Frances McDonald, Joni Mortier, Carol King, August 1st, 2016
Note: Voices heard in background include Hannah Sabal of the Detroit Historical Society and Joni Mortier and Carol King, Frances McDonald’s daughters.
WW: Hello, today is August 1st, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Oral History Project, and I am sitting down with—
FD: Frances McDonald.
WW: Thank you for sitting down with me today. Can you please tell me where and when were you born?
FD: I was born in Toledo, Ohio, 1919. December 15th.
WW: What year did you come to the city of Detroit?
FD: I came when I was in the fourth grade, which means I must have been around ten, or nine.
WW: What brought you and your family here?
FD: His family, my mother’s family had originally settled in Detroit, so they may have come back to the family which was in Detroit. We’re still in Detroit. I presume he came back because he was an automotive engineer and he more or less followed the growth of all the brand new automobile companies. When one would come to life, and then slowly die, and I think his first job was with Chrysler. I’m not positive.
WW: What did your mother do?
FD: My mother took care of me; she was the homemaker.
WW: Do you remember where you, when you moved to Detroit, what neighborhood you lived in?
FD: I certainly do. We lived on Quincey Avenue near Joy Road. I can almost remember the number.
WW: Was the neighborhood integrated at the time, or was it all white?
FD: It was white.
WW: What was your first impression of Detroit?
FD: When I came back then?
WW: Fourth-grade you.
FD: It was fine. Detroit was a good city. There was no trouble. The neighborhood I lived in was typical. We had the Riviera Theatre there. It was common, ordinary neighborhood.
WW: Do you remember anything from 1943?
FD: Is that when the riots were?
WW: That’s when the first riots were, yeah.
FD: Actually, no, because we moved out to Old Redford over on Berg Road, over by the golf course. That was—we were in the suburbs then. We weren’t really near the riots at all.
WW: Why did your family move out of the city?
FD: Well, they bought a house. Looked like a house in England, because they were both English immigrants, and they tried to make it look more English than ever.
WW: After you graduated high school, did you still live in Old Redford, or did you move back to the city?
FD: No, I lived on Berg Road right through college.
WW: Where did you go to college?
FD: Wayne, of course.
WW: As you went to Wayne state, did you notice any growing tension in the city?
FD: No, none at all. I remember meeting my very first black person in Wayne. Another girl and I became very good friends. Really, that was my almost first experience with black people. It was very much a segregated city, I guess.
WW: What did you do after attending Wayne State?
FD: Got married. Settled down, had kids.
WW: Where did you live after you got married?
FD: Well, let’s see. First of all, we moved onto a little apartment on Schaeffer, and later we bought a house over—was it Greenfield? Bought a small house on Greenfield. After my father died, she asked us to move in with her, because she had a pretty big house, and we did. So these kids were mainly brought up over in Redford. They all went to Holcomb School, they all went to Redford High. In fact, I think most of them went to Wayne University.
HS: Is there just the two of you? Four? Okay.
JM: Also, Old Redford is part of Detroit. It’s not like Redford Township.
WW: Yeah. In the 1950s and then the 1960s, you mentioned that Detroit was segregated. Did you see the barriers of segregation start breaking down in the city?
FD: Probably not. No. I would go downtown to shop at Hudson’s and that was about it, although my family, come to think of it, my aunts and uncles, they stayed on Quincey for a long time. I don’t believe the neighborhood was integrated at the time.
WW: Were you still living with your mother in 1967?
FD: How old am I at ’67?
WW: In 1967.
FD: Let’s see. I got married when I was 21, what year was that? ’42? Yeah. I got married in ’42. I was living, as I told you, all over the place for a while.
WW: How did you first hear what was going on in ’67?
FD: Well, it would’ve been the newspapers. I presume. My dad would bring home newspapers, because there was no TV back then and we would have had a radio with all the news. I knew there was a riot going on. But it didn’t affect us out in Redford.
WW: Did you see anything first-hand?
FD: Yes. At some point, we heard about the riots and I took what children I had at home, which was her [Joni], her brother, and I guess her sister. Packed them in the car, took them down to the vicinity—I was just thinking about it before you came—generally speaking in the vicinity of the Boulevard and Woodward. Of course there was no expressway then. We drove. I expected to see all the destruction, all the burned up stores. I didn’t see any of that. We ended up in a residential neighborhood where there really was nobody on the streets. All of a sudden, we saw a scout car, which I will never forget. I can see this as plain as if it was sitting in our living room. Guns out of every window. We talked about it, this morning. We guess they were looking for snipers, I think. Nobody on the streets, but it was the scariest thing I ever saw in my life. Believe me, I took those kids home as fast as I could.
WW: Was the scout car the Detroit Police Department or State Police?
FD: I don’t know.
WW: What made you want to go down there in the first place?
FD: Just plain curiosity, you know. Like everybody go sees an accident. Curious, I suppose I may have thought this was an event my children should see. We expected to see, as I say, some effects of the riot, but we never saw any. I ended up in a residential neighborhood where we never saw burned buildings or anything like that, but we sure got one of the scares of my life.
WW: Did you anticipate any violence that summer, or did it catch you off guard?
FD: No. There was no violence out near us. I’m sure we never gave a thought about it. It just was down there.
WW: Did it change the way you thought about the city?
FD: I doubt it.
WW: Did you have any other experiences that week?
WW: Did you have any other experience during that week?
FD: None that I can remember, no. I’m sorry, that’s all I remember, but that’s it. The one experience was very vivid, and the others are gone.
WW: Did you ever feel apprehensive about going to the city after that?
FD: No, I never felt apprehensive about going to the city and I don’t now.
WW: Do you think the riot changed the city?
FD: Not that I knew of, no.
WW: How do you feel about the city today?
FD: Thanks to my daughter, who works with a community group, I feel great about the city. They have a wonderful new mayor and lots of people helping to make it grow.
WW: Thank you very much for sitting down with me today.
[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 11:34]
[End of Track 1]
The following is a continuation of the previous interview with Joni Mortier [JM] and Carol King [CK], interviewed by Hannah Sabal [HS]
HS: Hello, this is Hannah Sabal. I’m in Farmington Hills, Michigan. The date is August 1st, 2016 and I am sitting down with Joni Mortier and Carol King for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project. Thank you both for sitting down with me today.
CK: It’s a pleasure.
HS: Carol, can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
CK: Yes, I was born in Detroit, 1942.
HS: And Joni, when were you born?
JM: I was born in 1953, also in Detroit.
HS: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
CK: Northwest Detroit. That would be the 7 Mile/Grand River/Telegraph area.
HS: Was that neighborhood integrated?
CK: No, it was not.
HS: Moving into the ‘60s, did either of you notice any tensions in the city at all?
CK: I did not.
JM: I did not, either.
HS: How old were you both in ’67?
CK: Let’s see, I was born ’42, so that would put me 27.
JM: And I would have been 14.
HS: Had you moved out of your mother’s house at this point?
CK: I had. I had gotten married by that time and was living in Royal Oak with my husband.
HS: And Joni, you were still living at home with your mother, correct?
HS: We’ll start with you, Carol: How did you first hear about the riots?
CK: I was in Europe, traveling with my husband and pregnant with our very first child. I heard, in Europe—we were in England—and we heard in the news, international news, that there were important riots going on in Detroit, Michigan in the United States. They happened to mention a street which was very close to where I grew up, where I used to ride bikes, etc. So I was shocked and made my very first international phone call, which was a big bill at that time. Reached my family, I believe immediately and they assure me, no, nothing was going on on whatever street that I had mentioned. They had not heard of anything.
HS: So you were worried before you contacted them?
HS: Then, you felt better after speaking to them? Or were you still worried?
CK: I think I actually continued to be worried because the name of the street was still so close to the family. What did news casters know that I didn’t know, that my family might not know? So I listened in an ongoing way, carefully.
HS: When you returned from Europe, did you drive through the city at all, like on your way back from the airport?
CK: No, we did not do that. We probably went straight home, but we were in Royal Oak, so that was pretty close to the city of Detroit.
HS: Did you see any changes upon your return?
CK: No, I did not.
HS: Okay. Joni, moving to you now: How did you hear about the riots the first time?
JM: I don’t know. I assume just talk within the family. Of course, my first memory of the action was my mother looking for some excitement, I guess. Or again, curiosity. Taking us in the car. I remember it as being myself and my girlfriend from next door, and maybe a third person. But again, driving down—I don’t know what location—whenever mom said is probably—
HS: By the Boulevard and Woodward?
JM: Yeah, yeah.
HS: Was there anything else that you remembered from that week? Anything you witnessed or heard about?
JM: I do remember hearing that there were—and it’s almost embarrassing to say this—but I remember hearing that black people were marching down Grand River, and they were approaching Grand River and Lahser, which is close to where we live; that’s the Old Redford area. I remember hearing that. I don’t remember, like, being really scared. I remember wondering what we would do if they came to our neighborhood. We grew up in a situation where my father had a very good friend who was a black man. So we kind of always, as kids, had exposure, you know—
CK: Completely favorable, friendship, exposure.
JM: Yeah, so I think we, you know, somewhat who didn’t have that might have reacted with more fear.
HS: As a teenager, did you have any idea of what was going on?
JM: Not that I recall. Probably nothing I would understand.
HS: How have you seen the city change over the past fifty years?
CK: Well, I can speak to that. We used to enjoy driving in the Detroit area, and I was a member of the Women’s City Club and spent lots of time down there. I saw a lot of deterioration go on, in particularly the buildings. Yes, then I would see further deterioration of the lives of people. Lots of street life, and it was a very sad change, because Detroit had always been just a great city to grow up in, and I always felt quite safe.
HS: Did that change after the riots? Did you not feel safe?
CK: Well, I think, yes, you needed to be careful. It was just common-sense carefulness. For instance, if my car broke down on Woodward, because I’m driving up from Royal Oak, remember, from where we were living, then I would have to be cautious. That’s all. Just common-sense caution.
HS: Did you notice any changes, Joni?
JM: Well, certainly in the city. I still live in the same house I grew up in, so certainly I saw a lot of deterioration. When I remember tension is more when the whole idea of bussing came up in the city. That’s when I remember more tension. At that point I did have black friends in high school, so there was—they didn’t like the idea of, us friends of them were backing them. That’s where I remember more tension, but certainly, again, the deterioration that happened in Detroit, and now kind of watching the revitalization depending on what neighborhood you’re in. I mean, I live in a fully integrated neighborhood, and certainly when I was down at Wayne University I learned to be cautious, but it wasn’t a racial thing. That was more just a crime thing. There were rapes happening down at Wayne when I was down there. Certainly, the city changed. Obviously, the city changed. I don’t recall friends of mine whose parents kind of picked them up and left the city, the whole “white flight” thing. My husband remembers that. He had two friends who, like, within a year, their parents moved into the suburbs. I don’t recall that. I guess, recently, I watched a show on the Detroit Riots and I had no clue, obviously at 14, how huge this was, how significant it was. Kind of the boiling point.
HS: Final question: Where do you see the city headed?
JM: I’m extremely optimistic.
CK: I am, too. I really am. I’m seeing, for instance, we’ve been down at the Riverwalk. What an integration of cultures! They are all down there, just enjoying life with their families. We all have that wonderful commonality. We’re all laughing at silly stuff and admiring the beauty of the day. It just brings out the, “We’re all people” thing, and that is feeding into the fact that there are other commercial things that are going on, that I think are good. My husband and I live in Lexington, Michigan, north of Port Huron. We have never a problem about going down to some activity in the Detroit area. In fact, we lived in Grosse Pointe for a while. We are high on Detroit, and we have lots of optimism that young people like me can get on a bus and go shopping downtown. Probably not yet, but one day, that there will be that kind of commercial business and attraction down there.
JM: Yeah, and I think for me, I’m active in the community, and I know a lot of community activists and a lot of people who are really kind of digging in their heels, and moving into the city. All the opportunities the city has to kind of have a new beginning and get really creative. I am just seeing all these incredible, creative people who, you know, they can’t help it but make this city really incredible. Our house—I don’t know what my mother, or my grandmother bought it for when she bought it, but it’s gone as low as worth $18,000 according to the [unintelligible]. I wouldn’t be surprised if it would be a million dollars someday, just because the city will be so great.
CK: May I offer one thing, and you haven’t asked me for it, so if you want to click that off.
HS: Well, I was just about to ask if there was anything else you guys wanted to share.
CK: Joni mentioned that our family brought us up to really regard people in, I think, a really great way. Yes, skin color was different, but let me give you an idea of, I think, a great example of how we were raised up and how our attitudes were formed. We lived on Berg Road; that was mentioned. You’re much too young to know this, but you might have heard about an amusement park that was called Edgewater that was at Berg Road and 7 Mile. That was a fun place to go and a huge attraction. Well, lots of black kids knew about that fun place, and they would take a place down Grand River—this is how I knew about it—and then they would walk down across Berg Road to get over to 7 Mile. Is that about three-quarters of a mile? Something around there?
CK: I remember so many rainstorms, and it would catch these kids—black kids and white kids—and we would call them up on our porch. We had a great big, lovely, wonderful porch with a big over-, protective roof, overhang. These kids were so grateful to be called up and we would just laugh and carry on until the rain went by. There was never a sense of fear because their skins were different colored that we don’t do things like this. It was just that they got caught in the rain. “Come on up here until the rain passes by!” I just remember such a great joy, and they were so appreciative. So that’s my story.
HS: Is there anything else either of you wanted to add?
FM: I have something to add.
HS: Okay, Frances.
FM: It was the recession of 2008 that brought down this city. It certainly was not those black riots. Do either of you agree with me about that?
CK: I think it happened sooner than that, Mom, because again, as I traveled from Royal Oak down to the Women’s City Club, that’s when I saw a lot of Detroit and watched the deterioration. And that would be the late—Craig was born in ’68, so that would be early ‘70s, etc.
FM: There was what they call the “white flight,” wasn’t there? That would’ve contributed to the deterioration. I forgot about that.
JM: There was a lot of racism in Detroit. My experience is that there was.
FM: Well, I didn’t see it.
JM: Well, again, my husband talked about his two friends that kind of moved off the block after the riots because of the riots and, you know, this kind of racial fear. Both of those people sold to black families, and my husband can remember both of those black families having a problem because they were, you know, the city was starting to integrate more and there being real problems in that respect. I think that after the riots, there was, like you say, that was part of the white flight that went on and the racism that abounded.
HS: I’m sure the recession of 2008 that your mother mentioned didn’t help.
JM: It did not help. That’s a lot of people losing their homes which has really created a huge problem.
FM: That recession just ruined half of Old Redford.
JM: Yeah, you’re probably right.
FM: It’s the most blighted area you ever did see. You should go over and look at it.
CK: It’s full of good memories, all of our growing up lives.
HS: Well, thank you ladies so much for sitting down with me today. We appreciate it.
JM: Thank you.
[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 17:48]
[End of Track 2]