Joel Smith, August 22nd, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 22, 2016. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I am on the phone with Mr. Joel Smith. Thank you so much for joining me today.
JS: My pleasure.
WW: Could you please tell me where and when were you born?
JS: I was born in Carbondale, Illinois, which is southern Illinois, on December 5, 1949.
WW: What year did your family come to Detroit?
JS: My dad went to Purdue University in Lafayette. After he graduated, he moved to Holly, Michigan, and he got a job in Waterford, Michigan as a schoolteacher, and we moved into Waterford Township, which is in Oakland County, it’s a suburb or Pontiac, in 1959. And that’s where I stayed until I graduated, and I actually lived there until they were deceased.
WW: When you moved to Waterford, afterwards did you visit the city of Detroit at all?
JS: Oh, yeah. Detroit at that time was where everybody went shopping. Pontiac was kind of a quick getaway, but to go to Hudson’s or to go downtown, any event at Cobo Hall. Once I got to be a teenager we went to all the car shows, the hot-rod shows, the new car shows, any concerts. And a lot of times we went to all the Motown reviews and were in all the theaters, so we were really active in going to Detroit all during our teenage years.
WW: What was your first impression of the city? Do you remember?
JS: Oh, at that time it was hopping. It really was, you know. I guess because my parents never had any racial tendencies, even though Waterford was 99.9 percent white. There were some Latinos, but zero blacks went to our school. There really wasn’t a racial overtone to Detroit when we went there. But other times we’d go to Motown reviews and we’d be the only white people, the kids there. There would be four or five males that always went to them, and then once we got girlfriends we’d go. And we never felt that. And with Pontiac, it’s like, you know, a day. We’d go to—all the theaters were in Pontiac. Waterford was just a suburb, there was no—ever a downtown or nothing going on. So, Detroit was where the action was, and then once we got our wheels, then Woodward Avenue was an every night cruise. We started off in Pontiac which was the beginning of Woodward, which they changed then to the name “Widetrack”. But that was the move, and we’d cruise all the way down the downtown riverfront almost nightly. All during our youth that was the only thing to do.
WW: And you felt comfortable moving around the city?
JS: Yes. That’s the place that we never really had problems. And, of course, at that time we were underage, and we usually had different areas, there would be black guys that would buy us alcohol. And then eventually when we started smoking marijuana, then we could always find different black guys or Latinos that would provide us with the marijuana, so. I don’t think—that was the beginning of hippies. It was almost—California had already had the beginning of hippies, and Michigan was just beginning. There was one area in downtown Detroit called Plum Street where a few people had taken over abandoned houses and old houses and painted everything on the street purple. Fire hydrants, lamp posts, every house was the same color purple, and that was called Plum Street, and that was a mix of everybody. That’s when blacks started growing their hair out and the afros and everybody looked like Jimmy Hendrix. And, of course, we were trying to grow our hair out, but we would get in trouble. I got sent—I was the first person to get sent to the office at our school for having sideburns that went past the bottom of my ears [laughs]. And my dad was a schoolteacher in the same system. He was at junior high, I’m in high school, and they called my dad up and said, “Joel’s over here in the office,” and he said, “What did he do this time?” And he said, “His sideburns are too long.” And he goes, “Are you kidding me? He’s getting straight As and you’re worried about his sideburns?” Because in junior high I was a C, B student, and in tenth grade they said, “Well, he might just go plan on working at Pontiac Motors because colleges don’t take B and C students.” And I said, “Well, what do I got to do?” And he said, “You’ve got to get straight As.” Alright, I guess I’ve got to get straight As now. So, once I applied myself and I ended up going to Central Michigan University, but I got accepted at Western Michigan University and Eastern Michigan and University of Hawaii, which is where I wanted to go but couldn’t go because you had to pay outside tuition. So, we really felt comfortable always going to Detroit, and maybe because I had redhead and freckles. Because now everybody’s a redhead, whether it’s natural or unnatural, but in my era there was Howdy Doody and Bozo the Clown and me and two other girls that looked like Orphan Annie, and redhead and freckles always stood out. And sometimes people got teased, I would turn around and make a joke so everybody could get a laugh, you know. And Howdy Doody, you know, since people go, “Hey, you look like Howdy Doody.” And I go, “They made Howdy Doody look like me, I get a cut. Every time Howdy Doody’s on the show, I get a check.” They’re going, “Really?” Yeah!
WW: As you and your friends are coming to the city throughout the sixties, do you notice any growing tension in the city?
JS: Well, I’ll say it this time, the first time I went away to college and came back, we went down there, the beginning of maybe not feeling so comfortable. And I think it was more an economical divide, and it was the haves and the have-nots. Because I think of your car got broken into, they didn’t care whose car it was, your car got broken into. But then when we went down during the riots we were driving in a brand new yellow Catalina, with four trying to be hippie high school boys, and there was no protection, there was no police on the road. And there were small groups of black guys, and they’d stop our car and they’d come around us, they’d say, “What are you guys doing down here?” “Nothing, just cruising.” “Okay, well be careful.” And we saw young national guards—they didn’t pull out the national guard until I think the third day. But every night we went down from ten at night until five in the morning and cruised the streets in a yellow Catalina. Finally, one night his mom said, “Where are you guys going all night?” And he told them, so we had to switch to my friend’s black VW Bug.
WW: Why did you and your friends go down there?
JS: Because we were adventurous basically. And what we used to do—it’s hard to believe, but we used to do is cruise Woodward Avenue and if we saw a girl you’d—“Hi, hi, want to go to the park? We got some beer.”. Or if you saw another school—from a different high school, from Pontiac or wherever, you’d go, “Hey, pull over,” and you’d pull over and fight. And it’s hard to believe, people don’t believe this, but in ’65, ’66, ’67, fifty percent of the people would get in a fight every Friday or Saturday night. Every party there would be a fight. That was just what guys did. There was no knifing, no guns, you might fight your best friend. I mean, that was just the era. And then as soon as marijuana started coming in, ’67 and ’68, that was the end of the fights. That was the true beginning and the birth of the baby boomers, peace generation. And alcohol use and abuse—even in college, there wasn’t as much alcohol as there is now, because pot was so new. There would be keggers and there would be beer left over at the end of the night, because people would be smoking so much pot they didn’t need to drink beer.
WW: Going back to your little adventures down in the city during the riot, are there any stories you’d like to share?
JS: Well, one of the greatest stories I thought was we were cruising and there was oh, two, three at night and we come around the corner and here’s two national guard guys. And there’s nobody out in the street, so we stop. Mainly what we saw, it wasn’t black or racial tension, it was I’m poor and here’s a TV store and they’ve got a whole lot of TVs and let’s break in the windows and get the TVs. Or here’s a liquor store, we don’t have any money, let’s get in the liquor store. It was kind of like opportunity to get something for nothing. It was the beginning of looting for no reason. There was people—I would see guys carrying a box of Gerber baby food, you know. I’m going, “Really, you’re stealing baby food?” So, this was three in the morning and there was stuff all over the roads and people dropping cans and that, and we asked the National Guard guys how they felt. And they said, “We’re scared; they didn’t even give us bullets.” These two National Guard guys, and they weren’t much older than us. They were in their twenties because they joined the National Guard so they wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam. So, they were scared for being there with guns with no bullets. And then we go not even a quarter block away, we turn the corner, and there’s a mob of black guys and at the end of the street there was a car that you couldn’t tell what kind of car it was, and there was smoke coming from it but it wasn’t burning. It was more like radiator steam and just hot fluid. It’s not smoke from a fire. And we asked the guys, “What is that?” And they said that was a car that tried to run a road block and the army tanks ran over it. And we go, “What?” They said, “Yeah, there was an army tank going down the street and these guys wouldn’t stop.” And we never saw anything in the newspaper about it. And I read the Detroit Free Press every day since I’d been in fourth grade, because I used to deliver the Free Press. I’d go on vacation, I’d have people buy me the Free Press and I’d read them in consecutive order. And I never saw a story about this car getting run over by an army tank.
WW: Do remember what kind of car it was?
JS: It was an Electra 225, because we drove right up to it, and we couldn’t tell from five feet away what it was. But we knew our cars, and a friend of ours’ dad had one just like it. But the middle where the driver was and almost up to the front of the engine was totally flat, and the rear end was bent straight up in the air and the trunk lid was popped open. And the guys told us that they had—the National Guard thought that they were running guns, or had stolen guns in the trunk, and when they popped the trunk open nothing was in it. And we said, “What about the guys that were in the car?” And everybody shook their heads. They didn’t either know, or—how could you get not flattened? And nothing in the paper, never saw one thing about that. And we talked about it and I told my parents about it, and we talked to people at school about it. We all went to the Waterford Kettering High School and never saw a thing about it in the paper.
We were most afraid— we saw a few people who were on roofs of the buildings that they owned with shotguns, and they had their cars up in front of their—on the sidewalk protecting the front windows. And they shot at—in Pontiac, like the grocery store and the meat market, and it was way down, and they had guys park their trucks in front of the windows—their bread trucks or their delivery trucks. And then they were on top of the trucks with shotguns all night long. So that was I think two of the things I saw that really didn’t get reported, and it didn’t get reported that four white guys—one guy, his mom owned the yellow Catalina, had white hair, just like California surfer, dark tan. Three of us were lifeguards at beaches, not at pools. Pool lifeguards are babysitters. We were lifeguards at beaches. And so, we’d cruise around and had lifeguard jackets from where we worked, and that was a good magnet for girls. Something about a lifeguard—Ronald Raegan was a lifeguard.
WW: Did you or any of your friends anticipate any violence that summer?
JS: No, and actually like I said, before people—it’s highly debated when they know me now—but at that time there was actually so much fighting that one person would get a rumor being the toughest guy in the school, so another guy from a different school would challenge him. Just like gun fights in the old days when somebody would draw you out, come on out, let’s do it. So, we kind of were—one guy was a brown belt in karate, I was allegedly the toughest guy in school, so we weren’t afraid. And nobody had knives and guns back in those days. I mean, nobody, there was no—I mean, if people were back in the sixties or seventies, how many people died during that riot and how many people die every day from gun fights from gangs shooting each other? So, what we think is a riot back then, there was less guns-- bullets fired during that riot than on a daily basis, I give it to you. You never heard gunfire, even down in—every night, every street, you saw every burned out place, there wasn’t—and if there’s one thing I can say, I’ve travelled. I’ve seen all fifty states, I’ve been to fourteen Caribbean islands, twenty countries, and in Detroit I have driven every street in Detroit. Even the streets the prostitutes were on. We know who has weed, who has this. Detroit was never sinister to white people until drugs became predominant and we just became bait. Even now with the heroine problem, I don’t think too many white people are getting killed in Detroit because they’re white. It’s because they’ve got money, so.
WW: Did you and your friends stop coming to Detroit after the riot?
JS: No, but after I started to say that after we went away to college and came down, went to Cobo Hall, all the way, came out, someone broke in my car. I mean, I’ve been to Detroit hundreds—no, over a hundred times, two hundred. We went to the Grande Ballroom a hundred times at least. I never had my car broken into. College kids stole my five-dollar pair of sunglasses, cost me a $175 for the side window of my car, and I never could get the glass out of there. Every time I vacuumed you’d find glass. And that was it. I said, “I’m not driving my vehicle.” So, I would go—we would go to concerts and then once I got a little money, I’d take limos. Put some lamps into there, it would be a hundred bucks, and then you’re not worried about your car getting broken into, you can drink in the back, you’re not worried about drinking and driving, and I don’t think I’ve driven my vehicle and gotten out of it, been away from it, in 30 years. And I’m 66 in December.
WW: How do you interpret the events of July? Do you see it as a riot? Or do you see it as a rebellion?
JS: Well, what started off as basically—you know, I mean, I don’t know how many people have analyzed the roots of it, but the roots of it were, cops didn’t get their share of a blind pig, and when you try and harass a bunch of people in the middle of July and everybody’s broke—economically ’67 might have not been the best year, but there was jobs, so it wasn’t like it was a depression or anything. So, I basically saw it as one thing leading to another, and once somebody broke into the first grocery store—I don’t even know which store got broke into first, the corner liquor store or across the street, the TV store owned by the Lebanese guy or somebody that was different in the neighborhood. They broke into their store first and in the end, they destroyed stuff that was black-owned, they destroyed their whole neighborhood. And they tried to do it in Pontiac, and too many people were just saying, “Hey, that’s my neighborhood.” It didn’t matter who owned it, black, white. And so I really see that at the root of it was economical distress and a little bit of— 99 percent of Detroit cops were white and they were shaking down everybody. They’d shake down—I mean, I must have got beer confiscated from me 10 times, we never got arrested. They never—why should they take kids to jail for beer? They took your beer and you’d flip them 20 bucks. That’s all we got, we’d always say that. I always kept money in my socks just so if the cops took our beer and all our money I had a 20 in my sock. We cruised Woodward every night and probably got maybe pulled over a hundred times—and, you know, we didn’t cruise Woodward in the winter, I mean, in the summers—we probably got pulled over a hundred times and had beer on us maybe ten, and never got arrested. We finally learned to stash the beer somewhere on the park and then come back. But that was the era when everybody was racing on Woodward. This past week it’s been a big deal that you could race on Woodward Avenue. It was nonstop. Every stop light was racing. You had to position yourself, you’d stagger yourself so you’d be at the head of the pack at the light. But we would go to the drive-ins, there was Ted’s drive-in and Big Boy’s, things like that.
WW: Alright, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk with me today.
JS: Great. Well, I appreciate—I hope it adds to the wider spectrum and just one narrow view.