Linda Leonard, July 29th, 2016
WW: Today is July 29, 2016. My name is William Winkel. I am at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project and I am sitting down with Linda Leonard. Thank you for sitting down with me today.
LL: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that.
WW: I said, thank you for sitting down with me today.
LL: Oh, you’re welcome.
WW: Can you please tell me where and when you were born?
LL: I was born May 25, 1942.
LL: In Waltham, Massachusetts.
WW: How did you first come into the city of Detroit?
LL: My husband was getting his PhD at Wayne State University and we had been living in Ann Arbor, Michigan where he was getting his Masters so we moved into Detroit on Schaefer Avenue on the Dearborn-Detroit line. I’m trying to think of the year but anyway it was probably about 1966, I guess. '66 or just on '67. And I became a buyer for the J.L. Hudson company in downtown Detroit.
WW: What was your first impression of the city of Detroit?
LL: Well, it was very obvious to me when I had to drive from where I lived into the city everyday and I drove through some very, very depressed areas and it bothered me terribly that there was such a, what’s the word I want, discrepancy between those that lived in Grosse Pointe and all those beautiful areas and these very depressed areas of Detroit. Somehow it didn’t seem right to me.
WW: Driving through the city, did you sense any tension in '66?
LL: Did I what? I’m sorry, I couldn’t –
WW: Not to worry, did you sense any tension in the city?
LL: No, I guess I really wasn’t aware of it. Working for the J.L. Hudson – well, I take that back. My husband worked for an all-black agency. He was a social worker in downtown Detroit so yes – I was aware of a lot of issues that went on in black communities through him. But working for the J.L Hudson Company, my secretary was a black woman, we got on beautifully. I had lots of friends that worked in the Company that were black so I didn’t have that real sense that there was tension going on.
WW: The neighborhood you live in on Schaefer, was it integrated?
LL: Well, that’s a wonderful story, I think. The night the riots broke out, we were on our way to a Van Cliburn concert. I don’t even remember where; maybe out in Bloomfield. And on the way to the concert, which was about 6:30 at night or 6:00 at night, we went up in the area, I guess it was called the Avenue of Fashion. You would know where that is. I think it’s Seven Mile or something.
WW: - And Livernois.
LL: Yes, that’s right. And we saw a band of [unintelligible] smashing windows and running down the street carrying armfuls of clothing, dress forms and we “Oh my god, what’s going on?” And I remember my husband saying, “Don’t worry, when we get back, it will all be under control” and I went, “What’s happening?” Well, when we did return from the concert, which was about 10:30 at night, as we approached this area, whole city blocks were in flames and it was perhaps one of the most frightening experiences of my life. I remember crawling into floor of the car and there were tanks and there were military men with guns and one of them approached our car and put his gun right in the window and said, “You just better get your ass out of here right now.” And we finally cut through an area of town and we made it home, made it back and my husband left the house and stayed in the city for three or four days because there was so much shooting and gun fire happening on the highways. People were being shot at and I just remember one man being shot lighting a cigarette in his apartment in Detroit and that was when I was really aware of what was going on. I wasn’t aware that there wasn’t open housing and the neighborhood we lived in was an all-white neighborhood and after the riots had broken out and things had calmed down a little bit, every house in our neighborhood went up for sale. Every house. I wish I had a photograph. For sale, for sale, for sale. We lived in a row of townhouses and the people that owned those townhouses, apparently originally built by Ford Motor Company for executives or something. They were cute little white and were all attached with black shutters. We were renting and they put them up for sale for $16,000 and it included new carpet and everything and I said to my husband, we’re staying. And there were probably 15 units, I’m guessing about 15 units. So there was myself with a newborn baby, and one other white couple with a newborn baby, and the entire neighborhood and all the units were sold to black couples and single people. I guess what I want to say is, I stayed on for another three years, two or three years, and they were the best three years of my life in any neighborhood. I absolutely loved every minute of being with my neighbors. The most beautiful people in the world. And my babysitters were black, my dearest neighbors next door, Wiley and Viola, always had the baby but one of the nicest stories, too, I think, is that my father, who I always call the original Archie Bunker, came to Detroit with my mom to see the new baby and I invited all my neighbors over for a little party and to meet my parents. And that night my father sat in the living room talking to Wiley until about 11 at night and when everybody left, I looked over at my father who had tears rolling down his cheeks. Now my father had really never met or had a friendship with a black man. And I walked over and said, “Dad, are you okay?” And he just looked at me and he was choked up and he said, “May God forgive me for anything bad I ever said about a black man because tonight I met one of the finest men I’ve ever met in my life.” And I never forgot that. And the rest of the story is that I ended up moving to Australia and my neighbors came to visit me and I just thought it was wonderful and I still treasure – although I don’t have any friends there anymore. It’s been years and years since I’ve been back, I just remember Detroit – oh, and I guess I do want to say, go back and say when the Tigers won the pennant, I remember that as a real healing for the city. Everyone was so happy. I mean, we were throwing paper out the windows. I mean, the city was just crazy and everyone was hugging one another. It didn’t matter what color you were, what religion you were, nothing. It just brought everyone together. And I felt that was a real healing point for the city. I can’t think of anything else to tell you.
WW: Just a couple quick follow up questions.
WW: Did you hear about what was going before you and your husband drove through Seven Mile and Livernois or is that when you first saw?
LL: No, oh, I do backtrack that. I think in the afternoon on the radio there was something about something was happening somewhere but it wasn’t near where we were and we didn’t pay a lot of attention to it.
WW: Why were you so quick to want to remain in the city?
LL: I understood what it was about. I guess, I’m sad about what happened, but I felt they had a right to rise up and it worked.
WW: Given that, what do you call what happened? Do you refer to it as a riot? Or do you refer to it as a rebellion or uprising?
LL: A rebellion. A rebellion.
WW: And you just base that on your previous comment where you felt that the inequality was just so great?
LL: What was so great. Ask that question again please?
WW: Do you refer to it as a rebellion because the inequality across the city was great and –
LL: Yeah, and there wasn’t open housing and I thought that was terrible. I thought anyone should be able to buy a house wherever they wanted to.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
LL: No, no, but I love Detroit. But I was there and I even made dresses for the Supremes and one of them actually came to Australia and I had a little shop at the time in a little town called Wagga Wagga, Australia and I was out in my office in the back of my shop and my sales girl came in and said, “There’s an American woman out in the shop and she wants to know if this store is owned by an American woman.” And I said, “That’s strange.” And she said, “Well, she’s American,” so I walked out. She had a scarf on her head and glasses on and she was an American black woman and we started talking and I said, “Why did you ask if this was owned by an American woman?” She said, “Well, it reminded me a lot of a store I loved in Detroit.” And I said, “Would that be the Monkey Boutique owned by Ali Rohamen?” And she goes, “Oh my god, yes. You knew him?” And I said, “Yes it was one of my favorite stores.” And he was a crazy wonderful guy and had a turban and wore a pendant around his neck with a big, glass eye in the middle of it and I used to visit him all the time and one day he said, I was a dress maker, my background was fashion design, and he said, “I’ve got four, a small new singing group and they’re looking for some dresses but they don’t have a lot of money.” And I said, “How much are they willing to pay?” and he said, “Maybe $25 a dress?” And I got their sizes and I made these four dresses in green lorax, sort of a stretchy material with big, black ostrich feathers all around the sleeves and it wasn’t until some time later that he said, “I gotta tell you now because they’re famous, those dresses you made went to the Supremes.” And so when I told her the story, she even remembered the dress so that was kind of a fun story.
WW: Wow, that’s awesome.
LL: So, we reconnected in Australia.
WW: Well, thank you very much for speaking with me today.
LL: Well, thank you.