Pat Watts, November 14th, 2016
WW: Hello today is November 14, 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 Ms. Patty Watts. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
PW: Hi! It’s fine. We always joke because I never liked my name, Patricia. So I shortened it to Pat, and everybody calls me Patty! [laughs] But, that’s fine and I’m glad to be here today.
WW: Can you start by telling me where and when were you born?
PW: Yes. I was born in Detroit Michigan in April of 1951. I was born and raised right on the west side. I lived on Hazelwood between Twelfth and Woodrow Wilson.
WW: Growing up, what was that neighborhood like?
PW: In the beginning, when I was a small child, I found out from my parents that the neighborhood was just beginning to change. A lot of the area was Jewish families and the black families began to come in. And when that begins to happen, things change a bit. It was a time where people were friendly, everybody in the neighborhood kind of knew each other, you had my mother’s best friend four doors down, we knew the people in between, I had friends on the block. You know, everybody was kind of close knit. Then, even being a five year old, I could walk up to Twelfth Street in the daytime by myself with my little friends and it was okay. We could go to the candy store, it was called Pearlman’s Fish Market and they sold penny candy, they had a windowsill full of candy, just penny candy everywhere! So we would get a quarter and run up there and end up with a big bag of candy, cookies, whatever for that twenty-five cents— went a long way. That was what the neighborhood was like. It was safe, it wasn't like how it is now where you can’t let your children go off the porch, you’re afraid for them. It was safe place, but it was busy.
The Twelfth Street area was busy and we would even shop there for clothing. My mother would take us up there, there was a store, Janet’s, it was just like a small children’s store with children’s clothes and shoes and coats. Anything we wanted to do right in the neighborhood. I remember Boeski’s, it was a deli, and that was from back in the day. It closed up when I was a young child, but it was something special in the neighborhood. They had drug stores, you had the five-and-ten cent store, you had record shops where you could go and buy records, bakeries and restaurants. They had bars too, they had hardware stores. You could do anything, just about any shopping you needed to do you could do it right there in the neighborhood. It was nice.
WW: Growing up, did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood or did you venture around the city?
PW: We tended to stay in our own neighborhood and the neighborhoods of our immediate family. We would go back and forth with family. My grandmother lived maybe ten, fifteen minutes away and between her house and other cousins and relatives, we mainly stayed in the city. One thing that my mother always did for us that we appreciate to this day. She took us places most little black kids didn't get to go. She was a teacher. She made sure we went places like the Ford Rotunda and Breakfast with Santa at Hudson’s. Places that a lot of my friends just didn’t get to go. But my mother, she didn’t have a lot of money but she was determined to let us get some of the better things. Even though we lived in a neighborhood that may not have been a ritzy neighborhood, but it was nice, it was nice, and it was working people, working families. But she took us places where most the time we were the only little black kids there. But she didn’t care. She wanted us to see things, so we went to nice places.
WW: Going to these places, did you ever backlash being the only black people there?
PW: I didn’t notice it as a child, because I was too young. I didn’t notice that type of thing until I was about fifteen years old when I got my first job. That was when it came to light, I thought, ‘Oh boy, it’s different now!’ I wasn’t in the comfort of home. My first job, I was the only black person in the office. I had to get some of it there, but basically I was a kind person and I was taught well. I just treated people the way I wanted to be treated and it seemed to work out. With a few bad experiences, but it worked out.
WW: Outside of the experiences you had at your first job, did you start noticing any more of it as you went around the city or even in your own neighborhood?
PW: In my neighborhood, by the time I was really old enough to notice things, it was mostly black. All black, as a matter of fact, except for the store owners, we dealt with that. But the ones that had stores in the neighborhood, there were a few that were mean, with the kids, and they’d tell us, “hey, get out now, bye bye, get out.” But there were others that were the kindest, most wonderful people you would ever meet. They did things for the families and you know, if you bought something they’d throw in a little something extra sometimes. It was really a good place for me and I didn't notice as a little child because I wasn’t brought up with any racism in the home.
I know that when we went on vacation we would notice it, because a couple times we went out of town. We’d take road trips and my grandfather was fair-skinned and he had kind of straight hair. Sometimes, he would go in first and rent the motel, and then when we all got out of the car, they’d be like, “No! We changed our minds!” We’d all be like, “Why? What happened?” We didn’t understand, but they did. In the city, though, itself, I didn’t have a lot of problems, like I said until the workplace, and it wasn’t a lot then. But our neighborhood was mostly black, and it was family-oriented, everybody helped each other the kids all could play together. We could go a block away, go down the street and go in somebody’s house as long we got back before those streetlights were on. It was basically a family-type neighborhood. And you just knew not to go too far. We didn’t stray away off of our block, or not too far, unless we were going to another friends house, walking over to a friends house, or to school. We stayed pretty much in our particular neighborhood.
WW: As you're going through the Fifties and Sixties, going into ‘67, did you notice growing tension now that you were able to see and experience different things?
PW: I noticed it more so from a distance with those being the years when it was Black Power. Black Power was coming in. We started to wear an afro and that was a little different. You came into knowledge of your racial differences whereas when I was a child, I didn’t really know about the differences. I was always a loving kid and I loved everybody and it didn’t matter what color they were. In our schools, the white children were the minority. And I was the type that would want to be their friend because I didn’t want anyone to treat me wrong. I’ve always been that way, that’s just my personality. We had very few white children but I was their friend because that's me, you know? That’s me. I was for Black Power meaning we should be able to get jobs, and be able to do things everybody else does and don’t dislike me for my color. But I wasn’t a radical person. I never have been. I always want peace and comfort and I enjoyed the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, peaceful. I really didn’t understand it when it would go sour, when people would retaliate and do something that was negative because I always felt there was a better way to solve it. That was just me.
WW: Backtracking real quick, what schools did you go to growing up?
PW: I grew up right there in that neighborhood, I started at Crossman Elementary. At one point I went to Winger which was near my grandmother’s house, it was a different neighborhood. I also went to Hutchins Junior High which is right on the corner of Hazelwood and Woodrow Wilson. And then I went to Northern High which is at Woodward and Clairmont. That was where I went to high school.
WW: Being the majority in your schools, did you notice any tension between students growing up?
PW: Being mostly black students in the high school sometimes there was tension between each other, more of that. You were trying to stay on the good side of your own peers. I think the ones that were the minority in the school they tended to make friends. For instance, we had one young man - and I’m not going to say his name - he was white, but he was a Black boy. He talked like us, he combed his hair like us, he wore the same clothes and so he made friends and he fit in. You didn’t look at him and think he was even white. That’s the way the minority of us [were]. You know, sometimes I think it was harder for the majority of us to get along with each other as much as it was with the others. Now had it been turned around, and I was in an all white school, I may have had a different experience. Probably much different. But they mingled. Some kids choose to mingle and some choose to stay to themselves. We had some exchange students and they all stayed together, they didn’t mingle, they didn’t fit in with everybody necessarily because they were from other countries.
I think we had a good thing going, I wasn’t frightened to go to school. I made it through and I am an easy going person so I was trying to stay that way so that I could make it through really easy. Those were the years when it was beginning to change, when certain of the guys might have had a different outlook. They were beginning to come up with their racial thoughts and beginning to get picked on a little bit, maybe going to the army, getting ready to go to the army or whatever. And in those late Sixties that's when some of it did come to light. You just didn’t know really what to do because you’re so used to being in a close neighborhood. And that’s when I began to go out into the world, so it was a lot different than being safe in your neighborhood.
WW: Going into ‘67, did you or your family anticipate anything happening that summer?
PW: No. It was all of a sudden. My outlook on it was, the day that it happened, of course we came outside it was chaos, chaos everywhere. People everywhere. But on that first day, there were black people coming in from other neighborhoods, white people, Spanish people, all colors of people coming to loot and steal. That’s how it started. And it became racial when the unrest happened and everybody was doing so much wrong that the law enforcement had to come in with a strong arm. If you perceive that you don’t see anyone who looks like you, you’re thinking, they’re against us, it's us against them. I was frightened, of course I stayed on my porch, peeking. You know, but, it was a scary time.
But in the beginning, it was not a racial thing, it was a free-for-all! People were calling people from all over town because we were seeing—on my street, normally you’d see just one car, two cars, a day, and it was just people barreling down to Twelfth Street so they could go and get something. So it was everybody. But at night, when everybody goes home, who’s left? All the people that live in the neighborhood. And those who choose to try to do wrong, went up there and got in trouble. And next thing you know, there’s the National Guard. I called them ‘Frog Men’ with the suits and the bayonets on our street. You can’t go anywhere. They would say you can’t go to the store. Get in the house, there’s a sniper on the building behind you, get in the house. Keep your lights off at night. It was a scary time. Turn the lights off, stay in your house, turn your TVs off, because they thought with the light someone could see you and shoot you. But it was just a really scary time. And more so right in that neighborhood because I couldn’t go to work. And they were saying why, it only lasted a couple days, and I said, not in my neighborhood. It was more intense.
WW: How did you first hear about it?
PW: I woke up in the morning to noise, it just was noisier than usual. You could hear people’s voices and then you could begin to hear fire engines and things, especially on the second day and the third day. That’s when they began burning and you could just see the fire everywhere and it was just like we were in a war zone. But I heard about it just from the noise in the neighborhood, waking up to it. Probably my husband may have called me, and we called each other, when we found up, but it didn’t wake me up until the morning.
WW: You said you weren’t able to go to work. Did you leave your house at all during that time?
PW: Only for food. We left to try to go to the store. On one particular day we went out to the market and we couldn’t come back home, they had locked down that particular few blocks. We had to sit. A lady let us in her house with our groceries and let us sit and wait and let me call my mother and tell her why I wasn’t coming back home. Because she would have been afraid and I called her and said, ‘They won’t let us down our block. But we’re in a lady’s house and she’s going to let us stay until they say it's okay.’ So it was like a few hours delay but that's just the way it was.
It was during this time I had my permit to drive and I was going to get my driver’s license and I had an appointment, a particular date I had to have it. And I called and told them I couldn’t make it, and they said, “Well if you don’t make it, you just won’t get your license.” And I was like, but I live in the riot area. They said, “That’s been over.” But, I said, “It's not over here! We’re not coming and going like that!” But I didn’t get to get my license, needless to say until I was maybe 20. It took me a few more years to have the nerve to go back and try again! They were not understanding at that time.
WW: You said riot a couple times. How do you interpret what happened? Do you see it as a riot, or as a rebellion?
PW: I see it as starting off as a rebellion and once things began to happen, like shooting little boys in the back, because the little boy in the neighborhood was eleven years old and going into the five-and-ten-cent store to get what he could get. They shot him in the back. And he became paralyzed. That made people angry and that's what got people angry. Because if somebody is stealing something, it's wrong. But to shoot them, and kill them, because they stole something, that's even [more] wrong. And that's the part that began to people even more angry, I think. You know, as they saw things happen to people that were from their neighborhood. And yes, they were wrong, you know you don’t steal. But they did it, because it was an opportunity. I don’t understand it to this day, even when looting occurs. I don’t see how that helps the problem. I don’t see what it has to do with anything, it's bad and it's wrong. But once somebody starts, it you find a person that's in need of something and they say, it's free and it's not hurting anybody, it's a store. I’m not stealing it from somebody’s house, and they think it's okay. They rationalize it in their mind, they go and do it, but do you want them to get killed because of it? So many people died as a result. That's where, I think, the anger set in and people began to retaliate.
WW: Are there any other stories you’d like to share from that week in particular?
PW: It’s just that people are the same. It was a fearful time for everybody in that neighborhood. We were no more used to it than anyone else. It was horrible and scary and it didn’t come from hate, I don’t think. I think it was a big, total misunderstanding that got way out of control. And it snowballed. And it just turned into what was listed and still will be listed down through the years as a race riot. And I don’t think that's how it started. Becuase I didn’t think it was!
WW: After everything calmed down, how did the neighborhood change?
PW: The neighborhood changed only in that all the places we had to shop at were gone and for a while it wasn’t cleaned up. It was ugly. When they did finally clean it up, all we heard was promises of what they were going to develop and and do with Twelfth Street. “We’re coming back, it's going to be this, it's going to be that. We’re going to build this, we’re going to build that.” Even down to, later on, a house for Rosa Parks. Once they changed the name of the street, from Twelfth Street to Rosa Parks Boulevard, they never even did her house. All the promises that were made, they did one little strip mall right in that close area and they did the apartment buildings. Other than that, nothing came back. Nothing. So that was like, false promises, they were like, well just leave it the way it is, they don’t care. But we did care. And it just never got back the way it was for the business owners and for us being able to use it, use the businesses in the area. Other than that, the neighborhood stayed the same, with the people, but of course it caused some people to begin their lives of crime and drugs and things began to get a little worse in the neighborhood. And the rest is history. Now it’s probably better over there than it was then. But there were a lot of young men that were having to go to the war, Vietnam, and they came back, shell shocked, taking drugs, trying to relieve their pain. Then things got a little worse than they ever had been for race relations in the city.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
PW: Oh yes, I am. I am. Because I know what it can be like. And I think if people could treat, really just truly go back to the golden rule, treat each other the way they want to be treated, I think we would have a wonderful, wonderful melting pot. That’s the one thing about Detroit, we were always so segregated as to where we lived. And in other states we go to visit, and they have Japanese neighbor, Mexican neighbor, white neighbor, black neighbor, everybody together. Here, we never had that too much, coming up. And even now, our neighborhoods and our cities are segregated. Until you just begin to go to a suburb, until everybody else can get out, it’s going to be a little mixture, but Detroit has never had that. You know, it was always sides of town. People live on their areas. And I would love to see us all just live together the way we’re meant to be, and respect each other for who we are not what we are. I’m very optimistic.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today, I greatly appreciate it!
PW: You’re welcome!