Felton Rogers, June 17th, 2015
Detroit Police Department—Detroit—Michigan
Police Athletic League (PAL)—Detroit—Michigan
NOTE: This interview contains profanity and/or explicit language
NL: Today is June 17, 2015. This is the interview of Felton Rogers by Noah Levinson. We are at the Detroit Historical Museum on Woodward Avenue in Detroit Michigan. And this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 oral history project. Felton, can you first tell me where and when you were born?
FR: I was born in Detroit, Michigan, 1941.
NL: And where were you living in July of 1967?
FR: I was living in Detroit on Fairview Avenue. On the east side of Detroit -
NL: And can you tell me what you were doing in 1967?
FR: Do you mean as far as employment?
FR: Oh I was a Detroit police officer. I was a rookie at that time.
NL: So you had graduated the academe the year before and started in 1967? Can you first tell me your memories of Detroit in the early and mid-1960s? Before 1967, what the city was like?
FR: I, ah, I enjoyed living in Detroit. I don’t recall any major problems especially where I lived and where I grew up. I did grow up in Detroit, and left for a while to go to college, and came back, then go into the military, and I came back. So, ah, I can’t say I had any major problems in Detroit, in my community.
NL: And what were your impressions of downtown at that time?
FR: Downtown was a great place to come to. Ah, there were a lot of movie theaters and a few restaurants. It was an enjoyable place.
NL: Did you go there frequently?
NL: Alright, so can you tell me about your experiences on the force in the summer of 1967 and the events that were leading up to the last week in July of 1967?
FR: 1967, I was a rookie police officer. I had been assigned to the Fifth Precinct, which was on Jefferson and St. Jean, on the far east side of Detroit. I was a patrolman, scout car duties with a partner usually, sometimes by myself. And Sunday morning, one Sunday morning, on the 20 - I think it was actually the 23, I reported for duty for day shift. After roll call, the–advised us that there were problems on the west side of Detroit, the Tenth Precinct, and some of the officers from our station was gonna be shipped over there, which indeed happened. I think it was four of us that went to the Tenth precinct. When we got over there, we found out that there were officers from other precincts also gathering there. Okay. We had no idea at that time what really was going on, okay, just that they needed some extra manpower. We were issued helmets and shotguns, and placed on the Blue Bird bus, which was a big bus that the Detroit Police Department uses for transportation. And taken over to the Twelfth Street area. As we got closer to Twelfth Street, I remember, hearing burglar alarms going off, more than one, you know. And as we got closer they got louder and louder. Ah, once we became in sight of the Twelfth Street it was like a mess. It was like a carnival. There were people everywhere in the streets, alarms were going off, store windows were broken out, ah some stuff was scattered out in the street, on the sidewalks. And we exited the bus and our Sergeant had as form a scrimmage line. And I forget what street it was, but at an intersection to protect the violence and looting, and whatever, from going further south. We were not to shoot anyone. That was not going to be the case, to shoot anyone, unless you were shot at and you had to defend yourself, okay. And, you couldn’t arrest the looters, we just didn’t want it to go further south. Because there was just too many people, just moving back and forth. A few of them were taunting us, but most of them were just looking at us. They didn’t care. And they’re still knocking out windows, and just going on about their business. This was about, I think, probably ten o’clock in the morning, something like that. Around that time. This went on for quite a while. We noticed that there was smoke behind us, heading south on Twelfth Street. It appeared that someone, obviously, had set fire to some buildings behind us. So half of the squad was turned around, to protect anyone coming from the south toward us. The other officers remained facing the crowd. Okay, so it was like protecting our back, you know. We remained that way for some hours. There was no relief at that time. Presently, after a while, we noticed that the hardware store that was about a half a block away from us had caught on fire, and flames were coming out of the top apartment in the front. We also noticed that the windows started pulsating out, in and out, in and out, in and out, so we backed up, and sure enough, it just blew out into the street, you know the paint and the whatever was in that hardware store, you know. Um, I believe the fire department came and tried to start putting out some fires in that area. We remained in that area until night time. There was no relief. We didn’t have any relief, or food or water or anything at that time. Ah, when the night came what we did was the whole squad moved into a vacant — well a looted — grocery store. And just watched the street, you know. But, shooting started at that time. People started shooting and it was getting closer and closer. So, we didn’t know if they were coming after us or what, okay. One of the street lights, across the street and to our right, was illuminating the store that we were in, pretty much. So, I remember, one of the officers went and shot that light out, so that we could darken that area. There was no food, or anything in the store, but of course there was a restroom, and water, we could get that, but we still didn’t have any food, so we weren’t relieved, and we hadn’t heard from anyone. About two or three o’clock in the morning, we heard a growling or rumbling, type of sound. And, it got closer and closer, and so a few of the officers looked out and they said, “Come here, quick, quick.” And we stood out, came out, looked out, and coming down the darkened street, Twelfth Street, was two State police cars, side by side, with their running lights on, two jeeps, with National Guard, a tank, and maybe three or four trucks with National Guardsmen on it, okay. So, we flagged them down, and they were asking about the situation, and so we told them pretty much, you know, and they were still headed south so we ask them that they would contact someone so that we could get some relief, because – and where we were, okay. And now, that didn’t happen until approximately seven o’clock in the morning. So it was daylight, and we got a relief at that time and I went back to my precinct, and was told to go home and report back the next day for twelve hour shifts. Beginning twelve hour shifts. Which I did, went home, went to sleep.
Came back the next morning, day shift, and I was assigned to be put on a jeep with two national guardsmen. And myself as the supervisor of the jeep, to move around in the area to look for looters and prevent looters. You know, just move around within the Fifth Precinct. This was back in the Fifth Precinct, okay. We did find a few people that were looting and arrested a few people. It was a very hot day. I remember coming back after one journey out in the precinct and this is a Salvation Army truck sitting just inside our driveway at the Fifth Precinct, so we pulled in to get some refreshments and coffee and water and juice or whatever. We were there about five minutes, and there was some shooting again. Officers started saying “Duck, get down, get down”, and the firing was very close. What it was, was someone had got on the top of a building, a tall storage building that was across the street from the precinct. They were on the roof and they were firing at us, into our parking lot, at us, okay. So we were taking cover, and there was ‘pings, pings’. I distinctly know something like a bee went by, fairly close, and I don’t know there’s a bee in the area, I’m sure I knew what that was. And I distinctly saw one of our sergeant’s cars took a bullet hole right in the middle of his windshield. This went on for about 10 or 15 minutes, you know. So, no one could do anything, and all the sudden – Well, let me also tell you this, that, during that time, when the fire departments were showing up to put our fires, some people were shooting at them. And, at that time, a couple of firemen had been killed, okay. So, the National Guard had been assigned to protect the fire department, you know, they would make runs with them. Well, evidently, someone from our precinct called down to the fire department, which was a few blocks from us on Fairview and Mack, I believe. All of a sudden a jeep with a National Guardsman pulled up, and a .50 caliber mounted machine gun on it. And he started popping off rounds at that building and just chipping away at it, you know. And I don’t know if any rounds went over the building, or whatever to antagonize who was ever there. I distinctly saw that he was pumping those rounds off. He stopped, no more firing from that building, and then officers, some officers got together and rushed the building. And went inside and went up to the top. There was no one up there, there were some shell cases up there though, but there was no one up there. That shook us off for sure. We went back on patrol, and finished off the shift. The day after that, ah, I was assigned back to my regular scout car duty because the paratroopers had come in, Federal soldiers, airborne people had come in, and surrounded the, you know, city and we had the National Guard, so the precincts pretty much went back to what they were doing. And that’s my recollection of that time.
NL: As you recall, did you find that the different—the Detroit Police, the National Guard, the airborne, did they work will together, was it well organized as far as responsibilities?
FR: I don’t know if it was that well organized. I think the National Guard may have been a little quick on the trigger. There was just so much going on; it was so chaotic. Everything was burning. I mean, it was, you could see smoke for days, you know. And I do recall seeing a couple people that were – That had been, shot, you know, they were, they were laying in the street in my precinct, ah. So no, I don’t think it was – It was just thrown together, and people were doing the best that they could basically.
NL: Just trying to get as much manpower as possible?
FR: Manpower and suppress it, you know, suppress it. And you know, a lot of people died. Lot of people.
NL: Forty three, I believe.
FR: Yeah, yeah, okay.
NL: I believe. That's the number we were told. I read about.
NL: You remained in the police department another five years or so, after this?
FR: Yeah, six years.
NL: What did you notice, both as a citizen and as a police officer, what did you notice about the city during that time following 1967?
FR: At that time, I think – Obviously, everything cooled down, as far as the relationship between the police officer and the citizens. It was more cordial maybe people tiptoeing a little bit, I don’t know, but it was better. I remember also that the PAL program [Police Athletic League] came into effect, and I was selected to be on it. And we started the first PAL program in the city with the kids on the east side and the west side. With basketball and baseball at that time. A lot of activities for the kids to do. It was really good. It was really good for this city at that time.
NL: Can you tell me more about the PAL program? What that was, and how it got started?
FR: Yeah, it was a copy of the PAL program that they have in New York City, where you involve your local community and the kids in activities. They can be local activities, and they would branch out to national activities. We go to churches, meetings, and ask if anyone in the community was interested in coaching a team. We provide the equipment for them. We provide the location. We provide the officials, okay, and we had the money to do that. We got very good response from both the east side and the west side. And we had kids participating in a league at fourteen year olds and up, and the sixteen and up leagues. Okay, in basketball, and in baseball. In basketball, we secured a couple of facilities, gyms, and had the officials. We had round robin tournaments during the winter time. Very successful. In the summertime we sponsored, I think, maybe four teams. One of the teams, the sixteen year old and older team, went to the national finals in Danville, Virginia, and took second place. Quaker Oats sponsored us. We were given vans from, I forget what auto dealership, but they gave us a couple of vans. My partner and I and another officer, the three of us, four of us actually, drove the kids to Danville, Virginia. It was a week tournament. Very successful. And the program is very big now I understand. I think it’s humongous and they’re still doing go work. I was proud to be a part of it.
NL: That’s great. Switching gears a bit, can you go back, can you tell me about the police’s undercover efforts, the blind pig that was at Twelfth and Clairmount.
FR: Sure. When a new officer comes into a precinct, and that precinct has complaints from the community that there are illegal activities going on in house, or someplace around, they want it closed down, they want police attention, they want it over with because it’s affecting the neighborhood, for sure. Usually, when a new police officer comes into a precinct, they ask him to do an undercover sting, because the officer is not known in that precinct. I did them in the Fifth Precinct. What you do, is you have an officer go in, in plain clothes, into the facility, get into the facility, any way he can. And he’s to identify who let him in, who sold him liquor, approximately how many people are in there, if there was any gambling, who was the one that was cutting the pot, okay. And there’s a ten minute time frame from the time when the officer goes in, to the time when the officers on the outside are going to knock on the door and say, “Police,” you know, “open the door, were coming in.” Okay. And that’s how it works. When the policemen come in, obviously, they’re going to arrest everyone there. And the next morning, there’s the arraignments of all the people that were arrested. And, they pretty much give them tickets. In this case, it appears that, there were so many people in the place that, it took a long time for them to garner transportation to get all those people out of there, which meant a crowd starting forming; that’s basically what happened in this case. And a mob mentality took over. And that’s the results of what happened, you know, later on.
NL: Do you know who the police officer was that first entered that blind pig?
FR: Yeah, I know one of them, he graduated with me from the police academy.
NL: Can you tell me about him?
FR: His name’s Joe Brown, Joseph Brown. I wasn’t assigned a precinct with him. But obviously, I knew him, we’d see each other, you, know. Black officers, saw – there weren’t a whole lot of black officers anyway at that time. So, everybody pretty much knew everybody. And I ran into him a few times over the years. Last time, I think I saw him in Hart Plaza and we talked for a while. That was some years ago. I don’t know the other officer, I knew of him, I’ve seen him, I didn’t know him personally, and I can’t recall his name.
NL: You said that there were not many black police officers at this point. Did you feel, either in your own experience, or sort of a perception of the city of Detroit, did you ever feel that the police force discriminated against non-white citizens?
NL: As far as their practices?
FR: Well, I was never – I don’t – I never saw any discrimination, I’m sure, obviously there were some things going on that, and it continues today, that policemen shouldn’t do, or shouldn’t be in that position, you know. So I can’t say, I mean sure things were going on, but I don’t recall seeing anything from Detroit police officers regarding a citizen, a black citizen.
NL: As a police officer, did you feel that they had fair hiring and training practices for you as a young black officer?
FR: Yeah, yeah, most definitely, everybody got the same treatment. Going through the police academy, learned the same thing, you know, yeah, I think it was definitely fair treatment.
NL: Do you have any idea why it might have been that there was such a small number of black officers at the time?
FR: I mean, it was the times. Just, you know, what was it, the sixties, it was just the times. I mean I could speculate on it, but we know it was the times, they just weren’t ready to hire more black police officers. That’s all, and there’s been some change obviously, there’s a lot more today, as it was in the military, many years ago, and now the military has many, many black officers, I mean soldiers. So it was the times, yeah. The only discrimination I ran into was when I was working a one man car, on the day shift. That’s where, basically, you’re just patrolling, and you’re taking reports, you know, somebody calls in like a barking dog or a B and E [breaking and entering], or something, and you go there, and you make a report, you know, of course you do. So there was report out, that a man wanted to make a report, obviously, so I was dispatched to his house. I went up on his porch, and I knocked on his door, he opened the door and said, “Oh, hell no. Get off my porch.” And I said, “Ah, what sir?” and he said, “Get off my porch, I don’t want your ass on my porch, and I’m going to call the precinct.” “All right, mister, I’m wearing a uniform.” This was a white guy, an older white man. [Chuckling] And that’s exactly what happened. I got of his porch, got into the car. And, when the shift was over, my lieutenant said, yeah, he said, “That guy called here and said he wanted me to send a white officer there, but I told him he better bring his butt in here and make a report if he wanted to, but I wasn’t sending nobody else.” I recall that vividly, obviously.
FR: Yeah, sure.
NL: People use a lot of words and phrases to talk about the events of July 1967. A lot of historians refer to it as the Detroit Riots of 1967. What do you think, from you experiences, would be the appropriate way to refer to that last week in July?
FR: Riot. I don’t know if it was a riot. What’s the definition of an insurrection? I don’t know. I’ll have to look it up.
NL: Uprising, violence, yeah.
FR: Yeah, I don’t know if I would call it a riot, I would just call it a disturbance that really got out of hand and people took advantage of it as best they could.
NL: You have lived in south east Michigan since then, correct?
FR: Yeah, that’s right.
NL: What have you noticed most about the changes over time since then and how the city of Detroit and the surrounding area has changed since those events?
FR: Well, we obviously know that there’s has been a lot of flight from Detroit. The population is way down. I think it was over a million, definitely over a million when I was here, and I think it’s half of that now. Obviously, the crime is terrible. People taking advantage of people as often as they can. And I think there’s hope. Ah, the bankruptcy, they went through the bankruptcy, that cleared up some stuff, because of people in office that were taking advantage of, obviously, the city, the wrong way. I think it’s on a good path. I think the police officer and the mayor that are in charge are doing good jobs. And it will continue on hopefully. I think they’re very good, honest people, dedicated people.
NL: Have you had any specific or direct involvement with the Detroit police since you retired?
FR: No, I haven’t had any. Ike McKinnon was police chief at one time, and he and I were friends. And I just ran into him a few years ago in Ann Arbor in a grocery store. That’s about it, you know, but know, no direct relationship back to the Detroit Police Department. All the people that I knew are obviously gone at this point.
NL: Where has your career taken you since that time?
FR: My career took me to – back to college. I went back – I had a year and a half of college left. I went to Eastern Michigan University to complete that year and a half. I had originally been in Iowa. To complete that year and a half, I received a bachelor’s degree, and then a few years later I got a master’s degree in guidance counseling. I worked with people with closed head injuries for quite a while. I also worked for the Boysville of Michigan as a director of treatment for quite a while. And I wound up as a counselor in the Michigan Department of Corrections, for ten years, a little over ten years and retired from them as a human resource person. So I’ve been retired now for eight years, I think.
NL: What would you say, if anything, have you taken with you from your experiences in 1967 on to the rest of your career and life?
FR: Well, I think, people are good, and you need to give everyone a chance. You need to not hesitate to give a second chance, if the opportunity arises. And treat people the way you want to be treated. Treat them fairly, obviously. Help if you can. Pay it forward, and those type of things.
NL: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about your memories of that time? Or anything else?
FR: No, I think that’s about it.
NL: Alright, well on behalf of the Detroit Historical Museum, thank you so much for sharing your stories and memories with us today.
FR: Thank you.