Virgil Taylor, July 23rd, 2016
HS: Hello, this is Hannah Sabal. The date is July 23rd, 2016. I am in Detroit, Michigan for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I am sitting down with Virgil Taylor. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
VT: Hi, Hannah. My name is Virgil Taylor.
HS: Can you tell me where and when you were born?
VT: I was born in Detroit, January 18th, 1955.
HS: Where did you grow up?
VT: I grew up in Detroit. I was born on Hazelwood and what was then 12th Street. When I was 3, we moved to Elmhurst and 14th Street, which was approximately about, maybe a mile away from where Hazelwood and 12th was.
HS: What was your neighborhood like growing up?
VT: I lived in a lower-middle class/working class neighborhood. My recollections of the community at that time was that everyone kind of lived in the same area, within so many block radius. You kind of knew what people did or what their status was based off what block they lived on. Where I lived, which was around the block from Central High School, was a lower-middle class/working class neighborhood. Most of the people on my block were traditional nuclear families, primarily black, but we did have white people that lived on the block. There were a number of Jewish people that still lived on the block when I was a kid growing up there. That had been a traditionally Jewish neighborhood, and then there was a migration into that neighborhood of blacks and a migration of Jewish people from that neighborhood I believe to Oak Park.
HS: What did your parents do?
VT: My dad had been a laborer. He was actually a boiler maker. But my dad was stricken blind shortly after I was born, and my mom had been a housewife. But when my dad was stricken blind—my dad did go back to work, but my mom ended up initially working in the schools. Then after my dad passed in 1963, my mom went to work at United Way. But my mother didn’t have an education, so she went to work in some other types of programs that they had, helping other people in the community.
HS: All right. Did you go to Central High School?
VT: I did. I went to what was then their campus bordering Tuxedo and I want to say Calvert to the north, Linwood to the west, and La Salle to the east. That campus was then Roosevelt elementary, Durfey Middle School, and Central High School. I went to Roosevelt and Durfey exclusively. Central I did for two years, then I left Detroit and finished high school in Lansing at Lansing Sexton.
HS: So in the ‘60s, you were a young kid, a teenager. What did you like to do with your time?
VT: The typical kid stuff. There was a lot of activity in our neighborhood. I guess—and I didn’t know it as a child—but our neighborhood, strong foundationally. A lot of neighborhood block clubs and neighborhood organizations. Around the block from us, over on Webb Avenue, was Visitation which later became St. Martin de Pore’s, and after that, it doesn’t exist anymore. But the archdiocese over there was very, very strong. There was a rec center at Visitation, so we went there a lot during the summer months to swim at their recreational activities. I grew up across the street from what was New Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Very strong organizationally in our community, and they had a lot of programs for kids, recreational programs in the basement and the parking lot there. At Central’s field, there were ongoing programs for kids and families, and so the schools there, all of them, at night traditionally would be open until about nine o’clock for after-school programs. So for instance, my mom would go there to take flower arranging classes or cake decorating. Men went there to take shop classes. That was kind of just what was normal in our community. The kids would go for after-school programs there. During the summer months we would do usual kid stuff, but we had the Fischer YMCA. There was another YMCA in Highland Park. So as kids we would get on our bikes and we’d either go the schools—if they didn’t have open swim or recreational programs, Visitation did, or we would go to the YMCAs. But we were also pretty free. As long as you were home by the time the streetlights came on, we got on our bikes and went wherever. We’d go to Palmer Park, we’d ride our bikes all the way out to Rouge Park and go swimming there. It was a remarkable neighborhood. Interesting because I didn’t know as a child some of the things that were culturally remarkable at the time. The Nation of Islam temple was right there on Linwood; it was across the street. My barber was a member of the Nation, so when I went to the barbershop on Saturdays, the talk that I heard was largely from members of the Nation and some of the things they would talk about. But it never appeared to me to be—I mean, it was just people talking about a host of things, community issues and things of that nature. One of the barbers that was in there was a Baptist, and another was like a numbers man, so it was kind of a fascinating exchange, but I never thought much of any of it. It was just the normal discourse. The neighborhood, again, most of the women on my block were housewives, primarily. Some women worked, I guess. My friend Tony Luffborough, his mom worked in the plant. Many of the mothers were housewives on the block. I grew up in the neighborhood which I would think in the traditional American culture would mimic anything that you would think of. There were women on the block that kind of watched out for all of the kids and kind of tell on me when I did stuff. Most of the men in our neighborhood worked—not most, they all did. It was unusual for a father to not be in the home. My dad passed away in ’63, so there was no father in the home. That wasn’t the norm. This whole myth about black men not being in the home, no that was just not true. I can tell you why that happened, when it started to happen, but it was not true as a child growing up. Like I said, very traditional neighborhood. 12th Street as we called it, which is now Rosa Parks, was a retail strip. All up and down 12th Street were every kind of shop you could imagine: hardware store; the confectionary, which is a form of a party store; there were other party stores; barbershops; seamstress shops; and then there were little shops that lay on the outsides of those blocks, and a lot of times those were industrial shops, small factories, that I now know were lower-level tier four or five factories that provided things to the automotive industry. But they may be a shop that only has four or five employees. It was that type of community.
HS: Do you have any siblings?
VT: I have one brother, older than me. He’s five years older than me. My brother was the quintessential good boy—at least that’s what everybody else thought. My brother is pretty remarkable. He’s a professor now. He was the captain of the safety patrol, he was the captain of the cubscouts, so I came up always, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” He was academic and athletic all-American, you know, so here I come, clumsy little brother, but just a normal kid. My brother went on to graduate from MSU and he’s a professor at MSU now.
HS: I’m the youngest sibling of a guy who’s doing exactly that, so I know where you’re coming from.
VT: It’s not fun. It’s like you’re always, that’s the standard you’re held to. Especially when you know that this creature is far from perfect, but what they’ve perfected is the art of that image that they keep up in front of adults.
HS: Oh, yeah. I grew up in elementary school and middle school, “Why can’t you be more like Daniel?” Anyway, so ’67. You were about 12 years old at the time. How did you hear about the events?
VT: Walked out onto the porch that Sunday morning, and didn’t understand what I was seeing. It was chaos, it was chaotic. Richard Rudolph, one of my neighbors who lived across the street—who grew up in a different home. Richard didn’t go to school. The Rudolph family didn’t have grass most of the time. They put down sod but they wouldn’t take care of it. They were a nuclear family, but education wasn’t important. The block club used to have regular fits about the Rudolph family. Richard came running down the street and he had a tray of rings, and he was just giddy as he was running. He had been looting up on 12th Street. There were people running all over, and my mother came out. My mother was very much a disciplinarian and traditionalist. We weren’t going anywhere. She didn’t know exactly what was going on, but she knew it wasn’t right and we weren’t leaving the porch. So I witnessed the early part of the day from the porch. Our street, at that time, we had all down Elmhurst these beautiful Dutch elm trees that provided a canopy over the street. Suddenly the police were coming. The police were on firetrucks, which we had never seen. The police had on helmets we had never seen. There were two huge apartment buildings across the street from us, and something happened and the police came with like armored vehicles or trucks or something, and they surrounded this apartment. There was, I want to say, I believe there was gunfire. I know I remember them going in, and I know I remember them bringing young men out. I had seen these guys, but I didn’t know them. I remember them bringing these young men out of the building. All of it was pretty confusing. Having grown up—I was 12 years old. In my neighborhood, things had started to change the year before because I think what started happening was drugs were coming to the community. That started around ’65, ’66. Guys started going to Vietnam and coming back with mental health issues, though we didn’t know that’s what it was at the time, so they were coming back “not right.” That started creating chaos in homes. We started having home invasions, something we had never had. All that started occurring when young men went away to Vietnam and came back drug-addicted and with mental health issues. All of that started to just have a major influence in the neighborhoods, as I recall. I was too young to know any of the socioeconomic conditions. When I look back now, my mom—my mother grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. She was born there at the turn of the last century. I think black people in particular from the south viewed life as difficult or challenging, but like I didn’t know we were poor. My mom and dad never let us know that. I didn’t know what poverty looked like. I ate every day, I had clean clothes every day, our lights never went out. This was just life. You didn’t think much about it. So when I discovered years later that there were major socioeconomic things occurring in the black community, I didn’t know anything about it as a kid and I was shocked. I was sheltered from that by my parents. But I do know that there was a drastic change that was starting to occur. Our house was one of the first houses to get broken into, and that was in 1966. My brother was going into his senior year, and I remember they had stolen our television and his clothes primarily, so someone had been watching him. As I recall, I think they stole his coat from school and got his keys out of it, that type of thing. Our neighborhood though, disastrous. The idea that someone would go into someone else’s house. Because I grew up in a neighborhood where you didn’t lock your doors. You slept with the windows open. You never thought that someone would come into your house. But the influx of drugs into the community started to change those dynamics. As I understand now, socioeconomic conditions, because there was not equity in jobs, even in the factories. I think as technology was taking hold and factories were changing, blacks were probably the first to be displaced. So I suspect that all of that, and then there was the cultural awareness that was taking place in the ‘60s, the revolutionary change, and I suspect that all had something to do with it, but I couldn’t tell. When people talk about was it a riot or a civil insurrection, for me it was a riot because the places I grew up with, the place I knew, those were the places that were destroyed and the people I knew that were doing it, that wasn’t civil unrest. Now maybe there were socioeconomic conditions that influenced it, but Richard Rudolph was looting. He had no social conscience about what he was doing. It was opportunity to go and steal.
HS: Just to get a little geographical context, Elmhurst and 14th, that’s only a couple blocks away from where the rioting started?
VT: Well, Hazelwood, where I was born, was only about a block away. I would say about six or eight blocks north, yeah. So it was close. Where it started there, on the corner of Clairmount and 12th Street, and if you would look at a map at 12th Street, the stores, the retail really went really north, but it went to some degree south. Elmhurst, Monterey, Richton—Richton would end the retail area. A lot of looting was taking place all along there.
HS: Are there any other things that you witnessed or experienced or did your mom just keep you at home?
VT: No, the 101st Airborne came and they took over my school. They took over the campus. The campus became an armed camp. There were helicopters, there were tanks—there was a tank on my corner. My mom made food for the soldiers that were posted there. My mom was very much a traditionalist, as most of the people in my community were. They frowned upon the rioting. They were very, very hurt, very, very angry, and very supportive of law enforcement and the military coming in to restore order, because this wasn’t what we did, as far as they were concerned. After, that was Sunday, I want to say about maybe Monday or Tuesday when it appeared that things had been quelled, we could leave and we went up to the field and the military was there. It was fascinating to watch. It was troubling to watch. I’m a kid, I’m 12, and I’m looking, my school’s been transformed into a military base complete with helicopters and tanks and soldiers on post and all of that. We were pretty conflicted. I was certainly a young man, I had started to become aware of the movement and the revolutionary concepts, but I was still, I was 12 years old. There was no one talking to one us about these principles or what had happened. It was kind of organic, taking place. So to go up to the school—like we have now Black Lives Matter and the whole police—I didn’t grow up hating the police. I was 12 though, bear this in mind. I wasn’t driving yet. But I didn’t remember my brother having encounters or talking about the police as bad people. That wasn’t part of our concept of the police. I grew up as a kid with the police coming to school to talk to us. Detroit back in the ‘60s had a policeman’s field day and a fireman’s field day. Those were big, big events that kids came from all over came to. Again, I wasn’t racially conscious, but I grew up in a black community, so I just didn’t give white people a whole lot of thought. I had white teachers, but I didn’t look at white people—I do remember though, there were two white guys coming down 14th Street with a shopping cart. They had been looting, and I remember people converging on them. I do remember that.
HS: People from your neighborhood?
VT: Yeah, well, I think they weren’t on my block, but they were from the general neighborhood, and they kind of chased them down. From what I recall it wasn’t pretty. What made them think to come over there is a little beyond me. It was a scene change. I guess things were already in process, but it was just a scene change. The neighborhood never recovered; it was never the same.
HS: How long did you stay in that neighborhood for?
VT: My mom moved from there—I went away to college in ’72, I went in the service in ’75—my mom must have moved from there around ’74-ish or so, because she was there, but when I went into the service, she had moved, so she must have moved in ’74, thereabouts.
HS: Did she move from the neighborhood just because the general deterioration or was there a specific reason?
VT: She was saying that things were changing, and then the landlord where we were living, where she had lived, she said if they went up on the rent she was moving, and he did. She didn’t need that house anymore, either. My brother and I were both gone, so she moved into a smaller apartment at the time. Things were changing. Nothing like what you’re dealing with now, but we weren’t as comfortable with her being there anymore by herself.
HS: That leads me to my next question: How have you seen the city change?
VT: I saw the city die. Detroit died in my estimation. That happened in the ‘80s. It was in a decline. I was gone, I went away to school, I was in the military, I came back. I was in East Lansing for a brief period as a cop myself, but I came back into Detroit. I owned a security company here; I used to do all the security at Joe Louis and Cobo Arena, most of the major events facilities around Detroit. Then I was in corporate America, but I was involved outside of the city and I lived in Southfield, but in the ‘80s, I want to say that Detroit literally died. It was pretty much a ghost town. I watched the disinvestment from this community. Nobody cared. And the people that stayed were two groups: the people who couldn’t escape and the people that lived off the people that couldn’t escape. Then, I want to say here in the last ten years, there’s been people that have had a vision. This is a lot of good property, this is an amazing place, so there’ve been people that have moved back in and taken advantage of the opportunities that exist here. I don’t personally think that’s a bad thing. I understand the sentiments of people who say gentrification and all of those things, and I don’t necessarily disagree. However, I think of the challenges that we have to be honest about—I was talking with some friends of mine about properties that we have seen—many of us could have bought some of those properties. You know, office space or retail properties or whatever, but we don’t have the wherewithal to restore them. That’s because of inequities in the system, because of inequities in finance and things of that nature. We don’t have wealth in the black community. So for people that would argue that you do, I would argue that no, you don’t. That’s historical, and that has been as a result of a whole host of—and I’m not the guy to scream “racism,” but I’m a historical freak, and that has everything to do with race in this country, and a white-male-centric perspective, and the establishment of a system that that’s what it has supported. It has denied certain other groups opportunities, breeding subsequent cultures that have not been able to function as well. And when there have been efforts for people to try and do certain things, there’ve been systems in place that denied those, so hopefully now we’re starting to look at things, but it’s going to take quite a bit to right that ship. You’re talking about hundreds of years of practice, of mentality, of ideology that are subsequently difficult to dismantle. It’s not a simple fix. I see great things for Detroit. I think that there are tremendous opportunities here. I see great things happening here. We’re twenty years out, I think. I think that there’s somethings that are going to be remarkable over the next five years, ten years, but I think we’re twenty years out. We’re in a scene change now in the nation, and this nation is going to have to come to grips with some things, and unfortunately, I think, you have people that are exacerbating age-old problems as opposed to trying to resolve them. It’s sad, but the thing that I think is good about it—because I have friends from all walks—I’ve been fascinated on social media to see some of my friends, and sometimes it’s like, oh my god, I never knew that you thought like that. And I think to some degree, some people are dismayed themselves, they didn’t know. As long as everything is kind of okay and it’s kind of comfortable, and what grandma and them were saying, that little racist stuff, it’s not me, I don’t really believe that, until it gets laid out in your lap and yeah, you do, because that’s what you grew up with. So subsequently, I think we, I always equate it to having a sore, a cut. First you got the wound, then you got the scab, and it’s got to heal. At least we got the cut now, it’s kind of scabbing, and it’s not pleasant, but I think ultimately, at the end of the day, my grandchildren will be benefitting from the pains that we’re experiencing, that we needed to do a long time ago. It just hasn’t been necessary, I guess.
HS: So you said that you saw the city die. In your opinion, what do you think killed the city?
VT: Disinvestment. I think that the auto industry was struggling already, technology was changing, this was the blackest city in America, and nobody gave a damn. There was no effort here, but you know, it wasn’t just here. I worked for America Financial in Wooster, Massachusetts. I saw something similar there. My ex-wife is from New York. Her family was like around Brooklyn. The textile industry—technology is, I think, the beast that nobody anticipated. What technology would do, and the speed that technology was able to eliminate the need for manpower has hbeen remarkable. I think no one will step up and say—like, when people like these modern politicians, “Oh, the jobs have been shipped over—” No, not true. Not true. Some of that is true to some degree, but the reality of it is that you have technology—first off, they create things now that once required twenty-seven parts requires one. And then they create something to create that part! Those are twenty-seven jobs that get eliminated. So you didn’t have, what you had not had, and I think this is a problem with our system of government, because you have elected officials and they have to pander to their constituents. They’re not necessarily the brightest bulbs themselves, but secondly, they’re going to keep telling the constituency something that’s just not true. You can’t get that job anymore putting that widget in there. That’s never, ever coming back because that widget doesn’t exist. Those shops that are talked about up around my neighborhood, those little shops that were rivet-making shops, they don’t need that. Those guys had good jobs, and they didn’t need a car. That’s not coming back, so you don’t have decent politicians that will tell you the truth. That’s never coming back! We’ve got to rewire our mindset, and that is a large part of the problem. This was a laborer’s town, this was a union town. Go down and drive around the teamster’s complex. I remember in the early ‘80s, that place would be packed. It’s a ghost town. Go down to UAW—ghost town. Because you don’t have that membership anymore. When I grew up, and I was talking about the schools having after-school programs that were for adults as well as kids, that’s because you had a thriving tax base. You had two million people here, working. They’re paying taxes that they can contribute to after-school programs. The schools are vibrant and all of that. You’re dealing with a shell of that. So I think, again, it goes back to the disinvestment in the community, and I get it. But you also have decentralization. You have conglomerates. I grew up in the music business, too. My uncle was the Temptations’ and the Supremes’ first manager, so I grew up in the Motown family. I was involved in the music business in the ‘80s. When I was involved in the music business, radio stations here were locally owned. Well, they got bought out by multi-national corporations. Those companies that were locally owned here were very attuned to what was going on in this community, the type of music that would be played in this community. These multi-national corporations took over, and they don’t care what our kids here. They couldn’t care less. “Hey, that’s kind of popular, play it.” One of the first things they did was fire all the DJs, because those were radio personalities. Martha Jean McQueen, she was the pulse of Detroit. She told women what to do on Fridays. She’s gone, and they did not replace her, so there is no community conscience coming from the radio. All those little things are the fabric of the community. The churches—the churches have become big business. They’re not social conscience, I don’t care what they say. They are not. They are businesses. I have a friend that went into—she’s a minister. Everybody in the church is a minister now. She was telling me that she was doing a women’s program. Under the Bush Administration, there was no separation of church and state. The Bush Administration started as opposed to you having grassroots organizations that the government would make grants to, the churches are getting that money. Then I said to her, “Do you get paid?” “No.” “Where does the money go?” “To the church coffers.” It’s going to the church? Pastor drives a Bentley! Something is wrong with this picture! The pastor that was at New Mt. Zion that was across the street from me, I wouldn’t have known him if he spit on me. He was not a celebrity. He was a pastor. He didn’t drive a big, beautiful car and he wasn’t carried out on a chariot or something. These are the things, but these are social phenomena. When I say that the city died, if you study history, it’s the same as Rome died or any major, you know. Lack of social conscience, lack of leadership, government interference, perhaps because there’s a need to keep people quelled, perhaps. I don’t know. All of those things, I don’t too much get into, but if you go back and trace the history, it makes perfect sense. If you wanted to create a monstrosity, what happened to Detroit in the ‘70s and ‘80s would be the perfect experiment. If I wanted to create a mutated society, do what you did here. Remove all the stores, remove all the economic opportunity, remove all of the everything, disinvest, and leave people to fend for themselves. What do you expect to get? You create a monster. You create a being that learns to survive. It ain’t going nowhere. The scary part is when people have to fend for themselves and are continuously being preyed upon, they start to develop a different mentality. Once there’s no more carcass on the bone here, what do you think they’re going to do? They’re mobile. Also, it impacts the mentality of people beyond that community. You know, I work with kids, I work with kids in communities from all over, and then people are freaked out in Warren or Sterling Heights when their kids are behaving the same way. Well, what do you think they’re going to do? What do you think they’re watching, “Leave it to Beaver?” They watch BET. They see the social phenomena, this music, this technology again, and it’s pervasive. Subsequently, it changes everything. I think that that disinvestment was the great sin. Racism was the other great sin. You had a lot of hostility on both sides, so one side is saying, “Y’all did this,” and the other side is saying, “Y’all did this,” and the truth is somewhere in the middle. There are greater sins on one side than the other. We just have not worked to heal our issues. I think that’s kind of where we’re heading, I’m hoping.
HS: Final question: What would your advice be for future generations?
VT: Get to know people. Really, conscientiously get to know people, understand people. Have some empathy. That’s been one of the greatest challenges, because as I tell people, the conversation of race is not easy. It’s not pleasant. But it’s necessary. I don’t have to agree with you, but I need to understand your perspective, and I need to respect you. I need you to understand me and respect me and hear what I have to say. I had a friend recently tell me, a white friend—I posted something on Facebook, and she basically said, “Well that’s invalid.” You don’t get to invalidate my opinion! Who told you you could do that? And that is far too prevalent. You can’t invalidate—it’s like me invalidating a position of yours because you’re a female. As a male, I cannot. I have no right, but conceptually, I need you to help me understand, and there’s some things I’m never going to understand, but I have to yield to you in some things, and then I need you to respectfully yield to me when I say as a man, I don’t get that. I’m not understanding. There is where we agree to disagree. Okay, I got you, let’s leave that alone, now. We got it out, let’s move on. We haven’t been willing to do that. We’re so busy telling someone else they’re wrong, and I’m right. The truth is probably in the middle, as in most things.
HS: That’s great advice. Is there anything else you wanted to add?
VT: Nope. I appreciate the opportunity.
HS: Well, thank you for coming in.