Mary and Jean Laubacher, January 31st, 2017
WW: Hello, today is January 31, 2017. My name is William Winkel this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project and I am sitting down with—
ML: My name is Sister Mary Laubacher.
JL: My name is Sister Jean Laubacher.
WW: Thank you both so much for sitting down with me, would you like to tell your story first?
ML: We are blood sisters. I lived at Marygrove during the summer of the riots, and I was studying at Wayne State University. I had spent that Sunday afternoon over in the library. When I came to supper at the convent, I saw how crowded the dining room was. Then when I asked about it, they said, Didn’t you hear what is going on? The sisters in the neighboring convents— and there was few of them in each of the convent even over the summer time— had been asked to come over for safety reasons to Marygrove, but they did go back to the convent later in the evening. The next day I called a man from Dearborn who was working on a project with me, and I had material all laid out in the library, so I called him and asked him if he would like to work on it, since we didn’t have class at Wayne State. He took up my offer, and came at one o’clock in the afternoon, I don’t remember the man’s name, but he sat there with his head bowed down, and kept repeating, “Did you see Livernois, did you see Livernois?” The poor man was traumatized. He had come up Livernois, had gone to school at St. Cecilia’s, and on the way to Marygrove, he saw all those stores, especially the furniture stores that were burning and gun stores. Where people had purchased furniture on a layaway system or our credit system and they wanted their bills burned so they wouldn’t be asked to pay their bills. But we didn’t accomplish anything that Monday. The following Wednesday we went back to class. There were about five African Americans in our class and the professor nicely invited us to talk about the riots instead of the work at hand. There were two reports that I remember so distinctly. One of them was a woman who said— a black lady— “I looted the way everybody else did.” And she said, “When I went into the store on Monday, I saw young black woman over at the refrigerated section of the store, pilling her grocery cart with gallons and gallons and gallons of milk”. She said that woman couldn’t have had a big family, maybe she was going to give the milk to other friends, or maybe it was just a symbol to her of the first time she could have everything that she wanted, at one time. Another man told us, that a gas station on a corner run by a white man had been targeted. But next to a gas station, there was a small mom-and-pop grocery store, and the man who managed this store gave back people credit, and didn’t charge them right the way, he let them pay as they could, and in order to spare that grocery store that gas station was not torched. Those were the two anecdotes that I remember from that day, and that’s just about all I have to say.
WW: Did you stay on the campus that entire week?
ML: Did I see?
WW: Did you stay on the campus?
ML: At Wayne State?
ML: Oh, at Marygrove. Yes. We were safe. That first Sunday afternoon, I remember Sister Hanora who was the president stood up at the end of the meal, and told us that some people wanted the gates to Marygrove locked and she said, “No, we are not going to have the gates locked, because if any of our buildings are torched the fire engines won’t be able to get through to help out.” So, the gates were not locked, but I understand there were armored cars at gates of Wyoming and on Six Mile to prevent people from coming in.
JL: What about the one that saved our church?
ML: Oh, I heard that when the people who were causing fires got near St. Agnes church, some of the black men who were catholic put their arms out in front of the church and hollered “Don’t touch my church, don’t touch my church” [laughing], over and over again. They certainly didn’t want their church burned. I just heard that by hearsay.
WW: Did all the unrest changed the way you looked at Detroit?
WW: Did the unrest in ’67 changed the way you looked at Detroit?
ML: Well, yes. I don’t know how to answer that. It made me certainly more sympathetic towards the black cause, and we had a number of African American students who came to the college. And many of them, when they gave talks in class, used poor grammar or poor annunciation, and I could feel the white girls looking at me as much as to say aren’t you going to do anything about that. But the black girls were commuters, they weren’t residents on campus, and it was hard to get them to correct their speech or their grammar. But I also knew when they got to a classroom of black students, they would be more readily accepted than a white teacher, and so we lived through that change. Of sixty-eight black people for 1968, that was the motto, and they recruited sixty-eight black girls. Not necessarily from Detroit, some of them were from out of state, and those girls lived on campus with the white girls. I roomed with them.
WW: How long did you stay in the city after that?
ML: Oh, I don’t know. I just hoped for the best.
WW: How long did you stay in the city after that?
ML: Until 1974, and then I went to Lansing.
WW: Thank you so much.
ML: You’re welcome.
JL: Well, my story isn’t that profound, and it will be shorter. I that summer stayed at St. Francis de Sales, which was on Fenkell and maybe Wyoming or somewhere around there. And that evening we had been at Meadowbrook for a program, so we didn’t know what was going on, and we got to Detroit we noticed there was a lot going on. Anyway one of the sisters that we lived with there had a relative or a nephew that worked at the jail. And he asked her if she could get some sisters that would go and help with the clerical work that had to be done. So we had a police escort, and when we got out of the car, there were bus-loads of black people, they were all hanging out of their window, like this. So anyway, we had a guard, so we did our work, I don’t remember what we did. But anyway around twelve o’clock we were finished, so we had a police escort back to St. Francis de Sales, and I remember going so fast down John Lodge with the lights off, getting to our destination, and when we got there, the police got out, and had their guns ready so that we could get into the convent safely.
WW: Where was the work, the clerical work you did for the police department, where was that at?
JL: At the jail, I guess. Yeah, at the jail.
WW: And what was the clerical work that you had to do?
JL: I think we had to— you know, I don’t remember what it was, but I think to keep track of their names perhaps. I don’t know.
WW: Was it just that one day or—?
JL: It was just that one night.
WW: Are there any other memories you would like to share?
JL: No, I was taking class at Marygrove, but we couldn’t go for few days.
WW: Did ’67 changed the way you looked at the city?
JL: No, I don’t think so. More you know, knowing the problems of the black people, you felt sorry for them. But I don’t think it changed my thinking. It’s just too bad it happened. Those poor people, we still have them in the inner cities, so.
WW: Alright, thank you both so much.
ML: Later that week, I was talking to one of my advisees, and she was laughing and said that on Sunday afternoon when her father saw what was happening— and they lived in the Marygrove area— he packed up his wife and kids let them all go up north to their cabin. But she laughed and said, “He let me stay with a neighbor so I can go to class.” Julie Valenti her name was, she thought her father was too impulsive and acted too quickly. He didn’t know, but his neighborhood would be torched.
WW: Well, let’s finish up them, again thank you both so much.