Frank Watts, November 14th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is November 14, 2016. My name is William Winkel. I am in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit ’67 Oral History Project, and I am sitting down with Mr. Frank Watts. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
FW: You’re quite welcome.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
FW: Born in Atlanta, Georgia, 1948.
WW: When did you come to Detroit?
FW: I came to Detroit in 1950.
WW: And who did you come with?
FW: With my parents and my older brothers and sisters. It was like, 8 of us.
WW: Do you know why your parents came to Detroit from Atlanta?
FW: My father came to Detroit for work. He came and he was hired at Chrysler. He worked and retired from Chrysler.
WW: When your family came here, what neighborhood did you grow up in?
FW: North end. Russell which is now 75. But you know, the north end, and we was there from 1950 till ’63. Then we moved to the west side, to Taylor, between Twelfth and Woodrow Wilson.
WW: And you moved to the west side because of the freeway construction?
FW: Yeah, right.
WW: What was your neighborhood like before you had to move?
FW: The north end? North end was, well, it was nice. It was, you know, compact. A lot of kids. So it was good. It was good. It wasn’t as bad as it was in the Seventies, okay. Things really changed a lot. But in the Fifties and Sixties on the north end, it was nice. It was nice.
WW: Was the neighborhood integrated?
FW: No, not really. There were some whites on the north end, but not a lot. The whites on the north end had businesses but pretty much it was black.
WW: So after you moved to the west side, was the neighborhood similar to the one you had left? When we moved to the Westside, it was ’63 -’64. We moved there it was ’64, and it was like, well it was a “moving on up” sort of thing, at that year. It was different than the north end, okay. The north end had been, with 75 coming through, a lot of people were moving out. We were uprooted. Then you had, in the Fifties and the Sixties, you had that migration west. So the thing was to move west and northwest. You didn’t have suburbs then. Blacks weren’t moving into the suburbs in the Fifties or the Sixties, really. That was pretty much a Seventies thing. So Twelfth Street was a move up for north enders. Right.
WW: Are there any stories you’d like to share from your move to Twelfth Street, and what it was like becoming new to that area?
FW: When I moved to Twelfth Street, I left, I was 16, okay. I was 16, and to a teenager moving to another area, Twelfth Street was rough, but no rougher than the north end. So a kid from the north end moving to Twelfth Street or moving to the west side wasn’t a big deal if you were, how should I say, plugged in? I was I don’t want to say a street kid, but a rough kid. So it was the same. But Twelfth was different now. Twelfth was like that one-mile stretch, from Grand River to Claremont, that’s where everything took place. As far as Twelfth Street, and there was a lot going on on Twelfth. I mean, a lot of businesses. It was booming. On that one-mile stretch, okay, Linwood and Dexter and all, it was a lot different. Twelfth had a lot of things going on there. So in that respect, it was a lot different than the north end, okay.
But growing up there, now I was on Twelfth from 16 to 20, I got married when I was 20, and for those four years went from Twelfth Street, you know, being in its heyday, as far as I was concerned, to the disturbance, the riot, if you will. Which shut everything down. That just ended it.
WW: You said there was so much going on. What were some of the things, what were some of the businesses that were on Twelfth Street?
FW: Businesses? Twelfth Street had—hold on one second—okay. The things that were on Twelfth Street that were businesses, on that one-mile stretch, both sides of the street, you probably couldn’t find a vacant building, okay. There was something in every building, that ranged from pawn shops, clothing stores, restaurants, cleaners, you know. Whatever you wanted, really. Whatever you wanted, you could find, in those businesses, on Twelfth between Claremont and Grand Boulevard. So that was unique, back then. Yeah.
WW: So you said that the Twelfth and Claremont area was just as rough as the north end. As you were going through ’65 and ’66, did you notice any additional tension building up in the community?
FW: The tension in the community, not with the people. The tension was law enforcement. Okay now, back then, the law enforcement was ninety-nine percent white. So, you know, in the Sixties, when we did Twelfth Street, when we were young people on Twelfth, law enforcement was not going to be black. So you didn’t see black officers. So it was, you know, you have laws, but it was always white officers. So you had some tension there, which was, you know, that’s natural, at the time, you know. So when the riot happened, it was, on Twelfth Street, on any given night, you could find, twelve o’clock at night, on a summer day, a summer evening, you’re going to have two hundred people on the street, just out. From two hundred people, if two or three of those bars had something going on and had some entertainment, now you’ve got a lot of folks. So this is just folks going about their business, entertainment or shopping or whatever, okay.
When the riot happened, it happened at the blind pig. But this is what—my take on it was this: there was a blind pig there, but the night that it was raided, that isn’t what was going on. Now you also had Vietnam. You had soldiers going on and coming home, now we had some guys who had come home, and they was having a party. So it wasn’t what it normally would be. They would go there, raid the place, arrest some folks, find some money, gambling or whatever, drugs, whatever—but not that night. Okay. That night it was just a party for a guy coming home. Now a combination of that and the folks that were out there and saw law enforcement go in there, and start bringing people out, that particular night, the two, three hundred people out there just got fed up. Wasn’t having it. So, I always, my idea on it was a bad call from the commander that evening. He should’ve left that one alone, because it wasn’t worth it. Because if he had looked at it, he would’ve seen that to bring these 10 or 12 people out of there now, it’s not good. But he did it, and now you’ve got the two hundred or whatever, now you’ve got four hundred. In 20 minutes, you’ve got a thousand. Now everybody’s out there. So along with the times, the race thing at the time, folks just started to breaking windows and the looting started.
WW: How did you first hear about what was going on on Twelfth Street?
FW: On Twelfth Street, I heard about it. I was 19. My younger brother woke me up, I was asleep. He woke me up, said “Something’s going on.” So I woke up, came out to the front. Now, I’m like half a block down, so I could see everything going on. I came out, now I’m 19, but I’m dealing with, this is my girlfriend, okay, and she’s not having it, my mother’s not having it, it’s like, “Don’t go up there.” She’s right on Hazelwood, next block over. But at the time, my mother’s like, “Don’t go, don’t go up there.” But I’ve got to, I go up anyway. I went up, it was scary to see what was going on, what was happening because I’d never seen anything like that in my life. So I saw what we going on then I came on back home.
Then things took place the rest of the evening, the rest of the night. By sunrise, you could see what had happened over night. A lot of damage had happened, and it was just, you know, some days of the looting and the whole thing, I had to go. Her mother had a nervous breakdown from it. It was just too much for a lot of the older folks because first you had the riot squad came in, and then you had the riot squad, then the National Guard. Right. And when the National Guard came in, that was like, it was like Vietnam. It was soldiers, you see soldiers on Twelfth, with machine guns and all of this stuff, tanks—driving up and down Twelfth, it was just, amazing! Something, you know. But that was the way that it went. And it was like, what, 5 days? Five, six days, whatever, and a lot of damage was done. And that pretty much ended it. It ended that, you know.
WW: After you went to see what was happening, did you explore any more, or did you stay home and hunker down?
FW: Hunker down. I had brothers and sisters at home. My wife, I think, Judy wasn’t here? It was just my wife and her mother, so I went there, I stayed at her house. Her mother allowed me to stay downstairs, you know, but she was afraid, she was so afraid, because you didn’t know how this was going to go. You didn’t know what was going on. The police were saying get away from the windows, then you had snipers, and this thing happened. So it was just uneasy, you know, so I stayed there for some days—all day—and then in the evenings, a couple of times I stayed there and then I was at home. But I didn’t do Twelfth Street, I couldn’t. That was like, I didn’t get into that part of it. It was scary. That was scary, yeah.
WW: During those five days, was your house ever threatened by fire?
FW: No. No, neither of our houses were threatened by fire. But we both lived in the middle of the block. But there were houses, the houses that were right next to a business were in jeopardy, and a few of those people lost their homes. If they were right off the alley, then when the building went up then the fire would jump over. But no houses were burned, that wasn’t a thing. It was the stores. And they had the, most of the businesses were white, so they had the “soul brother” signs in. You did have the black businesses, but not a lot of them, not at the time. They were, that was pretty awesome, the amount of buildings that burned, it was like about eighty percent of them.
And again, I used to say that, you know, based on nothing other than my little mind, but I used to say that there was more money, in terms of businesses on that one-mile stretch in ’67, than any other block, than any other one-mile in this city—than any other one-mile in this city. But if you look at that, all of those were thriving businesses. They were all gone. That’s big. You know, for one mile. Yeah.
WW: Did you have any run-ins with the National Guard or the police that week?
FW: Personally? No, no. I wasn’t up there. I was home, and at her house. And if I wanted to go, no! And to be honest with you, the thing was, I had, I had jobs. I was working, I was working at Chevrolet. And so I had money. Things were for sale. So the little things, I bought a couple of items. I bought a camera, I bought a ring. That type of thing. Because folks were, you had kids up there stealing, I mean, it’s looting. And then folks that were looting were selling it. There were a lot of folks that went up, a lot of kids and young people went up there and got stuff, but they couldn’t take it home. They had to sell that stuff before they went home, because Mom or Dad wasn’t having it. So they would come out, and they would be walking around with this stuff, you know, you would buy a little stuff. That was happening, but the only folks that went up there - that took a lot of nerve. As far as I was concerned. To go into buildings—you had buildings burning, and then they would. You woke up that morning, you had a lot of businesses where, they hadn’t burned yet, the burning started a couple of days later, okay, but the first thing was breaking windows and all. So you had buildings, you had businesses where the whole front was torn off it. But that’s took a little nerve to go in there because law enforcement was there. A lot of folks got arrested, a lot of folks got hurt, a lot of young people.
We had, her neighbor, a young fellow lived on her block, he went up there, he was only like, 11 years old, something like that and he went up there and went into the five and ten cent store and he came out and they shot him. Paralyzed him. He ended up suing and got a million dollars or something, whatever, but you had a lot of people got hurt and lost their lives for little, petty stuff. Just for going into those stores. Because law enforcement was rough and the soldiers were rough during those times. And it wasn’t a thing of them being in a conflict with the people, the people were looting, so there was really no need to shoot somebody that’s looting. You either get him or you let him go. But there’s no need to shoot them. They did a lot of shooting, and you had a lot of people lost their lives for that reason, so.
WW: How did the neighborhood change afterwards? With all of those businesses gone, how did the neighborhood change?
FW: Okay, it changed where Twelfth Street was pretty much wiped out. Okay. Then for the next—now, that’s ’67—for the next, till around ’71, ’72, it was just, it looked like Beirut or something. I mean, the buildings were there, burned out, and it was just there. You could imagine how it was, where, one day it was this, okay, and the next day, that’s gone. So that’s a heck of a switch. I mean, you know, all of the clubs were gone, all the stores were gone, all the restaurants were gone, and everything is gone. Burned out. It’s over. So that, for the next few years, folks just had to sort of put a blind eye to it. Because it was there, the ruins were there, but that was over. The fun, the shopping, whatever was going on on Twelfth, that was all over.
Now, personally, I got married in ’68. So, and then, we moved away. We moved here when we got married. So, and my buddies, you know, the 20-somethings, there were a lot that stayed and a lot moved away, you know, but Twelfth Street was done. Then, about, maybe, I don’t know when they did the thing that’s there now, the apartments and all. They came through and they built the little shopping areas there, they built new apartments and all. First they leveled everything. So they brought everything back. The houses now, on Twelfth, that are on the corner, the first houses, they were like three houses back, okay, so they leveled all of that and then built the apartments. And when I talk with folks—I started doing these shirts, here, I did that thing about five years ago. The 40-somethings, they look at that, that’s their only view of it. When they look at that, they go, “Wow.” Those that know Twelfth Street, when you try to tell them what it looked like, they don’t get it. They can’t really visualize that, you know. Hustle, bustle. You know. They thought it was—when I tell them it was, like, two lanes. It was one way, but, just two lanes. Small street, you know, and they just can’t get to this. So, for the years afterwards, it went into, just nothing for a lot of years. They built the apartments and all, and then, from the apartments, it’s like now. It’s just there with the memories. So they only know what folks tell them that was there and pictures that they can see. So there’s a lot of stuff on YouTube. Now, I’ve noticed, the last three years on YouTube, when I first started going on YouTube the first thing I started punching in was Twelfth Street. Very little, very little stuff, you know. I was finding a little stuff here, a little stuff there, Twelfth Street riot, or whatever, and you’d get a couple of little slots on it. Now, phew. The whole thing is out now. And a lot of footage is available, a lot of stories are available. And you know, it’s history. But it’s sad.
I had one guy say something to me, and I felt bad. It’s only happened once, but I was telling him, because I tell the story about Twelfth Street a lot to the folks, the 20-somethings, 30-somethings, 40-somethings, and I was telling him about it and he said, “Wow!” And I said, yeah, it used to be, this is how it was and that was how it was, and he said, “Wow.” And he said, “And you all burned it down.” And I went, Wow, we did. Yeah, burned it down. You know, gone forever. And I don’t know what it would be like today had there not been a ’67 thing. I don’t know, but it was something. It was something. I mean, had we not had that migration out from the city and lost all of the folks moving away and all. If that was still on, it would be something else. Yeah.
WW: When the two of you got married, did you know you were going to stay in the city of Detroit? Or were you going to look elsewhere?
FW: No, it was in the city. We moved here in ’71, ’72? And, I’m Detroit. I mean, I have four sons. My three oldest sons are all suburbanites. One of my sons is in real estate, and he used to come, “Dad, Mom, look, you got to get this one.” No, no, no. This is me. This is our home, we’ve been here. This is my town. And then I’m a believer that it’s not about a geographical thing, it’s about a time thing. This is 2016. It doesn’t matter where you are. It can happen. It can happen. It’s happening everywhere, so you might as well have a 2016 attitude about the streets, period. And society. And really not focus a lot on your neighborhood, because we’ve got whackos everywhere. I feel safe, I love my city, and we’re not going anywhere. Unless she wants to, she’s sort of [laughs].
But a lot of real changing, but we will have this house. We will have this house. This is—and it works great for us. Our youngest son is autistic. This is a two family here so he lives upstairs. He’s 32-years-old, and this works for us. He has his privacy, and we can take care of him. It just works, so we’re blessed with this. This is all in the Lord’s hands. He worked it out for us, so, that’s the way I look at it.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
FW: Yes. Oh, yes. We are moving forward. I’m looking at -- we talked about the north end. The north end was -- that’s where blacks started in this city, okay. The blacks that came here in the early 1900s moved to the north end. The north end is right along the railroad tracks. That’s where African Americans were. That’s Black Bottom, okay. Then they moved west. So, now, I have a friend on the north end who’s born and raised there, still lives in the house he was born in, and he’s like, “Man, I’ve got so many white neighbors.” And he’s right, that’s what it is. It’s beginning to be -- See, what I liked was a mixed city. Back in the Fifties when I grew up here, we had Belle Isle. It was mixed and it was beautiful, it was great. But when all of the stuff happened, the riots and all, and the migration and the uprooting, and the people were all moving out—that changed things. But that’s in reverse now. Folks are coming back into the city. Twelfth Street, go to Chicago and Boston and all, you know, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s coming back fast. Houses are going up, old homes are being torn down. Not as fast as we want them to be, but they’re being torn down, you know. In due time, Detroit’s going to be great. Because this is a great city. Geographical, it’s a great city. We’re right on the water. At a period of time, we had given up our water. You had bums living on the water. You can’t have that. But we went through a lot of different things with politics and the race thing and all of this. But now, it’s a thing of them coming back now, and money’s being brought in. Even with our new mayor, we needed -- we got really messed up with politics. We needed Duggan for whatever, Duggan’s—we needed a white mayor in this town. This is my thing, we needed a white mayor in this town because you need all races, you need to have everybody in this. And what Detroit didn’t have was investors, and people willing to put money up, because so much was going on. Well, if it’s crooked going on, I’m not putting my money in there. Doesn’t make sense. It’s not happening now. Not to the degree that it was. So we’ve got folks, in the last 5 years, we’ve got a lot of big things happening. And a lot of things to come. The city itself being right on the water and what it has to offer. This is the Motor City. People love this town, you know.
We are both blessed with large family reunions, okay. We’re hosting both of them next year. Back to back. And we’ve done this before. And whatever folks say around the country about Detroit, whenever, with her family and mine, whenever we say, we’ll take it. They coming. They’re ready. And they are ready, and so many of them. "Cuz, are we going to this Belle Isle thing?" Oh yeah, oh yeah. You’re talking about a picnic area, on an island. [Laughs] The worst picnic I ever went to, and I’ve been everywhere—we’ve been a lot of places—was Los Angeles, California. A lot of Rolls Royces and Bentleys, but man, up on that hill, it wasn’t happening. It wasn’t happening. They couldn’t compare. So here, I mean, cities have things to offer. Detroit is home. I feel great about how it’s going, and I’m really—it’s going to be, it’s going to be back. 15, 20 years, a lot will have happened. 40 years? We’re back to the Fifties, only a lot tighter. I believe. That’s my vision. I see that.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I greatly appreciate it.
FW: I hope it was worth it.
WW: It was!