Karen Zaleski


Karen Zaleski


Karen Zaleski was sixteen years old in July, 1967, awaiting news from her father, a lieutenant fireman in the Detroit Fire Department.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Written Story


Detroit, Michigan


I was 16 years old in 1967, living in a wonderful, close-knit neighborhood on the west side. My father was a lieutenant in the Detroit Fire Department. On Sunday morning, he received a call that he was to report to the fire station immediately. My mother quickly packed him extra clothes and gave him a roll of quarters to make sure he had change to use in the pay phone. Before he left he told me to quickly take the car to the nearest gas station and get it filled up and return home. I knew something bad had happened, but little did we know what the next few days would be like.

After my dad left, my mother realized he had left his medications at home and told me to take them to him at the fire house after I had gassed up the car. The streets were already deserted and there was an air of fear in the faces of the few people I did see. The gas station was closing by order as soon as I paid.

I returned home and we stayed in the house for the next four days wondering what was to happen to our city, our home, and if my dad was safe. My father was able to call us once that I remember, but we didn't actually see him until the following Friday.

He came home exhausted and broken. His voice cracked as he told us about the rows and rows of houses that they tried to save and couldn't. He said people were coming up to them begging, pleading and crying for them to try and save their houses and businesses, but there just wasn't the manpower or equipment to do the job. He also said he had to order his men to hide under the rigs many times as they were getting shot at. It broke his heart to see what was happening to his city.

The only time my father smiled while relaying these stories, was when he talked about the people who were neighbors to the fire house. He said he had never seen so much food prepared and brought to them during those days. Firemen and police officers were being fed by the community with donated food all day every day during the riot. These neighbors were jeopardizing their own safety to take care of their firemen and policemen. My father said it was the best food he ever ate.

Our city was bruised and beaten up. Our citizens were so full of questions. How could this happen? What did we do wrong to create so much frustration and hate? How are we going to fix this?

Within 5 years my father had chosen retirement for health reasons and I was student teaching through Wayne State University at an inner-city elementary school. This battered school was surrounded by the evidence of the riots. These children and their families were reminded daily of the devastation of the riots and how little life had changed for them. Our city was still battered and bleeding 5 years later.

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Karen Zaleski

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Detroit Fire Department, Wayne State University




“Karen Zaleski,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed July 25, 2021, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/57.

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