Linda Cunningham, March 28th, 2017
JW: Hello, today is April 28th, 2017. My name is Julia Westblade. I’m here in Detroit, Michigan recording an interview for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I am sitting down with…
LC: Linda Cunningham.
JW: Alright, thank you so much for sitting down with us today.
LC: You’re quite welcome.
JW: Can you tell me where and when you were born?
LC: I was born in September 1949 in Detroit, Michigan.
LC: At Deaconess Hospital, which is no longer there. [laughter]
JW: So then you grew up in the city?
LC: Yes, I grew up on the Eastside of Detroit.
JW: Okay, and what was that neighborhood like?
LC: Growing up, it was a fantastic neighborhood. Kids everywhere, we had multiple schools everywhere, parks, went to Belle Isle, but the Eastside was, the Northeast Side, it was a great neighborhood. My family had a family farmhouse at Houston and Chalmers from 1834 with the land grant. I still live now about eight blocks from where the old family farmhouse was.
JW: Oh, great. So what did your parents do for a living?
LC: My father was a wash machine repairman, and he had a store over on the Westside of Detroit on West Fort Street just off of Springwells. My mom was a housewife.
JW: Okay, and did you have siblings?
LC: I had two older brothers who went to Cass Tech and one younger sister.
LC: And we graduated from Osborn.
JW: Yeah, so growing up on the Eastside of Detroit, did you primarily stay in your own neighborhood or did you explore around the city?
LC: I was kind of lucky in a way, because I stayed pretty much in my own neighborhood, you know, on the Eastside, but my dad, with having a store on the Westside, we would go to work with him a lot of times on our days off of school or during summertime, during vacations, and it was the Southwest side of Detroit, so it was a total mixture of people and places, and it was a great place to go.
LC: There at that time there was Hungarians, blacks, Hispanics. Every nationality underneath the sun over Fort and Springwells. So it was kind of nice to have that experience on that side of the city of Detroit.
JW: Yeah. So did you think that the Eastside and the Westside were different? Were there different flavors or was it all just the same?
LC: Yeah, I think so. To me, the Westside seemed more industrialized, whereas my neighborhood where I grew up was more residential.
LC: So there seemed to be a difference there. The houses were a little bit closer together over in the Southwest side, and yeah, it was just a little bit different, and so many different nationalities and that was fun to have.
JW: Mm-hmm. Yeah, so then growing up in the city, so you went to high school in the area, you said.
LC: Yes, I went to Osborn High School.
JW: Okay, and what was that like?
LC: Osborn at the time was a relatively new high school, in fact they just did a thing with it a couple years ago with like, remodel, it was only about ten years old when I started there, but they only had tenth through twelfth grade when I went, and great high school, great teachers, a great place to grow up.
JW: Was it an integrated high school?
LC: Yes, it was, but not as integrated as we see now in Detroit, but we did have African Americans, very few Hispanics at that time, though. We did have Hispanics in our neighborhood, but very few at Osborn.
JW: Mm-hmm. So after you graduated from high school, did you stay in the city or did you go away for school?
LC: When I graduated from high school in ’67, I ended up going in the Navy in the fall, so I moved away from Detroit, and was in the Navy, married, and when my husband died I moved back to the city.
JW: Okay, so you graduated from high school in ‘67.
LC: Yes, I graduated in ‘67.
JW: So in the early sixties and when you’re in high school did you sense any tension in the city or were things just normal for you?
LC: Things were normal, basically, for me. I mean, there wasn’t really tension in our neighborhood at all, to speak of. I know when in ‘67 when I graduated that’s when they first started talking about busing and there was tension with that. As students we didn't care though. We just went to school—you know—Participated in things. I worked as a co-op student on the West Side of Detroit, so I had a different experience there, too. Just never really thought about it. It was like a Beaver the Cleaver type you know situation almost. [laughter]
JW: Yeah, so then in the summer of 1967, what do you remember from that summer?
LC: Graduated in June and it started to be an absolutely positively great summer. I knew I was going into the military in the fall, cause at that time I didn't have a desire to go to college, and basically I was doing things I knew I wouldn't be doing in another couple months [laughter], and a friend of mine, we went to Cedar Point for a weekend, and all this kind of came about when we were coming back from Cedar Point, was when we found out about the ‘67 disturbance.
JW: Yeah, how did you hear about it at first?
LC: [Laughter] When we got home. We were coming home from Cedar Point, and it was Sunday afternoon, and it was really hot, and she had a Volkswagen Beetle. No air conditioning, so we had the windows rolled completely down. We couldn't have the radio on cause you couldn't hear anything with the windows down. It was just strange because as we started getting closer on 75 to the city we thought, Where is everybody? We couldn't figure out where the cars were. There was hardly any traffic whatsoever on 75 that day. We’re getting closer and then we saw the black smoke. We didn't even know it was smoke at the time. We just saw the sky was black and we thought, What in the world is going on? Got home and all the neighbors were out on their porches and my parents were thrilled that we got home safe and sound and we said, What are you talking about? You know. And that’s when we found out what had happened. Totally naïve—didn't have a clue in the world.
JW: What did they tell you was going on when we got home?
LC: When we got home the first thing they said to us was, “thank God you're safe,” and they said that there was burning going on on the West Side, and that there was a riot going on, and we were supposed to stay in our homes. There was curfews and we weren't allowed to leave—that type of thing. And everyone was kind of gawking on their front porch because in the Northeast Side you really didn't see anything. The only thing that we really saw was at that time the armory—and it still is on the 8 Mile—and some tanks were going down the streets. [laughter] That’s about it. We didn't see anything. We didn’t feel—I wasn't afraid. I thought maybe it was being overblown at the time, but my dad, who had the store on West Fort Street, it ended up on Monday he couldn't go to work because everything was kind of closed off in that area too. He stayed home that first Monday. Tuesday he went in though.
JW: Was his store okay?
LC: The store was fine. It was on West Fort Street just off of Springwells. No problems.
JW: Did you stay home for the rest of the week?
LC: Yeah, basically. You did stay home. Curfew was like at, you know, dusk. You couldn't go out. City was basically shut down but at that time in my neighborhood there wasn't anything going on. We were still outside fooling around and hanging out and just having teenage fun, I guess.
JW: So you said you thought it was overblown or at the time you thought it was being overblown. When did you realize how serious of a situation it was?
LC: When they were showing the destruction on the TVs. Probably more so that night and the next night when they were showing all the destruction. That’s what I couldn’t understand—all the burnt up work, all the buildings, people all over the streets, and they were hard working people. I was thinking my dad’s store—could have been him. He worked hard all of his life. He was a blue-collar worker and these people’s homes were being destroyed. Their businesses were being destroyed and so many innocent people were hurt.
JW: And then you said you saw tanks as well. Do you think that when the National Guard and the federal troops came in, do you think that that helped relieve the anxiety in the city or that it caused more anxiety?
LC: Well, when you see a tank rolling down your street, you kind of wonder [laughter] are we being under attack or what? I thought the tanks at that time were overblown. I just did. But I was a teenager; I was eighteen at the time. I couldn't quite see the tanks and then when I saw some of our idiotic neighbors with guns out, I thought, that’s ridiculous, there’s no way in the world they have to defend their homes where we were at. It was asinine. [laughter]
JW: So after everything kind of calmed down, did you ever go and explore to see what had happened?
LC: No, never did. My parents would have killed me. Even though I was eighteen, you still listened to your parents at that time. My dad, he went. My brother worked at Willen’s [George Willens & Company] it was a printing company at the Trumbull and Michigan area and he went down there. You know, took some pictures and things, but no. As a female, no. I never went down there.
JW: So then, what did the rest of the summer look like for you then?
LC: It was odd. It was like innocence was lost. It was a triggering point for growing up. [telephone rings] I was almost kind of glad that I left the city when I did because in the military you didn't have those kinds of divisions. Not at least what I saw. In the Navy everybody worked together and everybody supported each other and I couldn't understand why people would hate each other. I just didn't get it.
JW: So then how long were you in the Navy?
LC: I was gone from ‘67 until ‘74.
JW: Okay. When you got out of the Navy did you come back to Detroit?
LC: Yes. My husband, he was headed back to the VA hospital in Allen Park [Allen Park Veterans Administration Hospital] and I rented a flat in Detroit on the Eastside because I wanted to stay in Detroit.
JW: Did you think the city had changed since you left?
LC: The city had changed quite a bit at that time. That short of a time span there was—I can remember talking—this fear of busing. It was just unbelievable and private school enrollments were sky high. I had gone to Catholic school in grade school because that’s what all the kids did in my neighborhood. If you grew up Catholic you went to a Catholic grade school. [laughter] It was just the way it was. It was free tuition. What we found out though was that a lot of people were trying to get into the Catholic schools to avoid busing. We did not take people just on that base and some people flat out said, “that’s why we want to register our kids,” and we wouldn't do it. You had to be a member of the parish. It didn't seem right to accept people—it was a Catholic school and that’s the way it was supposed to be and people were coming in then saying they wanted to go into a Catholic school because they didn't want their kids going to school with blacks which was crazy. [laughter]
And where I moved over at Chelsea and Dickerson, it was an integrated neighborhood at that time and it was no big deal. To me it wasn’t because we had a life that was like in the United Nations. We had people of all races, creeds, and colors coming to our house and I just didn't think anything of it.
And throughout the years people always say, “you mean you haven't left the city yet?” I haven’t. My husband and I made a conscious decision to stay in the city. I remarried and my daughter is half Native American; her father was Native American and she’s half German like me. And we wanted her to grow up in a mixed neighborhood. We didn't want her growing up in an all-white neighborhood. She was very fortunate that where she went to school it was integrated at that time there was kids from every nationality in the neighborhood. We wanted it to stay that way. Then we said, Oh, maybe we’ll move when she gets out of high school or whatever. Well, we’re still there. [laughter] She has long since graduated from high school and we’re still there.
JW: Did you ever consider moving? Did it ever get to the point?
LC: Oh, we had our share of instances. We had our house broken into probably five times. I’ve had a gun put to my head. I’ve had aluminum siding stolen off the garage [laughter], cars stolen, but maybe we were just crazy. We just felt that we wanted to stay and part of the reason was we believed that the city could come back.
And we’ve been very fortunate—I mean our neighborhood has undergone a lot of changes, some good, some bad, but it’s getting better. We see people actually repairing their homes. We know it’s working out better when people are putting roofs on their houses now. And cutting lawns and doing things. We’ve got great neighbors. We had a party when the lights went on in the city because we hadn't had streetlights for five years. We knew the streetlights were going on that night and all of us came out onto the street and cheered when we saw the lights go on for the first time. [laughter]
JW: That’s wonderful.
LC: So you do see good things. It’s not a bad place to be. Everybody thinks that just because you live in Detroit you're going to end up dead. Well, that’s not the case —[laughter] Such a misconception. There’s crime everywhere, so you're not going to run away from it by running across 8 Mile. And that was always the dividing line.
JW: Do you think that ‘67 still hangs over the city today?
LC: Not for me, it doesn’t. For some people— I’m planning my fiftieth year reunion right now from Osborn High School and there are some graduates that we’ve tried to get a hold of —that I wanted to have a picnic on Belle Isle cause that’s where we always hung out—and they said they wouldn't step foot in the city. And it thought it was just asinine. But that’s the mentality of a lot of people that moved out after ‘67. They refuse to come back in and they’re not giving us a chance.
JW: Yeah. So you’re optimistic for the city moving forward?
LC: Yeah, I am. I might be crazy but I am. [laughter] We still need a lot of work to be done in the neighborhoods. There’s no two ways about that. I have a lot of burned up boarded up houses. Where my family farmhouse was is basically back to farmland again. We need more grocery stores which we’re seeing more now but it can’t all be in Midtown or Downtown or on the riverfront. It’s got to be in the neighborhoods. So it needs improvement. There’s no doubt about it but like just this past weekend, we had the cleanup at Belle Isle, and we’ve had the spring cleanup for the past thirty-some years, and we had over eight hundred people from all over the place that came in and worked their butts off from eight o’clock in the morning till two o’clock in the afternoon. And they came from everywhere which was an encouraging sign. We had one guy kayak over from Windsor. [laughter] So that’s pretty good. It shows promise. So yeah, I think there’s hope.
JW: Well, is there anything else from that summer that you’d like to share?
LC: It was hot. [laughter] It was a very hot summer and like they said it was just kind of a tough time. Both my brothers went to Cass Tech and they loved it at Cass Tech. Both graduated from Cass Tech. Now that school was integrated well-integrated and there were never any problems there. So there were blacks and whites living together prior to the race riots and working together. You can’t blame everybody or any one area for what happened. You just can’t.
JW: So I heard you just call it a race riot and earlier you called it a disturbance—
LC: Well when we were coming home we were thinking, probably just, Something’s going on here. And the term has always kind of moved: disturbance, riot, racial uprising—we heard. But from the destruction—I don't know. Personally, I’d say it was more than a disturbance. Because setting houses and cars and businesses on fire is not just a disturbance.
JW: Well, anything else you’d like to add today?
LC: Can’t think of anything.
JW: Thank you so much for coming in today and sitting down. We appreciate it.
LC: [Unintelligible] [Laughter]
,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed October 1, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/575.