Helen McQueery, August 4th, 2016
WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. Today is August 4, 2016 and 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…
HM: Helen Obedience McQueery
WW: Thank you for sitting down with me. Can you please tell me where and when were you born?
HM: I was born in Poplar Bluff, Missouri
WW: And what year?
WW: When did you come to Detroit?
WW: And what brought you here?
HM: My Mother-in-Law and Father-in-Law bought a home here and they asked for my husband and I to come, to help, you know, free the expense of the home. So we came.
WW: Was there a culture shock when you came from Missouri to Detroit?
HM: Not really, because we lived on the east side. The home we bought was on Arch St. [possibly now Bagg St,]. That’s near Gratiot. And when I moved here I was a little bit disappointed because you could only move as far as Van Dyke. That’s as far as you could move but I loved it after a while, you know, coming from a small town to a city. It was kind of shocking to me at first and then, I like it.
WW: Was the neighborhood you moved into integrated?
WW: Was it all Black?
WW: Did you find that you had a hard time, that you had a hard time moving around the city given the segregated neighborhoods?
HM: No because we didn’t go that far out of our neighborhoods. We’d go downtown to the Eastern Market, you know, and everything we did was on the east side. Didn’t go to the west side hardly at all because there was a culture when I moved here that if you lived on the east side you didn’t go to the west side and vice versa.
WW: Given that you said in your neighborhood, was there neighborhood cohesion or was it, was the neighborhood friendly and welcoming or was it…?
HM: Oh yes, Yes. We knew, everybody knew their neighbors. They would help out. You know we had a grocery store on the corner a white guy owned it, and at that time you could go there and buy things and he’d let you have it on credit and then when you’d get your pay you’d go and pay him, you know, and it was really nice. And the neighbors looked after each other, you know, that kind of thing. And I enjoyed that even with, when I had my kids the neighbors would help with the children, you know. It was like a village where everybody kind of looked after everybody.
WW: What did you do for work when you came to Detroit?
HM: Well, at first I didn’t work when I came to Detroit but I had a profession when I came from Missouri, in photography, and I finally got a job working in a studio in Highland Park as a Photo Tech and I worked there for 14 years, and then I left there and went to Ford Hospital and worked in Medical Photography for 2 ½ years, and after that I went to the Free Press and worked there until I retired. I worked there 26 years as a Photo Tech and I ran the color lab there. We were the first paper in the country to do color in the newspaper.
WW: When you say “finally”, were you having a hard time getting a job as a Photo Tech in Detroit?
HM: Yes. Yep. The first time I went for an interview it was on 8 Mile near Woodward. I’ll never forget the house. I answered an ad and the lady asked me to come for an interview, and I went, and when she opened the door she looked at me real funny and she said “come on in” and she said “you know, when I talked you on the phone you didn’t sound like you were colored” and she said “ I have a girl working for me in the dark room, from Texas, and she’d just have a fit if I put you in the dark room with her” and I said “well, I tell you what, knowing that she felt that way if you put me in the dark room with her, you’d have 2 people having a fit”. So she said “you know I like your, I like your, the resumes, and I like your recommendations” and she said “it just seems a shame that you can’t find a job and we gonna, I’m going to help you find a job” and I said to her very politely “well, that’s fine, I’ll give, leave you my, my resume and my recommendations but I know they gonna wind up in the trash can like all the rest” and I left. And about 3 weeks later a guy called me and he said “you know I got, I got somebody I think you’d like to work for” and he recommended me to the Joe Clark Studio out in Highland Park and I worked there for 14 ½ years.
WW: Did you run into racist [unintelligible] a lot?
HM: Yes. Yes, because he, the, the man that owned it was a hillbilly from Tennessee. He called himself “Joe Clark the Hillbilly Snap Shooter”. His wife was Polish, and I’m working one day and she said to me “you know Helen you’re the first Colored person we ever had work for us” and that set a bell off in my head and I thought “Okay, I really don’t have to work but I want to work”. So I went home that, I worked all that day and went home, and I didn’t go back to work for 2 weeks, and she called me on the phone one day and she said “do you really want to work?” I said “yes, I do, but I don’t need to be reminded of my, my color. I was born this way. I know that I’m colored. You have a job and I can fill the bill and that’s all, that’s the only thing I ask for. My color should have nothing to do with it”. So she said “Oh I’m sorry I didn’t know I offended you” and I said “well, you did”. So she said “ok, well we want you to come back”. So I went back and they never, never said anything to me again. I ran into that everywhere I went to work because during that time you didn’t find black people in photography, especially women. So I ran into that a lot. When I left there I went to Ford Hospital. I was the only, the first Black they’d ever had there and I, it was kind of shaky and then we became friends, you know. And when I left and went to the Free Press I was the first Black, and the first woman, they had in the photo department. Wow! You talk about something there, I had to go, and it was all men, and I really went through something there. And we had one Chinese guy there that worked in the lab and he came from China, by way of Canada, and he got a job there and he made a remark to me one day, he says “why don’t all you people get on a boat and go back to Africa?” And I looked at him and it shocked me so, that I really started to take something and hit him with it, and I thought that wouldn’t solve anything, so I said to him “you know, I’m a citizen of this country. I was born and raised here and you are what I call a ‘second-class citizen’ because you came back both from Canada and everywhere else, so don’t ever say that to me again”. Well, he said it to the girl downstairs, she was in the City Room, and the editor at that time, we went to him and told him, so he called him in and told him, he said “if I ever hear another expression like that from you, you won’t have a job here”. He and I became the best of friends. I worked there 26 years and I ran the lab and I, and I was his boss in that lab, you know. But Tony was their boss, as photographers, so we became the best of friends. But it wasn’t easy for me there, you know. I’d have guys say nice little things to me, you know, and I have to tell em’ “I’m not here to socialize with you. I’m here to work. I have children I have to raise. So, when I leave here I go home. I don’t go outside and play around”. So that’s it. I ran into a lot of prejudice when I came here but after a while you get used to it and you just live through it.
WW: Were you expecting so much prejudice given that this is the North vs. the South?
HM: I never thought about it any way because when I was down, well, when I was down in Missouri where I lived, I lived like here, there was a white family lived there and we were kind of all mixed-up, you know. And when I went to work, for this lady, she had a photo studio in her house and I used to, to clean for her and I, she paid me 25 cents an hour and I got, I was fascinated with the enlargers and all the chemicals and stuff, and she saw that I was interested in it and she asked me if I wanted to learn photography and I told her “yes”. So she said “okay, we’ll make a deal. You have to still come and clean but I’ll take time and teach you”. And that’s how I learned my profession and it took me through life and I, when I worked for Joe Clark out in Highland Park, Kodak used to send all their papers, paper, before they put it up for sale, they would send it to us to be tested and we would test it, I would test that paper, I’d work with it every day and then I would say to Joe “okay, this, this is wrong with this paper. They need to know this” and that, they would take our word for it. And I used to print exhibits for Joe on some of their paper that they wanted to test and he would take it to conventions with him and they had a laugh, and they would laugh at me, and say that I was the only woman they knew that printed pictures by the pound, you know, and my, I became known among other photographers in the city by working for Joe because he used to do work for Life Magazine, Look, and Time, all those magazines, you know, so, I got a lot of experience working for him. He started, used to do the advertisement for Jack Daniels liquor and he did advertising for General Motors and I accidentally, working in the dark room I came up on something when I was processing the film and I discovered how you could drop the gray out of the picture and it would just be black and white. He, and I, I told him about it and he said “well don’t say anything to anybody else about this” and I said “okay”. He went to General Motors and showed them this and they used it in their advertising for years, and he called it “Impro”. So, you know, I got thrown under the bus that way too, so, but its okay, you know. Everybody knew me by my work. So when Tony Spina found out I wasn’t working for Joe anymore and they needed a, a Lab Tech, he asked me to come, and the interview, well, I got interviewed by 5 different white men and what they would do, they would take a note pad and they would write down what I say, I’d go to the next guy, he’d ask me the same questions and they’d look to see if I was telling the truth. It took them 5 months to make up their mind that they wanted to hire me. Well I finally said to Tony, I said “look, I have a job and I have somebody else that want me to come and work for them”, which I didn’t, I didn’t, I had a job but no one else had offered me another job and he said “ don’t, don’t take it Helen”. He said “look, I want to talk to ‘em’”. So he did, and they called me right away and after I got there they, you know, I ran that department and they began to respect me because they knew that I knew what I was doing. And then the newspaper finally sent me to Rochester when they were going to get ready to go into color. They sent me up there for training. I was instrumental in, then after that they hired a Black guy as a photographer. They hired 2 Black guys, and after that they started hiring women ‘cause there was no women in there.
And, I did good. I went to, I, I have done work for, for 3 books. One, one photographer was David Turnley. He was a photographer and he traveled. He went to Africa and stayed for about 2 years and he was acquainted with Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, and I think he was courting one of their daughters. So he took a lot of pictures and he would send them, the negatives back, you know. I’d process them and make prints. And finally, when he left there, he got in touch with a company in New York called Black Star and they saw his pictures and they wanted to do a book. And they wanted someone else to do the prints and David said “I don’t think so”. He said “Helen is, I know what Helen can do. So, I don’t want to try anybody else”. He did. And they paid me $10,000 for doing that. And then they had another book, the book from Africa was called “Why Are They Weeping?” Then he had another one from China, you know when they had that uproar in China and they had that, the guy standing in front of that tank-
WW: Tiananmen Square?
HM: Yes. We did a book on that. Schwarzkopf, the General, they did a book on that. So I did that, but anyway he won a Pulitzer Prize and I, I went to New York for that presentation then I went to Amsterdam and Paris for him to receive his Pulitzer Prize.
WW: That’s amazing.
HM: So I came from a long way, you know.
WW: Going to back 1950’s Detroit, given the racism you repeatedly, you were running into, did you notice any rising tensions in the city as well?
HM: No because everybody stayed to themselves pretty well. You’d go downtown, you know, you’d go to Hudson’s and places like that, and shopping, and, you’d, sometimes you’d go in a store, if two people walked up at the counter at the same time, you know, they’d wait on the white person before they would the black person, you know, and that would kind of set off a sign but there were things, and I think what happened is people just got frustrated because you could only stay in a certain area and do certain things. That was it. You know, you’d go to church, you’d go downtown. You could go spend your money but you couldn’t get a job down there, at Hudson’s, only they had women with the elevator- operators- but they had to be fair skinned. So people I think just got kind of fed up.
WW: Where were you living in 1967? Were you still living in the same house?
HM: No. In 1967 I was living on Parker Avenue. That’s on the east side. We finally got to the place you could move beyond the [Grand] Boulevard.
WW: And were you anticipating any violence that summer?
HM: No, I was, I was just telling Fishmen at the bar. I had just come from church and I didn’t know anything was happening, really. You know, cuz I left church and I went home and I had just started working for the Free Press. I started working for them in 1966 and that was, the riot was 67 and I came home, went home from church and it was quiet, nothing happening, and then all of a sudden we heard about this thing on 12th street. And we saw that they were burning and looting and I thought “what in the world is going on?” Nobody knew. Well, it got to the place they said that they were going to bring in the National Guard. That’s how bad it got. And I wouldn’t go, I was afraid to go to work. So Tony called and he said “Helen, you coming to work? I said “no, I’m not getting out in the street”. ‘Cause they were stopping people and shaking their cars and all that kind of stuff, and I was afraid. So he said “well look, you work for a newspaper now. We supposed to put out the news. So you have to come. We’ll send a cab for you”. So that’s what they did. They sent a cab for me and I worked. I’d be to work some time, 7 o’clock and I’d be, work some time until 10 o’clock at night, you know. And they’d go out and bring pictures in and, it was a mess on Hastings St. We had pictures where they had the National Guard there and they with their guns and, and after the, after the riots started and they brought the National Guard in, it was a horrible thing, to hear those tanks. They would roll down the neighborhoods and everybody had to be in the house at 9 o’clock. You couldn’t be outside after 9. And you in your house and you’d just stop and think, you’d hear this “klunka, klunka, klunka, clompa, clompa” coming down your street. But the guys, the soldiers were very friendly. They were nice, you know. But you couldn’t, and they had a staging area, it was Eastern High School, that was on the, East Grand Blvd. and Mack. And they had a staging area up there, that’s where they kept the tanks. That’s where they all stayed. It was big area. But the people were just very defiant when that started. I don’t know how it got started. You heard different stories about why it got started but it started on 12th St., but I don’t think anybody ever got the straight of really what happened. But I know it was a frightening time and then after that it was so much tension and that’s when things kind of started turning around just a little bit, you know. And then you could see things kind of easing up, but job-wise it was still hard, you know, for people of color to get jobs.
WW: Did you become more anxious when the National Guard came in or did they alleviate stress you were feeling with the situation?
HM: Well, I really didn’t have too much time to think about it because I had to get up and go to work and come home. That’s all I did during that time. I didn’t go to the grocery store shopping. I didn’t do anything because I didn’t want to be out in a place where I maybe would antagonize somebody and get hurt. So I just went to work and came home. And that’s what most people, most of the older people did. The younger people were a little more, you know, they’d do what they wanted to do.
WW: While you were at work, were you worried about your children or was your neighborhood roughly untouched?
HM: No, they, it was untouched. Nobody did, but I, my old, I was just telling Fishmen Uncle Bob, my oldest daughter and her friend they would, during the day they would go walk up to the school and try to meet some of the guys, you know, soldiers. But we didn’t have any problem. Most of your problem, most of the problems that they had during that time was right around 12th St. I can remember they had stores and everything down there and they looted those stores and took everything out. But you didn’t, on the east side where I lived, we didn’t have that. It was mostly on the west side.
WW: How do you view the events of July 1967? Do you see them as a riot or see them as a rebellion or uprising?
HM: No, I, it was kind of a uprising and a riot, you know. I think people had just gotten, they’d just been, gotten tired, you know, you, at that time you were just, you were almost like you were caged in. You couldn’t go to certain places. You had Hastings St. where they had their own bars, their own hotel, they had the Gotham Hotel, they had everything of their own and you stayed within that area. You didn’t branch out unless you went down on Woodward to go shopping, you know, for clothes and things. But other than that you didn’t, you didn’t, how would they say, when you cross Woodward you were on the west side, so most, I stayed on the east side most of the time.
WW: Do you believe that 67 still affects the city?
HM: I don’t know if it really affects the city. Maybe to some extent it does because, you know, well they cleared that out and then they started building things but Detroit has never been what it was before that riot as far as businesses are concerned. There were a lot of “Mom and Pop” places around you know. And people got along well but after that…..
WW: Did the city change to you? Did you look at it differently?
HM: Not really. I, if I, I think if I had been a person that was more involved in the city maybe I would have noticed a change but I, I didn’t, I just went about my normal life. But as I got older I saw changes but it wasn’t right after the riot. After a while I saw, saw changes, you know. Neighborhoods started mixing you know. You could do things. You could go. You could get involved and the Queen was, had a lot to do with that, you know, because she was a person, she was on the radio, she was talking to the community, she was going, she was talking to the other side and the black people, you know. She was really instrumental in gettin’ this city kind of straightened out.
WW: And who is that?
HM: The queen. Martha Jean the Queen. She was on the radio and she talked to people and talked to em’ about, you know, about staying home and staying off the street and all that, looting and all that, because see she worked closely with the police department. She was with a thing, with the police commissioner, and she had a program called, they had a program called “Buzz the Fuzz” and they, she’d get on the radio and really talk to the people, you know, about staying home, not looting, and all that kind of, she was on the radio like day and night talking to people, you know, and then she once got on a flatbed truck, you know, and talked to em’. She was a really stabilizing voice in the city of Detroit during that time. And the people listened to her.
WW: After 67 did you and your family ever think about leaving the city?
HM: No. Nope and I came here when I was 19 years old and, you, I don’t even go back to my home anymore cuz’ there’s nothing there. But this city, Detroit, gave me a chance and I found things here that I never found at home. And I enjoy it. It’s been good to me even though when I came I had a struggle, you know, getting started, but after I got started, and I just was never the kind of person that would give up, you know, I was always excited about something and I raised my 3 children and they, you know, all of them did well.
WW: How do you see the city today? Are you optimistic?
HM: Well, I’m a little bit optimistic. I think what they’re doing is they’re building up the downtown and they are not doing as much as they could do, or should do, in the neighborhoods. I look at all this vacant land, you know they just let homes just go to waste and then they tear em’ down. There’s vacant land and what’s happening is other people, and other cultures, are coming in and they’re buying this land and building on it. So, I think a lot of things, a lot happened is that after the riots, when people could move out they decided, a lot of Black people decided, I’m going to move to the suburbs. And my Dad had an old saying, “okay you guys can all move out if you want to, but in a few more years they goin’ to come back and take everything you had”. And that’s what’s happening. Now I see it, but it’s on a friendlier term, people are friendlier with each other now than they used to. Dan Gilbert is a very nice man. He’s bought up a lot of land, a lot of property, building things, but he’s a good employer, a fair employer too to people, you know, and, but, I see Detroit in a whole new light. It will never be what it used to be because what they’re doing now, instead of building homes, they’re building condos, you know, and it’s beautiful downtown. I went downtown, I hadn’t been, driving, I used to drive every morning, going to work at the Free Press, go straight down Lafayette and just keep going. I went downtown about, about 2 years ago, I got lost trying to get across Woodward and I thought “what in the world has happened?” So Detroit has changed. Now, another thing, they’re bringing in this rail system. To me, if they were going to build something like that why wouldn’t they build it so it just keeps going on instead of stopping it at 8 mile? What’s that, what good is that going to do?
WW: Is there anything else you would like to share today?
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me. I greatly appreciate it.