LeeRoy Johnson, August 8th, 2016
WW: Hello. Today is August 5, 2016, my name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit ’67 Oral History Project. I’m in Detroit, Michigan. I’m sitting down Mr. Lee Roy Johnson. Thank you for sitting down with me today, sir.
LRJ: Thank you.
WW: Can you please tell me where and when were you born?
LRJ: Born in Detroit, Michigan. September 4, 1948, Labor Day.
WW: And you were born in Detroit?
LRJ: In Detroit.
WW: Did you grow up in the city?
LRJ: Yes I did.
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
LRJ: The near East Side, which consists of streets, on Theodore Street, which is near Warren and Chene.
WW: Was the neighborhood integrated or mostly black?
LRJ: Mostly black.
WW: What was the composition of the neighborhood? Were there older Detroit families, or were there recent immigrants to the city?
LRJ: They were older Detroit families. I can say that.
WW: Was the neighborhood close-knit?
LRJ: Yes, very much so.
WW: Are there any experiences you’d like to share from growing up in that neighborhood?
LRJ: Yeah. I wanted to tell my experience about when the Detroit Riot–
WW: Before that–growing up.
LRJ: Growing up. Well, no, not really. I had a normal childhood through school.
WW: What schools did you go to?
LRJ: I went to Ferry Elementary School, which was, at the time, it was mostly white, Ferry Elementary. From there I went to [unintelligible] Junior High, which was another school on Moran Street. That was mostly integrated, basically Black. Then, Northeastern was the high school, which was mostly Black.
WW: Did you sense any tension while you were going to school?
LRJ: Yeah, there was a lot of racial tensions going on. During elementary and junior high for a while we used to get chased home because on the east side of Chene, all the white boys still lived. We lived on the west side of Chene. If we were caught on the east side of Chene, we were beat up by the white boys. So we found ourselves running home across Chene to get home almost every day. Those were guys, it was a placed called Tom’s Lunch, right there on Chene and Frederick, where there was the motorcycle gang stayed at this restaurant every day, all the motorcycles was parked out there with leather jackets. So if you were caught over there, you would get something you wouldn’t like. So we avoided that area, going to school and coming home, and even after school. That went on ’til I got almost to high school. The place closed up and the motorcycle gang moved to another area, or whatever, but they weren’t there anymore.
WW: Did you face racial views like that throughout the city growing up?
LRJ: Yeah, it was like that throughout the city, that’s for sure. Yeah. No matter where you went. Yeah, Detroit was very racial.
WW: Growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, did you sense any growing tension throughout the city? You spoke to the tension you faced in elementary school, middle school, did it keep growing?
LRJ: Yeah, it continued to grow to a certain extent. And as I said, as I got older, the areas that I was going, like school, swimming, places like that was mostly all blacks then. So I didn’t have to deal with the white tension, white people who didn’t want us nowhere around, and I didn’t have to run and be chased home or something because they had moved out of the neighborhood. Basically I guess in a high-class area, because our area was considered slum after they moved out. So, yeah, it changed.
WW: Growing up in the 1960s, did you become attached to any of the civil rights movements that were going on–say like Dr. King or Malcolm X?
LRJ: No, that was all stuff that we saw on television. We liked it, we agreed to it, to the things they were saying, but no, there were no Malcolm X. There were a few people, like two blocks away, on Frederick and St. Aubin, from where I lived is where Malcolm X’s wife lived. We used to see Malcolm X walking down St. Aubin on his way to her house, two or three times a week he’d be walking down this street on his way to her house. We knew him, Red, as we called him, and her brother was in my grade. She was a real dark complexion girl, and her brother was too–the whole family–the Burkes family, that was their name. Arthur Burkes was my age. Malcolm X’s wife was like three, four years older than us, but her brother was my age, and we used to see Malcolm X walk down St. Aubin to go see his future wife. We used to see him two, three times a week. We knew who he was, he was a Muslim in the black movement, at that time. But all we would do is say “Hi,” and he’d speak to all us little boys and keep going. That’s what we was to him. That’s as far as it went. We didn’t join or ask to join or anything. We didn’t follow him down the street, he was just another person that we knew. Had the freckles on his face, real high yellow light-skin guy, red hair, that was Malcolm X. I knew him, I’ll never forget his face, I can picture his face now. On his way to see–she was his girlfriend then. They stayed on Frederick and St. Aubin. I went to school with her brother, high school, and junior high school, because he was in my grade. His sister, I used to see her every now and then, the future wife of Malcolm X, so that’s as far as it went. We saw him and that was it.
WW: Were you still living in that neighborhood in 1967?
WW: How did you first hear what was going on?
LRJ: Well, I had just graduated from high school. In 1966 I graduated. I got a job at Chrysler, which was Mack Stamping Plant on Mack Street up near St. Jean or something. They allowed me to work 89 days and laid me off. We was so mad we threw bricks, broke windows out that night. That was about March of ’67, I was unemployed. So that going into the summer, about three-four months went by, I think it was June, Chrysler called me back to work at Sterling Stamping Plant—15 Mile and Mound Road. The 75 Freeway wasn’t open then, we used to have to take Van Dyke all the way out to 15 Mile and Mound. Van Dyke, the street. Right. After going back to work, and coming back to work, I found my long-lost father who I convinced to co-sign for me a car. I picked out this Buick, a drop-top deuce and a quarter, which was an electric 225. I had with the drop-top, which was the thing back then. I got the car about two and half weeks, the last of June, first of July, something like that. I think the riot broke out like the second week in July, I think, third week. Okay. I’m just going by memory here. So I had been working two to three weeks, driving to work for the first time, because I had a car. One Sunday afternoon, these girls we knew, we were all sitting at this white lady—who lived in our neighborhood, who was a good friend of my mother’s—we’re sitting in her background on these big park benches, me and about six or seven guys in the neighborhoods, just sitting there, when these three girls who stayed on the west side who we had met when we’d go dancing, they came over and they say, “They’re rioting on the west side.” We say, “What?” And she said, “If you don’t believe me, turn around and look.” And we turned around and looked west, and all you could see was smoke. She say, “Come on! Come on! Come on!” So everybody, I had the top dropped, and all five of my friends plus the three girls, we all crowded in my car, and we rode down Warren to 12th, and we rode down 12th Street and we saw the destruction that was going on on 12th. And we saw people running in and out of stores, they was turning over. They were wild on 12th Street, and I’m saying, “What’s going on?” People were coming out of businesses, the pawn shops, everything, with all kind of items, they had just go in there and take it, the police standing there don’t even try to stop ’em.
So we started looting. We were putting stuff in the car, we didn’t have much room. But anyway, we got rid of the girls, and we came back. We continued to loot up and down 12th all the way to Davison, because further down 12th, the Jews owned all the businesses up and down 12th at that time. 12th had a lot of stores and we were going, running in and out, in and out, stacking the merchandise in my car in the trunk, inside because the top was let down, we’d ride back down—Forest was the one-way street then—back down Forest to the East Side and dump the stuff off. That was that Sunday.
The next day was Monday. We hit Woodward, and we went toward downtown on Woodward. The stores–Hughes and Hatcher, Meyers Jewelry–all that, we hit those stores. I had a bag of jewelry, a little brown paper bag, full with diamond rings. Maybe about forty diamond rings was in this little bag I had, which I gave away. Everybody in my family and friends had a new diamond ring. I had shoes, some were mismatch, I had so many pairs of shoes. Suits, some was too big, I just grabbed suits off the rack. A couple of times, as I was coming out of these stores, I met the police standing there, and honest to God they did nothing because it was like fifty people running in and out and we would’ve overwhelmed the police anyway. So the police didn’t even say nothing to us; they stood there at the entrance of the stores on Woodward and let us in and out and loot. We were taking merchandise–underwear, socks. We come back, my car’s filled up again, we hit Chene Street–washing machines, automatic washers and dryers, couches and chairs. Hi-Fis, the long Hi-Fis was the thing out then. I was putting them across–you got me? The long stereo back then was the music or component everybody was using. They were called Hi-Fis, saying, “Man, I got a Hi-Fi,” and we were laying long Hi-Fis across, when I let the top down, across the top of my convertible, and we were riding ’em back. The liquor stores, we had cases and cases and cases of—the thing out then was Johnny Walker Red and Johnny Walker Black. Liquor, liquor, cases of liquor, in which we were selling to the after-hour joints. There were six or seven after-hour joints in just about every neighborhood that sold liquor past two o’clock at night. Anyway, this went on every day. We went on Mack and that scared me to death, when I went on Mack Street, I’ll never forget that. I went there because I had ran out of gas, and I’d seen other guys just pull the pump up, knock the thing over with, and fill their car up with gas, hang it back up and drive off, nobody paid for gas. So I did it. I filled my car up, but on Mack I hurried up and got off Mack because they were burning Mack. As the fireman was going into these buildings, there were guys shooting at the fireman. I said, “Oh, I gotta get away from here.” All you could hear was gunshots and buildings burning and the firemen was scared, they was hiding behind the fire trucks afraid they’d get shot as they were trying to put the fire out. Well, we didn’t go for that, our thing was just looting, you know, we didn’t burn anything. We did go in the bank on Grand River and Warren, and after we left out, the other people went in there and set the bank on fire, but it wasn’t us.
WW: What made you and your friends loot?
LRJ: We were poor! Everything that you wanted you could just walk in and get it. Whatever neighborhood you was in, you could just walk in and take it. Nobody to stop you. It was crazy, I’d never saw anything like this. If you wanted a shirt or a suit or a pair of shoes, it was there for the grabbing—just go in and grab your size and walk out. Except I was grabbing boxes of shoes and racks of suits.
WW: As you and your friends were going around the city looting, what was the atmosphere like?
LRJ: I seen stuff I could never … people and this I can dispute—people called it a racial—it was nothing racial about the riot. Nothing, you hear me? I was running down the alleys with white women and men who had washing machines on their back from the good housekeeping shops. They was stealing the miniature washers and dryers and they were looting as well as we were. So it was nothing racial about this. Everybody was just—everybody, all creed and color—were looting. We wasn’t fighting the white man about this, not at all. Like I say, they lied when they say this was a race riot, no it was not a race riot. I can contest to that. Because I looted and right next to me would be a white man taking just as much as me.
WW: Were you surprised when the Detroit Police Department didn’t stop the looters?
LRJ: Yes, very surprised.
WW: Did that encourage you to do more looting?
LRJ: Yes, it did, because I didn’t feel like I’d get caught. It was like six of us, one got caught, about the fourth day of the riot, his name was Lee Roy, just like mine. Maybe I shouldn’t use his name, I don’t know.
WW: You didn’t say his last name.
LRJ: He’s the only one of us that’s still living, but he’s in California [unintelligible]. Shouldn’t have said that.
WW: You’re fine.
LRJ: He got caught. They had those looters, all the jails was filled up, they had no room for the looters. They had ’em on busses at Belle Isle, had ’em chained, feet and hand, to each other. They were urinating and using the bathroom on the busses out at Belle Isle. They went out to Belle Isle until the courts had time to see them, which means they were maybe there two or three days before that bus was taken to the courts, in which they was given like five days’ time served. If they on Belle Isle for a week, the judge would let ’em go. All this happened in the first week. Now, I got underwear, I got socks, I got shoes, I got everything down my grandmother’s basement. I’m going in and out. She found out I had all this stuff in her basement, and my grandmother was a Christian lady, she didn’t play. She told me if I don’t get this stuff out of her basement, she was going to hang me. So now I got to find a place to put all my looting stuff. She didn’t like it, but she know I had stole this stuff, you couldn’t fool old people. Now we’re into the second week. This only lasted two weeks. The looting itself lasted a week, they brought in the National Guard in the second week. They put the National Guard, they were on Perry and Park, which was on Chene and Warren. There’s a park where we have reunions at there every year now. The Army set up tents and everything right there on that big park. Nobody was supposed to go on that park, but we had one guy, Conley was his name, he went up there and one of the soldiers hit him in the mouth with a rifle, busted, knocked all his teeth out everything. But he was warned not to go up there.
Now, the curfew was six o’clock. You weren’t supposed to be caught on the street after six o’clock. This was the armed forces’ rule. Now the police is trying to enforce, because they got backup with the Army. But it was our time to sell all this stuff that we had stolen. So now we’re running through the alleys with cases of liquor at the after-hours joints trying to sell past six o’clock. Two or three times the Army shot at me because I was on the street past six o’clock running through the alley, me and another guy, he got one end of the case of liquor and I got the other end, and we’re taking it to the after hour joint, selling these liquor, and we sold a few Hi-Fis, and about twenty cases of liquor we sold. But that was when, like I say, we came in contact with the army. And they were there to stop us from being on the street. And like I say, that was my time to sell all the stuff we had stolen. So we made money, and that was our whole objective. Not to hurt anybody, not to set fires because the city was burning already because we had people—blacks were shooting at police at that time, firemen at that time, and I’m watching all this. But it wasn’t what we did, my group did. We was there to make money only, get underwear, get things that we didn’t have. I’ll never forget on the block of St. Aubin, everybody on that block had brand new furniture. They go down to Chene Street, and hit the furniture store, they had couches and chairs. They made a mistake, they took all their furniture, and threw it in the alley, all their old furniture they threw in the alley. So when the National Guard came through, all they had to do was go up that alley, and everybody that had old furniture, they would go in their house find new furniture. They didn’t arrest ’em, these people had to end up going back in the alley, getting their old furniture, because the police made ’em set the new furniture back out. They didn’t arrest them, though, I’ll never forget that. And we were all laughing because they had to give up this new furniture. But the grocery store, the market, there was no food. You couldn’t buy food because they hit every market, every grocery store, every liquor store. There was no food. Plenty of alcohol and liquor you could drink if it was circling the neighborhood. Nobody had food because all of the grocery stores had been hit. For all their meats and food and bread, you couldn’t even buy it. But I want to go back to, after the second day of the riot, I tried to go to work because I still had my job at Chrysler. My job was on 15 and Mound in Warren, Michigan. Little did I know that I wasn’t allowed across 8 Mile Road. They was stopping every Detroiter. Every Detroiter that worked across 8 Mile Road was turned back into Detroit. You weren’t allowed in Warren, Michigan, there’s no going to Sterling Heights where I had to go. I did go, and I told my foreman, and he told me, “Don’t worry about coming to work until after this is over.” So that’s when I really went to loot, cause I got all this free time now, and still got my job. So like I say, when the riot was over with and I was allowed 8 Mile, I never did get caught. I went back to work at Chrysler. This is my story about what happened for those two weeks. This was, like I said, I’d never seen nothing like this before, and never have since. Everything was wide open, you just walk into a store or a supermarket or a clothing store or a jewelry shop and just take what you want, and walk out, nothing there to stop you. The police did not stop you. We heard about the killings at the Algiers Hotel on Woodward. We didn’t go back up to Woodward no more, but this after the National Guard had came. The police got brave, and they shot those guys that was in the—well, actually the thing was, they were pimping. They had white girls in those rooms, and when the police came in and seen all these white girls, they shot the black guys, honest to God truth. They shot ’em and killed ’em. That hotel, the Algiers Hotel, which has been torn down now, was a place where the girls working went in and out and the police could see this, but like I said police did nothing until after the National Guard came. So for a whole week you had at will what you wanted to do, and police didn’t try to stop you. I would say they were scared, I don’t know if they were scared or know they were outnumbered. Because there was thousands of people in the street, cars couldn’t run, I mean people were running down the middle of the street, they stop, go in this store, come out, run down the middle of the street, stop, go in this store. Woodward, you couldn’t drive a car down Woodward. I’m talking about from here all the way back, you couldn’t drive a car down Woodward.
WW: Were you surprised when it went from just looting to arson?
LRJ: Yeah, I was. That’s the racial part. That very first day, that we were notified about the riot, we rode down Warren and over to the Boulevard, and we went down Linwood Street. There was a show on top of the show–what’d you call that thing where they–
LRJ: On top of the marquee was a guy named H. Rap Brown. He was a radical. And was on top of the marquee saying, “Take everything! Burn everything!” He was urging Blacks on like that. But that wasn’t our thing. [Laughter. Coughing.] We didn’t want to hurt nobody. I can’t less, cause I had some white friends that I went to school with, it didn’t bother me. I’m looting with whites. But, H. Rap Brown, which I heard he soon got killed—he didn’t? I thought he did.
WW: He’s still alive.
LRJ: He’s still alive? Well he was urging people at that time to loot. He was standing way up on top of a show, a movie theatre, on the marquee, way up. I made the right turn onto Linwood and like a block after I did was the show, I can’t think of name of the show—
WW: Dexter Theatre.
LRJ: What was it? Was it the Dexter theatre? Something like that. He was urging people to loot and to rob and steal and he was saying things like, “Hurt the white man,” and all this kind of stuff. Well I didn’t go for that, I stopped for about three minutes and listened to what he was saying, then shot down the street, I didn’t even want to hear none of that. All I was interested in was doing what everybody else was doing: looting. Like I say, I was looting alongside whites so I knew nothing racial was about this. But certain areas, they made it a racial thing. Like I say, on Mack, they were crazy on Mack. I never go back on Mack during the riot, that one time I got gas, I never went back on Mack Street, cause it was bullets flying, police was scared to put the fires out, they was ducking, and as the fire guys would go up the ladder they’d be like this, because it was people shooting at the firefighters. Stupid. But that’s what they was doing.
WW: Did this change the way you looked at the city?
LRJ: Yeah, it took a while for the city to get back to normal. Because things were tore up, and burnt up, and I’m still riding my car, so I still got my transportation, and I was going in different parts of 12th Street was just, it was burnt up. Everything was looted, it was tore up. They had a lot of rebuilding to do. Detroit was tore up. A lot of people lost businesses and things were really bad. Like I say, I just went to work then and came back home. I left it alone. It was over and done with.
WW: How did you feel about the National Guard and later the army coming in? You mentioned that it emboldened the Detroit Police Department–
WW: So aside from that, how did you feel about the use of state troops and federal troops?
LRJ: I think it was needed, because it was enough chaos as it was. For a solid week, there were nobody to stop what was going on. I mean it was wide open. I stole as much as I wanted to steal, now I wanna to see this stop because everybody’s going crazy! And I’m hearing on the news about people getting shot and killed, and now I’m getting worried, and I’m saying this needs to stop. So when the National Guard came in, I was actually happy, but, well happy in one hand and a little sad because I still had stuff to sell and they were there to stop me being on the street. But I know this is what this city needed, they needed somebody to enforce the law because it was lawless at the time.
WW: How do you refer to the events of July 1967? Do you see them as a riot? Or do you see them as a rebellion?
LRJ: They say it started a blind pig on 12th Street, which would have made it a rebellion when the police was raiding the blind pigs over there. But I don’t see it as a rebellion, just basically a riot. The people were fed up, especially the poor people, how they were being treated, and they went to taking everything they could. So I would say riot. It was a chance for people to have things they didn’t have, not so much to hurt people as a rebellion, no. No. Or a racial thing, no. So everybody, you know, right now I hear people say, “Man, was you here, do you remember, do you know about the riot, man?” And a lot of people that talk wasn’t even here when that happened. I was here, I lived through it, and I knew it was not a racial thing at all. It was just an opportunity for people to riot. They opened the door for poor people to get things they didn’t have. It wasn’t trying to kill you cause you was white, you was right along beside me, looting!
WW: Did you ever think about moving out of the city after that, or did you?
LRJ: Well I live out of the city now.
LRJ: Then? No. I stayed here through all the rebuilding.
WW: And was your neighborhood ever threatened by fire?
LRJ: Yeah, we had some fires, not much. Guys would, it was only a few, there were some black businesses. Matter of fact, there was a few Black businesses, and they would paint black on their door, and the people wouldn’t touch their business. Like a small store. Black-owned. And he would put black on his door, and they’d riot, they’d run past this door. Some of them got hit too, for their little groceries and their little beer and wine they were selling, but a small store, neighborhood corner store or something. But, basically, no.
WW: Do you think the city’s still affected by the events of 1967? Do you think we’ve moved past them?
LRJ: I think we went past that. Most of the people that was here then is not even proud of being even alive. Most of my friends that looted with me, there’s only one or two that’s still alive. Two or three that’s in the penitentiary, never did anything with their lives. I went on to, I quit Chrysler after one year. I had a few other odd jobs. Then I went to work for the John Hancock Insurance Company. I worked there for twenty-two years as a financial planner, I sold stocks, bonds, mutual funds, car insurance, homeowner’s. I even met Mr. Wright, Charles H. Wright, I serviced him before he died. I was at his house, he showed me and told me about his dream of opening the Wright. And he had all these black artifacts in his house that he showed me. He was waiting on a loan at the time from the banks to try to open up this place. He was a John Hancock policy holder, and I’m going through the policy service cards when I run across his name, and I went to his house to service his policy.
WW: That’s awesome.
WW: How do you see the city today? Are you optimistic?
LRJ: Yeah. They’re doing a lot of building, you can almost go downtown and not know it, not as it used to be. During the ‘60s, early ‘70s, they had White Castles and stuff up and down Woodward, all that stuff’s gone. You got new buildings, new businesses, it’s really changed. Yeah. I’ve been out of Detroit now since June of ’12, but I drove the bus for the next twelve years up and down Woodward, the city of Detroit bus, and I retired from them. So I get a pension from them as well—one from John Hancock, one from the city of Detroit. So I wasn’t always a thug. I was a good guy at heart. But the riot was something you couldn’t pass up, nobody. Even the square guys was looting. It was just opportunity that you had at that time. I wasn’t a thief, because after that was over I never went to jail for anything, I don’t have a criminal record. This was just opportunity. Like I say, race had nothing to do with it. Wasn’t no rebellion. Detroit was a city, they say, that was kind of fed up, there was a lot of people out of work. How I got that job at Chrysler, I was lucky, fresh out of high school, even though I didn’t work long. But they were known then, to work you eighty-nine days and let you go, so that you couldn’t draw unemployment against them, you had to have ninety days. So they called me back, the second time is when the riot broke out.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me, I greatly appreciate it.
LRJ: No problem.
TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW: 43:12
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