Ronald Lockett, April 14th, 2017
JW: Hello, today is April 14, 2017, my name is Julia Westblade. We’re in Detroit, Michigan, and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. And I’m sitting down with—
RL: Ronald Lockett.
JW: Thank you so much for coming in to sit down with us today.
RL: Thank you.
JW: Could you begin by telling me where and when you were born?
RL: I was born January 30, 1951, in Albany, Georgia.
JW: Okay. When did you or your family come to Detroit?
RL: My family arrived approximately 1953. I arrived probably in 1954, you know, it’s just been some dispute within the family of when I came here, because my family—my parents—I was an only child, and I stayed with my grandmother because my parents as they came north, it was really tough, so I stayed with my grandmother, and I think they kind of fudged the dates because it felt like they were being irresponsible by not bringing me sooner. I mean, I understood that, but as we went through things I think I may have been brought a little later than what they said I was.
JW: So what brought your family from Georgia to Detroit?
RL: Employment, and to escape the racism of the South. I mean, Georgia—Albany, Georgia was the county seat of Dougherty County, and the largest city in southwest Georgia, and what is so significant is that Interstate 75, if you look geographically, it just would have made sense for it to come through Albany. And we say “Al-benny,” that’s a colloquial expression, because if you were from New York you would say “Al-bany,” we say “Al-benny” as if it’s an “e” there, so just to let you know, like, what is he talking about?
They refused to—as a result of federal law, accommodations would have had to be open for—based on the interstate, would have had to be open for all citizens, irrespective of color, creed, or religion, but Albany was not having it. In fact, Albany has been known as the city that broke the back of the Civil Rights Movement. King was not able to desegregate Albany.
JW: So when your family moved to Detroit, was it different up here then?
RL: Oh sure, I mean, it was just bustling. You know, I mean, they were—my father came from a family of 18—nine boys, nine girls—who were essentially quasi-sharecroppers. My grandfather was a farmer but he basically—he sold his products on the market but he fought to stay independent, but everybody—I mean, all the children essentially labored, they were workforce to provide for the family. So to come up here just meant so much potential opportunity. And Detroit was literally bursting at the seams in the black community. We stayed in the attic because there were literally no places for anyone to stay, I mean, so different—
JW: What neighborhood were you in?
RL: We moved in across from the Brewster Projects, and it was a different thing about—you know, people typically say about projects or housing, public housing as just something that was looked upon with—well, not degradation, but just not as being exemplary housing. But my parents couldn’t get in there, and then it was considered transitional housing. You would be there for a while until you were able to purchase a home and move, so people were not looking to stay there for a lifetime. But obviously that changed somewhat later. But they stayed in what is now considered Brush Park in Detroit, and then they stayed there until they were able to purchase a home on the Eastside of Detroit.
JW: And when did they purchase that home?
JW: Okay. And that’s around the time than you came up, then?
RL: About right before I came up. I do remember the attic, you know, I do remember the attic as a child. We purchased a home and that was a major step for my family. And my dad’s 89 and still stays in that home.
JW: Okay, that’s great! So was that—when you bought that home and you moved to that neighborhood, was it an integrated neighborhood?
RL: It was then, but it was changing rapidly. It was changing rapidly because that’s—if you look at Detroit, the decline of Detroit started really around ’48, ’49. Sometimes when people talk about how things used to be they don’t look at facts, they look at how they feel emotionally, and have a visceral reaction to how things were, but Detroit was still pretty close—I think in 1950 it was probably 1.8 million, but by 1960 it was like 1.5. I mean, it was a precipitous drop. And so the suburbs were starting to, based on FHA [Federal Housing Administration], Mayor Cobo, I mean, basically the creation of a plan for freeways, whites had started to leave, so the flight had started. And essentially it was creating suburbs like Warren, Sterling Heights—you know, they were basically farmland. But it was the beginning of whites leaving the area. But it was integrated, because I recall I had—when I went to elementary school, I went to elementary school for a few years with—I had white friends.
JW: So what was your neighborhood like? Did you primarily stay there or did you explore around the city, too?
RL: No, no, I was stable. I mean, that was so incredible about my situation, and I really thank my parents for it. I mean, I only went to three schools. I went to Bellview Elementary, Miller Jr. High School, Eastern High School, which was subsequently, my last year, became MLK, and we’ll talk about that as we move to ’67. So very, very stable. I mean, I was in one house my whole life, and it was the same as the house that we still live in, which is really remarkable. So didn’t venture out much other than when we went to church. And the church that I was raised in, and my dad attends, is still in that same area near the Brewster Projects, what then was called the Medical Center. I mean, this is pre- the Midtown, Brush Park names, you know, these catchy names now. It was called the Medical Center area, so that’s where we went to church. And that was probably when I ventured out, other than—we would venture out, you know, my mom would take me places, and we would venture out on Sundays after church to go particular places.
I do have, as a child, a very vivid memory of Hastings Street. I remember Barthwell Soda Fountain, which was the—I think they had about four or five Barthwell black-owned drugstores, which was very, very prominent, and I do recall going to the soda fountains, and I just can remember the people out on the streets, and just a beehive of energy and commerce, as a child walking with my mom or walking with my dad, and it was just— the street was just teaming with people. I do recall that particular thing. But we pretty much dealt with downtown and our area on the Eastside of Detroit.
JW: And then—so you said you were an only child and your family moved up here for jobs—
RL: For economics.
JW: So what did your parents do for a living?
RL: My father worked at an upholstery shop. Famous Furniture was a Jewish-owned company that sold new furniture, but they really made most of their revenue off of reupholstering, which was an incredible thing, I mean, people didn’t throw things away, because furniture—a lot of this furniture was—lots of furniture, quite frankly, at that particular time was European-made, and it was not only European-made but it was—essentially, it was so different, everything was American-made, which sounds remarkable, but it was so sturdy that you just put covers and new cotton, maybe even used the springs inside the—in the cushions, and reupholstered, and it was essentially a multi-million dollar business. I mean, there were a number of different companies around the city that were there, and my dad worked at the one on—it was located on Jefferson and Shane, Famous Furniture. They had a number of stores around the city, but that was there main place.
My mom did day work. She worked for some African Americans first, who were in the policy game and what they sell: numbers. And they—you know, their fortunes went up and down, sometimes they were doing pretty well, sometimes they were not. And then she moved from there—then she spent time with me as I was matriculating through school, and then as I got older she went to do day work in Grosse Pointe. And so that’s essentially what she’s done. But she—you know, very educated, very well-read. Basically gave me my love for books.
JW: So you said your family came from the South up here, and that you had already noticed that whites were leaving the city. So did you—in the late fifties, early sixties—
RL: Leaving the neighborhood.
JW: Yeah, the neighborhood.
RL: Because I really— I was too young to know what was going on in the city, but I just knew that the neighborhood was kind of changing.
JW: So did you notice, or your family—did you notice tension in the city around that time? Or—
RL: No, no, I didn’t notice any tension. But I started to see my existence—I started to see a black existence. Because I remember this so poignant—I remember asking my dad once—I don’t know what caused me to ask this question, but I said, for some reason I asked, “Was there more black people in the world?” And I just made that statement, I don’t think it was “world,” I could have been just speaking about the city, and he said “Oh, no, no, no, there’s a lot more white people.” And I just think back, my reason for saying that, because there really had been a significant reduction in me seeing white folks in my existence other than probably downtown, and teachers. There were, you know, black teachers. There were no black administrators. That was something that really didn’t occur until later in my years, but during my early years there were no black administrators.
JW: Uh-hm. So leading up into ’67 then, you were in high school. And did you see more — that awareness that you got when you were younger, did that grow as you got into high school?
RL: No. I mean, you know, not really. I was—by being—a parent always gave me an opportunity to read; now what we did is that, I necessarily didn’t—you know, we’d get books. I remember Scholastic so well. You would pay a quarter and then you would get a book, and we’d look and see the books, and that was just something that was just so exciting. I remember the library at Bellview—I went to Bellview Elementary, which was the street over. I mean, I literally—my elementary school was a half a block away. I always joked with folks that I had a black Ozzie and Harriet existence, in the way I was raised up, I just didn’t see—I was so shielded. I didn’t know how tough from my parents, I was just so shielded from so much. But I remember reading a lot—Jack Tales, I remember this book, Death Be Not Proud by Jonathon Gunther. And that was the first book I actually read from cover to cover, and it just sticks with me so much, it was such a fantastic book. But the key thing was that I could read, I mean I was reading at a very early level and I never had a problem reading. But I had classmates who were scuffling. Because my mom used to—we had a Volunteers of America right across the street from the school, which was Bellview School on Bellview, and she could—she would go give me relatively new magazines, and used magazines, they may be a week, month, two months old, and you could get those for pennies, you know, nickels. And she would let me go pick them out or she would bring them, and then, you know, just read. I mean, I just read so much; I was so much into what was going on the world. I remember Malcolm X being shot in ’65 and I just remember, you know, how they said he was just so crazy and wild. I mean, it just said that this is a black radical who hated white folks.
But I also remember my parents—because on Sundays, when we didn’t have dinner we would go to places around town, and I remember going to Cadillac Boulevard, at the foot of Forest. The Nation of Islam, quote unquote “Black Muslims”, had a restaurant called Shabazz East and something some of my mom’s friends had told her the food was just real, real good, nice, clean, wonderful. You know, a black restaurant, I remember going there, and it was just an absolutely fabulous experience. I mean, food was wonderful. I remember seeing, you know, just clean-shaven, well-dressed black people and that just made a good impression. Not that I hadn’t seen them, but I’d basically seen them in church, and I really had no understanding of the Nation of Islam and its history and all of that.
So I do recall in ’65, Malcolm was murdered. Then I remember ’66, about the whole advent of Black Power, and tried to get it together. I had other things—I mean, Motown music, I was loving clothes—it was high school, so, you know, we were really into dressing. And so I was able to, at Famous Furniture, get a part-time job, so—did I work the previous year? Was this my first year? I think ’67 may have been my first year. Because then high school was tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade. It wasn’t ninth, tenth, and eleventh, it was tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade, so ’67 I was in the—no, that’s right, to tell you the truth then, ’67 would have been—I would have been right between the tenth and eleventh grade, so I would have been sixteen years old. And I recall—and I’ve thought back—I just recall about Black Power. Didn’t really grasp a lot of it, just knew that there was a lot of ferment in there. But to get back though, I do remember ’63, because, you know, the first iteration of the March on Washington was here in Detroit, and my parents went to that. And we have a piece of wood—very, very primitive, but it’s a piece of wood, said— just printed, stamped it The March—I think they had four sides, so they put all four sides. And I do recall my parents going there. And, you know, I knew that there was some—not to say I didn’t know about racism, I clearly knew about—there was racism, because we had been subjected to it when I would go south for the summer, I actually saw white-only, colored-only, Negro-only. But as a child it was just like a novelty, I mean, it was, it may be bizarre to say it was exiting, but it was just something different, you know? I mean, I just, I guess I didn’t take it to its logical extension that if I stayed down here then I would be like that too, but to me it was fun. It was different for us to go up to the balcony, and enter from the rear, so I remember that very, very vividly.
So I knew that there was unequal treatment of African Americans, but as a result of being in Detroit and not seeing a lot other than occasionally being fearful of the police—but again, I was kind of sheltered, it wasn’t like I was out on the street a lot, you know, I had the street-lights thing that my mom lived by. We had to be home at a certain time, I wasn’t running the streets. So we moved to me getting my job, my summer job, which would have started in June of ’67—yeah, I’m pretty certain this was my first one. I may have started the year before, ’66, but I clearly know about ’67. So, you know, I would work to be able to buy my school clothes, because all I wanted was clothes and music. That’s all I cared about, clothes and music. My parents wanted me to learn to save, but what I’d save for, I wanted to spend my money, so it was a battle. They were trying to teach me by saving, but I just, you know, as a child you don’t want to hear that. I wasn’t a child, I was a teenager, but I wanted to spend every penny. So got through there, got paid. It wasn’t a bi-weekly phenomenon then either; you got paid every week, which was nice. So I probably got about four checks, and then I remember when there was—when they said some disturbance was over on the west side. And, I said, “Wow.” So, you know, in some way it was kind of exciting, but when it came to the real world I wanted to go to work so I could get my money. So when I found out—I guess what hit me was in the pocketbook, that I was able to go to work. And—
JW: How did you first hear about what was going on?
RL: Through the media. Through, you know, radio was pretty prevalent then, and there was television, because we did have a TV, but radio was major. Radio was a major medium then. My mom listened to—she listened to black radio. My dad, was always bizarre, was listening to country western. We never got that together. Me and my grandson was teasing him about it not too long ago, but I guess by being around whites at work and southerners at work—but he said he listened to it when he was down South. Because Famous Furniture was really like the United Nations, I mean, you know, you had so many Eastern European, African Americans; you had some of everybody there who was working.
So I heard about it then. First thing I wanted to do, since it happened on the weekend—I wanted it to end after a while. It was a little exciting, and yeah, maybe we may get some record, get some note. But when it really hit me that I wasn’t going to be able to work— so I recall being in the house, couldn’t get away. Was in the yard once, you know, walked out to the end of the alley and saw some troops there. One held a gun, pointed a gun at me, told me to get in the house. That was a bit scary, but I really didn’t see a lot other than what I saw via television and reading. Yeah, reading what I found out later, because we were not getting—obviously people weren’t delivering newspapers then. But I recall a whole lot later afterwards, so then it was finally over. Because my dad—because since I worked with my dad, okay, so I was working with my dad. I would work from one to four, about three hours a day. And a dollar quarter an hour. How could anyone exist like that? But potato chips were ten cents a bag then, so I guess that was a lot of money.
So I remember I came back to work, and I remember the gentleman, Jack Kline, he was probably a VP within the company, and I was, you know, had a little afro. So he saw me and I remember when he saw me, you know, it was like I’m an African American male now, a young African American male, and African American males were looting, burning, et cetera. So I remember now we’d been closed down, they’ve lost revenue, and I have no idea what else happened to the company, I mean, you know, maybe they also lost some property and some of the stores or something, but they clearly lost revenue. And so I remember he looked at me, I looked at him, and I just felt, I don’t know if he likes and wants me being here right now. And at the end of the day it was so painful for my dad to say tell me they had let me go. And this would have been—I had a whole month, more than a month, of work to work. School wasn’t until after Labor Day. So we’re talking about July 23, maybe we were closed five days, so we’re talking about the end of July, so I had a whole ‘nother month, you know, to make money. So that was extremely painful. And I didn’t blame him initially as much as I blamed my people. That was probably my level of, I thought, political sophistication at that particular time, because I really didn’t know what was going on, but then by 30 days after that I had got a better feel, somewhat, for what was going on. You know, just a bit. I was probably a bit more conservative—clearly I was more conservative than I was the next year, but I was not a fan. And I’m still not a fan of what occurred, because I think the devastation has still stuck with us. Just so many businesses—I mean, literally thousands of businesses were destroyed. And, consequently, hundreds of thousands of lives, probably, white and black, as a result. So I was confused and very, very angry, because it really had destroyed my summer.
JW: Were you expecting anything that summer, given that you had read and you knew about Malcolm X and things like that, were you anticipating--?
RL: No, absolutely not, didn’t see that coming at all, didn’t know anything. Just had read, but again, I’m in my own little area. I didn’t—we had—our community was fairly stable. We had people who were buying their homes— old homes, turn-of-the-century homes. And it was just real stable, I just didn’t see—I mean, I saw people, as I ventured out more, I saw people who were not doing as well as my family was. I saw young people, friends, who had to cook for themselves as children and monitor their brothers and sisters, and I just knew that I was living differently. Now I know I was truly blessed, but I just saw that I was really living differently and the way my home ran was significantly different. And so I could see the disparity in income even among blacks. I mean, I wasn’t around white folks so I couldn’t really speak on that, but I clearly saw that around, so—I didn’t see that, I only saw that more came with the more I was exposed to other things in the city. Now when we rode maybe about first week of August or so, when things quieted down a bit, then we did some driving, the family. And then I said, “Man, this is crazy. Why the hell would we tear apart our place like this?” And, you know, Rosa Parks, and there were just some places that were just gone, you know, charred. So it was real, real shocking. But in some ways, there were a lot of things still came home. To me though, as a teenager, there was no significant change, because our area didn’t get hit like others. The Eastside didn’t get hit like particular areas of the Westside, so it really didn’t have that type of feel until later as I ventured out the next year. The next year I incidentally went back to—they called me back to work. But I was radical, by the next year, I was really, really— you know, had really learned about black empowerment and feeling more about myself and grappling with racism.
JW: What brought about that change?
RL: I think just the conditions. I started reading more about what was going on in the world. The war really pushed a lot. It was just so many different things just happening all in the city. Then I had friends who were a sense of blackness, who were calling themselves “black.” Because initially—clearly African Americans have a darker hue, didn’t want to be called “black.” It just felt that was an insult. But then people really wanted to be called “black.” That was a significant change; it was like some sense of pride. So those were the things that were happening. You could see black women with afros, people wearing African garb. It was just this fascination with Africa. So all those different forces were coming into play and it was really hypnotic for me. And once I started reading then I could see things that had happened literally years ago, that some things just hadn’t changed. And it was really—really got me to see what was going on.
I remember particularly April, April 4, 1968, the next year, when Martin Luther King was assassinated. And I always just loved the way he could preach and speak. And so at that particular time I was kind of trying to figure him out, because I know he was having some problems with the young firebrands, with Black Power, versus his, quote unquote, nonviolent approach to solving the problem. And then when he passed we were just very upset at my high school, because my high school was a new high school. It was Eastern High School. And so to show you just how Detroit was a tinderbox, and how nervous they were—that is “They” meaning the city. So he passed April 4, 1968. We said we wanted the name changed. I think we wanted—as I recall, yeah, I think we asked for his name, because I think Northwestern at that particular time wanted to be called Malcolm X. But by the time we came back in the fall, which was unheard of the way administrations operate, we had Martin Luther King High School in September of 1968. Nothing has ever happened in my life that quick. So we had no idea—we felt we had more power than we did. But the essence was—so we protested—the essence was that they were particularly nervous in the city. So my senior year—and I graduated from King—and by the time I graduated I was, you know, full-fledged radical.
JW: How did your parents feel about that?
RL: Oh, it was tough for them. It was particularly tough. They were probably more fearful for me, and they just did not—just couldn’t get it together, relative to me being so radical and reading and saying things that they saw as just, like, “This is going to get you killed.” So it was a real, real tough period. You typically have, during that maturation period, you have a problem with your parents anyway. You know, you got a young adult versus the older adults, and then you add politics to it, it just becomes very combustible. So it was a tough period. Then I was going to go to college, which also took it to a whole ‘nother level, because then I was meeting and seeing more people. But at that particular time then, the thinking was that it was—I found out about the Algiers Motel incident, found out about many people who were allegedly murdered but never showed up. That has become folklore, but I think they said there were 43 that were killed?
RL: Yeah, officially, but I say it was much, much more. So, you know, those were the type of things that became folklore, and so, you know, we moved from a riot that it was a struggle for liberation. Clearly there was some—there was a push-back. But it also was just an opportunity for opportunists, you know, to come get some things. But the social milieu, that is, the environment was a combustible environment that the powers-that-be—that that particular administration, the Cavanagh administration, really hadn’t saw it coming. They thought things were much better than what they were. And police and how they handled particular things then—one thing I know relative to police, I mean, they were just brutal. We had a group called the Big Four who would ride around, typically I think they’d have an African American in uniform driver, and then the other three would be white in under-cover clothes. And they would just literally terrorize us. I mean, we would be out in the streets, we really weren’t doing no damage, but, you know, as I got a little older, so—we didn’t particularly care for the police at that time. With that happening and some of the things that had happened before, it just was the match, you know, just lit it off. And no way, in my description, is that I endorsed what happened. Because I just really hate what happened to the businesses that were lost. I know there’s some discussion about white and Jewish businesses, but it was literally devastating to the African American community. So many African American businesses that were destroyed and never came back. And consequently, if you look back then, that’s a generation of entrepreneurship that was lost, and certain parts of the city that were lost that were never replaced. We still have areas that have never been replaced, in 50 years.
JW: So looking at the state of the city today then, do you think that the city has improved or do you think that ’67 is still hovering over the city?
RL: I think it hovers over the city. I think that it will hover over the city—forever is a long time, but for the foreseeable future. Because we have just such a large expanse of land, there’s just nothing there. And some of that is a result of just urban decay, but some is a result of what happened in ’67, and we still just have such a gulf between the haves and have-nots. And that occurs even where we’re sitting right here, in the Midtown area. Rents—some people literally have been pushed out because they just can’t afford it. It’s moved over the Eastside. And I support progress, but we have to find a way to bring everybody in to give them a shot, that they can have a shot too. You know, live, and children can attend good schools and they have an opportunity to work, can travel to work. I mean, it’s just so many pressing things. And I’m a Detroiter, through and through, but it’s just so many burning, burning, pressing issues that affect the dominant population, which is African American in town, that we still have to tackle.
And I think the mayor makes—I think he makes a good—and I know him well. In fact, I’m really an appointee. He makes a valiant effort. But it’s just so many things are just so intractable. What happens on a state level. You know, we have Republicans in Lansing who now have quote unquote “Detroit fatigue”, who some don’t realize that the reason the state is even standing is because Detroit carried it and made it what it is. I mean, Detroit has carried it. Detroit has made America what it is. But now, you know, there’s even within our own environs and in the state, it’s looked down upon. And I just think transit is one key thing to me that is so critical in moving forward, that we will—we have someone like L. Brooks Patterson who wants to put a billion dollars into [Interstate] 75. I mean, a billion dollars could do so much in mass transit. Who could allow people to go out to jobs where they are, and also allow people who live in the suburbs or who want to visit Detroit, can come. You know, because, I mean, the whole notion of, you know, just building more roads is just so archaic. I mean, you know, people now looking for—the technology’s now driverless cars. It’s just like some of the leadership is just backwards. It’s like some of the leadership and what they did when devastating the black business areas with I-75. And one quick historical fact is that when they tore down the Black Bottom, they let is sit for 10 years. I mean, people could have been living there. And it dispersed people all over the city, when there was an area that was—that the dollar was constantly circulating within that community. Then it dispersed it to areas, so why did you tear it down and let it sit for 10 years? I mean, do you not have a plan? You just wanted to, you know—so those are the kinds of things that kind of replicate themselves again now in that we have some areas that are really starting to come back, on the lower Eastside. Then we have some areas that are just in suspended animation. Nothing’s happening.
And that’s what scares me to the future, is that—not that the seeds of ’67 are still there for reenactment, but there’s a lot of frustration on the streets. I mean, I run the largest community center in Detroit, the Northwest Activity Center, and I basically, every day, I come in contact with literally hundreds of young people, adults, seniors, and they’re struggling. They’re really struggling. And just to use that as a backdrop, the Northwest Activity Center was built as a Jewish community center in 1955. So the riot occurred in 1967. By 1974 they were gone, and they gave it to the city of Detroit for a dollar. So the Jewish community only stayed there nineteen years. I mean, incredible edifice, a 165,000 square feet. I mean, it’s still incredible, they don’t make buildings like that anymore. But they left. And that just shows you how the population moved. You had African Americans who were relegated to one area, so then they started moving northwest, so when they got there the Jewish community moved to Oak Park, Southfield, West Bloomfield. It’s a little bit more dispersed though. I mean, you can’t pigeon-hole them where they essentially live, but they live near their synagogues. But we’ve had a rebirth in a sense because Temple Israel now has a program that they’ve come back to Northwest with—that they feed, once a month, they feed people within the community about twenty-thousand pounds of food every fourth Thursday. And they have an office in the building, and really have programs that they run out of the building. So it’s a sense of coming back and trying to make things go—
So it’s really, really complicated, and really, really complex. And we’re all trying to find out how we can work together to pull those of us who are not doing as well up. I mean, that’s what I feel real Detroiters do. They really try to say, How can we make things better for everyone? How can we bridge the digital divide? We have two computer labs, so in our own way we try to make certain that the seeds of ’67 never get a chance to grow again.
JW: And you said that your family still lives in the house that you bought in 1955—
RL: My dad does.
JW: Your dad does? Did they ever consider moving, or--?
RL: Well, you know, my mom passed in 2000, and essentially they were going to go back to the Atlanta area. Because by my dad having 18—Lord knows, I’ve got relatives I don’t even know. So, I think we literally have two hundred relatives in the Atlanta area alone. So they were going to go back there, but after that, you know, my dad—they were married 49 years, so he lost his life partner, so he’s—he’s just been okay here. But strangely how things have come back, I mean, directly in front of our home, which I call our family compound, in front of our home they’re going to build what’s called the Beltline Greenway, so he got a call from somebody wanting to buy the house. I mean, they’re down shore—you know, two blocks off the river, near downtown, so all that land is fairly valuable. In fact, they’re not even tearing down houses in that land anymore. You have young whites who are coming, who essentially have bought up every piece of property in that whole spot there, so—those are the type of things that happen. And that’s not to begrudge anyone, but among some African Americans, you know, they see an area that has been desolate, dilapidated, and they just say, like, Wow, now you’re coming back here now to take—I mean it’s America, I mean, you know, opportunity and people take advantage of it, but that’s a very sophisticated response to a very visceral, gut reaction. So the existence and the relationship of African Americans in Detroit encounter a distinction to European Americans, and Detroit is very, very complex. I mean, you know, we—I think we try to make it much simpler than it is, but it has a lot of history, a lot of baggage, and I think there’s some movement to try to do that—I think this project is essentially that. Because it’s so important that we look at history, and I think that’s something in America that we’ve just not looked at, how we just don’t even discuss slavery. Like, why do you want to talk about that? Some people probably say, Well why do you want to talk about the riot? And I think it’s critical to talk about the rebellion, because it’s a part of who we are, and it has forever changed us. I think it’s up to Detroiters to make it for the better, and the verdict is still out on that regard. I mean, you know, we can make something out of what occurred 50 years ago, but I think we have to be honest and discuss it.
We also have to let a generation of people who were not born 50 years ago about what happened, and what the city was. You know, the city was bustling on the surface, but the population had started to dip. And I think that right there says a lot, that African Americans were coming in the city, their population was growing, but whites were also moving to the suburbs, and there was tension that just wasn’t discussed. And Detroit wasn’t, at that particular time, an all African American city though. Because I think the first—because the first mayoral election was—the first mayoral election with African Americans, Gribbs versus Austin, and Gribbs barely beat Austin, and then the next one was when Coleman Young was elected, so.
You know, I think the question of if we are able to—which, in some ways it is occurring, in some of the new projects that are diverse, that people are living together, and I just don’t think that’s the issue, other than affordability, but it’s not like people are literally scared of each other. But some of the problems of the past are still there because there’s some fear of each other. And I think if we can break down the barriers of fear, then I feel that we can live together.
JW: Uh-hm. And then one thing I forgot to ask, I’ve heard you use the term riot, and just a bit ago you also used the term rebellion. So how do you classify what happened that summer in ’67?
RL: I think it’s a combination of both. You know, I think I could say riot slash rebellion. Because there was some horrendous treatment that was occurring. There was also some treatment by shop-owners who were selling bad meat, pawn shops that were doing, you know, usurious rates of interest. Now, does that mean that someone needs to have their property stolen and burned down? Absolutely not. But, you know, the treatment, and people not able to get jobs—and it was really starting to change in the auto industry at that particular time, too. Due to automation, they were needing less workers, okay? There used to be a phenomenon in Detroit that, as you grew up, you could go to three automakers, get fired twice for growing up, being a bad worker, or just messing up, trying to be an adult just finding your way, and the third one, then you would wake up, and you would grow up, and then you would wind up retiring from there. Because, I mean, it was always an option, you know, you had Ford, GM, and Chrysler. But things were changing at that particular time, so, you know, the jobs that were not there—the jobs just were not there, and the work was becoming just absolutely inhumane. That gave rise to some of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Some of the trade union, the black trade union organizations that were fighting, you know, blacks couldn’t get positions in the union. So there were a lot of things happening that were connected to just a feeling of—which I found out subsequently because I wasn’t feeling that. You know, again, I was a teenager, but I found out based on study, talking to people, that there was a deep sense of alienation among black men and women at that particular time, that they were not moving. Some of the first programs to get African Americans in college were just starting at that particular time. So, I think maybe some started ’66, but a lot of them just started in ’67, so, I mean, that was just starting as a result of that. So there were powers that understood there was a problem, but as things— as they moved, it depends on how fast they react. They didn’t react as fast, and I think the mayoral administration kind of diluted themselves that, you know, things were probably going much better than they were. But—it was—there was a lot of gasoline out there, and it just took a match, but no one really didn’t smell the gasoline.
JW: Uh-hm, yeah, well, is there anything else you’d like to add or anything else you remember?
RL: No, I’m fine.
JW: Alright, well, thank you so much for coming in today.
RL: Have I been helpful?
JW: Yes, very much so.
RL: Thank you.
JW: Thank you.
,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed January 21, 2021, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/523.