Victory Johnson, August 4th, 2016
Spiritual name: Victory 360-Degrees Johnson
WW: Hello, today is August 4th, 2016. My name is William Winkel. I am in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project and I am sitting down with—
VJ: Victory Johnson.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. Can you please tell me where and when were you born?
VJ: May 11, 1949.
VJ: In Detroit, Michigan.
WW: Did you grow up in the city?
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
VJ: I grew up on the west side of Detroit, off of Joy Road, Linwood, and I lived on Gladstone.
WW: Was the neighborhood integrated?
VJ: Not at that time.
WW: What did your parents do for a living?
VJ: My father, I don’t really know. I can’t tell you. I don’t know.
WW: Not to worry. Did you have any siblings growing up?
VJ: Yes. I had a sister and a brother.
WW: What was the neighborhood like?
VJ: Well, we lived in a four-family flat across from the playground. We went to school at Brady Elementary and I remember my first day when I was in kindergarten, they hadn’t taught me how to cross the streets yet. So my sister and brother were supposed to pick me up from school and bring me, you know, walk home back then, but they forgot me. I stayed at the light, at the cross light and it kept going red and green and I didn’t know whether to run across Joy Road. I remember this guy came up to me and said, “Okay, when the light turns green,” he didn’t say that, but that was in my head. He said, “Little girl, you can go now,” and I shot across the street and ran all the way home and I was crying and everything. I said, “Oh, they left me at school and this and that” and they got a whooping. From there, they taught me how to go on green and not to go on the red, but then from that day on, they came and got me from my classroom.
WW: Growing up in the city, did you explore the city more or did you stay in your neighborhood?
VJ: Well, as time went on, my grandparents—after that, we moved to an apartment on Elmhurst and Linwood. I went to the school across the street which was Roosevelt. It was an elementary school. It was Roosevelt, Darby, and Central, so you could go to elementary then go to Darby then go to Central High School. We lived right on the corner where you could look right across the street and see everything, the three schools. So if you were skipping school or something, you’re supposed to be in there, your mama could see. I went to that school and then my grandparents bought a house on Tuxedo and Dexter, so our family moved—it was a two-family flat, so our family moved to Tuxedo and Dexter. My grandma lived downstairs and we lived upstairs. My mom, she used to work at the Stanley Restaurant, Chinese restaurant from back in the day. Oh, I know what my dad did! He was in construction! He helped build the Renaissance downtown. They used to call him the Strong boss because he would take the people to the hospital if they got hurt and all that. He would be in the big tunnels that they have underneath the ground. He did that kind of work.
WW: Growing up in the city, did you face racism or—were your schools integrated?
VJ: They were integrated.
WW: Did you face racism in school? Or prejudice at school?
VJ: No, everybody was kind of all tied in. You know, as kids, we don’t really know what’s going on. But I do remember, when we moved onto Tuxedo, it was a Jewish family that lived next door to us. That particular section of Detroit was integrated. It was like crossing Joy Road and it was integrated then. They would celebrate their Christmases and have their little shacks out there, I forgot what they call them. My brother was a paper boy, and we played with the little boy next door. There were several Jewish families on the block.
WW: Do you remember when you moved onto that block, did your family face any push-back from white neighbors?
VJ: No. Because most of them were Jewish and we found that Jewish people, they receive us better, to me, than any other race, to me.
WW: Going into the 1960s, being a teenager, did you travel around the city more?
VJ: Yes, I did travel around the city more. I remember we used to go to River Rouge. We used to go to Edgewater Park. We’d catch the busses. Back then as a child, I didn’t know how—because my sister and brother would take me—that we’d have to go to like Woodward, catch the bus down, go to 7 Mile, and take 7 Mile down to Edgewater Park. As I got older, [unintelligible] and to the fairgrounds. To the fair, that’s what the Woodward Park was, to the fairgrounds on 7 Mile. That’s a bus depot now. Right before 8 Mile.
WW: Did you sense any growing tension in the city during the ‘60s, given the civil rights movement is in full swing and other social movements of the day?
VJ: Are we just basically talking about—we lived over there. Even after I got married, I moved in my grandmother’s house and I had a child. That’s sort of like when the ’67 riot kind of broke out. And I remember taking my child—my mom had moved to 7 Mile and Littlefield, so I took my child to safety because they really weren’t rioting over in those sections, but then I came back where the riot was. My grandmother lived upstairs. They were rioting, and they were tearing up all the stores on Dexter. As living over there, it seemed like you knew all of the store owners. It was like a George Reeves, drug store, and you could go in there and like Mother Obedience was saying, you could go in there and [unintelligible] or whatever and they would let you get it, knowing that you were from the neighborhood so it was pretty cool. They had some black-owned businesses, some cleaners and some little penny candy stores, they had a car wash and they had a bar over that way. It was really nice because I guess the Jewish people kept the property up, so it wasn’t like you’re moving into just dilapidated surroundings. I guess you would call it from Gladstone to Webb, we kept upgrading.
WW: How did you first hear what was going on in July ’67?
VJ: What was going on? I saw it on TV.
WW: Saw it on TV?
WW: Did it shock you, or were you expecting any violence in that summer?
VJ: No, I just remember it was very hot outside. It was hot, and the next thing I know I see people on my block and people that I knew going up on Dexter and they were breaking into stuff and tearing down the gates. There was a clothing store up there, so, yeah. It was just like moving slow. You see a few people, then you see a gang of people like that, and my grandmother, by her being there, she was Queen’s mother, so we were kind of looking out for my grandmother.
WW: Did you have any interactions with the people who were looting? Because you said you saw them on your street. Did you talk with them?
VJ: Yes. And they were running.
WW: Did they say why they were doing it?
VJ: They were like taking stuff from Dexter, then they’d run to their houses and put it in their houses then they’d go back and it was just all over the place. It was just weird-looking. Then some of the people that were doing the looting and all that kind of stuff were people that I knew, that I grew up with.
WW: Did you speak with any of them at all?
VJ: Some of them wanted to put things in—well, I was closer. “Can I put this here and I’ll be right back?” That kind of situation.
WW: During that first day when people were looting, what was the mood? Was it celebratory that there was looting going on? Was it anxious? Was it worrying?
VJ: I don’t think it was too much worrying. To me, it looked like it was just a relief, like a rebellion. We were rebelling against this, you know what I’m saying? It was like that, because they weren’t sad or nothing, they were just happy. I guess they were just happy because they were getting something for free, even though they were taking it. It was like the adrenaline was flowing.
WW: During that week, was your block threatened by fire?
VJ: No. We’re not too far from 12th Street, so as you saw it on television, then it was kind of scary because you were thinking, “Now, why are you burning up the people’s places?” Now that’s kind of weird, going in and breaking in and taking whatever you want, but then to set fires? You’re burning up your own self. That kind of rung the bell. If you just had time to just sit down and look at the TV and see actually that you’re burning your own self out. Because it’s only us over here, during ’67. The Jewish guys, the Jewish families had moved out. Just like my mom. She moved to 7 Mile and Littlefield. That was a more safer area, a more prominent area, where we were moving to.
WW: You mentioned the atmosphere of relief. When the National Guard and later the federal troops came in, what was the feeling of the block and the area then?
VJ: It was more of you had to tilt lightly type. If it was a curfew or whatever, and you were going against the curfew—because the people I’m talking about were like 18, 19 years old, because I was 18. We didn’t really care. So what? They ain’t coming over here. We aren’t really not doing nothing over here. It was more basically over on 12th Street or whatever. That wasn’t too far from us, but we just were nowhere in the area.
WW: Did you have any interactions with the National Guard or the police department during that week?
VJ: No. Then after my grandmother kind of told us that Queen was on the radio and all of that, telling us, telling the people to back away and that kind of thing, so that took a toll, too. Some people that I did see over there, now we shouldn’t’ be doing all this. Come on, now. We’re doing our own neighborhood. You knew the person that had the clothing store and the furniture store and all that. Then they ended up moving. Those same people ended up moving from Dexter and they went to 6 Mile.
WW: You said earlier that it felt like they were rebelling. Do you identify what happened in ’67 as a rebellion, or do you see it as a riot, or somewhere in-between?
VJ: I figure like some people just did it, and some people probably were backed up against a wall and they just couldn’t take no more and they say, “[exclamation]! I’m just releasing it and letting it go and doing whatever it is!” I think some people had reason to just explode. I couldn’t get jobs and money wasn’t flowing right so it gave them some kind of reason to outlet.
WW: Did you see the city differently after that? After that week?
VJ: To me, I felt like after 12th Street was gone that some of—let’s see—some of the historian of it left. You see 12th Street now, there’s nothing there. They burned it up. We burned it up. You could go down there and just have a good time and bar hop if that’s what you were into, and see all kinds of acts and all that kind of stuff. It gave the people something to do, an outlet to relax them, to have fun and enjoy themselves. But who did? You burned your own self out? I think if the police department would have handled it differently, it just wouldn’t have been—sometimes if you come in kind and gentle, and present it in a different way, then the person you presented it to wouldn’t be so angry, to want to retaliate against you. “Well, get out of here!” You could just come in here and say, “Okay, it’s such and such, everybody needs to go,” or whatever it is. Just handle it in a different manner and it probably would have went pretty well, but instead it incited a riot because it was hot outside and nobody had a fan [unintelligible].
WW: Afterwards, did you ever feel like not only moving off that block, but moving out of the city?
VJ: Did I move out of the city? No. I never thought about moving out of the city, moving out—no.
WW: How do you see the city today?
VJ: I see the city as they’re letting people—our people—instead of them paying money to destroy—the demolition—the areas, they’re letting those that are unfortunate go in there and loot—not loot, but take out the water heaters and just make a lot of blight. Instead of them just coming in and just paying for it to be torn down, to rebuild there. They just slowly letting us do it and saying that they’re trying to protect it, but in reality they’re not. They’re just setting things in place like if you call the police, “They’re taking stuff from this house,” then they’re taking a long time to get to the house, or to the building, or to the schools, or whatever. They keep saying all this money is going to the schools, but I see more schools—they’re closing them and going in there and taking everything out of them, and all that, that’s weird. That’s crazy.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
VJ: No. I live downtown, and they’re building up downtown as Mother Obedience said, so that’s why I’m saying it’s taking a slow effect in the neighborhoods. How about doing something in the neighborhoods? You want us to have gardens, [unintelligible], what black people really do. From us coming down south, we know about gardening and picking cotton and having cauliflowers and collard greens and all that, because we are of the earth. Now you’re telling us, “Okay, now you can grow your own food.” That’s sort of like taking us back to slavery, in a sense. Now downtown, they’re building it all up. You can’t even get no property downtown. It’s all booked up. They haven’t even finished it yet. Yeah, they’ll get back around to this like they always do. They’ll let us kill, steal, and destroy and then they come right back in to swoop it up, make it want they want it to be, and put a high dollar on it. Then there we are again, as they say, the ghetto. And the ghetto just means somebody moved in there before you did.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
VJ: Well, I would like to add that when Queen came over here, she fixed up this area. Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg. On the radio in 1967, she was on the radio telling the people to just sit down somewhere, take a break, don’t’ do that to yourselves. Then she reached out to [unintelligible] that really didn’t know anything about God, but it was on the radio.
WW: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I greatly appreciate it.
VJ: You’re welcome.