Carter Stevenson, July 23rd, 2016


Carter Stevenson, July 23rd, 2016


In this interview, Stevenson talks about how he got involved in the civil rights movement in Detroit and his participation in identifying prisoners during the unrest and informing their families. He also discusses at length the history of the Shrine of the Black Madonna church.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Oral History


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Carter Stevenson

Brief Biography

Carter Stevenson was born in Detroit in 1946 and grew up in Delray. He attended Cass Tech and Mercy College and was very active in civil rights movements in Detroit.

Interviewer's Name

Giancarlo Stefanutti

Interview Place

Detroit, MI



Interview Length



Hannah Sabal

Transcription Date



CS: [My name is Carter] Stevenson. I was born in Detroit, 1946. I went to public schools in Detroit. McMellan Elementary School from kindergarten through grade 8. Cass Tech High School for high school, and I also went to Henry Ford Related Trades and University of Michigan in the Rackham Center. Lastly, at the time of the riot, I was a student at Mercy College. I had worked in my neighborhood, in my community, in Del Ray before I could, you know—my family was very much a part of the community there. My dad had baseball teams, he organized a boys’ club. I had gone to Presbyterian neighborhood services in the area. We had a lot of family interaction in terms of things that went on there. I graduated from high school in 1964. There was always rumblings of things that were going to happen. I remember the freedom schools on the north end, around Northern High School. I don’t know if he’s still alive, I think Chuck Colding was one of the people involved with that. Of course, Judy Walker and guy who’s an attorney now, but they were involved in that. Through my community activity, I was involved through the Presbyterian Neighborhood Services. That organization or that presence changed names over the course of the time, and there were events that brought about that. Presbyterian Neighborhood Services became Protestant Community Services and eventually became People’s Community Services. Each time there was a change, there was an event that was related to it. It’s sort of a distraction to go through it, but it’s important to know that that’s how it evolved. But through that social services institution, we had a presence in terms of things that were going on. They were not just present in Del Ray, but they were also present in Hamtramck, they were present in some other areas of the city. Through the torch drive and UCS, there were a lot of social services, folks who were looking at conditions and things. During those times, they would get together and talk about things that were imminent or happening. During that summer, there were rumblings that something was going to happen. It’s 1967, after graduating from high school I had gone to work for the city of Detroit. I was a stationary steamer apprentice. I worked in my neighborhood, literally on Jefferson and Junction.

GS: Moving back just a little bit, as far as growing up, what neighborhood did you say you lived in?

CS: Del Ray.

GS: Del Ray. Was that a very racially integrated neighborhood?

CS: Historically, yes. Even then, and as it is now, yes. It didn’t always feel like it, but it was. To play baseball in my neighborhood my uncle had to be conversant in three different languages. There was a church there, Holy Cross, where the priests had mass on Sunday in two different languages, and neither one was English. When I was a freshman in college, I tried to organize against what now became—what now is the Water Sewage Treatment program. We tried to organize against Urban Renewal to the extent that we were interested in stopping the imminent domain from depossessing residents of their properties to build the Water and Sewage Treatment program. What had happened was that there were a lot of people who spoke Polish and Hungarian as a first language and only language who were still living there, and the younger folks who were bilingual were getting better prices for their property under imminent domain, and we tried to organize with Father Jacobs—Father Jacobs was the priest at Holy Cross—to help the other people who didn’t speak English get better prices for the acquisition of their properties. It was an internal conflict and turmoil, so when I got to college, I was looking for people who could speak Polish and Hungarian to do that, which, of course, made me somewhat notorious at my campus, because there was this guy trying to influence people to volunteer in his neighborhood. Yes, the neighborhood was like that. It had always been that way. To some large part, it still is.

GS: Moving to the 60s, you said you heard some “rumblings.” Could you expand upon that a little more?

CS: Yeah, well, before I quit my job at the city, 1965, I had gone to some meetings where people were talking about not taking it anymore. What was interesting was that there were people who—I had gone to meetings with people who were interested in not taking it anymore and doing something about it. I remember guys being really highly upset about what was going on. By the same token, one of the guys I worked with had me go to another meeting, and they were the opposition to the people who were doing the other stuff. I’m an 18-year-old kid who’s sort of interested in civic affairs but somewhat unknowledgeable. So what I would do invariably, though, is a lot of reading. I’d read all the literature and see if I could figure out which side was I on, because it was very evident that there were different sides. There also was this precursor to Americore, which they called VISTA: Volunteers in Service to America. What that basically was was an avenue for some religious kids who were liberal in persuasion, some college kids who were looking to have summer jobs. They would come or join VISTA, it was either a summer experience or maybe even a year-long experience. They’d come and live in these areas and they were going to do good. It was like a domestic Peace Corp. Well, Delray is probably the lowest socioeconomic status by definition area in Detroit, so the VISTAs were located in my neighborhood, stationed there. Of course, it always intrigued me that there would be people coming in to help my neighborhood because it wasn’t like—well, it was my neighborhood! I considered myself their ambassador and guide, since they were coming there and they were going to help basically the extended neighborhood, which also is my extended family. When the VISTAs came, I would make myself known to them and we’d become friends. When these people came, we’d do that. We paled around with them. I remember it very well. I got taken to what turned out to be historical kind of event in Detroit. It was the Winter Soldier protest. Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland were at this place in midtown, which later became my actual church, but they were speaking. I remember going there because there was some VISTAs who actually lived there too. Since I wasn’t too much younger than most of the folks who had come to work in my neighborhood, I kind of palled around with them. By then, I’m working for the city, initially, and then I quit the city and went to college. Now we’re at the eve of the civil disturbance, which is what Romney called it. He did that for insurance reasons. It would depend on how the events were classified as to whether or not the people who had commercial losses would be indemnified or would get money. So if you called it a riot, then that was usually excluded from a commercial business, commercial insurance. So when Romney was asked about the events in Detroit, he said, “Oh, no, we had a civil disturbance,” which means then that the insurance companies had to pay the people for their losses. What things are called had a big impact on what was going to happen in the aftermath.

GS: Moving to the civil disturbance itself, where were you when you first heard about it?

CS: I was in college. I was going to summer school, taking a Latin-American history class. But I also was working for Protestant Community Services—back then, that was what it was called—in a program called Summer Weekend-Evening Entertainment Program, SWEEP. That basically was to avert civil disturbance. Obviously, that didn’t happen. But I was working with VISTAs, and it was sort of my summer job as I was going to college. The first night, ostensibly—and there are lots of different perspectives on how things happened—but ostensibly, on 12th Street, there was the shooting of a prostitute named Cynthia Scott at an after-hours bar. That was the spark. That’s one way of looking at it. To that point of view, one of the people who they interviewed as a consequence of that was a guy that I had gone to high school with. They were twin brothers, Charlie and Wilbur Marshall. Charlie Marshall I knew a little better than I did his twin brother. But it was his twin brother, I believe, who was a witness to the shooting. That was the spark and things sort of got out of control. Now another way of looking at the same event were some of the things that had been happening before then. Another perspective was the evolution of the police officers as a bargaining unit and as a political force. Police as—police organizing, or police department as a unit—much like the other organizations and unions in the Detroit area, organized labor—that was, at the time, that was beginning to happen in this country and it really did start in Detroit. The Detroit Police Officers Association was just beginning to formulate, and I think they had, Carl Parcell was the chief organizer. I don’t know that I could prove that there was a blue flu, but there was certainly a reduction in law enforcement as it related to dealing with, monitoring and preventing crime on the streets. Some folks might call it a blue flu, but everybody knew that folks were getting away with a lot. There was also a newspaper strike. The word on what was happening inside of Detroit was not good as far as communications were concerned. The then mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, had been elected primarily as a—it wasn’t exactly a fluke, but he had been elected and run against the power structure of Louis Miriani, who I guess subsequently may have spent some time in jail, even. They’re both Catholic, they’re both white. Cavanagh was running to represent truth and justice. Miriani was the old establishment. The setting was right for the police officers to actually do their organizing because the situation was fluid. It was a better time for them, I guess, to do it. Now, this happened, starting in Detroit, and was true all over the country in terms of policemen organizing. It’s difficult to say that people talk about looking back at it. Historically, sit-down strikes were an effective tool in organizing unions. Blue flus is still such a sensitive kind of a thing that you don’t say that to police who are shirking their duty.

GS: You were in college when you first heard about it, the civil disturbance starting. How were you reacting and how were the other people around you reacting?

CS: Well, I used to commute by bus to Mercy College. I couldn’t get there. First day, I kind of stayed in. When they called the National Guard, I don’t remember which day it was. I remember going on my porch and a guy came by on a jeep and on the jeep he had an anti-aircraft gun. I’m standing on my porch. This guy pointed the anti-aircraft gun at me and said, “Go back in the house.” I went back in the house. There’s nothing like having an anti-aircraft gun being pointed at you. So I went back in the house, but I decided that I was going to do something, from that point on. Because we already had the facility, I started to go to find out what kind of things happened. These folks that we were working with, with SWEEP, had meeting and went around the room, talking about things that were happening, and I can remember one of the guys that was involved in that program had been a civil rights worker. He and his wife had both been involved there and were looking at things and part of the stuff that I was supposed to do was keep the lid on and keep young people active during the course of that summer. We had pool tables, and we were running a pool program, doing all kinds of things to keep the lid on because folks were afraid that something was going to happen. Somebody else said, “Well, it happened in the area that we were working in, and we had our nose to the ground.” I decided that I was going to take on, as my running buddy, the guy who had been the civil rights worker. He was from Chicago and he and his first wife had gone south to Alabama to be involved in what was going on. She had gotten killed down there. Then he met his second wife. There was a whole kind of subculture in terms of people who had been involved in SNCC and had gone south from the Detroit area and were coming back. Those folks were generally about four or five years older than I was, so I missed the civil rights movement. That was terrible. So I had to be involved in something, so I was involved in this in terms of this stuff. The adventure was very high, my sense of adventure. We’re out there doing this stuff and I happened to be tagging along with the Scott B., was his name. We went to a house over on—I can’t remember exactly the address—but we were in the shadow of the seminary, Sacred Heart. In the grotto there they had a statue of a Madonna. We’re in there talking with this family. The family became kind of famous, and still are, sort of. One of the little boys—I say little boy, I was 20, 21, he must have been about 14—came in, him and his buddies had painted in that grotto the Madonna, which was cast, and they painted it black. He came in and he said, “We painted the statue black.” He was just sort of beaming, because it was his act of civil disobedience. There wasn’t much else going on with those folks involved in that kind of stuff because obviously the program that we were dealing with had not been successful in averting something. So the next thing that happened was that anybody who was caught on the streets was being picked up. They were putting rioters or suspected rioters or potential rioters or people who fit the general description, myself included, in jail. They put them in jail in Detroit and they put them in jail any place that they could put them.

GS: So you, yourself, were arrested?

CS: No, I wasn’t. But they were putting people in jail, and then I found out about the Detroit Defenders Association who were trying to get people out of jail. But there was another step between those, and that step was identifying and locating people who were picked up and put in jail, so we could notify their families. I joined. So I’m at the now deceased judge Claudia Morcum. Her name then was Shropsher. I guess she had married a couple of times. Her maiden name had been House, and her nephew and I had played football together at high school. He was one of the guys who was maybe a year, year and a half older than me, because I started high school fairly early. I was like 12. He might have been as much as 14 when we started high school. I’m not sure if he left high school to go and be involved in the civil rights movement, but he might have. I don’t know if he graduated with our class. In any event, this was his aunt. What we were doing was finding people, locating them, and then notifying their families. So they gave me something else to do during the riots. I did that. I met a guy two years later at a Midwest United Nations seminar, workshop. I couldn’t—his name just sort of hung with me. Then it dawned on me that he was from Sandusky, Ohio. He had gotten off a bus at the bus terminal in Detroit, been picked up, and transported to Milan, Michigan for incarceration. Because he was a suspect. There were people as far away as Milan. There were people—anywhere they could lock folks up, they were locking them up. Our job was to find them. That was my job during what was going on. I mentioned to you that the kids, the Hankerson boy, went and painted that Madonna black. Now, that was significant for three reasons: one reason was that the aftermath in terms of what happened was that there was an artist named Glanton Dowdell, and Glanton Dowdell did a portrait of a black Madonna. That was, you know, important because it was at that time a significant statement in terms of what was going on. The other reason, second reason was the Reverend Albert Cleage changed his name and renamed his church to Shrine of the Black Madonna. That’s two. But what I think is significant is that after the riots were over, in that grotto, the people—I guess it was Sacred Heart Seminary—went back and they repainted the Madonna white. Then they had some consciousness and they thought about the significance of the act, and then they went back and painted it black again. That was fairly significant, I thought. So those three things came out of that one event. Police Officers’ Association became POAM: Police Officer’s Association of America [Michigan]. Leadership nationally, in terms of police officers as an organized entity, that leadership came out of Detroit. I witnessed a parade down 12th Street that lasted an hour or maybe an hour and a half. I think the organization as called BCA: Black Construction Association. These were basically black contractors who said that they wanted to be part of the solution in terms of the rebuilding of not just 12th Street, but Detroit and any areas where there was stuff. That parade had a total media blackout. I mean, no television, no radio, no newspapers, no ethnic newspapers, no ethnic radio, no nothing. No one—I don’t know if you’ve heard this before—saw it. No one reported it. No one talked about it. If you hadn’t been there, you would never have known that any of this stuff had gone on. It was over. I went back to college, I got an Incomplete for my History of Latin America. The president of the school, who was a nun, asked me to take her and show her the area because she knew that I had been involved in it. So I did, and I took her to the Shrine of the Black Madonna. We went there and the kid that painted the Madonna is generally credited with being one of the founders of techno music. You know what I mean. His name is [unintelligible]. I think he’s the music director for one of the casinos here, in town. After that, they came up with New Detroit.

GS: All right. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

CS: No.

GS: All right, thank you for sitting down with me today.

Original Format



47min 27sec


Giancarlo Stefanutti


Carter Stevenson


Detroit, MI


Stevenson, Carter.JPG


“Carter Stevenson, July 23rd, 2016,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed June 23, 2021,

Output Formats