Clarence Reed, October 25, 2016
WW: Hello today is October 25, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society Detroit 67 Oral History Project and I am sitting down with Clarence Reed. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
CR: You’re welcome. Glad to be of help.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when you were born?
CR: I was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. My father came here in the Thirties. And I came here in ‘52.
WW: What year were you born?
WW: And you came here in ‘52?
CR: After I graduated from high school in Arkansas.
WW: Coming to Detroit from Arkansas, what was your first impression?
CR: I had been here on a couple of occasions in the summer, you know, summer vacations with my grandmother. I kind of knew the surroundings of the neighborhoods and when I came back to the state, I fell right in. I knew all the kids and everything. I had quite a few cousins that lived here. It was very easy changing towns and changing scenery. It was quite easy for me.
WW: Why did you come up here?
CR: When you’re in the southern cities and you grow up, and you've been in the North in the bigger cities, you're like, “Hey I’d like to live there!” Of course, I enjoyed where I lived but I guess I kind of had outgrown it, you know? I worked in a hotel as a kid after school, and I made nice money as a kid could make. And things just kind of – I’m tired, I want to go to Detroit. So, that’s what I’d done.
WW: What neighborhood did you live in when you came here?
CR: On Hastings, right in the neighborhood where most of the black people lived at the time. I lived on Hastings and Illinois. Black Bottom was down close, that’s where mostly black people lived. You know there and up on up.
WW: What was that neighborhood like?
CR: It was mostly all black people because all the Italian people had moved out by then. A lot of Jewish people who had stores still. It was an all black neighborhood.
WW: Would you like to share any stories from being in that neighborhood from being in your early twenties?
CR: I did get in trouble like young boys do, smoking weed. The police caught me. First time I ever got caught, I went to jail. I thought that was so unfair. I was walking down Hastings, going home, on Illinois, the police rolled through the alley. I had no fear or nothing, I had a little weed in my pocket and I forgot about that. They stopped me and searched me and they come out with this little Seagram can of weed, joints and you know that upset my whole life? I got two-ten for that. In 1956. I got two-ten. I went down to Ionia. I think I was 21. Went to Ionia, I think it was 1954 or '56, something like that. I did two years man, and I came out on time, because I didn’t get in no trouble or nothing but that really changed my life.
I came back home in ‘58, I met a young lady and we hit it off. We got together and stayed – I didn't marry her right then but we stayed together for the next 30 years almost. I had one little girl, and she had had a daughter, so we had two kids. And I worked at two or three little jobs, but the job I had when the riots started in ‘67-’66, was Western Union. I delivered telegrams. I lived on the west side, and the office where I worked out of was on the east side. So that's why I would be with the guys on the corner, on Kercheval, because I knew all those guys.
When I came home from the joint, Hastings was tore up, and all the people that had moved out of there moved west. And my people had moved east. So I knew a lot of kids who lived over on the east side, so I would stop over there, after work, I’d deliver the telegrams with a car. I had bought a little car and I went over there in the afternoons and sat and talked and stood around, talking about different things, sports and all that, as young men would be doing. Do you want me to go into the riot now?
WW: No, not yet no. Backing up just a little bit. Going into Sixties, did you notice any growing tension in the city? When you returned to it in the late Fifities, early Sixties was it the same?
CR: No, it wasn't the same. We were not dispersed, we were right in the neighborhood. But after they built the freeway, people dispersed and went all over the place-- some of the places were unfamiliar with us, most of them were. When I came home from the joint, I had never rolled on the freeway. The guys took me down on the Davison freeway, and they were going so fast. I said, “Wait a minute! Don’t do that! Don’t go so fast!” I had never rolled on the freeway, you know? So, it was kind of different. The whole city had changed, people had changed because of the fact they had to move out of their surroundings. It was a change. I didn't discover too much racial tension then when I came home, I didn’t discover that too much. But there was some because this club, ACME, I was older than those guys, Frank and all them. I was quite older – I wasn't quite older. I was about six or seven years older than they were and I had a family and I had to support my family. So therefore, I kind of like wasn't involved in everything with these kids. But I knew a lot of guys that was involved in the riot at that particular time, they're all dead now. Young men all gone, you know. Most of them were gone, you know, there wasn’t nobody left but me and Wilbert, that was involved in the riots. Remember Wilbert?
WW: Yeah, Will McClendon.
CR: We were the only two that went to jail. And that really upset me, because the fact that I got to go back to jail. But it took, four to five years, for them to send me-- you know, it didn't take that much, but I was out on bail, but-- it just didn’t they never get around to that you know?
WW: Back tracking just a little bit, so you were a member of ACME in 1966–
CR: No I wasn’t!
WW: You weren’t a member?
CR: I was just, you know like I said, I was busy working, and trying to take care of my family, but I knew all the kids that was there and most of the kids that was there were neighborhood boys and the white kids come from Grosse Pointe and Royal Oak. Frank and all them came from out there, they were there, kind of like, how do I say, they were – perceived them as – Well, they ran the club. And if there was any money they needed – we didn't have any money you know – and Frank would take care of that and the rent and all those things, you know. So –
WW: How were you caught up in the Kercheval incident of 1966?
CR: Like I said, I was a friend of mostly all the kids around there. I used to live over there in that neighborhood and so I got caught up in it because of the fact I stopped down there when I get through work. And I was on the east side, so I would just stop down there. It was early in the summertime, so I knew everybody’d be standing on the corner in front of the barber shop, and then the little restaurant on Kercheval and Pennsylvania. So, you’d just stop over there, you know. Shoot the bull, you know. So this particular day, we were just standing around, a normal day, you know, hot, talking about the Lions, what they are going to do this year in August, you know, been doing that for the last 50 years or better! [laughs] And they still ain’t done nothing! They’re doing pretty good, now. But anyway, that's how I got caught up.
WW: When did you first know that something wasn't going right? When did the police arrive, can you take us through that?
CR: Well, the police came, we were standing on the corner. The police came, and he pulled up, he was it in a cruiser, he say, “Hey, get off there. Give me the corner!” Hey, we weren’t doing anything, so [we said] “Hey man, get on. What do you want us to do, go over to Grosse Pointe and stand?” I said that, you know. I think I was about the oldest and you know, what are you messing with us for, man? We ain't doing nothing, we’re in our own neighborhood.
And the guy jumped up out the car, and said, “Give me this neighborhood. Give me this street.” We kind of backed up and he immediately called for help. Before anything happened, they called for help, because we didn't move the way they wanted us to move. They called and within a few minutes – VARUBOOM – cars come from either which-a-way. They start pushing us around and this one policeman was grabbing at a friend of mine, and I said, “Hey man!” and put my hands out to touch him and – what did I want to do that for? I went down, they crushed me, man.
There were so many police around me, they couldn’t hurt me, because they were all trying to hit me, and that kept them from really hurting me. Then they finally broke it up, and threw us all in the police cars and took us down on Jefferson and to the police station. The police came in the door, and one policeman said, “Damn, I got cut on my hand.” And he looked at me, and said, “Tell them he did it.”
That white guy, charged me with assault on a police officer. I had never – I didn’t have time! I didn’t have nothing – maybe a little knife, like that big. There was no way I could have gotten that out of my pocket. But this is what they did back then. I mean, they do that now, you know. They gave me the charge of inciting and assaulting a policeman.
They charged me and Will for inciting a riot, and I don't think nobody else was charged. Will did time before I did. Because at the time, I had accumulated a pretty good amount of wealth, a good amount of money. Therefore I had enough money to keep out on bond, you know. And Will had gone to jail. When Will came back out, I hadn’t gone anywhere, and he had done all this time, you know? And at that time I had quite a bit of money. And I had bought new cars, and everything, because I was afraid that if I left my family without any money, what would they do, you know? That's what upset me, I can’t afford to go nowhere now and leave my family without any money – I got two little girls and a wife. I just had to do something.
WW: Did you have to go to prison for this?
CR: Yeah, I went to Jackson. I was in jail for 50-some days in lock up in Jackson. My lawyer came through there, one Saturday, he was going to Chicago, and they had found out that I could get out on bond, and it’d cost me ten thousand dollars. So hey, whatever, I wanted to get out. I got out, he got me out that day, they brought me from Jackson on back home. It went on and on, and Frank and all of us, we got cool, and there had been times in my life when things wasn’t good, but Frank, I had to ask him to pay the rent, and he looked out for my family, you know.
WW: What two months were you in prison, do you remember?
CR: I think – I can’t remember that time. It wasn’t in the winter, because when I came back home, it was still, like, summer. And that was about a full year later, now.
WW: Oh it was that much later? Oh wow.
WW: So you were still in the city in ‘67?
CR: Yeah, uh huh!
WW: Do you remember how you first heard what was going on?
CR: I was out in Inkster. I was with my sister-in-law. We had took the kids, spent the weekend. We heard on the news that the riot had started on Twelfth Street. We lived on Dexter and Davison, so I told my family, “We’ve got to get back down.” The house is there and everything. You don’t know what’s going to happen. So, I got the kids and my wife and we come back home. And that's when the riots started. I mean, it was going, going.
I was working for Western Union still and I worked out in Royal Oak and nobody was working down in the city, kind of scared. I was working out in Royal Oak and Oak Park and all those places, delivering the telegrams. So, the people would look out the window and see a black guy coming and I’d hold out the telegrams, and say, "I’m all right, I’ve got your telegrams, ma’am." And they’d come on. I never had any problems out there, nobody wanted any problems. The problem just had occurred.
WW: Were you surprised or were you expecting any violence to erupt that summer?
CR: No. I wasn’t surprised. See, when it happened with us, we just thought it was a thing that had happened, because we never thought it would occur as a bigger riot. We never even thought about that.
WW: How did you handle the rest of the week? Was your house threatened by fire at all?
CR: No, no, no. It wasn’t, not at all. I didn't have any problems with my home. Like I said, I was still on bond, that went on for about four or five years.
WW: Are there any stories from ‘67, any experiences you had that you’d like to share?
CR: Let me think now.
WW: Did you see anything when you were coming into the city from Inkster?
CR: Oh, you know, smoke rising. It wasn't nothing other than you could just see the smoke and hoping they wouldn't cause harm on our house, or in our neighborhood. When we got home, everything was fine, the next day or two, same as. Well, that's when they had all the tearing and the stealing the breaking in and stuff. They kept on. They did that for a few days. Then they sent in the troops, you know, to kind of quiet things down.
WW: Were you extra worried about making sure you stayed inside, given that you were on bond?
CR: No, I wasn't afraid, I was working.
WW: No, not afraid, but afraid of getting picked up for stuff?
CR: Oh no, no, see when you live like we lived, that's an everyday thing. The first time I went to jail, I came out alright, I had had no problems. I came out and I made a couple of million, afterwards. And I had money, you know, it was easy. You get to be, you do what you do, and you got to live. A person that said they lived, ain't going to do nothing wrong, if you can do something to support your family. That’s why a lot of us got caught up in different things, because of the fact the little jobs wasn't enough to take care of your houses and your home and your wife and your car. It wasn't enough. You did things that you had to do, like drugs and all that.
WW: Do you think the events of '67 still hang over the city?
CR: Mmm. It still does to a degree, because the fact that anybody, any time something happens, you think back on that. This could happen again. Although it hasn’t and thank God it hasn't, but it was always there. If you were there at that time, you think back, “Man, this could happen again.”
WW: How do you interpret what happened in ‘67? Do you see it as a riot? Do you see it as a rebellion?
CR: Well actually, I guess what would you call it? It had to be a riot because of the fact that it wasn’t just people rebelling because of the fact that they were pushed around. It was that they were rebelling because the fact the police come down on them and they aren’t going to take it! Yeah, I don’t see it as being a rebellion. But it was rough. But it was funny though, you live in that and things go on and you just go on about your everyday business. There’s nothing you can do about these things, you got to live, and this is your city too, you know what I’m saying? So there’s nothing you can do but just keep on going. Like I said, I went to work every day, out in the suburbs.
WW: What do you think of the state of the city today?
CR: Well, I think I’m the kind of guy that really hopes and prays that things go well and the city grows. I’m not hung up on the fact that we can’t get along together and stuff like that because I got all kind of friends, as they say, some of my best friends are white. We enjoy one another, been doing that for the last 50 or 60 years. We didn't have no problem with the riot, as far as that was concerned. People like Frank, they were just trying to help our people and some of us didn't have the proper tools to work with. We didn't know how to handle the police. So these kids came down and they showed us how to do it, you know? Frankie’s been a friend of mine for over 50 years. I’ve seen his kids grow up and he’s seen mine, and we’ve been like family. If I need a favor, I can ask him and if he needs one, same thing here. We’ve done that with each other, you know?
And Will, he left here, and went to Las Vegas, no – the Iowa. You wouldn't think, this guy, the kind of hoodlum that he was – Wilbert was a hoodlum! He was one of those kind of guys. You know what he ended up doing? He went on to be a parole officer in Iowa. And retired from it. I just think about the kind of people we were, we weren’t trying to create no problems or nothing, nothing like that. The problems came to us. Actually, we weren’t doing nothing to create no problem. And we weren’t mad with nobody. [The] ACME [office] on the corner of Holcomb and Kercheval, the police would come in and they’d get mad because we all got along so good. The kids come, they tore the office up two or three times.