Venita Thompkins, July 23rd, 2016
WW: Hello, today is July 23, 2016. My name is William Winkel. We are in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. And I am sitting down with –
VT: Venita Thompkins.
WW: Thank you very much for sitting down with me today. Can you please tell me where and when were you born?
VT: I was born June 5, 1963 on Hanover, off of 14th Street in the Virginia Park District.
WW: So right here in Detroit?
VT: Right here in Detroit.
WW: What was your neighborhood like for you being that young, was it open?
VT: I remember my neighborhood being open, a lot of houses, a community, businesses. Along 12th Street, off of Hanover we had a lot of resources as far as with the Catholic Church. Reverend Father Cunningham with St. Agnes Church. Many businesses along 12th Street as far as the housing stock in a certain area as you continue to go down 12th like on Seward and Delaware was just rows and rows of apartment buildings. Recalling them being tall apartment buildings with a lot of people in the area.
WW: Was Virginia Park integrated at that time?
VT: Primarily, far as the residents may have been with the majority population of African-American but the business owners were diverse in what I’ve been told and also what I can recall of the business owners being of white decedents or maybe Jewish or even Italian descendants and they would have apartment buildings. The apartments on top of their businesses. So by that time it was probably a majority African American that had relocated from Hastings Street due to the Urban Renewal project from Chrysler so a lot of them migrated on the west side of Woodward to the 12th Street area. I recall a gentleman telling me even visiting Detroit he was on his way to New York, Mr. Brantley. He was on his way to New York and because of the activity and the liveliness of 12th Street, he never made it to New York. He ended up remaining in Detroit and making it his home.
WW: That’s lovely. Being so young, do you remember how you first heard about what was going on or what you saw in 67?
VT: In 67, what I recall, we were living on Euclid between Woodrow Wilson and 12th Street and I remember the energy of people just moving and it just seemed like the neighborhood, the adults, the people were just moving fast from a child’s perspective. It was running and moving and you could just feel the energy of just unrest. It was unrest, and my concern because you could hear the fire trucks and that 12th Street on the corner of Euclid had begun to burn was that it was a cleaners that was located on the corner and I had a dress from Easter that was in that cleaners. My personal concern was that my dress was going to catch on fire. So remembering some of the neighbors down at the other end closer to 12th cause I was closer to Woodrow Wilson, they was getting a water hose to hose down the houses and then it was next after the concern of my dress catching on fire was that, is our house going to catch on fire because the fire is coming down the street and the neighbors are trying to use their water hoses to water down their houses so their houses wouldn’t catch afire but the cleaners was on the same side as my house, so that fear of is our house going to catch on fire but from a child’s perspective, it was personal to me that my Easter dress was on fire and I would no longer have possession of that.
My mother, I guess because I have three other siblings, had us in the house but I could see out the window and I could see, I recall specifically a younger gentleman running through our backyard and he had a television. I’m like, he’s running through our yard with a television and I sort of recall him being a friend of one of my neighbors across the street so it was a lot of movement like that, running around. So that could have been like, the first day of it or the first so many hours and then the traumatic experience. My brothers and them they all had the little green GI Joes, during that time, those were the types of games that children played with. We had marbles, the green GI Joe Army men so again the chance to interact and girls had paper dolls with the stands so those were the – and also the little troll dolls with the hair were the toys that we played with. I had the opportunity to play with the little, not GI Joe but the little Army men. They were green, plastic, hard Army men so having a recollection about soldiers was from these Army men but then during the riot I got a chance to see the real Army men that was located on the corner of our block and the real tank with the rubber wheels all around it and also with the top of it that you can have a man on board with a machine gun. That was parked on the corner of our street and still being young, knowing that it was scary because they had guns and the energy you could feel the fear. The fear that it was just the energy of – my mother she was being strong because she had to do what she needed to do to protect her family but it still was the energy of fear and uncertainty in the neighborhood and the block and I just remember she decided to put us all in cab and she was going to take us to my grandmother’s house so we could be safe which would have been on West Grand Boulevard off of Chene. That was her closest relative for safety for us and she wasn’t a driver so she put us in a cab. My father, he worked with the city as a custodial or janitorial would have been maybe – no, he worked in the trash picking up –
VT: Yeah, sanitation for the city and he was at Chrysler he worked for maintenance so he would have been away at work during the time this was going on that she was putting us in the cab and what I realize now, part of her fear was the fact that during that time, one of the children in the apartment building down the street from our house had been shot and killed by the troopers that were stationed in that area. And remember that tank was parked. That was the station. It was parked right on the corner of Euclid and 12th so any of those troopers, or in my recollection as a four year old of those Army men, shot the child. I can realize now thinking back of why my mother was really concerned because she had a child the same age in the house and so it still could have been that fear that they’re also killing children you know during this time, so at that point it was very important to get her children to safety so we were taken over to my grandmother’s house but just the movement of people running, it just seemed like people just was moving and running fast and just running everywhere and I’m just like from maybe coming out on the porch either looking out the window on Euclid, everybody was just moving and it was just very chaotic.
WW: How old were your brothers then?
VT: I was four so my next brother would have been seven and then my sister would have been eight and then I would have had a brother that was nine going on ten and my mother should have been, if I was four she was thirty years of age.
WW: So everyone was kept in the house. There was no wandering around to see what was going on, right?
VT: Yeah, we probably were kept on the porch or in the house but I know being able to – no we weren’t out on the street.
WW: Did either of your parents go out to see what was going on?
VT: Well, maybe my mother, not going far. She tried to stay close to us. My mother stayed close to us. Because at that point making decisions of being able to take us to my grandmother’s house and as that fire kept – so we were looking out because I can recall remembering that the fire was coming down the street and they got as far as one of our neighbor’s houses, Mr. Goldstein, and those were the gentleman that were our hosing their houses down on both sides of the street on Euclid at 12th Street. So you had the cleaners and you had more houses coming down but they were watering their houses down.
WW: Was your house threatened by fire any more after that?
VT: No. When she took us to safety, it never did. I don’t even think it got past the houses that was being watered down by the water. I think that was maybe smart thinking of those men in the neighborhood that they weren’t waiting for the fire fighters to come. They got their water hoses and they started watering down their property so it stopped. But the cleaners did burn and my dress did burn. Yes, my dress did burn.
WW: You spoke about the anxiety the adults around you felt. Looking back, do you think that when the National Guard came in it was relief and then anxiety or when the National Guard came in just the anxiety grew?
VT: I think the anxiety probably grew because at that point they had the guns and yeah, the anxiety grew because it wasn’t the fire. You had the perspective it was things on fire but I think that could have been controlled. It was the anxiety that the troopers were there and that may have changed the attitude of the adults so at that point even being strong for the kids and keeping them protected it still became probably another concern because it’s intimidating. It was intimidating for me to see with the guns and even when you rolled down your street, those Army men became alive. The green Army men and I don’t know if they was as friendly as the way that we used to position them, my brothers and them would position them to maybe protect and defend. I didn’t see them as the purpose that they were coming to help. I didn’t get that impression that they were coming to help. It was more of they were another force in the neighborhood. And I think that the tank may have been more very intimidating, too. To have that big tank sitting on the street and now thinking back, it was war declared on our neighborhood versus coming to help. Was it war declared right there in our neighborhood?
WW: Is there anything else from that week you’d like to talk about?
VT: I’m just trying to think of maybe looking back on the devastation that the street had changed and –
WW: Oh, I’m going to ask that.
WW: As a child, did you see your neighborhood and your city any differently after that? Because you said in the beginning that you felt the neighborhood was open and everyone knew each other and was lively. Did it change?
VT: Yes, the neighborhood changed. It began to deteriorate. It deteriorated. I mean, from the businesses and how 12th Street was and maybe the camaraderie and maybe not realizing at the time that all those apartment buildings and that it was people on top of people on top of people on top of people that lived in those apartment buildings but always remembering that it was a lot of people in the community and then after, I mean the days afterwards, of course it was just destruction like a bomb had been dropped in the neighborhood. Things were destroyed and buildings being burnt down and the people just maybe really would – the feeling of the neighborhood had been, I mean change had taken place. Where do you go after fires and clean up because change had taken place so maybe I guess seeing all the trash from a kid’s perspective. Our neighborhood has been torn up and I don’t think anyone really took the time because it was happening so quickly to really explain to the children what was going on. As parents they didn’t really know. It was just change. Safety needed to be taken care of. I think what opened up maybe some other laws that came into effect as a result of the riot is things that I think my parents made other decisions maybe because we were living in a two family flat home so maybe people were moving out of the neighborhood so therefore that made it available for us to purchase a house in the neighborhood. And the businesses at that point was relocating, they were leaving. Some that were burnt and some that were not. Of course, as a kid you always remember where the candy store was, which was on Philadelphia and Euclid and the supermarkets so 12th Street started making a change even on the businesses that were leaving the neighborhood and then you start from the 67 Riot, then you start going into the other changes that was taking place due to Civil Rights and still from a child, it was very close in proximity at the time because we went from the riot and then it seemed like we went right into, from my time frame. I did the cleanup from the riot we went into Martin Luther King being assassinated. Then it became another energy similar to how the riot was but at that point it wasn’t like afraid of the Army men anymore. It became more of a hurtful mourning of something was lost. My mother was crying at that probably was at the funeral but the day of, I just remember being the youngest child, her rushing to go get my siblings out of school. They were attending Sanders Elementary, which is located on Byron between Lee, Pingree, and Blaine, and rushing. Walking real fast with my small legs when she was almost dragging me and I had to run to keep up with her. It was that energy at this point that I can feel her fear or anxiousness. She was stressed trying to pick my other siblings up from school probably because we had already experienced what the riot could be like so making sure that the safety that people in the neighborhood not reacting to the death of Martin Luther King and start burning the neighborhood down again like the riot had. Of course by the time of his funeral which was in 68 which is still almost like that following April, being the youngest child, being at home and just seeing my mother cry.
WW: Do you believe that the city is still in the shadow of the events of 67? Do you think it still greatly effects the city?
VT: In the shadow. I feel healing has never taken place and whatever issues that those adults were feeling that caused them to just feel that that was a breaking point, that a voice had to be heard, I don’t think that it was ever healed. The city was never healed from that because what those adults may have been feeling all those people in those apartment buildings learning that it was due to they were relocated, so they had to move from their homes, they go to new homes and the conditions that may have been going on in the city and the issues of affordable housing which are some of the same issues that we’re dealing with today. It’s almost, to a certain extent, as if whether it was healed or history repeating itself right now because you don’t have those apartment buildings anymore in that community but there’s still the issue of affordable housing even though there is a timeframe that took place after the riots of that community banding together to restructure their neighborhood to bring life back into that community. The neighborhood, people like Joseph Walker Williams that lived on Philadelphia closer to the Lodge Freeway, Marie Coleman, Mr. Kruse [sp?], Elizabeth Richard which is my mother, Julian Witherspoon, the LaSalle Block Club, those individuals decided to be active in their neighborhood and become part of the organization for Junior Park District Council which was birthed out of restructuring in the city of Detroit of having different communities represented. But before it was Virginia Park District Council it was West Grand Organization and Joseph Walker Williams chaired that committee. But those individuals, they helped to write a proposal to bring funding to the Virginia Park area to revitalize that community and that was the first community based shopping center which is called Virginia Park Community Shopping Center and I’m very proud to know that those individuals were neighbors. They were ordinary people that were brilliant or, as my mother would say, industrious individuals that wanted to revitalize their community after the riots. They were instrumental to write the proposal to the federal government and to receive funding to help revitalize that community. So you had a rebirth or renaissance with the shopping center coming, as far as individuals being able to be active in restructuring their city. For the children after the riot, they gave us play grounds. Where the cleaners used to be at, it became a playground. Going toward Rev. Smith’s Church, Grace Church, there was a play ground erected. The [unintelligible] School but you had all these little neighborhood play grounds that kids could go to so that was the area were used to be businesses that were burned and the demolition had taken place, they replaced them with play grounds so we had a lot of play grounds to visit. You had Grace Church Virginia Park that would have carnivals but they had a beautiful mural that was painted of African American activists, people in the now, people in the past that was erected and it was in between the time of – I’m going to give the time frame because I remember Frederick Douglas, even Angela Davis being up there. It was a beautiful mural and they would have carnivals so you still had that community involvement that was present of good times off of 12th Street but after the riot, they began to – or between 67 and 68 or maybe it’s by the 70s, they began to try to cover up the mural and the first time they put the coat of white paint on it, and that’s when I noticed that with Black history, you can’t cover it up with white paint to get it to erase. You still could see the beautiful artwork of the mural. And then they came back with a darker shade and they finalized it with grey to totally cover that beautiful mural of artwork of African American history. I used to sit at that play ground so we do know that was after the riot, after 68 which was directly across from where the young lady, the four year old got shot by the state trooper. They put a play ground directly across the street and to the left, I could see that mural when I would be on the swing and that artwork. But as they covered it, removing that history, it was as if to remove as the businesses were gone and the demolition came and even though the process at the community center was probably being proposed and the shopping center was also being proposed. The history, it was the quietness of 12th Street restructuring the traffic, because it used to be a one way. Restructuring the traffic, that changed so it was to calm the area. The demolition started tearing down all those apartment buildings even though it was a playground in between those apartment buildings I remember. And that would have been Delaware off of 12th Street right off of Woodrow Wilson which was another play ground which was among those, maybe it was 10 or 12 apartments and they were high rise apartment buildings. So they sort of replaced play grounds and revitalization with the community activists in that area to just stabilize that area. It became quiet as they started tearing down buildings and building play grounds.
WW: How do you see the city today?
VT: From 12th Street perspective, the name changed, changing it to Rosa Parks Boulevard and then what quietly came in that neighborhood is that we went from the unrest of 1967 to the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 to the distributing of crack cocaine in the 80s in the neighborhood. They knocked on every door from those children becoming incarcerated as they became adults due to crack cocaine to the mothers that end up – when the mother was effected by the drug, you got the mother, the sister, the aunt, the cousin. You got the family. The crack cocaine. So those houses as that community did try to revitalize from the riot crack cocaine came to our nation, to our city, and to 12th Street neighborhood and they knocked on almost every door on the blocks and asked for a child. Then from there, as we got into the housing market, which is more recent, those houses from the riot due to probably redlining and discrimination that blacks weren’t able to purchase or have a mortgage due to lending practices and as neighbors start moving further down 12th Street which turned into Fenkell, opening up opportunity for others to purchase homes so homes were purchased in the 60s and the early 70s and then with most recent with the housing crisis and also with the crack cocaine which would have been a generational effect of the grandchildren of the homeowners of the 60 or after the riot, rather it was the home equity loans that they end up utilizing with the conspiracy of using the housing market with the lending institution and that whole conspiracy of the government on down with the housing crisis. So people getting equity loans that they couldn’t afford and those homes there were already paid for. The majority of those homes were paid for so getting the equity out of the homes. In Detroit, casino gaming came into play – mentioning that as far as with the casinos being related with the housing stock with people in the community being involved in gaming and how it could have effected the housing stock as well as the loaning crisis until where you are now today whereas the majority of the neighborhood has become less dense. The schools were removed out of the community so therefore that quieted the neighborhood down as well. And now we’re at the point in 2016, 49 years later seeing that it is possible that a new trend is coming to revitalize Virginia Park Community 50 years later after the riot.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
VT: Just knowing the tireless work that the individuals involved with the Virginia Park District Council over the years to help contribute to Detroit and to contribute to that neighborhood and the hours and time that they took away from their families, not for that work to go in vain and to just be an empty community with lost history. So I am happy that the Historical Society is taking the opportunity to participate in the healing as a result of the 1967 Unrest and that this information can be utilized to continue to heal the ills of Detroit and the neighbors.
WW: Well, thank you very much for sitting down with me today. I greatly appreciate it.
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