Carter and Nancy Grabarczyk, June 18, 2015
Annis New York Furs—Detroit—Michigan
Detroit Police Department
Detroit Receiving Hospital
NL: Today is June 18th, 2015. This is the interview of Carter Grabarczyk and Nancy Grabarczyk. We are at the Detroit Historical Museum in Detroit, Michigan and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Carter could you tell me where and when you were born?
CG: I was born in Detroit, Michigan on January 11th, 1945 just shortly after dinosaurs roamed the earth. [Laughter]
NL: And Nancy when and where you were born?
NG: I was born in Detroit, Michigan—Booth Memorial Hospital which doesn’t exist anymore. November 2nd, 1953.
NL: Where were each of you living July of 1967?
NG: I was living in Detroit, the Detroit area, by Plymouth and—
CG: Milford Green?
NG: No, that was later.
CG: Oh, that’s right.
NG: Plymouth and would have been Stahelin. I remember the [unclear] – by Southfield and Plymouth, that area.
CG: You gotta speak up—I don’t know if that’s picking it up or not—but that’s okay.
NL: There we go. And where were you living at that time?
CG: East Dearborn.
NL: How would you describe the makeup of the neighborhoods you were living in at that time? What was the sense of community there? What types of people were living there?
CG: Well East Dearborn was probably, this was the era of Orville Hubbard as mayor which is a whole other story unto itself and basically it was fifty percent Polish and fifty percent Italian. That was pretty much it in the east end of Dearborn at least.
NG: Where I lived it was small brick homes, all white neighborhood, we all played in the streets ‘til the street lights came on then you came home. Pretty much middle class neighborhood.
NL: What are your memories of Detroit and the region in the mid-1960s?
NG: Well my dad was a Detroit Police sergeant so, he was tied up in all of this quite a bit. I was just in junior high school so my dad was obviously part of the police crew downtown during the riots. He came home with—they wore green battle helmets like army helmets.
NL: You’re talking about in 1967 specifically?
NG: Yup. And I remember snipers were aiming for the officers so he had my mother ripping the sergeant’s stripes off of all of his clothes and he’d wear them down there so he wouldn’t be as much of a target. And we also had a sniper on the elementary school around the corner that I use to go to so I remember the whole neighborhood was just afraid. They were – nobody turned their lights on everybody stayed in the dark just in case the guy decided to take a walk and start shooting at anyplace that had lights on. And nobody, nobody went to bed until my dad came home those nights because we wanted to make sure he was walking in the door. But, that’s basically my story.
NL: Do you remember how long some of his shifts were then? Was it out of the ordinary compared to the usual working day, working week?
NG: They were, as I’m recalling, twelve hour shifts and it was rough. I remember my dad saying it was rough because the following year he had twenty five years in and he said, “That’s it I can’t handle it anymore. It’s too rough that’s enough.” [Laughter]
NL: So he retired?
NG: He retired.
NL: What was his name?
NG: Robert Steele.
CG: With a “e.”
NG: Yeah, S-T-E-E-L-E. Sergeant Robert Steele.
NL: Do you have any other specific recollections about growing up at that time especially—I imagine you were watching the news—
NG: We were watching the news of all the stuff. That area of Detroit was really safe, we never locked our doors, unless you went away for a vacation, you never locked your doors especially with a policeman in the family.
CG: Her dad did have to live in Detroit because at the time police officers were required to live in the city
NG: It was required.
CG: So they had these various neighborhoods where the police, fire department, you know, lived.
NL: So most of your neighbors were police and fire?
NG: Well actually no, I didn’t know any other police or fire in our neighborhood.
CG: Oh, alright. ‘Cause I thought that—
NG: [talking over each other] No, actually. There were areas like that when I went to high school there was an area like that just borderline of Dearborn Heights where police and firemen all lived. But no when I was growing up we didn’t, I didn’t know any other police officers or—
CG: I got it confused. [Unclear, talking over each other]
NG: Fire people. Regular middle class, played out in the streets until the lights came on, you know, folks didn’t see you all day. It was safe, real safe, nobody, like I say, locked their doors. Kids were able to run around free, you know, ride their bikes where ever, played ball in the streets [laughter] all that kind of stuff, walked to school. No particular issues until all of this came up in ‘67, snipers and that business we never even thought about it, it was a shock to us kids because we use to everything being so safe, it was our safe haven. Like I say that particular area was an all-white area and the schools were all white.
NL: What did your dad say about his day’s work and the police efforts at that time?
NG: It was rough. The looting and people lighting stuff on fire. He said it was just crazy, that people had no—seemed to have no value for human life or things. They just went berserk. He used to say maybe the heat drove them berserk. I don’t know they went crazy breaking into places and stealing and looting and burning down things, like that was gonna help anything but it wasn’t. And the police were afraid because they were aiming at them, it was like war basically is what he said it was, like being in a war. We breathed a sigh of relief when he walked in the door.
NL: Carter could you tell me about where you were working at this time?
CG: Yes, I was working at two places. I don’t know if you want me to begin at the beginning at this point or not, but basically I’ll set the stage. Ever since 1963 I was in broadcast engineering I was a ham radio operator, my dad was a radio guy, just liked radio all my life so ‘63 I started in broadcasting at local radio stations like WGPR and so on WLIN. I ended up being the chief engineer at WGPR which has nothing to do with anything. But in any event, the ultimate goal back then of people in broadcasting was to get into television and the hot TV station back then was Channel 2, CBS, WJBK-TV. They had Walter Cronkite and that was the number one station in Detroit. So, one of my ham radio acquaintances was the chief engineer there. He said, “Anybody that has a ham license and their first class radio telephone license I will give you a summer job.” It’s what they call the VRT, a vacation relief technician, which is just what it implied cause most of the full time guys wanted to go on vacation in the summer you, had college kids that said, okay fine we got a job for you. So, that was my full time forty hour a week job for the summer of 1966 and 1967. In the summer of 1967 I also had a part time job as what they called the contract chief engineer for WQRS which was the classical music station in Detroit at the time. And we were in the Maccabees Building, which I guess it is again but it was called the School Center Building at the time. That’s where the WQRS studios were and their transmitter was in that building and their antenna was in that building. So long story short I had a key to the roof to get up on the roof. So that’s—if you want to start about the riot stuff that was the beginning of the beginning I guess. Basically that Sunday afternoon I was home listening to the radio and heard some news broadcasts saying there was some kind of disturbance in downtown Detroit. They made it sound, you know little something is going on not a big deal blah, blah, blah. So this is Sunday and I called a friend of mine another ham radio buddy I said, “You know, why don’t we go downtown I got a key we’ll get up on the roof of the School Center Building and see what’s going on?” He says “Great.” He lived a couple of blocks away we get in the car in East Dearborn and drive down to the School Center Building, go up on the roof and that was—that was the mistake. ‘Cause we thought we would see some minor stuff when we were on the roof it was just crazy, it was going wild. It was to the north, to the south, to the east, to the west. You kept seeing power lines going down, power transformers lighting up, you heard burglar alarms going off, you heard breaking glass. Quite frankly, I was twenty-two at the time my buddy was the same age, we were sort of scared, we said, “You know, maybe we got in over our heads.” What started out as a school boy lark, maybe wasn’t. It looked a lot more serious than they said on the radio, a lot more serious than we expected it to be, so we said “Well, let’s get the hell out of here and get back home.” So we did. So the only problem with that was your humble narrator had to work on Sunday evening, Channel 2 had swing shift so I had to work at five o’clock or six o’clock that evening. So, bottom line, an hour or two later after my buddy and I got back I had to turn around and go back downtown only now I was – real white-knuckle trip driving back down to the Channel 2 studios which was on Second just north of the Boulevard is where they were located. I got there okay and then, as it turns out typically the summer kids had one of three jobs either you were a camera man or you ran the audio board in the master control room for the live TV broadcasts or, you were on what they called film sound. Back then they didn’t have video tape, it was actually film. The news crews were a three person crew they had a sixteen millimeter camera man, an actual film camera man, and they had the talent or the announcer or who do you wanna call it, and they had what they called film sound guy which was me. You were sort of the driver, the general gopher, and you had a maybe six or eight foot cable you hooked up to the sixteen millimeter Arkon film camera and you tagged along behind the film camera man, wherever he went you ran the sound. You had your earphones and your little audio control box. So, having said all that, he said, “Guess what boys? You’re gonna be on the film sound crew.” This was okay with us because heck we were twenty-two and we were immortal and the old guys were no fools, they said “You know, it’s probably a lot safer here in the studio so we’ll let the kids go out.” That is basically how it all started on that Sunday afternoon and once that started, by the way, all the regular shifts were off, all bets were off and basically you literally started about five o’clock each evening till about eight, nine or ten the next morning for the entirety of the whole riot. Again kids, we liked them, we got a lot of overtime ‘cause it was a union shop so if we worked overtime they had to pay us. Having said that, that is basically how it started.
NL: How does that compare to a normal shift during the rest of the summer?
CG: Normal shift was eight hours a day, and they had—swing shift, isn’t quite the right term for it. They just had a screwball shift, I don’t know any other way to describe it—you might be on days one week, you might be on evenings the other week, you might be on midnights the week after that. One week you might have Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, the next week you might have Thursdays and Fridays off. So it was just –
NL: Very irregular.
CG: It was very irregular but it was a forty hour week.
NL: Can you tell me about the rest of your experiences working on the film sound as the week progressed and what you observed in that time.
CG: Well yes, that first Sunday night – maybe it was six or seven o’clock, [unclear] the film sound or the news reel crews were directed by our news office. We had a big news office, news director that had all kinds of police radio so they knew where the action was, so then they would call on our radio, on our Channel 2 station wagon, and tell us where to head and where the action was, if you will. They wanted us to go down to a hospital and I think it was Detroit Receiving, but I can’t remember for sure, ‘cause again it was almost fifty years ago, duh. But we had a three man crew, we had the film camera man, and myself, and our so-called stand up talent was Jerry Hodak. You know as it turns out—
NL: The weather guy?
CG: Yeah, but he started out at the most lowly level at Channel 2 doing what they called film cleaning, which is literally you have the two cranks, you’re holding a little cloth and cleaning the film so not a rocket science job, but then he went to being a booth announcer, and then just at that time I think ‘66, ‘67 he was doing booth announcing and he was just starting his weather career. So he was the stand up talent. The three of us we went over to this hospital, probably Receiving Hospital, and I got all the stuff out, the lighting and the camera man got his stuff set up, put in his new film. Jerry Hodak, you know, got all spiffed up. While we’re doing this we’re outside of the door of the emergency room and here is is this gurney that they’re rolling a person on, male, African-American male, and what I noticed about him of all things was the socks he had on. Bright, bright, bright, glow-in-the-dark orange socks. So they rolled him in the doors to the emergency room closed, blah, blah, blah, and then Jerry is doing his little stand up bit saying, “Here we are at the hospital blah, blah, blah.” Then we’re just putting things back together and getting ready to leave when the door to the ER opens again here comes this gurney with a sheet over the guy’s face. And the only reason I knew it was him, because the sheet was pulled up over his face so you knew he was dead, but you could see it was the bright orange socks, so he’s got to have been one of, if not the first guy that—first, you know, casualty.
NL: Where else did your work take you, what other parts of the city?
CG: Well basically everywhere, literally everywhere. From as close as the roof of the building to wherever there was trouble, they would dispatch us; go here, go there, go wherever. One of the other film camera men, a guy named Sid Siegal, we went up on the roof of our building which was a two story building. We were on the west side of Second and on the east side of Second was a place called Annis Furs, so we just filmed these guys looting Annis Furs. Let me just check my notes here, let’s see where else did we go? Over on Belle Isle the old bathhouses it’s the same position as the current bathhouses, but those aren’t there anymore, they knocked them down and put up the current ones, but apparently the jails were becoming overflowing so they needed someplace to put these perceived trouble makers, whatever you want to call it, into these bathhouses. What struck me as odd about that was, in front of each bathhouse, they had a thirty or thirty-five foot scaffolding. They had guards on top of each scaffolding, they made it into like a guard tower with machine guns. I’m thinking, “Geez what are they going to do, machine gun somebody if they try and get out?” Be that as it may that struck me as a little odd on that. Another time, like I said it was very surreal, we were going north on 12th Street which is where the riots started, this was maybe two or three or four days into the riot. Many of the homes were burnt out, I mean literally burned right to the ground, the only thing that was left was the basement—no walls, no nothing just literally the basement. No lights cause all the electricity was out, power lines had burned down, transformers shorted out, blew up. What was just really eerie and surreal, was the gas pipe coming out of the basement wall was still on fire, it was flickering. so there was literally three or four or five foot vertical flames of the natural gas just in all these burned out basements it was just eerie as hell. Really, really spooky looking.
NG: And you wonder why the cops were scared. [Laughter]
NL: No, I don’t actually.
CG: This is a side story, as a professional courtesy I guess the guy from, the reporter from Die Welt which means “The World” in German that was their newspaper in Germany and he was here he said “Gee can I ride around with you guys?” so we said sure. So we had an extra passenger with us.
NL: Were there any other people from foreign press and correspondents that you had contact with?
CG: I’m sure there were others, but that was the only one that we had contact with.
NL: Do you know what brought him there?
CG: Well the riots brought him there obviously.
NL: I mean from Germany, like who he worked with.
CG: Like I said it’s called Die Welt
NL: Oh that was the name of— [talking over each other] Got it.
CG: —which means in German “The World” which is their newspaper that he was from that he worked for. Another minor misadventure, we had what they call a loading dock at the back of the studio, where you stored all the flats and the scenery and so on. It had a big, maybe fifteen foot high corrugated steel door so you could load and unload stuff. Our art director was out there having a smoke. All of a sudden we heard something come rattling through the steel door, corrugated steel door, oh, look at that, and he went over and picked it up. It was a fifty caliber, stray fifty caliber machine gun bullet. So he picked it up, drilled a hole through it and put it on his key chain for a good luck charm.
NL: What’s the most striking visual memory of that time for you?
CG: Probably on Twelfth Street with the natural gas flames, that was one of the most vivid although they all were. That was another thing that was strange was they had a curfew. I think it was either eight or nine or ten o’clock at night. Our studio was up in the New Center area. Jerry Cavanagh, who was the mayor at the time, was having a press conference somewhere downtown at city hall or whatever. So we were driving down Woodward, literally other than armed personnel carriers and tanks, that was the first bizarre thing, was seeing tanks going down your home city driving down the street. The second thing was nobody else was out, we were just literally going fifty, sixty miles an hour blowing through red lights. Just no traffic which was, you know, I thought, quite weird. Then on this one sound news reel somebody asked Cavanagh if there were any snipers he said “No,” and you can hear some laughter in the background, and it was our film crew because we had been sniped at! No! [Unclear] we didn’t say anything, but…
NL: Did the news teams have permission to be out past the curfew because of the nature of the work?
CG: Oh yeah, because we were news, oh yeah, like I say, we were literally out from five or six at night until eight, nine, ten the next morning.
NL: And the police and National Guard didn’t harass or take issue?
CG: Well one time, we did have a police officer ride with us—I can’t remember the reason, but we did have a police officer in the car with us. We were going again around the 12th Street area I just remember someone was sniping at us so we all bailed out and hid behind the car. The cop pulled out his service revolver, but he didn’t shoot back ‘cause we couldn’t tell where it was coming from.
NL: In your travels around the city that week, do you remember coming upon any neighborhoods and parts of the city that seemed not to be affected by looting and burning and rioting, or less so than others?
CG: No. To state the obvious again they dispatched us, and they dispatched us to where the action was. So they’re not going to say go to this nice quiet neighborhood and take film of that, it’s like, what’s the point? Everything we saw was where bad things were happening.
NG: Although, I was gonna say, even in the nice quiet neighborhoods there were things happening like a sniper on the school roof, places where you wouldn’t expect it.
CG: Well that’s true—
NG: We expected it downtown you didn’t expect it in our little cove.
CG: I guess we did, when they brought in the National Guard or the 82nd Airborne or whoever and they were camped out at the fairgrounds so we went up there to film that, so that was – there wasn’t any shooting going on then, we just filmed all the guys, the military and the guard and everything being camped out but usually we went where the action was, matter of fact I remember one time they sent us to where a fire was, a building that had been torched ‘cause that was the big thing, there was a lot of, literally, torching going on, the fire department was there and they started sniping at the firemen. So the firemen got out and we got the hell out rather than get shot. We said oh, no. The camera man I was working with most of the time was a fella named Mike Weir—W-E-I-R. He was, I don’t know five, eight, nine years older than me. He was, talk about fearless, even more immortal than a twenty-two year old kid. So here I am with a six foot cord dragging behind this guy: I said, “Take it easy, keep us out of danger.” Literally no fear, that scared me a bit.
NL: Historians often use the word riot to describe this moment in Detroit’s history and you have used it a few times yourself. For each of you is that the most accurate word to describe the events of July 1967 or would you call it another way?
CG: Well as opposed to what?
NG: That’s what I was used to hearing.
CG: That’s what we heard.
NG: That’s what we heard, I mean as a kid, that’s what they talked about, that’s what they talked about on the news, that’s what my dad talked about when he came home, that’s what he called it.
CG: For better or for worse that’s what we called it. For lack of a better term, I guess we’re just playing semantics here a little bit, when people are throwing Molotov cocktails—
NG: Yeah, everybody refers to that time as the ‘67 riots.
CG: Yeah, you know you see tanks going down Woodward Avenue and the neighborhoods – some of the neighborhoods we saw about tanks in other places too. I guess for lack of a better term, maybe it was possibly the wrong term, but that is the term that everybody used was “The Riot”.
NG: In the 60s it was one of the biggest things. You had the Kennedy assassination, which I totally remember and then you had the ’67 riots and those are the things you remember about the 60s in Detroit.
CG: Oh yeah I guess one other—though I wasn’t directly related to this, we had heard this—this was right near our studio between us on Second and between the John Lodge [US-10], there was a Howard Johnson’s hotel. There was some out-of-town lady that was a visitor there and she was on the second or third story somewhere up [indistinguishable]. Bottom line, she got killed, they don’t know if it was an actual sniper or if it was just a stray bullet but she was, I wanna say Connecticut, again going back fifty years, but she was definitely out of state and definitely visiting, she was like “Look at all that’s going on” [mimics a gunshot] killed her dead.
NG: Not a place you wanted to be.
NL: No not at that time at least.
NG: Yeah and in our neighborhood we went from being extremely safe as kids you know, to wondering if somebody was going to come get us in our home. It was fear.
NL: That was pervasive throughout?
NG: Oh, extremely, especially, you know, there’s a lot of kids in that neighborhood, and it was – with that sniper thing, it didn’t occur to us that the stuff downtown could touch us, until the sniper thing. Then it was like, my God this could—you know, somebody could kill us out here.
CG: I remember when I went home to Dearborn every morning after our shift was done good old Mayor Orville Hubbard had the streets entering Dearborn blocked off with police. He had police guarding it, he was obviously a well-known racist for lack of a better term,
CG: Extreme racist, for lack of a better term, but he literally had armed policemen at every entrance to the city. I remember specifically Michigan Avenue, Ford Road, where it crossed into the west side of Detroit. He had the roads blocked I didn’t see this for a fact, but I am pretty sure if you were black you better have a damn good reason for wanting to come into Dearborn before the police would let you go through.
NG: They knew you didn’t live there.
NL: Do you remember other instances of discrimination against non-white people either specifically as a result of the events of July 1967 or even earlier in the 60s in Detroit, was that something pervasive in your lives?
NG: Well, in mine, yes, because of my dad being a police officer. It was, among the white police officers it was, you know – I used to say – I mean my dad was a good guy, but I used to tell people that my dad made Archie Bunker look like a liberal [laughter], look like a liberal, but it was because of all the experiences he had.
CG: Well that was, let’s face it, that’s the way it was in that era. It’s not like today by a long shot. It was literally a whole different world.
NG: And it was rough and you know you’re in a job like police in those areas of Detroit, let’s face it.
CG: Although in my case not so much ‘cause like I said, even starting in ‘63 I was chief engineer at WGPR. And they were basically a ninety-nine percent black radio station, so I never, quite frankly, never noticed it there particularly.
NG: See yours was different I went from a total all white neighborhood to all white schools.
CG: Well so was Dearborn, duh.
NG: Yeah, but to having my dad being right down there and then…
CG: Just a side story, the one of the black secretaries at WGPR, very nice lady, very pretty and that— I asked one the other guys why she was there, he said “Eye candy for the boss.” [laughter] He might have been a little sexist, be that as it may. Long story short, she was one of the people who did sadly drink the Kool-Aid down in Jonestown. Sorry, had nothing to do with the riots. Other than that I never really had much racism, my mother I guess pretty liberal and you know “don’t use the n-word” so I was pretty much brought up that way, not like her dad being a Detroit cop.
NG: See, I heard it all the time, it was a totally different life that I grew up in. But, I grew up wanting to be totally different from what I heard growing up. Once I actually got out into the world and was working with all these diverse people I was like, this is nuts, you know, from the way I grew up I’m totally a liberal now so—
CG: Your father would be so proud.
NL: [laughter] But that was his environment that he worked in for twenty five years, it was dangerous. It was a dangerous era, more so than when he got into the police force. You know the 60s was just like ‘I can’t take this anymore I’m out of here’. But we did remain living in Detroit even when he retired. Bought a house in Detroit.
NL: So in the last year we have seen some things in the United States and the world that are sort of reminiscent as you think about events in Baltimore and Missouri that are sort of reminiscent of 1967 in Detroit.
NG: It’s scary.
NL: It is scary, and the same issues are still very real in so many people’s lives. From your vantage points, do you think that those tensions and issues regarding race in Detroit specifically in the last fifty years—has it increased, decreased, stayed the same? What do you notice that’s different and the same in that regard?
NG: I think it’s decreased somewhat, but now lately with all of this unrest, those of us that lived through those times worry about it happening again.
CG: I would agree. I would say it decreased but it’s still there, still keeps rearing its ugly head here and there.
NG: There is a fear of it happening again especially with you know, Baltimore and Missouri and all that, it’s like ‘oh my god, it’s not going to be happening again, we already went through this, this should be over’.
NL: What part of town do you guys live in now?
CG: Farmington Hills.
NL: And how long have you all been out there?
NG: Thirty-seven years.
CG: Yeah it was thirty-three years in Dearborn, and about thirty-seven--
NG: We got married in Detroit, I lived in Detroit until I got married so, we got married in ’78, got married in Detroit. It’s a really rough area right now where we used to live. [Laughter]
LW: What was your address in Detroit?
CG: West Chicago.
NG: West Chicago. It was a couple blocks off of Evergreen. That’s where people are getting shot now, down by Cody, and Cody High School and stuff. I didn’t go to Cody I went to Catholic school, Bishop Borges at Plymouth and Telegraph. Now in that area, it’s pretty dangerous.
NL: Is there anything else that either of you would like to add about your recollections of this time period and the history of the City of Detroit?
NG: Well like I said most things I remember about the 60s have to do with music. I grew up in the Motown era—with all of that which really thrilled my father—[laughter] playing all this music.
NL: Do you remember at that time did—a good chunk of those recording artists are from Detroit born and raised did they take on any specific role in talking about the riots and addressing what was happening?
NG: Not that I really recall, I mean that’s about all we listened to.
CG: My contact with Motown was before the riots when I was with WGPR, like I said it was a black radio station and one of the DJs had a connection to Motown. So he got early releases or pre-releases but that was four years before the riots. [talking over each other]
NG: I remember I was a kid walking around with my transistor radio listening to it and I had older siblings who had all the record albums and stuff so I was playing all that stuff, everything not just Motown, but being from Motown you were proud of being from Motown because that’s where all this good music came from.
NL: We still are today.
NL: Well thank you both so much for coming in and sharing your memories and stories with us.
CG: Thank you.