Sheila Shelton, June 23rd, 2016
HS: Hello, this is Hannah Sabal. I’m here in Detroit, Michigan. The date is June 23, 2016 and I’m sitting down with Sheila Shelton for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
SS: Thank you.
HS: Okay, can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
SS: I was born March 31, 1956 in Detroit, Michigan.
HS: And where did you grow up?
SS: I grew up on the northeast side of Detroit.
HS: And what was your neighborhood like?
SS: My neighborhood as a child was wonderful. It was absolutely breathtaking. We moved there, the trees actually met in an archway going down the street. You didn’t have to lock your doors. It was truly- the neighborhood raised the children. Everybody had their hands in it.
HS: Did you play a lot with neighbor kids?
HS: Okay. And was your neighborhood integrated?
SS: Yes it was when we first moved there. It was Jewish, white, and maybe two or three blacks.
HS: And what did your parents do for a living?
SS: My mother was a homemaker and my father worked at Ford’s.
HS: And where did you go to school?
SS: I went to school around the neighborhood, as a child. At McCullough Elementary School.
HS: And middle schoolm high school?
SS: Middle school was Winship, high school was Cass Tech.
HS: Awesome. And what year did you graduate Cass?
HS: And then did you go to school? Did you continue your education or work after high school?
SS: Yes, I furthered my education and I went down south, actually.
HS: Okay, and what college did you go to down there?
SS: Lawson State Community College.
HS: So where were you living in the 1960s?
SS: A street called Leslie.
HS: Leslie Street. And you were young at the time- how old were you in 1967?
SS: Maybe about 9, 9 or 10.
HS: And as a child, did you notice anything peculiar going on in the city before the riots?
SS: We actually were down the street, a couple blocks away, at my cousins’ house and they told us that they had heard it was going to be a race riot and that we should get home right away. Being kids, we obeyed the elders and we started to go home.
HS: Wow so they knew that there was going to be a race riot?
SS: That’s what they said. And how they knew, to this day I have no idea.
HS: So you first heard about it from your cousins and then do you have any memories or experiences from the riots?
SS: [laughing] Yes I do. My father was living at that particular time and we were curious so we said, “Well, let us walk up to Linwood and find out what’s going on.” So we did, we proceeded to walk up there. It was my father, my next-door neighbor, my sister, and myself. And when we got there, there was a lot of looting, people running up and down the streets, and we walked into a corner store and they were looting. Booze was all gone, all liquor was off the shelf. And I saw a game – my father had already walked out of the store. And I saw a game – I think it was The Game of Life – and I picked it up, and I went to my father and I said, “Daddy, can I have this game?” And he said, “No, baby, put it back. We don’t steal.” So I went back in the store and I put it on the counter, which now was completely empty. And by the time I put the game down, somebody picked it up. I proceeded to walk out the store and at that particular time it was like a glass window. And they used to have popcorn and potato chips on a little stand, I think sometimes they call it – well, I don’t know what they call it. But it was on like a little stand and this man was rocking it, and by the time I got right in front of him – he’s inside the store – he hit the window and the sheet of glass went and covered me. And I got cut up real bad. And my father, obviously, went in there to kill the man, but my neighbor said, “We’ve got to get these kids to the hospital.” So my father went home, as we were slowly walking to the house, and he got the car, and we went to the hospital. Now, being a child-I think we went to Henry Ford’s, I’m really not sure- but it was a lot of commotion in there. Gunshots, I remember some guy holding his hand out and it was bloody but the blood wasn't coming out and the doctor hollering, “Get him to a room; he has internal bleeding.” It was very hectic. I finally got waited on. they stitched me up and took me home.
HS: Did your sister or you neighbor get hurt when the glass fell?
SS: My sister also got hurt, but it was only on her heel. And that was followed by the army, who set up their organization in front of three schools- Durfee, Roosevelt, and Central. I remember the tents and the tanks coming down the street and we had a curfew. But before they got here, I remember these guys, they had a bank safe on top of the car, on top of the hood and it fell off. It had rollers on it and they proceeded to roll it down the street. And where they went with that safe, I have no idea. But when the army got here, they kind of calmed things down. Like I said, we had a curfew and I remember them standing on top of apartment buildings – because there was an apartment building not too far from us – with their guns in their hands, you know.
HS: How did your parents react to the riots? Were they scared or angry?
SS: I think, I really don’t know how they felt about it. They were originally born in the South. My father and mother came to Detroit for a better living. They were working people as far as I know. But my father didn't live too long after that and his lawyer told my mother, he suggested that we move. And the neighborhoods really weren't that bad yet – because he died in ’69. But she didn’t – she, you know, purchased the home, and we stayed there.
HS: And is your mother still living?
HS: Did she stay in Detroit the rest of her life?
SS: Yes, mmhmm.
HS: And at what point did you move out of Detroit?
SS: Well, the first time I moved was when I graduated. I went to Lawson State Community College. I went to stay with my grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama. Then I came back. I love Detroit, you know. There’s a lot of things that I’ve done, a lot of people, icons, that I’ve met here and Detroit used to be something to see. It’s sad to see it today. Like I can tell you, I met Marvin Gaye at the State Fair. I walked on Baker’s Bar on Livernois and Eight mile and met Stevie Wonder. I was in the choir when Nelson Mandela came to Detroit. Yes, I’ve talked to the owner of the Fisher building. Just so many things I’ve done here. Gladys Knight, Quincy Jones. He came to Hudson’s when it was open. So it was a lot, a lot of icons who came and I got the opportunity to meet a lot of them.
HS: So, you were about nine years old in ’67, aside from you saw the people stealing, did you have any idea at all, anything else that was happening?
SS: No. But I know afterwards it was a Catholic church on Linwood and it had a statue of Jesus and I think it’s still there today. Jesus was all white. And somebody painted his face black and it has remained black since that time. He’s all white but his face is black. And that church, I think is on Linwood and Grand, I’m not sure.
HS: Do you think they did that out of protest?
SS: Because, reading your article, I didn’t know they were really protesting about the police department being all white.
HS: So a lot of people have different names for what happened. Some people call it an uprising, some people call it a riot. How do you perceive the events?
SS: When I was a child, they nicknamed it ‘Burn Baby Burn.’
HS: Really, I haven’t heard that.
SS: Mhmm, that’s what it was. And I had-I forgot about it because it was so long ago that I had a torn ligament when I moved to New York and a guy was working on my shoulder and I had this cut from the glass and he said, “Oh, where did you get this from?” And I said, “From the race riot of 1967!” And he stepped back and he went, “You were in a riot?” And I said, “Yeah, you maybe haven't read about it in your history books, it was called ‘Burn Baby Burn.’”
HS: Wow. So you would classify it as a race riot?
SS: I saw blacks running up and down the streets, looting the stores. I didn't see any white people, I didn't see the police. I saw people hurt at the hospital and afterwards, I saw disaster. Which Detroit has never recovered from.
HS: Could you elaborate on the changes you’ve seen in Detroit since then?
SS: Deterioration, some places look like a bomb has hit it. Lack of jobs, lack of communication, lack of skills. You know, when I lived here before, you would go somewhere like Oak Park and you could actually talk to someone and they could pass something across to you if you purchased something. Whereas if you were in the city of Detroit, you had this two-inch thick glass and you had to put the money underneath or slide the glass around in order to get your stuff, totally different.
HS: Do you have any words for future generations about what to do to fix Detroit, or advice?
SS: I’ve often thought, what would heal Detroit? I don't know. It’s hard sometimes when you listen to the news or read the papers and they’ll say they don’t have any money for the schools, the schools are deteriorating. And then the next day you’ll hear they’re spending seven million dollars for the dolphins at the Detroit Zoo and you go, “What is wrong with this picture?” So, I don’t know, I think they should have tried to make some type of amends a long time ago. It’s been, what did you say? 50 years?
HS: 50 years next year, yeah.
SS: That’s a long time to not try to do anything.
HS: I had a question, what was it? You mentioned that you heard the riots had started because of police issues. Do you think the relationship between the police and the public has changed at all since then?
SS: Well we had a- I used to work for the city of Detroit- under Coleman Young. We used to call him, ‘Uncle Coleman.’ So I think he changed that, he ordered that to work to be a police officer, an employee of the city, you actually had to live in Detroit. And I think that turned around somewhat, you know. But being the mother of a black son, you know, there are certain things that I might tell my son that you may not. You know, like if you see the police, you immediately pull over, hands at ten and two, do not move until he says, get your license. I don’t want you to be in an accident. “Oh, I thought he was going for a gun,” you know. So it’s certain things that they have to learn.
HS: That’s sad.
SS: Yep. [whispering] I’m going to Canada. [laughing].
HS: [whispering] I’m with you. Alright, did you have any other memories or words to share with us today?
SS: I wish Detroit could come back but it’s so much damage. I see they’re trying to rebuild and do things here and that’s nice, I applaud them. But the neighborhoods are suffering. I don’t know where you start?
HS: I don’t know, that’s a great question.
SS: Like now, even Flint. People forgot about Flint already. They’re not even mentioning it anymore.
HS: That’s true. Alright, well thank you for sitting down with me and sharing your story. It was really great speaking with you.
SS: It was nice talking to you as well.