Connie Griffith, August 18th, 2016
BB: This is Bree Boettner with the Detroit Historical Society 1967 Oral History Project. I’m here with Connie Griffith at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial. Thank you Connie for sitting down with me. First question: where and when were you born?
CG: I was born in Detroit, I think it was Highland Park, actually, in a hospital in 1926.
BB: 1926, okay. And who were your parents and what were their occupations?
CG: My father was Thomas Nester, who is an old Detroiter, his family was. And he was actually, in those years he was in the army. And my mother was a housewife and did not work.
BB: Okay. Do you have any siblings?
CG: I had one sister.
BB: And was she older or younger than you?
CG: Two years older.
BB: Two years older. Can you describe for me what growing up in Detroit was like, your youth?
CG: Yes, I certainly could. I grew up at the corner of Ferry and Woodward. Are you familiar with that area?
BB: I am.
CG: Well, we moved into terraces that were on Woodward and they were right across the street from the old Hecker House, which is still standing.
BB: It is.
CG: Beautiful house. And we lived there until I was about ten, then we moved out to Grosse Pointe Farms. And what is was like to grow up here was, looking back, very interesting. I was very involved with Woodward Avenue because we lived on Woodward, our terrace was on Woodward. My father had been born in their family home, which was at the corner of Woodward and Willis, a great big mansion, really. Then my mother grew up at the corner of Woodward and Virginia Park. I went to school at Holy Rosary, which is at the corner of Woodward. That was our church and my school. And what else about Woodward? That’s all I can think of right now.
BB: Okay, okay.
CG: And so, Woodward was the same width as it is today, way back then. They have never enlarged it, they made it very big in the beginning. There was a street car that went up and down Woodward, double tracks coming and going. There were lots of stops. You could go downtown, you just go out to the corner get on the street car, and go downtown. Or you could go the other way, which I often did, to go out to Virginia Park, which was my grandfather’s house. And my father’s house had been torn down before I was old enough to see it because I never saw that house. But it was a beautiful mansion and I have a couple of formal pictures of it. Very old, but they tell a story. And my best friend, Mary Helen VonEper, I would love it if you could track her down! Anyway, she lived across Woodward. So we would be running back and forth across Woodward all the time, dodging cars. And the cars, of course, you would consider very old. It was a very long time ago. But we were very involved with Holy Rosary Church and school and the nuns and priests. We also, I had this older sister, two years older, so I would follow her, always. And we would go over near Demery’s Department Store and climb up from Woodward a grassy thing holding the train tracks there.
BB: Oh, okay!
CG: But we managed to never have an accident or anything go wrong, that was a lot of fun. Then, the art museum [Detroit Institute of Arts] was right there and every Saturday we would go and run around the art museum and my sister took art lessons at the time. We were young, very young. And the library was across the street, which it still is. And we would read children’s books and we’d spend a lot of time and we’d climb up and down those steps hundreds of times a week.
BB: [laughing] You got your cardio.
CG: It was a great play area. During that time, they had hired an artist to decorate the art museum and I can’t think of his name, I know it so well. He was doing his work on scaffolding. Do you know who I’m talking about?
BB: Oh! Diego Rivera? The murals? Oh my goodness, you saw him painting?!
CG: Oh yes! Time and time and time, for weeks we saw him painting. We just ran into the art museum, it meant nothing. You didn’t have to pay or anything, you just did and ran up and down the stair. We never were in trouble or got hurt or anything and we saw a lot of wonderful art, and of course a lot about him. Because that’s what he was doing. And then, if I was at my grandfather’s house, they would be talking about it at the table. And my mother lived on Virginia Park and she had four younger brothers and two sisters and so there was always lively discussions about what was going on in Detroit. And Rivera was a big topic. And a lot of people did not care for him; they thought he was a communist or something. But of course his work is still there.
BB: It’s still there.
CG: And everyone is still enjoying it.
BB: Any other memories?
CG: That was a big part growing up in Detroit. I’m sorry, what did you say?
BB: Did you have any other memories about your neighborhood, specifically, on Woodward?
CG: Yes. Of course. Yes, I would walk to school and I would go by Arena Gardens and they had wrestling matches there. And we would go home for lunch and again at the end of the day. Anyway, it was a very happy, nice place to grow up.
BB: Good, and you went to Holy Rosary all the way through high school?
CG: No, by then we had moved in Grosse Pointe. We moved to Grosse Pointe when I was ten.
BB: What school did you go to in Grosse Pointe?
CG: Well, first I went to St. Paul’s, then I went to Grosse Pointe High School, then I went to boarding school because my father was in the army. That would have been in the early Forties, the war was on. I went to Sacred Heart convent in Lake Forest, Illinois. My father was stationed in Fort Sheridan in Chicago. But by the time I got there – his two sister had gone to the convent here, my mother and her two sisters had also. So my father, when he was stationed in Chicago, he went over to Lake Forest and talked to the nuns and they talked him into enrolling me there. And it worked out well because we could run our house in Grosse Pointe and he thought I’d be near him, which he got transferred before school started in the fall but I was there for two years, graduated from there and have wonderful, wonderful memories of boarding school.
BB: Good. So, before we started this interview, you said you have memories and stories from 1943. Do you mind telling us about some of those memories?
CG: Sure, I can tell you a lot about, well I can tell you most about. Well, I think I was 14. I was born in ’26 so you can figure that out. Anyway, I grew up in Grosse Pointe, this would have been, what year was that? In ’43? So I was in eighth grade. As I told you, my grandfather lived on Virginia Park. I was going downtown because I had been in a children’s shop and asked for the summer if I could get a little job of some kind at the children’s shop in the village. And they said, “No, we’re all set.” But there was a man and woman in shopping and the man said to me, “You come down to Detroit on Monday and I’ll give you an interview. I’m with the Zurich Insurance Company and you could do filing.” So, I said “Fine.” And he gave me the address and everything. We would often go downtown to the movies, me and my friends and stuff so that was not hard to figure out. So when I had the interview, I got the job and I would start in the next week or something. And he said to me, “You’d better get started home because I understand there’s trouble downtown.” And I said, “I’m going over to my grandfather’s house for dinner and I’m meeting my parents there.” So I had the job, and I was going to go up. So I got on a Woodward streetcar to go up to Virginia Park. Well, we got out Woodward and suddenly our streetcar stopped. I was sitting – do you know how streetcars are designed?
CG: In the middle of the streetcar – the front are open doors, in the middle are doors that open, and then it goes to the back, but anyway, I was sitting, facing the front of the streetcar and then I’m facing the front and then there’s a long bench that faces the side of the streetcar where people sit. So, as I say the streetcar had stopped. I was not on the long bench, I was right next to the door. My street car was here and the middle door was there. I looked and turned out to see what was outside and the street was filled. Woodward Avenue, it was the same width then as it is now. It was, I don’t know but I would estimate several hundred men in white shirts. Everybody had on a white shirt. I’m sure they were factory workers, basically, but that was the garment that in those days the men wore to work. Long sleeve, white shirts. Anyway, they were forcing open the doors to our streetcar. And I looked out in that sea of faces and I thought, “What are these men doing?” They would never do that if they were just by themselves. Because they were beating up black people! And you could see their arms going up high, I could see out the window the tops of their arms and they were hitting black people. So, obviously there was bad trouble. So, one man got out of the streetcar door but the conductor was trying to prevent the white people from coming on to the streetcar because they were pulling off any blacks and beating them up. As far as I knew, they it was just beating them up but you could see they were beating people. So then, that kept going and one man, I’ll never forget him. He got out of the streetcar and he ran over towards John R, is that John R next to Woodward?
CG: He got over and he ran, he had to run because the streetcar was just stopped in the middle of the road. They had pulled the wire off so the street car couldn't move. There was a whole line of streetcars that they had already done that to. Then when they finished taking off all the blacks, then the streetcar would go on. So this one guy, he went over towards John R and the crowd starts to chase him. Because they were working on forward car so when they saw that he was getting away, a bunch of them started to chase him. And he ran but he made it to this side street and went down towards John R and they started to turn back when that happened. Because apparently, there was a black mob on John R that was beating up the whites. And the whole thing started, and if I start to repeat myself, tell me…the rumor was that a white man on Belle Isle bridge threw a black baby into the water and of course he drowned. So that was what started the riot. And then –
BB: Did the streetcar ever take you to Virginia Park where you were heading?
CG: Yes, after they had finished taking them off and after they started to let go all the ones ahead of us with the energy off, then we started up. And I was scared to death to get off the street car but we had really left the mob behind. But when I looked out that window, I knew these people would never do this if they were not in this mob. It was so apparent to me at that young age that this was a mob and they were wild and completely out of control and there was nothing that could be done by the people that were being attacked. So it was very sad, very horrible.
BB: In the mob, when they opened your streetcar’s doors of your streetcar, did anybody say anything to you? Anybody from the mob? Any of the men? Did they ever say anything to you or were they just looking for—
CG: No, they never came to me. I was just past that middle door from the front. So there was no talking among us but the one guy that I especially noticed was the one I hoped made it to safety. All my life, I occasionally will think of him and say a prayer, hoping. Now I was only 14 so he’s dead and gone by now because he was a man, a young man, strong man but he’d be about 100 and something now. But yeah, I never forgot that guy and always hoped that he had a good life.
BB: So when you got to Virginia Park, did you tell your parents and grandfather what was going on?
CG: Well they already knew what was going on because it was already on the news.
BB: Oh, okay.
CG: So I got off at the Virginia Park, which is about half a block from the house. And I remember like yesterday, I ran as fast as I ever could to the security of that house. And my aunt and my grandfather was there and my uncles. And the reason I’m emphasizing that is because I want to discuss the same place in the next riot.
BB: Okay, was there any other memories before we jump to ’67?
CG: Well, one thing that has always puzzled me-and it is a psychological thing apparently- is I have no memory of any noise, any talking, any yelling, anything. I must have wiped it all out, it must have been so bad that I just don’t remember that and yet I know what I saw. And certainly, that would have warranted all those people yelling when they know they’re going to lose their life being pulled off of that streetcar. What I read, several years ago now, was what the mob did, they opened up the grates and dropped those people into the sewers. That is what their fate was. Horrible. If they want to solve the problem of these mass riots, they have got to have a way to cut down on the number of people that can gather. And how you do that, I don’t know. Maybe if you had a whistle and you blew it and if you are caught causing trouble you have to go to jail or pay a lot of money or something, some penalty so that something will wake them up. Because they go into another world when they get into those riots. That is not really indicative of those people, they probably are nice parents and this and that, but the riot mentality is unbelievable. And I saw it in their faces, huge mass of them. Completely filling Woodward Avenue, about halfway out between Virginia Park and downtown, that’s where this happened.
BB: That’s amazing. So do you have any other memories of ’43 that you want to discuss before we move onto ’67?
CG: No, I don’t think I do. I think I pretty well covered it.
BB: Okay, so just to back track a little bit. So ’43, you were still in Detroit and then just after the war started, you moved to Chicago.
CG. No, oh, yeah, I did! I moved as a student, to school there, my family didn't move there.
BB: You just went to school there. When did you come back to Detroit, after you graduated high school?
CG: Well, I was always here as far as living part time because while I went there to school, I’d come back to my grandparents’. It was a big house, I had a bedroom of my own. In fact, my sister moved in there and went to U of D [University of Detroit] to college. So, no I never really left Detroit, I was just at the convent living with the nuns.
BB: Gotcha. So in ’67, where were you living at that time?
CG: In 1967, during that riot, we were living at our house in Grosse Pointe. Because after the war, my parents built a house in Grosse Pointe and that’s where we moved. Let’s see, what should I say now?
BB: How did you first hear about the riots in ’67?
CG: How did I first hear about it?
CG: Oh, how I heard about it, of course it was written up in the papers. My husband and my five children had rented a cottage at the top of the thumb so we were not actually in Detroit when that riot started. But the rental was up. My sister lived on the west side of Woodward with her family, so that was-they could hear the guns and all that, so my sister immediately called me and told me about it and she said, “Connie, we have to come up where you are.” So we had rented a great big cottage fortunately, and so we took all of them and we took my mother in-law came. So we holed up at the top of the thumb. But what was the date of that riot?
BB: July, July 23 of 1967.
CG: Okay, see our rental was up at the end of the month. So Joan was there for a short time and then we all had to leave and go back down because the owners wanted to come up. So we went back to my grandfather’s house and – I’ve got to really separate these two events. Yeah, we were at the cottage and then we came back and the National Guard, I think, was in Detroit. But we didn't have our house that my parents built because they had rented it out when my father was in the service. At that time, I think he was still in the service, yes definitely. So we were living in my grandmother’s house anyway. We had all our children though. So what was the exact question again?
BB: Where were you during ’67? Where were you during July—?
CG: We were sort of in transit in Detroit, my grandfather’s house, and, I’m trying to remember but it doesn't seem to be quite right. Well, I’ll keep going with what I do know. Anyway, the National Guard was there and I went out with my uncles because we had come back to my grandfather’s house and they were in their early 20s, but they were not in the service. So I’ve been concentrating so much on that first one that I’m sort of mixed up.
BB: That’s okay. Did you see the rioting on Twelfth Street?
CG: No, I never was familiar with Twelfth Street because we were on the east side of Woodward. And then, of course, the publicity of it was very bad so we never wanted to so no, I never saw that but I do have a nugget for you. Did you ever hear of the Algiers Motel incident?
BB: I did.
CG: Do you know what that was?
BB: I do.
CG: That was my grandfather’s house.
BB: Oh, okay.
CG: They sold the house to a man that wanted to start a motel up there because it was very close to the Fisher Building and the General Motors Building. And so, while real estate was impossible to sell, they were able to sell that house and bought a house out in Grosse Pointe because of the proximity to those buildings. Because it was a great big house, what the new owner wanted to do was use the house for the salesmen who would come to GM and come to the different companies around the Fisher Building. They wanted to use that as a showroom. So then they built a motel attached to it where they could stay and they’d use the big house. They didn't tear down the big house or torch it but – so, I think I should come back another day. I’m having a little trouble.
BB: So that was your father’s house with the Algiers—?
CG: Yes, That was my grandfather’s, my mother’s father. And I knew the house from top to bottom, we had lived there during the war.
BB: So how’d you hear about the commotion that was going on at the Algiers Motel?
CG: Well I’m sure at that point it was through the radio, the paper, my sister had heard the shot guns.
BB: What was the reaction from your family?
CG: Well, when we found out about the people being killed in the house – I never mentioned it. Well, my grandfather may have died by then. Yes, I think he had. And he may have lived to be 93.
BB: Oh wow.
CG: But I think he had died because I remember being so glad that he wasn't there to have that happen in his house because it was such a tragedy. From the book, which I read, it seemed to be a misunderstanding. The man said, “Well just shoot him.” But he really did mean that, he was just trying to scare him. And so, really, the family did not do much talking about it. But they were wonderful people and it was just so tragic for those people that got killed due to a stupid order from a stupid – it was a policemen. But I think, you’ve read the book I’m sure?
BB: I have not, actually. Not yet. There’s a lot of books on my desk right now but that’s not one of them I’ve gotten to yet.
CG: There’s a lot of what?
BB: There’s a lot of books on my desk, a lot of research goes into—
CG: If you’re doing research on this situation, you should definitely read that book.
CG: So anyway, so what that was, and if you haven’t read the book, it won’t mean that much to you but that book was part of this situation [the events of 1967]
BB: Okay, I know you’re still trying to figure out in your mind ’43 versus ’67 but I just want to follow up with a little context. Do you by chance remember any of the looting or rioting that might have happened during ’67 or any of the fires? Those are three of the big a lot of people remember—
CG: Oh, that’s the other thing. There were a lot of fires, a lot of cars on Woodward lining on Woodward, cars on fire. And they’d tip, you’d see them tipping the cars with people inside.
BB: On Woodward?
CG: On Woodward. I’d say that goes back to the first riot. Although, the second riot – No, that was all from the first riot. I wasn't near that area in the second riot. The only thing I had about the second one was the fact that that was my grandfather’s house, that it had been bought by this man who wanted to turn it into the Algiers Motel. And John Hersey, who won a Pulitzer Prize, wrote the book. So I highly recommend you read it.
BB: I most definitely will. Because of these two events, a lot of people say that Detroit’s changed.
CG: I’m sorry, what?
BB: Do you believe that Detroit’s changed since these events that happened?
CG: Oh, definitely. Definitely. And for the better.
BB: You think so?
CG: Yeah, overwhelming. I mean now, a black person will smile at me and they’ll say “Hello, how are you?” There’s a huge difference. That didn't happen at all, and I’m sure the white people weren't smiling at the blacks either. But now, it’s the difference of night and day is all I can say. It was so one-sided then. And now, as I say-and I think the blacks feel so much more comfortable. They certainly do with me, but maybe that’s just because I’m old now, I don't know, but they do. You know, always friendly and nice and happy. So yes, it definitely is.
BB: Because we are using these oral histories in order to learn about our past in order to move forward, do you have any advice for the younger generation that’s helping to bring the next renaissance to Detroit?
CG: I’d love to. What I would love to do is meet, what’s his name? Gaylord-no, not Gaylord. He’s done so much for Detroit.
BB: Our mayor? Are you talking about the mayor of Detroit?
CG: No, he’s not the mayor but he fixes up buildings and rents them out and gets them active, gets them bringing in…
BB: Oh, I don’t know, I’m not sure.
CG: Oh, you should know him. Well, wait a minute, I’ll think of it. Well, the young man with you. We can ask him, he’ll know who it is!
BB: Okay, I can ask him afterwards for sure. He’s in the middle of an interview right now so I’m not going to interrupt.
CG: Okay, I’ll wait until he finishes and ask him what that is. And it might not be in my head but he buys up the old buildings in downtown Detroit. Beautiful, old buildings. He puts all kinds of money into it because he can turn it over and make some money and help the city. Now, some people I’ve heard of criticism and I always say, “No, he should make some money. He’s doing all this work and that’s his job.” It’s made all the difference in Detroit. Don't the people that you’re representing, don't they feel that there’s been a huge improvement in the city?
BB: There’s been a huge improvement in the city. Yes, there most definitely has. And it’s extremely noticeable.
CG: I second that because it is a huge improvement.
BB: There’s been a lot of growth.
CG: Detroit is coming back, and it has come back a lot. There’s still a lot of problems in the world, as we know from the politicians…
BB: Yes. Well, is there anything else you’d like to add, dear?
CG: No, no, I’ll let you go, dear.