Gerald Charbenneau, July 15th, 2016
GS: Hello, today is July 15, 2016. My name is Giancarlo Stefanutti. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project and we are in Detroit, Michigan and I am sitting with Gerald Charbenneau. Thank you for sitting down with me today. Where were you born?
GC: I was born in Marshall, Minnesota in 1941.
GS: Okay. When did you move to Detroit.
GC: Oh, it was in 1966.
GS: Oh, okay.
GC: I grew up. I moved from Marshall to Oregon.
GC: Portland, Oregon. My dad worked in the shipyards.
GS: When did you move to Oregon?
GS: What was it like growing up in Oregon?
GC: It was pretty cool but I come from a working class family. My mother and father didn’t’ finish the sixth grade. My dad was a welder and my mother was an egg handler. I grew pretty much in public housing and then we finally bought a home when I was a freshman in high school or something like that. And even though I didn’t have any strong consciousness about my social class, it wasn’t a big issue, looking back I sort of see it as it is. I grew up there. I went to high school there. I decided I was an athlete; I played baseball and basketball varsity team. I was a good athlete. Pretty normal – I got voted to be the most typical of my senior class which ticked me off because I hated that idea but I got voted it. I wanted to be the, what did they call it, the person that was most witty but didn’t get it. My best friend got that and it ticked me off.
So anyway I graduated from high school and then I decided that I worked for a year to get some money and then I decided to go to college. I went to Portland State University and I majored in Political Science and minored in History and I graduated from there in 1964 and then I joined the Peace Corps. I went from Portland State to the Peace Corps. That summer I graduated in June and I went into the Peace Corps in August or September or something like that. I was sent to Columbia, South America. I was there 22 months. I had a three month training in LA and then we went on. From there I went on to Columbia and then I was there for 22 months and I worked as a – we had a program of organizing co-ops, cooperatives in Columbia so there were 38, 39 of us that went down and we went to different sites in Columbia so I was there for 22 months organizing consumer co-ops, marketing co-ops and things like that.
GS: That’s awesome. Just thinking about your community in Oregon, was it a very racially integrated community?
GC: No. No. un-uh. It was predominantly almost 99% white. And then the high school I went to was about the same. Clackamas High School is where I graduated from so there was hardly any diversity except for social class and gender, of course, but that was about it. The first time I encountered it, I used to read about things and I knew about African Americans but they were like in North Portland. I lived in a suburb of North Portland on the south side. I knew that there was a group that lived in – I had no awareness until I got into university but then I didn’t – I used to walk down the street. Portland State is right downtown like Wayne State so I would park and I’d walk down the main streets of Portland to get to Portland State and I would run into – they were doing urban renewal and I was one of those guys that would stand there and “This is great, this is wonderful.” It was exciting. And then I got involved with Mock United Nations and there were a lot of Africans in the program at Portland State University so I hung out with them a lot my junior and senior year. Probably the biggest thing that happened to me was to listen, to go see Martin Luther King, Jr. and listen to a speech by him which I found very inspiring and very motivating, got me going. But then I went into the Peace Corps because I was really into the idea that John F. Kennedy’s “Don’t ask what your country can do for you” bit. “Ask what you can do for your country” so I went ahead on that one. Some of my friends went to the South and Civil Rights but I went into the Peace Corps. Those couple guys went down there. So that was my first experience until I actually – well not really, in the Peace Corps I got transferred to a state or they call it a province in Columbia. When I got off the plane, I realized it was like 95% black so I spend twelve months in this city that was predominantly – and I worked primarily with black Columbians and then I realized that they were brought over about the same time to mine the mines for the Spanish and stuff like that. So that was my first direct contact with the black community.
GS: You said you moved to Detroit in ‘66. This was because of the Peace Corps or?
GC: Yeah, I got out in, I think, May or June of ‘66 and I when I got out I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and I’m the kind of person that just sort of falls into things and someone said “You’d be a good social worker,” and I’m going “What the hell is that?” We never saw one in Clackamas you know, like “What is that?” So I decided to follow through because I found out that there were three social work programs in the country that had a community development program. Community organization and community development and so I applied and Wayne State accepted me and gave me a little stipend and I loved to travel, of course, so I came out here and that was in ‘66. I came out here and moved into my – there was a little place on Alexandrine and Woodward. It’s right in the middle of gentrification right now and that’s where I first lived.
GS: How was that community compared to the community in Portland?
GC: Totally different.
GS: Totally different.
GC: I’ve always described myself as this little hick from Clackamas, Oregon who got dumped into Detroit, Michigan. You know, I got off the train at the depot and life was totally different for me. It was more rural where I grew up sort of semi-suburban world, public housing and things like that. It was just totally different and so I had a huge adjustment trying to get used to Detroit and living here. When I first moved here and fortunately I knew some of the people from the School of Social Work graduate program, they were very nice and found me that place to live and I made friends and little by little I got more adjusted to Detroit ‘cause I had that Peace Corps kind of philosophy where it’s always the same. You live and work in a neighborhood and the Peace Corps was like you don’t go down there and stay in a nice place where all the Gringos live. You go live with people and you try to be a native. “Go native” is a term that was used. That’s how I was here, too. I got involved. The program itself, I was in the community organization sequence of the Social Work graduate school. That was a pretty diverse group of guys and women so that was pretty good. Then I got placed on the John R and Adams down at the Central Methodist Church and I worked as a community organizer in the area of John R. Woodward East they called it. I can give you a history of the Cass Corridor but – I’ve been trying to do some history of that. Then I had a more direct encounter but my background in the Peace Corps really helped me to get involved and negotiate all of that ‘cause I just had the basic respect for all people. I don’t know where that came from so much but I had it so it didn’t make any difference to me. So I lived in that area of Cass Corridor and I worked just a few blocks away and then I was working with grassroots. We used to hang out in barber shops and numbers houses and bars and stuff like that and I was working with community groups and trying to organize tenants in some of those buildings. That was the beginning of gentrification and keep them in their buildings and things like that. We were trying to build a community organization that had enough power to resist that kind of thing. So that was my first contact and then I got very involved in all of that civil rights. I got very involved and marched with Dr. King in Chicago and Nashville and wherever. Washington, D.C. and the peace movement. I was also very active.
GS: So was your community in Detroit, the actual neighborhood, it was more integrated racially than Portland?
GC: Oh yeah. The one down in the Cass Corridor? Yeah, it was but there still was at that time in the late sixties, there were still a lot of white people there but they were mostly elderly and had been there for a long time and they were members of the major churches in the neighborhood. That Catholic Church, St. Patrick’s and Cass Methodist Church and places like that. So it was predominantly white. People who had this idea it wasn’t didn’t realize who was living there, of course. They painting it all like everything down in the inner city.
GS: You moved in ‘66 and you were only there for a year before the riot but could you sense, did you get an impression that there was any social tension within the city?
GC: Oh yeah, with my job, well that was sort of afterwards, I think. I was totally aware of it and very involved in it. In our classrooms we had African American teachers and we were really introduced to all of that kind of stuff and the conflicts that happen. The kind of discrimination and police brutality, all of those issues, we were really aware of it. That’s why I liked the program I was in because they really, really did focus in on that and direct us as social workers into that particular understanding of what’s going on in the city with race relations and things like that. And I used to feel more comfortable down here than I did in the suburbs. I felt safer, I said, well when I got mugged down here I know who’s going it but when I’m out there, I can’t tell if you steal my wallet. They do it more indirectly, like rich people just take your money. That’s aside.
GS: Where were you when you first heard that the riot had broken out?
GC: I had been hired, it was in between my first and second year of the social work graduate school and I had been hired by this organization called The Churches on the East Side for Social Action and they were a group of churches on the near East Side, east of Woodward and the center was like East Grand Boulevard around Lafayette. I don’t know if you know the area but it’s north of Belle Isle. Between Belle Isle and Mack on East Grand Boulevard. They wanted me to run this program, this youth action program that they had put together so they hired me to run it. It was an amazing program. It had about sixteen young people, probably 16 to 18, and it was mixed. It was black and white so it was cool. They had set it up so that these kids, we all lived together in one of these homes on East Grand Boulevard, they rented it for us and they went daily to work in the neighborhood to the churches and ran youth groups and youth activities and things like that. Recreational primarily. So that’s where we were on East Grand Boulevard just a little bit south of Mack Avenue. In between that and Vernor, I think it was in between and that’s where we were when it broke out.
GS: How did you hear about it?
GC: We heard about it through the TV and the radio.
GS: How was everybody reacting?
GC: We were very frightened and as the evening progressed, we were worried about if it was going to come our way and then what would happen and so as time progressed we got more and more frightened and the younger people especially so we all went upstairs to the attic of the building. I don’t know if that was good or bad. We went up there and stayed and we listened and we listened to the radio and we could hear, I remember hearing shots and then we could hear the shots come closer and closer and closer and as that happened we got more and more frightened. And then we would hear yelling and screaming and fire engines and stuff outside and we would look out the windows, primarily down East Grand Boulevard south to Lafayette and see people with grocery carts full of stuff. They were looting stores and stuff like that pushing grocery carts full of stuff up and down the streets. Eventually we went to sleep and then we woke up the next morning to tanks driving down the street right in front of us. That was totally like – totally floored us. All of a sudden these tanks were coming up and down the street and East Grand Boulevard which is a couple miles away from 12th Street in that way. And wow, that was frightening. And so finally we realized it was safe enough to go about our business so we resumed our work and that kind of thing. I never really went – I lived in the Cass Corridor right down the street here but I wasn’t living at home in my apartment. That would have been a little closer with a little more activity but I know that I couldn’t get around so I had to stay. They had the roads blocked off by police and state police and National Guard and US Army and all that stuff when that finally happened.
GS: When the National Guard and everyone else, the Army, came in, did you feel more relieved or were you more concerned?
GC: I was more concerned. I really wasn’t relieved. I really didn’t – at the time I didn’t really believe – I understood the police brutality and the nature of discrimination and things like that that were happening to black people so I wondered, especially brought in all these white people from the suburbs and other state police and the US Army and I’m going like, how are they going to deal with this? Are they going to use violence and really do a harsh way of doing it or are they really going to try to stop it and protect the lives of all of the people? So no, we were more concerned.
GS: Immediately after the riot, could you sense any change in the city apart from the destruction that was had? Any social change?
GC: Interestingly enough, yeah, there was. For example, they really got involved in and around the area where it started on 12th and began to tear down those buildings and started building new homes around in that area and that was primarily in my mind as I recall it where it started. They really wanted to fix up that place pretty quickly and that happened. And then over longer term, we had programs, social programs like New Detroit came into existence at that time right after that and that was a coalition of very, very influential people in Metro Detroit to try to begin to do some things to create social change in Detroit. And that was one of the outcomes of the whole process. My theory on it is that it takes something like that when people in power get threatened and all of a sudden they throw out these crumbs like New Detroit and some of these model cities some of these bigger programs, national programs, local programs, state programs. And so they started emphasizing that and so there’s more interest in it and more resources available and things of that kind. Over time, because I graduated with my Master’s degree and then came back a few months later and got a job as a community organizer down in Detroit. I work at a church and I ended up working with the elderly and got a cooperative building for them and a lot of those things we were doing in that neighborhood, organizing pennies. it was predominantly white still then. We were able to take advantage of some of those programs, state and federal programs and local programs to help do some of our community development projects in the Cass Corridor. It was slightly helpful but my basic insight was that what it takes to make the power structure do something and it took something like what happened to do that, to scare – I say they get threatened so they think better do something.
GS: A lot of people have different words to describe the riots. People say riot but other people say uprising or rebellion. Do you have another word for it that you would call it apart from a riot?
GC: Yes, I refer to it as a rebellion. I’ve always done that and in my teaching all the time we do, the classes sometimes go into things like that and students always use the term riot. I generally just stop and say, okay, I refer to it as a rebellion and explain to them why because it really bothered me. When I was here during the riot and particularly in the midst of it and then a lot of post-riot stuff, I listened – I was very tuned into a lot of black militants and as much as you could, the press, the social media and the press, their narrative was always based on the idea of riot. Well, the militants made me aware that it was much more a rebellion than a riot and there are arguments for that and I always bought into that that there’s a history to it and there’s a discontent that was in the city of Detroit and there was all this oppression that was going on in terms of police brutality. They used to have these squads that were very well known. They’d send around these squads of four and they had a lot of other things like that that would go around and engage black people very viciously and things like that. So that got brought up and then the discrimination, micro discrimination, macro discrimination. So people were really, really angry and so it took a little spark like raiding that blind pig. That’s all it took for it to erupt and so to me, it took on a rebellion and the bottom line is that by calling it a riot, I think you just reinforce the race society that black people are violent and just do things that are self-destructive and this just shows you that they don’t have the ability to pull themselves together. It just reinforces that idea that there’s no meaning to it and it had a lot of meaning for African Americans. The narrative that I found in the press and every place else was pretty much dominated by whites and black militants you had to go a ways. And there were some incidents like the Algiers Motel, I’m sure you’ve heard about that, which reinforce that idea of police brutality. So what do you expect for people that are living under those conditions since slavery. You just get tired. It was a hot night and people were like I’ve had it. BAM. So I think it was more of a rebellion. It always bother me why they referred to it – I thought it just sort of demeaned everything going on in Detroit. That’s my main point when I think about 1967. I was hoping I would be able to tell you that.
GS: Thinking about Detroit in present day, what are your opinions about the city?
GC: Wow, that it’s amazing. I’m totally amazed by – the other day we were down, we went to this over in North End, do you know where that is, because there’s urban farming and some activities there. I don’t know much about that because when I lived here down the street, I was very provincial. So we went over there to some community event and they were presenting some of the activities that they were involved in, urban farming and things like that. I was very – As I was driving in to park there right off of East Grand Boulevard and Oakland Avenue in that area, I couldn’t believe all these white, young people were riding around on their bikes and coming to this. I’m going Wow, that’s pretty amazing. And then when I go downtown, I love the River Walk and the Undercut and we spend a lot of time at the DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts], the Dally in the Alley. Whenever we get a chance, I live way out in the boonies and it’s a pain in the neck. I come down here because there’s nothing going on out there so I see a lot of stuff going on. A lot more, I call it more of “us” down there. White people. And wherever I go I see that as a positive thing and I’m very tuned into gentrification. We study it in sociology a lot and that process and seeing what’s happening in the Cass Corridor, now called Midtown. That’s why I’m trying to do some history of the Cass Corridor because the tossing out all of that history. When I was working down there, there would be these suburbanites that would come down like, Plum Street and they would try to get something going like that, get something happening. They’d put up this restaurants or this other thing and try to get suburban kids down and hang out there Fridays and Saturdays. Two or three of these things happened while I was down there. They didn’t quite catch hold but now it has. I don’t know what the tipping point is; I sort of study that. I always wonder what – North End, to me, is in the early process of gentrification, just beginning. I wonder what the tipping point is going to be, or if it’s going to be like it happened in Cass Corridor because when I was organizing, they were already starting stuff. They were trying to extend the hospital complex, then from the North, Wayne State University was coming down into the Cass Corridor. From the east it was the medical center, from the South was downtown coming up that way and then little by little, we were battling with them. For example, Wayne State was one of the most vicious groups because they would come in and buy a house on Cass Avenue down a little bit south from where their buildings were and then they would renovate it and then kick out the tenants. That was my job, our job was to try to organize them to try to prevent that from happening because they would fix it up and then of course they would raise the rent. At the time, the poor people couldn’t afford it so they were forced out little by little. That’s why we got the co-op; the idea the co-op would be that the people that lived there owned it. So it was the community ownership thing that they would own it and they wouldn’t have these absentee landlords that would just sell them out. But that’s when it started way back then. My daughter lately she’ll, “Dad, I was reading about Midtown. Weren’t you organizing that?” And I’d go, “No, actually, Lisa,” I said, “If I were down there, I’d probably be resisting it.” She goes, “ugh.” But it’s good in many ways. So good in so many ways. It’s not a simple black and white situation. What’s happening is good, the construction and the new things and the buildings and the new people coming down there. The issue for me is what happens to the poor people and what happens with them and how does – when I was at North End at this, it’s called One Mile but there was like – I kept asking them to what extent do you have community involvement and how are local people involved in your program? They introduced me to this woman who ran this local urban farm. It’s a community based urban farm right up the street so I talked with her for a long time. I know that they’re trying to do that with the hockey arena; there’s the big issue about community betterment developing a policy whereby these projects would have to include X amount, 10-20% of the money toward bettering the community and helping the people that live there have affordable housing and stuff like that. It’s a mixed bag but overall it’s a good thing. I just think that in one way they’ve done what they’ve always done: move the problem out. Not solve it, they just move it out to someplace out. I remember that they used to be downtown; there would be a lot of poor, skid row. And then they moved it over to Michigan Avenue. Then they moved up when they wanted to do something to Michigan Avenue they all moved up into the Cass Corridor. Now it’s all moved out again and I don’t have time to come down and study where – I wish I did have the resources and time. My university wants us to teach. It’s a mixed bag. It bothers me though; this is connected to the rebellion issue. Remember the Belle Isle issue? Whether the state should take it over or lease it? The big debate, even liberals like myself and colleagues and stuff were supporting the state to take it over and I was opposed to it. And then I ran into this guy at this conference at Marygrove and he was from New York and Shuman. And he ran the Shuman Center and he made this argument that the liberals are joining in when we support turning Belle Isle over to the state then what we’re saying is reinforcing this idea that black people can’t do it. That’s what worries me is this very basic idea that things keep happening. And now to what extent do local people get involved in gentrification and things like that. Because that idea is so powerful, empowerment of the people themselves. We did that when we did the housing co-op. We made sure, and it took us two years. Demonstrations and pickets to get the major construction companies to include black people in their construction and to have the whole thing run by the local people. That was big battle. That’s still the main issue for me of what’s going on in the city and it just bothers me that it’s overall it’s good what is happening but at the same time it’s not really solving the problem in my opinion. It’s just pushing it aside and moving it down and it’s just going to create more difficulties down the road.
GS: Anything else you’d like to add?
GC: I wanted to give you these two articles for reference. For example, this article having to do with revealing – the title is Revealing the Roots of a Riot. I think the key is that when I was trained in graduate school, you go to the roots of the problem and so that’s what I was attracted to and the black militants were, in my opinion, giving out the roots of it that kind of talks a little bit about it. And then here’s the basic question in this other article and it basically speaks to it. Basically what I’ve been saying probably more coherent. I don’t know. In case you – and that’s sort of what I use to pump my brain and my memory and stuff like that. When I get going, it comes back and it’s like getting on a bicycle.
GS: Okay, well thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
GC: Oh, it was my pleasure.