Evelyn Sims, August 15th, 2016
WW: Hello today is August 15, 2016. My name is William Winkel. We are in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History project and I am sitting down with Evelyn Sims. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
ES: You’re welcome. I’m glad to be here.
WW: Can you please tell me where and when were you born?
ES: I was born July 8, 1929 on Kirby Street in Detroit.
WW: Did you grow up in the city?
ES: Yes I did, I’ve been in the city all of my life.
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
ES: It was primarily the east side, called the east side, like Kirby, Rivard, Russell, near Hastings. That area. And I went to Northeastern High School.
WW: Was the neighborhood you grew up in integrated?
ES: Yes, we had some white people on our street. And as a kid, though, I didn’t pay too much attention to it as to whether it was good or bad. It just was, which was okay with me.
WW: Okay. What did your parents do for a living?
ES: Well, my father worked in a factory all of my life, I’ll put it that way. And he also worked in a hotel downtown so he had two jobs most of my life. See, I happened to be the fifth of the six children and my mother stayed home. She did not work until the second war. And then they were hiring everybody and she went out and they hired her and she really liked it.
WW: Where did she get a job at?
ES: I should’ve asked my other sister. It was at one of the plants.
WW: Okay. What was your childhood like?
ES: Well, when I think back, I never think of being deprived but now I’m told that yes, I was because I was black. I didn’t have advantages nor was I exposed but as far as I was concerned, I had a good life. I had a mother and father who were together until my father died at age 65 and they loved us. I had one brother and four sisters and we played together with each other. I played with my neighbors and as I said, I went to Garfield Elementary School and I stayed there, actually, until I graduated from there in the eighth grade. So I really didn’t have to move around like kids do today. And then from Garfield I went to Northeastern High School. And as children, we played mostly outside. Of course there was no TV, we didn’t have to have one. And then I also had cousins that lived in the neighborhood, about six or seven of them so we played together too and we played whatever was considered children’s games. Follow the leader, I spy, hide and seek, we’d ride on skate boxes that somebody might have tried to put together. We even had skates but the pavement was so bumpy that it was hard to skate so I really didn’t try too much. But as far as I can remember, I think I had a good childhood.
WW: Was Garfield integrated?
ES: Yeah, it was integrated. All the schools I went to was integrated. They didn’t have that many white there when I went there but when my older sister, who’s eight years older than I am, went there it was highly mixed with white. In fact, she was oftentimes one of the few black people in her class. But when I got there, I guess most of the people had moved out some place. However, my street had white children on it and they went to Garfield. If I can remember, not too many children went to private school at that time. They just marched on down to the public school.
WW: And growing up did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood or did you venture around the city?
ES: Well because of the fact that I was female, I more or less — no I think I went five or six blocks away from my house, which could be considered a lot. We had no car, my father never had a car in fact, so we didn’t have access to that but again, my cousins lived nearby so I’d go over to their house and play with them but then I’d go down the street to Hastings to the movie. Oh and sometimes we went down to Woodward, down to the Mayfair Theater. It’s still there I believe. We would walk, we walked every place, which didn’t seem to hurt. And then we also used the public library, which was in walking distance from my house and the art institute. And we loved the library. My younger sister and I would usually go together. We’d run down there and then run back home and we had a good time. We’d actually go to the art institute too but in those days, they had no children’s program so we’d just go in there and look around and then go down the winding stairs and run through there and once in a while, they would tell us, “Children are not supposed to be here.” I thought that was unusual. Of course, they’ve changed now. So that’s about it growing up. I liked school; I loved school, in fact. My whole family seemed to love it, my sisters and my brother because to tell you the truth, I’d rather go to school than stay home because there’s nothing to do at home. Except if you’re sick, my mother would say, “Go to bed.” So we hardly ever missed any school at all. And it was, again in walking distance. Garfield was about a block away down the alley. My sister and I would run and then we’d run back for lunch, which was good. And then we’d run back after lunch and grew up among what I thought was a secure situation. And I say I liked going to school because I always felt safe in school. Right now, I don’t think they do but I always felt safe. I was glad to be there. I liked the teachers; they seemed to like me. I got good grades. Because I was number five, I have to say this, I had all these people to precede me and my sisters got very good grades in school and I guess my brother did alright. He came out alright. But they got very good grades and whenever I would go to a teacher’s class that was new to me and they would find out who I was and what my last name was, they would smile and say, “Oh, we’ve got a good student!” So in a way, I had to live up to it which I tried so, I got good grades in school.
WW: Do you have any memories from the riot of ’43?
ES: Oh yeah, I was there.
WW: Would you like to share some?
ES: Well I lived next door to a boy, again this was on Farnsworth on the east side and I lived next-door to a fellow that attended high school there. I wasn't in high school yet, quite. I was going in the next — see that happened in May, I believe, because he was graduating and they did not have his graduation because of the insurrection, or whatever you want to call it. And because I was the age I was, 14 maybe, I didn't look at it as a real serious problem. I didn't think it was right and I wasn't too sure why it occurred. That ’43, I’m still not too sure why it occurred. I just know how it affected us and the boy next door. Northeastern did not have graduation exercise because of that. They mailed him his diploma and — what else happened? I know I went down on Hastings because Hastings was our commercial street when I lived on the east side. That’s where the stores and shops and the theater were. And my mother told me to stay home but I went down there and I saw people running around and running in and out of the stores and I was still kind of upset by what I was seeing because they were running in and out of stores and taking things. So I went home and I stayed there. I don’t remember how many days that lasted, do you? '43? No? But I know it was just as school was ending for the summer. So we were out of school and proceeded to play and be children.
WW: How did your parents react to what was going on?
ES: Well my father still went to work. He would walk to work, he worked at the Fischer Body Plant which was down on Marquette, I believe. And he would walk to work, he would go to work everyday that he was supposed to go to work. And being in the factory in those days, attendance was not the best because they laid off people left and right or they stopped a lot of things because of the changeover of parts and whatnot. In those days, the men were sent home, and women if they worked, but they didn't get paid for that time that they were out, that I can remember, I’ll put it that way. And my mother, as far as the insurrection was concerned, we stayed home and she told us to stay home. But I don’t know how else it may have affected her. Because she did not talk about it to me. No she didn’t, and I didn’t ask her many questions.
WW: Did what happened change the way you looked at the city growing up?
ES: At that time? No, the summer passed and I went on to high school. Northeastern. And so, I’m trying to think what was the fallout. I imagine a lot of people were out of business. Because on Hastings, that’s where the black people had their ownership of shops, funeral homes, stores and so forth. And some of those had to close. How many I don’t know. In fact, I didn’t pay much attention to the economics of it all but I’m sure there was some fallout as far as that was concerned.
WW: Growing up and as you’re going through high school, did you notice any tension in the city as you explored more?
ES: I do know there were certain places that black children didn’t go because they were not welcomed so they didn’t go. But we didn’t have much money anyway to do a lot of things. Whatever things we did were free. As I said, we did the library, we did the parade, because our father would take us. So we did the free things. And I don’t remember feeling unusually nervous or frightened. Because Northeastern was across Chene Street and it was in a Polish neighborhood. So consequently, when I was at that school, blacks were in the minority because there were a lot of Polish kids but I seemed to do alright. Again, my three sisters had preceded me and my brother and so they made their good grades and when I got there, I just continued to live off our name. Not that I didn’t do the work–please don’t think that–but they made it easier because they preceded me and they all got As. I don’t know what my brother got, he passed though. But my three sisters, one had been double-promoted. In fact, two of my sisters finished high school at 16. So over at Northeastern, I involved myself with the sports. Field hockey, basketball, tennis. And I made friends. They didn't have too many parties like they have today because people didn’t visit each others’ houses as much as they might do today. In fact, my mother would tell us as young children, “Don’t go into anybody’s house unless I know them. Because I don’t know what goes on in the house and I don’t want you to be caught up in anything. So you stay outside if your friends say they have to go in the house, you let them go and you wait for them." So we didn’t and in fact, when people had house parties, that was a no-no to my mother. She was our disciplinarian because my father was always working. And when he wasn’t working, he was looking for a job because things were not as steady as they are today for people who worked in factories. Because the union had not yet established itself. In fact, he was one of those who did a lot of the marching for the unions when they did strike for various reasons. I didn’t always know what they struck for but I do know he was on strike a lot. Because I said to myself, when I marry, I’m not marrying anybody that works in a factory because he was always out of work. It wasn't his fault, but he was. So I said, I’m not going to do that. Of course, things are better today. But he did have the other job at the hotel so that helped us also. And then, my mother worked and with the two salaries we finally moved out of this four family flat where we were in our own single house. Again on the east side though, we moved to Crane.
WW: After you graduated high school and moving through the Fifties and early Sixties, did you continue to feel comfortable in the city?
ES: I did because we still left our doors open at night, you see. We might have latched the screen door which anybody could have pulled it open, but we did because it was hot. We didn’t have air conditioning. And what other things? I don’t remember being frightened to be in the city. In fact, I was proud of the city from what I knew. And I did things around the city because when I got to high school, I took the bus a lot. And because we moved to Crane, which took me further away from the school. I had planned to go to Cass but Cass did not take the ninth grade when I was ready for it so I went to Northeastern and I enjoyed myself there and I did well and my homeroom teacher–I told her that I was going to Cass, that I wanted to–and she’d say, “You don’t need to go to Cass, Evelyn. We have good things right here that you can do.” And at that time, I knew I was going to be a nurse, too. I never had any other profession in my mind. Nurse or teacher maybe and I ended up doing both. So I didn’t go to Cass, I stayed at Northeastern.
WW: Going into ’67, had you moved out of your parents’ house by then?
ES: Oh yeah, by that time I was married a long, long time. Not a long time, but—I’ve been married 62 years.
ES: But when did I move out of our house? I did a lot of moving, I should say, I went to nursing school in New York when I was 17, I came back and worked a while here in the city. I found it hard, though, to get a job as a black nurse because I could not enroll in the city too readily for nursing school because they were not taking, or they did not open their arms to black students. I'll put it that way. They were beginning to take them here and there and I figured, say I don’t want to be the only one in the class, you know, it’s not a good feeling. And New York beckoned. Now how would you not go to New York? And it was cheaper, so I went to New York to nursing school. And then when I came back from there, I worked in Detroit and as I said, when I think back now to the couple of places I went looking for a job out of nursing school, because everybody said, “Oh you can get a job anywhere.” Well, I didn’t get a job at Children’s Hospital and when I think of it, I said, “I think it was because I was black.” Because I had a lot of experience in pediatrics. So I ended up going to Grace, that was my first hospital. Grace Hospital. It was over on John R. And they even had a school of nursing but I never applied to that school. But after that, I joined the service. They had an army nurse corps and I was stationed–and this is during the Korean War–and I was stationed in California, primarily San Francisco, for about a year. Then came back to Detroit and got married. That's when I got married, when was that? ’54. Yeah, we’re in ’54 now. And I got married. However, I got married, we had two children, and we proceeded to try and make it. My husband was working. He had gone to Eastern Michigan University so he–and then he went to New York, because he went to New York and took their program in physical therapy. It was a free program. It was financed by-what was that lady's name? I can’t even think of it now. She was the first woman to encourage use of hot packs for paralysis. And at that time, well you may not remember, but polio was rampant and so she had done a lot of work on that. What was her name? Sister —? I’ll probably think of it before I finish because she’s well known. But he went to New York for a year to do that and he came back to Detroit and we lived with my mother for a while and then we left Detroit so that he could go to medical school, because he didn't like – see I’m thinking of these things that you probably are asking because you’re asking if I felt comfortable. He did not always feel comfortable. In fact, you ought to have him here. He would be a good person. In fact, he said he’d come but we’ll talk about that later. But he was working over at Detroit Memorial in physical therapy and also teaching because he had gotten his teaching certificate from Eastern Michigan. Again, he was doing two jobs but he didn’t like the way he was treated at Detroit Memorial. When it came time to promote in his department, someone else of lesser skills were promoted before he was and that did not set too well with him. And it was a white fellow. And I was going to Wayne School of Nursing getting a Bachelors degree, I didn’t have that. So I was going for a Bachelors degree and I eventually got my Masters from Wayne State also. Very good school, all of my sisters went there and my brother went there. In fact, my whole family are college graduates. One has a PhD. However, they kind of worked their way through Wayne. There were so many programs. And I’m only giving you this information as hearsay because as I said, I wasn’t a part of it but I would hear it talked about in my house. They had a lot of programs at Wayne where a student could work-study. And so I knew my two older sisters did that. They would help the teachers and that would help to pay their tuition. And we lived at home, we still lived down there on Farnsworth at that time and so that made it easy. They were able to finish there. My brother, no my brother went to service, [perhaps talking off recorder] sorry sir! And my brother went to the service and came back and used his GI to go to college and he went to Eastern Michigan University, which it wasn't called then. It was called Michigan Normal. And my husband was there also. That’s how I met my husband, through my brother.
WW: After you came back from your service in the Korean War, did you see the city any differently or was it just as welcoming as it was to you before?
ES: No, I didn’t see it any differently. Let’s see, where did I go to work here when I came back? Oh, well I didn’t stay here too long before my husband went to medical school in Iowa. He went to osteopathic school, so that’s where he got his medical degree. And so we went there with two children and I worked most of the time there as a nurse, having gotten my degree and so forth. I was made director of a school of nursing. I was the first black person to have that job. This was Broadlawns Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. And I enjoyed being there, it was a smaller city than Detroit and I think that’s why I enjoyed it, because it was smaller. I don’t care for big cities even though I’ve lived here all my life. And now I just try not to go where there are crowds, if I can help it. Now, where were we, we were back here, I came back from the service, got married –
WW: Well, we can skip ahead a little bit to ’67. That summer, did you sense any growing tension in the city?
ES: Well that’s what made me call up and say I would come here because I started thinking about what I was doing then. I was at Wayne in the spring of that year, because I was getting my Masters then. And we had a professor of sociology and I remember two things he said, as well as the rest of the class. But he said—and we were talking about women having children and so forth and he said, “There are some people who should never raise children, no matter if they do have children.” And I’m trying to think what he said, because they’re not able to, they just can’t. No amount of teaching will make them good parents or parents, period. He didn't dwell on it too much but he said that to make me realize that his other statement, which was about Detroit at that time and he says, “There’s unrest here in the city.” Now, see, I was blind to it. I was kind of naïve, to tell you the truth, because I do not go looking for trouble, it has to come tap me on the shoulders then I’ll go turn around and say okay what’s going on? But anyway, that year he was saying, Detroit people, black people are upset because they cannot move any place, they cannot function as citizens of the country and they're upset so something may happen soon where they will show off how they feel. And that was in the spring, yeah. And that summer, '67 before the riot, so it was still that spring, this is what happened: I became a part of a project that was proposed by the University of Michigan. And what they were trying to do was to determine why black people had high blood pressure. That was it in a nutshell. It was a big project but that was it in a nutshell. Why they had so much, because the literature would say that black people, Negroes, or whatever they were called at that time, had more high blood pressure than any other group. And so they had gotten money from the government to do this research and they wanted nurses to collect the data. I happened to be one of them. And I remember my area was actually around Twelfth, Hazelwood, Elmhurst, Wildemere, and my husband had his office at Twelfth, Twelfth and Clairmount. But my area for collecting the data was around there. Most of these people lived in apartments, they had big apartments. I can’t remember all of the questions we asked them but I do know the upshot of the question was they wanted to know—I wrote something down—they wanted to know why they — just a minute. The project was to determine, as I said, why blacks seemed to have more high blood pressure, and was it related to diet, environment, and there were a lot of questions in this research project that would answer that when you talked to people. But what I can remember, and I’m doing this in a nutshell, at that time, and this is before July, when did the riots start?
WW: July 23.
ES: Oh good, you got the date [laughing.] Anyway, so I went to go see these people and what hit me at that time was that when I finished, and I was thinking about their answers to the questions, I said, “These people make good money, but they’re not living where they want to live.” Because most of them said, if they were treated more kindly, they would move into a single home. They did not like staying in an apartment. And downstairs parked would be some fancy car. They all had fancy cars. In fact, as you went down the street, you know, you’d see Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, Mercuries, all those things. Everybody had a car. A nice car. And they made good money because they were working in the factory at that time. And so, I don’t know, how old are you?
WW: Not that old.
ES: [laughing] Well, they were working in the factory making good money. They were making good money and they wanted a safe environment for their children and for themselves and a place to park their car. All of that. But at that time, they would go out to Warren or Sterling Heights. They didn’t want to go too far from Detroit or even in certain areas in Detroit. Because there was some areas in Detroit that would frown on black people trying to buy a house. Where I live, in fact, Sherwood Forest, Palmer Woods, University District, and then a couple other places, they would have a hard time. And all they wanted was the opportunity to buy a home in these places. They had the money and that’s what made me sad. I said, these people have the means to do this. And many of them had gotten, at least the wife had, gotten more than just high school education. So they would have been very good citizens, like we are anyway. But that wasn’t happening. And then the riots started, or the revolution, or the insurrection. What is it called?
WW: The two dominant terms are riot and then rebellion.
ES: Rebellion, yeah.
WW: How did you first hear about what was going on?
ES: Well, by that time I had moved by that time over in Sherwood Forest and married and had three children then because we brought a third child back with us from Des Moines when we left there after my husband finished medical school. I had taken them to a picnic at Kensington Park and on the way back, this was on a Sunday, I heard about something going on, that there was fighting and running around on Twelfth Street and Grand River and something had happened to upset people and that was the beginning for me. But I went on home and then heard more about it on the radio or TV. And the next day — see, my husband had his office on Twelfth Street and Clairmount. So he was there almost every night guarding it. But nobody ever broke in because many of the people where his office was knew him and nobody bothered his office, really. But he stayed there to make sure they didn't at night. But that’s how we did that and we had curfew, except I was out a couple times after curfew but nobody stopped me. I didn’t come down to the central area where they were having the problem. I just would just stay around my own house but nobody would ever stop me so I continued to do whatever I needed to do. However, the riot or the insurrection, rebellion, went on until it ended. What was it? Two weeks? One week? Five days? Oh, okay. I really don’t remember, do I? Anyway, but after that, do you have any questions that you want to ask?
WW: Yeah, I was just about to ask you more. Could you see the fires from your house? The smoke at least?
ES: Not from my house. I couldn’t see the smoke either. It was down on Twelfth Street and Clairmount and then over by Grand River, further out. So I never saw any smoke, I just saw it on TV.
WW: Were you shocked when you first heard about it?
ES: Well, I know why it was happening. That we were angry, and that’s how we respond. We tear up our own neighborhoods. It’s too bad it had to happen that way. And of course, a number of people died. My own husband went to jail over night because he was picked up, a late curfew with some other people, coming back from Martin Luther King’s death? Did he die then? Oh my god, Sixties were bad, weren’t they?
WW: I think he died the next year.
ES: The next year, yeah okay. It wasn’t that. Something else had gone on that he went to.
WW: Did you think about packing up your children and leaving the city during it?
ES: Oh no, never! I’m black. And what that means is I live that kind of life, all the time. It’s a part of me, every day, practically. I don’t expect to have people smiling at me and saying welcome, come in, because they don’t if they're white. In fact, I say we’re not going to leave Detroit. I said if we left Detroit, it would be to go to another city or someplace but we're going to stay in Detroit. Plus my husband’s business was in Detroit, too. Not that he couldn't move out, but he didn't want to either. So we stayed. We did not feel frightened. I have never felt frightened in Detroit. Not even now. Yes I do. I do now and I think it’s because I’m older [laughing] and can’t physically protect myself like I thought I could once upon a time. But I still participate. I go to Northwest Activities Center and participate in their programs in aerobics, yoga and those kinds of things. But I know we have to be more cautious. I really know that. And we sent our oldest daughter to Cass. She would have to catch the bus, we didn't take her to school. She would get out there at seven o’clock in the morning on Seven Mile and get the Hamilton bus down to Cass. And I never worried about that. I guess I should have, huh? But I didn’t. And she did alright. She went through school the four years. In fact, she became the president of her class, first female and black person to be president of a class and she had 900-and-some people in the class. So that was Cass Tech High School. The other two did, what did they do? They did public school, they did Bagley, Hampton, early on. And then they ended up at Roeper, Country Day, and Mercy. My middle daughter graduated from Mercy and my youngest daughter graduated from Country Day High School. However, I wanted to say this though: after the riots, they tried to do things to bring the city back into a productive entity, shall we say. And Father Cunningham spearheaded a lot of things. And my sister and I helped him in one thing he did. He met with a lot of us — we were there and the idea was to find out if Detroit black people paid more for their prescriptions and drugs than those did out in the suburbs. So the project was financed by the government because he had money to give to use to go out and buy certain things. I mean, it was really, it lined up fine, it was very well organized. In fact, that woman who became his assistant, she’s dead now, down there at Focus:HOPE—
WW: Eleanor Josaitis?
ES: Yep, she was in the same—I remember meeting her because I went over to the Mack office and she came over from—what do you call it? Not Birmingham, but she came from Grosse Pointe to help out and that’s where I met her. But the idea was to go out. They would give each person certain drugs to check on. I’ll just say an antibiotic of some kind and that same antibiotic, you would go out into the suburbs and see what it would cost there. And that’s how that was run. And after a year or so, it was found out that Detroiters pay more for their medications than the suburbians did. Now, that bothered me, I tell you that part, it did. Maybe because I was a nurse. Not only that, because many of the Detroiters were poor, many of them had diseases and conditions in which they needed medication and could not always buy it. But this was a project that Father Cunningham started and we finished it and that’s what we found out. I guess some of the Detroit stores tried to reduce their cost so that the people would—it probably lead to a lot of other things, too. Medicare, giving financial assistance for medications because those things happen. They all had different names, I can’t remember the names, but they did where they would help people with their medications and they would financially, they would issue some funds to them. And then, as I said Medicare—and then Medicaid was already a part. But its arms got bigger and it included more people. But those kinds of things might have grown out of that. And it’s too bad that Father Cunningham died of cancer. But he was doing a lot of great things.
WW: Just a couple of quick wrap-up questions. Are you optimistic for the state of the city today?
ES: Oh yes, I’m optimistic about life. I've got to be. I’m black! I shouldn't say I've got to be but if you woke up each day as a black person, your attitude about life would really change. It wouldn't get worse. I mean, a lot of us have positive attitudes about life. But our lives are different. Each day is different. Even if I don't go out of my house, I’m made to realize I’m black from TV, various things that happen on TV. When I say I’m made to recognize that, is because it’s usually something negative that’s happening on TV about black people. So everyday, everyday something’s going to happen. Then, of course, you go out shopping and those other things that happens too, but it’s become so much a part of me that I am not used to it, but I accept it. And wherever I can, though, I fight it. When Martin Luther King came through here, my brother was very active in the NAACP and I tried to help a little bit. But I had some small children, so I couldn't always do what I’d like to do. But I think Detroit, I don’t take it personally anymore. Since so many black people have gotten positions of power. But the attitude of a lot of white people has not changed and that’s what has to happen. And how that happens, I don’t know because some black people have to change their attitudes, too. So there you are. And every Sunday, you’ve got black people in this church and you’ve got white people over here. Biggest segregated group on Sunday morning and everybody’s being taught to love your neighbor. I sound cynical, don’t I?
ES: I don’t mean to. I’ve lived so long now, in fact, I’ve lived longer than a lot of people, except my sister. She’s 90 and she doesn't let this bother her. I do have a daughter that lives, and I should say this because I like visiting her. She lives in Texas in one of those communities that was kind of built-up and is primarily white. It was more white when she first moved there than it is now, but it was. It’s called the Woodlands. Nobody locks their door, no bank has — because you asked me, I’ve gotten so used to the Plexiglas in stores, which is really bad, you know? It shouldn't be. It shouldn't be, but they do it and they still get held up. But anyway, that’s not your problem. You can go in stores where she lives and you don’t have those partitions in front of you. The bank desk’s open, everything’s open. And you see, I even have a nicer feeling sometimes when I go there. You’re making me think of things that I don’t usually think of. I don’t want to be disenchanted by the happenings in Detroit because I live here but six months a year, my husband and I–well I don't do six months, I do it four maybe–are in Florida and again, it’s a place we leave our door open. In fact, I think we’re the only black family the complex where we live. And although Florida does have its black people, but where we live there aren't too many.
WW: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me today, I really appreciate it.