhood?
SL: I lived on the east side of Detroit, John Berry subdivision.
GS: What did your parents do?
SL: My mother was a schoolteacher and my dad was a laborer.
GS: Do you have any siblings?
SL: I have three brothers and one sister.
GS: How was your childhood, kind of a normal childhood or?
SL: Basically, it was a normal childhood. You know, you’re normal, you’re normal. I grew up in a neighborhood that consisted of a lot of different types of people. So I was exposed to people who were Jacobeans, people who were Jewish, people who were from the Caribbean, people from all over the world, and so that was my normal. A lot of Italians and everybody got along really well. Everybody kept their homes really well. The neighborhood was well maintained. One of the things that I remember most about being a child is the canopy of the trees. I don’t know. I would sit and watch those oak trees for hours and hours on end. I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever.
GS: Sounds nice. So where did you go to school?
SL: I went to John Berry Elementary School, I went to Butzel Junior High and Wilbur Wright High School.
GS: Were those places as racially integrated as your community growing up?
SL: Yes, they were.
GS: Awesome. Moving towards the early 60s, were you still living with your family in the same neighborhood?
SL: Yes, I lived in that neighborhood until I was an adult.
GS: So in the 60s, did you sense any tension in the city, any social unrest? I’m not sure that’s the right word, but anything like that?
SL: There was a lot of tension. I was very young but I did notice there was a tension because there was a group of police officers that they referred to as “The Big Four.” They would often ride through the neighborhood and they would often stop young African American men and question them about different things. People felt really uncomfortable about that. They would stop you when you were coming in your home and that sort of thing. So that presented a lot of tension.
GS: Did you know anyone who had any run-ins with the Big Four?
SL: I had a cousin who had a run-in with the Big Four. He was totally harmless, never arrested for anything, but he was constantly harassed.
GS: So here were you when you first heard about the riot?
SL: When I first heard about the riot, it was my first year of high school. I was in bed sound asleep. My brother, who was Jimmy and three years older than I, woke me from my sleep and he told me there was a riot. Well, my brother was really a jokester. So I’m like “Oh yeah, right. Leave me alone and let me sleep.” But he was like, “You have to see this. People are everywhere.” They were carrying sofas and washers and dryers and things down the alley. I had the back bedroom of the house. I looked out the window and sure enough there were people who were walking by. It was so strange because we thought that these people that we lived around were of high moral fiber and so who were these people that were doing that? I mean, it was just a total shock, a total shock.
GS: How did your parents react to it?
SL: By saying “Stay indoors.” By saying stay indoors and my dad was working when it happened and he wasn’t far from where the incident happened on Twelfth Street. He worked at a place called Excello. They made airplane parts and they sent him home. He came home and so we felt safer once he was there, my mom was there. My brother and I were the last two children at home so it was just the four of us.
GS: So where were your other siblings? Were they still in the city?
SL: Yes, they were still in the city. Except perhaps -- One of my brothers was I think in Vietnam.
GS: You said you felt safer when your father came home. Were you worried that anyone would try and burn your house down or were you worried about any damage?
SL: No. I wasn’t concerned with that at all. In the beginning, we didn’t really understand what was going on. After a few days it became more apparent because there was a curfew. Eventually the troops came in to the city which was something we really, really didn’t understand. During the day you could go out but at night you had to be in. In the daytime I would go out and talk with the troops and I thought that was my part of my effort in helping with the tensions in the city. So in the evening when we would sit on the porch, my mom – one day she was in total shock. She was like, “Why do all these men know you?” I was just a kid. “Because I go around and I talk to them.” It was just a different time. They were like “Hey, Baby Sister. You again today. How are you?” But I know that there were people that felt threatened by them.
GS: I was going to ask. Did people feel concerned or more relieved when the National Guard came in?
SL: Well, I think we felt safer but what happened one particular night my brother said, “You have to look out the window. There is a tank out there.” So I said, “Oh yeah right, sure.” I looked out the window and the tank turned around and pointed whatever that thing is at the window. My brother and I both just fell to the floor. One of things having to do with the riot is that they shut the water off to the city. So no one had water. We had water because my dad was a survivalist. He always made us save water. Whenever we drank milk, water went into the jug after the milk went in. It was all stored in the attic. So when the water was cut off we had water to bathe, cook, whatever we needed water for because we had an attic filled with water.
GS: Wow. So what about when the army started to come into Detroit. Were you still speaking with them like you were the National Guard or was this kind of a different story?
SL: Yes. I was. I was but It was so different. My brother and I, we were like kids and we would go five, six, seven blocks from home at four and five years old. We didn’t worry about anything. Now this happened all those places, all those toy stores and five and dime stores, all those things we used to visit, Dairy Queens and things, those things were gone. We couldn’t venture out like that any more. So it was different and I think what the riot did for us as young people it stole our innocence. Not all of it, but some of it. It really truly destroyed a lot of our innocence. We were kids until that happened. That let us know that there were people out there who had ideas that were different from our ideas. You know, people who weren’t as thoughtful, warm and kind, you know, who weren’t as compassionate. We overheard conversations that the adults would have. One of the things that was going on is the police would knock on your door just out of the clear blue sky. This was prior to the riot. They would knock on your door and say, “I would like to come in.” My dad had told us only if they have a warrant, open the door – which was strange. We were just kids. Why did they want to come in? But it was just part of all that tension and I think that’s why – you know why the riot happened it was because there was so much mistrust between the police and the citizens. I think that was it.
GS: Do you think – just thinking after the riot occurred – do you think this tension changed at all?
SL: I think what happened there was a new type of tension, because what happened was there was still that suspicion between citizens and police. But then another type of tension developed. Because what happened is a lot of Chaldeans came in and took over the stores that the white Americans had abandoned because they wanted out of here. So the Chaldeans came in and we didn’t understand them and they didn’t understand us and it led to a lot of misunderstandings, a lot of arguments and disruptions in our daily lives. People would say, “Oh, we’re not going to go to that store anymore. We’re not going to shop there. We’re not going to go to that particular gas station. They’re disrespectful towards us.” It just changed the fiber of the city. We went from being exposed to all kinds of people to basically it was African American people after that.
GS: So did a lot of people in your community, your community move out of Detroit after the riot?
SL: Well, yeah, a lot of the Italian people moved out, the Japanese moved out; a lot of them did move out, yes.
GS: Did your family ever consider leaving Detroit?
SL: My family never considered leaving Detroit. My parents and my sisters and brothers were all born in Oklahoma. They came here to Detroit so they had migrated here anyway. They were where they wanted to be.
GS: Did you feel generally less safe in the city after that? Because you said that when you were young you were going all over the city?
SL: Oh yes, without a doubt. Because after then it was who do you trust? Even the neighbors – who are these people who are doing the looting? Then you didn’t even know if you could trust the people you lived around. It wasn’t just the police it was like I said the neighbors you live around. Who are these people? I never saw any of my neighbors doing anything like that but – who were those people? It became a place where you didn’t know where you could trust people – you didn’t know who you could trust.
GS: I see. Thinking about Detroit in the present day, what are your opinions of Detroit right now?
SL: My dad said it would take 50-60 years before the city would ever come back. That was his prediction in ’67. Detroit is coming back slowly. But I don’t see it as being an inclusive city anymore. It seems like a city geared towards young and white people, not including all people in whatever the resurgence is going to be. We have a large Arabic population. We have a lot of Indians. I think everyone should be included. I don’t see that happening right now. I think the older people are really being forced out. I never, ever considered leaving the city. The city has been really good for us. I have eight children, five of them are biological, three are step-kids. My kids sailed for six or seven years. They took sailing lessons, they did T-ball, they ski -- they did everything. They were caddies at the Detroit Gold Club. They did everything, the city was a good place for us. Then when my kids went away to college I begged them not to come back here because the city had changed so much. I said, “Please don’t come back here.” There is nothing here for you, absolutely nothing. They all went off, all my kids went off to college.
GS: Is there anything else that you would like to add about your experiences?
SL: I feel devalued because I was always an ambassador to the city even where other people said bad things about the city. I always said that there were a lot of good people in the city. Whenever anything happens in the city Detroiters are people that are freehearted, they give. It doesn’t matter to what cause. I just feel devalued because now I’m older, there seems not to be a place for older people in the city. It just seems to all be geared towards young people and white people. I just feel devalued by it. My undergraduate degree is from University of Detroit-Mercy and my graduate degree is from Wayne State University. Even attending Wayne State University it was so different because most people think Wayne State because it sits in the city center that it has a large African American population, but going through grad school there were maybe three African Americans total? I think the city could do a lot better. ? I think the city could do a lot better so far as being more inclusive, including everybody.
GS: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
SL: Thank you so much for allowing me to sit down and talk with you today.
GS: Of course.