Darryle Buchanan, December 13th, 2016
In this interview, Buchanan discusses his experiences growing up primarily in Virginia Park during the 1960s. He notes the escalated police presence in the community, and details several anecdotes of police brutality he experienced as a child. During the unrest, his mother was transported to and from work by the police and National Guard, once in an armored personnel carrier. He recalls the events in great detail, remembering the smell of burning buildings “everywhere” and the constant police sirens which sounded like “wailing.” Buchanan discusses the importance of Twelfth Street as a site of black economic self-sufficiency, which he claims no longer exists, and will not exist in the near future despite the revitalization of Midtown and Downtown Detroit.
***This interview contains profanity and/or explicit language
WW: Hello. Today is December 13, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I am in Detroit, Michigan. I am sitting down with Mr. Darryle Buchanan. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
DB: Thank you for having me.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
DB: I was born in Detroit on July 28, 1955 at Women’s Hospital, which is now Hutzel Hospital.
WW: Did you grow up in the city?
DB: Yes I did.
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
DB: I lived in several neighborhoods. When I was born, my father was in the military, so my mother–single woman, 20 years old, she was living with relatives–at one point we lived down on Hastings and Canfield. It was kind of interesting going back and remembering that because that whole area has been replaced by I-75. We lived there for a moment, and for the most part though I remember growing up on the Northeast Side in Conant Gardens, that’s where I first started school. We moved from there to Highland Park, which I absolutely loved living in Highland Park. My parents divorced and we moved onto Virginia Park which probably is where I would say where I grew up.
WW: What were some of the differences between those neighborhoods? Do you remember them being staunchly different or kind of along the same lines?
DB: Highland Park was probably the most different of any of the communities that I lived in. It was very integrated, and very viable in those days because Chrysler Headquarters was still in Highland Park, and a lot of management and executives lived in Highland Park. I would actually see them walking to and from work everyday. It was interesting because even at lunchtime, they would leave, go home, have lunch, and then go back. It was just a very different time. This was the early Sixties, ’61 to’63 is when we were living there.
WW: Are there any other memories you’d like to share from growing up in either Virginia Park or in Conant Gardens?
DB: In Highland Park, I was eight years old, and we were practicing for my first communion. I was raised Catholic.
DB: I went to Blessed Sacrament, which is not too far, Belmont, where we were in Highland Park. During the rehearsal, I remember one of the nuns running into the church and telling us all to get on our knees and pray, that the president had just been killed. That was something that you never forget, I don’t care what age you are, I was eight years old, and that’s a day that I remember like yesterday.
DB: Especially being Catholic, all of the excitement around having a Catholic president, what he meant to that. In that time period, that was the thing that stuck out most to me.
DB: Funny thing: you know how little boys are, especially back in the early Sixties, we’re just coming out of World War II and Korea, we all had army helmets and guns and we played war and did all that stuff. You don’t really know the difference between ethnicities or anything like that. Going to a Catholic School, you have a lot of Chaldeans, a lot of Filipinos as well as white and black students, and I had this one Filipino friend, and we were all just kids, we weren’t shy, you know, we’re walking down the street and he said he was talking about, “What are we going to do? What’s going to happen to us?” Then he said, “What if the Japanese attack us?” All the little boys looked at him like, “What are you worried about?” you know? Because we didn’t make distinctions, we just know that he looked Asian, and that was it. We just said, “You should be okay.” That’s the most memorable thing about that time for me.
WW: Uh-hm. Given the diverse community that you grew up in, both in your neighborhood and at your school, did you tend to stay in your own neighborhoods growing up or did you venture around the city? And if so, did you feel comfortable venturing around the city?
DB: That’s the one thing that caused me a lot of problems when I was a little boy: I had wanderlust. I just, for whatever reason, I had no problem walking around the city, catching the bus around the city.
On the east side and west side of Woodward, streets have different names. I knew that my favorite cousin lived on Glynn, and Glynn is Belmont, where I went to school, on the other side. So I just happened to look over there one day, and seriously, I was about seven years old, Friday afternoon, I looked over there and I said, “Glynn? My cousin lives on Glynn.’ So I just started walking down Glynn, and I walked down Glynn all the way, got to the expressway, had to go around, come back on the other side and keep going down Glynn. Eventually, I got to my cousin’s house and walked in and they were sitting down getting ready to have late lunch, so I sat down and next thing I know it’s Friday evening and we’re just running around playing, and my mom is panicking, she’s calling looking for me, and my aunt was like, “What are you talking about? He’s sitting at the table with us right now.” That’s just how it was for me. It was just an adventure. I just loved growing up then. It was a different time. It was just easy just to get around. I mean a seven year old on the bus? I’m talking about getting on the DSR [Department of Street Railways] bus and you can’t event imagine, people worry about their kids getting on school buses now, let alone getting on DOT [Department of Transportation] buses. East side/west side, and it’s funny because even now my sons are always asking me, “Dad, how do you know this?” I say, “I grew up here. I know everything about Detroit.”
DB: Just drop me off and I guarantee you I can find my way back home. It was a good time, a very different time.
WW: Growing up, do you remember any tension growing in the city? Either economic, racial – ?
DB: Until I moved on Virginia Park, I never really noticed anything. I was friends with, as I said, Filipino kids, Chaldean kids, white kids, I would go to their house, we would visit with each other. I didn’t notice anything different until I moved onto Virginia Park. Then some stark realities started to set in for me that I wasn’t ready for but I lived through and it was just a stark difference going from one environment to the other. Not to say that it was bad, it was just different.
WW: Would you mind elaborating on some of those differences?
DB: Well, one, just the number of people that lived in the community. We moved in with my father’s parents, and they owned a two-family flat on Virginia Park, and right next-door was an apartment building, and up and down the street, there were all two-family flats, multi-level and multi-unit dwellings. So small apartments, big apartments, four units, and that kind of thing. So there were way more people living in that area than I had seen either growing up in Conant Gardens or in Highland Park. But it was good, a whole lot more people to play with for sure, and a whole lot more people to get into trouble with as well.
Along with that, I noticed differences just in poverty rates and things like that. I had really never seen people that were struggling financially, families struggling. It wasn’t like I separated myself from them, they were my friends so it was no distinction in terms of me versus them or income or those kinds of things, but I did notice just the difference there.
The other thing that I noticed was the police presence that was in that community. I barely ever saw the police before in my life until I moved over there. And then it was just a regular occurrence, seeing police. You know, I think my first time being involved with the police or the police saying anything to me, we were little boys, we found a pack of cigarettes and we’re running around trying to find matches so we could light them up. We were in the alley–because we used to play in the alleys, the alleys were actually pretty nice to play in then–and then these police rolled up on us, and, “Hey, what are you doing?” and started chasing us because we were smoking cigarettes. I was scared, for sure, but couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. It’s like why go to those extremes when you could have just as easily said, “Put those down” or “Give them to me” and they’ll throw them away? But to chase us, I thought it was a little bit extreme. So, just from that aspect, I noticed there was a difference from being a little boy kind of naïve growing up in Highland Park, now I’m a young man–not even young man yet, I’m still nine, ten years old growing up over there. All of the sudden, I started seeing that it’s a little different over here.
WW: Going into ’67, were you still living on Virginia Park?
DB: Yeah, yeah. I actually, from ’63 until adulthood, that’s where I lived. Grade school, high school, and college, that was the base for me living there. So yeah, in ’67 I was right there. I actually, I turned 12 that week. I turned 12 that week. It’s one of those things that you’ll–like the assassination, this is burned in my memory. Sights, smells, sounds, things I just, I have flashbacks of them.
WW: Where in Virginia Park where you?
DB: Right on Virginia Park between Twelfth and Fourteenth Street. Yeah, right at the epicenter. Our house was – it now is on the corner of Fourteenth because they tore down the apartment building that was next-door. So I got to see and feel the entirety, the intensity of the whole event.
WW: Did you and your family go onto Twelfth Street at all growing up? Was that your main thoroughfare?
DB: When I first moved over there my mom was telling me, “Now, we’re moving to a different neighborhood, you stay off of Twelfth Street.” You know that’s the worst thing you can tell a little boy, what not to do, because I started going on Twelfth Street. I didn’t have a choice really because the school I went to, St. Agnes, was right on the corner of South La Salle Gardens and Twelfth Street. It didn’t make sense to walk all the way back to Fourteenth a lot of days when I can just walk right down Twelfth to Virginia Park and come home.
I’m going to tell you, man, there were so many things that I saw, it was just alive. It was alive. There were stores, there were theatres, there were restaurants, I mean, it was a fully self-contained area. There was no reason for you to ever leave that neighborhood to do anything. Just think about on my block, on Virginia Park, just Twelfth Street between Virginia Park and Seward: just in that strip, in my block, there was Dr. Maben’s Pharmacy, there was Hope Brothers’ Barber Shop, there was Fishman’s Hardware, there was the Chit Chat Lounge, there was a beauty shop in there, but then there was Picnic Barbeque, and then there was actually a dairy on the corner where we would go and buy milkshakes, Boston Coolers, ice cream, all that, and then a market on the opposite corner right there. There was no reason to ever have to leave the neighborhood to do anything. You could just go up and down Twelfth Street: clothing stores, you name it, gas stations, everything right there. I thought it was probably the best time of my life in terms of growing up and being able to see life from every aspect. There were church people, there were hustlers, there were regular, everyday folks, families, just doing what they do. It was – economically, there was a way for everybody to do something, make some money. I remember as a little kid–just because of the way the neighborhood was, the people that lived there, I was a little boy that never, never had to go without money. All I had to do was walk down the street and just ring the doorbell: need somebody to pull your weeds, cut your grass, shovel snow? I would even make money just walking up to the store and I’d ask people, “I’m going to the store, you need anything?” And they would say, “Yeah, bring me back whatever.” And I’d bring it back, and they’d give me a nickel, a dime, or whatever. That was good money. If you had a quarter back then, you could buy a pop and a bag of chips. For a little boy, that was good. I saw jitneys, I don’t know if you know what a jitney is, but a jitney is, they’re the original Uber drivers. So you go to the market and not everybody had a car, and so the jitneys would see you shopping, and a lot of them just had regular folks and would see you coming, and say, “I got you on your way out.” No problem. So they would load up your groceries, take you to your house, unload them, and go back to the market and get the next one. When I saw the Uber thing, I said, “Seriously? That’s nothing but a jitney. That’s wild.”
WW: How did you first hear about what was going on on Twelfth Street that night on July 23?
DB: Well I told you I went to Catholic School. At St. Agnes, I was an altar boy, a safety patrol boy, I did all that stuff, right? So, throughout the summer, you still had a schedule as an altar boy and I remember getting up to do 8 o’clock mass and my mother was an emergency room tech at Henry Ford Hospital. So she knew I was getting up to go, and I was actually up and ironing my cassock. So I was up ironing, and I could hear activity, and I said, “Man, wow, people are partying early today.” I could smell some smoke, and I was thinking people are barbequing or something. So when my mom called, she said, “You’re not going to church this morning,” I said, “Mom, I have to. What are you talking about?” She said, “There’s a riot going on on Twelfth Street and you’re not going to be able to get to the church anyway, so just stay, I’ll be home in a minute.”
Immediately, I went out to the front porch, and I noticed that all the noise that I was hearing was people milling about and going up and down the street. The looting really hadn’t started yet, but it was just a matter of time before all that broke out. My grandparents were there, we woke, and then we were just on the porch for the most part just looking up and down the street, neighbors milling about, talking about what was going on. Then my mother came home in a police car, and I was like, this is interesting she always caught the bus. But I guess bus service was disrupted, so the police brought her home in a car.
Now, my social consciousness is starting to come about, and by the age of 11, now I’m about to turn 12, and it concerned me seeing my mother in a police car because now I’m trying to get a feel for what’s going on up there but then seeing the police bringing my mother home, I was worried about how the people in the neighborhood were going to see our family because later, as my parents, my grandparents got away – well I got away from them, and of course you know I went right up to Twelfth Street just to watch everything. It was really something to see. It was really something to see. So many people so angry all at once. But I understood what was going on, because, as I told you, I had been dealing with this whole police presence for quite some time. What I’m saying is when you grow up in that neighborhood, you learn to play cops and niggers when you are young. The story about the cigarettes, that was typical of the kind of things that happened to us in that neighborhood.
For the older guys, I could see that it was even worse. There were guys that were teenagers that I saw growing up, and I just thought they were the coolest guys in the world; they used to wear their crisscross sweaters and their mohair slacks and their gypsy split shoes–that’s how they dressed going to high school. I was like, “Man, when I grow up, I want to be just like them.” Well, in the interim, a lot of those guys ended up going to Vietnam, and so they’re coming back from Vietnam about the same time that this is going on and they weren’t the same. They weren’t the cool people that I knew when I was little. They were dark, they were disturbed. You could tell something was wrong with them. They’re in the mix now too, coming home to have to deal with those same conditions. I remember seeing a guy that lived in the apartments that I told you were next-door to us, and just hearing all that going on that night, he just clicked into survival mode, and I saw him with his gear on jumping out the side window of the first floor of the apartment. I don’t know where he went, and I don’t think I ever saw him again. But I just remember seeing that and I was thinking, “Man, this is way worse than anything I could have ever imagined.” All that happening at the same time that we have this police presence in our neighborhood, and naturally knowing all these things, we’re now wearing naturals and we’re talking about Black Power.
I remember my mom used to, I said she worked at midnight, so in the daytime, she would sleep and certain things had to be done, and she would put me on the bus to go–and I mean, again, you know, it’s no big deal – go downtown, pay the Hudson’s bill, pay the light bill, take these light bulbs and exchange the light bulbs–that’s when light bulbs were actually free. That was part of my growing up, that was my responsibility as the oldest boy in a single-parent household. Inevitably, every time when I’d catch the Fenkell bus, they’d either be somebody from the Nation of Islam, or somebody from the Black Panther Party who would be there talking to me, telling me, “Young Brother, this is how you need to conduct yourself. And when you’re stopped by the police, you need to know how to answer, how to respond. You need to know these things in order to survive. Young Brother, do not wear your hair so long, you won’t be able to escape the pigs. Don’t wear bellbottom pants and do not wear platform shoes, you will not be able to get away.” These are things that were engrained in us as little boys in that neighborhood. Then, when I would have a conversation with somebody form the Nation of Islam and they started talking to me about how I should I take care of my body, and how I should eat, and how I should dress, and how I conduct myself in public. It was a different time in that I really feel like most of the young men of my generation, we were kind of raised up to be soldiers in terms of the Civil Rights Movement and just all of the turmoil of those times. This was all just a part of that. So seeing my mom get out of that police car caused me a little bit of concern.
That night, we’re now moving into where the National Guard and the Federal Troops were coming in, and there was basically martial law, so the curfew, lights out, and at night, they came and picked my mother up again to go to work but this time they picked her up in an unmarked police car, I had never seen one of those before. Totally blacked out, no insignia on it whatsoever, and when they came and knocked on the door, and she left out with them. They left and they didn’t even turn on the lights in the car and I mean they shot down Virginia Park so fast, it was kind of shocking to see.
You look at all that and my concern now is how’s that going to be taken in the neighborhood, how are they going to feel about us? Because I had seen black businesses on the corner of Virginia Park and Twelfth Street was Dr. Maben, he was a pharmacist, and I couldn’t believe that they actually broke into Dr. Maben’s drugstore and looted it because it was a black business. So right then I knew that black, white, Jewish, whatever, none of that mattered right now. That’s just how out of control the situation was. So my concern for my mother was real. Okay?
Then you add to that, the next morning when they brought her back, she came home – this armored personnel carrier came down my street ‘ding, ding, ding, ding,’ it’s like making this noise and you can’t help but notice that, right? So I run to see what is all that, and the thing pops up, the soldier pops out, and here comes my mom, popping up out of this armored personnel carrier, like, “Okay, thank you,” came on in the house, and I was like, this is unbelievable, totally unbelievable. But I think because most of the people in my neighborhood knew my mother and my grandmother. They were both nurses, and they just knew them as healers, so I don’t think that they looked at them as being compliant with them. They’re just healers, that’s what they do. We didn’t really have a concern, but I’m 11, I don’t know that.
WW: After your first trip up to Twelfth Street, did you go back at all, or did you, after what you saw the first times, did you stay hunkered down at your house?
DB: You couldn’t keep me off of Twelfth Street, and I just kept going back. Each time I went back, there was less and less of Twelfth Street than I remembered. I actually saw a building, and if you’ve ever seen a building on fire, the building’s on fire, when it collapses, there’s this rush of cool air that comes out of the basement–because remember this is in July, so you’re thinking everything is just hot–but when the building collapsed, you can actually feel this cool air rush all the way across the street. So I’m standing on the corner of Virginia Park and Twelfth and this cleaners was on the opposite side of Twelfth Street, and when that building collapsed it was weird. I actually saw rats running out of the building on fire down the street. I saw some things that day, I saw some things. Just the smell of the burning building, and then it was just everywhere; that smell was everywhere.
One thing that I always think about is back in those days, the police sirens now, they kind of give you like a ‘whoop-whoop’ kind of sound, back then it was like a long drawn out ‘wwrrrr-wrrrrr’ and normally you would hear it and it would be a police car, fire truck or something going by and that was it, but it was constant, it never stopped. It was like a constant drone of sirens that just never went away. After a while, it just started to sound like wailing, like crying. It’s almost like the city was dying and it’s that crying sound that you heard. It was eerie, you can’t forget it, you never forget that. The worst thing is that, as I said, it was probably the most vibrant neighborhood community and then it wasn’t. It was like it just died, and it never, ever came back. There’s been attempts trying to rebuild. I know my grandfather was part of the Virginia Park Association, and they put in a Community Center and a little shopping area right there, and that was a source of pride, but it was nowhere near as robust as Twelfth Street was on its own.
WW: That week, was your house threatened by fire at all?
DB: No. We were far enough away from Twelfth Street that there was really no–and there were no fires on my block. The buildings were looted, but none of them were set on fire.
DB: The fire I was telling you about was across Twelfth Street, so it was between Twelfth and Woodrow Wilson. So it wasn’t on my side. Actually, that was separated because it was a trailer rental lot that was next-door to it, so when it burned, it just kind of burned on its own, separate from anybody’s community. There may have been a house that was behind it, that was I think it was singed, and I think it may have had some fire damage, but on my side of Virginia Park, nothing really happened. So, no, there was no threat of any fire.
The one thing that I did see a lot, was a lot of just the police presence more so. Living next-door to that apartment building was interesting because on the roof there was an antenna on the roof, with everything blacked out, the lights out. I woke up to the entire apartment building being surrounded by state troopers and federal troopers and they all had their guns drawn pointing at the top of the apartment building. There was a state trooper in our backyard that was next to a tree that was in the yard, and he had the gun drawn on the top of the building, and I remember crawling all the way to the window and peeking up and trying to see, look up there, and the guy looked over and he said, “Get out of that window”. I got away from the window and crawled back. We slept in my grandparents’ dining room that entire week under her dining room table. There’s no air conditioning, so the windows are up, so you see and hear everything that’s going on, so when that happened, I immediately started running toward the windows to see what was going on. That’s another one of those things that you don’t forget.
WW: Were you, granted you were really young, did you understand what it meant for the National Guard to be coming in?
DB: Well, I knew that–
WW: Or did you see them any differently as you saw the police?
DB: Well, yeah I did. As I got older, then I found out that there was a huge difference between where I was and other portions of the city. See where I was, on the west side, we were at the epicenter of everything; I mean Virginia Park is only like five blocks from Clairmount, where it originated, and so the federal troops were the ones that came there. Now the interesting thing about them is that they don’t spook easy, man. I mean, they would talk to us. They were stationed on the corner, and we would just go and stand there and talk to them and the guy would talk to us; he was just mellowed out. He wasn’t in Vietnam, and I’m sure he’d been there, so he wasn’t sweating this very much. I just remember sitting there, talking to him, he took his helmet off, put it on the ground, and he sat on his helmet, and we just sat there talking to the guy. Just mellow. Now, what I heard is that my cousins lived on the east side, and they said the guys that they were dealing with were nothing like that. Now, I didn’t know at that time that that’s where the National Guard was, so those are Reserves that are pulled up and these guys are being called up to duty and being put into this situation; they’re coming from wherever in the state of Michigan and they just, they didn’t know, whereas the federal guys they were like, “This is not a big deal.” I mean it’s a big deal, but they’ve seen worse, just the way they responded was totally different. I did know that there was a level of seriousness and concern for safety and everything else, but I didn’t feel like these guys were a threat, like something was going to happen. If anything, I felt like they were going to stop things from happening. And it did, it did really settle things down in the neighborhood for the most part. And then it just seemed like from there, it spread out from where we were–which it had to do because they had to calm that area down first –but it spread out the other areas of the city, and I think that’s what prolonged the whole rebellion.
WW: Awesome segue: how do you refer to what happened in ’67? Do you see it as a rebellion?
DB: When I was younger like everybody else, we called it a ‘riot,’ and as I got older, I started to understand it more, because, as I was telling you, the confrontations that we had with police, and actually confrontations Ihad with the police made me change my opinion about it, that it wasn’t a riot. Because typically when you think about a riot, you’re looking at people going after each other. In ’43, people were going after each other, okay? In ’67, nobody was attacking anybody. They were against the police and there was some economic tensions that were going on so people were looting, stealing, doing all that, but it wasn’t like people were being attacked. No specific group was targeted, so it couldn’t really be a riot in the classic definition of a riot because there were no groups going at each other other than people going after a system that was very oppressive for the people in my neighborhood, myself included.
I remember once my mother, when she did get a car, she got this Olds 88 which was like a tank, I think it was like a ’66, just an absolute tank. She picked me up from basketball practice, and my brother and sister were in the car. She said, “Stay in the car.” This is right on the Boulevard and Twelfth where there was a Cunningham’s and an A&P. She said, “Stay in the car, I’ll be right back.” I said, “Okay.” She gets out, and I’m coming from basketball practice, I’m thinking, “I’m cramping, I need to stretch,” I got out the car. And when I got out the car, my brother and sister locked the door, so now we’re playing. I opened the door, so I jumped on the bumper of this tank and I’m jumping up and down on the bumper and I’m telling my brother, I’m yelling, “Open the door! Open the door!” They’re laughing, saying, “We’re not going to let you in! We’re not!” I didn’t notice out the corner of my eye that an unmarked police car had pulled up on me while I’m jumping up and down on this car. I turned and looked, and it’s The Big Four. They got out, and they started walking toward me, and this is when my Black Panther training kicked in, and I’m standing there and talking to them and I had my hands where they could see my hands and I’m telling them, “What’s the problem, officer?” So this one cop walked up and grabbed me by the lapels of my coat–this is how small I was and how big this guy was–he picked me up by the lapels of my coat, my feet were dangling, and he was shaking me, and he was saying, “Where’s your knife?” I said, “Officer I don’t have a knife. Why are we doing this? I haven’t violated any rules, I’m playing with my brother and sister. What have I done, officer?” I’m just trying to humanize this whole thing, I’m not, “Where’s your knife? Where’s your knife?” My mom came out of the market, she has on her work clothes and she looked at them, and they looked at her: they knew each other. Remember, she was an emergency room tech. These cops had brought in some young men before, and she recognized them. The words that started coming out of my mother’s mouth right then, I couldn’t believe it. The officer looked over there at her, they eased me down back on the ground, got back in the car and drove off. So I was standing in that parking lot, looking at their car pulling off, I was like, whoa. Then I looked over at my mother, and I started thinking, “I think I want to go with those police officers.” That’s just how it was. I was playing.
I was a little boy playing with his brother and sister, and my brother and sister, they’re in the car, now they’re crying, it’s a mess, and it’s for no reason whatsoever. Because a little boy was playing in the parking lot. That’s just the kind of stuff that was going on until it got to the level of S.T.R.E.S.S. [Stop The Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets] – and this is after the riot but the riots didn’t stop that. If anything, it intensified it. Those are the issues that we had to deal with, that I had to deal with, from the age of eight ’til the age of 18 when I left and went away to college. Those are the things that were going on. So, looking back, I can’t say that it was a riot, it was a rebellion. Because being a rebellion, it did result in some changes being made. The Big Four, S.T.R.E.S.S., all of that, they were abolished, and it had to be, otherwise, we would’ve lived in constant fear of the police. We just didn’t have a good relationship with the police department in my neighborhood. It was not, it was not a riot, it was a revolt; it was us saying to the system, “Get off our backs.”
WW: Earlier you said children of your generation were raised to be soldiers. Do you think that was a benefit?
DB: It should have been. It should have been. I say that because we were raised with a certain consciousness about what we were supposed to be doing to advance the civil rights movement. The doors opened wide, opportunity started coming our way, and I was up at MSU [Michigan State University] and there were more black students at MSU at that time than they’d ever had. Clifton Wharton was the president then, and there was intentional work on recruiting and graduating black students through MSU. So when I say that the doors opened wide and the opportunities came, we got caught up in the me-ism of that time. When I look at a lot of the things that go on, and what’s happened since then, I really feel the personal responsibility that it was my generation that dropped the ball on this because we were raised with a certain mindset, a certain consciousness, and then we bought into the me-ism of the Nineties and the corporate life and all of those things. We forgot about the movement. I jokingly say to people all the time, “We went from ‘It’s Nation-time’ to ‘Hey baby, what’s your sign?’” We weren’t doing what we were prepared to do in terms of community building. Yeah, we were successful, corporately, and things like that, but we took our eye off of how we got there, and how we got there is that those in front of us, when they paved the way, they made sure that they brought us in behind and said, “Okay, this is what you need to do.” That didn’t happen. So that generation of young men who started to fill prisons and get caught up in all of the drug trade and all of those things, those are my sons. These are my grandchildren that I’m working now trying to save. That’s why I do what I do, and it’s more, not personally failing, I mean I’ve got two sons who are doing exceptionally well, but overall we forgot what we were supposed to be doing. Yeah, there were challenges, but there’ve always been challenges. There are challenges now. What are you going to do? So that’s my motivation when I get up in the morning: just to remember that I was called upon to do something, and how do I do that now?
WW: Very nice. Is there anything else, any other stories you’d like to share from either that week before we move on, just to go past it?
DB: I had never seen that kind of madness before in my life in terms of it just seemed like there was everybody just kind of lost their compassion, they lost their soul. To just go and just destroy property like that, especially–I mean I was standing in front of Dr. Maben’s Pharmacy, and I was begging people, I was crying, I was like, “What are you doing? Dr. Maben is a black man. What are you doing? He serves our community.” But the madness overtook everything, and it destroyed which was once a very viable, strong, black community. Strong in terms of, we weren’t quite there politically, but economically, for the most part, we were self-sufficient.
My uncle, when I was talking about Hastings earlier, he was a pharmacist. When I was a little boy, I used to think all the time about my family was rich, I just thought we were the richest people on earth because my Uncle Smitty was a pharmacist, my Uncle Joe down the street was a barber, he had his own barber shop, and my Uncle Clement was a mechanic and he ran his little mechanic shop out the back of Digg’s Funeral Home. Diggs, they had a funeral home that was around the corner on Canfield, but in the back, my uncle said, “Hey, let me rent that out, and I can fix cars back there and I’ll fix you cars.” They were like, “Cool.” That’s what he did. But the one I loved the most was my Uncle Bunch, and I didn’t know Uncle Bunch delivered coal in the winter and ice in the summer and he picked up junk but Uncle Bunch had a horse, and for a little boy, a horse is like the coolest thing in the world; I just used to think, “Uncle Bunch has a horse.”
So I saw all of that, and then I also saw, when I-75 came through there and it just wiped out all of that. Then we moved into the other areas, onto Twelfth Street and then like that, and then I watched how just the madness made us destroy our own economy. It just changed a lot of things; I think it changed our own perceptions about who we are. And it was really nobody that could stand up and speak in a way to help understand what we were doing, and how that was going to impact us.
So, here we are, 50 years later, we’re seeing a resurgence here, Midtown, downtown. Twelfth Street’s not coming back. Anybody that lived on there and saw that, they know what I’m talking about. Just being over there, you didn’t have to go anywhere else. Northland was like an overnight trip as far as I was concerned. There was no reason to go to Northland, didn’t have to. We were totally self-sufficient. We don’t have that anymore, we don’t have that self-sufficiency. Our neighborhoods are dominated by other people who – I’m not blaming anybody, it’s the way it is but we don’t have a viable black economy anymore, not like we had then. When I was talking about Dr. Maben and my uncle, they were pharmacists, there was a group of black pharmacists who would get together and have fundraising events, big dinner dances, those kinds of things – they were real big back then – and they raised funds, they had scholarships and all kinds of things. There’s no black pharmacist group like that now. So a lot of those things don’t exist anymore since 1967. That was kind of, when I talked about that wailing, those sirens, truly was the death of our community and our economy. It just kind of cast us out to the winds.
So we see that now, and it’s like we casts dispersions on people who live on the other side of Eight Mile and all these kind of things, and it’s like we’re caught up in things that had nothing to do with how do we bring back what we once had? How do we do that? So if I want to leave on anything, that’s probably it. That’s my biggest concern because now I have two sons who are capable, they’re educated–I mean my oldest son graduated in four years from college, and he’s working, my youngest son is about to graduate from college–in these times, a lot of people say, “Well, that’s it, I’ve done it,” but I haven’t. Because there’s so many young men that they interface that need the same opportunities, that need to be able to do the same things. How do we make sure that we do that? Not to the detriment of anybody else, that’s not what I’m saying.
DB: I’m talking about me, just like anybody else would be concerned with themselves.
WW: Thanks so much for sitting down with me today, I really appreciate it.
DB: It was a pleasure, man.
WW: Thank you so much.