Shirley Davis, June 12th, 2015
NL: Today is June 12, 2015 and this is the interview of Shirley Davis by Noah Levinson. We are at Rivertown Assisted Living at 250 McDougall in Detroit and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Shirley, could you tell me where and when you were born?
SD: I was born in North Carolina, but we came here, I was three, when we first came to Detroit. We came by in that train station down there, the one that is no longer working. When we came through there and I was mesmerized! We moved into the, what was that area? It was like the Eastern Market area at that time, it was just like something I had never seen before because everywhere, the hustle and the bustle and the people and all you could do was just look. We lived in the flat, it was upstairs, and everything was up on that top porch. You never went downstairs for anything, because were scared to go, the lady downstairs had a dog and we thought for sure was going to eat us so we didn’t go. So, as I grew up and time progressed we went to school here. As a matter of fact we were bussed way before the bussing came along. They come in our neighborhood and pick us up so as time went on I was going to school, I eventually got married and had a son at that particular time. And when we heard about it, it was just a rumor and everybody was talking to each other we didn’t know what to think. I thought the world was coming to an end I didn’t know what to expect, you know. We saw it on TV, the unrest. And as far as Twelfth and Clairmount, we weren’t allowed to go down there, that was an area that was kind of, like, busy. And everything that was going on was going down there I had always promised myself I was going to go, but I missed it [laughter]. Then they said they were looting and tearing up things and destroying things and I was like, “oh we’re not going to have any place to live. They’re going to destroy everything”. And we watched TV and you see people smashing, and breaking, and tearing up, and running. So where I lived was Southwest Detroit, that’s where I lived, but beyond that off of Fort Street we had a let up bridge that you could cross over to come from one side to the other. They let the bridge up, nobody was able to come across and then we were sitting there on the front porch, like we did every evening, and tanks! I had never seen a tank before in my life. I thought they came to shoot us, or to blow our houses up. We didn’t know, the information that we got was very limited. They’re just coming and it’s gonna be bad. So we sat on our front porches and just prayed, hoping we didn’t get blown up. They’ll tell you, “Get back in the house, get back in the house!” Well, where else could you go? All through that night it was like, scary, because you couldn’t control anything. You didn’t know what to do. You were in your own neighborhood and you saw all of this and it was just like, is this the end of the world? Are we gonna be able to recuperate from this? And we sat around and we talked and I’m going to be truthful, we prayed, “Please God don’t let them blow us up!” Because you don’t know, you know, and at that time my husband was working and he was on the other side of the bridge and I just didn’t know if he would ever make it home. So we sat there and we prayed that night, it passed by, but the next day we saw the devastation. The people just lost it. They just tried to destroy the city, I mean, they were very upset, very upset. And seldom and rarely did we get out, but when I talk about Twelfth Street and Clairmount, I had always intended to go see what was going on, but I missed it. And when I saw it on TV it was like, oh, that’s what it was, you know. We heard rumors about why it started, and what started it, but to this day, I really can’t say what triggered it. It was just boiling and getting hotter and hotter until one day it just exploded. We couldn’t figure out where those tanks came from. I mean actual tanks. Big giant guns. And you’re sitting there and your heart is beating and you don’t know if you’re gonna live or die, but as you can see we lived and it went on and the next day on the news we saw what they had done. And to this day, I don’t think that place ever recuperated. You can see the scar wounds when you go by, buildings and businesses closed up. It was a very viable situation at one time, but they squashed it, they just really squashed it. And I don’t know if it served a purpose, I hope it did and things changed for the better but all I can remember is I just kee seeing those tanks, I had never seen anything that big on the street. “Get back in that house”—okay, okay. So, that night we went to bed and just hoped that we would get up the next day and be alright. I could go into more detail or not, but I can’t. That’s just what happened in my neighborhood.
NL: How old were you when this was going on?
SD: I think I was 19. And I didn’t know if my husband was going to get back home, if we were going to have another day, did we have to hide? What was it? Because I lived in kind of like a rural area. Right in that area we didn’t have much communication of what was going on around us. When it broke out it was like, “you said it did what? What’s going to happen?” And the TV made it look much worse. All you could see is fires and we could smell the smoke because they were burning things up. Were they going to come on the other side? Do we have to fight? Are we gonna fight? I mean, why are they so mad? What happened? That was the question. So as a child, at 19 I was, I didn’t have any answers, and I didn’t know but boy was I glad that the thoughts that I had didn’t come true because I was thinking the worst. It’s over as we know it, it’s all over. But we survived and I thank God that it changed, and hopefully the changes that they went through will make things better for the next generation that come along. Things like that don’t have to happen because all they did was destroy a lot of good decent people, their homes, their businesses. A lot of people couldn’t come back, they didn’t have nothing left. They took it all. What I did was, when I finally got a chance, we rode down the streets and saw all the devastation, just burnt out buildings and smoke. And what is the reason? Maybe I’m a little dense, but I still don’t get it.
NL: I think there’s lot of people who still don’t get it. You described the looting and the people that are doing that and you were saying that they’re mad, they’re very upset. What do you think was causing all that; you said you could tell that they’re very upset, so what might have led to that?
SD: It’s like the race, one race is a little bit higher than the other and the things they were given and I guess they just got to the point where, we’re tired of this and we want to change it, but that wasn’t the way, but when you’re mad you don’t think. Well I’m taking this, and I’m taking that and they looted and I don’t even want to say what I heard from one of my friends that was looting, I didn’t loot, I’m going to be real, I didn’t. He actually looted and only got one shoe. Why would you take one shoe? [Laughter] I said, “Why were you there?” “I was with the rest of them and look what I got—a shoe!” That’s pitiful. I guess it’s just when everybody sees everybody else out there, you know, followers and not leaders, were out there. Get it, get it, just tear it up, and fix them, and get it, and get it and I think that’s what happened. I’ll never forget that shoe—that’s all he got was a shoe!
NL: So a lot of people, historians and writers in particular, describe the events of July 1967 as a riot. What term would you use to describe what was going on then?
SD: Because I wasn’t sure what a riot was, because you had to really be in that situation, I thought the world was coming to an end. I thought it was a war. I thought it was going to be a war and what was I to do, what were we expected to do? We’re in our neighborhood, we had everything that we needed where I lived. We were kind of closed off to the outside world. Where we lived, it’s called Southwest Detroit, and we had our own markets, supermarkets, stores and whatever so we didn’t venture out but when they came in we thought that was the end of it as we knew it. That was going to be it.
NL: I think you described the neighborhood as being scarred: you can still see the scars today.
NL: What do you think about Detroit today, the year 2015—is Detroit still struggling with the fallout from that and recovering from it. Where do you think we’re at now?
SD: I think that part is gone and it’s time, even when people come in and make bad decisions for us, I think Detroit is just a strong city and given the opportunity we’ll spring up from anything. Anything can happen. I can’t even imagine there being no Detroit, I can’t even imagine it. We have such history, you know? Right here at the River, I think about the Indians used to wash their clothes down there at that river [laughter] and so anything that strong has to survive. It really does. So, when I look [across the river] over at Canada thinking to myself, I’m seeing a whole ‘nother world right before my eyes and I say they’re gonna build on this and keep it going. I feel we are coming back we are going to come back, strong. You can’t keep Detroit down. I love this place. No matter what they say I love it. I’m not going anywhere. I am staying right—stay right here. This is the place to be. If you feel afraid then you can’t live anywhere. You have to have heart, and you have to have principles and scruples and you want to be steadfast just like your being here; a new wonderful adventure.
NL: What is it that’s happening now or recently that lets you feel so strongly that way.
SD: I guess it’s because I’m older and I’ve seen some things and I know that change can be brought about if you come about it in the right way. You have to talk to people correctly, you know, and find out what they are thinking and what they’re feeling. And sometimes people don’t even have ideas so you have to plant those ideas and make sure the seed is a good seed. I see a lot of wonderful things that are been happening I just want to be part it. Because I want them to know, I was here and I did good things and my children’s children will benefit from the good things that were done. That’s what I want to do.
NL: That’s fantastic. Is there anything else you want to share with us today?
SD: Well, I see them do things that they’re doing and I’m thinking to myself, could they let old people have a little more say? And don’t think that just because we’re older we don’t know what we’re saying and what we’re doing. I try to encourage my friends around here to speak up, tell what you know, share it because down the line as we get older and we die off, we’re the last of that generation and we were there so—an eye-to-eye view is better that what you read about and think about. So let’s get out there and do it. I paint, I draw, and I sing, anything I can think of to do to make a purpose that’s what I want to do!
NL: I think that’s a big part of why we’re here doing what we’re doing. Thank you so much for joining us today, Shirley. It’s great talking with you.
SD: Thank you for having me. I know I do rattle on, but that’s what I thought at that particular time: we in trouble! [Laughter]
SD: Thank you.