Theresa Milne, January 31st, 2017
WW: Hello. Today is January 31, 2017. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's Detroit '67 Oral History Project, and I am in Monroe, Michigan. I am sitting down with—
TM: Sister Theresa Mailne. I was stationed in Detroit, on Twelfth Street, at St. Agnes Parish at the time of the riot. However, I know some background before the riot that helped contribute to the riot.
It started in World War Two. The section where I lived, at St. Agnes, was really considered a wealthy section during World War Two. But when we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, the men were drafted. That left a lot of women without any man in the home. Every able-bodied man was in the draft, to respond to the Manila bombing.
Because of that, there was a need for us to develop an arsenal, in order to fight the Japanese and the Germans during World War Two. That meant that we had to have a place where we could do it safely and not be bombed by the German submarines in the Atlantic Ocean.
That necessitated having it in the middle of the United States rather than on the coastline. So Detroit was the place picked, the reason being, we had waterways that could take whatever was made there to the coastline to be used.
Detroit was then named the arsenal of the war, or the arsenal of the free world. Willow Run was a tiny airport at the time, twenty-two miles outside of Detroit. They had another tiny airport called Metro Airport. Wayne County Metro Airport. That later became enlarged and is now the famous Metro Detroit Airport.
In order to build the things at the Willow Run Airport, which was named Willow Run Bomber Plant, the women from the south came up to work at the arsenal. That meant we had to have housing. So all the wealthy homes— all the posh homes that were empty because of the war— were now subdivided, temporarily, supposedly, to accommodate housing for the women who would be taken by bus to Willow Run Airport. That's why I-94 was built, to make it a freeway, so the bus could take them with no stoplights. That was the first freeway.
Now we fast-forward, through the 1950s, to the 1960s. In 1966, I was appointed to be the principal at St. Agnes School on Twelfth Street. This had been the neighborhood church for the very wealthy at one time, so it had beautiful buildings.
On the morning that the riot started— oh— pardon me. There's one other item that I must tell you. As principal of this school, I walked into a situation where— of a changing neighborhood. And the new pastor— he was as new as I was— had decided that he was going to do something to really renovate the neighborhood. At the time, the women that had worked in the bomber plant had a lot of children, and those children were walking the streets. We had the largest population of children in the whole city, located in that one area. A half a block from St. Agnes School was a public school that was on half-day sessions, because there were so many children, and they didn't have enough schools.
Our school was partially empty, both grade and high school. So we decided, together, that to help the situation and get these children off the streets, that we would turn our school into a community school and take the children from not only the public school a half a block away, but from St. Theresa's, which only had a grade school, and from Visitation Parish, which only had a grade school. That filled up our high school, and it filled up our grade school.
We still had the problem on Saturday, with the children walking the streets. So we decided to offer fun classes on Saturday. We offered art and music to these children, and we later on got a gentleman who had retired as the CEO of Rockwell Corporation to help us out. He decided that he would do what he could to get these children a hot breakfast, so they wouldn't be drinking a bottle of pop and eating chips on the way to school.
And we did that. So we served a hot breakfast every single morning, and we also had a lunchroom, and we had extra food for them, so they would have proper food. For the high school girls, the teachers in the high school offered secretarial classes for the mothers on Saturday, so that they could get out of their work order, which was being a prostitute on Twelfth Street. They used to walk past our convent and click up and down Twelfth Street, and you would see the cars coming from Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills. Right across from the convent was a red light house, and the women would direct the men from these suburbs to go to those houses where they went in for the business of prostitution.
So we were seeing all this, and trying to do something about the situation. That's why we offered the secretarial skills for the mothers.
Our school was filled right away with these half-day students. They didn't have to come to our school, and we even said, if you don't wish them to go to religion classes, that's fine. They have a study hour during that period. All of the prostitute mothers wanted their children to go to the religion classes and to have— to learn about God, and they wanted their children in our school so that they would learn discipline. It was a very wonderful situation that Father Granger supported, and made sure that everything was taken care of.
Now we have to fast-forward to 1967. In June, after the school year was over, I was appointed to be principal of Jesu School, which was farther west, two blocks from Livernois. That necessitated my having to drive between the two schools, because I didn't have any chance to do all the principal's work at St. Agnes School. So I was trying to take care of all the files in that office, at the same time that I was trying to prepare for a much larger school with thirty-seven teachers, whom I did not know, and I had to interview each one of them, and hire new ones, and get ready for the faculty there so they could get to know me and I could get to know them.
I had a really big job that summer. Then the riots broke out. What was I to do? Well, we found out through Father Granger that the rioters had started on— way up— maybe about a mile up Twelfth Street, just past Visitation, and they started about two or three o'clock in the morning.
Then we heard— then— something that I heard, when the block clubs met in St. Agnes Hall during the year, toward the end of the year one of the women just happened to make a remark, which I didn't attend to at the time. But the remark was this: "I got word from Ohio that there will be something happening in a few days." In a few days the riots started, so I knew that they knew about it. But it was coming from Ohio. The information. I thought that was a little strange.
Well, we then, during the riot, Father Granger— we decided with the pastor at Jesu that we needed to feed the firemen and the policemen who were working in the riot area. At first the local police took care of the riot up when it started, because there were about ten or twelve people that started it.
And they started it by being very noisy and fighting out on the streets. And they awakened people that were asleep. And so they came out to see what was going on, and then they joined in the loud noises and the shouting and all of this, trying to get it stopped. And the crowd just crowded— became larger as it came down Twelfth Street, and came down toward where we were.
About ten o'clock in the morning of the day that the riot started, Father Granger heard this noise, so he looked out the window. He was getting ready to go over for mass, but he heard the noise, so he looked out, and just in time to see a man with a huge rock in his hand, ready to throw it through the rose window of the church. And at the same time, one of our parishioners grabbed his arm— he was out there— and said, "Don't you dare touch any of our buildings!" None of the buildings at St. Agnes were touched.
But, at the same time, he saw that the fireman was very tired, trying to put out the fires on Twelfth Street. And so he said, "Teach me how to use the firehoses and I will put the fires out for you. And you can go to another precinct or whatever they call them, fire station, and do work there. All right."
In the meantime I had been moved to Jesu to be in charge of the people— of our sisters who were students at the University of Detroit during the summer. That's what I was to do. And that's why I had to travel back and forth to St. Agnes, to finish the office work at St. Agnes, and how I got into a lot of this.
So when I came back to Jesu, the pastor came over and he said, "I think we should help the people down at St. Agnes, at the parishes down there, by bringing them food, because they're not getting lunch and they can't buy anything in the area." So Jesu Parish became very involved in providing the food and the pastor asked me to get people to take it down in their cars.
And we had to mark the cars with a big red cross on the top, so nothing would happen to the drivers of the cars. And our men, from Jesu Parish, would bring food down every single day. So I was involved in organizing all of that.
Now after two weeks, everything died down. Seemed to be stopped. I think it was about two weeks, anyway. The first part of the riot. And I had relatives coming from England to visit my family on the Eastside of Detroit, which really wasn't touched much by the riot. So I went over, on I-94 which had been built. I could go straight to where my relatives were and visit with them. So I drove over, all the way from Jesu, which is at McNichols and two blocks from Livernois, and visited with my family.
About seven PM, my brother hadn't been listening to the news, but he did say that he thought it would be a good idea if I got back home while it was still light. So I started down I-94 and just about at Woodward Avenue, a Jeep appeared on either side of my car. I was driving alone in a big— I think it was a station wagon. So I'm driving alone, I had a habit on at that time, so you could tell that I was a Catholic sister. And they just appeared on either side of my car with rifles pointed upward, and just accompanied me right down all the way to the exit for Jesu, all the way up to the Jesu garage, for my car. I parked it in the garage. They stayed there until I closed the door of the convent and went in, and then they drove away.
Then, all of a sudden, we hear the riot has started up again. But this time, it's on Livernois, which is two blocks from us. And what I learned from the people was that— who lived near there, and came to church— was that they had marked the stores with white crosses and I am unsure whether or not that meant don't touch this store, or whether the ones that weren't marked were the ones that weren't to be touched. But I do know that not every store was torched. Not every store was looted.
And afterward I found out— because the mayor lived in Jesu Parish and I had a chance to talk to him— I learned that the stores that I guess were marked were the ones that were looted— rather, the ones that had "gypped" or overcharged the people who lived in the area. And in investigating that, we found out, because a lot of our parishioners at St. Agnes that were poor had jobs as maids, or servants, or chauffers, up in the Bloomfield Hills/Birmingham area— many of the women had the job of buying the groceries for those wealthy people for their home. So they went to the local stores like Kroger or whatever, and they bought the food.
Then they would come home and go to the Kroger's in our area, and the food would be wilted and rotten. And so they started buying their own food up in Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham. Well you can imagine how they felt, having to do that, and having found out that they had been ripped off. And so it was really bad. And that was why the stores on Livernois— which at the time was called the Avenue of Fashion— that some of those stores had done the same thing. Overcharged the people. But if they had gone to a shop out in Bloomfield, it wouldn't have been that charge. So they were an angry group of people that lived in that area, because of that. That was where some of the anger stemmed from. From the fact that they were being treated in an unfair way. That was part of— a very big part of the root of the problem.
WW: Did witnessing all this change the way you look at the city?
WW: Did witnessing all of this change the way you look at the city?
TM: Well, I'm a native Detroiter and I love Detroit. I've never been afraid to drive there since the riots. Many people are, because they don't know what's going to happen if they drive alone. I've never had that fear, and my family lived on the Eastside, and I had to drive on I-94 all the way across the city to get to their home. But I never felt any fear. I guess I just felt— I felt safe, but I also felt that the police force was a very good police force. I had a brother-in-law who was part of it. And— oh, I should tell you that when the riot became more than just a scuffle, up at the beginning, they first used the Detroit Police. And it wasn't until later on— maybe three or four days— before they realized they were in over their heads. The police were all called from their vacation to come and take care of this, but they couldn't handle the whole thing because it was popping out, you know, in more than one place, and they couldn't work twenty-four hours a day. So that's when they called in the National Guard. Okay.
So now fast-forward again, to after that first part. I was at Jesu and we've already talked about the riot starting up again on Livernois Avenue. The University of Detroit is right across McNichols Avenue from Jesu Parish. And there were National Guard people on the tops of the buildings there, shooting at the looters down below.
But by this time— television was still relatively young— the television cameras were televising the cars that were looting the stores on Livernois. And when I looked at the television to see what was happening and where— because it was a good source of information, so you'd know where it was relative to where you were— I could see that the license plates on the cars looting Livernois were all from Ohio. The police noticed this, and the National Guard noticed it too, and that's when they closed the roadways that came from Ohio into Michigan. They closed them off and had guards there so no cars could come from Ohio. They closed that off, and that stopped a lot of the looting on Livernois.
Now afterward, we had the beginning of school, and I was principal at Jesu. One of the people that lived in our parish, and whose children came to our school, was the mayor of Detroit, Mayor Cavanagh. And he came to pay the book bill for his children and after that, we had a conversation about the rioting and the looting and what had happened on Livernois Avenue, because that was close to where he lived. And so he told me his version of what he had observed, just from living in the area, and as mayor having to deal with getting the National Guard and all of that. It wasn't— he went to the governor to get them.
So he was very much involved. I don't know if he's still living or not. No, he isn't? He was a wonderful, wonderful man, and was mayor for a while. But he had to go through all of that, and deal with it from a whole different aspect.
Now things continued, with my principalship at Jesu, but we were still— I was still very conscious of the needs down in the St. Agnes Parish. So there was a wonderful pastor there, whom I mentioned earlier, Father Granger, and I kind of coordinated with him, to get food down to him, and he could get it to his parishioners any way that he saw fit. And he knew who needed the help and who didn't need the help. But he was dealing with an awful lot after the riots, because so many places had been burned out. Homes had been burned out. Stores had been burned out. And one thing that I neglected to mention, was when the riots started on Livernois, they started looting in the stores. What the police were doing, and the store owners who didn't want their produce to be taken, were bringing it over to our convent. So the bottom of— the basement of our convent was all finished, with flooring and everything, and we had a very large room down there. So they brought their produce— like clothing and all sorts of things— it was the Avenue of Fashion, after all, so we had very expensive clothing and things like that coming into our convent for safe-keeping, because they knew that they wouldn't touch the convent.
Now, do you have any questions?
WW: Were you surprised by '67? By the outbreak of violence?
TM: Was I—
TM: At what?
WW: The outbreak of violence in '67? Were you expecting anything?
TM: No. Except that, in hindsight, I thought back to what this woman had said. "Things are going to be happening in three weeks." I thought they know something I don't know. And then it happened, and here I am, right in the middle of it. So it was truly something. And if you can get the story about what St. Agnes Parish did, for all the people in that area— because it continued on. It continued on. And you can see why we took the time during the time I was there— you can see that what we have done, is what really protected our parish. Because we became part of the solution the year before the riots broke out, up the road a bit.
They hadn't done that. But we did. So our whole area was not torched. Nothing happened to it. Nothing. It was protected by our parishioners, and by people who lived in the region, because they knew we did things for them. It was a wonderful experience, in hindsight, to be able to be part of a solution, not part of the problem.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me. I greatly appreciate it.
TM: You're welcome. I hope that was helpful.
,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed June 1, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/525.