Mary Petlewski, August 25th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 25, 2016. My name is William Winkel. I am in Plymouth, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project and I am joined by -
MP: Mary Katherine Petlewski
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
MP: You’re welcome.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
MP: I was born May 21, 1947 in Augusta, Georgia.
WW: What year did your family come to Detroit?
MP: We came up approximately 1951. My father was employed by General Motors and he moved the family up having bought a house.
WW: Even though you were only four years old then, do you remember what your first impression of the city was?
MP: The immediate area I was in, of course, was suburban. Brand new developments. We did have a car so we did a lot of driving, especially on Sundays, and to me the city was just an enormous place with lots of tall building. We would go drive around Belle Isle. It was sort of just a wonderful, large place.
WW: What neighborhood did you move into?
MP: We moved into Northwest Detroit approximately Grand River, Evergreen area. It was a brand new subdivision at the time of small, three-bedroom, ranch homes.
WW: Was that neighborhood integrated?
MP: No, it was not.
WW: Did you feel comfortable growing up in that neighborhood?
WW: Growing up in the Fifties, did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood or did you venture around the city?
MP: We did stay in our own neighborhood simply because my father had a car but my mother did not and so during the day we were pretty much stuck and there were lots of young children to play with in my neighborhood. And the school I went to was close by so we pretty much stayed in our own neighborhood.
WW: Growing up in the Fifties and going into the Sixties, did you notice any tension in the city?
MP: Not that I was aware of going into the Sixties. I did go to high school starting in 1961 further into the city. I went to Immaculata High School which was down at the Wyoming, Six Mile area. And I did take city buses down to school and that was when the Lodge Freeway was just being built because I remember them working on it at the time. But I felt perfectly safe taking the buses down back and forth everyday down to that area.
WW: When you turned 18 and graduated high school, did you stay in the city?
MP: I did. I decided to go to college at the University of Detroit which was just a mile further into the city from Immaculata. And at that time I felt perfectly comfortable at U of D, in fact I worked 40 hours on campus and went to school full time so I was there seven days a week from morning until night.
WW: Wow. So, going into ‘67, given the mood across the country, were you expecting any violence in Detroit that summer?
MP: I was not surprised. I really was not and I’ve always been a news junkie and my family have been news junkies so I read the newspapers avidly. I was interested – I was a history major at U of D, worked in the library, very much up to date on current events. My uncle was a policeman for the city of Detroit so I was well aware of what had been going on in the country so I was not surprised.
WW: Were you on campus that Sunday?
MP: I was not on campus that particular Sunday, no. I was at home.
WW: Is that were you first heard about what was going on?
MP: I did.
WW: Do you remember how?
MP: I believe my father got word of it from my uncle.
WW: You said you weren’t surprised, was your family surprised?
MP: No, we were not.
WW: Do you remember how they reacted to the news?
MP: Well, I know my mother was very concerned at the time because we did have a black housekeeper who came in once and week to clean and she actually was living on Clairmount at the time and my mother’s first reaction was we’ve got to get her to the safety of our house. And I do remember she made the phone call and said, “Can we come get you?” and Augustine, that was her name, said, “No, I’m hiding under my table. There are shots around me and I don’t want you to come down because you’re white and I don’t dare leave because I’m afraid of what will happen to my house if I leave.” So I remember that was one of my mother’s first reactions was we’ve got to get Augustine out.
WW: Do you have any other experiences from that week that you’d like to share or did you interact with the events in any way?
MP: I did. We lived four houses south of Grand River and I remember my grandmother and I walked up to our corner – there was a bar on our corner. And we walked up to the corner and we stood outside the bar and we watched the tanks roll down Grand River Avenue on their way downtown and I would assume those were the National Guard tanks. I also remember in the evenings, the helicopters We would heard the helicopters overhead and they would be shining spotlights down in our backyard which to me was more terrifying, really, than watching the tanks go down Grand River. The tanks were sort of surreal but the helicopters were just plain spooky. And then not the first – and I honestly don’t remember if the campus closed the first day after the riot but I do know the campus was open again because I had to go back to work and I went down to work and there were National Guardsman stationed on top of our library building on the U of D campus and they had machine guns up there on tripods and they were standing watch over the campus to keep us safe while we were trying to do our jobs there.
WW: Do you remember what day you had to go back?
MP: That’s what I’m trying to remember. I know it was during the week but I can’t believe it would have been the first day. But I do know during that week I had to go back because I was working full time at the time and I was expected to go back. And I was trying to remember at the time, I know I had a car. I don’t know if I drove down or I don’t know if I took the bus. I kind of doubt if I took the bus.
WW: Was Augustine’s house –
MP: It was not damaged. It was not damaged. Thank heavens. I can also remember the rumors were so prevalent that the rumors were crazy at times but then scary at others. We heard that they were blocking the border at Toledo so that no people could come up, no agitators could come up from the south through Ohio to fight in the riots. That was one of the big things that I heard a lot of. And then another one that I image was probably close to being true is we lived west of Rosedale Park which is west of the Southfield Freeway and supposedly the people in Rosedale Park were going to mount some sort of barricade at Grand River and Southfield to keep any rioting people from going into Rosedale Park because at that time Rosedale Park was still fairly lily white and the people there were very protective of their houses. I know that some of the rioting spread as far west as Grand River and Greenfield because some of the stores we used to shop at were at Grand River and Greenfield. There was a Federals and Montgomery Wards and a Crawleys and some of those sustained damage but it was like the last stand was going to be made at the Southfield Grand River line and that always sort of amazed me just to picture it in my mind.
WW: Do you remember your trip down to the University District when you had to go to work? Did you see any other damage on your way there?
MP: I did not. A friend of mine, a young man I was dating at the time, drove an ambulance and he actually came back from the scene with bullet holes in his ambulance and I did see those myself on campus which persuaded me not to take ambulance rides with him. [laughs] After the fact, we drove around a lot in the area especially the West Grand Boulevard area. As a history person I wanted to see the Algiers Motel. That came up a lot in the newspaper. Again, I was a news junkie and so I pretty much read everything I could get my hands on.
WW: Did you see the city in a different light afterwards?
MP: Yes, I did, unfortunately. I think you would have to be crazy not to, from my perspective. It did not deter me from buying a house in the city. When I got married I turned right around and bought a house in Detroit. I was committed to Detroit but it scared me. I wanted to make a difference but I knew it was really going to be hard because I could see what had happened and the potential. And I know it escalated – the white flight turned into a white stampede after that.
WW: Do you think the shadow of ‘67 still hangs over the city today?
MP: I think as long as any of us are alive that witnessed it, it can’t help but color it. I think thankfully there are a lot of new people who, to them, saying 1967 it means nothing. They weren’t around. It isn’t widely discussed but I think any of us who lived through it, it did make and indelible mark on us. And it either made us flee or it made us say Okay I want to fight for this. I grew up in Detroit, this is my Detroit, I want to make a difference. And frankly, we did not move out of Detroit until ‘79. And my parents did not move out of Detroit until ‘81. And they lost just about everything they’d ever put into their house because of the dropping values which was so sad.
WW: How do you interpret the events of July 1967, do you see them as a riot or do you see them as a rebellion, race riot?
MP: I saw it at the time as a riot taking advantage of the situation. An escalation where it turned it from a very small confrontation that then escalated into everybody having a chance to just let their feelings loose and I don’t necessarily believe that everybody who rioted had a grievance. I think at that point it was just a big free-for-all and until people started getting killed, I think then it turned into something a lot more serious but I think that first day, maybe day and a half, when you could just run into a store and grab stuff, that was just kind of insanity.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
MP: I am in a limited way. Until we can tackle unemployment, education, what to do with a much smaller population inhabiting a large area that is not terribly productive I don’t see a huge change for the everyday people in Detroit. Those who go down and buy the places down by the waterfront, I think that they have a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of everything the city has to offer and, dear Lord, they have made enormous strides with the building the new sports facilities, the Fox Theater, the waterfront festivals. I think that’s a wonderful thing but I don’t know that it really drives – the benefits of this go down to the people who have to live with the poor services, the wretched educational situation and the years and years of the cycle of poverty and the cycle of not complete families. So, it’s mixed for me.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today?
MP: No, I think it was – I’m very glad this is being done. I think that it was in a way a turning point in the city. I think that there were some struggles before that but I think that this sort of put an exclamation point on those struggles and for a lot of people, things became a lot worse and for those who had any thought of perhaps not staying there, it just made them leave faster and so it truly was a momentous summer.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me. I greatly appreciate it.
MP: You’re very welcome.