Kenneth Volk, July 6th, 2016
the Linwood and Elmhurst area, near Central High School. He worked at the National Bank of Detroit during the 1967 unrest.
William Winkel [WW]: Hello, today is July 6th, 2016, my name is William Winkel. I am in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit ’67 Oral History Project, put on by the Detroit Historical Society. I’m sitting down with Mr. Kenneth Volk. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
Kenneth Volk [KV]: My pleasure.
WW: Can you please tell me where and when you were born?
KV: I was born in Detroit in 1931.
WW: And what neighborhood did you grow up in?
KV: I grew up in the Linwood and Elmhurst area, where the Roosevelt, Durfey, and Central High Schools are.
WW: What was your neighborhood like growing up?
KV: It was a nice neighborhood; it was a closely knit neighborhood. The schools were, for me, like a couple of blocks away, so I walked to school from grade school through high school.
WW: What high school?
KV: Central High School.
WW: What did your parents do for a living?
KV: My dad was in auto supplies and my mother was a housewife.
WW: Was your neighborhood integrated?
KV: A little bit, yes.
WW: What was the makeup of the neighborhood? Was it a Polish neighborhood, or - ?
KV: No, it was-- I think-- primarily Christian and Jewish.
WW: Okay. Are there any stories you’d like to share from growing up in that neighborhood?
KV: Well, none that I can think of at the moment.
WW: [laughs] Not to worry. How long did you stay in that neighborhood?
KV: We lived there until 1951.
WW: And why did you move out of that neighborhood?
KV: Basically, my parents felt that they wanted to have a little larger house, and they actually moved to another area in Detroit, around Finkel and Sorrento.
WW: Okay. What was the new neighborhood like?
KV: It was not too different from the neighborhood we’d moved from. Where we had lived, the house was a frame house, and where my parents lived, it was a brick house and it was two stories instead of one.
WW: Do you have any recollections from the 1943 riots in Detroit?
KV: Yes, I was 12 years old at the time, and I was walking to school. Basically, I didn’t see anything relating to the riots except that the National Guard was stationed in the back of the Roosevelt Elementary School, and they had pup tents put up, and it was sort of like a military situation there when we were walking to school. But otherwise we really had no real impact from the ‘43 riots.
WW: Okay. Growing up, did you see the city changing at all, throughout the 1940s and into the ‘50s?
KV: Not really, I don’t think that we experienced much of a change in the neighborhood, basically my parents moved to have a little larger house, then I moved out when I got married after I got out of the Army.
WW: What year was that?
KV: I was in the Army from 1953 to 1955.
WW: Why did you join the Army?
KV: I didn’t, I was drafted. [laughs]
WW: [Laughs] Fair point! After you got out and got married, where’d you move to?
KV: We moved to Six Mile and Myers. We lived on Mendota. It was a rather small house, so when we ended up with two children we moved into a larger house on Freeland, which is just south of Eight Mile Road.
WW: And what did you do after you returned to the city, for work?
KV: When I got out the Army?
KV: I joined a large public accounting firm, and I spent about ten years with that firm.
WW: And did you notice the city changing at all in the ‘60s?
KV: I really didn’t notice it that much, no. One of the things that precipitated our move out of the city was the fact that our kids were going to school, is was the Vernor school. The people in the neighborhood were concerned about the fact that Detroit Public Schools was going to build an intermediate school on Wyoming and Penbrook, and that was a rather rough neighborhood to start with. The people were very much perturbed about it, and a representative from the Detroit Public Schools had a meeting at the Vernor school for the neighbors. At that time, there was the Vandenberg School, which is an elementary school, on a huge piece of property. It would have been easy for them to build an intermediate school there, and it was in a good area. At any rate, as a result of the meeting with the representative from the Detroit Public Schools, his response to our concerns that was that we had nothing to worry about, that there would be, quote, adequate police protection, unquote. One week later, you could pick the house you wanted to buy, because there were “Sale” signs all over the place. At any rate, as I had mentioned, we had already made arrangements to build a house in Southfield so, it really didn’t make a lot of difference to us.
WW: And what year was that? And what month?
KV: We put the house up for sale in March of 1967.
WW: And did it sell right away, or did you stay in the city?
KV: Actually, it took about a week.
KV: It was very interesting, the gentleman that bought the house, I had told him that our builder said that our house would not be ready until December first. He didn’t care, he put a very substantial deposit on it, substantial as it was at that time, and he was willing to wait. Fortunately for him and for us, we had possession of the new house by October 31st, so it was actually a month before the builder had planned to make it available to us.
WW: Okay. How did you first hear what was going on, in that week in July in ‘67?
KV: I believe it was on the radio. It was quite extensively covered on the radio.
WW: And where were you working at the time?
KV: National Bank of Detroit.
WW: Did you go to work that week?
KV: I went to work as usual, [on] Monday morning. I drove down to Seven Mile and Shafer, which I usually do, parked my car, and took an express bus to downtown Detroit. Going down the expressway, I could see smoke billowing on either side of the expressway. When I finally got down to the office, I found that basically the only people that were there were the management group from the bank, and since I was a vice president in the main office audit staff, I was elected to go to two of the branches that were in the heart of the riots.
Our trip to the first branch, which was at Grand River and Grand Boulevard, was by police car, accompanied by an armored car, and another police car in front of the armored car. I was sitting in the back of one of the police cars with one of the branch managers. When we got to the branch on Grand River and Grand Boulevard, there was considerable devastation up and down the street. There were many fire hoses scattered up and down Grand River, and it was a rather sad-looking situation.
The branch on Grand River was next door to Charles Furniture, and Charles Furniture was totally destroyed. The branch suffered a lot of water damage, and in [our] attempt to open the vault in the branch, there was difficulty, because the water that had been played on the branch had apparently started to rust the doors of the vault. Since we were there for a while, I went out to stand in front of the branch with one of the police officers who was in essence guarding the front door, and an individual, I believe he was a reporter for one of the newspapers, came across the street. He wanted to come in and see what was going on in the branch. Of course the police officer said that wasn’t possible, and asked him to step back across the street. The reporter was rather adamant about wanting to go in, so the police officer lowered his rifle, and asked him politely to please walk across the street, which he did.
After we got the funds out of the vault and proceeded to the branch on Linwood and Clairmount, our trip took us down Chicago Boulevard. And of all things, as we were driving down Chicago Boulevard, the armored car stalled. The gentleman [who] was the branch manager was in the back seat of the police car with me looked like he was going to faint; he turned all white. And the police officer who was sitting in the front with a shotgun, lowered the window and put the shotgun out the window to make sure that he had a good aim at whatever he was going to aim at. Interestingly, the city of Detroit, the police department was divided into two sections, one was the East part of Detroit and the other was the western part of Detroit. Unfortunately, we were in a police car that was assigned to the east part of Detroit, and they had no idea what was happening on the west side of Detroit. So they heard shots being fired, and I guess they didn’t really know what to do, but at any rate, I think it only took maybe fifteen or twenty seconds and the armored car got started again, and we went on our way to the branch at Linwood and Clairmount.
That branch was still actively involved in the riots, and while we were in the branch we could hear gunfire, and one of the policemen came into the branch, and we asked him what was going on, and his answer, which I never confirmed, was that they just finished shooting a person off of one of the rooftops. At any rate, we completed the removal of the funds from the Linwood-Clairmount office, and we headed back to the main office in downtown Detroit. And that was basically it.
One of the things that did occur, the branch manager at Linwood and Clairmount gave me an envelope and asked me to give it to one of my associates at the main office. It was sealed, so I didn’t know what was in it. When I got back to the office my associate had already left, and I put the envelope on my file cabinet. The next morning I gave it to him, and I found out there was six thousand dollars in cash sitting in it, and luckily nobody pilfered it during the night.
KV: So that’s basically, my experience with the, ah, the ’67 riots. On the next day, on Tuesday—
WW: Ah, just some quick follow-up questions—
WW: On your way into work that morning, was the bus empty, or were there people in there also on their way to work - ?
KV: Usually the bus was full, but on that day I think there were maybe eight or ten people.
WW: And the trip to the Grand Boulevard location, was that eventful? Or did you not see any devastation until you got there -
KV: No, no, there was some devastation along the way, not anything to the extent that there was when we got to Grand River. Grand River was the heart of devastation, and Linwood and Clairmount was pretty much destroyed.
WW: And you talk about the fire department presence on Grand Boulevard, what was the police presence on Linwood and Clairmount?
KV: There were a lot of police on Linwood and Clairmount, there were several in the branch, there were a number of them on Linwood itself. As I mentioned, one came into the branch and said that they had shot a sniper on a roof of one of the buildings on Linwood.
WW: Okay. And on Tuesday?
KV: Well, on Tuesday when I went back to work, things pretty much got back to normal as far as the bank was concerned. I might add, the street we lived on was just down the street from the Eight Mile Road Armory. We saw military vehicles going up and down our street. Another little incident was that my cousin, who was ten years old, came with his mother from Philadelphia to visit us, and when he saw the military vehicles moving up and down the street he was just petrified. He said to his mom [that] he want[ed] to go back home.
WW: Was there a sense of relief when you and your family moved out to Southfield from Detroit, afterwards?
KV: I would say it wasn’t a sense of relief, it was just something that we had planned on doing. You know, the neighborhood that we had lived in in Detroit was a nice neighborhood, it was just that that house too, became a bit small for us. And the house in Southfield--we went from like a 1200 square foot house to a 2300 square foot house.
WW: Oh wow.
KV: So it was a bit of a change.
WW: Did the events of that week make you view the city any differently?
KV: With sadness, basically. I had lived in Detroit all my life, and it was a good city. [I] got a good education, I felt there was a lot of freedom, as far as being able—when we lived near Central High School, I used to go across the street to pick up my buddy to go to school. And I’d just walk around the back of the house, and walk inside. We never had the doors locked or anything. So it was a very low-key neighborhood.
WW: How do you interpret the events of that week? Do you see it as a riot?
KV: In what respect?
WW: Do you see it as a riot, or do you see it as a rebellion, as civil disobedience?
KV: Well, I looked at it as being a riot, after seeing what had happened on Grand River, there was considerable devastation there. Also, my grandparents lived off of Finkel and Livernois, and there was a lot of devastation there too. So yes, it was definitely considered not a—it was an uprising, as far as I was concerned.
WW: And do you believe that it still, the events of that week, still affect the city today?
KV: Absolutely. Absolutely. There are still buildings there that were devastated by the riot, that are still sitting there boarded up. And I think that what happened was a death blow to the city of Detroit.
WW: How do you view the city today?
KV: Well, I’m happy to see that things are moving ahead and are beginning to pick up in Detroit. Unfortunately, there was so much devastation there that you have many areas that were once residential areas, or business areas, that are totally vacant lots.
KV: So, there’s a lot of work that has to be done to build Detroit back up again. It’s gone from-- I believe-- like a million seven hundred thousand people to six or seven hundred thousand people. And the city has a much poorer tax base, and that just makes it much more difficult for the city to provide services for its people.
WW: Thanks so much for sitting down with me today. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
KV: No, I think pretty well covered it.
WW: Thank you very much again.