Carole Hall, April 17th, 2017
WW: Hello, today is April 17, 2017, my name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I’m in Detroit, Michigan. I’m sitting down with Carole Hall. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
CH: Thank you. Happy to be here.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
CH: I was born in Detroit, 1936.
WW: Did you grow up in the city?
CH: Yes, I did. I grew up on Willis Street between Hastings and St. Antoine in Detroit. I went to Lincoln Elementary School. I had two brothers and a sister. We lived in what people would term now a shack, because it didn’t have a bathroom. Originally it didn’t have a bathroom. Later on we got a bathroom with a bathtub, and we shared it with another family. We grew up really happy, believe it or not. It wasn’t until we had a chance to go south to Alabama with my mother, to visit my grandparents, that I began to realize that there was a difference between how I was treated and other children were treated. We were on the train, we had to cook our food in advance before getting on the train. Once on the train, we were literally bottled up together, almost, in one little small area. Once we got to Alabama, we transferred to a bus, and the real shock was having to walk to the back of the bus, with all of the luggage. Four children, and a mother, all in the back of the bus beyond a certain line that was drawn on the bus, to sit. And our luggage had to be stored over our heads, and it was so much with other people that it kept falling down on us. Yet we kept seeing the empty seats, and I bolted a couple of times towards the front, because it didn’t make sense to me—I guess maybe I was about five or six. And my mother grabbed me by the tail of the dress and snatched me back, and said, “Don’t you ever do that. You’ll endanger all of our lives.” It was the first time I really came to grips with what was really happening there. I loved being in the south for the first time, seeing cows and seeing wells. I didn’t love the outhouse, which I saw for the first time. I held my food in so long until I almost got sick [laughter], and I had to finally let it out. They didn’t have toilet paper; they had catalogue paper from a news catalogue—it may have been Sears Roebuck, or J.C. Penney or something. And my mother and grandmother showed me how to ruffle it up in your hand to soften it up, so that when you wiped with it you didn’t scratch yourself. I remember those days very fervently.
I remember coming back home—one of the highlights for me was having had the opportunity to meet Mary McLeod Bethune. She came to our classroom in Detroit, and I remember the kids in the class being astonished, because here is this very dark black woman with snow-white hair all over her head, and there were kids—because in those days, there wasn’t the pride of color that there is now, and in those days, if you were dark, it was not a sign of being pleasant. If you were called dark, it was derogatory, it was negative. And here was this woman who my mother had spoken of so many times, because she had met with—Roosevelt—
CH: Eleanor, that’s what I’m trying to say. Eleanor, she had met with Eleanor Roosevelt. And we had listened to her on the radio talk. And my mother said, “That’s where we’ve got to go. That’s what we’ve got to do.” And I said, “She talks different,” and she said, “Well, she has an Oxford accent.” And I thought, what is an Oxford accent? And she said, “It’s a particular way you frame your words, you use your words.” And I thought, that’s interesting. But I noted how ingratiated my mother was, of what she had done. And so now, to be able to sit in a classroom on the floor—we sat with our legs crossed on the floor, to see this woman—and there were kids in the back, snickering, again, because her hair was very wooly, and very white, and very stark against the very dark complexion, and she was kind of heavy-set, sitting in a chair. And the kids, of course, were looking at what movie stars like Lena Horne and that sort of thing look like, and this was a celebrity but she didn’t look like Lena Horne, so that was the snicker. And I remember her telling the story of how she started the first school, with an orange crate as the desk, and the kids using the ground and a stick to write out what their lesson was for the day. Apparently they were able to gather enough little boxes and stuff to put together what looked like a frame of a classroom outside, because it was in Florida, and they got the boxes all set up, and they were having class, and they came back one morning and all of it was burnt up. When I realized that she had gone from there to starting a college, I was just floored. I was just enamored with her, with her voice, with her mission, and about that time I just decided that that’s what I wanted to do. Somewhere in education, somewhere in being valuable to something, to someone, or to some things, that that’s what I wanted to do. She ended her commentary by saying, “The door is closed to you now, but it’s going to open. It’s going to come, and it’s going to open, but it won’t be for very long. You must prepare now. You must get ready at this moment. Get everything you can, learn as much as you can, do as much as you can, but seize the moment and move forward, every day.” And I took that with me, I’ve taken it with me unto this day.
I was in school—in the elementary school—and was taken out of the school at one point, and sent to an open-air facility. We had a teacher at the elementary school that apparently got sick from something, and she left the school and several of us kids that were in her classroom were taken out, tested, and we were taken away from our families. So I was gone for several months, away from my family. Had the chance to meet with several patients, young patients, children my age, somewhere in iron lungs, what they’re called, what they use I think for TB, for tuberculosis patients or something to that effect—
CH: Polio. And I met—one of my best friends became Sheila, who was in an iron lung. And, as you know, this is this huge machine, metal machine, and she’s always in it. They’d just come in, clean her up, and then close it every morning. And she and I would read together, and we shared stories, and I became very, very close to her, and very touched by the reading and the sharing of words, and I think it was the first interracial relationship— outside of having had teachers— but on a personal level, that I’d ever had.
We’d go from there to finishing high school here. My family moved several times—my parents. And I had the opportunity to go to an all-black school—elementary school with all-black teachers, which was the first time for me, on Eight Mile Road. Went to Mumford High School for a brief period. Went to Northwestern High School for a brief period. And I decided that I wanted to go into missionary work, and I felt that it was important to learn languages in order to do it. I had read about Haiti and how it was—the history of it, about Toussaint Louverture taking over there. And I realized that I needed to maybe learn to speak French, I realized that they spoke French. And so I started taking French classes, and then I realized that I probably needed to take German, because I’d also read about World War Two, and we’re part of—my generation was part of what was happening in Europe and in Germany and in England. And so I transferred from Northwestern to Central High School to take German. I’d taken, also, Spanish when I was in my freshman year.
I married—moved to the west side, and I married—my husband was a graduate of Hampton College, which was a southern college. He had been in World War Two. And I had not—at that time, I had not met anyone, on a personal level, who had been a college graduate.
WW: Before we talk about after you graduate high school, while you’re still in high school and you’re transferring to these different schools, you said you were where first, before you went to Central?
WW: Mumford. What was the student population like at these—were you in the minority at these schools?
CH: Definitely in the minority. I was in the minority at Mumford, in a blend and a transitioning cultural area at Northwestern High School, and definitely in a minority at Central. I think that the total at Central High School may have been seven black students. From Central High School, I went to Wayne State, here, and from Wayne State I went to Michigan, and eventually from Michigan I went to Harvard.
WW: Are there any other stories you’d like to share? Do you have any memories of the 1943 race riot?
CH: Yes. The race riot was a pivotal point in my life. At the time I was teaching, married, with three children.
WW: Oh wait, sorry, one moment, ’43, not ’67.
WW: I said if you had a memory from ’43 –
CH: Oh, I’m sorry, yes, definitely. No, no, no.
WW: I was like you were definitely not teaching. [laughter]
CH: No, no. I wondered why you looked at me like that!
No, I was on Willis. Willis Street, here, East Willis, 33 East Willis. And I recall people running, and shouting, and screaming. And I recall there were people passing me with clothes or some kind of garments or something in their hand, or some pots or pans or something. And I remember hearing that someone had been killed, and that there was a riot. And because we were on Willis between Hastings and St. Antoine, we were kind of probably pretty close to the real segment of it that took place. It had to—because Hastings, I understand, was one of the major streets that it took place. I remember going up, with my parents, my dad sheltering me, because we were out doing something, and we just kind of happened to run into it. It was the first time I saw a dead person. I didn’t realize he was dead, I just knew he was very still, and I asked my dad, “Shouldn’t we help him?” And he said, no, that he was gone. And it was the first time that—there was conversation about it, of course, after that. Usually on Saturdays, every other Saturday—my dad worked at Chrysler, and every other Saturday some of his Chrysler buddies, they would go from home to home, occasionally, and that weekend, or during that period, there was just a lot of discussion about what had happened, who had been killed, what had started it. There were several different versions of what really had actually started—they never seemed to come to a conclusion, any one thing, but it seemed to have be related to some police stuff. The word Belle Isle came up. I don’t— I’m not familiar with all of it, the intricacies about Belle Isle and what happened out there. I always thought, earlier, that it had started on Hastings, but it seems like it started someplace beyond that. So that was the first introduction to riot for me. So essentially I’ve lived through two: the ’43 and then 1967.
WW: Was your family affected when Hastings Street and Black Bottom were torn down?
CH: Severely. Severely affected. In two ways: we left Willis Street, upgrading, hopefully, to a street that doesn’t exist anymore called Sherman. And we moved to Sherman, and it was so nice because it had the bathroom inside, and it was between Dubois and Chene, I recall, C-h-e-n-e. And Dubois. I don’t even know if Dubois exists anymore, but it was between those streets. And—I’m sorry, I lost my point. Your question--?
WW: How was your family affected by the loss of Block Bottom?
CH: Yes. So we moved on Sherman, and I got a chance to go to Russell Elementary School, I was still in elementary school. We were looking at moving—we were with my grandmother, for the moment, because we needed to leave the Willis location. With grandmother, we were looking for moving in a real house, where everybody else wasn’t there and we had a home to ourselves. And one of the areas that we were looking at was on the east side, of course, we had been Eastsiders predominantly. And one of the areas that we were looking at was not too far from the Riopelle area, Mack, because there were homes in the Mack area. And word came out that—urban renewal, we heard the word for the first time, urban renewal. And I recall my parents saying something—that urban renewal meant Black removal. And I wasn’t sure what that meant, how that impacted us. And they talked about Hastings Streets, that Hastings, St. Antoine, coming up to Woodward here, and what was called the Black Bottom area, downtown Detroit, where my dad, who was a musician, would play—that all of that was going to be affected. And that had been a large part of our culture. Beaubien, St. Antoine, all the way downtown to a store they used to call Sam’s, where everybody used to shop, at Sam’s Department Store, at the time. Essentially we kind of had our own community, where we had our own grocery stores, we had our own drugstores, churches, it was just a continuous community that we had—the furthest out we were thinking of moving was to move to what was called the North End, to move up to Oakland, in that area. But once the tearing down and the disruption of Hastings—eventually it affected Mack, because how we would get to Eastern Market, all of that began to change—it began to just simply disrupt everything. We had—our family and our larger family, my uncles and aunts and so forth, were just beginning to move north, move further out. And we looked forward to being able to communicate and commute on the Oakland streetcar, it was called, between north and coming south and going downtown, that was kind of our alley. And the urban renewal, the tearing down of the homes, the tearing down of Hastings Street, the tearing down of the projects, which were on Beaubien, all of that significantly impacted where we were going to go, what we were going to do, it just kind of felt like you were left kind of dangling. That’s essentially how that affected us. For the first time, we began to look west. You never thought of moving to the west side, but we eventually began looking west, and we ended up on the west side of Detroit on a street called Ohio.
WW: After you graduated high school, and you finished university, did you run into any problems finding employment in the city, along racial lines or any other?
CH: I did and didn’t. I did in the sense that I was told that it was going to be very difficult for me to get a professional position, because I was black. That kind of knowledge, it just permeates the black culture. The history of what we’ve been through, so it’s just always there. Whether you want us to look at it or not, it’s always there. And one of the issues that my mother had emphasized very early, when I was very young, was that whatever we did, and whatever field we went into, it was going to be very important for us to be able to communicate well. She was banging on us all the time about speech. “That’s not pronounced correctly!” And it gets back to this notion of the Oxford language, that use with Mary McLeod Bethune. I think she wanted this English sound, and I realized that Oxford, she was thinking of England. So that was in my mind, that that was going to be a barrier. And sure enough, before you could teach in Detroit at one time, you had to take a speech exam. I didn’t see—I went—I applied to teach, I had to go through several of the Detroit public schools, I had to go through several exams, and one of them was a speech exam. And I had to read and they asked me questions and I had to answer them. And I remember feeling outraged. Because everything my mother said to me started coming into my mind, and I thought— a person that was ahead of me going through this line of applications, did not have to take a speech test. And it didn’t hit me until I was in the room that she didn’t have to take it, and I kept saying, well why didn’t she have to take it? We went through everything else together. And she was Caucasian. Subtly it hits you sometimes, just, [claps] what’s going on? What?
So I had to read and I had to answer questions and so forth, and then the person, I guess, that was doing the analysis, said, “Well, you did very well. You did very well, you speak well. You don’t have a southern accent.” And I thought, what is a southern accent? When I got home, I talked to my mother and my mother said, “The language that I kept telling you as a kid that you could not say the words, I said you could not say, the way you could not enunciate or pronounce, that was southern. I was switching you over.” That disturbed me very early. Very early. And even now, sometimes I think of my grandkids, with their—growing up, someone accused my granddaughter of sounding white. Because that does impact the culture. Why are you sounding like this? Why aren’t you speaking like us? Or I’ve heard her say—well, not her, but her generation say, somebody is speaking flat. And I didn’t know what flat was. Flat was just using black lingo. And I realized that that has permeated how we feel about ourselves, and how we feel around others. That came up when I was getting ready to teach, so. That’s the long and short of that.
I taught at Northwestern and then I taught at McMichael. It was called Intermediate in those days; we call them middle schools now. And I left McMichael because I took a class—because I wanted to know them through a particular period—
[Pause in tapes]
CH: There was some noise?
Okay, McMichael was a turning point in my life. I student-taught there for a moment, and I decided to go back after being at Northwestern, I decided to go back, because I wanted to get kids a little bit earlier. I wanted to get to know them more in depth, and I wanted to be with them longer. I knew I was not going to stay—I knew I wasn’t going to stay in education, I’ve always known that, but I felt that this was a good time when my children were small, for me to grow as well as bring them up. I took up classroom 276, and I had 276 for the seventh grade, the eighth grade, and the ninth grade. And they were the most—I was fortunate enough to be able to get a class that they would allow me to keep continuously, without breaking them up. When I first got them—I knew— I didn’t know that sometimes on the newest teachers they put so-called, quote unquote, worst kids, with the new kids. Because all of the more seasoned teachers knew who the good teachers were and who the good students were and they would single them out. And I didn’t know that they had singled them out by test grades. IOWA Test was the predominant test instrument that they used then. And my class—my class had tested D and sometimes up to triple-E on the IOWA Test. I did not know that. And this was a test—this was a great experiment in what you do when you don’t know. My objective was to make them the best students coming out of my class as possible, and the school allowed me to keep the same group for both English, social studies, and occasionally Spanish. Those three subjects. So I got to know their families, many of them came to my home. I got to know their churches, where they went to church, and that sort of thing, some of the social activities, some of the recreational activities that they had. We became very close.
The last year that I had them, we focused on black history very heavily. Each student had the responsibility to select a black hero and do a full report, both an essay—they had to do a term paper and they had to do a speech. And these were eighth graders. They did it magnificently. We went to the library, social work, and so on. Later on, they had to do the presentation in the auditoriums during Black History Week, Black History Month, whatever it was in those days. And they did a brilliant job of it. Two things came out of that. One was one of the students, Aubrey Pollard, who was in that group, was killed during the riots. He was one of those students. The second thing that came out of it was that I left teaching. I left it early.
The riots took place in 1967. Riots took place in the summer, and at the time I was living on Vermont Street, one block off of Twelfth, between McGraw and Antoinette. And I saw the smoke, I heard the sirens, and people calling—it was a beautiful day originally, summer, very warm. And when I heard what was happening, saw it on the news, I was in shock. For a moment I was just frozen. And then I realized, when I saw the trucks—whatever those—the tanks—whatever those things that were coming down the street with the guns on both sides, on those wheels that looked like they were in Berlin, and I thought, is this World War Three? It was just the most disabling moment of my life. I grabbed my children. I can’t even remember where my husband was. I don’t know whether he was at work, whether he was at church, he was very active in church and stuff. But my nephew and niece was downstairs. I grabbed all the kids, I grabbed my sister who lived downstairs, and we left Detroit. We went and drove to Chicago, checked in a hotel— Black-something, Blackstone, Blackwood, one of those Black names—and stayed for about three days. When we came back and I drove up Twelfth and saw what had happened, and found out about my student, I decided that I couldn’t go back to teaching. I think, now that I look back on my life, I think the Mary McLeod moment came through about that time. You’ve got to do something. You can’t sit here and complain, or just cry about it, you’ve got to be that one drop. That’s got to make a difference. And you start with what you know of where you’ve been, and it was with my class. When the riots hit in ’67, my students had graduated. And I wanted to know where they were. I did a survey, and I discovered that, in spite of the fact that they had tested E, triple-E and D, on their last test, they elevated to Bs and As. I didn’t know because they didn’t share tests then as they do now. But in spite of their improvement, less than ten percent of them were going to college. They were outstanding students, no question about it. I’d put them up against anybody, any place, any time. When you take—when they’ve gone from a double-E, double-D, triple-D, triple-E, to B, and A, and A minus, that shows that there’s a learning— extremely good learning capability. And they had done it. So it is no question in my mind whether they were college-eligible, because for those years that I had them, I pounded it.
I then began to check with their parents, and to find, where are they, what are they doing? Within a three-month period, working with the assistance of other teachers, we were able to get all of them into college. There were scholarships that were there for them, there were groups like the Urban League, and there were special college programs that were reaching out, especially after the riots, to get students in, but nothing was there. The NAACP had done a study, and their study showed that less than five percent of students, black students who graduated from even outstanding high schools, were going to college. The result is that three of us decided to put together a volunteer placement program. VPC we called it. We had Doug Ross, who later became—was one of the teachers at McMichael at the time. Christine, another teacher. Just the three of us, we formed the corporation, a nonprofit. I filed for the 501C3 from the IRS to get that, went to the mayor’s office, told them we needed some space. I told my husband, “I have to leave teaching, and we’re going to have to live off of one paycheck.” Which would be difficult, and it’s become increasingly difficult even now. But we’re going to have to just do what we can with these boys, I can cut back on everything. He said, “You know, you may have to give up one of the cars.” I said, “Well, I grew up riding the bus. There’s no problem there.” So, he was gracious enough to say, Okay, we will survive. And we did.
Jerome Cavanagh was the mayor at the time, and Conrad Mallett was his deputy, and I went to Conrad and asked him for some assistance, and he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said—showed him the statistics, I said, “The three of us want to be able to have an office so we can recruit volunteers to help us provide information to get kids into college and job and training programs.” Because at that time MPTA, Man-Powered Development Training, was growing. [President Lyndon] Johnson’s Great Society, that was developing. And those programs were out there, and Detroit was seen as sort of like a pilot in getting funds to get those types of programs going. We were one of the first to apply and move in that direction. So sure enough, they gave us an office on Grand River, across the street from the old Northwestern High School, ironically. We were able to recruit in excess of two hundred volunteers, after we put together an exhaustive—it took us a month to put together, working day and night, literally. We didn’t have computers in those days, we were on the old type-type—but we were able to research all of the job training programs that were available in the city, and that were available outside of the city that kids could get to. There’s number one. Number two was to make sure that we were able to take advantage of those kids who were job-ready, who had already developed a skill working part-time sometimes, or whose parents were in a certain business and they’ve learned certain skills, we wanted to make sure we got those. The third one, which was the most important one, we wanted to get every kid, regardless of grades or whatever, to apply to college. So to do that we had to put together three major manuals for that, and that month was set up for putting together the manuals. We located all of the colleges, put them in a catalogue, determined just the basic data and determined what their basic strengths were. We then did the same thing with training and any employment programs that existed, coded this information and put it in the hands of volunteers. We recruited ten Vista volunteers in Service to America, Vista volunteers, and assigned them, each one, to ten high schools. We started with the twelfth grade, we interviewed every student—each Vista had a responsibility for every student, every twelfth grade student there, to interview them, to find out what their interests were, to work with the counselors to make sure that we got their grade-point averages, and that we had some sense of what their strengths were, and then to assign them to a volunteer to make sure they follow through on those areas. Towards the end of the semester, we then communicated with every major college in Michigan that a student could get to, whether was at Marquette, Big Rapids, whether it was Wayne State or Michigan, whatever. And we arranged in each high school, each of the ten high schools, we arranged for each college counselor coming from the universities, like Wayne or Michigan—they had a table in that school where they could sit and talk to the students. We presented each college recruiter with the student’s grade-point average, with the student’s written biography, with the student’s grade summary by the counselors, with all of the basic data that they would need to make a decision on whether they could accept a student or not. We did that for them—we got the information ready for them. Their commitment to us had to be that they had to accept or reject the student that day. We got 60 percent acceptance, at every school, at all ten. Because all of the information that they needed—the autobiography or the biography, the grade levels, the counselor’s recommendation—all those things that they needed in those days was in their hand. So it made it easy for them.
Our first class, we had pretty close to 80 percent accepted at a college. Whether they wanted to go or not, they were accepted. We did a follow-up study three years later, and we found out that pretty close to 50 percent of them stayed. That was outstanding, we thought. We got a Rockefeller grant to continue the program, and Rockefeller, the foundation, wanted us to implement the program within the school structure itself. That wasn’t easy. But we tried the process, but going through institutions is different when you’re a nonprofit, you’re on the outside and you’ve got a board and you can make quick decisions, you don’t have to go through a whole lot of hoops to get things done, so we were able to move very quickly. The board structure was such, like most institutions, that by the time you meander through all of the different departments, you’ve lost the concept.
So, ’67, that’s what speared that program. The riot did. It did it personally for me, it did it professionally for me. And in the long run it speared me to do most of the things that I’ve done in my life, the majority of my life.
WW: Wow. Just a couple of quick follow-up questions and then the final ones and we’re done. You’ve referred to ’67 as a riot throughout this oral history. Is that how you view it and frame it, or is that just the colloquial term you use? There are other people who use uprising and rebellion.
CH: That’s interesting that you put it that way. I’ve heard it referred to as a disturbance. Civil disturbance is one of the words that I recall. I don’t think—the other word was civil disobedience; I’ve heard that term. I think of the poetic term, that when something is so full and so toxic and has been under so much stress that it explodes, and it’s more like an explosion to me rather than a riot. I’m not clear on the term riot. I understand disturbance, that some people get disturbed, but disturbance says that something has disturbed the status quo. Explosion is something that—something toxic has happened and it has reached this point, and it goes.
WW: Just a couple quick questions to finish this up. How do you feel about the state of the city today?
CH: Mixed. There’s a sad part of me, like most of us that continue to see what was left after the riot. We never really recovered until now. And the fact that we’re recovering is good. The price we pay, have paid, for the memories of it still brings back some painful thoughts and painful feelings for me. My neighborhoods are gone. And I know progress comes and that things have to change, and that nothing’s going to stay the same forever. But when you travel Europe and you see the things that have been there for hundreds of years, and you realize that this is still a very young country. You’d still really like to feel like there’s something left that has value, that’s historic. And I felt that loss, I felt the loss of Hastings, I felt the loss of Grand River. I drive down trying to find Hastings and I don’t even think there’s a sign that says the word anymore. I see Grand River and can see—I’ve driven it recently, and I can see that there’s signs up for lease, for sale, vacant land. Across the street from Northwestern, Northwestern High School is gone. The building that I started, and we started VPC with is gone. I see new roots coming up, and I love that. I live in a historic neighborhood. And so I’ve stayed. I’ve stayed and seen the good, the bad, the ugly, and the growing beautiful. So I see for my children—and I’m not talking about my biological children, I’m speaking of children forever—that there’s an excitement, and there’s a new growth and a new beginning, and I see a phoenix rising. I see that happening here. But I can’t help but sometimes feel the pain of what it’s taken for this to get to this point. I see a younger generation that’s here that’s more open, that’s more caring, that’s more giving, more thoughtful, and that makes me feel real good. I see a generation that’s my generation, that’s, I would say, maybe late fifties to eighties, nineties, that’s been very resistant to change and wants to go back to the old world. That’s sad, for me. But overall, I feel hope. I think the real estate— I see what’s happening with every week it’s some new building, it’s some new restaurant. We’ve all seen it, you know, we’ve seen what’s happening in Midtown. And that’s the price of change. But I just keep hoping that at some point, we learn something from history. I see dreams, and I—you know, at 80, hopefully 81 this year, I think I can leave the earth knowing that something is better than when I came.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
CH: Thank you. Thank you for having me.