Ronald Acho, August 16th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 16, my name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's Detroit '67 Oral History Project. We are in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and I am sitting down with -
RA: Ron Acho.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
RA: My pleasure.
WW: Can you please tell me, where and when were you born?
RA: Yes. I was born in Baghdad, Iraq, on December 18, 1945.
WW: How did your family come to Detroit?
RA: My father had wanted to come to America to escape, basically, discrimination in Iraq, because Iraq was predominately Muslim, and the Christians, for the most part, were treated as second-class citizens, and so he wanted to leave the country, and his older brother, Joe, came to America in 1928, and he told him about all the opportunities. And so he applied to come to America shortly after that. Anywhere from fourteen to nineteen years he waited, in order to be able to come to America, and eventually he did.
RA: And then, a year later, he sent for my mom, my brother Andy, and my sister Margaret and I, and we came here on Thanksgiving Day in 1949, which is why Thanksgiving Day is the most important day of the year in our family.
WW: And that year was 1949?
RA: Mm hm.
WW: Did you come to Detroit immediately?
RA: Yes, mm hm, we did.
WW: Why did your father pick Detroit?
RA: Well, he picked Detroit because there were other Chaldeans here, especially his brother, but the story of how Chaldeans came to Detroit is kind of odd, because they really weren't going to come to Detroit - it turned out to be a mistake. I think they were going to go to Chicago. But they wound up being in Detroit and then Henry Ford advertised the five-dollar-a-day job, and so it became a great draw, except Chaldeans couldn't work in the plants because they were all farmers and merchants. So they really couldn't survive in a plant. So that's why you never saw a Chaldean work in a plant.
WW: Do you remember what your first impression of the city was, as a child?
RA: It - yes, I do, because I was born in, essentially, a rural-type setting, and there weren't a lot of people, and they're all homogeneous - they're all people who look like you, and, you know, you had family around you, because that's one thing that Chaldeans do. They gravitate toward family. So basically you lived around family, and that's who you saw, and your whole life consisted of a few blocks. But when I came to Detroit, I couldn't believe what I saw because it was so big, and then you saw cars, and - it was just - it was overwhelming. And part of it, too, you didn't know the language, so it's like being put on a planet, okay, that you really don't know anything about. And so it was very overwhelming.
WW: What neighborhood did you move into?
RA: Well, we lived in a few places. The first place, we lived with some family for a week or two - we - we slept on the floor. You know, they let us, I mean, they took care of us. Then my dad sublet a flat on Virginia Park and Hamilton. My whole life consisted almost of Hamilton Avenue, I'll tell you that in a minute. And we lived above a movie theater, called Virginia Park Movie Theater, which would be near Midtown. And we lived there for a few months, then one day I came home and all our possessions - meager ones - were on the street. We were evicted. And what happened is that the man that my father paid - who had the lease - didn't pay the landlord. So we were evicted, so I saw my mother in the street, crying. It was pretty traumatic.
Then we wound up moving to a - we stayed, again, with family for a couple days. Then we had a flat for a little while on Hamilton near Milwaukee, and we lived there for a while. And then we wound up moving, on Hamilton and Burlingame - there's a reason for that - and then years later moved three blocks away, to Hamilton and Tuxedo. The reason is, my dad didn't drive. He never drove. So he took the bus. So you take the Hamilton bus, and then the Dexter bus to our store. So that's why we always lived near Hamilton, until, you know, years later. So.
WW: Given that you couldn't speak the language, did you feel comfortable when you came to the city?
RA: No. In fact, something unusual happened that wouldn't happen today. I remember this, even though it happened sixty-six years ago. We went to register me for kindergarten. My dad takes me in to the school - Fairbanks Elementary - and the woman asked him, what is your son's name? He said "______." She said "what?" "______" "Oh, no, no, no, no. You can't call him that. You have to give him an American name."
So my father says to me in Chaldean, "what do you want to be called?" Well, I didn't know English! You know, I don't know! So he looked up in the air and says "Ronnie. Call him Ronnie." No - he asked me, "Is Ronnie okay?" Okay. He says, "Call him Ronnie." That's how I got my name.
So, do you want me to just tell you a little story?
WW: Go right ahead.
RA: So, you have to understand something. Chaldeans are very hard workers, okay? When we came to America, my brother, mother, sister, and I - all we had was a trunk, with our things in it. Just one trunk, for four people. That was it. So we were poor, no question about it. Poor by any standard. My father worked for my Uncle Joe, who had a store, and he and my younger uncle, who came with him, who wound up living with us, worked there for a couple of years, then they bought a store called Hamway Supermarket, in 1951. They worked seven days a week, sixteen, seventeen-hour days. For years. They - we wound up being somewhat prosperous, which is why, when the riots occurred in '67 - and my uncle didn't believe in insurance - so we had very little. The insurance we had did not even cover the money we owed on the inventory. So here you have a store - we didn't own the building - we had fixtures and inventory - and the riots took everything away. So we went from poor, to somewhat prosperous, to poor again. All within the span of one day.
So the experience always left an indelible mark on me, and still to this day.
WW: Growing up in the city, did you travel around, or did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood?
RA: No, no. We, no. You didn't do that. I mean, you stayed in your neighborhood, and that's something else. The thing that changed Detroit more than anything else - more than the riots - are the expressways. Because what happened is - we had neighborhoods - like Mary would know - we lived in neighborhoods. And you had family around you, you had neighbors, you knew your neighbors. And you took the bus wherever you went. The furthest you went was wherever the bus would take you. So you stayed in those areas. It wasn't until the car became more prevalent, we had the expressways, that you then wound up driving. But my family never took a vacation. So it isn't like we went anywhere. So it was a very confined, you know, area that we stayed in. Work, or school, home, school, work. Back and forth. Home-school-work. And that was it. Three things. That's what you did.
WW: Growing up throughout the 1950's, did you see the city changing?
RA: Oh, yeah. Oh, for sure. I remember Detroit in its heyday. Detroit was the fifth-largest city. It had over two million people. You could do to Detroit, downtown, you'd have trouble walking down Woodward, because there were so many people. And what happened, again, we talked about the expressways, right? I mean this is my philosophy.
[Break in the recording here?]
AR: Yeah, we can continue, go ahead.
RA: So anyway, Detroit was a wonderful, wonderful city. It had the Detroit Historical Society, had the Institute of Art, had a great library. Belle Isle - I mean, Detroit was wonderful. Now, for people like us - we really didn't go to those places, particularly, because we worked. I mean, we're - we're country people. But living in Detroit meant that you had freedom, you had opportunities, which you did not have in the old country, okay. In fact, I'll tell you a story of my father.
Every single day in the store - every day - he'd hold up a banana. He said "you know, Ronnie, what this is?" Yes, baba, it's a banana. "You know, in the old country, only the rich could eat a banana. Here in America, you can have a banana every day." And finally one day I said, baba, why do you keep telling me - you keep telling me. He said, "I want you to remember how lucky you are to be here. To have the opportunity to be in America, where you can do whatever you want. You can be successful. You don't get that." So he ingrained upon us, the fact that we were lucky to be in America, which is why immigrants, I think, appreciate America more than people who have lived here their whole lives.
That may not necessarily be true, but at least from the immigrants that I see, they appreciate the opportunities. So yes, Detroit was phenomenal. Did I see the changes? Yes. I saw the changes beginning with the expressways, because more people started living in the suburbs. And they then built - which you may not be familiar with - Northland. Northland was the first enclosed mall in America, as I recall.
So what happened is, a lot of well-to-do people started moving to Oak Park, and then Southfield, okay. And what happened is, they left their homes. And a lot of the people who were ethnic, especially, took very good care of their homes. A lot of people moved in from the south. Did not have the same work ethic, didn't have the same pride in their homes. So you could begin seeing a deterioration in the neighborhoods. That was one. Two, the tax base diminished, because you had people moving out. Third, there was an increase in crime. Detroit really was not a crime-ridden city. It wasn't until the changes.
So then, starting in - probably early sixties - you started seeing crime. Now, what happened then, is you had the Detroit Police Department putting things in place like STRESS, and the Big Four. Well, it turns out that they were viewed as targeting African Americans. And that's how Coleman Young eventually became mayor, saying that it was a racist police department. Remember, this was in the sixties, okay.
And so, as a consequence, there was a lot of discontent. The other thing, too, remember, was the auto industry has its ups and downs, okay. When people are off work, there's financial problems. And you wound up finding more unemployment. More unemployment, more crime, more people leaving the city. As you had the people leave the city, you had more problems. Then Detroit did away with the residency requirement for their police. Used to have police living in Detroit. That ended. So as a result, every - virtually every Detroit police offer that I knew - moved outside of the city. So then you didn't have that off-duty presence.
So it kept - it kept multiplying. It kept getting worse, and worse, and worse. A hundred Chaldeans have been murdered in their stores. I've known fifty of them. Some of them friends, relatives. So how many people know fifty people who have been murdered, okay. So Detroit became a problem because of crime, and because people moved to the suburbs. You had your flagship department store, one of the biggest in America, close. So you then had no anchor in downtown Detroit. All the businesses moved out, and up until several years ago, downtown Detroit was a ghost town. Absolutely a ghost town. I wouldn't even take people from out of town downtown.
So you saw a deterioration of the city. You also had a polarizing figure in Coleman Young. I knew the mayor. I knew him on a personal basis. But he was a polarizing figure. So the more he agitated, the more white people left. And it also created more discontent. He had his reasons for being upset, for things that happened to him. But the problem is, as the leader of the city, he did not help the city in that regard. So - getting - do you want to get to the riot down?
WW: I was just about to ask you. Did your family continue living in Detroit throughout the sixties?
RA: No. Because, I told you about the increase in crime - and the expressway made it easy to go to Southfield, especially when my sister got beat up, okay. My mother said "No, we can't live here." We actually lived in Highland Park, which is right across the street from Detroit. But the two were similar. In fact, in '59, Highland Park was selected as one of the ten most beautiful cities in America. But by 1964, it had so much crime that we left. So that's why we moved out.
WW: Why did your family pick Southfield?
RA: Because there were other Chaldeans there. Because Chaldeans, believe it or not, tended to follow the Jewish people. They would - the Jewish people moved to Oak Park and Southfield. And the Chaldeans have an affinity for the Jewish people. There are so many similarities. That's why, when you hear about conflicts in the middle east, that's foreign to Chaldeans, because Chaldeans love the Jewish people, and Jewish people have been very supportive.
In fact, the man who owned our store, the building, couldn't have been a nicer landlord. He was Jewish. So Southfield was the new suburb, and it was also close to Detroit, because it was the town next to Detroit. So we just take the expressway and we could go to the store.
WW: How did you first hear what was going on in July?
RA: I got a call at home, saying, "Ronnie, be careful, there's some problems on 12th Street. There's some burning." Now, 12th Street was not really close to us. It was a couple miles away - I mean, it wasn't something that immediately caused me concern.
WW: By "close to us" do you mean to your home?
RA: To our store. Our store. So I go into the store that morning, and there's no - no news about this, nothing reported. In fact, I was told it was purposely not reported, okay, so as not to get people anxious. But what happened is, I saw the smoke started to come closer. And then at one point - our store wasn't very far from Grand Boulevard and Grand River. And there was a fire at Grand Boulevard and Grand River, at a furniture store. I think it was called Charles Furniture, as I recall.
And so then I became alarmed, then. Called my brother Andy. I said Andy, you oughta get down here because I'm concerned. So as things began to heat up, we put tobacco - the cigarettes - and money in our car. Then I saw two guys with torches coming down the street. Yeah. Just like out of a movie, like a Frankenstein movie - there were two guys with torches, walking towards us. Now they're only like a block away - I mean, where are they going? They weren't - they weren't torching any houses, and there were no other stores or buildings, other than ours. So we got out quickly - had my butcher knife.
And then customers started to call us. And they were essentially telling us what was going on . "They're breaking your windows, they're doing this, they're doing that." They actually burned our store three times. They couldn't get it the first time, they couldn't get it the second time, but they got it the third time.
WW: When you say they didn't get it the first or second time - the store just didn't catch on fire?
RA: No, it caught fire - but it didn't burn down.
RA: And there was a lot of looting. Now there's something else too, that was controversial. Mayor Jerome Cavanagh gave a do not shoot order. As a result there was widespread looting and you'd see National Guard doing nothing. For the first few days. So it was an open invitation.
WW: How did your parents react to what was going on?
RA: What do you think? Devastated. It was what my father worked his whole life for. He had nothing now. I mean, you - you have to understand. When you're poor, you appreciate whatever you get, okay. Whether it's a pen, a book, whatever it is, you appreciate it. Then you built up a store. It becomes very successful. And then someone takes it away from you.
And it wasn't our customers - our customers who were African American were wonderful. They treated us well. In fact, some of them even offered to give us some money, okay. I mean, that's the kind of people we had. So when they talk about the race riots, and they refer to African Americans, I don't view it that way. Not at all. I view it as insurrectionists, anarchists, who may have happened to be African American, but were not representative of the African American community. They certainly weren't representing the African American community that I knew. People I went to school with, people I - I worked with. Not at all. These were people that used their anger to promote a violence. You know, it's a justification for what they did. So my father was extremely depressed, and I was bitter, frankly. I was angry with God. How could you allow this to happen? And, again, letting people do whatever they want with no police action. None. None. If someone breaks into your house, and you know it, and the police know it, and they don't do anything, how do you feel? And they take everything you own. Everything.
WW: Did your family immediately - what was your first reaction? Just to abandon the store, or to rebuild?
RA: Well, we wanted to rebuild, but we had cheap rent, because the building was old. This building was probably built in the thirties, okay. It was called Hamway Supermarket, but you'd laugh today, because it was about twice the size of a Seven Eleven. So it wasn't a supermarket, but in the thirties and forties, it was, because they had fresh meat, produce. The landlord said "I will build, but I can't charge you the same rent, because I have to build this new building." So we couldn't afford the rent. And we didn't have any insurance money, because the ten thousand we had paid off some of the creditors.
See, what we used to do in the store business, you would pay for your groceries the week after you got them. Like for instance, we would get bread twice a week. On a Monday and a Thursday, okay. Sometimes three times - but just so - Monday and Thursday. The Monday bread you didn't pay for. When they came in with the Thursday bread, you paid for Monday's bread. And then the following Monday, you paid for Thursday's bread. Same thing for all the other groceries. Some you paid right away, okay, that's different. Like the fresh meat you had to pay for right away.
But a lot of the food, you got on credit, so you would pay a week later. We had a lot of inventory, but we owed a lot of money. So that was never an option.
WW: What did your family do afterwards?
RA: Well, struggled. What happened is, in fact, turn that off for a second - by the way, that judge just died.
WW: Were you and your brother able to salvage anything else from the store?
RA: No. And the problem is, once you have a fire, you have smoke damage, so there's always a risk of contamination, so we - we salvaged nothing. Nope. You asked what we did -
WW: No, no -
RA: For money. I'll tell you. What happened is, I had to get a job. And I got a job at Ford, thanks to my brother Andy. He made an introduction, he helped me get this job. But I didn't have a degree, and this job required a degree. And this is where the good comes out. Like I say, I was very angry with God, because I wanted to have a chain of supermarkets. That's what I wanted, and I knew I'd make a good living, because I was good at the grocery business. And that's all I knew. Anyway, so they said to me, "we're going to hire you, but you've got to go back to college and get a degree. You don't have a degree."
Well, the day I went, I met my love of my life, my future wife, and my cousin Mary down there. If I didn't lose the store, I had no intention of going back to college - none at all. I only had like a year, a year and a half, that's all. I wasn't going to go back. They required me to go back. Well, what happened is, I met her in the cafeteria line. She was behind me, she caught my eye - and then we wound up dating, and became married. And last week was forty-seven years. On top of that, because I was at Ford, I had employment, and I had six promotions in eight years. And I won three awards, and I graduated summa cum laude from college. And then law school, I did well, which Ford paid for.
Well, I wound up becoming a lawyer and I have six offices now. And had we not lost the store I would have never met my wife, never married her, and would never have become an attorney. I had no dreams of becoming a lawyer. So it was the best day and the worst day of my life, at the same time.
WW: You speak about how bitter your family was. Did you avoid coming to the city after that?
RA: No, no. Again - this was not about race. People keep saying "the race riots." Yes, there were people that were African American and vented, okay - but that doesn't mean it was about race, because the stores that were torched were not stores that gouged people, they weren't stores that mistreated - in fact, most of the stores re-opened, and they re-opened to the same customers. If they were not good people, why would they re-open, and why would the people shop there? The African American community has been very supportive of the Chaldean community.
Now I also played on an all-black baseball team for five years, okay. So this business about race is really over-done, okay. I mean, you can talk about the police shootings, and there's a whole gamut of things. The reality is, the riots were spawned from a variety of things, and it isn't because it was strictly people of color. That really isn't it. I don't believe it. Never have.
WW: Backtracking -
RA: But there is discrimination; it goes both ways. There are white people who discriminate and there are black people who discriminate. People are people - that's what you have to look at. Not a class of people. Mary and I are Chaldean, but are we representative of all the Chaldeans? No. There are some that might be better - although I don't think so, Mary - but there'd be some that aren't as nice. So you have to look at people individually, and not as a class.
WW: Backtracking, really quick, because I skipped a question.
RA: I sound like I'm lecturing, I don't mean to do that.
WW: Did you or any of your family members sense anything coming that summer, in July?
RA: No. No. There was a problem with unemployment, okay, and there was a problem with people leaving the city - things like that - but no, not a sense that there's going to be something occurring, no. No.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city today?
RA: Well, yeah. I mean, if you'd asked me ten years ago it would be a different answer, but the answer is yes. First of all, most everything comes in a cycle, okay. The automobile industry is a perfect example. Wall Street's an example. Real estate's an example. Detroit was going to come back - it was just a question of when. Now, thanks to the Ford family, thanks to Mike Ilitch, thanks to Dan Gilbert, it hastened the renaissance of the city. And having good mayors, like Dave Bing, Mayor Duggan, who's excellent.
So the right things are happening and you can see it, because major parts of the city - downtown, midtown, Corktown - are all very strong. It's a matter of transferring that growth and vitality into the neighborhoods. The crime is still - crime and education are still the two major problems, and Detroit doesn't have the money. It really needs three times as many police it has. It really does.
And education - if you don't get that straightened out, people are not going to want to have their kids here. You see the explosion in downtown Detroit, but they're all young people. Not with families.
So those are two issues that I'm confident that the mayor and the legislature will do the things necessary. So I'm very, very high on the city - I own a duplex in Detroit. I've looked for other properties - not to flip - I mean, my wife Rita has always been a champion for Detroit. In fact, we were going to buy the Ransom Gillis mansion, okay. We didn't get it, but she wanted it, and the reality is, because she wanted - not for money - she wanted to fix it up, and have it as a testament to the grandkids to see what the grandparents did, for Detroit.
So the answer is yes, unequivocally.
WW: Well, is there anything else you'd like to share today?
RA: Well, first of all, I appreciate the opportunity. I think this is a very noble project. I don't think people really grasped what happened. The - you have to look at the totality of the years - of the fifty years, and the twenty years before sixty-seven - not twenty years, ten years - where things occurred. And again, I know the expressway sounds like it's silly, but - it's just some other thing. Because Detroit didn't have - also didn't have mass transportation, which is another problem. Had they not built the expressways, and continued with mass transportation, Detroit would have not had all these things occur. So things change, and what it is - you evolve, and you deal with it.
And the city is - and I think the whole secret is really jobs. That you cannot have high unemployment and have as many children out of wedlock. It's a major problem, and people don't talk about it, but the numbers I hear are staggering, in Detroit.
Chaldeans - which I'm proud to say I am one - were blessed to have a strong family structure, starting with the grandparents - not the parents - the grandparents. Then the parents. Then the children, because when children have parents and grandparents, they have a strength and a support.
Part of the reason the Chaldeans are so successful is that they work hard, but there's another component, that is not typical. They help each other in the community. Like my uncle helped my dad. But also people like Mike George, and his father - other Chaldeans loaned money to my dad and uncle. Then my dad and uncle did the same thing for others, and they brought people from the old country to work for them, for us. So you had all of that support, which is what people need, okay.
Life is hard, and if you don't have the direction and you don't have the support, it makes it very, very hard, you know. So I'm optimistic that things have turned in Detroit. The Chaldeans are an instrumental part of that, too. You have to understand. Chaldeans have so many stores in Detroit, and they help the community, because they do things for those neighborhoods, okay. You could - you should really talk to some of the other people, and that is why Detroit will get stronger, because of the Chaldean influence.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I really appreciate it.
RA: You're welcome. I enjoyed it. Enjoyed it.