Ola Takumbo Unger, September 8th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is September 8, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I am sitting down with:
OU: Ola Takumbo Unger.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
OU: You’re welcome.
WW: Can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
OU: I was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1955.
WW: And when did you come to Detroit?
OU: I came to Detroit in June, June—July 1965.
WW: What brought you and your family here?
OU: My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she came here for treatment at the University of Michigan. And her sister lived here, so that’s why we ended up coming here to have some family support.
WW: Who came here with you and your mother?
OU: My siblings, which included two sisters—one who has cerebral palsy—and a brother.
WW: What was your first impression of the city?
OU: It was, ah, tree-lined streets, and homes, that was quite different from Chicago. A lot of homes.
WW: What neighborhood did you move into when you came here?
OU: I don’t know the name of the neighborhood, it was on Fourteenth and—was it Fourteenth? Sixteenth and Fourth, yeah.
WW: So just past Woodbridge?
OU: Okay. I don’t know [laughs].
WW: Grand River/Warren area.
OU: Grand River/Warren, okay.
WW: Was your neighborhood integrated when you moved into it?
WW: Would you like to share any experiences from growing up in that neighborhood?
OU: Yeah, it was a very friendly neighborhood. It was a neighborhood where you knew your neighbors. It was pretty safe. It was kind of different for me, because with my mother being ill, and my sister having cerebral palsy, I wasn’t able to enjoy going outside to play like I used to, like I was used to doing in Chicago. I used to go outside and play with my friends, jump rope all day long, play with grasshoppers, run to the store, take my sister for a walk. But when we moved to Detroit, our lives changed. The music was different - heard a lot of Motown music which I wasn't used to listening to. Everything was different. Being close to [unintelligable], that was something that was new for our family and the big thing about the Ambassador Bridge. So it was different but it was a very dramatic time as well and that was before the riot.
WW: Did you feel welcome when you came to the city of Detroit?
OU: I did. Yeah, I felt very welcome.
WW: Going in to ’67, did you notice any growing tension in the city, even though you were so young?
OU: No, I didn’t—I wasn’t aware of what was going on.
WW: Were you still living in that same house in ’67?
WW: Do you remember how you first heard about what was going on, on that Sunday morning?
OU: I looked out the window, and there were people bringing irons, I assume from Grand River, because we were very close to Grand River, and there was a lot of shops, furniture stores, and I just remember people. There was a wagon—someone rolled down the street with this wagon, and there were different sizes. So you had one size and then a smaller size, and I was looking at that and I was wondering, what’s going on?
And at that time, if I remember correctly, we didn’t have a TV. My mom was from a religion—Church of God—and it was a sin to watch TV. So we didn’t have a TV. I don’t even remember hearing a radio. But what I do remember very vividly is the alarm—the store, the corner store, the alarm going off all day long. And being told that the telephone wires were on fire so we couldn’t make a phone call.
So I felt trapped, because I was 12 at this time, and my mom was seriously ill by this time. Within a two year time, she had, I think it was the last stages of breast cancer. So she was home, she was an invalid, she was in the dining room area, and she could not get out the bed by herself. And then my sister, who was cerebral palsy, she can’t walk, she could talk, but –so I’m home alone with my family members, and I don’t know what to do.
And my sister was out on a date, and my brother, he was out, which I found out later on that day that he was in jail. So it was — I remember just watching, just looking out the window, feeling like it was the end of the world. And wondering, how am I going to get my sister and my mother out the house. Where were we going to go? And so I asked my mom, I said, "Mom, how am I going to—what am I going to do? How am I going to get you out of here? How am I going to get Barbara out?" And she told me not to worry about it. And I didn’t worry about it anymore. Just like that. I just stopped worrying.
WW: Do you know if your house was ever threatened by fire?
OU: We were surrounded, yes. We were surrounded by two, four fires, I remember being told. That’s why I was wondering, what am I going to do? Where am I going to take them, and how can I even get them out the house? And when you are surrounded by four fires, where do you go? At 12 years old, you can’t drive.
My cousins, they lived in another neighborhood, but I don’t know what happened to them, because we had no phones. No cell phones, definitely. [Laughter] And I don’t even know if we had a telephone. I don’t know if we had a telephone. Because back then, everybody didn’t have a phone.
WW: As the violence was progressing, do you remember seeing the National Guard or the police at all?
OU: No. I did not come out the house. I was too frightened to come out the house. I wouldn’t have came out anyway because I wouldn’t have left my mom and my sister there. So I didn’t see them. But I was a block or two from Grand River, so—
WW: Are there any other stories you’d like to share from that week?
OU: What I found out later, was that my aunt, my mother’s sister and my uncle, they were out of town, they had driven to Philadelphia, and they heard about the riot and they immediately turned around. And I thought that was quite interesting. To turn back around. They knew the danger that my mom was in, and her children, so they just turned back around. I remember that.
I remember—what I want people to visualize, is just being in a place where you can’t do anything. You just don’t know what to do, and it was very frightening, and I hope it never happens again.
WW: After the violence was over and everything calmed down, did the neighborhood feel the same to you?
OU: Well, it didn’t feel the same. And it wasn’t so much because of the riots, it was because by then, within, by Christmastime, my sister had been removed from the home, with cerebral palsy. My mom had to give her up, because she couldn’t take care of her anymore, and my mom was really in the stages of dying. By December 23 she passed away. So my life was traumatic just from what was going on in my household. Because I had to, when school started back up, it wasn’t like I was thinking about the riot or anything, it was like I had to go back to school and I had to rush home to take care of my mom. And then after a time my mom was going to be placed in a nursing home—I didn’t know what day it was going to be—and one time I came home and she wasn’t there. So the riot was kind of second fiddle to what I was going through.
WW: Do you refer to it as a riot, or what terminology do you use?
OU: A riot. That’s how I refer to it. Now, when I go back to the community, the homes are not there. The beautiful, tree-lined street that my aunt and her family lived on is not there anymore. The trees are knocked down, the neighborhood is pretty much abandoned. I think on her block there’s only that house that my aunt lived in. Used to be able to go walk through the alleys, drive through the alleys. That doesn’t happen anymore. So Detroit looked different.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
OU: I am. I’m very pleased with what, the progress that’s been going on, and the changes. People are coming back into the city, and it has life to it. So that’s a good thing.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I greatly appreciate it.
OU: You’re welcome.