Irene Fedorka, June 20th, 2016
BB: This is Bree Boettner with the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. We are in Plymouth, Michigan. Today’s date is June 20th 2016 and I am sitting here with Irene Fedorka. Thank you, Irene, for sitting down with me today. If you could please start by answering where and when you were born.
IF: I was born on November 9th in a small town in Pennsylvania named Mt. Langloft. My father was a coal miner.
BB: What did your mom do?
IF: My mother was a farmer.
BB: Did you have any siblings?
IF: Yes, I had two. I had a brother after me, and then my sister after me. There was two and a half years among each of us.
BB: When did you move to the city of Detroit?
IF: It was just before the war started, World War II. In fact, we were very poor and that’s why my father was a miner, a coal miner, because that was the only job available in Pennsylvania. At the time, he was only getting paid $3 a week to work in the coal mine. He had to live in, the coal miners had to live in the little town that the mine was located at. That’s where they got their money. They had to buy their own pick and shovel. I think my father said the pick and shovel was $3 to buy.
BB: So it took him a week just to buy his pick and shovel?
IF: Yes. But he didn’t have any money, so we lived off, the coal mining supervisor had to supply a grocery store. So the coal mining town was named Langloft, and the coal miners people were Langloft people. I could go to the store, I was 6 years old because I was in the first grade, I could go to the store and charge anything I wanted and bring home dinner. And then my dad would pay for it. He wouldn’t get any money; he’d pay for what we charged for the month. If he had a couple of bucks left over, that’s what he got for a living.
BB: So he moved to Detroit for a better job?
BB: What job did he get when he moved here?
IF: He was a tool and die maker. Farmers, they had to supply their own tools, supplies. I remember my grandfather on my mother’s side, I used to go and visit them when I was 13 and 14 years old in the summertime. They had a house on their property that they stored everything. Every kind of thing! If you had a safety pin, you saved it, because we didn’t have hardware stores to make anything work. We kept everything. Everybody saved it all. I used to go in, in the daytime, in that house and look at all these old-fashioned things. One thing that I remember very vividly, but I don’t remember the name of it, but it was a stethoscope [stereoscope]. I don’t know how to explain it. But you had pictures, two of them, one on each side, and you put them down in a slot. Then you look through these things and you had one big picture.
BB: I think I know what you’re talking about. I can’t think of the name, but you had the little button and you click it. The more modern age one is the one where you put in the slide and you click the button and the pictures changed.
IF: Right, right. You had two pictures the same.
BB: And they were 3D, right? They were three-dimensional pictures?
IF: It was the neatest thing.
BB: That does sound really cool, to see an early version of that. Wow.
IF: I can remember seeing that, going down to grandma’s, all the time after I got married and my kids would see it.
BB: So when you moved to Detroit, your dad was a tool and die maker. It was right before the war, right? You were how old at that time?
IF: I moved here in Detroit when I was 6 years old. I was in first grade.
BB: So you were in Detroit for quite a while, because you said in ’43 you were in high school. How was it living in the city of Detroit? What kind of neighborhood was it?
IF: It was a mixed neighborhood. I remember walking to school with a black person. She used to take care of me, my mother asked her if she’d watch so nobody would hurt me. And nobody did.
BB: What neighborhood did you move into? Do you remember the location?
IF: It was on the east side, and it was Joseph Campau and Dequindre. Joseph Campau and Dequindre is like Hamtramck in that area. I went to a school called Courville.
BB: Okay. And it was mixed race, as you said.
IF: Yes. We had Polish people and Italian people living together. We lived next door to Polish people.
BB: You’re Italian, correct?
IF: Yeah. But the whole neighborhood was that way. We had a lot of sisters and brothers that were living together. You know, they’d have a husband and wife here, then they’d have a couple of siblings and kids and stuff, then they’d have a brother and sister over here someplace. They were all cousins and everything in-between. Italian people and Polish people.
BB: So it was all really well mixed?
BB: Was there any issues in the neighborhood? Any tension that you felt?
BB: No? Everybody really got along?
IF: No, we all got along. The only ones that didn’t get along was the Catholic kids who went to a Catholic school because they went to a Catholic school, and people who weren’t—I mean, I went to a public school—so there was a mixture between the girls there and they didn’t like that idea. I only owned two dresses, and my mother would take them off of me as soon as I got home and I’d put my brother’s blue jeans on. These people, they owned the house that they lived in and we rented, because we were poor. That’s the kind of mixture that we had.
BB: Let’s talk about ’43 a little bit. Obviously, you know, there were the race riots in ’43. You said you were in high school earlier.
IF: Yes, I was in ninth grade.
BB: Can you explain a little bit about the experiences, you know, how you heard about the riot, what it was like in the city at that time?
IF: Well, I didn’t even know what “riot” meant until the principal of the school stopped me from pushing that boy from pushing me out the door, and I turned around and hit him.
BB: So he was pushing you out the door because he heard something about what was going on?
IF: No, he didn’t hear anything. He was just black and didn’t think I was worth anything, because I was a woman. I shouldn’t be respected or anything. That’s the way I took it.
BB: The rest of your neighborhood, because it was a mixed neighborhood, was there any tension in the neighborhood? No?
BB: It didn’t affect your area at all?
IF: No. The boys hung around together and the girls hung around together. I hung around together with the boys because the girls wouldn’t play with me. They were a religious organization. They were Catholic; they went to Catholic school. They wore dresses all the time. They sat on the porch and embroidered. The mothers didn’t allow them to play ball. So I played ball because my brother owned a baseball. I’d get the baseball and I’d pitch.
BB: You’ve got one heck of an arm!
IF: Yes, and I played ball until I was 20 years old. In fact I started a girls’ team for a girls club at the Detroit Rubber Tire Company.
BB: You graduated from high school. ’43 you were in ninth grade, so ’47, ’48 is when you graduated?
BB: ’45, okay. Did you go to college afterwards?
IF: No, I only went to—I had a job offered to me right away after high school, for the US Rubber Company. I worked for them. Then got a job there and stayed with them.
BB: And stayed in Detroit.
IF: Stayed in Detroit, yes. Lived with my mom and dad until I got married.
BB: When did you get married?
BB; 1950? And what was your husband’s name?
BB: George. And what did George do? What was his job?
IF: He started to work in the auto companies. Everybody had jobs at that time. He didn’t graduate from high school because he wanted to be a sailor. So he told his mother he was going to join the navy, and that’s what he did.
BB: He joined the navy for World War II?
IF: Yeah, for World War II. So his mother went up and got his diploma. He graduated in 1945 as well, but his mother received his—
BB: Received his diploma for him because he was gone. Wow. Then you met him after the war?
IF: Yeah, I met him after the war. It was funny because then I met him through my Aunt Alice who was on the farm where I used to stay. The people next door to her were very good friends of them. George and his family were very good friends with them. They all knew each other! Even though they’re farmers, and they rented the farm land, and they had 180 acres. I can remember Aunt Alice, she’s three years older than I am, she used to milk the cows and wash the cats’ faces.
BB: So you met your husband in 1950—
IF: But I met him through my Aunt Alice because when he was discharged, then she had a party on the farm for him and, I think he had four buddies that he came back with from Seattle, Washington, that’s where he was discharged at. He was discharged from there, and then he went to the Great Lakes to get his discharge papers. And she said, “Well if you’re going to Detroit, I have two nieces up there.” My sister and of course, my mother was the second one born in the family, so she was a lot older than Aunt Alice. So George thought that, he says, “Oh, she’s got little kids.” They did a lot of roller skating, everyplace that I know of, and they had a big roller rink up in Pennsylvania in Langloft, where George went roller skating all the time. They walked, incidentally, every place they went. They walked over each other’s farmlands to get to the places they were going to. So he would walk twenty-something miles, I think it was, just to get to the roller rink. So he knew my Aunt Alice and my Aunt Lily and everything. When we met each other through his friend from Pennsylvania, met her through one of her friends, she sent them up here. She says, “Look them up! I’ll give you their phone number.” When my mother found out that he was a friend of Aunt Alice’s, she was all excited that there was somebody that she knew indirectly from the same town she was. We met at the roller rink, met his friends, you know, blind date. My sister was five years younger than I am. Her and I were roller skating together and everything. See we had street cars, and busses. We didn’t need cars where we went. We could go everywhere. We told them what we were going to wear, and we went to the roller rink. What was the name of the roller rink? I’m trying to think of it. It was an arena. I can’t think of it right now.
BB: That’s okay. So you were married for a few years, then we’re going to come up to the 1960s. What was Detroit like in the 1960s?
IF: Everybody was friendly. You got to know each other.
BB: Where did you live at that time, in the 1960s?
IF: I lived over on, at that time, I lived in the same place over at—
BB: Jos Campau and Dequindre?
BB: You lived there with your husband? This is the ‘60s.
IF: In the ‘60s I was with my husband. We were in the same area, but we were about two miles away from my mom and dad.
BB: Okay. What was the city like then?
IF: Well I remember it kind of being dirty, you know, pop bottles around. You didn’t keep the city clean. We had pop bottles all over, people threw gum wrappers all over. If you cleaned anything up, you watered your garden, you had grass growing, and watering. I can remember my dad doing that all the time.
BB: Your neighbors, was your community pretty nice where you lived?
IF: Oh, yes. Yeah.
BB: All your neighbors were extremely nice?
IF: The boys and girls at night, we played until nine o’clock at night at the Bulldog on the corner.
BB: What was your husband doing in the 1960s? Where was he working?
IF: He was a policeman then.
BB: He was a policeman with the Detroit Police Department?
BB: Do you remember precinct he worked out of?
IF: He worked out of 14, which was Schaeffer, Schaeffer and Grand River, in that area.
BB: Okay. How did you hear about the ’67 riots, when they started?
IF: Well, my husband, because he had to go to work. They worked day and night, almost. They worked the tanks and keep things quiet. They had shotguns and all kinds of stuff so there wouldn’t be a lot of bad things going on.
BB: Did you have kids at this time?
IF: Oh, yeah, I had three of them.
BB: Did he do anything with you and the children during that time to keep you safe?
IF: No, no. He just stayed with the police force to keep things on the up and up, so there wouldn’t be a lot of shotgun fire and stuff like that.
BB: Do you remember anything in particular that happened?
IF: Not here, because we stayed in our area, which was maybe twenty miles away from the actual riot. The riot was in—
BB: Twelfth and Clairmount is where it started.
BB: Twelfth and Clairmount. So Rosa Parks.
IF: We lived in the area, the outside border was 5 Mile Rd and 8 Mile Rd, I remember was the outskirts of the city of Detroit. But it never came out that far. Most of the real bad rioting was down in Rosemary Park, in the middle of the city. That’s where all, well they weren’t bombing, but they were stealing and robbing the stores and stuff like that.
BB: Was there any tension in your neighborhood at that time, where you lived specifically?
IF: No, George never let us go down there. It was just too rough if white people were there. The white people didn’t want their family to get hurt, and the black ones didn’t want their family to get hurt. So if there was any bad ones getting together, it was the black men and the black women. I do remember when I was in high school back in ’43, there was that tension going on with the black and white. Black girls writing in lipstick in mirrors.
BB: What were they writing? Do you remember?
IF: Just bad things about, you know, “White people aren’t any good” or something similar to that. I don’t remember what they wrote.
BB: But you don’t remember any of that in ’67?
IF: No. We didn’t witness anything in the area.
BB: Was your husband ever harmed in the line of duty during that time?
BB: So he was safe?
IF: He was safe. But what we were doing as women, in our neighborhood, which was like twenty miles away from where he was working, we were staying home and cooking food for them. Somebody was making gnocchi, somebody was making spaghetti, somebody was making, you know, different things, and we’d send it down by one of the policeman down there so they’d have something to eat. Then the restaurants were fixing stuff for them to eat too. We made a lot of cookies for them too. We didn’t have any of the bad stuff in the area. We kept our kids with us.
BB: Did either you or him feel any tension a few weeks after the fact? After it happened? Was there anything that happened after?
IF: The only thing that everybody was leery of, I don’t even want to say this, but they were all afraid of the black people. And of course, when I was going to school with the black people, like sixth grade, seventh grade, I didn’t have any fear of them. We walked back and forth to school together all the time. Everybody stayed in their own neighborhoods. But everybody was afraid of each other. And if they had it down there, the husbands didn’t let the wives know. They never told us the bad stuff. We always watched out when we were going down the streets. I remember coming home from school, from downtown Christmas shopping, and I had a beautiful blue winter coat with a fur collar on it, and somebody tried to jump me. Tried to get under my coat and pull me down. I had all these bags like this. I was maybe two houses away from my house. I yelled and screamed.
BB: When was that?
IF: In the ‘60s. It was a white man; it wasn’t a black man. There was good and bad among everybody. I was maybe four doors away from my house.
BB: Any other memories or things you wanted to share about ’67 in particular?
IF: No, that’s the only thing that I said, in 1967, I don’t know if I want to say bad things about it. As a kid, you know, playing, we played boys and the girls together, and we didn’t think anything bad about it.
BB: Things definitely changed.
IF: But I never had a black person playing with me. I was also playing with the boys or baseball across the street. There was an empty field, and we had baseball. But we didn’t have anything nasty to say about them.
BB: We’re going to go after the ‘60s. How do you think the city of Detroit changed after the riots?
IF: Well, everybody became—what do I want to say? How do I want to say this? We were kind of apprehensive about each other. We didn’t think that we could play with them and have any problem. Although in high school we played sports with all of them, and maybe if we didn’t like them we didn’t say anything about it. But nobody had any fights about it. Everybody played with each other.
BB: So you think the city of Detroit changed just a bit afterwards?
IF: Oh, yeah. I think that we’ve kind of, you know—
BB: It shifted.
BB: Have you lived in Detroit all your life, or did you ever leave at any point? Did you leave the city of Detroit at some point?
IF: No, because my husband was a policeman in Detroit; he had to live there. I resented that.
BB: Why would you resent that, if you don’t mind me asking?
IF: Because he was working for the city of Detroit and he was keeping those people happy, and making sure they were safe and sound, why did he have to live there? Everybody else lived any place they wanted to live.
BB: That’s a good question.
IF: Yet, when the city of Detroit had baseball teams, and they played against other cities, they had black people. They played with them. And nobody had any fighting going on.
BB: Interesting. Well, just to wrap up the interview, one of the final questions I always ask everybody is do you have a message you’d like to tell the younger generation in regards to what we should do with the future of Detroit? What would you recommend the youth do in order to make the city better?
IF: That’s a hard question. I’ve learned how we’ve gotten along to work with them, because I worked with them all my life. How we got used to them, and they got used to us. We never mingled with them like gone to their house or gone to play cards with them. But we did work with them. We did get along together. We didn’t have any more fights. If you can get along, and I think we have gotten along; I mean it’s kind of changed in a lot of ways because we’re still working with them and they’re still working with us, and they’re not mean and nasty about it. I think if we can’t—I can’t see anybody not getting along with each other, like the Arabs are now. They hate the white people. And yet you’ve got nastiness going on.
BB: It’s definitely something to think about, for sure. We don’t want nastiness.
IF: We had fights all the time, didn’t we?
BB: Good to know. Well thank you so much. Is there anything else you wanted to add to the interview today? Anything you can remember about ’67 or Detroit in general?
IF: No, not really.
BB: Well thank you so much! We appreciate your story! It was a lot of information and you’ve definitely given us a broader narrative for the work we’re trying to do, so thank you so much for sitting down with me.
IF: Well I see how the other people got along together, in New York.
BB: So why can’t we, right?
IF: We can all get along.
[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 30:36]