Jay Butler, August 26th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 26th, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. And I’m sitting down with—
JB: Jay Butler.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today, Mr. Butler.
JB: Yeah, sure.
WW: Can you start by telling me where and when were you born?
JB: I was born in Jackson, Tennessee in 1942.
WW: And when did you come to Detroit?
JB: In 1966.
WW: What brought you to Detroit?
JB: Uh, radio. I came to Detroit in 1966 from Nashville, Tennessee where I had been a radio disc jockey and I came here in 1966 to work at WJLB.
WW: What was your first impression of the city?
JB: My first impression of the city? I liked the city, I thought it was a very vibrant place and a lot of black folks and it was very friendly at the time, seemingly.
WW: Did you notice any tensions when you came to the city?
JB: No, not when I first came to the city, no.
JB: No, it didn’t…well, Motown was here at the time and I’ve made the statement that they still use today on public television that it was very vibrant and people seemingly had a lot of pride about the city and it looked like it was happening. You had people, where I come from, you had people who worked in the plants and seemingly they were making money and folks were doing pretty good.
WW: What neighborhood did you move into when you came to the city?
JB: Downtown. I stayed at the Tuller Hotel for about six months and then I moved from the Tuller Hotel to 1 Lafayette Plaisance and from there I moved into the neighborhoods on Wyoming and then after that I had a child and moved in to the neighborhoods. As a matter of fact, I moved to where’d I first move to—moved to Coil in northwest, Detroit, which was still pretty much, as a matter of fact, on my street, there were only two black families. Now that I look back, that was interesting. But in any case, that is where it was.
WW: Going into 67, how did you first hear what was going on?
JB: I was emceeing at a club and somebody came in and said, “Hey they just busted the after-hour joint.” And then the next day—that was on a Saturday night, I believe. Then that Sunday afternoon, my wife and I, they had started already—some fires had started or something—and then my wife and I were in the car and I said “Hey, let’s drive over here.” Went down Grand River and saw people. There was Highland Appliances was on Grand River at the time and we were driving down Grand River and people were running out of Highland Appliances with televisions and oh I said, “Whoa, look at this.” And we drove on down and I just, hey, it was getting crazy, it got crazier. And drove down Twelfth, and, well, it hadn’t gotten real, real heavy then, but about that evening, oh! I mean, it was on! People were rioting. I mean, people were rioting. People were busting up all those stores. I remember that on Twelfth Street. They were busting up the stores, they were burning ‘em and I remember a sign going up saying that “Hey, we’re a black store, this is a black store, this is a black owned—” There weren’t that many of them, you see. And so after that, the riot was on. I mean, it started happening everywhere, all over the city. I stayed on the seventeenth floor and I was working at that time—that’s interesting, ‘67, I was at CHB. That would be CHB at the time. So, I had to take 94 out to Inkster every day. I don’t know when the soldiers came in, it must have been maybe the third or fourth or fifth day, I’m not sure. I had to go to Inkster from the Lafayette area. The soldiers went in. I guess after that fourth day on being on the air, we had to encounter the soldiers. And it was sometimes difficult; I guess it went on for a long while. Difficult getting to Inkster from Detroit. And I watched the city burn. Like I said, I was on the seventeenth floor. So, anyway, I was on the air from four to eight o’clock. And it was trying to get people, “Well hey, don’t burn down your own houses and all of that.” Of course, it burned. All the way around. Saw the city burn, all the way around. And Queen was on the air, too, at the same time.
WW: How did you feel about, given your recent arrival in Detroit, as soon as you move in, as soon as you get situated, something like this happens? Did you think, “Well, it’s time to move somewhere else.” Or were you committed to staying?
JB: No, I didn’t think of moving. It was, I gathered a lot of pent-up frustration in this town, with black folks. And that was the end result of it. I mean, you start for me, being halfway new, I mean, I’d only been here what? A year? And I mean, you talk to people, you know what’s happening with people, and find out what’s happening with people and you—I think Mr. Eddings [??] just really explained it a lot better than I could, of what was happening at the time and the feeling of people who’d been here for a longer period of time. I had gotten a call while I was on the air from Ron Banks, of the Dramatics, during this period, that the Blank Panthers were held up. Ron Banks and the Dramatics were in a hotel over on the Boulevard and the traces and the bullets were flying and they couldn’t get out. He called me on the air one of those afternoons. He said, “Man, we can’t get out of here.” And it was just a lot going on. As far as what caused it and where people were coming from, I hadn’t really learned all of that at that time, how frustrating things were and had been for some time. What I saw was people burning down places and burning their own homes, like right off of Twelfth Street, I remember. I mean, that really bothered me. In the building where I lived, 1 Lafayette Plaisance, there were, I understand, only three black folks in the building. That was Lebaron Taylor, who was on the air at WJLB and had a record company, and a guy who was a piano player. Very well-known and respected guy, he played in the bars, in the exclusive bars, I guess I should say. You probably know who I’m talking about. But there were three of us in the building. Somewhere in that two weeks, every white person in that building almost moved out. I mean, I’d never seen such an evacuation. During that riot, I guess it lasted- I don’t know how long it lasted—but however long it lasted, every white person in that building moved out with the exception of maybe three or four. It was unbelievable. So, again, being new in the city—kind of new—it was something to see, something to behold. Understanding that where I come from, what Detroit meant, and like I said on TV, that I saw a lot of pride about the place really because of Motown. People were very proud of the fact, when I was living in Nashville, people were very proud of the fact that they come from Detroit and that Motown- they were from Motown. And that’s the way I think people in the south saw it, “Hey, you from Detroit? You from Motown! Wow! I mean that’s really something.” So I didn’t really know all of the political situations and what was really happening with people. What I saw when I got here was that pride that people had about the fact that they were from Motown. Later on, of course, as you interwoven into the city and the people and you meet the folks, and you see what is happening, I understood like I understand now. Just as—and I’ve said this—just as bad right now as it was then. Maybe even worse! Maybe even worse. Is the city coming back? It sure is. It sure is. I mean, it’s happening. Ain’t happening for black folks though. Ain’t happening for black folks. At all. When they came through—what’s the area that’s known where all the black businesses were?
WW: Black bottom or Hastings street?
JB: Black bottom and Hastings. You’ll notice every major black area in this country at that time—it wasn’t like it just happened, every black area: Detroit—black bottom, Chicago, Cleveland, Memphis. Every black city where there was a concentration of black businesses and black folks was wiped out. The Chrysler freeway came through, wiped it out. Dan Ryan came through, wiped it out. Euclid, Cleveland, all of those areas, at the same time. At the same time. Wiped ‘em out. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that. Oh, that just happened? So, here’s Detroit, coming back! Black folks-moved them out. Moved them to out in Canton, out in Macomb County and in those areas it’s now section 8 housing. Wow. Mmm. And the same thing that happened in 1967, well prior to, is happening now. Downtown Detroit is coming back, it sure certainly is. I mean, it is great! Not for black folks.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today, I greatly appreciate it.
JB: You’re welcome.