Marcella Barowski, July 15th, 2015
LW: Today is Wednesday, July 15, this is the interview of Marcella Barowski by Lily Wilson. We are at the Detroit Historical Museum in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History project Marcie, can you start by telling me your birth date and place of birth?
MB: My birth date is October 24, 1951. I was born in Detroit, Michigan.
LW: What neighborhood did you live in as a child?
MB: I lived on the lower east side of Detroit, 3718 St. Clair. It was between Gratiot and Connor, considered the Lower Eastside.
LW: Can you tell me a little bit about the make-up of that neighborhood? The types of families that lived there?
MB: We moved into the neighborhood in 1953, and at that time there were — the ethnicity of consisted of German people, Italian, not very many Polish people. Basically Italian and German. And then later on it started to become more mixed with African-American people. I would say, probably, the late fifties, early sixties because most of my classmates – it was a 50/50 make up in school.
LW: What school did you go to?
MB: I attended Saint Bernard's. It was on Fairview and Mack and I attended from first grade to eighth grade. And at that time, they closed after I was in the eighth grade.
LW: And Saint Bernard's was a Catholic school?
MB: Catholic school, yes.
LW: And it was 50/50 by the time you ended eighth grade?
MB: Most of my friends from first grade on – I started in the first grade – most of my girl friends at that time – it was easily a mix of 50/50. Black girl friends and white girl friends.
LW: Wow. So in Detroit in 1967, what do you remember about July of that summer?
MB: That summer was not like today in 2015. It was a very humid July. Hot. No air conditioning in the house. I remember it being very, very hot.
LW: What do you remember about the, sort of, civil unrest during that month? What was going on?
MB: Well, when the first problem started in July, I can go back to the actual day of the event. Would you like me to go there?
LW: Yeah. Tell me about what you were doing. What your family was doing.
MB: We lived, at that time, with my aunt, uncle, and cousin, and that would consist of my mother's sister and myself, because my father was deceased. And we were watching the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night. And it started at eight o'clock. And my aunt, uncle, my cousin who at the time would be about 13, were visiting my aunt and uncle in Dearborn. It was about, maybe 8:05 or so that my uncle called us at the home on St. Clair and had heard on the radio there had been some rioting and fires. And I believe it would have been at the old St. Regis Hotel. That's where it had started. And he was inquiring if we had seen anything on Mack because we lived on a corner house. So we would have had full view of Mack Avenue and all the stores that would have been there. You know, we had an A&P, a liquor store, pharmacy. And at that time we had not heard or seen anything. At that time at 8:05 on Sunday night. So my aunt and uncle decided at that point to come home because they were concerned for us and for what they were hearing on the radio.
LW: Where were they?
MB: They were in Dearborn at the time. So as they were coming home – I do not recall the freeway they took home – but they were able to see some fires going on. It was maybe a couple hours after that, if I do recall, maybe about 10 p.m., there was heard a window breaking.
MB: That would have been the first window, I remember looking out the door and my mom was kind of upset. She didn't want us looking out the door. It would have been at the A&P, which was right on the corner of Mack Avenue and St. Clair.
LW: And you could see that A&P from your house because it was a corner house?
MB: We were in a corner house and I could see – we had two floors and I went upstairs to my second floor, looked out my bedroom window, and I would have had a full view of the A&P.
LW: So what else do you remember seeing? Or do you remember seeing anything?
MB: I remember seeing first someone throwing a bottle to break the main window.
MB: And then someone must have thrown some type of rag, it could have been on fire, whatever. And that's when I recall the first building starting on fire.
LW: And did that building burn down?
MB: They were able to put the fire out, but by then, unfortunately, people started coming to loot the A&P.
LW: Okay. So, you had mentioned in your written history that you remember people sorting through looted goods in your back yard.
MB: It was very difficult for me as a 15-year-old because I had attended a Catholic school, knew right from wrong, and some of the children I had played with on the street – the girls I attended school with, I don't believe, or I had seen participate in the looting. But there were some neighbor kids that lived across the street and I would see them running. It was 10 o'clock at night, going to the A&P and taking the - you know, they had the shopping carts?
MB: And loading them up and coming out of the A&P. But by then, that time it was very shortly after that the liquor store, which was kiddy-corner from the A&P, also started to be broken.
LW: Now the neighborhood that you lived in was racially diverse.
MB: Very much so.
LW: So, were these black people or white people from your neighborhood going and looting?
MB: At the time of '67, the neighborhood was definitely more predominately black.
MB: At that time. It was turning over much more quickly. And the looters I saw, I did not recall seeing any white looters. But then, of course, it would be difficult for me to say the majority were black men, young men, young women. I would not have seen a lot of the elderly men and women going into a business.
LW: So it was mainly young, black men and women?
MB: Yes. I would say teenagers, early twenties.
LW: And you didn't see any white people going into the A&P?
MB: I did not see. I do recall the girl across the street, which was – we did not attend school together, but we played occasionally. She would have been a few years younger than me and I was 15. She may have been about 12. She invited me to come loot. She asked me, she said, “Marcella,” –everybody called me Marcella–she said, “Marcella, why don't you come get some stuff?” And I remember saying to her, “It's wrong. It's not our stuff.”
LW: And you were 15?
MB: I was 15 at the time.
LW: And how did she react to you?
MB: She just kind of laughed and smiled and went about her business. I mean, there was no name calling or saying, “You're stupid,” or anything like that. She just left and went to the A&P.
LW: Why do you think, looking back now as an adult, and being 15 – what is the reason that you think that you didn't go and join in the looting?
MB: Well, I knew it was morally wrong. There was no doubt in my mind because I was taught you did not steal. I was taught to respect other peoples' properties. There was way in my mind that I knew that was right. Nobody could convince me it was right.
LW: What about your mom at the time and the other adults in your house?
LW: Because it was your aunt and uncle as well, and your mom. What did they say about this to you?
MB: Exact same thing. They said, “Stay in the house. Do not participate in this. It's wrong.” And we did not participate.
LW: Do you remember any of your friends on the streets? Any of your black friends on the street? Do you remember their parents telling them similar things? Do you remember any of them refraining from going and stealing?
MB: The girls that I knew that went to school did refrain from the looting.
LW: Okay, so the black girls that you were friends with that went to Saint Bernard's with you did not?
MB: Yes. Did not do it. Because we would – you know, it was such a hectic time that there was so much going on, but I still had girl friends that I was able to call on the phone. We were all scared, including them. Because at that point, nobody was really aware that it was a – some people thought it may be racially motivated, might become a race riot because Detroit had witnessed race riots in the forties. So it was still very touch-and-go. No one really knew what was going on.
LW: Do you think that it was a race riot in '67?
MB: I did not feel my life in jeopardy. I must say, I did not feel my life in jeopardy.
MB: I was more afraid of our house starting on fire, any type of guns that could have been used, but my basic fear was that the neighborhood I loved and the kids that I hung around with and any of my property would be destroyed. That was my biggest fear.
LW: Now, when people would take things from the A&P and the liquor store, you mentioned in your written story that they sorted those things in your back yard?
LW: What types of things were they sorting? What types of things did they have?
MB: There must have been a men’s shop because I remember there was this big box of white shirts.
LW: Ah, okay.
MB: And I remember them trying to sort the things by sizes. That I do remember.
LW: The people in your yard?
MB: That had jumped our fence to go into the yard. Because we were a corner house, so we were very vulnerable because then there was an alley also.
LW: I see.
MB: And my uncle owned a greenhouse, which was on the other side of the alley. So he also had a very big yard of the greenhouse.
LW: What did your uncle or your mom or your aunt, the adults in your house — what did they do when there were people in your back yard sorting through stolen goods?
MB: Well, that happened about maybe the first night. I think it was Sunday and Monday. By then the National Guard had been called in. So the National Guard – that stopped. Okay? But then the National Guard needed areas to rest and to get some type of reprieve and my uncle offered them the yard to use.
LW: I see.
MB: Sometimes they would nap in there or whatever they needed at the time.
LW: The National Guard then used -
MB: Used the yard. But when they came in, a lot of that jumping the fence and sorting of merchandise had stopped.
LW: Was anything left in your back yard?
MB: No. If there was, my uncle would have disposed of it.
LW: Okay. So, your uncle did not confront the people that were in your back yard.
MB: He did not confront them because I think he was fearful of – you know, there's a group of men, young men. He has a wife. His nieces, his sister-in-law, my aunt, so I believe he was fearful of that. But at the same point, he was a business man and he knew a lot of the business owners on Mack Avenue.
LW: Okay. So tell me about your uncle and his business and what happened to that during this time. Did anything happen to it, the greenhouse?
MB: Nothing happened to the greenhouse during that time. It was basically properties that could be looted for merchandise – liquor, foods. I do recall a man who owned a TV store and he was about maybe three stores down Mack Avenue from the corner of St. Clair. And he took it upon himself to sit in front of his business. He was armed at the time. He was a black gentleman. My uncle knew him very well. He told my uncle he would not leave his business until this had stopped.
LW: What was the name of the business?
MB: It was a TV and antenna shop. He did TV repair work. I would not recall the name now.
LW: What street was it on?
MB: It was on Mack Avenue. I would say about five houses from the corner of Mack and St. Clair. Because our house was St. Clair and Mack.
LW: Okay. Got it. And what was the name of your uncle's greenhouse?
MB: It was Wojcik. W-O-J-C-I-K. He also had a business in downtown Detroit on Grand Circus Park.
LW: Okay. So your family lived in that neighborhood throughout the seventies?
MB: It wouldn't be seventies. I moved in the neighborhood in 1953. We moved out of the neighborhood in 1968.
LW: You did? Okay. So tell me about your family moving just the next year after this violence that happened in the neighborhood.
MB: What was the interesting part was my uncle and aunt had already purchased a house on the other side of Jefferson, around the Manoogian mansion on Lodge Street. They had already considered moving because the neighborhood was deteriorating. And in the meantime, my mother, who was originally from the west side of Detroit, wanted to go back to the west side of Detroit. So a lot of this had been kind of in the works before the riots of '67. They had closed Saint Bernard schools, so I would not be attending high school there.
LW: I see.
MB: So, we were headed for the west side. My uncle and aunt were headed for the – stay on the east side, but on the other side of Jefferson Avenue and during the riots we transitioned during those weeks.
LW: Wow. So tell me about that. I mean, what was that like moving across the city?
MB: We stayed on the east side for about another month with my aunt and uncle on Lodge Street because where we were moving to on the west side was not ready yet.
LW: What was the address of the house that you moved to?
MB: On Lodge?
MB: 451 Lodge. That would have been my uncle and aunt's new residence that they had purchased. The moving was extremely unusual because in the daylight – well, you know how cars would be. My uncle had a station wagon and he would say to my mom – we had that same name, Marcella - “Marcella, now you get the stuff you want to take in the car.” And he would say to his wife – which her name was Lillian - “Lillian, you get the stuff you want to take in the car and we're going to make a trip.” And then we would go across St. Clair Street, which would cross Mack Avenue, and you'd keep on going until you got to Jefferson. St. Clair goes into Jefferson Avenue. But knowing in the back of our heads, maybe that was our one trip only. So as a 15-year-old, I knew what I was grabbing. I was grabbing my Beatle albums and stuff that I really treasured because I didn't – I had a concept of we would come back for another trip, but what happened if the house was inflamed? Or we couldn't get back into the house for some reason? But very fortunately, our house was never torched and we made several trips back and forth.
LW: So this was what month in 1967?
MB: The riots started in July.
LW: So you were actually moving during that time?
MB: During the riots of July and during the month of August.
MB: By September we were pretty done with moving stuff out of our house.
LW: And did they sell the house?
MB: The house never sold. What happened later on, my aunt and uncle were on Jefferson. They tried to sell the house. There was a church behind the greenhouse that eventually bought my uncle's greenhouse. But they wanted it more or less for parking and an extension of the church. We did not sell the house on St. Clair. Obviously, it probably went for taxes. The city took it down and ironically, years later my sister and I - we decided to take a little trip to 3718 St. Clair. And we saw them taking down our house.
LW: Oh, wow.
MB: And we got out of the car and the demolition team very graciously said, “What are you ladies doing here?” We said, This is our house. And they offered for us to take some bricks. So we took about five bricks each as a remembrance.
LW: Was all the looting and the stealing and the burning down buildings – was that a motivating factor for the adults in your family to move your family out of that neighborhood?
MB: See, my uncle – I'm not really sure. I know the neighborhood, it was deteriorating and it wasn't because it was turning more black, because it was always a very integrated neighborhood. That's why as a 15-year-old it was very difficult for me to digest what was going on. Because my girl friends, they had the mom and dads that went to Saint Bernard's. My dad was deceased so I was one of the oddities in my school because my dad was deceased. Most of them came from two-parent families. I think it was deterioration of the neighborhood. My uncle liked the house that he had seen on the Lodge. It was a big house. And that was a factor and my mother did want to go back to the west side where her mother was still residing.
LW: I see.
MB: Because she was a west-sider.
LW: Was that neighborhood safer? Was 451 Lodge safer than your house.
LW: Okay. How was it safer? Like, what do you remember about waking up at that house versus waking up at the house on St. Clair and Mack?
MB: Well first, because the mayor lived on the corner in the Manoogian mansion, so there was continuous police going down the street. That was a given. The houses were very well maintained and the people who lived in the houses were mostly elderly. They were well-established families. So you didn't see like, a lot of young guys or young girls hanging around. It was a very quiet street.
LW: Got it.
MB: Very quiet. We may have been the youngest on the street.
LW: I see. So you lived in Detroit until when?
MB: I moved out of Detroit in 1988. And my mother lived in Detroit until she died in 1990.
LW: What about that neighborhood around the Manoogian mansion? Did that remain relatively quiet and safe?
MB: Very much so. They never had any problems in that area. My uncle stayed there, and my aunt, until they eventually retired to Florida and passed on. They stayed there for many years.
LW: Does your family still own that house on Lodge?
MB: They sold it. My uncle and aunt sold it.
LW: But the house on St. Clair was never sold? It was just torn down by the city eventually?
LW: Okay. So, what was that like going back and seeing your house that you grew up in on St. Clair being torn down, what did you and your sister talk about?
MB: Well we were sad. We were sad to see it going down. We had anticipated it because my uncle had said that he was unable to sell it. It did go for back taxes and eventually torn down, but he always maintained it, which was interesting. Even though he could not sell it, he always cut the grass, he made sure – it almost looked livable. Because he respected the people that were his neighbors and still residing in the area.
LW: Did that street become increasingly black?
MB: I would say right now it's probably 99 to 100 percent.
LW: Looking back and having some perspective now as an adult, rather than being 15 at the time, things were different, right? How do you sort of remember that time generally? Like, in terms of, sort of piecing it all together. The looting, the burning, the chaos in the neighborhood and then moving just right around that time. Do you see it now as an adult as the adults in your family were trying to protect you and your sister from sort of encountering that? Or do you think that it really was just your uncle wanted a bigger house?
MB: Well, I believe that he wanted a different house, only because more than likely, he had sold the greenhouse, so there was really no purpose there for him anymore. And he already, before the riots had even started, he attained this house on Lodge. So I believe he did want a bigger house and my mother already, before the riots, wanted to get back to the west side because that was her hood. She was born there.
LW: I see. Sure.
MB: So for her to move to the east side when my dad died was not – would not have been her first choice. She wanted to stay on the west side.
LW: What high school did you end up going to?
MB: For one year I went to Saint Rose of Lima on Kercheval. For one year. And then three years at Holy Redeemer. That's where I graduated.
LW: What was the make up of that school in terms of class and race, et cetera.
MB: The amazing part when we moved to southwest Detroit, it was, I would say, 99.9 percent white. I, in my high school, I had a couple girl friends who were Hispanic. And that would have been 1966-69, but most of my – I would say, I do not recall, my good memory, we did not have one African American student in my grade.
LW: And these were Catholic schools.
MB: Catholic schools, yes.
LW: Is there anything else that you want to talk about from that time? It sounds like it was very eventful for you. Is there anything else that we haven't talked about that you would like to share?
MB: We have pretty much covered everything. It was a very sad time and now when I look back at these riots that take place in 2015, very, very, I would say zero amount of good comes from it. Zero amount. Because if you look in Detroit, as being a Detroiter for – I'm 63 years old and I worked in Detroit from 1970, I left Detroit working in 1992 and I worked in many companies in Detroit. The neighborhoods never revived. They never revived. So it was really – nothing good comes from that. That's all I can, you know – in my final thought of a riot.
LW: Where do you live today?
MB: I moved out of – my mom stayed in Detroit until 1990. When my husband and I married in '88, he was an east-sider and I was a southwest Detroit-sider, so we decided on Downriver. So we live Downriver.
LW: Okay. Alright. One final question about the National Guard coming in and staying in the back yard of your house on St. Clair. Do you remember having any conversations with them or your uncle or your aunt or your mom having any conversations with them?
MB: Being a 15-year-old girl, I thought they were very cute, so I wanted to have conversations with them.
LW: [Laughter] Okay.
MB: But they were probably in their early twenties, most of them thirties, so I did not have conversations with them, I think only because I was admiring them from afar as a teenager. And my sister was 19, so I'm sure she was admiring them also. I remember my mom – my aunt, my mother making sandwiches for them, offering coffee. They had asked permission if they could stay in the yard. I do remember it may have been a Sergeant or whomever knocking on the front door and they were given permission.
LW: Do you remember the adults in your home talking about it at all while they were out there?
MB: You mean talking to us children about it?
LW: Yeah. Or going out back and talking to them at all?
MB: Yes, when they would give them coffee, I would look out the back door and my uncle, aunt, or my mom would be talking to them. They usually would be conversing over coffee or that type of stuff because they didn't just permanently stay in our yard. Whatever they were doing, if they had meetings or they were resting, then they would leave.
LW: Wow. Okay.
MB: Come and go.
LW: How interesting. Well thank you so much for talking to us.
MB: Thank you.
LW: We really appreciate it.
MB: Thank you for all you do.