Latitia O’Connell, February 7th, 2017
WW: Hello, today is February 7, 2017. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's Detroit '67 Oral History Project, and I'm in Monroe, Michigan. I'm sitting down with –
LO: My name? My name is Latitia O'Connell. Okay?
WW: Thank you for sitting down with me today. Feel free to start your story.
LO: Okay, this is my story. The Sunday that this happened rose beautiful and sunshine and not much humidity, and it was beautiful and hot. And so some of the sisters decided to go over to the cathedral for mass, which they did. Now, they didn't come back, so we were afraid that something had happened. Finally, they got back, and they said that when they went into mass, everything was quiet and beautiful. When they came out, everything was burning and they could not get home, so every road they tried to take to get home, they were blocked by fire.
So it took a long time to get a detour around all the fires and get home. And if we wanted to see the fires, we should go up on our roof, right then, and we would see Detroit burning. So some of us went up on the roof and sure enough, you could see black plumes of smoke coming up in sort of a circle, all around Detroit.
So then we came back and everything was quiet where we were. So we ate our supper and we cleaned up and came in to sit down where we had what we called recreation—where we gathered in the evening. And now I'll have to stop for a minute to let you know geographically how this goes. If you were to look up, you would see Fenkell, which was like a big top of a T, and the stem of the T, about a block down, was where we were. Now also, between our house and the house next to us was a rather narrow alley, but an alley people could go through.
Okay, so we sit down for a nice quiet evening when suddenly we hear the crackling of shattering glass. And not too long after that, people start bringing the furniture that they had looted from the furniture store on the corner— I never will forget there were two or three older people carrying a beautiful new, great big sofa. And so they took all the furniture through the alley.
Now when that was over, they threw Molotov cocktails in all of the buildings, I don't know how far down, but at least a block. And they all went up in flames. So by two o'clock in the morning our convent was so full of smoke you could hardly breathe. And naturally, we didn't go to bed because we didn't know whether they were going to come our way or not. So enough for the night.
The next morning, we found out— now, here, the chronology of the actual dates is a little bit fuzzy, but it's exactly the way— the way it happened. We first heard that the court in Detroit had taken in more than two hundred people, and they couldn't keep all of them, and obviously not all of them were guilty, so they wanted as many typists as they could get who were skilled typists and could do legal documents. So a number of our sisters— this worked out of Marygrove, so I don't know any more about it, except that I do know that a number of our sisters went. Meanwhile, in our place, Governor Romney had called out, by this time, the National Guard, so there were tanks strategically placed all around from our place downtown, and there were also armed National Guardsmen, and always had their guns at the ready, to shoot. The tanks had their guns sticking out over the street and the Guardsmen had their guns cocked, ready to shoot, if anybody came near. So it was kind of dangerous.
But anyway, about this time, Sanders called us up and said, We did our big baking just before the riots started, and we have all this merchandise and we can't deliver it. So if you would like any of it, you're free to come down and take any and as much as you want, and it's all free. So we were actually willing to go, and I volunteered, and some sister drove with me, I don't know who she was, but anyway— we drove down to Sanders, through the tanks. I can still remember those big guns sticking out. But nobody stopped us. We went to Sanders. We filled the car with Sanders merchandise, like cakes and everything. And came back, uneventfully, and put the Sanders things in a deep freeze that we had down in the basement, and came back and had our supper. Now that was that day.
The next day, or thereabouts, the court wanted a survey of all the people that were still living in all the burned out places, to see what the situation was, so they wanted some volunteers that would go from house to house in these burned out areas and see what the situation was. The questions were about how burned out the house was, are you safe, are you well, do you have enough food, and so on. So it was rather uneventful until we came to one house, and this poor old African American woman, about middle age, was so scared, she opened the door about one inch and was scared to even talk to us. But after we convinced her who we were, and what we were doing, she opened it up and she started talking to us. And she told us that the roof of her house was burned out, but she was still going to live there, because she didn't dare show her face. Did she have any food? No, she didn't have any food. Did she have any way to get any food? No, because if she showed her face, she was afraid that she would be shot. And worst of all, her son had disappeared on Friday evening. He had left, and he never came back home again, and she didn't know whether he was alive or dead. And that was worrying her more than any of the other things.
So we took all the data down, amongst other data, and sent it in to the court, where we were supposed to send it. And what they did with it after that, I don't know. So that was one day.
So then, the next day— this was Thursday by now— we still couldn't go outside unless we were pretty sure. So we had a late mass that was over about four o'clock, I think, in the afternoon, and a sister was just ready to clean the sacred vessels when a knock came at the door, and it was one of the National Guard, armed, of course, and he said take cover immediately, there are snipers all around. And don't leave until I give you the clear sign.
So we went to a little tiny place, like a little hallway between two parts of the house, and we sat there until he came back and gave us the all-clear that the snipers had gone. So that's really the major things that happened in my personal story.
Now my second story has to do with a manuscript— did you get it? A manuscript that Sister Mary wrote about a family that she knew and she kind of tried to make it into a story, but it's absolutely true, and the people in it were personal friends of hers, so it's a rather, I think, good summary of what happened during the riots. And there probably is quite a bit of information in the general archives of any of our convents that were open that summer, because most of them were in the midst of where the riots occurred, I think. But you'd have to check this out with the archives.
St. Benton, where we were, was open, and Holy Trinity was open. St. Agnes was open, I think. And St. Rose. You'd have to check. And maybe some more convents. And most of those convents were in areas where the riots were. So you probably would find quite a bit of information there.
Now that's pretty much the end of my story. Do you have any questions?
WW: Did what you see during '67 change the way you looked at Detroit?
LO: I suppose, subconsciously, it did. I didn't realize it at the time. But not Detroit, so much. It made me very, very much interested in the race problem, which I've been studying even until today. And the other thing that really, as I look back on it, was that Detroit was one of the only cities where this was so throughout the whole city. Most all of the riots that have occurred since, and even the ones that occurred this year, in Baltimore and New York and all these— they were localized. They were localized to the place where the injury happened. But the Detroit ones were all over the city. And another irony was that I don't know what they were doing, exactly, because I was not in on it, but there was a group of activists in Detroit, and I think some of our sisters were in on that— you might look up Shirley Ellis's file, she probably had some things, and some other people— but they had been working on this problem. They knew that it was a very volatile problem, and that something could happen at most any minute. But nobody that I ever talked to realized that something would trigger it like it did, and as far as I can see, from what I've read and studied, nobody has ever found out exactly what was used to trigger it.
WW: To trigger it?
LO: To trigger it. To start it off.
WW: It was a raid on a blind pig, on Twelfth and Clairmount.
LO: Was that it? And they've definitely established that now? And okay. So that's established. Any other questions?
WW: No. Is there anything else you'd like to share?
LO: I think— I think about all the people of Detroit, would be good people to begin to study the race problem as it still exists today. I just finished two articles, one in the America, and then the conclusion to a very good book called When Race Meets Real, and it's right up to date. Has people we all know in it. And the conclusion from both of those— I'm putting the two together— is that we are never going to solve the race problem, until the white race realizes its own sin in the way it has treated the blacks, and is humble enough to admit that we are no better than the blacks. That we're brothers and sisters, and that's going to take a lot of doing. It's not going to happen overnight. At least that was the conclusion. In this one article, in America, on conscience, Europe has already come to its knees and seen its sinfulness that led to the Holocaust. But America seems never to have realized the guilt the white man has because he always feels superior, even today. And until he stops feeling that superior, we can't solve the race problem. Does that answer your question?
WW: Can you ask me a question?
WW: I thought that's what you said. That was perfect! Thank you so much.
LO: Really? And it came through okay?