Mary Romaya, August 16th, 2016
WW: Hello today is August 16, 2016. My name is William Winkel. We are in West Bloomfield, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I am sitting down with --
MR: Mary Romaya
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today Mary.
MR: Thank you.
WW: Can you please start of by telling me where and when were you born?
MR: I was born October 1944 in Detroit.
WW: What neighborhood did you grown up in?
MR: At the time that I was born we lived on, my parents had a home on Virginia Park at the corner of Third. We weren’t far from the Fisher Building. And I can remember going to the Fisher Building when it was a movie theatre, going there as a small child. When I turned nine, on my ninth birthday in October, it was still in Virginia Park. Then we moved to Northwest Detroit on a street called Whittingham, on the corner of Seven Mile and Whittingham, is between Livernois and Wyoming. So my ninth birthday was on Virginia Park but I celebrated Halloween that year in Northwest Detroit.
WW: What prompted the move?
MR: We lived with another family. My parents had immigrated to the U.S. My father came in 1929, my mother in 1937. We lived with this other family who was my dad’s nephew, although they were only six months apart in age. They both decided to each have their own homes. So they sold the house on Virginia Park, and the other family moved to Lawrence Street in Detroit not far from Hamilton. And we moved to Whittingham.
WW: The two neighborhoods you grew up in, were those integrated neighborhoods?
MR: I would say at the time that I was there they were primarily white. The house on Virginia Park, I mean I remember the neighbors as being white. I remember it being sort of a professional neighborhood because we weren’t far from the Fisher Building. Also we were not far from Henry Ford Hospital, the main campus. And I remember there being doctors that lived on our street. And Whittingham, when we moved to Northwest Detroit, the area was primarily Jewish. We were one of the few Christian families that lived on our street and in that general neighborhood. And even the Seven Mile, Livernois area was called the “Avenue of Fashion”. We used to shop there and then eventually when Northland was built we would take a bus or drive to Northland. So in a long way of saying it, probably the neighborhoods were primarily white. By the time I got married and left Detroit in 1976, and my parents moved out in 1978, the neighborhood, the Whittingham Northwest Detroit neighborhood was primarily black.
WW: What did your parents do for a living?
MR: My dad owned a grocery store, my mom was a homemaker, but my dad had a grocery store. When he first came to America, worked for his brother-in-law, then eventually he and his nephew opened a store on Third and Brainard. And then in the early 1950s, my brother, I’m sorry my father, joined Tom Matte, who had a store on Third and Peterborough and it was expanded. So my dad became the working partner at Tom Matte Market. And his nephew still ran the other store that they had and then bought another store called Consumer’s Market. My dad and his nephew stayed as partners, but they worked at two different stores. So they shared in the profits of two stores.
WW: Very nice [laughter].
MR: Well yeah but, he was a half partner in the other, in Tom Matte Market, which really meant he was a fourth of a partner, because half of his share went to his nephew. And then he was a half partner in the store that the nephew ran.
WW: What was your childhood like growing up in the city?
MR: It was very nice. We went to Catholic schools. I mean even though we were in good neighborhoods and had good public schools, we went to Catholic schools in Detroit. A lot of our socialization was with our relatives. The Chaldean community tended to be a community that stayed together. A lot of the children that I played with were really our cousins or friends of our families. The other family that we lived with when we lived on Virginia Park, they had three boys, we were three girls. So they grew up as our brothers, and people thought they were really our brothers. I remember going to school, and the nun saying, well you know, your brother two grades ahead of you got an “A” today on a test. And I would say “That’s not my brother”. It was often confused because we lived in the same house. Growing up was really very nice. And Detroit was a great city. For me it was the 1950s. It was the fifth largest city, in Detroit. When I hear now that Detroit is like the twentieth largest city in America, that’s astonishing to me cause I remember it as being a very vibrant, vital city. I remember the street cars down Woodward Avenue. I remember going to the state fair at Eight Mile and Woodward. I remember Hudson’s downtown. I remember shopping a lot at Northland. Growing up in Detroit in the Fifties was great. I wish Detroit were like that today, as vibrant as it was when I was growing up.
WW: Did you feel comfortable moving around the city growing up?
MR: Yes, although we didn’t go too much to the eastside. Woodward was sort of the dividing line. You were either an east-sider, or a west-sider. The few times that I may have gone on the eastside, or went to Grosse Pointe, I think wow where am I. I also know that east siders felt the same way because when I went to the University of Detroit, there were people from the eastside attending U of D. I think some of the sentiments were the same. Woodward was sort of the dividing line. But for the parts of Detroit I did populate, I had no problems, including the downtown area.
WW: Going through the 1960s, did you sense any growing tension in the city?
MR: No, I really didn’t. I worked in my dad’s store, my two older sisters and my younger brothers, we all sort of took our turns at the store. I did not notice any tensions. What I remember from the Sixties, especially as we got deeper into the Sixties was a lot of turbulence, but not necessarily Detroit. It was the civil rights movement in the early Sixties, it was the assassination of President Kennedy, it was a woman’s lib movement, Vietnam was just starting to come on the horizon but not yet escalated until later in the Sixties, and then all of the Vietnam protests. And then I remember some of the rioting, or civil unrest, whatever you want to call it, that was occurring in other cities. I believe it happened in the Watts area of Los Angeles. I believe it happened in Newark, New Jersey. And I remember thinking I wonder if it would come to Detroit. You wonder, but not really expecting it, but it did. There was just a lot of things going on in the Sixties. The Sixties was to me, a tumultuous decade. I mean great things happened. I graduated from high school. I graduated from college. I started my career in education. But I remember the civil rights movement. I remember the assassination of both Kennedy brothers, and Martin Luther King, the woman’s lib movement, and all the Vietnam protests. This is at the time that I’m going into my early twenties. Early to mid-twenties.
WW: Going into that summer of ‘67, were you working at the store then?
MR: I had just finished my first year of teaching. I had graduated in college in ‘66 and I was working at a school district, in a school district in Warren, Michigan. So this was the first summer off after teaching, but we always worked in the store. If they were short help or we worked weekends. I mean we just sort of grew up in the store business. I can’t say like I remember specifically what happened that Saturday night into a Sunday morning when the riots or the civil unrest broke out. But I remember my father getting a phone call on Sunday morning because the riots had happened early Sunday morning, to not go to the store. That people were rioting, and that they were attacking businesses. So my dad did not go to the store, and they did not open up that Sunday morning. And then, my father’s partner Tom Matte, had a son who was in the Michigan National Guard. And the Michigan National Guard was activated. He’s older than me. He and his older brother, and some National Guard buddies of his, would go to the store and protect it during day or night whenever they were not on active duty. So our store was looted, the windows broken, the store was trashed, but the building was not burned. So my father was able to get back into business sooner than some other Chaldean or other businesses were able to. What I do remember was that he was did go to the store on Monday to look at the damage. Did not stay there real long, but I know he drove into the city. Well we were living in the city. He drove to the store. When he came home that afternoon, he sat in our family room and he started crying. And that was the first time I had ever seen my dad cry. I have seen him cry twice. That was the very first time. The second time was when my older sister Josephine was ill in the hospital. And then he composed himself and you know, he said you know, we’re just going to go back into business. On Tuesday he went back to the store and I did go with him. That was the first time that I saw the store, the windows were definitely broken in. We had a supermarket. This was not a corner grocery store. We were the first of the Chaldeans to have a supermarket in Detroit. And so it took up a half block. I mean we had a butcher. We had several cashiers. We had a produce person. So it was a fully operating supermarket. Not like you have today. The windows were broken. The goods were strewn all over the floor. A lot had been looted. The liquor counters, the cigarettes. A shopper at the store came in, walked in and started grabbing things off the isle, off the shelves that were still there. And I said to my dad, we called my dad Babo, which is Chaldean for dad. I said Babo he is walking away with stuff and not paying for it. I think my dad probably thought, he just lost it. He said, just leave them alone. There was no way he could've paid for it. He was just finishing the damage that was already done. But we were able to get back into business as I said, sooner than other stores. There was insurance, but the insurance did not cover all of the damage. You know, to rebuilding the windows, the doors, the shelving units, the coolers, the freezers, restocking the store. But the building was saved. But again I give credit to the sons of my dad’s partner, because they slept on the roof of the store with their rifles, and guarded the store during the daytime if they were not on duty. Either, if they were on duty, their buddies who were not on duty watched our store and you know, rotated the cycles. We were lucky in that regard. The other thing that I would like to add, is that because of what happened, and this is 1967. A lot of the chain stores, the bigger. I mean I remember stores like Big Bear Market, and Farmer Jack, and A&P, and just a lot of the chain stores, after the ‘67 riots, left Detroit. The Chaldeans stayed. They were the food delivery system for Detroiters. And several things happened at that time. In 1965, the Immigration laws in the US changed. The quotas were ended, which limited how many people could come from any specific country. And Iraq had a very small quota. In 1965 the doors were opened as long as you had someone to petition for you and sign an affidavit that you would not go on the public welfare system and they could sort of guarantee you existence, economic existence in America you were welcome to come. Well by 1967, more Chaldeans were coming to Detroit who were the relatives of the first pioneers that were here. So that’s one thing. Secondly, the Chaldeans had been in business for almost 40 to 50 years by then, because a lot of them had stores back in the 1920s. So they knew the business. They had the marketing skills. They had the business skills to own larger stores, and they had the capitol to own larger stores. And they had a ready workforce, all of their relatives who were coming to America who were looking for jobs. New immigrant arrivals, having the capital, and the business acumen of running larger stores, and they bought out the chain stores who were abandoning Detroit. The third thing is that the chain stores were leaving. So these three factors: The business knowhow, the necessary capital, chains leaving Detroit, and a ready workforce, allowed the Chaldeans to buy larger stores in Detroit and cement their footprint into the Detroit economic community even stronger than it had been before. I think a lot of credit has to go to the Chaldeans who stayed in Detroit and were loyal to Detroit. I know chain stores are now coming back. A store opened at Eight Mile and Telegraph area.
MR: Okay Meijers, whatever store it was. But it’s right at the fringe of Detroit. In Detroit, but you go ten feet you’re out of Detroit. The Whole Foods in the New Center area, which is a great area, but the Chaldean stores are in the neighborhoods. They are not in the tonier parts of the city. I have to give the Chaldeans a lot of credit for that. They have stayed loyal, and I don’t think are given the recognition that they should be given, like Whole Foods, which I’m all for them too, because competition is good. But you know, they were given advantages the Chaldeans were never given.
WW: Did your father immediately choose to rebuild, or did he decide between that or leaving the city?
MR: No no, they rebuilt immediately. Within a week they were back in business. They boarded up the windows, then had the windows installed, replenished the shelves, or repaired them and replenished them. Probably within a week, definitely within two weeks, but probably within a week, they were operating. Maybe not at full capacity like they had been, but they were open. There was never any thought of leaving Detroit. The reason that my dad eventually sold the store was that his partner, Tom Matte had become ill and died in 1969. Actually on my birthday, which is how I remember when he died. His sons were grown up. One of his sons actually had a PhD in mathematics. Never went into the grocery business. The older and the youngest sons became partners and they opened up a store. They did want to leave the city. And they opened up a store in Dearborn Heights. So they didn’t want to continue. My younger brothers were too young to really take over a business. They were still in school. I think my dad would have stayed if the sons of his partner had been willing to stay. But because they sold, he couldn’t run the store by himself. Again, it was a supermarket. So they sold the store. My dad at that point retired.
WW: What city did your family move to?
MR: Well we stayed in Detroit until 1976. I got married and moved to an apartment in Troy. My parents, my dad had been in Detroit since they came to America in May of 1929. He moved out in 1978. They left the Seven Mile, Livernois area, and moved to Farmington Hills.
WW: How do you interpret the events in ‘67? Do you see them as a riot, do you see them as civil unrest?
MR: I just see them as part of the unrest that was just going on in the country. I mean I do call them the Detroit riots because that is what they were called at that time. But I just see them as an extension of the civil unrest and the demand for equality that was in the black community throughout the country. I mean this is when, where was it? Was it Alabama where they, George Wallace was going to close the schools in Mississippi where, was it Medgar Evers that was going to be the first black student to go into the University of Mississippi? I’m trying to remember my history. It was to me just a continuation of the civil unrest that was already going on throughout the country. I remember distinctly towards the end of 1969. This was very clear in my mind. I could not wait until January 1st of 1970. Maybe I was naive, but I thought maybe by some magic, if we started a new decade, life would get better. Because I just remember the Sixties as being the best of times and the worst times, to quote Charles Dickens. I mean, it was a great time for me, again, I graduated from high school, graduated from college, started a career. But there were the civil rights movement, the women’s lib movement, and certainly Vietnam. I was teaching in a high school at the time. I remember getting those bomb scares. That somebody was going to blow up the school. They were going to blow up selective service offices, because the draft existed at that time. Not long after you had the killings at Kent State University. Unfortunately nothing magic happened on January 1st, 1970. But I was hoping.
WW: Your father’s decision to stay in Detroit probably speaks for itself, but did he hold any bitterness through the attack on the store?
MR: No, my dad was a very even-tempered, quiet man. One of the things that I admire about my dad, and that people have told me about my dad, was that he wasn’t just a smart man. I mean I have heard people say if he had been born and lived in America, he probably would’ve been the CEO of General Motors. The quality that I most admire about my dad was that he was wise. Not just smart. There was never any bitterness. He was a businessman. The idea was just to get back into business as soon as possible. He was good to his customers. Would extend credit to them. We were always on the lookout for shoplifters too. For his loyal customers, and even just people off the street, he was a businessman and he was good. No, I did not see any bitterness. The idea was to get back into business as soon as possible. No, he was committed to the city of Detroit. Even today, even though I live in the suburbs, and most of my life is out in the suburbs, Detroit is still the center city. Detroit is still the focus of our lives. What I want, and you know I’m grateful for Downtown and Midtown, the neighborhoods have to change. The neighborhoods have to get better. And to me that’s the schools. All these young people that live Downtown and with Quicken Loans, that’s great but once they get married and have children, and the children become of school age, the only way you’re going to keep them in Detroit is to provide good housing in a safe neighborhood. In neighborhoods. Not along the waterfront. And you have to have excellent schools. Although I know Detroit is on a resurgence, I don’t think it will come back the way I knew it unless the neighborhoods and the schools get better. And that’s where the investments have to continue outward beyond Downtown and Midtown.
WW: Given that, are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
MR: I want to be. I want to be, and I think with good mayors and good city councils, which I hope we now are starting to see. I may not see it in my lifetime. It took 50 plus years for Detroit to go through the decline. It may take that long to come back. But I want to be hopeful, and if the right people, and the right amounts of money are dedicated to it, yes it could come back.
WW: Is there anything you’d like to add today?
WW: Alright, thank you so much for sitting down with me. I greatly appreciate it.
MR: Thank you.