Henry Heatley, August 12th, 2016
JW: Hello, today is August 12, 2016. We are in Grosse Pointe, MI at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial. My name is Julia Westblade and I am sitting down with –
JW: Okay. This is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 1967 Project so thank you so much for sitting down with us.
HH: You bet.
JW: And you can you tell me where and when you were born?
HH: I was born in Detroit in 1937 on Cadillac between Kerchival and Vernor. Down in the old neighborhood.
JW: Did you grow up in the city?
JW: What was your neighborhood like growing up?
HH: Well, I’m in the house now that I was carried into when the house was built in 1937 on the east side of the city. It was quite nice then but it’s Detroit now and not much more needs to be said. A lot of empty houses. The people have gone. Good riddance to most of them, quite frankly. As long as they’ve gone, I don’t care where they went as long as they went. So the neighborhood is quiet but there’s 70 empty houses on the street and the county has got a lot for back taxes and what have you.
JW: But when you were growing up, was it an integrated neighborhood?
HH: No, it was mostly white. It was 99 percent white. It changed when the city started to change in the 70s, 80s, you know. I knew a lot of kids around. I think it was more Roman Catholic than Protestant. That’s all I could work out from our gang but that’s all I can tell you about it. Everybody got along fairly well. There was no gang troubles or anything like that.
JW: And then where did you go to school?
HH: Elementary was Clark School. It’s on Bremen between Buckingham and Somerset, I think. Still there. Still a functioning school. Then I went to an intermediate school, Jackson on Marlborough just below Waveney and that’s closed now. And high school was Southeastern High School on Fairview.
JW: And were those integrated or no?
HH: They were when I was at Southeastern. Of course larger neighborhoods came to go to Southeastern High School and it was about 10 percent black and 90 percent, roughly, white. Something like that. There was never any trouble, though.
JW: But your elementary schools for the most part weren’t integrated?
HH: No. I don’t remember any black kids in there. They came from a smaller area, too. There was a Hossimer Elementary down by Jefferson, a few streets away so you wouldn’t get a large area. Southeasten they got them from all over. Some out of the Southeastern area. They came from other parts of the city and they were going to school there. I don’t know why or how but they were.
JW: What was the city of Detroit like when you were growing up?
HH: It was a booming town. It had a high population. It was two million or – it was way up there. Pretty close to the industrial base. All of the car companies were here and a lot of iron foundries below Jefferson past Mount Elliot. A lot of iron works down there. There was a big stove industry in the old days here when they used wood burning stoves. They were all made down there. It was busy. My father was a police officer and he was busy. You’re always busy but Detroit has always been a rough and tumble place. There’s culture on one end; you have the Art Institute and the Symphony and what have you but there’s always a tough element in the city, too, because of the industrial place.
JW: Did you explore much of the city or did you typically stay around your neighborhood growing up?
HH: When I was younger I was around my neighborhood but when I started at Bell Telephone at age 18, we have to drive around more.
JW: And what was your job with Bell Telephone?
HH: I started as pulling wire and installer and then I got into maintenance repair. That was the best job in the world. [whispers: Didn’t have to work as hard.] Then PBX repair, repairing switchboards and things like that. That job has disappeared now. They don’t use those old cord boards anymore where you plug in a cord and turn a crank to ring. Stayed in repair and cable splicing. I retired as a cable splicer. And that took me even farther afield. We went way over in the west side. They’d run you all over the place.
JW: So traveling around the city like that, did you notice any growing tensions in the city in the early 60s or maybe even late 50s?
HH: In the 50s, no. In the 60s there was a few grumblings but if you lived in the city you say so what. You lived with it. Nothing really – so the riots, they started on the west side really. It was worse on the west side than the east side. We didn’t get over there very much and so I wasn’t aware of all those tensions.
JW: How did you first hear about what was going on in the summer of 1967?
HH: I was coming home from my girlfriend’s house on Whittier and Gratiot and I heard something on the news that said – a police car pulled up behind me and they had their windows open then. Of course they didn’t have air conditioning in the cars then. I said, “Hey what’s on?” “Never mind what’s going on. Just get home and stay there.” I was coming down Whittier just below Gratiot and that’s how we knew it. We went into work the next day and they wouldn’t let us go in certain areas of city. I don’t know what was going on there. We were mostly on the east side. We didn’t usually go past Mount Elliot, something like that. We didn’t get down too far for a few days.
JW: So the policemen just said something is going on. We don’t know. Just go home?
HH: Yeah, just stay home.
JW: Did that worry you at all?
HH: No. My father was a policeman and I grew up with guns in the house. They don’t frighten me. We worked on the streets, that doesn’t bother me, either. We look at the world differently than, say, you would working on the streets.
JW: When did you realize how serious the situation was?
HH: When I saw the fires on the news and read about people disappearing. And there was a fireman at St. Jean and Mack. Someone sniped at him and shot him and killed him. One of the good citizens from down there. And that was probably never solved. You don’t know who does those. There’s too many people on the run. That’s when I knew it was. I took a camera to work one day and did a lot of what I thought were nice photographs and took them in to be developed at Cunningham’s Drug Store and they wouldn’t develop them. They said nothing came out. They were lying; they all came out but they thought we shouldn’t see that for whatever reason. Who are they to be judges on that?
JW: So you never got them back?
HH: No. I mean, I got a roll of blank of film back.
JW: What do you think happened to them?
HH: Well, they destroyed them. They didn’t want you to see them. You see some things on the news but some of the things I got maybe weren’t on the news.
JW: Interesting. So then, what did you do during that week with your job at the Bell Telephone Company.
HH: We stayed around the garage for a couple of days where the vehicles were and then they put us out two to a vehicle. They really hated to do that. They get a lot more done when the two guys are separate then together, for your safety. And they wouldn’t let us carry guns so how safe could we be? And we didn’t go in the bad parts. And we just did our work with people sitting on the porch. It was in the black neighborhoods, sitting on the porch. “Hi, how ya doing?” I said, “Hi, how’s it going?” And that was it. There was no trouble.
JW: But could you see the destruction in the city as you were driving around in those areas?
HH: Yeah, in some parts, yeah. Burned out houses mostly. In some of the area, now this is mostly out on the west side, 12th Street, Dexter, those areas, some of these no-good so and so had set fire to buildings and a couple of them had set fire to the building they lived in and didn’t realize it. They’d burned out their own house. That’s how bright they are, or stupid. How ever you want to look at it. You’d see them sitting out in the street with a – take a couch out of somebody’s house or a chair and be sitting out there relaxing with a beer in their hand after a hard day in the streets. They have to sit down and get some rest. That was about it, I guess. Oh, at Southeastern High School, which I attended and graduated from, an Army unit was bivouacked across the street. So the Army and National Guard were here then, too, but I was out of the National Guard by then. I did 10 years and was out in 65 I think and this was 67, I think. They were bivouacked across the street and they were regular Army. 82nd Airborne. RA, not National Guard. And across the side street, Goethe – should be pronounced Ger-ta but nobody did. They wouldn’t know where you meant down there. The German philosopher – There’s an apartment over there and the third or fourth floor of the apartment somebody was in the corner there and they could look down on the field across the street and he opened fire on the soldiers and you could hear the gun fire from our house. It was summer time and the slight westerly breeze so it carried the sound waves a bit. Nobody had air conditioning. The windows were open. And you’d hear a Bang. Bang. Bang-bang. And they answered with a machine gun. And it was a .50 caliber from what I could tell from the rate of fire. Tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tut. They got him. And I was talking to a couple of policemen a few days later and they said they had to pick him up off the floor with a blotter. There was nothing left of him. They’re the .50 caliber bullets that are half an inch around. And the whole corner of the building was chewed up where the bricks and mortar were hit by bullets. They just sprayed the corner of the building. After a year or so later, they patched that up. You could see all the new mortar in the new places. It stood right out white. It hadn’t aged with dirt and the new brick put in. But that was the closest it got to us, I suppose. Close enough. But some of the National Guard, I understand, were not issued live ammunition. I don’t know why, but the regular Army was. So they might have had two different jobs and send the RA in for something heavy but how much actual gun fire went on down at the west side, I don’t know. They didn’t say much about that. There were probably more bodies to account for than people let on. What else would you like to know?
JW: You said that you were formerly part of the National Guard but had gotten out before –
HH: Yeah, 10 years.
JW: So did you know some of the men who were stationed there?
HH: No, that was 82nd Airborne on the field and they were regular Army and I didn’t know any of them. The other fellows, I might have if I’d seen them but they were in their area and we were in ours.
JW: So you didn’t communicate with any old friends to get an inside look?
HH: No, a lot of fellows I knew were out by then. Some got out and you can get out in five or six and see an opening then grab it just to get out. Or eight years.
JW: So you think there was a sense of relief in the city when the National Guard and the 82nd Airborne came in or do you think that people were less comfortable having them there?
HH: I didn’t see any discomfort about it. You could take a little solace in the fact that somebody can go to bat for you if it becomes necessary but where we lived there was no trouble at all. Just another day. Only when you went to work and started heading west, that’s when you saw it.
JW: So then your work with the Telephone Company, was it just putting up the lines that had been knocked down?
HH: No, that was our job anyway. You had to pull wire. We didn’t have enough cable facilities to get all the lines in so you had to wire – what we called Wired-Off Limits. Go down to another terminal or another source and you had to pull wire through the trees. That was work, too, by the way. Then phone installation in buildings and houses and things like that.
JW: So you worked through the riots, too. There wasn’t time to take off or anything like that? Cause I know a lot of people didn’t go to work that week.
HH: No, we didn’t get a week off. We got a day or two off ‘til they could size up the situation and people went down to the Bell Building. They had to go down to work, 1365 Cass. Cass and Michigan is where it is. They had to go down so you didn’t get much slack time. Plus they knew what you’d try. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. So yeah, we had to go in.
JW: What else do you remember about what happened in the city that week?
HH: That’s about it. Usual noise and chaos and disruption. After a while you don’t even notice it but you see it all the time, like the police, you get used to it. Your sense of humor accommodates that. It was a little bit warped, I might add. Cops have a black sense of humor. It’s what the people have to deal with. We learned to make a joke out of it. When you hear about shootings on a Friday, some of us didn’t work on the weekends. I usually did on a Saturday if I could for the money. We’d take a bet and watch the number of shootings over the weekend and we’d throw a quarter or fifty cents into a pool. Whoever came closest to the number killed won the pool. That’s how you look at it.
JW: Was your father still on the force at that time or had he retired?
HH: No, he’d passed away. He died in 1960. He retired in 1952. Thirty-three or thirty-four years. Right after he got out of the army in World War I he went on the Police Force so he didn’t see it, no. The cops in the old days, they were from the old school. They did things differently. You didn’t worry about being politically correct or anything else. If you had to shoot somebody, you’d get a coroners jury made up of transients off a park bench. Buy them lunch, give them a bottle of whiskey, here’s what you say, here’s what you sign. That’s the end of it. Now they want to prosecute them for police brutality. Some of these whining liberal groups get on their back about it. They don’t realize what a rotten job it is. They wouldn’t do it. They want the best protection but they don’t want to back them.
JW: We’ve heard – they’re called the Detroit Riots and we’re heard a lot of people use the term riots but we’ve also heard terms like rebellion or civil disturbance –
HH: That’s the political aspect. It’s a riot. When you wreck the place it’s a riot. They did it in ancient Rome and anywhere else. You got something you didn’t like then go on a rampage. It happened all through history in other countries. There’s no rebellion. I know who would say the rebellion: the people who did some of the rioting. They thought they were disenfranchised, they could well have been in some cases. I don’t know. But is that an excuse to riot? I don’t know. Did it change much? I don’t know. There’s been a lot of rancor and discord today. Especially since when I add this last president we have got in office [Barack Obama]. The rancor and discord have increased greatly. The hatred’s in Congress and everything else around the country. Where’s the end of that going. And when the lady [Hillary Clinton] gets in, if she gets in, it’s going to increase even more for what she’s going to do.
JW: So how do you think the city of Detroit has changed since 1967 or maybe because of 1967?
HH: The industrial base started declining. They also built the expressways just before that which facilitated a way out of town easily. Come in to work if you have to but you get home to the suburbs easily. You don’t stop and start through twenty miles of traffic. So the population decline started. The industrial design and the city is having financial shortfalls and the one mayor, forget his name, had an Irish name. White guy with an Irish name. Instead of addressing the shortfalls he put on a city income tax and that did it.
JW: Was that [Mayor Jerome] Cavanagh?
HH: Yeah, that’s him. Cavanagh. He put on a city income tax instead of seeing where’s the money going. Where’s it being stolen. And a lot of it was – is – being stolen. People didn’t like that. Then the bussing started. That really did it. They should have seen what was going to happen there. Some of these liberals they want to tell you who to have your morning coffee with, if I may say so. It ain’t going to work. So, no, the city isn’t better off. It’s coming back a little bit under the present mayor [Mike Duggan]. He’s doing a pretty good job. He’s lowered our property taxes. They were always over assessed before and Kwame [Kilpatrick] and those crooks wouldn’t do anything. Now ours have dropped to 25% since he’s been in office. And he’s not through yet. Every time they reassess, they say, oh it’s not worth that. You couldn’t get that for the house. We had in ‘08 and ‘09 when we had that big recession, it cost more to put a roof on our house than we could have gotten for selling the house. $7000. Now it’s up to $25-28,000. They’re coming up. But before all of this started, I could have gotten $140,000 for the house.
JW: So where do you see the city of Detroit going?
HH: Good question. Until they do something about the taxes and the crime and the corruption, I don’t see it going anywhere. One of the big problems is that school board. I don’t think that’s curable in anyway. They want to get their own control back now the state made a mess of it. Probably did, but the city made a mess of it in the first place, which is why the state took it over. Now they want to get it back so now the thieves are going to start walking into the school board. They are corrupt to no end. And no one wants to call them that. You’ll offend them. You can’t do that nowadays, but that’s the way it is. But I have no kids in school so, in a way, I don’t care. My life is, by and large over. Not quite as much as Ray’s was but I’ve got, what, ten years left or something like that. I don’t care.
JW: If you could leave a message to the future of Detroit, what would it be?
HH: Integrity. Responsibility for behavior. Act like you’re supposed to act. Don’t be corrupt and crooked. Stop looking for something to steal. That’s it. The guns might be a problem but I’m a life member of the NRA so I don’t want to hear too much about guns. I don’t do it. I grew up with a gun hanging in the kitchen. My father was a policeman. He’d hang it in the kitchen. He says, “Leave it alone.” I’d say, “Okay.” I left it alone. Now they grab it and go out and shoot somebody. That goes back to personal responsibility. Nobody has any. It’s always somebody else’s fault. The guns have always been there but they didn’t start this stuff until 10, 20, 15, 20 years ago. That’s why we fight so hard against the Supreme Court and everything else. They want to take them away from you. And it won’t work. You will get the guns in the country. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. You will get them in. There will be black market. The price will go up. You will get them in. Look what Prohibition did. Did it work? No. Prohibition lead to the beginning of all organized crime in the United States. Trying to stop the booze. They got it in. Canada shipped it in by the carload. It was controlled by the Purple Gang in Detroit who were Jewish not Italian. You knew that?
JW: Yeah, I’ve heard of them.
HH: Even Al Capone stayed out of this because he was afraid of the Purple Game. They were sociopathic. I mean, they were really violent. They’d kill just for something to do and get paid for it if they weren’t running the whiskey business. They were awful. There’s a book out about four years ago called Detroit Land about the movers and shakers and things in the city. It’s well done. Wayne State Press did it. Chapter 23 is on the Purple Gang so go to your library and it’s only 20 pages long. It’s heavily summarized but you’ll see just what they did. And maybe your library up the street has it.
JW: Yeah, it’s possible.
HH: I Xeroxed that article. And they weren’t caught for most of what they did. They got away with most of it. Some of them do time in prison. The Collingwood Street Massacre at Collingwood and 12th Street – that’s almost in the center of the city. They shot several people there in that apartment house. They caught a couple of them. They did 20 years or something but they got out and one of them a week later did a contract killing of somebody to make some money. He got by with that one by the way. They didn’t get caught for most of what they did. There’s 500 murders attributed to them and one or two percent proven. Even knocked off a state senator, William Buckley I think his name is. The Purple Gang did him in, too. I forget why they did it. And I know fellow, I see him from the gym who had one of the killers working for him in the steel business. He was an old man then, gave him a job just to give him something to do and he’d tell him some of the stories they got into and I can’t believe the guy would say something like this. He never said I did this or I did that but he’d talk about everything else that went on. He said, you know I did time in prison for this murder and that was one crime I didn’t do, was that senator. He didn’t do it. He was clean on it, but they hung it on him and he did time.
JW: Well, is there anything else you’d like to add about what you remember from 1967?
HH: No, I don’t think so. That was the truculent 60s. The wild 60s. It was a crazy place. We just shrugged it off. Leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone. That’s all.
JW: Well, thank you so much for coming in to sit down with me today.
HH: You should write, do your memoirs for some of the things you see when you’d get in people’s houses. What goes on in people’s houses. It could make your hair stand up. Their behavior is somewhat uninhibited is the word. And they say you should keep notes on this and I’d said, I’d have to change everybody’s name or I’d be sued. So I said, no I didn’t do it but some things I’ve run across, I could make your hair stand on what some people do and sexual exploits and all and it goes on right in front of you.
JW: Anything you’re willing to share.
HH: I don’t know if you want to record some of this stuff or not.
JW: That’s up to you.
HH: I remember one case, it’s good for a laugh. When I was in installation, they had a row down around McDuggal or someplace down there about where the phone was supposed to go so I was just standing and they were arguing and they got into a row, a big fight over it. Bloody big fight. And one threw a gourd at the other that was sitting on the mantle or something. It went crashing into the dining room window into the driveway. Put a dent in the guy’s car that was sitting out there as I recall, in the hood. And I said, “Well, we seem to have a difference of opinion here.” And she says, “White Boy, you shut the f- up.” I said, “Okay, I’ll wait out in the truck for you. You give me a call.” Another one was down around the same area roughly. Somebody wanted a phone in the basement and there was no lights on down there so I hung a light on my belt so I could keep my hands free. And there was a guy in bed with his girlfriend down there – is this okay? – he didn’t bother budging. He didn’t miss a stroke, he just pointed to the corner where the phone was. I had to walk over the mattress on the floor to get to the phone. We used to run across a lot of stuff like that. The drinking that goes on in people’s houses and so on and so forth. I don’t want to take up any more of your time.