Kathleen PoHutsky, August 19th, 2016
WW: Hello today is August 19, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History project. I am in Detroit, Michigan and I am sitting down with Kathleen PoHutsky. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
KP: Thank you.
WW: Can you please tell me where and when were you were born?
KP: I was born in Toronto, Canada in September, 1936.
WW: And what brought you to Detroit?
KP: Well, I had been through a divorce and I came to Detroit— because we were in Michigan then-and we came to Detroit because it was the nearest big city and so, you came to Detroit.
WW: Had you ever been to Detroit before?
WW: What was your first impression of the city?
KP: Well, I lived, would you believe, down on Trumbull. I actually rented a room from a family that we knew through other people and lived down there. Detroit, when I first came, was a pretty exciting place to come to. I mean, it was busy downtown, I went to work right away. You knocked on doors and said, “I’m looking for work.” And they hired me and I went to work. I was very happy with being in Detroit, in the city.
WW: You felt welcomed?
KP: I felt welcomed, yes. And then I moved to Highland Park because it was a quicker ride downtown than it was up from Trumbull and I could just get on a bus and go right downtown to my job.
WW: And where were you working?
KP: At that time, I worked at a dress shop right across the street from Hudson’s. And then I became a manager and I was managing the regionals. I was going to different locations around the outside of the city. So that’s how I got to learn the city, when I had to go to different places.
WW: When you were living on Trumbull, was that area integrated at the time?
KP: No, it was not.
WW: Was Highland Park?
KP: No, it really wasn’t. The biggest thing with Highland Park was there was a huge Armenian group of people that lived there who had come. It was full of immigrants from other parts of the world to Highland Park. That was Highland Park, you know. But there were a lot of Armenians that I met at that time, some of them are still my friends today, that families came to get away from what had happened in Europe, you know. So, we knew about how things could go but we didn’t ever think it would happen here.
WW: Living in Detroit in the 1950s, did you sense any growing tension as you were driving around the city?
KP: I knew there was a black and white barrier, I knew that. But it didn't affect me personally in any way, you know. Because I always had, probably a different attitude. I had a young lady that worked for me and she was a black young lady and she says, “If I had my way, I’d wear my hair in a fro.” And I said, “Well, wear it!” “No, I can’t.” And then I remember one day I says, “Let’s go to lunch.” And she says, “We can’t go to lunch together.” I said, “What do you mean we can’t go to lunch together?” You know, I didn’t know that. She said, “Because you’re white and I’m black, we can’t go to lunch.” I said, “That’s not right.” You know, I didn't feel like that was the way it should be and I sort of learned the hard way of the moment, you know. You learn by your experience.
WW: Being aware of this barrier and this tension, did you see it getting worse during the Sixties?
KP: I think it was getting worse. You saw it and you heard it all around you. There were more and more people that didn’t want to go to that area. You couldn’t live—people wanted to live in different areas of town. They said, “No you can’t move in there because of the radical differences.” I never agreed with any of that so, you know, I had a hard time adjusting to what people did. You did it for the sake of peace and quiet but you didn’t like it.
WW: And during this time, you got remarried, correct?
KP: I got remarried, yes. And he was a—first of all, he was in the service when we first got married and then he retired and got out of the service and he became a fireman in Highland Park. And that’s where we moved to is in Highland Park. And that was his home town. We never had a racial discussion ever until I got the telephone call the first night of the riots. He was on duty and he called me and he said, get the kids and go out to our friend that lived out in Redford. And I said, “You took the car to work.” Those were the days of one car in the family. And he said, “Okay. I’ll see who’s got to come in yet because I won’t be coming home from work in the morning.” I said, “Are you sure?” And he says, “Yes.” Well, he didn’t tell me at that time why. Now, I knew that there were some things, we were hearing it on the radio. And I remember standing on my back porch and seeing the smoke coming down Puritan Avenue and you would see a puff up going up and then next to it a few minutes later there’d be another one. In Highland Park, the citizens of Highland Park, the men stopped it from crossing into Highland Park. But the fire department had different rules and you responded to everything that was on the outside of the city. So they responded to the first shooting, where the pregnant lady was shot in her car on Woodward Avenue. And they brought her back to the hospital. Of course, she died and the baby died too. And that’s when he panicked. That’s when he wanted me to get out right away because they already had been told within minutes of that that you’re not going home today, you’ve got to be on duty for so long. And he wanted to get me out of town, well he did manage to get somebody to come and get me, I don’t know how he did but they did. I think the saddest part was after the riots because when we finally came home, because it was about five or six days before we actually got to go home again, and I remember I snuck off with the car. I was going to go grocery shopping. I went from Grand River down to Woodward and then Woodward out to Highland Park and I couldn't believe what I saw, you know. I saw the stores smashed into and the buildings burnt down and you couldn’t think— I didn't dare go down Twelfth Avenue. Twelfth Avenue was pretty close to us but I didn’t go down Twelfth. But I remember going down and thinking, “Who are you really hurting?” And I’m just so shocked at what I’m seeing because it was so much destruction all the way down. And then I went home and I had never told my husband that I ever took that ride because he probably would have been very upset. But the firemen, I think that it was a shock to them too because they couldn’t get over it for a long time. And then the worst part was when the tanks rolled down Hamilton Avenue. This was, like the time things had settled down a bit and all of a sudden the tanks were coming down Hamilton Avenue and I thought, “Why were they here?” Because we didn’t have any trouble here but of course they were making everybody aware that they were there on duty. So they were going down roads that they normally—during the riots, they were on Twelfth Street, and they were on Woodward, and you know, they were on the other streets. After the riots, they were on Hamilton and we were shocked. You don’t expect to see a tank with soldiers all over it going down the road two houses down the street—your house! You don’t expect to see that. But that’s what the riots did.
WW: After you came back home, did you and your husband ever think about leaving Highland Park and leaving the city?
KP: That was the universal feeling for everybody, specifically with police and firemen who served on duty. It was something I tried to stop. I really did. I said, “You have to stay where you are. You know, there’s no reason for everybody to panic like this.” I would say within a year and a half, at least a third of the fire department and police department had left and gone to the suburbs or out of the state all together. On my block, we were the second house on the one side of the street, then another fireman lived next door, skip two houses, and there’s another fireman. Across the street, there was a policeman; next to him was another fireman. You went down to the other end of the block, you had two more firemen and the fire chief who lived there and on the other block-cross over Second Avenue there were a couple more firemen that lived there. Within two years, we were just about the only ones still left except the one next door, he was too close to retirement to leave, you know. But his family no longer lived in Highland Park and the firemen that lived two or three doors down, until he finally got a job in Port Huron, he kept his finally out of town and different firemen, they sold their houses and then they would come—three or four firemen were living with him in his house and their families were all out in the suburbs because you had to live in the city to be a firemen. You couldn’t not live in the city and be a fireman. So the different things that they did, it was heartbreaking to see. And eventually, we had to go too, you know. Because there was nobody left. There was nobody left. The schools changed. Everything changed. At that time, Highland Park—I think we were ranked fifth in the country for our school system. We went from this beautiful city and, I don’t know if you’ve driven through it lately, but you shed tears when you drive through Highland Park today, because it’s not the city it was. Nothing like it. And everybody left and that was the sad part. People, they were so anxious to go. I mean, people went everywhere, left the state, even. They didn’t want to be here anymore, they were afraid.
WW: Where did you and your family move to?
KP: We moved to Detroit, actually. We just moved to Rosedale Park. But by that time, we were going to go through divorce, too. Because the one job, there was no way that was going to work out, he was a dealer out in Las Vegas, then he came back and he became a prison guard at one of the big prisons, DHOCO. Detroit House of Corrections, it was out in Plymouth at the time and that’s where he retired from. We weren’t the only marriage that fell apart because of it. Because it was so much stress on them as a whole. And I remember, even people in the schools. They didn’t want their kids in the schools anymore. That was their big objection, was the schools and I never saw their side of that. I couldn’t see it, I don’t understand it today. When I was a little girl growing up in Canada, where I lived it was almost all Mennonites or Protestants of one kind or another. And I remember when they build a Catholic church, it was announced that a Catholic church was being built. You would have thought the world was coming to an end— The Catholics are coming! And I remember asking my dad, “What’s wrong with the Catholics?” and he said, “Nothing, it’s just how some people think.” I think that because of that, the way he thought, we thought differently, too. But he was from the British West Indies, and you had a racial mix always around you. So it was a different kind of thing, you know. But basically, I was the outsider in a lot of ways because of the way I thought. And I know friends would get upset with me, so we just didn’t discuss it. We got to where we didn’t discuss it at all because I said There’s no point in running away.
WW: Do you continue to live in Rosedale Park?
KP: No, now I live in Plymouth, in senior housing now. But I lived in Rosedale Park until about 1975 and then I moved out of the city altogether for different reasons, not because of - because I go by and look at my house and it still looks nice, and the street’s still nice, you know. I think one of the things I do, I go back and I weep over Highland Park because I remember the Highland Park that it was and I see the Highland Park that it is. It will never be anywhere, no matter what they do, they can rip every building down and rebuild it and it’s not going to be the Highland Park that it was, you know. But it was a beautiful place to be at the time.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
KP: Now, yes. What I’m seeing happening downtown, and I have a grandson that just moved down into a loft down here. What I see, you can feel a difference. One of my sons, we were taking a tour downtown one time last summer and he said, “Mom, you can feel a difference in the street,” and I can see that you can too. And I’m happy with that because I think now that the whole thought process has changed, you know. And you go and you see the construction. I remember that for so long, nobody was fixing up anything, everything was allowed to go. You know— “Well I’m not going to stay here, I’m not going to put any money in this” and now you’re starting to see people turn that around, you know. But, I think the city is going to come back and I think it’s going to be bigger than it ever was but I think we learn from our mistakes.
WW: All right, well thank you so much for sitting down with me, I greatly appreciate it.
KP: Thank you.