Dr. Tommie Johnson, September 22nd, 2016


Dr. Tommie Johnson, September 22nd, 2016


In this interview, Johnson discusses growing up in Detroit and her experiences during both the 1943 and 1967 disturbances.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Oral History


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Tommie Johnson

Brief Biography

Dr. Tommie Johnson was born in 1925 and grew up in Detroit, Michigan. She worked for the city of Detroit and later became a teacher.

Interviewer's Name

William Winkel

Interview Place

Detroit, MI



Interview Length



Julie Vandenboom

Transcription Date



WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. Today is September 22, 2016. I'm in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's Detroit 67 Oral History Project and I am sitting down with Dr. Tommie Johnson. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.

TJ: Well, thank you for giving me the privilege of coming in.

WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?

TJ: Gary, Indiana. June 23, 1925.

WW: And what year did you come to Detroit?

TJ: That same year. I came to Detroit, I think my mother said in December that year. She stayed there for a while, in Gary, because, you know, women at that time didn't travel with little babies. They stayed where they were. And so she stayed there for a while in Gary. And I would say maybe - I know she said that was her first winter in Detroit.

WW: What was it like for you growing up in Detroit in the late Twenties, early Thirties?

TJ: I can't remember too much about the late Twenties. The early Thirties, I remember I went to – the school I went to was Garfield, and it was right across the street from our house. Our mother could watch us cross the street and go into the school building, so she did not have to get up. She liked where we lived. But when I think about school, I enjoyed the school and at that time, we were - blacks were very much in the minority in the Detroit Public Schools. And you know, late Twenties and early Thirties, because by that time I was in elementary school, first grade or something like that.

Yeah, so we were very much the minority, but we lived in - we moved - we lived in a store on Rivard - we lived up over a block of stores there on Rivard, and I know the people who lived next door to us, I remember they were Serbian, because, yeah. Their name was Rockovich. I remember that because Eddie Rockovich was in my same class and whatnot. And so, I mean, that's the kind of neighborhood it was around the school at that time. Very mixed with the blacks being in the minority. Very much in the minority.

WW: Going around and growing up in your neighborhood, did you feel welcome and comfortable?

TJ: I felt very comfortable in my neighborhood because my mother's family was very clannish. I had an aunt who lived on Ferry Street, off Rivard. I had another aunt who lived on Hastings - these were my mother's sisters - lived on Hastings there by Frederick. My grandparents lived on Frederick. And so I felt very comfortable in that particular neighborhood because - and I felt comfortable to the extent that I never worried about anybody bothering me or picking on me or anything like that, because first of all, there were six children in my family. And my mother's sister had six, and her oldest four were boys. So nobody ever picked on us. I used to worry about my brother being picked on, because we were eventually five girls and one boy. But because we were cousins, and everybody knew it, nobody bothered us. And as they said, I guess you'd say we had our own village, because Garfield went from pre-kindergarten to the ninth grade, in school, and I know we always lived within walking distance, because I know we moved a couple times, but we were still in that area.

And so we all went - I think all of us went to that same school until we - through the ninth grade. But as I said, I always felt comfortable in my neighborhood. I really did. Now I don't know - I guess, had I been a male, I might have felt differently. But at that time I felt - I felt very comfortable.

I know one time I can remember my father was picked up by the police, because he didn't come home. So my aunt's husband said, "Let's check the hospital and let's check the police station and see." And sure enough he'd been picked up by the police, because they said that they had received information that a man with a limp had stolen a lady's purse or something like that, and so they had picked him up. But when the lady came in she said "Oh no, that wasn't the man who stole my purse."

And they let him - you know, and so he came on home, and I think that happened to my father a couple of times, because my father liked to walk and when we lived on Farnsworth and Rivard, he worked at Fisher Body, there on Piquette or one of those streets there and he used to walk home, because you know, we didn't have a car, and I guess transportation at night was not so good even then because he always worked afternoons because he said you got a differential for working afternoons, and so he always worked that. He worked afternoons, I think, as far back as I can remember.

I don't think - the only time he worked at the factory on days was when they would shut down and things would get slow or something like that and because of his seniority, they'd put him on days.

But that's what it was like, and as I said - and everybody knew everybody. In other words, all of us walked to school, and the kids in the neighborhood - I can remember when my mother came over to the school for something, and the kids at school told me, "Your mother's at school! I saw your mother!" Because it was that kind of neighborhood, because as I said, we all walked to school, so we all knew who lived where and with whom and so forth. And as I said, they told me, "I saw your mother in school." What's my mother doing in school, she didn't tell me she was coming to school. You know, and I mentioned it to her, you didn't tell me you were coming to school today. She says, "When do I have to tell you where I go?"

But that's what it was like in the neighborhood. I always felt comfortable. I really did.

WW: Do you have any memories of the '43 race riot?

TJ: Yes.

WW: Do you have any memory of the Sojourner Truth clashes that happened right before it?

TJ: I don't have memories of that, but the '43 race riot, I remember very that distinctly, yes.

WW: Before the race riot broke out, did you sense any growing tension in the community, or the city at large? You were really young then.

TJ: I guess I was and the only reason I did sense - the tension that I sensed, I read about. I didn't - I read about and heard from my grandfather because my grandfather was up and down and around. He didn't have a full-time job, because by the time he came here he was in his sixties, I think, or something like that.

But he was always up and around, and one of his favorite beats was Hastings because, in fact, he knew just about all the shopkeepers in there on Hastings because he used to do errands for them. You know, he would - because back then people didn't have checking accounts and banking accounts, and so forth, and so somebody had to pay a water bill, one of the beauty shop or something had to pay a water bill, then you had to go down to the water board building to do it. And so he would do things like that for them, and so he knew more about what was going on in the city, say, than we did in terms of the tensions and so forth.

But I think - at that time you were in such an enclave, so to speak, you really didn't have a chance to sense anything. It’s only what you heard on the radio or what you read in the paper. Because, you know, at an early age, I didn't go around, out, up and down, up and down the street and whatnot.

My brother may have known more because you know, people always let boys have more freedom than girls did, so to speak. But I didn't - I don't think I sensed any - a great deal of tension. I think I was in high school at the time. And my high school was Northeastern, and at Northeastern I think we were 10 percent or so, of the population. And I don't remember any big problems there with the schools or with the students or with the people there. I'm just trying to think. I don't remember any fights - cross-culture fights - any fights and things like that that went on. The Polish guys fought the Polish guys and the black guys fought the black guys.

It was none of this cross-fighting, I guess. Not at school, anyway. I don't know, otherwise it could have been going on. But as far as any tension, I can't say that I felt any. Might have read something about it or heard my grandfather talk. But usually if you ever had family gatherings and whatnot, they would always feed the children first and go to the movies. You know, so the adults would talk about what things that were going on like that in the city. I knew there was tension because Michigan Chronicle - we had the Michigan Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Courier - two black newspapers - and you could read about it in those papers and I remember in '43, I think in '43 I think I had a part-time job working for the Pittsburgh Courier. And the Pittsburgh Courier was downtown. It was down on Adams Street, that's where their office was.

Well, when this '43, when that riot broke out, then we met at the editor's home. And I remember he asked me to take some information down to The Free Press - that I guess they had some pictures or some stories or something that they had picked up and he wanted me to go to The Free Press. And so he asked me would I take them? You know, I said well yeah, sure, I'll take them.

And the - and as I said, I was working part-time there. And so the other young lady there looked at me kind of strange, but she didn't say anything. But I got on the - I remember I got on the streetcar, on the Woodward streetcar and by the time I got to the downtown area around what was then the Roxy Theater area and whatnot, there was a lot of commotion and it was all white. And I was on the streetcar there, and there was a white lady on the streetcar, and she said, "You better duck down. You better duck down. You better duck down, duck down under the seat so they won't see you." You know. So I did, and sure enough they stormed the streetcar, you know, and whatnot. These fellows did, and whatnot, yelling and carrying on. But then they let the streetcar go on through.

And so I got down to The Free Press and gave them the material I had. And then I said, now how am I going to get back out of here? And I thought, I said, well, maybe I should take a bus. One of those buses that go west of Woodward. And then I got on the Woodrow Wilson bus because I knew that bus. I got on the Woodrow Wilson bus, went on down to - did I go home that day? Went on down to Farnsworth - I can't remember where that - but over on that side of Woodward there was no problem. No trouble, no gatherings, no anything. And I did, I went all the way down to Farnsworth. I don't know what street that was on - I know it was on the other side of Woodward. Maybe Second Avenue or something like that. And I got on - and so then I came to Farnsworth, and then I ran home from there, because we lived on Farnsworth.

But that was the one time I ran into - I didn't tell my parents anything about it. Not at all, because they would have had a fit with this guy. But the full-time secretary for the paper, the next time I saw her, she said "You were crazy to go down to take that stuff downtown like that. You saw that he wasn't going to take it." And I said well, I said I didn't know what was going on down there. But it was a big mass of white people storming - stopping all the streetcars and whatnot on Woodward Avenue at that time.

WW: Wow.

TJ: And I don't remember seeing any - what I don't remember seeing - I don't remember seeing any police officers.

WW: Probably not.

TJ: In that group. But that was my one brush with tension, I guess, of the other race.

WW: For the rest of that riot, did you just hunker down at home?

TJ: I'm trying to think, that was in '43. No I didn't, I went to my classes, because I was a student at Wayne State. And so I went on to my classes at Wayne State. And that was in '43. I'm trying to think, because at that time Wayne did not have a degreed business administration program. But they did have a two-year program, a two-year certificate program, for those interested in accounting. I think they taught accounting, office administration, shorthand, typing, those kinds of business subjects they taught. And, but you know for your econ and American history and things like that, you know, you took regular - you took classes and whatnot and they were all accredited classes that you took. You just weren't working toward a degree, you were working for this two-year certificate. And I remember, because I remember I had some classes – my machine classes I had down at the High School of Commerce.

Yeah. That was in '43. We didn't - that was before - we didn't have a community college. We didn't have Wayne College. There was Henry Ford and there was Highland Park, but you paid out-city fees for that. But for Wayne, for Wayne you just paid Wayne's regular fees for it. But I had received a scholarship, so that scholarship paid for my tuition at Wayne State. But that - that was in '43. I don't remember missing any classes and I don't remember any classes being canceled. Any classes that I had being canceled.

WW: Did that experience with those people storming the streetcar shock you in any way?

TJ: Well, yes it did, because I didn't expect it. I really didn't. You know, back then you heard things on the radio, and you read in the paper and so forth, but just to see this whole mass of people on Woodward Avenue, as far as I can remember, that's the only place they were, on Woodward Avenue there. Yeah, because most of the blacks lived east of Woodward, really. Weren't a lot that lived west - or if they lived west of Woodward, it was way out by what is now 4203 - way out, that area.

WW: Did you start looking at the city differently after that? Or did you move about with your business?

TJ: As I recall, we moved around-about with our business. At that time, my parents were busy working hard to get enough money together to buy a house. I remember that, because I think that was a time - did my mother work at that time? Because the war was going on. Yeah, the war was going on, and work was plentiful, and I know we were trying to get my mother to get a job. We told her we could take care of the house, we could take care of things. Go ahead, you know, get a job. I remember that. You know, was in '43, '44, and so she did. She got a little job at an airplane factory or something like that. And so that's what I remember. Whether or not it changed my view of the city at the time - it changed my movement, I'll say that, in the city. I didn't do a lot of movement at the time because any - everything, anything we bought or wanted, you could get on Hastings. The only reason you went downtown was to pay your bills. Your gas bill, your light bill, your phone bill, that kind of thing.

But no, it wasn't until I got a job, working at Russick's, downtown, that I really ventured down in that area, and I was still at Wayne at the time, when I got this job there, working, you know, and it's a whole new - and then of course, everybody went downtown to Hudson's at Christmas time. Everybody. Nobody bothered, nobody cared about that. Nobody cared at that time. Everybody wanted to go downtown and see what's going on - see the lights and toys and all that kind of stuff.

WW: In the late Forties, early Fifties, when the freeways were being built, and Hastings Street was torn down, what was it - what was that like for you?

TJ: Well, it tore up a whole area of black activity, because I can remember - you know, you had the  - we had a black YMCA, and we had a black YWCA, and that was down there around Adams and Elizabeth and St. Antoine and Beaubien and so forth. And so that was all torn - it bothered me, because oh, we had the Lark Grill which was a wonderful eating place. Very upscale and whatnot. And they got rid of the Pittsburgh Courier office, that was right down there on Adams. They just tore up a whole area, number one.

And it disturbed my church. I go to Second Baptist Church, which is downtown on Monroe. And a lot of our parishioners, they came from that area, from that Black Bottom area, and the area of Adams and [unintelligible] places and Alfred and all those streets and whatnot, and so when they tore down that area, it really affected our attendance for a while.

And it was very disturbing because you had the feeling that wait a minute, they're trying to get rid of everything that's black around here, because there were black businesses. That Lark Grill, that was owned by a black. There was another nice eating place that was owned by blacks. We had the - what did they call it - the bowling alley, can't think of the name of it right now, but the bowling alley was there on Adams, and I know - and it was there, I remember I used to go bowling there with some friends of mine on Friday, and then we'd go over to the YWCA and have dinner, because they served lovely meals there. And then we had the Phyllis Wheatley Home, where young women, young black women coming to the city could live, and that was on Elizabeth, not too far from the Y.

Same thing over on the Black Bottom area. We had - the church had a big Sisters Home for girls - for women who came to the city, black women who came to the city and needed a place to live, because at that time, you see, you didn't stay at the hotels and other places in Detroit.

You think about it now, you think, God, that was crazy, wasn't it. Right. You think about how - and I think about Hudson's. It wasn't until the Fifties, I think, that Hudson's hired black sales representatives. It was in the Fifties because I can remember the first time I saw a black salesperson in a store was at Macy's in New York, in about maybe what, '54, '55. That was the first time I saw a black salesperson was in Macy's, in New York. New York City. And shortly after that, things slowly began to change, and they hired blacks, you know, for sales jobs, because they had - I can remember a couple friends of mine while I was at Wayne had jobs running the elevator. Elevator operator at Hudson's. Yeah, I remember her, she had these two girls, they worked at Hudson's, running the elevators. Which was - it was a good job! It was a good job. It paid well and whatnot.

But the others - and I remember a couple fellows there that ran the shoe shine place, shoe repair place at Hudson's. And then when they were able to, then when things changed, one became a salesperson in the shoe department. Another guy became a salesperson in the furniture department. These were two fellows who had run the shoe shop there at Hudson's.

But I guess - I can't attribute it to Eisenhower, but in the Fifties, a lot of things changed. Some for the good, and some not so good. Because I can remember we had that nice Gotham Hotel, and the Carlton Plaza Hotel, and they were all black-owned and we knew, of course, they were black-owned. And that's where your black entertainers used to stay, because you couldn't, you know, they didn't stay in the downtown hotels. You think about it now, you think, wasn't that crazy?

You think about it now, and - because I think what happened on Woodward Avenue, back there in '43, and I think back, and I said, no, we did not people Woodward Avenue. We had no reason to go there. We had no businesses on Woodward Avenue. And as I said, we did have enough black businesses to go to for your - especially for the eating - also for your entertainment, because we had wonderful - that Paradise Lounge had - and bowling alley - and I can't think of the - there was a nice little nightclub down there that I remember going to.

WW: Going into the mid-1950s, were you observant of the Civil Rights Movement that was beginning to flourish in the south?

TJ: Yes. Very much so, because all of my mother's generation were from Alabama. Every one of them. So when it started, oh, we would have family confabs about what was going on, and t you could do to help and so forth, and who was involved. Because at that time, see, they had a lot of connections with people that were still in the south when all of this was going on. I can remember one of my mother's sisters and her husband went south and I think they took my grandfather with them, because my grandmother had passed.

And this was like in '54, '55, before the Montgomery bus boycott. And I know when she came back, when they came back and they talked about when the boycott happened and she was saying how, when they had stopped there in Montgomery, how people had - how the bus system did the people, they talked to some relative there. You could get on the bus, you got on, you paid your fare up front, then you had to get off the bus, and then go and get in the side door to sit down. And she said that - they said there were instances where you'd get on there and pay your fare and whatnot, and the bus driver would pull off before you could get on the bus.

Yeah. She said that actually, they talked, at that time, they talked to some people that had actually happened to them. Then in the next year, you know, when they had the bus boycott, well then everybody, of course, was in favor of this boycott because enough people knew what was going on, what was happening. And yet, and still - you see, in the end, to keep peace, I guess you might say, to keep peace, people didn't object and make a big deal about it. You had no recourse. You couldn't go to the police and complain. They wouldn't listen to you. So you just - you had to either take it or you had to try to find your own transportation.

WW: Looking at the South and hearing the tales of the racism that they experienced, did you experience anything close to it, or anything along the lines of it here in the North?

TJ: Not as overtly as in the South. Now, I can remember, I worked for the city - I worked for the city, and this - city purchasing - and the area where I worked, there was - one two three four - there was Richard - five of us and we had a department head, yes. And I had gotten a promotion to senior steno, I remember, and there were a couple other - two other senior stenos there and whatnot. Then the woman who was the department chair, she finally retired. Well instead of promoting one of us into her position, they dissolved it. Just gave this part to somebody, this part to somebody, and this part to somebody else and whatnot. And I said, because the fellow was black, the other lady was Jewish, and then me. We were the three senior people in that particular unit. As I said, they just dissolved it. Dissolved it completely. Dissolved the job, as I understand it. That's something that goes on in big business all the time, they just dissolve a job if they don't want to promote somebody to it.

And that's when I said I need to get out of here and do something else with my life. I said because if that's what's going to happen, I'm not going to get anywhere here, you know. So I said this is - because at that time - also, the city was also in negotiations at that time for a contract for AFSCME [American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees], and I remember then they changed the retirement. When I first started working for the city, 25 years and you could retire. And they changed retirement to 30 years, yeah, I remember that. I think we got a raise, but this was also one of the things that was part of that agreement, the 30 years - and they left the policemen. The policemen were at 20 and they moved the policemen to 25. Policemen and firemen. Policemen could retire at 20 years. You know, and I said, firemen at 25.

And I think back, I guess life expectancy wasn't very long when those regulations were written. But anyway, then, I walked in there one morning and said 30 years! I got to do this for 30 more years? I can't do this for 30 years. I've got to find something else to do. You know, so that's when I decided to resign from the city and went back to school to get a teaching certificate and whatnot, and I went into teaching, which, to a certain extent, wasn't much better, but at least the atmosphere was different and the people were different and the students were there - were different. And so it was a whole different ball game, you know. It was much more palatable, I would say.

WW: Going into the 1960s, did you sense the growing tension in the city?

TJ: Yes. Yes, I did. And part of it, I'm sure, was that I think at that time we'd engaged in some boycotts that were successful. And people were saying, "Well, if this was successful, maybe let's move on and see if we can't get some other changes going."

Because by that time, you know, Hudson's stores downtown were hiring black salespeople, but we still - banks and things like that were still not integrated at all, you know. We got to the Sixties and whatnot, where blacks were - a lot of blacks at that time were in a position now that they were using banks. Before that, who used a bank? You know, really and truly. My father, when he got paid, he stopped at the bar nearest to Chevrolet and cashed his check. That's why all of these factories and whatnot, there were always bars close by that were open until two o'clock in the morning, now that sort of thing.

And so I guess when people started using banks a great deal, then they started nosing around, you know. We had the gas company, there were no female - black females at the gas company. You would go into Detroit Edison, their main office over there on Livernois, there were no black females in those offices. In the banks, there were no black men in the banks, no black women, and so forth. Never black. They were all white folks, and so people began to kind of say, "Wait a minute now, this has got to change. We use electricity, we pay our electric bills, we use gas, and we pay our gas bills, you know, but everything is white."

And so people started pushing, very quietly in places and so forth, and I can remember when - and then the NAACP became stronger and stronger and stronger, and got more members. Members were just signing on to NAACP and whatnot, because they were doing this and that. And then I remember when they went after the banks. Decided to go after the banks. And - because my brother was one of the youth leaders with NAACP with Arthur Johnson, and they went after the banks.

And the interesting thing about it was - the Urban League was involved in this too, with the banks, especially the Urban League. It seems that they had sat down with some powers that be - these banks - the powers that be had selected a bank for them to picket. I found this out a long time later from Arthur Johnson. They had selected a bank to be picketed. Let Bank of the Commonwealth and those folks and whatnot alone. Let's go after a small bank. And it was the First Federal Savings and Loan. I can see it now and I can see the people sitting there in front of the bank on Friday, because they used Friday.

I remember it so well because I had agreed to teach a night school class, at the YWCA, the downtown YWCA, because we had the downtown and then we had the Lucy Thurman, but by that time the Lucy Thurman was dissolved into the downtown Y, so everything was done as the downtown Y. Had a trip to Europe. And I said, well, since I'm talked into teaching this night school class, I'm going to put this money in a special account.

And so I went to this First Federal, not thinking that they would be selected. So when they selected it, I told my brother, you all selected the bank that I got money in! And he says, "Well, you gotta take it out." And I can remember that Friday, should have taken a picture of it. He walked into the bank with me and I took my money our of First Federal Savings. In the meantime, he had the - there were some black folks, you know, picketing that bank. So we went through the picket line to do this. So I felt real noble. [laughter]

And the thing that really upset me, though, after that, was, I was at a meeting, with a young lady who lived in one of the newer apartments that they had built in the Lafayette area, and this lady from First Federal lived in that same building, and came to her, she said, came to her and asked her to recommend somebody that they could hire. And she told her, she said, you know, "She took me out to dinner and everything and asked me to recommend some people to her." And she said "I don't know, but I said to her, that's not my job. That's your job. That's your job, to find people, and hire people. Not me. I don't work for you."

So that's the kind of thing that happened a lot during the Sixties too, see. People would go to the Urban League and you know, if you wanted a job, you had a degree and you couldn't get a job you'd go to Urban League. Urban League would find somebody who would hire you or whatnot, which of course - and I think that, see, upset people, tremendously, that you had to go - that the organizations had to go to a black organization to get people, to have them recommend people for them to hire. And they were hiring. They were hiring, a lot of blacks in that area, especially black men. They were snatching and grabbing because I had a friend in Washington, D.C. and she said that they, Urban League, had two offices around her and the Urban League, they had stripped them clean of all the blacks. The organizations had come and snatched and grabbed them and so forth.

And so I think that led to a lot of tension, and then, of course, remember they began to picket the apartment buildings and whatnot, in the suburbs. Because I remember seeing a picture - I saw it on television. I remember seeing our governor at the time - oh, god, he's dead now - our governor at the time marching with the Urban - with the NAACP at Warren, they were in Warren, Michigan, and it was a big picture of them.

Then of course, then of course we had the march in '63, and it was very interesting how, okay. All right, the march. '63. Well, I guess the thing that affected me about the march was that everybody was asked - there was a place for everybody who wanted to be in that march. The big groups, they were - you know, they were to - each group was given a place, a street and a time to be at a certain area. And they all - I remember with the small groups, the small groups were to be on Montcalm - Montcalm and Cass, that was small groups because at that time I belonged to a bridge group. Nine people or something. Nine of us. And so okay, so we were all set to meet there on Montcalm.

And for the big groups, like the UAW [United Auto Workers], at a certain place, they were to meet,  and scattered all down Woodward Avenue, I think to maybe past Vernor. Yeah, past Vernor. And you know, so then when you fell in and you started walking, you looked back from curb to curb on Woodward Avenue, there were people, walking down Woodward, like they were going to a picnic or something. Walking down Woodward very quietly, talking with one another. There were people in wheelchairs that were being pushed. There were people who were otherwise incapacitated that were being helped along.

It was a Sunday afternoon. It was a beautiful day. It was a - June 23. It was a beautiful day, and everybody was walking down, very quietly, talking and so forth, demonstrating their feeling that things had to change. They just couldn't go on the way they were. But we weren't making a big noise about it, we were just doing it and letting you know that things have got to change. And I have to give credit to NAACP, because they really organized it very well. And one of the things that I was very lucky, I had these little - I had bought these little reporter's notebooks that I kept my notes in and whatnot - that I kept notes in for my classes and so forth, and I had one with me and I pulled it out. We kept going and by the time we got down to Cobo Hall, they let me in because I had this little notebook and my pen, I guess they thought I was a reporter or something.

But I guess that's really what fascinated me about it more than anything else. All of these people - white, black, Muslims, because they had their garb on. I even think I saw some people dressed up as American Indians - some American Indians that had Indian garb on and whatnot. But it was just a whole mass of people saying "We're not going to take this anymore. We've got to make some - some changes have got to be made."

And then, luckily, Martin Luther King, you know, had been doing a lot of work and whatnot in the South and so forth, and luckily - fortunately, he was here for that march. And you really - you had a feeling that - you really had a feeling that, you know, this is going to have to change, because all of these people are marching in protest to what's going on. But they're doing it very quietly and very deliberately.

As I said, because - you know, and really it brought tears to your eyes. Really - it really did, to see that all kinds of people - and there were as many whites as there were blacks. Or maybe even more whites than there were blacks.

And then from that, a lot of the smaller demonstrations appeared. For example - and the youth group got on the housing and so they marched. I remember the march in Grosse Pointe - in the Grosse Pointes, and that was for housing. Same thing in Warren - the march in Warren. Same thing, you know, for housing.

And the interesting thing was that I don't think I remember any violence on anybody at the time. I know in the South they had had a lot of violence, but I don't - but the different marches and whatnot because I don't remember anybody - I don't remember any violence. And no, my mother was afraid for my brother, because as I said, he was working very assiduously with the NAACP, and was on the front lines of a couple of those pictures. And I know she was very frightened, you know, that something was going to happen.

But as far as around here, as far as around that particular time, nothing happened. And as I say, it was done very quietly and I think because things did not change, I guess, as rapidly as some folks felt they should have, I think that may have precipitated the 1967 thing that happened.

Even though what caused it in '67 - what caused it to happen in '67 may or may not have been caused by the fact that people weren't fast enough; things weren't changing fast enough. But when this happened in '67, I'm not so sure that the people that started it at that time were even thinking about the fact that things hadn't happened fast enough. Maybe they just had stored up anger in them that kept them going, and then of course you had your hoodlums that went and vandalized places, things like that. Took advantage. Because I think that was really, to me, was the devastating thing about '67 is that hoodlums took advantage and vandalized places. That wasn't necessary. It really wasn't. I mean, you could protest without vandalizing. But they took advantage of it.

WW: Moving into '67, given the uprisings across the country, did you anticipate anything happening in Detroit that summer? Because there was Watts, Newark -

TJ: No, I really didn't. I really didn't, because we had - who was mayor, Cavanagh?

WW: Jerry Cavanagh.

TJ: Cavanagh was mayor, number one. And the governor was -

WW: George Romney.

TJ: Romney. But there was this other guy that was a representative from the area out there in Huntington Woods and whatnot. I can't remember his name. He was a representative, I can remember he played a part in that, too.

No, I really - I can't say I did. You know, you're so busy living, and going about your daily work and so forth, that at that time, as I said, I was busy - I had just started teaching school, and I guess I wasn't up and down and things, places like the valley and whatnot, to listen, you know, to hear what people were saying. I'm not so sure that I did anticipate Detroit having that uprising.

WW: Where were you living in July 1967?

TJ: I was living on Greenway. That's Joy Road, Livernois, Grand River area. That's where I was living at that time. As I said, things were quiet over there. See from Linwood, you see, it went all the way over to Woodward. Was it Woodward? I'm trying to picture. Yeah, because I remember there was some furniture stores there on Woodward, and I remember, here we are over here on Linwood and you're all the way over here on Woodward? What's going on?

Yeah, you're way over here on Woodwood vandalizing furniture stores? Taking furniture out of furniture stores? What did that have to do with what the police did on Linwood? Yeah. That's what was scary about it, really.

WW: How'd you first hear about what was going on?

TJ: In '67?

WW: Yeah.

TJ: Yeah, a friend of ours drove by our house. He worked with my husband at the post office. Drove by our house and he said, "They're tearing up - they're tearing up over there on Linwood - over there on Linwood - they're having a big riot down in the city." And that's when I first heard - we first heard about it. We went in the house and turned the TV on and then you saw all that, what was going on.

And then, as I said, my mother - and at that time my mother called, from - she was out there in Mt. Clemens, and she says, "What's going on? I heard that they - they're making you scared to go back - go into Detroit. I don't know if I should come home. They're saying everybody's - they're vandalizing things and whatnot." And I said well mother, probably over there on Crain, there's probably nothing going on over there. I said, it's all over there on the west side, Linwood and whatnot. As far as I know, that's where it is, you know. Yeah. But she had heard about it. She heard about it out there in Mt. Clemens, and she said yeah, scary - it was scary to her, yeah.

WW: Before you heard what was going on, did you see anything out of the ordinary?

TJ: No. Nothing at all. No. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon. In fact, I hadn't even heard anything about the Saturday night business. At that time. And later that evening, we saw the kids next door. They were coming bringing in cases of pop and whatnot. You know, and so we knew that hey, they were out there vandalizing something or somebody and so forth, yes.

WW: When you first heard the news, what was your first reaction? Were you shocked? Were you -

TJ: I just said oh, there's a lot of drunkards over there and they had too much to drink, and they were acting up. And somebody called the police.

WW: For that first day did you hunker down at home or did you go out to see what was going on?

TJ: No. I didn't go out to see what was going on. Nope. I relied on television that first day.

WW: After that, did you go out?

TJ: The next day I think I went out to see what was going on.

WW: Did you see anything?

TJ: I didn't - all I - there were still people - were still, in some of the outlying areas, still vandalizing things. And I remember I had a friend of mine - she lived over on Laurence I think it was, right off Linwood.

And she said she saw people running by her house with clothes, she said. Somebody said they had robbed the cleaners and she laughed, you know, she said, and when I thought about it the next day, she said, "Some of those folks - some of my neighbors got my clothes," she said. Because, she said, "I saw them running by my house with clothes."

She lived right off of Linwood. And so, Linwood - that's where it all started, and where they all started vandalizing things. But then the thing about it was, that it moved. Now that was the scary part. It moved. You know, how far is this going, where's it going now? Because it moved over - I remember, it moved over to Dexter. Dexter and some of those streets over there. Yeah.

WW: How did you feel when you first saw the National Guard coming in? Were you relieved when you saw the National Guard patrolling?

TJ: No, I was scared. I was scared because of the - they're bringing in the big guns and whatnot. That may incite the people and people may get angrier when they see these big guns coming in. Yeah. It was scary.

WW: Did you have any interaction with the Detroit Police Department or the National Guard during that time?

TJ: No.

WW: That Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, did you have to go into work?

TJ: Summertime.

WW: Mmhmm.

TJ: And school's closed.

WW: Oh. Right.

TJ: [laughter] We didn't have to go to work, although we had set up a meeting at my department head. In June of that year, I had signed on to take a leave of absence and work at Wayne State University for a year. My advisor had asked me if I would come work with him for a year. That was in June. In fact, that Monday of the affair, we were supposed to meet out at his house and go over plans for the coming school year. So we had to postpone that and cancel that.

WW: Your neighborhood, was it ever threatened by fire that week?

TJ: No. Not at all. Now I know the secretary - Wayne - the secretary in that department there at Wayne, yes, because she lived on Roosevelt, just off of - well, here's Grand River, and here's the Boulevard, and here's Roosevelt. Somehow or other they got over there to Grand River, started vandalizing and whatnot. She was quite frightened about it, and our department head lived out in Grosse Pointe - had called her and told her to come on out to his house and stay there, while things were going on - that she and her mother could come out there and stay while things were going on, you see, because it was that kind of thing.

We had people there that said, this is going on, but it shouldn't stop me or interfere with how I feel about people and so forth. Yeah, I remember that very clearly. Going out there, yeah.

WW: Did you also feel scared when the federal troops came in?

TJ: No, because by that time things had quieted - had gotten much quieter, and things had gotten much quieter because - I think - the thing - the federal troops brought in those big tanks - I guess it - was it the federal troops brought in the big tanks? I don't know.

WW: It was the National Guard.

TJ: Oh, okay. Because that's when I got scared. I said boy, they're going to bring, you know, these big tanks, I said this is war. You know, and I think that angered the people more when they saw that. You know, because when you saw those tanks, and you had lived through World War II, and you said hey, this is war. What are they bringing those big tanks in here for, this is a city! They're getting ready to kill us.

WW: How do you interpret what happened in '67? How do you define it?

TJ: I call it an insurrection. I wouldn't call it a riot. Because the people that were causing all of this turmoil were, first of all, were people who were drunk in the beginning, and so on, and called the police and so forth, because I don't remember there were any shots fired at the beginning. No, there were no shots fired there. And I don't know. Ask me that question again.

WW: How do you interpret or define what happened in '67?

TJ: As I said, I called it an insurrection. I think that was it. People fighting against - it was people not fighting against a - not - people fighting against the status quo, so to speak. And they weren't too sure who the enemy was, because there certainly - the enemy wasn't - certainly weren't those policemen who came to guard everything, but they were fighting against something and they weren't too sure what it was. They were just upset. That's why I call it an insurrection. I don't call it a riot. Because they really didn't go out to do this, but all of a sudden they got caught up in what was going on.

WW: Did you look at the city any differently after '67?

TJ: Yes I did. I looked at it - I said some changes are going to have to be made. I wasn't too sure what they were, but the thing that was more upsetting than anything else was they talked about the percentage of blacks in the city, and then when you looked at all the police officers that were - that you could see and whatnot, you didn't see any black police officers. You said, well, something's wrong here.

You know, it's something - it brought that to your attention. It really did. It really brought it, at least to my attention, really, that we didn't have any black policemen. We had very few black policemen. Yet, and still, all you had to have a was a high school diploma, or a GED, and live in the city. And so suddenly, I guess that surprised me, to a certain extent, because I can remember when we had, before policemen got into the - when I was growing up - you had policemen who patrolled on foot. Patrolled your areas and whatnot on foot.

And sometimes you would see a black one, and sometimes you wouldn't. It just didn't dawn on you that - at that time that this was wrong. But then when you saw this - you know, you saw what happened in this insurrection or whatnot, and you said well look, the only people they've got to call on, to try to contain these people, were all white. So now they're all angry. The blacks are all angry, and they're bringing all these white policemen and that just made them angrier. And it brought it to the attention that we didn't have any black policemen.

WW: Did you and your husband think about leaving the city after that?

TJ: No. No, because you left this city, and you go to another city, you’d run into the same thing. Really. Never thought - no, we never thought about leaving the city.

WW: Do you think the shadow of '67 still hangs over the metro area?

TJ: I don't think it will ever leave - what happened - but I really don't think now, in terms - it's been a couple generations ago, now. And so I really don't think to a great extent that it's going to - I really don't think that it's - comes to the attention of the people today. Because they weren't aware of the things that happened before. They came into being, you know, with - and you talk to young people and say something about the fact that Hudson's - that the banks had no black tellers, doesn't faze them. They don't know. And when you talk - I know, this one program on TV, I happened to see it this particular night, and they talked about a black president. A black president. And a little kid said, "The president's black. So what?" You know - and but if you say that to a person who is fifty years old, they'll say, "A black president, that's wonderful! That's marvelous!" But to a kid, you know, black president. "Yeah, we got a black president. Yeah, he's been there eight years." It doesn't faze them.

And I think that's - and I think about 1967 and I think, to a lot of these kids, it doesn't. It doesn't faze them. When you talk to a kid - I remember the other day in church this one kid said she wasn't a registered voter. I said, you're not a registered voter? I said, you've got to be kidding. I said, do you know that people died for the right to vote? See, it doesn't faze her, because they don't -

And I think that brings to my attention, the fact that some history books have given - mentioned Nuremberg - have given Nuremberg only a paragraph or two. And now the Holocaust - people that run the Holocaust Museum have been fighting to get more information into the history books about it.

And I thought about the same thing, in terms of slavery. You know, back after '67, after people became - paid attention now to the history books and said, oh, they only give a paragraph to slavery. In fact, one history book said something about the advantages for the slaves, and so forth, that came about with slavery. That they - you know, that they were - I can't remember the statement, but yeah. Yeah. I remember that they talked about it, and they said that's the way the history books show slavery.

And I think about Our American History by Beard and Beard, seems to me they wrote all the history books about America. But I guess it's - and I think with myself growing up, you know, growing up, the movies showed the Indians as bad guys. Always in the movies, the Indians were always bad guys. But then when you go and look and read the history, because I did read the history of the Navajos for a class I had, and you read the history and say, that's not right. I said, the white man was wrong in coming in and taking over this country and killing the Indians and putting them in reservations and all that sort of thing. You know, you take a different look at history when you grow up, really and truly.

WW: For you, looking back at '67 and seeing the police community relations that happened then and looking at the city and the nation now, how does that make you feel?

TJ: We're regressing, I guess, really and truly in terms of what's going on now. Because here again you're seeing - you know, we've got TV, newspapers, what is it - the Internet and whatnot, and this information is passed so very quickly to you and whatnot, and then as they do today's stories, they go and do a historical kind of thing too. They bring it up to date and you say my god, they've been getting away with murder for a long time.

To a certain extent, there's no other way to look at. You know, this, what is it, this buddy business and whatnot, where you don't tell on your partner and all that kind of thing. It's really scary to a certain extent, because yes, they've been doing it to blacks. But think about the whites they've probably been doing it to also. Yeah.

WW: What are your thoughts on the state of the city today?

TJ: I think the city is moving along nicely today. I think with the mayor that we have now seems to be very conscientious, and doing a good job, and moving the city forward. I think back to some of the other mayors that we've had, and that have corrupted the city to a certain extent, and that's been going on since way back in my parents' time. But I think the city's moving.

WW: So you're optimistic?

TJ: Very much so. Yes. Like the pheonix, going to rise again. Absolutely. I get that from my mother. My mother always said that about the city. She said because the city is more than one person, or two persons. This kind of person or that kind of person.

WW: Is there anything else you'd like to add today?

TJ: No, but I feel sorry for the public schools. For the kids. I really do, because everything is in such a turmoil, and it has been for several years, and the kids don't have - you don't have that many years, and then you're - and they talked about, in two years things will be better and so forth. Two years? Now if a kid is 13, okay, that’ve lost two years - two years - the next thing you look, they're 16. They've lost those years in between because you've been busy trying to get ready to do something. Yeah. I think that industry-wise, the city is moving along, but as far as the school system is concerned, it's got to change. It's got to. I don't know what they need to do, but whatever they're doing now is not working.

WW: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I greatly appreciate it.

TJ: Sure. My pleasure.

Original Format



William Winkel


Dr. Tommie Johnson


Detroit, MI




“Dr. Tommie Johnson, September 22nd, 2016,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed February 21, 2024, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/436.

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