Edward Deeb, June 17th, 2015
The Associated Food Dealers of Michigan
Metro Youth Day--Detroit--Michigan
United States Senate
LW: Today is June 17, 2015. This is the interview of Ed Deeb by Lily Wilson. We are at the Detroit Historical Museum in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Ed, Can you begin by telling me where and when you were born?
ED: I was born in Detroit, you want the year?
LW: Who were your parents and what were their occupations?
ED Parents were George and Sarah Deeb. She was a homemaker, my father worked in convenient— owned convenient stores and eventually my mother joined him in the business.
LW: Tell me a little bit about your job and what you were doing in July of 1967.
ED: In 1967, I was the President of The Associated Food Dealers of Michigan. Our office was in Detroit and we had 3,500 members at that time. All of a sudden later that day I heard we were getting phone calls and there were some problems. I asked what these problems were and they said they were having problems in the community. The police are on the way out, there has been some fires, there had been some shooting, and they just wanted you to know. And I kind of left it at that, until an hour later, I started getting a deluge with calls. So I started creating a log of who was calling and what was the damage. We had about 400 retailers who were affected by the riots, so we kept that log. That was everything from a broken window to a completely burned down store, everything in between. Then the Senate investigations committee in Washington, D.C. heard that I was creating this log and they wanted to meet me in Washington and have them hear about what I was doing. So I was subpoenaed to go to Washington, meet the Senate. I was there and I followed Governor George Romney, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, myself and the police chief at the time. We all did our own interviews. They eventually printed this all up and sent us copies of what we said. It was a very tense moment, as you know we had the United States Army involved they were roaming the streets in their jeeps and so on. The retailers were worried they were trying to protect their property. Some were carrying armed weapons; some were on top of the roofs preventing fire and all kinds of things like that. It was a very tense and tragic moment in the city of Detroit.
LW: Tell me a little bit about this log you created and you started that, we are talking about July, the last week in July and this was the Sunday that you got a phone call.
ED: Sunday and then almost all day Monday
LW: Of Course.
ED: The reason I probably took the log is I was a Journalism major at Michigan State. The first couple of calls didn’t register I should be doing any log until they started really coming in. I remembered the first few and marked those down and then as they came in I marked them down. Eventually I had them typed up and that’s what would happen. I’m very good at keeping records and knowing what’s happened, so I’m filing in case we have to do anything with it. That was the reason.
LW: How did the Senate use that? What was their purpose for subpoenaing you?
ED: When they heard that there was a log of industry organizations and we had four hundred affected members, they definitely wanted to see me in a hurry. So I get a subpoena in the mail and I had to fly to Washington. I had no idea Governor Romney and Mayor Cavanagh were also gonna be there testifying in their own way. So when I got there they asked me a whole bunch of questions and repeated what I was telling you and they thanked me. I didn’t have to stay any longer than that one day, that two-hour period that I was with them and I flew back.
LW: So what kinds of questions were they asking you?
ED: They were asking me questions like: Were any of your members creating problems in the community? Were any of your members having any altercations with anybody? And as far as I knew at the time there weren’t any, if there were I didn’t know about them. I said no I didn’t know of any, but there may have been problems that I didn’t know about. So as a result of all of this I met with the New Detroit President Walter Douglas, and I said “Walter, you and I better get together and create some kind of community advisory group that any problems that come up that you and I will handle them and put out the fire and create the solution.” And so we did we created the Michigan Food and Beverage Advisory Counsel. From there on in any problem that came in, we would communicate with each other. One of us would go out to the store, talk to the people and the people complaining. I became a negotiator, a troubleshooter, a peacemaker, so I would go to the stores and talk to everybody and get them all together and my job was to make everybody happy at the end of the meeting and I would say goodbye, thank you then leave. That’s what happened and I did that.
LW: What kind of problem, especially around 1967, 1968 in this aftermath, what kind of problems are we talking about?
ED: Well after the rioting, within a year later, most of the food chains left Detroit. There were six food chains at the time: Chatham, Great Scott, Farmer Jack, A & P, Meijer, and Kroger. They were all operating in Detroit. We had the lowest food prices in the country, but after the riots slowly but surely they were all leaving Detroit. That left the balance of the industry— smaller independent stores. These independent stores were mainly of Arabic heritage or Chaldean Iraqi heritage. They were worried that they were operating these stores and were going to get feedback and they were gonna be blamed for something they didn’t do. It was a good thing I was the liaison, I took charge as the association of all of these people. So any problems came to me, they didn’t go to fifteen people and they all went different directions, they came to me. I met with people, I had them at our office I went to meet them at the stores and made sure when I was finished everybody was happy. That was my goal and it worked. I met also with the head of the Detroit Urban League, Dr. Francis Kornegay, and Walt Douglas of New Detroit, myself of the Food and Beverage Association and we formed a coalition that any problems would come through us so we can keep the peace. Now the smaller stores that were left were trying their hardest to provide the nutrition, the produce and whatever needs that were required in the community but they weren’t able to do as much as when they had these larger stores. So, eventually, to go down the long run here, those empty stores that were left by the chain stores were taken over by these smaller stores or they’re family operated and they moved into larger quarters, opened bigger stores and started to provide what the chains did, but it took a while to get that going, they couldn’t just do it over night and that did help. And I’ll bring you to the present time, we’re happy now that all of a sudden Meijer is coming back into the city. They just opened one last week. We’re happy that Whole Foods brought two new stores into the city. So all of these larger stores are coming back, they are realizing the potential sales and profits are there and maybe they shouldn’t have left. So I’m glad they’re coming back. I’m still involved, people call me, what happened, what should I do, how do I prevent a problem. And my basic thing is you got to treat your customers right, you got to be honest, you’ve got to be sure that they are getting a fair deal with the prices and that you are not cheating them in any way shape or form and you’ll be okay, basically.
LW: Do you notice that there’s relatively consistent problems from the 1960’s when you began this venture to now, are some of the problems consistent?
ED: Well, in the thirty years or more that has eclipsed, things are much better now. Those smaller independents have opened up large stores, they are beautiful stores and there are about seventy of them in the city now. Plus the other stores are coming back, the Meijers , the Krogers, the Whole Foods and whatever. So that is good for the consumer because they are going to have a better choice, more choice of product, meats, produce and whatever. That’s good for everybody. I think that will continue for the next twenty, thirty years.
LW: So more options for the consumer. In terms of the problems you get calls about, what are those often related to? Prices or interpersonal interactions?
ED: What do they lead to in which way?
LW: Well no, I was just wondering what kinds of problems are you getting phone calls about or having to go to meetings about?
ED: Before or today?
ED: Ok, well before they were wondering what do I do, I’m getting hassled, people are picketing my stores and they are throwing rocks at the windows and whatever they are doing, they were trying to protect their property and I would try to guide them to be calm, be cool, and the police were involved at that time. But today, the questions are mainly: I’m thinking of picking up the store on certain cross streets, what do you think? And I say well it’s really up to you. I say, “That’s a great neighborhood, a lot of homes around there, if you really think you can handle it, fine go ahead. If you can’t handle it, forget it because it’s going to be a big job.” You’re going to need maybe forty, fifty employees compared to a family of three.
LW: And where the other neighborhood stores that you mentioned sort of came in the late sixties when all of the bigger chains left, you’re still involved with them and where are they mainly concentrated?
ED: This is my fifty-third anniversary of running a food industry trade association. I probably am considered in the state of Michigan as the Dean of the Association Executives, I don’t know of anybody else, that’s what they are telling me, I don’t know. What do I think about it? I think it’s very nice that they think highly of me to be able to continue to do all of this because there was a lot of work involved. I try to be as professional as I can. I’ve received numerous awards for what I was trying to do and I wasn’t asking for any, but they were coming in. I think that I had been a stabilizing force, if you will. They trusted me, they knew I knew the people in Washington, in Lansing, in Detroit if there was a problem and we would call a meeting or whatever. But hardly – today we are very happy, we hardly get any calls today or once in a while we get a call, but more calls that are coming in a: Do you have anybody you know that we can hire? They are looking for people to hire. Or the other thing is: do you of any locations that we might consider? So that’s what I’m getting today compared to years ago.
LW: And these are phone calls from both large chains and smaller stores?
ED: Well mainly the smaller stores, the chains are big operators, they got their own big staff. We work with them, we have meetings with the big chains, we have quarterly meetings with several of the larger chains. We invite them to a special meeting. We invite the food industry to a luncheon and we have one of the chain store executives be the main speaker and we get along very well today. At one time it was, oh they’re the chains and they’re the independents, but right now everybody is happy, nobody is hurting anybody.
LW: So there’s no worry among the independent store owners that they‘ll be pushed out of business by the big chains coming in?
ED: No I don’t think so, we are providing better service. We have more minority grocers who are in there and that’s helpful to the people who are minorities, they like to see that. We see more people who are reaching out to provide community service, what can I do to help your charity?, or a Salvation Army, a Red Cross, or Forgotten Harvest, or whatever. We’re getting more of that today. I sit on all of those boards, but I’m not telling them to do anything, it’s all on their own. It’s been very, very interesting. Today you have the government providing more food in the area and you have more local people acting as the liaison for the government like United Way, provide getting food and having a local group disseminate the food; like we have Youth Day at Belle Isle. That’s another thing, as a result of those riots we formed Metro Detroit Youth Day at Belle Isle and we have today 40,000 kids coming there and this is our thirty-third one coming up July 15. It’s jammed with kids who love what’s going on, we have all kinds of activity, free lunch in the middle of the day, the Lions are putting on an expo for them, the Pistons are putting on an expo, all kinds of things, free lunch in the middle of the day. So as a result of that we as an association even wanted to do something for the community and that’s what we are doing.
LW: So how did you sort of come up with that idea as an association, how was that inspired specifically by the riots?
ED: Well, shortly after the riots, Mayor Coleman Young was elected and he said, what are you guys doing for the community? He was very active about that. I said, well, following the riots we’re trying to get more businesses to come back to Detroit and get more people hired. He says, well I’m going to call a meeting in my office and keep the parents calm and some of them are edgy and nervous and I’m going to be calling about fifty organizations, talk to them about what they’re doing. That’s how we got the Youth Day started. So in the meeting, in the big conference room that the mayor has, everybody introduced themselves. He points his finger at me and he says, “Ed, what are you guys gonna do next year?” This was in November, “what are you gonna do next summer to prevent this from happening again?” I said, “Mr. Mayor are you talking to me or are you talking to everybody in the room?” [He says] “Oh, I’m talking to everybody in the room, but I want you to carry the ball.” The next day I get a call from Tom Fox of Channel 2, Jerry Blocker of WWJ radio, ‘we hear you’re looking for a project.’ How did you hear that? He said, the word gets around. I was floored really, and he said, “why don’t we meet for breakfast tomorrow morning?” So we did and we came up with Metro Youth Day. We’ve received the Point of Light Award from the first President Bush and we are the largest youth group the state of Michigan and in the Midwest. If you get a chance you go to stop by and see this thing on the 15.
LW: And it’s on July 15?
ED: At the Belle Isle athletic field.
LW: Every year in July?
ED: Every year. Remember July was the riots.
LW: So it’s one of the positive things you’ve seen sort of come about since 1967. Going back to July of 1967, could you just tell me where specifically you were when you got the phone calls about the stores in distress? Where were you specifically?
ED: Where was I? Well, remember that it was a Sunday, beginning Monday I was in my office. That’s where the calls were coming.
LW: Did you hear anything over the weekend? I mean, on Sunday.
ED: Oh yeah, we were listening to the radio and watching TV, seeing all the flames, seeing all the problems, people running. Yeah, we saw all of that. It was very, very traumatic.
LW: Where were you living then?
ED: At that time I was living in an apartment with my wife, I had just gotten married, in Grosse Pointe Park. It was very close to Detroit; I was very close to the office at the time. So I would go to the office to be sure I was there getting the calls and they were coming in. We didn’t have email at the time, we did have faxes, but most of them were phone calls.
LW: And as soon as you saw the news did you anticipate getting phone calls from store owners?
ED: At the present time?
LW: At the time, in July 1967.
ED: Was I expecting more calls? Oh yes! We were getting the calls; we started a regular flow of calls. We had a staff of six people and I finally had everyone at a different phone so if somebody was busy they could get the phone for somebody else.
LW: So how did you handle, you had four hundred stores at that time?
ED: We had four hundred that were affected, we had thirty-four hundred members.
LW: So with that much volume with four hundred stores that were affected, what did you tell people on the phone when they called?
ED: I told them to be careful, stay out of the problems, don’t do anything illegal, be kind, try to help your customers in the area, if you’re really not burned and you have extra food invite them in and offer some apples and things to the kids and whatever. You had to do something. Or they closed up completely and stood guard with the family around the store. It was one or the other.
LW: How did either of those tactics work out? What did you see being the most effective?
ED: Well I think the fact that they were – and that some of them started being interviewed on radio and television, that’s another thing. They said, “Hey look”, you know, “my family and I are in the business, I don’t know why this is happening, I’ve done nothing wrong. And I want to get open again and get going,” that kind of thing helped because at that time there were no stores really open in the center city. They couldn’t go anywhere; they had to go to the suburbs. Many of them didn’t have cars. So they had to hurry up and solve this problem so these guys can get back in and do their jobs.
LW: So people were leaving the city in July of 1967, driving to the suburbs to get food?
ED: Some of them, some of them, not all of them.
LW: If they had cars?
ED: Oh yeah, because you know this thing lasted a week or more and you needed to provide some food for your family in that time, so where do you go? You didn’t go to the normal local grocery store where the army is patrolling the streets and the fires are burning. You go somewhere where you have safety.
LW: So did you end up going and having to survey any of the stores that had been damaged?
ED: I did, yes I did.
LW: What were some of the things you saw?
ED: Well, most of them were happy to see me because they know me. And they’d say, oh there’s Ed, he may do something about it. So I did what I could, I told you I met with all these organizations; Detroit Urban League, New Detroit, Ursells, Eastern Market people .That’s another thing, I formed the Eastern Market Merchants Association and today it’s a fabulous place, it wasn’t that good at the time, but today it’s beautiful. So, I mean you know, we did what we had to do to survive, that’s a good word: survive, and not have people think we were out to get them or to capitalize on their problems. So we had to be gentlemen, we had to do what we can to show that we were a good community-oriented people. You had to do that, even today in peaceful times you have to do that. And you notice how many people now are supporting Gleaners and the Forgotten Harvest, and that’s part of the deal, Salvation Army, United Way, Red Cross and other groups that are around. Everybody’s getting a lot more support than they ever got, which I think this is an immediate effect from the riot as a reaction, it took a little longer, but they realized they had to do something.
LW: So you see things as having improved, as more peaceful now, at least as far as stores are concerned and people have been inspired to give back via various charitable organizations.
ED: Yeah, people are more comfortable today. They are comfortable because there are more stores available, good stores with good product and fresh produce and new stores coming in all the time. So they’re comfortable, they’re happy and we want to keep them that way. We don’t want to go back to those old days you know. So it’s a much better situation. The retailers are happy, they are running good stores, they got good customers and they are growing. Some are opening a second and third store, different neighborhoods. I think that a result of that we’ve learned a big lesson; you got to be good to your customers, you cannot intimidate them, you cannot battle with them, you cannot be arrogant with them, you got to be a good business person and if you are they’ll appreciate it and you will succeed.
LW: So do you think some of the problems that happened, that sort of erupted in 1967 were the result of discrimination against certain customers?
ED: Yeah, I think there were some situations, not a lot. Some people may have thought maybe a store is over charging or something like that. I didn’t hear many of that but I’m sure there were one or two cases that came along. But if that happened and they were picketing the store, I would be at that store, I would go to that store. I even had a situation right after that, you’ve heard of—who’s the Hispanic from California that’s very well popular with the Hispanic people—Cesar Chavez. I was at the store one time and one of the members, a bigger store operator, called me and he said, Ed, what’s going on here? I said, what’s happened? He said, there is a big group of people picketing my stores, they want me to stop selling grapes. First of all, I don’t hardly have any grapes and I don’t know why they are picketing me I said, who is it? He said, I think it’s Cesar Chavez. I said give me your address. I rode right out there. I saw Cesar Chavez and I met him. And I said, Mr. Chavez, you’ve got such a wonderful reputation and all that, I said, what are you doing here? [He said] Oh I don’t want them to sell the grapes. I said, well I understand that you can say that all you want, but you know when you picket the retailor and ask the retailor to stop buying the grapes so you can hurt them you are violating the law, that’s an illegal third party kind of thing and you can’t do that. [He says] “Oh no? Oh I didn’t know that.” In about three hours they were gone. They left Detroit completely
LW: Why were they picketing?
ED: Well ‘cause they knew they couldn’t do it that way. If you want them to stop, run advertising or something. You can’t go to the store and picket somebody for nothing.
LW: Why were they upset about the grapes?
ED: Because it was a – there was some type of situation in California, where the grape growers and pickers were not getting a fair wage. So he was saying to them, so let’s go to the stores and have them stop selling grapes so maybe the retailers—well they were picking the wrong guys, they should’ve picked people over there.
LW: What year was that? Do you remember?
ED: That was about a year later, about [sic] ‘78. I don’t think they were connected. I just thought I’d let you know that.
LW: I see, interesting.
ED: It’s been interesting. I helped found the Gleaners Organization at one time, and then I stepped off the board for a while. I’ve been involved in so many organizations helping the city, everything I did I tried to have the organization giving something back. Whether it be college scholarships or funding or whatever. That seems to be the trend today. Detroit is in a better situation than they’ve ever been and it should be better along the way. There is an attitude now, when we dedicated Shed 5 of Eastern Market three weeks ago it was phenomenal, the people were thrilled and packed and this is great. So I know we are doing the right thing right now.
LW: Long term, what is your sort of goal? What would you like to see happen with the grocery stores?
ED: You know as I said earlier, we had six chain stores with the lowest priced foods in the country. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there again, but I would like the retailers to have a good image, treat their customers right. They have the customers say, hey, I have confidence in where I shop. That alone, those two things would be great, I’d be happy with that and have them continue to give something back to the community, and I think we are there now. You know we have a whole big group from Iraq, which is an Arabic background, that came after the Iraq War and everything. We must have 60,000 of them today and most of them are in the food business. We have lawyers, we have doctors, we have all of them, but that is one area, well they come in with nothing. And what do you do? You open up a store, you put some canned goods and potato chips and whatever; you don’t have to cut meats or anything because you don’t know how. Just some packaged goods and cigarettes and hope you can make a living. That’s what they were doing. Well those same people today are running big supermarkets. Hard work, you know if you work hard and do good, you’ll be a success.
LW: Is there anything else you want to talk about?
ED: No, I think that – I’m so happy I’m here talking to you about it. I never thought we’d have a chance. I was so happy that the Historical Society or the museum was doing this because I thought we were all done with the ‘67 riots.
LW: So you think it’s worth talking about and bringing up?
ED: Absolutely. Let me say something to you; let’s think about today and the future. There was a big lesson here, in Detroit. The lesson should’ve been taught to the people in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. You don’t have to have a big rioting and skip the whole community thing just to get something going that you think should happen. You do it peacefully, you don’t start burning down the stores and this and that. And I’m very sorry that happened in those communities. It’s like repeating what we saw in 1967, I didn’t like seeing that at all. I’m saying to myself, hey, what’s that matter with you people, why are you doing this? Now I know in those cases there were murders, we didn’t have the murders here at the time, but still, there are ways to deal with them. That’s all I’m saying, we should be able to respect one another, come together as a community, not everybody can have 100 percent of what they want, so let’s compromise, everybody compromise, help each other, be peaceful, good neighbors. If we do that we are going to have a great community, if we don’t do that we are going to have problems forever. And I don’t want to see that. That’s it.
LW: Thank you for talking to us and taking the time we appreciate it.
ED: I just hope I’ve enlightened you or given you some background.
LW: Of course. Thank you so much.**