Brent Ausgood, July 23rd, 2016
GS: Hello, today is July 22nd, 2016. We are in Detroit, Michigan. My name is Giancarlo Stefanutti and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s 67 Oral History Project. I’m sitting down today with Brent Ausgood. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
BA: You’re welcome.
GS: Can you first start by telling me where and when you were born?
BA: I was born in Detroit, Michigan. October 19th, 1949.
GS: Where in Detroit were you born?
BA: I was born in Women’s Hospital. I think it’s Hutzel now, but it was Women’s at the time.
GS: Growing up, where did you live?
BA: I lived two places. I initially lived on some time on Midberry Street, which is now close, it’s not far from where we currently are. That’s like near Woodward and the freeway, the Ford Freeway, but they closed those houses down. Bulldozed them to make the freeway. Then we moved over on Glendale Street.
GS: What did your parents do?
BA: My mother was a homemaker; at that time, most people were homemakers. My father worked at Cadillac Coffee Company, which is in Detroit. He also had a part-time job working at Grosse Pointe Yacht Club.
GS: Do you have any siblings?
BA: Actually I have two siblings now, two sisters. At that point, I had two brothers. They have since past, so we’re a family of five, including myself.
GS: What was your community like? Was it very racially integrated?
BA: Not very. It was mostly African American throughout my childhood. We had some white neighbors, I’m thinking of other ethnic groups, but they began to move out because I think at that time, certain parts of the city were mostly segregated.
GS: Where did you go to school?
BA: I went to school in Detroit. Did you need the name of the school?
GS: Yeah, just curious.
BA: Just the high school? Central High School.
GS: Moving toward the early ‘60s, could you sense any tension within the city?
BA: Not really, but I was a teenager so I wouldn’t be really focusing on that, you know. Basically my main issue was being a student.
GS: Moving toward the riot itself, where were you when you first heard about it?
BA: Probably at home. I had been with a friend earlier, and she drove—I didn’t have a license at that time—she dropped me off, and when she got home, she was going to her home, which was close to the epicenter of the riot. The riot started at Clairmount and 12th Street and she lived, like, maybe five blocks away from there. She was going to her home, and she was stopped by the National Guard, they told her, “Where you going?” And he let her through. I talked with her recently, just yesterday, about this, and she was just refreshing that.
GS: How did your parents react?
BA: Well, my mother probably had more reaction than my father. My father was somewhat unfazed by it. My mother, at that time, talked about the riot that they had in ’43, she referenced that. She had just moved to Detroit at that time and wasn’t married. She was talking about how that started at Belle Isle and it was a major riot at that particular time. That was more racial. This riot in the sense was not really a race riot. This was just a racial disturbance, even though a lot of people say it was based on some racial issues, but when I reflect back now, I think it was just an opportunity for people to loot.
GS: Were you or anyone else in your neighborhood fearful that the riot would damage anything in your area?
BA: Yes, because we lived very close, I’d say maybe about a mile and a half from the riot. We lived near 12th Street, between 12th and Woodrow Wilson, and a lot of the riot—well, the riot actually started off of 12th Street, and actually, during the course of the riot, I was really a photo buff, and I had gotten this polaroid camera, so I had my father take me down there and I was snapping pictures with my polaroid camera. I don’t have those pictures now, and if I did, they’d be in bad shape, but I did take some pictures. My mother later got upset, she said, “You all down there taking pictures?” Like I’m some kind of photojournalist.
GS: Kind of thinking about the National Guard. When they came in, did you and your family feel relieved that they were coming in or kind of more worried?
BA: I think it was more concerned for physical safety because I remember distinctly hearing some gun shots and I saw some of the National Guard that was actually on our block. I recall that I think a couple of people that lived on my block, they weren’t arrested, someone was shot. I can’t remember the specifics of that; I’d have to talk to one of my siblings. I do know that, so I think it was more fear of the violence because we lived so close to where everything was going on. If we lived in another part of Detroit, we would have been more insulated because we wouldn’t have heard the gunfire and seen the actual guards.
GS: Did you actually speak to any of the guards that were there?
BA: No, I didn’t have any conversation with them. I stayed in the house.
GS: After what happened, could you sense any change in the city?
BA: I couldn’t. The major things that I could see is that a lot of people started moving. A lot of whites moved after that because that was when they, you know, the mass exodus because Detroit was perceived as not being safe at that point. I recall in ’68, the following year, that’s when Dr. King was assassinated, of course, there was rioting throughout the country, Detroit not excluded. Then I remember the Tigers won a series, and then people kind of like—it wasn’t really a riot, but people were just really getting out of control.
GS: Did you feel less safe then in the city because of all that?
BA: Somewhat. Somewhat. Like I said, I wasn’t really the person—if I had been an adult, had a job, that kind of thing, then I was in college, so I wasn’t at home that much in the city, because I went to school in Lansing. I wasn’t there that much to really have that sense of fear or lack of safety.
GS: A lot of people have called this using other words apart from “riot,” like “rebellion” or “uprising.” Looking back, would you call it one of these other words, or is “riot” more accurate to you?
BA: Well, I think “riot,” “rebellion,” are to me somewhat synonymous. Now if you say “race riot,” then you put that adjective “race” with “riot,” then that would preclude that it was blacks against whites, and then I’ve done some research, and I know the first white person that was killed was white. It wasn’t whites fighting blacks, like when you look at what happened in LA with Rodney King. That, to me, is more racial. I don’t think it’s racial. I would say rebellion, uprising, I would use those terms loosely.
GS: How do you see Detroit today?
BA: I see it as the death of the city. Basically, I’m more positive now than I was a few years ago, when we went through the bankruptcy. We’ve had a lot of people that have left the city. I would say 85 and 95% percent of people I grew up with or were friends with left the city. Some of them left the state, but most have left the city and moved to the suburbs. I really don’t feel safe in the city now because the crime rate is really rampant. The city has dwindled and the population—we used to be the top city so far as population; I think we’re number eighteen now. We used to be five or six. Our school district—I worked in the school district—we’ve lost almost a large percentage of our students, even the residents that reside in the city don’t send their kids to Detroit Public Schools. I see the city as just being downsizing out. I don’t think it will ever get back to the glory it was pre-67, so far as economic growth or the population size. But big is not always better. Just because you’re a big city so far as population, it isn’t better. I think a lot of the new businesses coming in, the revitalization, but that’s only downtown. That’s only pockets of the city like down the Riverwalk, so I see Detroit as two cities. I know several years ago I was down in Greektown with a friend of mine, and it was prior to when they had the casino, but I don’t know. We were down in Greektown, maybe having dinner or something. There was all these police and what have you, and my girlfriend sort of casually said, “Well, who’s guarding my house? Everybody’s down here.” That’s true. When you go downtown for something, there’s a lot of police presence, but in the neighborhoods, you don’t see that. A few pockets you’ll see that. This is why I’m serving areas of the city. They have the residence and the higher income, there’s like the University District, Rosedale Park. They have their own private security guards, patrols that they pay for to have this. I see that Detroit is coming back, but like I said, I don’t think it’ll be like it once was. I say it won’t.
GS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
BA: In regard to what, the riot?
GS: Just anything.
BA: One thing I wanted to say is I find that people riot—I say riot—they cause disturbance so far as the looting, the burning of property at the most miniscule reason. For example, I went to Michigan State. When Michigan State wins or loses, they turn over cars, they burn mattresses. When you have a sports team winning that happens. When you get the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s a lot of rebellion regarding that, the looting, the sniping now which is ridiculous, but I find that people just use that as an excuse. Even with Rodney King, with the looting—if there’s a problem so far as a racial issue, what does throwing a bottle or any object through a window and going in and taking stuff for yourself? Then we look at Katrina—people were doing a lot of looting there. Of course, I cannot understand it. Maybe they needed to get the food, or whatever to survive, but people were taking gym shoes out! I think that oftentimes, throughout this country, you see a lot of incidents where this occurs—going back to Dr. King—where people loot and it has nothing to do with the issue at hand. I talk to a lot of my friends, and I know people talk about, have a lot of discussions about the racial tension, and there is racial tension because that’s the reality. There’s always going to be, I think, some discrimination, some prejudice. That’s just the way we are as a society. We think about the Arabs, when you look at Arabs you think 9/11, that kind of thing. I feel that there is always going to be this and I don’t think that there’s every going to be a time where it’s a true melting pot. My issue with the Black Lives Matter movement is that black lives matter, blue lives matter, green lives matter, yellow, red, blue for the police, all lives matter. However, if the blacks are so concerned about the whites, white police killing blacks, why don’t we have that same outcry when blacks kill each other? By far, statistics will show that not just blacks, but when people are killed, it’s usually by someone they know, someone that’s close to them. I saw a report on Nightline that was called, guns shot and they did an eleven-hour sequel, the different murders and shootings across the country, going all throughout racial boundaries and socioeconomic boundaries, and basically, most of the time when people are killed, it’s by somebody they know. All lives matter, and I would like the emphasis on the Black Lives Matter movement to move in another direction insofar as we have a lot of crime, black on black crime. That’s what I have an issue with.
GS: Thank you for sitting down with me today.
[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 15:18]
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