Ken Reeves, January 25th, 2017
WW: Hello. Today is January 25, 2017. My name is William Winkel. We are in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's Detroit '67 Oral History Project and I'm sitting down with Mr. Ken Reeves. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
KR: It's my pleasure.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when you were born?
KR: I was born February 8, 1951, in Women's Hospital, in Detroit, Michigan.
WW: Did you grow up in the city?
KR: I did.
WW: Where did you grow up?
KR: I grew up at 1991 Gladstone Street, between Twelfth and Fourteenth. And I think originally the family lived on the Eastside, John R or Brush, but then we bought a house in about 1952 or ‘53, at 1991 Gladstone.
WW: Jumping ship from the Eastside to the Westside?
KR: I think my mother's idea was to go from being a tenant to an owner.
WW: And that's the Virginia Park neighborhood, right?
KR: It is. It is.
WW: For you, what was it like to grow up in that neighborhood?
KR: In many ways, wonderful. I mean, it was a very stable neighborhood. Iit was a real mix of families. Mostly working-class families. A lot of families where the husband worked in the auto industry and the wife either didn't work or maybe was a schoolteacher. And mostly homeowners, although there were blocks like Philadelphia and other streets that had lots of apartments.
And a kind of interesting pecking order, of— Detroiters, I think, always kind of suffer with the issue of whether they are somebody or not, and in this particular neighborhood, if you had a sort of well-manicured lawn, you were sort of more somebody than someone who didn't, and things like that. But it was not really transient, so most of the kids that I grew up with were there their whole childhoods, into adulthood. I have recently had occasion to go back and go to my house, which is, thank God, still standing, but not occupied, and to run into the across-the-street neighbor, named Mrs. Bracey, and catch up on everybody's life, which is literally fifty years later, as with the '67.
So it's— it was— the way I have learned, and I'm having an opportunity now to really look at Detroit today, and a big distinction is that— when I grew up in Detroit, your Detroit was where you went. So I probably went ten blocks either direction on Twelfth Street, so I would walk down to West Grand Boulevard, or probably not much further than Boston-Edison. And then it was where you took the bus, so we took the Fenkell bus, particularly as I got older. But even when I was young I took it, because I used to take piano lessons downtown at Grinnell's, so I had to the take the bus downtown. And I went to Cass Tech, so I took the bus to Cass Tech. But that was my Detroit.
So if I was ever in southwest Detroit, it was once. We avoided the Eastside. We didn't know people in the Eastside, we didn't want to know people in the Eastside. It was very parochial, but very pronounced. So I find, in the work I'm doing— I'm working on a project called The Spirit of Detroit: 1950 to 2050. And as I talk to people about their Detroits, they can vary greatly depending on what the circumference of their going-about was. And I realize how limited mine was.
And I also remember the first time my family went to Northland. It was like a pilgrimage, and it was like going to Santaland or something. And my family didn't have a car until I was in college, so it was— I do understand how parochial your vision of your place can be, based on— but then again, not everybody— a lot of people did have cars, this is the Motor City. But for me, I think I'm just amazed at how little of Detroit I really— what little I know, I really know, but there's a lot that I don't know.
I did, for a year in elementary school, go to the Katherine B. White school in Hamtramck. They had a busing program, because I guess they had openings in my grade, and they just sent us, and we went. And so I did know that there was a Hamtramck, the largest settlement of Polish people outside of Krakow, was what they used to say. And there I learned to do the polka and everybody became Polish, so [laughter]. It was a good thing.
The neighborhood— there were white people in the neighborhood. By the time I was in high school, not very many. When the family moved in, at 1991 Gladstone, I think we were either the beginning or near the middle of a wave of a formerly-Jewish community moving somewhere else, and our black family moving in. I do know that a number of the stores along Twelfth Street were Jewish bakeries, Jewish this, Jewish that, which were the stores that served the prior people, and they were still there, particularly from my young years up into my mid-teens, I would think.
So it— and there were virtually— my family's a little different because my parents were from Jamaica. So being Caribbean, as opposed to being from the south was a little bit of a distinction, and my mother had a rather pronounced accent, so— and she felt different sometimes because of that.
WW: Did your— you talk about, you'd go ten blocks north, ten blocks south. Did that get bigger as you grew up?
KR: It didn't get bigger until I was in high school, when certain of my friends' parents moved to northwest Detroit. And then that was not where any of used to live, but we went to visit the friends, and then I had other friends from high school who moved into Lafayette Park, so that kind of made it bigger.
I left this out. I used to take the bus sometimes to my grandfather's house, and he lived in what was then called Black Bottom. In fact, he owned most of his street by the time— Black Bottom was an area that was slated for revitalization, and I remember the years— like I remember the house next to him had a fire, and he bought it from the owner. And there were a couple houses on that street that he owned. That was where the black community was first, I think. And they got urban renewed and many people from Black Bottom moved over to the Westside, which is— I guess we were part of that.
My grandfather also had an interesting job, which was that he was kind of like an early paralegal. He helped many of the black families buy homes, connect with the whole, what do you call it, land contract process, and buy their homes. And I didn't realize how kind of having a bridge person must have been a good thing for him and whoever he worked with.
WW: Are there any experiences you'd like to share from growing up in the city?
KR: Well, I had a really good childhood, I would say. I had my— I felt very much that it was a nurturing neighborhood, I had very good friends, and I was a member of the Grace Episcopal Church, which is on Virginia Park. And that was sort of my really formative place. And it was an Episcopal Church. Now, African Americans traditionally aren't necessarily Episcopalian, but because of my Jamaican ancestry, my parents were Anglicans, so the Episcopal Church in America is the Anglican Church.
So we went there, and I didn't know it then, but that church was in a very real transition from a white-owned congregation to becoming a black congregation. And it almost happened, like the white members kind of poured out and the black members poured in. And this was at a very interesting moment in the city and the nation's history, because we're now kind of about to be in the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and so I'm at an Episcopal Church that has, actually, a Haitian priest. Father Stein, who became quite well known in Episcopal circles. And he was a very charismatic kind of handsome guy, so the population of the church became quite large, and in fact, I think in my confirmation class, there may have been three hundred adults and children. It was just big. And you know, I don't necessarily know that Detroit knows in general how class-oriented the African American community was or is, but in that time, amongst African Americans, it was kind of a pecking order of who was on the highest rung. And so if you were Baptist, or African Methodist, or something like that, or Pentecostal, that was a lower rung. But if you were Congregational, Episcopalian, what is that— even the Seventh Day Adventists had their own niche.
Well, this Grace Episcopal Church was sort of the hub of a certain strata of black, and I'm going to call it middle and upper society. And it was a very— well, I owe a lot of my life to the people I met there. I sang in the youth choir and the adult choir, and the organist was my piano teacher, and that family also was very involved in scouting, and I was involved there, and then I grew from Cub Scouting to Boy Scouting, and that was at the Reverend Albert Cleage's church, the Congregational church. That became kind of like the Shrine of the Black Madonna.
So many things got connected. And also in that neighborhood moved— there was a street called Linwood, which was another major connector, and on that street we used to walk over to Linwood to go to the movie theater. But on the way to the movie theater there was one or two other former movie theaters, one of which became a church, which was the church of someone called Daddy Grace, who was a major charismatic figure in the Detroit of the fifties and sixties, and even seventies. And I remember we would kind of go in and look and then he would be sitting on a big chair on the stage. Well, as things had it over the years, that theater got bought by the New Bethel Baptist Church, which is the church of the Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, who is Aretha Franklin's father, so I remember going— that congregation bought it and transformed it into what was probably the most modern and commodious church for African Americans in Detroit. They had fantastic music there, I remember that.
And occasionally you might come and Aretha Franklin might be home and might sing, but they had these wonderful people, like there was a little person named Sammy Bryant, who was a woman with, like, a bass voice, which is really something I'll never forget hearing. And they had another guy, Reverend Moore, who was blind, probably one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard. But just everything about the music there— and I got to go because my best friend— I went to Thirkell Elementary, and a girl there named Brenda Arnold and I kind of were the— we competed to be the best in the class. And her grandmother— she lived with her grandmother— had some official status to hand Reverend Franklin his cup of water [laughter].
And so at my Episcopal church, actually was pretty snooty. They didn't have a choir in the summer, because everybody, of course, had to go on vacation. Episcopalians are very clear that summer, you could take a break [laughter]. So in the summer I would go to New Bethel Baptist Church with my friend Brenda, and I just enjoyed that a lot. I enjoyed what I saw there and the truth is, Detroit has, overall, a gospel music tradition that is second to none other. And I just remember fantastic concerts.
I had another music teacher who became a major minister here named the Reverend Charles Nix. And he and another guy formed something called the Harold Smith Majestics, which was a wonderful choir that was fed from many churches, I think, but they used to give a couple concerts at what was then Ford Auditorium. And they were just magnificent. They would do - a first half would be classical, and then the second half they would come up in the orchestra pit with these robes on, and they'd sing gospel music, and they'd have these nurses sitting on the stage, and by the end of the concert half of the chorus was on the ground, having been overcome by whatever overcame them. Magnificent music.
And now there isn't a Ford Auditorium. It seems to have— you can't get a good answer to the question, What happened to it? But I hear that it had acoustical problems, such that they couldn't attract a conductor who wanted to be bothered with bad acoustics.
It was a wonderful childhood in a nurturing city that was a— people seemed to have jobs and resources and be working toward a future in general. Now, I do remember one thing that happened at church, is— I went to church one Sunday and the members were all out of sorts because the son of one of the upper-middle-class members had a paper route, and somehow early in the morning, somebody's purse had been snatched, and they grabbed up this member's son, and he ended up going to the police station and they had to come and get him. But they were like really, really, really deeply perturbed that the police didn't have the sense enough to know a kid from a bad family, versus their kid. And I mean, they were— not having it.
And I remember saying to myself, you know, I think I'm going to become a lawyer. Because if I was a lawyer, if the police came and tried to arrest me improperly, I would know the magic words to say to not get arrested. And so I became a lawyer, only to learn even in my city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Professor Henry Louis Gates is a resident, he got arrested for trying to break into his own house 'cause he couldn't find his keys. And so there are no magic words [laughter]. But I thought so, and that led to my career choice.
But that church was special, that Thirkell Elementary School was very special. We had some great, great teachers there. A woman named Zodie Johnson was the sixth grade teacher. If they had a teaching hall of fame, she belonged in it. But she was really attempting to get us ready for life, and had many— she was tough in math but also tough— she used to explain to the girls, "You know, I don't understand these women who— their full life is keeping their house clean." She says, "I don't care if my house is dusty. I care what's in my brain!" [laughter] And I think it was just a message that was good for that time.
The assistant principal was a guy named Norman Fuquay, who— somebody like me, I— my parents were divorced the year I was born, so he used to kind of— you know, if my shirt wasn't tucked in, or if I should have shined those shoes a little better, I would hear about it from him. And I came to know him even when I went to college, and he continued to see how I was getting along, and was some really caring, good people. Which, in a place like Cambridge, Massachusetts, there, although there are African Americans, few of them could get a job teaching in school. So most of my African American friends in Cambridge would have never had a black teacher, because black teachers really didn't get hired there until the late sixties, early seventies, which was not the case here. In fact, many of my friends had a father who worked in an auto plant and a mother who was a teacher. It was a very common pattern.
But it was, looking back, an interesting time. And Twelfth Street was very— I can't tell you how interesting it was. It was like if you got down to Twelfth Street you could go to the circus every day. I mean it— just when— and we used to walk and look in the barrooms, and just— the record shops would be blaring, and one particular bar had— if you were lucky, on the barstool was this character they called Nyna May, which was the first sort of trans person, and it was interesting because you knew the person wasn't a traditional male or female, but the person commanded respect. I mean, nobody trifled with them. They just— she was just a part of the scene.
And Twelfth Street was— it had where the neighborhood supermarkets were, and my mother was very frugal, so she would have these coupons, and if I went shopping with her we would go to three different markets. And she would stand at the register and make sure she wasn't overcharged [laughter]. And I usually would go with her so I could carry the groceries in one of those little carts. And I had my first job along there. I worked in a— terrible job— it was a drugstore that also sold beer and wine. But it was a very mean African American pharmacist, and his mother, who was even more mean than him [laughter]. And so— and they would bark at the customers. And my real job was to stand by the wine and beer cooler, and whatever the person wanted, I had to bring it. I guess I was part of security in that way. Hated that job.
But it was also during the Vietnam war, and a lot of the boys in that neighborhood went to the war, and a lot of them came back with a thumb and no fingers. A lot of mutilation of young African American men whose only reason for going to war was that they didn't go to college. That's one of the blights on the nation, that they sent all these working-class kids to get killed, just under this mythology that, you know, the people in college were busy [laughter]. Although that ended, luckily, by the time I was in college.
But that was really not fair, and the ones who got killed, suddenly you have these neighborhood ladies that got ten thousand dollars, and I'll never forget in that drugstore, this such a woman— everybody seemed to know everybody, and everybody's circumstances, so you know this is the mother of so-and-so, she just lost her son. So the pharmacist, I remember, was trying to sell her this expensive perfume, you know. It was— it was an interesting time.
The other big piece was I had a very wonderful Sunday school teacher, a guy named Charles Turner. He was a teacher at Highland Park Community College, but he was - he lived on LaSalle Boulevard, and that was interesting too, 'cause when we used to take walks, and go up to Virginia Park. And LaSalle Boulevard was a very beautiful street at that time, and Charles Nix owned a house there, not far from Aretha Franklin's— Reverend Franklin's house. So it was kind of nice to go there, but also we knew which house was the Fire Commissioner's house, and various things. Then Virginia Park had beautiful flowers. That fell off by the time I was in high school, but you could - the flowerbeds were quite beautiful there, and that made for a beautiful community, and many of my friends from the church lived in that neighborhood, too, so it was good.
But I think— so Charles Turner was the person— there are people in your life who are just really formative, so for me he was a great example, and— turned out I was gay, so he— and he was gay, but he told me, "You know, you have a gift, and you're going to learn what this gift is. But you're going to— as long as you lead a life of integrity and decency, you will always be fine." And so I've heard many terrible coming-out stories. Mine had Charles Turner in it, so it was a wonderful nurturing to adulthood that I got all in my little neighborhood.
So I was well-pleased. And I guess I also got ambition there, 'cause there was one boy in my church who went off to a prep school in the east, and another one went to an eastern college. And when they came home at Christmas, everybody was so, oh, in awe of them. So I thought, you know, I'm going to go to one of them schools. And my mother had this idea that I was going to live at home and go to Wayne State, and I thought, I have so little interest in Wayne State [laughter]. Because I— I had, I used to say, the laziest brother in the world, so I did all the cutting of the lawn, the raking of the leaves, the shoveling of snow, and I thought, I'm out of here! These jobs will go back to him.
And so I only applied - I didn't apply to Wayne. I told my mother I did, but I didn't. And I applied and got into Michigan, but I ended up at Harvard, so I— and I kind of went to Cambridge and forgot to come home, I guess you could say. But that’s sort of— another trajectory. But I did end up in this notion of going to an eastern school from my church. And I think, at the time, I was the only black student from Detroit that was at Harvard. Now there had been some before, but not many. But once I got there, there were more and more and more and more, and they usually also went to Cass Tech, which is where I went to high school. So I had a great time there.
And you know, it's funny, the friendships that I had from church, they all went to Cass Tech too. So we had our own kind of society there, and we all had lockers together, and we only kind of socialized with each other, and we didn't talk to anybody from the Eastside [laughter]. That was our way. But it was— we had— socially it was wonderful. The girls had sweet sixteen parties, which were kind of elaborate things. And we had parties in various peoples' homes. It was the way you would want your child to grow up, I guess. And I think I was socially successful so it was good.
I enjoyed— I have wonderful memories of Grace Church, Thirkell Elementary. Thirkell Elementary was beautiful, it had a wonderful kindergarten. I'll never forget the big yellow piano. So I want to go back there and see if it's still the same.
I went to Hutchins Junior High, which was a little of a challenge, because that was kind of a tough school, and I wasn't one of your baddest boys. They let Hutchins out and we all walked up to Twelfth Street, and there was this open-back truck and there was King. I remember that, and I also remember— I remember the first time that John Conyers Jr. ran for office, because he was campaigning on Twelfth Street from the back of a station wagon. And I had met him some years later and I said, “I remember you in a station wagon on Twelfth Street,” and he was like, that anybody remembered then, because he's been elected a very long time, so—
WW: When you got to meet Dr. King was it unexpected? Or when they released— when the school organized and was able to go down and meet Dr. King—
KR: It's my sense— No. We were expecting to go see him, but it just happened that day. I mean, it seems to fit the story you were mentioning, that he couldn't be one place so could you bring some people— well, they brought the whole school. I don't know why I don't remember the principal of Hutchins. Hutchins, for me— you know, I was growing up, it was a tough middle school, kids would target you. It just wasn't like Thirkell. Thirkell was a well-run building. But part of this goes with being a middle school. Middle school is a hormone situation, and Hutchins was all that.
WW: Aside from when you got to meet Dr. King, did you have any other exposure or observations of the Civil Rights Movement in Detroit?
KR: Well, you know, this is where you conflate what you know now, what you didn't know then. So my mom, who was Jamaican, was not too interested in the civil rights politics that might get you hurt. So she was pretty big on— like when they announced that Freedom March, I remember she says, "Well, we won't be going,” because there will be trouble there, perhaps. So I remember that. But since then, I have read this wonderful biography of Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, and it's called Singing a Song in a Strange Land. Which is his biography, but what it's really about— I can recommend this book highly— is what all was going on in Detroit, particularly black Detroit, as it interfaced with white Detroit, while I was growing up!
So the people I knew from church and the people who I knew from various places in history— what they were doing and thinking is all in this book. So it turns out the black people decided they were going to have this Freedom March. But there was a real power struggle between Clarence LaVaughn Franklin who, since he was a Baptist, would not have been of the upper echelon, and the upper echelon folks who were the NAACP said, If Dr. King is coming, of course we're the hosts of that. And so King had to tell them, "I know him, we work in the National Baptist Convention together, we're very good friends, and he has invited me, so when I come to Detroit I'll be doing whatever he says. So you should join with him, because he is the point guy."
And I wouldn't have known that, because the folks who though they were Group One, that would have been who I knew, and they wouldn't have looked favorably on Reverend Franklin, from even the way he looked, 'cause he has this conked hair, which you could never be a middle-class black person of quality, according to them, if you were wearing that style. So there were many gradations and prejudices, I would call them. But he was all that, and he was a great preacher, and I’ve heard him many times. He was something very different and special.
WW: As you were entering high school and getting farther along into the sixties, did you notice any growing tension in the city, or did you still feel comfortable?
KR: You know, it's interesting. I lived in a black world, I really did. And even in— when I went to high school, Cass Tech was something like forty percent white, forty percent black, and maybe ten Chinese and ten Latino. So it was a mixed world, and my best friend was a guy named Jack Barthlow, who was a member of a very prominent black family. And he would say to me, "Ken, we are not inferior to these white people." He'd say, "You know, my grandmother went to college. How many of them do you think have a grandmother that went to college?" And then he'd— he particularly didn't like Polish people. He'd say, "And these Polish people, they barbecue on the front porch! We would never do that!"
So I was under the great tutelage of one of the great black snobs ever, and it was very helpful to me later in life because it never occurred to me that I was inferior to white people based on what I knew about them. And you had to come from a Detroit-like environment, where there's lots of black people, and there's gradations of black people, and you are able to discern the quality, integrity, and you could compare yourself to anybody. Which I thought that was very healthy, in retrospect. Now, unfortunately, I come back fifty years later and the amount of agency within the black community is really crushing to me. Because I ask people, “Well, what do you think the future will look like?” And they'll say, Well, they are going to this, and they are going to that. And I'm saying, “Well, does ‘they’ involve you? [laughter] You are eighty-three percent of the population! How is it that this— that ‘they’ are the only operative factor?”
So I'm working in my project to see how I can help that improve. But it is staggering, the extent to which regular black Detroiters seem to feel that "they" are going to do whatever "they" are going to do here, and "they," as I understand the "they," are not addressing the question of what to do about the residents who have always been here. I mean, they don't seem to be on the agenda. They certainly— they might be behind the caboose, but I don't see them on the train. I just don't see them on the train.
And I think that says a lot about what is democracy. How can you be eighty-three to ninety percent of the population and not be on the agenda at all? That deserves some exploration [laughter].
So I don't recall tensions, but you have to realize this too. In my Detroit, if there were white people— and there were— they were Jewish. It wasn't until I got to Massachusetts that I learned about race-race. Because there it's very important if you're Irish, or Italian— and I don't remember us really having Irish or Italian in big numbers. I knew there was German something, I knew there was Greek something, but the ethnic stuff of Boston seemed much more stratified than here.
However, whatever the situation is, by 1967, the white people— Jews and not Jews— after the riots, they vanished. I mean, they just— it was like all of them did! So I kind of was then in a completely black world. Which, since my black world had a lot of variety, I wasn't— I didn't feel bereft in any way, but it was entirely separate here. And then when I went to Massachusetts, where the African American population is much smaller— less than ten percent— I kind of missed having the numbers that we have had here.
So not much - I don't remember any, in high school, and this is odd, because that's where people would be dating and all that. But we did not date across racial lines. We did have friends across racial lines. I had a friend named Victor Joffe, whose— a school in Detroit named for his father. His father was a sort of civil rights guy. He was a good friend, I had been to his house for dinner. I went there for a Seder. His mother was interested— he wasn't too academic, and she thought I was, and she wanted him to go to Michigan and I told her I applied. That kind of thing went on, but I don't—
The one thing I would include in this part is that the— at this Episcopal church, Grace Episcopal Church on Virginia Park, as the sixties evolved, an unusual thing happened. They had a now very famous Episcopal priest named Malcolm Boyd, came to be an associate there. And Malcolm Boyd, he's most known for a book called Are You Running With Me, Jesus? But he was a Freedom Rider, and he would come back from these trips to the south and preach about what was going on. And so, I felt like I had a real insider's view of what this Freedom Ride stuff was about, and the dangers of it. And of course, you know, there were several murders, and those girls and all of that. So the church— we were interested in that, but we were still in the era where the bad white people were in the south. And where they do bad things to black people is in the south.
Detroit was more in a period where people worked in the auto plants. They had been integrated. The unions had been integrated. In Massachusetts, where I'm from, there are no black members of unions. They were kept out. You had to be the son of, or the in-law of, or— and that was true for a long, long time. So to blacks in Massachusetts, unions are not a positive thing, because they were an exclusive thing. Here, I even— one or two of my friends, their fathers were significant figures in the UAW. So I knew about that. My godfather was an active, like a steward in the UAW.
That's another wonderful thing to happen on Gladstone Street. So, I tell you it was a close-knit community and people stayed long. So my godparents, who weren't my godparents from my christening, but they were a childless couple, who they used to walk up the street to do their grocery shopping. And they thought I was a little boy with a big head and big eyes, and they just kind of took to me. And one day they asked my mother if I could come over for soup or something, and my mother was okay with it. And what developed was a wonderful relationship. Then when they moved, they asked my mother if I could come and visit them. They lived at 7620 Sturtevant, in Russell Woods, is where they moved to. And it was a lovely Tudor house. I think they paid twenty-three thousand for it. He was a factory worker, she worked with Charles Turner at Highland Park Junior College.
They were the other major formative people in my life. They were with me in everything, they attended my Harvard graduation. They just were— I have to say God put some really great people in my life, and their names were Nathan and Valeria Wallace. They were just magnificent people. And then they retired. They were one of the most successful black couples I knew. They retired to Sacramento, and they found a house in Sacramento that was twenty-three thousand dollars [laughter]. And so they retired at exactly the right moment, when you could shift, and not have it bother you. And they had a very rich life. They used to like to travel, so every summer they would go on a big vacation. But they loved to drive, so— and he worked for Chrysler, so by the time I was in junior high they always had a big Cadillac and they'd throw me in the back seat and we'd be off to California doing the northern route, or coming back the southern route. So by the time I was about fifteen I had been to half of the states, due to them.
That time was fraught with a lot of opportunity. And the fact that these connections occurred— the Sunday school teacher, the godparents, the C. L. Franklin, the Brenda Arnold, my friend, we were competitive through high school— it was a lot, but it all happened here.
WW: So right around that age, maybe a couple years after, is '67. Were you still living in the Virginia Park neighborhood then?
KR: Yes. Yes.
WW: Do you remember how you first heard what was going on? What you first saw?
KR: I remember like it was yesterday. So it was— my recollection, it was a Sunday morning, okay, and my life was, you got up and you were either going to church or you weren't going to church. That was the first question. But our church was around eleven, and there was commotion down on Twelfth Street. And so you kind of— this was the wonderful days when you just kind of roll out of your house, and rolled up the street, and then there were people coming back— Did you hear? Something happened down on Clairmount, and— you know, people not happy, and the police did something, and the window is broken over there, and this thing.
And it really— it was almost like a slow-motion moving picture, 'cause you picked up bits of information about what had happened. And then by the time you get more between eleven and noon, something was really happening, because people were walking down the street with chairs from stores, and my favorite one was somebody was rolling a piano down the street. It was just like kind of surreal. And finally, right at the corner of Twelfth and Gladstone, there was a dry cleaner's, and somebody— a lot of bodies— they broke the windows and just took all the clothes. And I was thinking, you know, I bet some people on this street have some clothes there.
But it was— and something, also, happened, which was— either you were a rioter who was going to go in places and take things, or you weren't. And my particular upbringing had me in the "weren't." But it was almost like a festival, because people were kind of grabbing things, and it was just exciting. I'm a junior in high school, and I'm in the middle of this never-before occurrence that, at its beginning was just fascinating and exciting. Later on, it turned to troubling, concerning, and even a little terrifying, because by day three or four you've got National Guard tanks rolling up and down the street. You've got all this sniping going on, and you know, gunshots, and you're hearing things, and then there's fires, and the heart of that riot was Twelfth Street, but it seemed to spread to other places too, so that—
And then the newspaper reports were really interesting, and TV, because, you know— people from close suburbs were coming to get their kids, and it was— you could tell that there was a lot of devastation, and you wondered now, Can all this get fixed? And the fact of the matter— it didn't get fixed.
And the fact of the matter, it was the death knell for that Twelfth Street that I loved so much, because most of those merchants were white and they weren't taking the risk, and then this was also this interesting thing where the black store owners kind of felt they could put a sign and say, I'm black, but then, people like that pharmacy, where the people were so awful— I think they got them [laughter]. Because they just didn't like them and they weren't likable.
But it was - I remember it vividly because in September, when I went back to high school, this integrated Cass Tech, those of us who experienced it were able to tell our wider circle of friends, including white people, what it was like. Because they didn't necessarily live it. We had.
Now it's interesting how this story, if you read more about it— I would like to join this discussion about whether it was a riot or a rebellion, I find that an interesting sinkhole— [laughter]— but I know about the riots. But apparently, when you think of Detroit has always had this labor history, et cetera— there had to be radicals with other ideas. I know that they broke into pawn shops and gun shops, and I have seen pictures of people distributing guns that they had gotten in those ways. So I think if there were people who were looking to make mischief, they could creep into this thing, but I do not believe that this began as some planned rebellion. I could never believe that.
But I do believe that people who may have had some other ideas about what the revolution could or should be may have managed to seize a little opportunity here. I did wonder, Who the hell is shooting at the police off of roofs? Who are those people? And why are they doing it? But I didn't— I don't know any of those people, or didn't know I knew any of those people. But I learned in that riot that, in this country, if you ruin your own neighborhood, you may have sentenced yourself to a reality that is impossible to shake. And that's what the last fifty years of Detroit have been to me, because— I'm sixty-five years old. I remember this as a junior in high school. I have seen fifty years of the continuous renaissance of "Detroit not."
And this thing that I see today, I've been coming a week a month for about two years now, on my project— and I just cannot— I do believe this moment is different than many of the others, but when I weigh out the statistical realities, that we were nearly two million people, we're down to six hundred thousand. At one time we were ninety percent black, now we're eighty-three percent black, who's deciding what? Who is the mayor of who? How many billionaires can make decisions about forty-block areas? Is there no community input? What about beyond downtown? I mean, it's one thing to clear it and cut it up. And my own— my greatest discovery— the Detroit I grew up in was a black Detroit which had the highest black home ownership, the highest number of black lawyers and doctors of anywhere else in the country, because these factory people came with resources. They had black hospitals here. When I was in high school one of my friend's sisters got married. The reception was on an island that they owned in the Detroit River and they invited the Detroit Symphony to play. And this is recorded in Ebony Magazine. This is a family called the Thomases. I think Alfred Thomas is— he was a doctor.
What I'm seeing now is, for me, the most significant transfer of black wealth that has ever occurred in this country. Because by '68, if the city was ninety percent black, then the ownership of the real estate was substantially black, because everybody owned their home, virtually. I mean there were people in the projects and whatnot, but all through my neighborhood it was black homeowners. They were not renters from white owners.
WW: What year did you just say?
KR: Sixty-eight. Because '67 was the riot, and I gave people a year to leave [laughter]. For the—
WW: In 1970 the city was still fifty-five/forty-five.
KR: Was it?
KR: Well, the ninety must have occurred somewhere in the Coleman Young years?
WW: The early nineties was one of the last great departures.
KR: So, I— well, it didn't take long for that equation to go the other way. But when— in my recollection, there was very little intersection between the two, and certainly not the integration of blocks and that— I don't remember— the only integrated place I remember was Lafayette Park. And who black was in Lafayette Park was somebody of some importance, some judge, some interior decorator, some black professional. And I guess even now that remains a bit of an integrated place.
What happened was odd. By the time I got to college, which would be '68, I began to meet people in Massachusetts who would tell me they were from Detroit. But invariably, they could be from the Upper Peninsula [laughter]. Everybody who was from Michigan, if you asked them where they were from, they'd say Detroit, because that's the only place I guess people know. So in my own work and research, I've had to broaden my definition of who is a Detroiter. Because trust me, everybody in Inkster thinks they're in Detroit. The Highland Parkers think they're in Detroit. The Romulus people think they're in Detroit. So people here just claim Detroit. It's like the phenomenon of people being from the Eastside and the Westside. It just is. And I've had to open up and believe that people who— I just left a friend who's part of my project. He went to Farmington Hills High School, but he's from Detroit. So it— you've got to be— you can't hold Detroiters in boxes.
So I know this— with some stuff you have here, you said, you know, "Did you grow up in the Detroit area," something like that [laughter]. You have discovered this too. It has to be— you just can't be narrow-casting. It's a very real thing.
But to show you how the mind works— so when I started my project, which is entitled The Spirit of Detroit From 1950 to 2050, I met a white Detroiter who also is a PhD from MIT, who was there visiting as a fellow. And she talks about Detroit like she's from Detroit. And I didn't tell her, but you know, I don't believe there's anything white about Detroit. And she's a booster. And then I find out she lives in Lafayette Park. But then I found out her father actually was a general manager of one of the significant plants, and she grew up somewhere in Dearborn Heights, really. But her heart is in Detroit. So I finally had lunch with her. I'll have lunch with her this Saturday. Actually I had a lunch with her in October and I said you know Constance, I have to kind of tell you the truth. I mean, in my idea of Detroit, the white people don't figure, because they left. I said but now, I gotta tell you, I think of you as a Detroiter. And she said "I'm glad of that" [laughter].
But you do— I have a sense of this as a black city until I learn more about the economics of now and the who's doing what. And the kitchen cabinet of the leadership. Finding inclusivity in this kind of a proportion— meaning, how can you have the titular leadership really not have a significant representation of who's here. I do not understand that. And I'm not critical of what's going on now, but the visual and the actual population, they really just seem not to have a connection. Which is kind of odd [laughter]. Very odd. And then you know you're in the midst of "they," too. That is kind of odd to me.
And then the other thing that is interesting— Detroit always had a public school system that could educate the leaders of tomorrow. To learn that that is not what we have, and haven't had, and interestingly to me, that the people of Detroit do not blame the school system on themselves at all, because the Governor has been running it for however long, but it's their children. And to read in the New York Times that the charters here are awful, and the publics are awful. And I've been able to discover that one of the reasons is the black middle-class left the school system too. And so who is going to advocate for quality wasn't here anymore. And what the root out of that is, I do not know. But the city's renaissance future cannot happen if they don't have a public school system that people will go to. So I know there's a lot of energy [laughter].
I'm meeting while I'm here with a young man who wrote a blog called I Hate Detroit. I don't know if you're familiar with this? Do look this up. It's called I Hate Detroit. And what it's about, is that he's a native, he loves the city, he's going to stay because he wants to be part of the future. But the Detroit that so many people are talking about, to him, is three or four miles of Woodward Avenue and Tiger Stadium. And the Detroit that he belongs to is not that. And this guy— I'm meeting with him and I'm meeting another young man who has written this wonderful book about how to move to Detroit and not be a jackass, i.e., it's not the new Brooklyn. And this is an instruction book on, do not be here for two or three years and tell us about what this is [laughter]. And don't come here and make up names for neighborhoods that haven't been here. That's a great read, and that blog is. I can give you their names.
WW: I know the book. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today, I greatly appreciate it.
KR: You brought back a flood of stuff here! [laughter] You know, when I first learned about the project I called— this is in maybe last June— and then when I was in– I found Mr. Stottlemeyer and I had a very good conversation with him. And I just thought— I think he kind of made some jokes about how no two people remember– or if you talk to two people, you’d think it was a different event– I believe that’s true. That’s true. But I’m glad you found my junior high principal for me, and I do not remember– that’s funny, too, I must not have been in trouble in high school– in junior high– [laughter]– I certainly remember the ones in Thirkell – and I actually went back to Thirkell and took some pictures outdoors, but I want to arrange to see what goes on there.
I have an older brother, by three years, here, who did some substitute teaching, who— I mean, he told me, he says, “I’ve given it up because the students don’t seem to be motivated by the desire to learn, or become, or those things.” He says, “They would never believe that you were from here. They don’t think anybody good can come from here.” I said, this is devastating, because this was, for a working class black kid, a very supportive place to launch whatever your desires might have been. If that isn’t here, I don’t like that. I don’t like that.
And I think one thing Detroiters don’t seem to understand, is that there are a lot of people who are Detroiters, who will always be Detroiters, I certainly feel that way, who would love to be in some way helpful, particularly around kids and opportunities, because— so I’m organizing some of that with my symposium at MIT, I’m going to cover from 1950 to 2000 myself, along with five panelists who are Detroiters who live in Greater Boston. And then from 2000 to 2050, I have a young man named Garlin Gilchrist who works for the mayor. He will assemble some of these folks, and I’m hoping to ask Mr. Stottlemeyer to be part of his— they know each other, so— But I’m hoping to bring that to Massachusetts. I wish there was something that we could bring to you, so I need to know who here– I realize this project is fully structured and flying, but it does seem to me that some of yours is June and July. So there is a period where my symposium is going to be in late April– but I just would love to get some of these empowered Detroiters before some of these unempowered Detroiters to see if a little flame could catch.
WW: Certainly. Thank you again for sitting down with me today.
,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed March 3, 2021, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/522.