Patricia Burnett, August 20th, 2016
TV: Hello, my name is Tobi Voigt, I’m with the Detroit Historical Society. Today I’m here with-
PB: Pat Burnett.
TV: Today is Saturday, August 20, 2016 and we are at the Detroit Historical Museum. Wonderful, good morning. Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where were you born?
PB: I was born in Detroit, Michigan. I hate to say the year, but I was born in a hospital. It was an African American-owned hospital called-what was it called?
PB: No, it wasn’t Dunbar. Name another one. Detroit Diagnostic. And the name changed, I think, to Burton Mercy. I’m not sure. But it was Detroit Diagnostic.
TV: Great, where did you grow up?
TV: Where particularly, what neighborhood?
PB: The east side. I started off in what’s called Black Bottom. It was on Waterloo and St. Aubin. And we get together, a lot of us get together, and we still meet. We were the children of Black Bottom before what I guess you would call it the Urban Renewal Project. We didn't know what was going on, but we all moved. And I stayed on the east side, moved up Gratiot, north on Gratiot, when I was about 12, 11 or 12.
TV: So you spent the first 11 or 12 years —tell me a little bit about what Black Bottom was like, what do you remember?
PB: Black Bottom was pretty, what I can remember because they had the brick streets, there were oak trees, apple trees, cherry trees all along the streets. And we lived—there was a railroad track down below the ground up the street. We went to a junior high school that was Miller. I guess you’ve heard of Miller? Miller was a high school right before I went and they changed it to a junior high school. It was a pretty block, lots of kids. We all played together; everybody went to that school. I went to elementary school on the street called Arndt. At that time it was still some Germans that lived in the area and a lot of the streets were German streets like Arndt. And, what can I tell you? We played, we had big oak trees, apple trees, and eventually they came in and chopped the trees down. And that was because of the Dutch Elm Disease which we didn't know about until later but it changed the look of the street. And then right after that Urban Renewal started.
TV: Tell me a little bit about your family.
PB: My family?
TV: Who did you grow up with? Who were you living with when you were a kid?
PB: My family- mother, father, sisters-siblings-brother and sister. And we had cousins that came up from the South, they lived with us and they moved out. It was typical family environment. My mother used to teach school in the South and she came here when she married my father. She didn’t work, she was a typical housewife like most of the ladies on the block were typical housewives. The father went out and worked, my father was a factory worker.
TV: Do you know who he worked for?
PB: It doesn't exist anymore but it was an aluminum —what was it? It was an aluminum factory I think for years but in the records, I see he was called foundry man, which was a common name at that time. And I was born in the Forties, close to Fifties [laughing], hate to say that.
TV: So tell me a little bit, so when-
PB: Oh, so we walked up to this area [gesturing] right here, our doctor was here, and this was the cultural area. The Karmanos was called Michigan Cancer Society and the doctor was here -Doctor Shefferman- was here, he’s probably long gone, he was older then. And we would go through the library, my mother always took us to the public library [Detroit Public Library – Main Branch]. We always had library cards and we always had membership with book clubs so we got books. And we lunch in this area and we walked back. Or we walked to Tiger Stadium, at that time it was called Briggs Stadium.
TV: So when Urban Renewal, if you will, or they put in the Chrysler Freeway, your family, you said you moved up Gratiot. Tell me a little bit about the neighborhood you moved to and what it was like growing up there.
PB: Okay it was very mixed. I was 12, 11 or 12. I was still in school and I still went to Miller. So I took the bus back down there to Miller and then eventually went to Eastern High School. It was very mixed neighborhood. We didn't live too far from the city airport. And it was active then and we used to walk around. It was pretty typical and then the riots started.
TV: Do you remember which street you lived on?
TV: Pennsylvania, okay. Tell me a little bit about your experiences in 1967.
PB: ’67, see what happened in ’67, I can’t remember when it started, all of a sudden there were riots on the west side. It did not touch the east side but there were snipers on the east side that started shooting and they were on buildings. And it was a motorcycle club across the street on Gratiot. And we had to stay in, what I remember is the curfew. We had to be in-it kept getting earlier and earlier, before seven, before six, before five. And as a teenager, I went stir crazy. So, I told a big fib and I told these guys that came over from the west side to pick us up. I told them that the curfew was lifted. And they said, “Oh! Is it lifted?” “Yeah, I heard it was lifted,” just so I could get out of the house. And we went on the west side. We said let’s go on the west side to see the devastation. Because you saw it on the TV, what was going on. And we went over there and the guys had a slow leak. And then they found out the curfew had not been lifted. So everybody in the car-we had about seven or eight people in the car-they all got upset with me. And then the soldiers, I guess they were National Guard, they stopped us and they had the bayonets in the window. And we had to explain that we had a slow leak-
TV: In one of the tires? A slow leak in one of the tires?
PB: Right, and he went back and looked and he saw there oh, they really are having a slow leak. And he directed us to a gas station to get some air in the tire or– they couldn't do it, they all had bayonets. It was like a war going on. And we went to the gas station and there were guys in there stealing gas to do, what do they call it, molotov cocktails or whatever. And we left, we got the air-it was still a slow leak so nobody could fix it-and they took us back home on the east side. Needless to say, those guys never spoke to us again.
TV: So do you know what intersection you were at? You just remember it was close to the National Guard—
PB: I can’t remember. Right, it was on the west side because we took the freeway. That’s when we heard the sirens started. The sirens and the fire started. Police sirens, fire sirens, it just got dark and cloudy and looked like a war zone. And that’s when I got scared for lying too. You know, I wish I hadn't done it, second thoughts. The second thing I remember most about the riots, they kept saying, “It’s gonna be a long, hot summer. It’s gonna be a long, hot summer.” And that’s what I heard repeated, people saying that. My sisters lived on the west side, not far from the area where it started supposedly at a blind pig on the west side. And the snipers were on the east side and one day we walked down the ally because we thought it was safer to walk the allies. They said to walk the allies, not the streets. At that time, the allies were done up, they were really nice. People had gardens back there. We walked through the alley to the corner store and this guy came out and started shooting. He was the owner of the store. He started shooting at these two grown people, they were older than we were. And I was about 17. And they started shooting at them because they had just looted the store. And this was in broad daylight. I turned around and started running through the alley. Me and my girlfriend- the other girlfriend-jumped out of the way. And she said, “We should’ve ran like this.” But they were shooting at these specific people that ran in back of us and the lady was shot in the leg. I ran home and told daddy, he walked back up there to talk to the guy. The police were there by then. And the police just ended it by saying, “You can keep your gun if anybody robs your store.” We hadn't gotten to the store when these people-we knew the store owners, but he did not shoot at us. He was shooting there but you could how it could have easily been an accident.
PB: They just shot them for looting. And that’s the biggest thing, the two incidents: when I lied about going to the west side and then the incident on the east side.
TV: So the incident on the east side, the store was on Gratiot then?
PB: No, it was on Shoemaker and—that’s probably a store still there. It was on Shoemaker and Pennsylvania, I think. Pennsylvania, McClellan, there was the Catholic church there, and then going down there was another store and then this store. We used to go walk to that store all the time. Corner store.
TV: Was there any other looting or was it just this one couple you think that took advantage of the—
PB: No, it was not a lot of people. It was just this couple and I don’t know who they were but one lady was shot. And the police arrived after we got back to the house. We only came one block, but we walked the alley and there was a store there. And we walked to the store and then this was happening as soon as we got to the store. We never entered the store. He came out and he was talking in a different language and he started going after these people. And I can’t remember what happened but we turned around and they followed us. We were running and I didn't know how to dodge bullets at the time—but that’s the most devastating thing that happened to us during the riots.
TV: So you mentioned early on about the sniping and the motorcycle-
PB: Oh yeah, I don’t know if the motorcycle gang, if there was a connection but we assumed it was. And the snipers were on the roof.
TV: Of the motorcycle club?
PB: Of the motorcycle club.
TV: Who were the patrons of this motorcycle club?
PB: I don’t know, they were all white because the neighborhood was mixed and so.
TV: And it was the white motorcycle guys on the roof?
PB: I don’t know. We don’t know—
TV: Okay, we don’t know but they were on the roof—
PB: We don’t know because some of the motorcycle guys we kind of knew, being in the neighborhood. But they used it, they were on top of the building, it was a low level building. There was a bar on the corner and they would just snipe, they would just shoot. And that was devastating. That’s why it was easier to walk down the alley. But we as teenagers, you know, you’re in the house all day in the summer and we wanted to go out. We were teenagers, we were used to going to Metro Beach, we were used to doing all kinds of things. So we couldn’t even go to Belle Isle.
TV: Did your parents-did your father or your mother find out about your trip to the west side or was that a secret?
PB: No, they never found out, they never knew that. That was before it got really bad it was restricted to the west side at that time, not the east side.
TV: So how did the things that you witnessed, both on the west side and in your own neighborhood, did it affect you at all?
PB: No, I think back about it only when they talk about the riots. You know, I was born and raised in Detroit and now they’re doing commemorations and it’s weird only because I’m part of history. I never think of it. It didn’t affect me either way. But it’s just, I know there was a lot of looting, a lot of people killed. Didn’t know the reason at that time but they said it started from a bar or a blind pig on the west side. And never knew until later that it was very political and it started after Martin Luther King was killed and I don’t know if it’s related?
TV: I think it was— Martin Luther King was killed in ’68 so it was before—
PB: It was before, yeah. And then the other riots started in—now my mother told me there was a riot here in ’43 in Detroit and she was here then.
TV: Did she have any particular stories about ’43 that you can recall?
PB: I never ask her about it, I never ask her—she only mentioned that when the riots started in the Sixties. Second riots or something. But that’s the only, those two events stand out mostly and the devastation of Detroit as you’re walking after the riots. How bad it was and how people used to write on the windows of stores, “These are owned by brothers” so that they won’t have to get smashed. But Johnson was president and Johnson had given—I still never got that clear, whether he gave the order to shoot to kill, I don’t know. They said that he gave those orders to shoot to kill. I never knew what happened there. But I didn't know anyone who got killed but there were lots of folks that were killed in the riot. But it seemed like, when I think back on it, it seemed like it was all summer but I heard it wasn't that long. It didn't take that long.
TV: But it felt like it was?
PB: Yeah, it felt like it was an entire summer and I was surprised to find out that it wasn't the entire summer but thinking back on it, it’s what it feels like.
TV: Interesting. Do you have anything else you want to add? Any other thoughts?
PB: Let’s see, what other thoughts I should add about the riots?
TV: Anything, your life, Detroit, then, now…
PB: I left Detroit before Coleman Young was mayor and came back and Archer was mayor, so I was gone for a long time. And things have changed a lot in Detroit and it’s coming back.
TV: Wonderful, well thank you for sharing your stories with us today.
PB: You’re welcome.