Kathleen Kurta, June 30, 2015
NL: Today is June 30, 2015. This is the interview of Kathleen Kurta by Noah Levinson. We are at the Sparrow Hospice House of Mid-Michigan, which is on West Saginaw Street in Lansing, Michigan, and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Kathy, could you start by telling me where and when you were born?
KK: I was born on Valentine’s Day, 1950, in a little hospital called Brent General across from the University of Detroit.
NL: And where were you living when you were growing up?
KK: We had a little home—my dad bought a honeymoon home for my mom when they were married—and it was in northwest Detroit on Carlin Street and it was one block west of Schaefer and right in the middle between Plymouth and West Chicago.
NL: And where were you living in 1967?
KK: In 1967, that was my home. I was a junior in high school.
NL: So, you spent all your years growing up there.
KK: I did, we didn’t move once.
NL: What do you remember about that neighborhood around Schaeffer and Chicago?
KK: I remember that we had a lot of friends in that neighborhood and we got along. There were elderly people in the neighborhood; there were kids in the neighborhood. My dad always helped some of the elderly women in the neighborhood, and taught us how to do that—we shoveled snow, we raked the leaves, we took food over to them. There was an elderly lady across the street—both directions across the street—we had a corner house.
The thing I didn’t like about that was that I went to school off West Chicago and Mendota area at Epiphany School—it was a Catholic school—and we were a mile and a quarter away from our friends—our school friends. So—it didn’t stop us—we continued to ride bikes back and forth, but, our immediate friends from school were a little farther away from us. But, it was a good neighborhood. We liked it—we never moved—we stayed there, and it was a great place to grow up.
NL: Was it an integrated neighborhood very much?
KK: Initially no, it was not integrated. As I got older, we started to get more African American families that moved into the neighborhood. One of the elderly women that my dad used to help was one that was across the street. I remember her first name, Mrs. Hogue, and he used to do favors for her—like I said, rake the leaves, shovel the snow, push her car when she got stuck, and so on—but it became more integrated as the years went on, but not initially.
NL: Do you remember noticing any changes around the neighborhood as it became more integrated, or was it just that different people were living there?
KK: You know, I don’t know if it was because it was becoming more integrated, but what I noticed was that there was more crime in the neighborhood, and I have no idea what the—what the “why.” I can’t blame it on anything. I know that we had—a body was found in the alley behind our house; there were homes that were robbed; our house was robbed, on the corner. So I don’t know if it had to do with integration or if it just had to do with that was those were people and that was just what happened, and eventually my folks moved from there in the mid Seventies—also into Detroit—but my dad changed jobs and moved. But my dad was also an insurance salesman for a while and he worked with National Life Insurance, and his debit was 12th Street and some of the inner-city neighborhoods, and he used to walk from place to place. He loved it; the people watched out for him; but he, too, was robbed several times. Not hurt, thankfully—once he had a gun to his head and another time he had a knife at his neck. That was not our neighborhood, but it was also was one of the reasons why he got out of that job and we found him a different one, and that made them have to move from the neighborhood.
NL: What do you remember about Detroit in general, growing up in the fifties and early/mid-sixties as a whole city?
KK: I loved Detroit—absolutely loved Detroit—and when I meet people in my work here as a social worker and they’ll say “Detroit?” and they make a face, and you know when I grew up in Detroit, it was a wonderful place. I would as a teenage girl would take the bus anywhere in the city of Detroit. I went to Immaculata High School—we had a lot of research papers to do. By myself as a teenager, took the bus, two buses, three buses sometimes, down to the Main Library, down to the Historical Museum, shopped at Hudson’s, shopped at Kresge’s, loved to go to Baker’s shoes, all the stuff that was on Woodward Avenue. And I would do that myself, or with girlfriends, and so I loved it. I felt safe. My dad took us always—we lived in the summertime at Briggs Stadium, Tiger Stadium. Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays—Ladies’ Day—you could sit in the bleachers for fifty cents. And now I sound like my father, getting old with his, with all of his old stories.
NL: No, frankly I’m jealous. I would love to spend my Saturdays at Briggs or Comerica—
KK: You know, Briggs Stadium, and then it was Tiger [Stadium]—
But it was a great place, we weren’t afraid. We loved it. We were involved in things. You know, as a little child my mom took me on the bus, we went to Sears, we paid the bills. Went to the—we lived on the west side; my mother had friends on the east side; we would take buses to go from our northwest Detroit to the far east side, that’s just what we did.
NL: Tell my about your experiences in July 1967, please.
In July 1967 I had a summer job. I was 17, and that was the year between my junior and senior year of high school. And just to back up, one of the traditions in my family was—for years— was every Sunday morning we went on a picnic out to Island Lake. We would pack up the car the night before as much as we could, we went to 6:30 mass on Sunday morning, and by eight o’clock—it was a short mass—and by eight o’clock we were already on the road out to Island Lake, so we would have breakfast, lunch, dinner, swim, do whatever.
NL: Where is that place?
KK: Island Lake is near Kensington [Metropark].
KK: I think it’s called the Island Lake Recreation Area now. But that July—whatever Sunday that was—was a beautiful day, and my family was going on a picnic, and I could not, because I had a summer job and I had to work, and I was mad, cause I didn’t want to go to work.
My job was behind the counter at Greenfield’s Restaurant on Woodward in downtown Detroit. So we made salads, you know, just kept the—it was a cafeteria-style restaurant—and so my job was to keep things supplied, and mostly I was behind the salad counter and the desserts, running back and forth.
So that’s where I was on Sunday in that July, and I can’t remember what time in the afternoon, but somehow the managers there got word that there was a riot breaking out in Detroit, and they began to send the employees home. I had taken the bus there. My family was out on a picnic. I was not afraid to take the buses. I had taken the Grand River bus—the Plymouth bus, and I transferred on to the Grand River bus—and took that down to work.
What we saw eventually, was just masses of people running in front of the restaurant. Some had bats, some just were waving their arms, but it was just a huge mob of people.
NL: Even downtown?
KK: Downtown Detroit. Well, and Greenfield’s was not downtown—as you look at it, it was a little farther out, but was still considered downtown.
NL: Where was the restaurant, would you say Woodward and what, approximately?
KK: Oh, I knew you were going to ask me that. [laughter] I can’t remember, it was beyond—do I want to say, Kirby Park? It was, hmm, beyond where the museum, beyond the library—you know what, I can’t tell you.
NL: Like further from the river than the museums are?
KK: Maybe. I can’t recall the street names.
NL: It’s alright, we’ll do some research, why don’t you go back to telling us about, you said you saw lots of people running around in front of the restaurant.
KK: Yeah, you know, I was working there and they were saying on the radio they were sending people home—but eventually, it was just a huge mass of people, and the front of the restaurant was all picture windows.
And at the time, besides the regular restaurant manager, we also had a district manager who was visiting, who was from Ohio. And—just a little aside—if you can think of Don Knotts, and Barney Fife, and The Andy Griffith Show, that’s kind of how his personality was. So he got really excited, but as the people were going, they locked the restaurant doors, they had turned the tables over, and he was hollering in the restaurant like Barney Fife, “Hit the dirt, hit the dirt.”
And we all were afraid, so we were behind the tables, some of us were behind the counters—the food counters—some went back into the kitchen, but people were just laying low because they weren’t sure what was going to be happening. So, those who could go home, left. Very few had cars, but some were able to catch a bus and get out of the area. The bus I needed to catch to go home was the Grand River bus, and Grand River—according to the reports that they had heard—was the area that was mostly being affected and they were not running busses on Grand River.
So I was stuck—downtown—and what I learned later is, in the meantime my dad had come home, my mom and dad from the picnic, and my dad wanted to come down and pick me up. He was having a conniption at home that I was not safe. He called the police, and the police had already at that time put a curfew in effect. And they said to my dad, “If you do go down and pick her up, and we find you on the street, you’ll be arrested.”
And my dad just, he was a wreck at home, and my mom later said he just paced back and forth, cause he didn’t know what to do, he didn’t want me there—but he had no choice.
So the district manager at the restaurant—the one that was visiting from Ohio—said to me that I would have to spend the night in the YWCA. He asked me if I knew where it was, I said I had not a clue where the YWCA was, I didn’t frequent it, so I didn’t know. So eventually we got out, we went into his car, and we were going to drive around downtown Detroit looking for the “Y.” I didn’t want to go to the Y, I was scared, I wanted to go home, but he wasn’t going to drive me home. I think he didn’t know the area, so he didn’t know quite where to go with me in the car.
So as we drove around downtown it was—actually downtown was kind of dead—when we really got to the downtown area where Hudson’s and the other stores were, there was hardly a car on the street. But we were approached by a taxicab, and the taxicab was driven by an African American driver, a cabbie, and he came up, he kind of put his car next to us, when the light changed, rolled down his window, and he asked if we needed help. And what he said was, that he noticed the out of state license plate. He saw the Ohio license plates on the car, wanted to know if we were lost, could he give us directions. So the district manager told him that he had this young girl in his car, they were looking for the Y, because she couldn’t get home and she needed to stay someplace. And as I said, the last place I wanted to be was in the Y because I didn’t want to be by myself. I had no money. I had no transportation. I had no way, and I had no idea what was happening. So the taxi driver said to the manager, “I would be willing to take her home.” Well then I kind of inwardly panicked over that one, because they were all taking about this was being a race riot, and a 17-year-old white girl going in a taxicab with a black man at that point was not cool.
But I wanted to go home. So I took a chance and I got out of the car, I went in the cab with the driver. He told me to sit in the front seat rather than in the back seat, and as I did that the district manager just drove away, and there I was. So I had no chance to change my mind if I wanted to change my mind. And so he asked me where I lived. I gave him my address. I told him the cross streets and all of that, and that I had usually gone up Grand River to go home, and he thought from the reports that he had heard on the radio, that if he went up Michigan Avenue instead of Grand River, that we might be able to get to my house. So we were going to head in that direction.
The other thing he told me, you know he looked right at me in the front seat, and he said, “If I tell you to get on the floor, get on the floor.” I wasn’t sure why at that point. I later learned, again, that if a black man was seen with a young teenage white girl in the car, this would not be good for either of us. So as we drove up Michigan Avenue—actually he was a wonderful man, and he shared about his family—and what he told me was that he was not able to go home either.
He lived on West Grand Boulevard, and West Grand Boulevard was up in flames and smoke as well, and so he had no way of communicating with his wife to see if she and his family were safe, to see if his house was safe. So he asked me about my family, so we had a wonderful conversation actually on the way home, just about life, and things that were important to him, things that were important to me.
It was interesting because I learned that this gentleman was as scared as I was. Older, married, kids working already, you know, versus my 17 years—but he was just as afraid as I was and afraid for his family. So, he eventually got me home, parked the car in front of the house, came around, opened the door, let me out of the car, and literally walked me up to the front porch, where my dad was just standing by the door. He gave me to my dad, and my dad was so excited—he had tears in his eyes—he was happy, he thanked the guy, offered to pay him whatever he could pay him that he got me home safely, invited him in for something to eat, invited him in for a drink, but he didn’t take any of that. He accepted no money, he declined to drink, he declined any kind of food, but what he did ask my dad was, “Please say a prayer that my family is okay.” And so obviously my dad was a praying man anyways, and so he did, and we did pray for him.
As I look back, I wish I knew his name, I wish—he told me his name, but I don’t recall what it was—I wish even through this project, I wish there was a way that that man, if he’s still alive, would come forward with his story.
NL: I’ll let you know if we find any similar stories from a cab driver.
KK: Would you do that? Seriously, from a cab driver, you know! So he was older than me, so he might be gone already. But I learned a lot from that man: that people are people, and it didn’t make any difference what your background was, what your color was, and I think—you know, I had gone to Catholic school and we were minimally integrated in my high school, at least when I was there—but you know I was taught by the IHM [Immaculate Heart of Mary] nuns, and they taught us well, that you accept people, that you care for people, no matter what.
My dad worked in insurance, and like I said earlier, his debit was right in the heart of where the riots broke out. People watched out for him, but he was always very kind to them, and anybody—it didn’t make any difference who—but if they were on his debit, and that’s what we were taught by our parents, that you treat people as you would like to be treated.
And so, it was just—I look back, and I was thinking about this story the last few days, and I thought, What did I learn from this? And my job—I entered a religious community—and so it was the same thing you work on: you live by social justice, for everybody. I taught school, I principaled in the school, and the teachers would say, “Why did you accept that child in our school?” and I said, “Because we can help them.” It didn’t make any difference, what their disability was, what their race was, what their background was, what their religion was. It was a Catholic school, but, you know?
And now I do social work, and it’s the same thing here. I meet with people of all different cultures and backgrounds and religions.
And that man taught me well, that taxi driver taught me well.
NL: Do you remember any of the details of your conversation about your respective families and things while you were driving home that night?
KK: He talked about his wife, he talked about his children. But the biggest thing I remember and I think the thing that made the biggest impression on me, is as I said, he was afraid, too.
And everything in the restaurant, they were saying, “It’s a race riot! It’s a race riot!” Well, of course, as a young white girl, I’m afraid. But the experience in that taxi was the opposite. He was afraid, and so was I. And so that was basically—yeah, we talked about school, yes, and what I wanted to do—but, you know, we talked about his home on West Grand Boulevard, and that was obviously before cell phones, you couldn’t call your wife and say, “Hey, you doing all right?” There were no ways to do that, so—.
NL: Do you remember the sights of that cab ride as you were driving up Michigan Avenue and through different parts of the city?
KK: Michigan Avenue was Michigan Avenue. There was nothing unusual except that there was no traffic, or very little traffic out there. The sights I do remember is when the curfew was lifted some days later—and I still had the job, so I still had to go to work—I still had to take the Grand River bus down to work, which I did. And I think probably if I had a camera, my jaw was probably down to my knees! It was the burned-out buildings, and the broken glass, and the rubble on the street. It really—it looked like the pictures of cities I had seen after World War II in Europe.
The other thing I remember during the curfew, I was at a friend’s house, one of my school friends—so it must have been maybe after the curfew—but we were sitting on her front porch.
She lived on Pinehurst, not very far from Mackenzie High School. Mackenzie High School was one of the staging areas for the National Guard and the police. We were sitting on her front porch, and we could see police cars—Detroit Police cars—with machine guns out the window. And then there was a god-awful noise, and we looked, and there was a tank going down Pinehurst.
At that point we went in the house [laughter] because we were still afraid—but that’s what I remember, and that was very frightening, because we played baseball on these streets, we skated on those streets, and we did all kinds of things, and those pictures—but seriously, I try to focus on the good stuff, because he was good for me—he taught me, he taught me some things.
NL: How long after do you remember it sort of staying looking the same way before things started to look more cleaned up or more—less burned out?
KK: More normal, if you will?
Time wise, I don’t know. But I do remember it other times driving down Grand River while I still lived in Detroit, and I don’t think it ever recovered. I mean it was better than it was, obviously, the rubble was cleaned up and some businesses did reopen, but—I don’t think even when I was living there, even in the seventies—I don’t think it ever recovered in terms of the vibrancy and the vitality—that corridor, anyway. And there were the different scenes there, I think Olympia [Arena] was still open at that time, and so there were entities that would attract consumers there, but it was not—. You’d see that, and then you’d see an empty lot. And then you would see a decrepit-looking building. So it was very sad.
NL: Do you visit the city much in the forty-some-odd years since you’ve moved from the area?
KK: You know, I have to say I, once in a while—I have not done [so]often because I haven’t always lived in Michigan—and I’ve gone down—I go to the Tiger games, I do have to say that—but I don’t get a chance very often. Once in a while we’ll go down to the art museum, for an exhibit.
I have—I know—I have a friend, who actually lives in the Wayne State [University] area, and I hear wonderful things.
So I have not had a chance very often to go back to Detroit—and not because I don’t like Detroit—my life has taken me in other directions.
KK: And I have responsibilities elsewhere, but I pull for Detroit, I just—I love Detroit.
NL: What are your thoughts and memories of the last few times you’ve been in the city for games and events, and—just how the city looks and feels to you compared to the sixties when you were growing up?
KK: It looks very sad. When I go down, and if I take the freeway, and I look and I still see damaged buildings and glass out—you know, empty—and it makes me feel very sad. And when I get on the surface streets, and I see just huge patches of nothing—you know, fields—and I guess that’s better than a burned-out, abandoned house, but I see those as well.
And unfortunately, that’s the image that I hear, where I’m working now, of people—that’s their image of Detroit. They look at the bad stuff. They’ll always ask me—whenever I find anybody up here and meet families up here, in Lansing, and they say they’re from Detroit, I always [ask], “Well, where in Detroit?” cause we might have been neighbors. And they will tell me, “Well, Southfield,” or “Farmington,” or “Sterling Heights” and I say because I’m from Detroit, and they’ll say, “Well, where in Detroit?” and I’ll say “Detroit,” and they say, “Yeah, but where in Detroit?” and I’ll say “Detroit!” and then finally I just look at them and I say “Detroit, Detroit—What part of that do you not get? You know—‘City of.’”
What I would love to do is get a t-shirt that says “Made in Detroit.” I’m thinking they’re on the Internet someplace—
NL: They have those—oh yeah, there are a lot of stores around the city you can find that specialize in Detroit logos and things like that.
KK: So, you know, “Made in Detroit and Proud of It.”
But people’s impressions—you know, I lived in southern California from about 1979 to 1993, something like that—and those were the days when you had the big Devil’s Nights fires, and that was the only thing I ever saw on the national news about Detroit. I was teaching then, and it always made me very sad, because I could just tell people what I knew of Detroit, and that that’s not Detroit. That’s a piece of something that’s happening, but that was not my city. And I was always saddened because it seemed that was the only thing that ever made national news. I always tried to just counteract it and just share my experience of that.
I understand it’s coming back and I’m hoping, I’m hoping that it does.
NL: I want to shift gears a little bit, just some things you said earlier. You said that, I think your exact words were, that you used to “summer at Briggs Stadium.” So, from one big Tigers fan to another, I would love to hear about, if you have any particular memories from the summer of ’68—that was such a memorable season for the Tigers.
KK: I was at the World Series—
KK: You betcha I was. [Laughter] And I’ll tell you how we got tickets: There was some advertising on some tuna fish can company. [Laughter] I don’t know what brand my mother bought, but if you sent so many labels in, you could get so many tickets. Don’t ask me, but we—
NL: I don’t think you can do that anymore—
KK: Well, I don’t think so, either! No. But however we got those tickets, I know there was something with the labels on the tuna fish. And my mother was able to get four tickets to one of the games. My grandpa, when he was living, lived in Pennsylvania, and he had played on a minor league team—he was the catcher on the minor [league], not the Tigers, but on a minor league team.
So we flew my grandpa out from Pennsylvania; and my grandpa, my dad, my brother, and me—
KK: —went down to one of the World Series games.
And then when they won, and they were flying back from St. Louis—I can’t believe my father did this—he pulled us all in the car and we went out to the airport, in a huge traffic jam on I-94, everybody trying to go to the airport to greet the Tigers, who ended up coming in at Willow Run [Airport] instead of Metro [Detroit Metropolitan Airport]—
And we’re all on the field at Metro, and any plane that landed, we were on the tarmac—we swarmed the plane. But, yeah, it was a lot of fun, and I guess that we were down there all the time—my dad, my brother, myself, sometimes I’d bring a girlfriend. My mom would always stay at home and watch it on TV, and cheer for us on TV.
But, always we were at the ballpark.
NL: Do you have any particular memories of games from that season or plays or players from that [season], or from that World Series game? Or it all blends together?
KK: You know, I’ll tell you—I don’t know who played when, it all does blend together, but you know obviously, [Al] Kaline, and my brother’s name was Allen, so he thought he was Al Kaline. And actually my father would always get seats—I want to say it was Section 6—but it was in right field, so we could always sit behind Kaline. And then sometimes he’d get them in left field so we could sit behind Willie Horton. So, I remember that, I remember Mickey Lolich, and we just hooted and we hollered, and we would go home hoarse, and we just, we had a ball. I don’t remember plays. I think Gibson’s home run was in ’84—
KK: —so in ’84 I was elsewhere. I was in California, actually.
NL: What do you remember, if any, was the impact of the World Series—when the year after the devastation of 1967—on the city and people? Did that change things, that season, at least temporarily?
KK: Well, I think it did, temporarily, because I think everybody—everybody!—was at the stadium. It didn’t make any difference what color you were, [or] where you came from, but everybody pulled behind the Tigers. And I remember them all talking and saying, “This is what the city of Detroit needs. We need to pull together here. Bring us back together.” And they did. At least we had a common cause that everybody could rally around. And the team, as much as we could see, was an integrated team, and so we had, you know, we rooted for every player, and so did everybody else in the stands. That was fun. That was fun.
NL: I have just one last question for you. And that is, speaking of the events of July 1967, many people refer to them as “riots.” And you, in recalling your story, said that you recall people calling them “race riots” typically. From your experiences, do you think, and from everything you saw, is “riot” the most accurate term to describe that week in July, or would you use something else?
KK: I think from my standpoint, and the age I was, the memories that come to my mind is that it was a riot. I was 17—I was dumb in many ways—and so I don’t know, you know, at that age, what brought it on. It just, it was there!
The whole racial issue was not something that I was involved with or really aware of. I just wasn’t. It wasn’t an issue for me.
But the term “race riot” was what they had used in the restaurant. You know, “Hit the dirt, it’s a race riot!” Hmm, okay. And that’s what I remember, having looked at, and watching things that are going on now, maybe I would use another term for it, but in my mind as a 17-year-old, and in my memory, it was a riot cause people were rioting. They were looting. No matter what the cause, it was a riot, I think, but—
NL: Well, all right. Do you have anything else you would like to share with us about your memories of this time or other things?
KK: I just want to reiterate again, I absolutely thought Detroit was a wonderful place, and I hope for Detroit to come back, and I appreciate your doing this, because I think this is a great way to have people sharing stories, the human piece of it. And I think that’s important.
NL: That’s our goal. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your memories with us.
KK: Well you are very welcome. Thank you.