John Eddings, August 26th, 2016
WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I am in Detroit, Michigan, and I am joined by John R. Eddings. Thank you so much for coming in with me and sitting down with me today.
JE: My pleasure.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when you were born?
JE: I was born in Corinth, Mississippi in 1943.
WW: What brought your family to Detroit from Mississippi?
JE: My father came up here after the war. Got a job in one of the parts plants, and we followed him in 1950 and been here ever since.
WW: Coming here as such a young child, what was your first impression of the city?
JE: Well, Corinth, although it was the county seat, it was a very small town. You knew almost everybody. Here, Detroit was just a big, bustling city and it was not at all intimidating, though. I’ve always thought about Detroit as a big, friendly country town. If you want to get to know your neighbors, you can; if you don’t, that’s okay too.
WW: When your family moved here, what neighborhood did you live in?
JE: Right there, right next to the original Olympia Stadium at McGraw and Grand River.
WW: When you moved into that neighborhood, was it integrated?
JE: Yes, I’d say about 50, 60% black, maybe 30, 40% white.
WW: Would you like to share any memories you have of growing up in that neighborhood?
JE: The one thing that stands out is that is a neighborhood that you find these days. In other words, no matter where I went—and I consider the neighborhood as about six blocks by six blocks, because that’s as far as we were allowed to wander. Anybody in that area, if you did something wrong, they could discipline you. None of this, “Don’t lay hands on my kid.” Then you got another one when you got home. So you were constantly supervised, although it may not have been obvious. Also, if you were at somebody’s house and it was time to eat, you ate. It was what I call a true neighborhood.
WW: So you said you weren’t allowed to wander past those six blocks?
JE: No, we had parameters. There were a lot of—the streetlights couldn’t beat you home; you could only go so far; if you were going to go beyond that, you had to come home and get permission because parents wanted to know where you were, who you were with, where you were going, and why you had to go. Just wanting to go wasn’t an option.
WW: Growing up, what schools did you go to?
JE: I started off with Esther Brook Elementary, which has now been replaced by another school right there at Linwood—I’m sorry, Monroe and Linwood. From there I went to Patton Gale [??], and from there I went to Tappan Junior High, and from there to Northwestern High School. Then I went to college in Virginia.
WW: What years did you go to college in Virginia?
JE: 1961 to ’65, with the Hampton University.
WW: After you finished your time at university, did you come back to Detroit?
JE: Oh yeah, there was never any question. I didn’t go through any job interviews when I graduated because I knew I was coming back home.
WW: During that time that you were away and you came back, when you came back, did you notice any significant changes in the city? Any more tension?
JE: Initially, no, but you could see it start to build. I remember the old Hastings Street, okay. I remember the urban renewal that wiped out Hastings and forced everybody to 12th Street. To me, that’s about the time the resentment started because the only people who appeared to be displaced were black folks. They called it urban renewal, but urban renewal for who? It wasn’t for the black folks.
WW: What neighborhood did you move into when you came back to the city?
JE: We were living on Buena Vista, that’s near Davison and Linwood. We stayed there until I got engaged and eventually got married.
WW: When did you get married?
WW: Going back to your six block parameter, after you came back, did you explore the city?
JE: Oh, yeah, we would go ride the bus, that was a big entertainment. I think it only was about ten or fifteen cents. We would go ride the bus, go to the movie theatres, but that was the extent of the exploring unless we were going to visit somebody. There weren’t things where you would get on the bus and decide to go all the way to the east side to see what was there because it was sort of an unwritten rule. Woodward was sort of the dividing line. There were east siders, and there were west siders. Unless you got forced together, you just didn’t mix.
WW: Are there any other memories you’d like to share before we start talking about ’67?
JE: It was a time of innocence. I mean, nobody worried. I mean, the worst thing you got into was a fist fight. People didn’t even have knives on them. Those fights were over in a few seconds and then you went off being buddies. There weren’t any long-term grudges. It was just a total time of innocence, I think.
WW: Were you still living over by Linwood in ’67?
JE: Oh, was I! I lived on Pingree and Linwood in ’67, right by where those houses burned down.
WW: How did you first hear what was going on on Sunday morning?
JE: It’s really kind of weird. My fiancée then—my wife now—she had talked me into going to church with her. I believe in religion, but I’m not a big churchgoer. And at the church, people were talking about the raid the previous night. And there was some talk—believe it or not, there was some talk about trouble. We were going on a picnic that day, so we just ignored it and focused on our picnic. About four or five o’clock, we’re on our way back, and as we got closer to the city, we started seeing the smoke. When we got at Livernois and Grand River, the cops had it blocked off. But I knew the back roads. We got around that. I took her home, then I went home so I drove down Dexter, I drove down Linwood. I saw people looting on Dexter; I saw people standing outside stores with these big rifles protecting their property. I mean, it was—at that time, there wasn’t much fire. A few fires, not much, it was mostly looting going on at that time. Same thing over on Linwood. The thing that amazed me—and I tell everybody this and they don’t know if they remember it, I had good eyesight then—I have never seen so many cars with out-of-state plates. I mean, almost every car you saw—Indiana, Illinois, Ohio license plates. That’s one thing that really struck me. The next day—and that was just like a start-up. The next day there was a gas station on the corner of Pingree and Linwood. Don’t know how it caught on fire; some people say it was an accident, some people say it was a firebomb, but anyway, it blew up, and when it blew up, it jumped over about nine houses with flames over there on Pingree, set the one on fire and the fire came back, so about nine or ten houses were burned down. They never rebuilt. There’s a park there now. I lived across the street, third house off of Linwood. The heat was so intense! The tires—we lived upstairs, my aunt lived downstairs—the tires on my aunt’s car melted in the driveway. No firemen came, but now we start to see the military vehicle. But they never came on the side streets; they rode up and down Linwood, shooting at everything that moved on Linwood. But the firemen didn’t come for, god, hours. When they finally came, they couldn’t get any water pressure, so the houses just kept burning. The thing about it is at the time we were worried, but not necessarily frightened. I don’t know if we were in shock or what it is, but it wasn’t one of those things where there’s terror, fear. We were worried about the house catching on fire and a whole lot of other things, but not too much about personal safety because all the action seemed to be, it seemed to be elsewhere. By now we’re listening to the radio, we’re hearing about the trouble on the east side. TVs not working, so you don’t know, but all we saw was National Guard, up and down Linwood, up and down Linwood. At that time I was working for the city of Detroit, so two days later, I went back to work. Went through police barricades, they didn’t stop me. Went to work, came home. In the meantime, there was different flare-ups going around the city, I understand, but there was certain groups that were trying to calm, put some calm on the masses. It’s my understanding that Martha Jean “The Queen” was instrumental in doing that, in trying to get people to become more rational. A couple of times when I went through the police barricades, I did not have any problems. Then, we started piling in my car and taking a survey, and we went down to Dexter, Grand River, Boulevard area. We saw where Charles Furniture had been looted. By this time, there are bricks all over the streets where there had been other trouble. The streets were littered with bricks. It was just—I took hundreds of pictures. I don’t know where they are now. Black and white pictures. At that point, it started to seem like it wasn’t real, and you started thinking with a war-like mentality. It was—I’m not sure. It’s just one of those things where you look back and you wonder, did we really live through that? And the answer is, yeah. Now, in nighttime, when the shooting got really bad, we slept on the floor beneath the windows. You know, it’s brick and the window’s up here? We slept beneath, but all this time, there was no panic; there was no fear. After things got quiet is where the real—for lack of a better word, the real anger leveled out, as far as I was concerned. I’ve never forgiven them for this here. During the fire across the street, because the heat was so strong, our shingles started smoking, so we got one of the kids to climb up there with the water house and they sort of trickled water all over the shingles. I’m saying that to bring the other part—after everything was gone and everything, the roof was in bad shape, so we called the insurance company, Traveler’s, at that time, the red umbrella. They denied our claim. “Contributory Negligence.” They said, “You can’t prove the roof would’ve caught on fire, therefore if you hadn’t wet the roof down, you wouldn’t have had this problem, and yada yada.” I’ve never forgiven them for that. Then they turn around and cancelled us, of course. More than what may have led up to it, people got screwed afterwards more than prior.
WW: What do you think led to it?
JE: I have a theory, I don’t know if it’s true or not. I think people in general had reached the point—first of all, there were several groups. I think there was always a small group of troublemakers waiting for an opportunity to do something. But people in general had gotten to the point where the frustration level more than the anger level was incredibly high. One thing I’ve learned: when you have a situation that’s going to evoke some anger, you need a pressure release point. You need somebody that you can talk to, appeal to, or whatever. Black folks didn’t have anybody like that. So it kept boiling. So this was a blow-off of all that frustration and everything. I think it had to do with the urban renewal. You see, I won’t stand for all black folks, but let me tell you my philosophy. If you’re a racist and you don’t want to mingle with me, that’s okay. Just be honest about it. Don’t give me that smiling face and then stab me in the back, because we ain’t got to mix. At one point, Detroit was like that. While it was openly like that, everybody tolerated everybody else, you follow me? You may not have been treated fairly, but you knew what to expect under certain circumstances, so you dealt with it. When it became submerged and hidden, that’s when the problems really got bad. People basically took advantage of the black community. I don’t know if we’re ever going to get over it. This time now is probably more polarized, now, than just before the riot because right now, in five years, if you don’t own your home, you’re not going to be able to afford to live in this city. Just not. If you don’t own your property, you’re not going to be able to buy it in five years. It’s still that—I call it the rolling urban renewal. They started with Black Bottom, went up Hastings, went up 12th Street, you know. As they took those areas, other than the freeway, they didn’t put anything there immediately through it. Grand River is a good example. If they had really wanted to do something, they’d have run that freeway straight out Grand River. Not a block over Grand River. That’s one reason I had to move one place because my house would’ve been freeway. In many ways, it appeared as though it was a push-back. That they were just going to push the black folks out farther and farther and farther. Now, when you push us out farther, the other neighborhoods, like where I moved when I got married, I think there were—this is [unintelligible], I’m sorry, Mercy. I’m sorry, Marygrove. Right there at Wyoming and Puritan. When I first moved there, I think there were two or three black families in that block. In two years, all the white folks were gone. In two years, all gone. It’s just one block. It’s gonna sound crude, but bear with me. That rebellion was a necessary evil. A necessary evil strictly as an attention-getter. For example, in my opinion, if Malcolm X did not exist, nobody would’ve messed with Dr. Martin Luther King. He would’ve been an extreme radical. You’ve got to have something to compare to. You’ve got to give people a choice. Presidential election we’ve got right now is the same example. Neither one is acceptable, but you have to make a choice. If there’s only one person there, then people think if they make a choice they get nothing. The rebellion was an attention-getter. Unfortunately, the people that we elect didn’t follow through on all of their promises. It’s like once they’re elected, they became more interested in what was in it for themselves. People who should be elected don’t want to bother with politics. That’s my say.
WW: Well, my next question was going to be, how do you refer to what happened in ’67? But you refer to it as a rebellion, and that is exactly why. Did you see the city in a different light afterwards?
JE: Oh, yeah. I worked for the city. I was amazed at how many white folks were shocked that it happened. They just couldn’t comprehend it because I think they’ve never been that angry. They’ve never been in those situations that cause that type of anger. It was an attention-getter.
WW: Given that you were so close to the violence and saw the arson firsthand, did you ever say to yourself, “I need to get out of this city?”
JE: No, no. Not once. Still don’t. Now my daughter’s out of town, and she’s yanking my chain, but that’s the only thing that would ever make me leave.
WW: You mentioned it earlier that the city is more polarized than ever. Do you think the shadow of the events of ’67 still hang over the city and the metro area?
JE: In some people’s minds, yes, okay, and maybe it does, honestly I don’t know. In a couple years, most of the people who were involved in ’67 are gonna be dead, so it really boils down to what are they telling their kids and grandkids.
WW: Very true. Moving past ’67, then, are you optimistic for the state of the city today?
JE: In what way, for the city, or for the black folks in the city?
JE: Okay, for the city, I’m optimistic, very optimistic. For the black folks in the city, I’m not so optimistic because I don’t think they’re going to get an opportunity to get their fair share. It’s all about, these days, money and political influence. Right now, black folks don’t have it. When Coleman Young was mayor, he turned out the vote. The only reason Detroit got anything out of the riots was because Mayor Young could turn out the vote. John Engler when he was running, said he didn’t need Detroit because Detroit had stopped voting since Mayor Young had left office, he didn’t need Detroit, and he was right. In fact, in every administration since then, Detroit has gotten less and less and less influence because we don’t vote! The vote right now is the only thing you got to get somebody’s attention. You don’t use it, you’re not going to have it. Speeches and all that, nuh-uh. That don’t work. Are we going to get the vote back? I don’t know. We had a succession of mayors. Dennis Archer was a nice guy, but he was the worst mayor Detroit ever had. Kwame was a thief, but he was only allowed to get away with what he did because of what Dennis did. Dennis Archer came in, and—we work for a bureaucratic organization. Most bureaucratic organizations will have their procedures set up. They’ll spend $1,000 to keep you from stealing $1. Dennis came in and said, “Oh, my people aren’t going to steal,” so he got rid of all the checks and balances. What he failed to realize is he wasn’t going to be mayor forever. So Kwame comes, Kwame says, “Nobody’s gonna say anything, I’ll steal some more.” All the checks and balances—if the checks and balances had been left in place, Kwame would have been in jail in six months. Or he wouldn’t have been stealing because he knew he couldn’t get away with it. But like I say, people do not—particular politicians do not fully understand what I call unintended consequences. They do not look long way. You look to the next election, they don’t look long way.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
JE: No, I’ve talked more than I was supposed to talk.
WW: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me, I greatly appreciate it.
JE: My pleasure.