Larry Shirley, February 18th, 2017
WW: Hello, today is February 18, 2017. My name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I'm in Detroit Michigan. I'm sitting down with -
LS: Larry Shirley.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
LS: Mm hm.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when you were born?
LS: I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, December 10, 1945.
WW: When did you come to Detroit?
LS: I came to Detroit October 26, 1966.
WW: Had you ever visited the city before?
WW: What brought you to Detroit?
LS: It's really funny. My mom had a sister here and my aunt, which was her sister, came to visit, and the first thing out of her mouth was "Louise, can I bring Larry back to Detroit with us to be a big brother for Dwayne?" which was their son. And I'm going to school - in fact, I'm getting ready to go to college, an art college in Indianapolis - John Herron Art Institute. So my mother said, "Well, Larry's getting ready to go to school, you know, on an art scholarship." They worked it out where I ended up going to Arts and Crafts. How they did it, I have no idea. But I came here and I went to Arts and Crafts. Had classes at Wayne State too, but my main was Arts and Crafts, and that's basically how I got here. I mean, it was just like out of the blue.
WW: What was your first impression of the city when you came here?
LS: Oh my goodness. To me - where they stayed, I would just go back to where they stayed, first. It was beautiful. Downtown Detroit was unreal. It was beautiful. They stayed in the Avenue of Fashions area: Livernois and Seven Mile. And back then, oh my goodness. It was awesome.
And then, when we used to go downtown, and there was a police officer in the Hudson's building. And if you jaywalked, or if you did this or did that, you know, you'd wonder, "Where's this guy at?" You know, he would tell you, you know, "Hey, wait, the light's red, stay where you are," whatever. But I thought downtown was beautiful. Matter of fact, I worked downtown. I got a job at Crawley's. That was my first job, downtown Crawley's. And I just thought it was awesome. I just - I mean, I was really impressed with it.
WW: How long did you stay with your family? Did you stay with them for a long time, or did you get an apartment by yourself?
LS: I stayed with my aunt and uncle for maybe a little over a year. And by me not having transportation, I moved to the downtown Y, and it brought me closer to Crawley's and closer to going to school - you know, Wayne State's campus. So I moved to the downtown YMCA.
LS: And I stayed there for oh, maybe a year, a little over a year.
WW: When you moved to Detroit, and you started moving around the city, did you sense any tension?
LS: None at all. Not really. I tell you this, one of the first things I heard was of the Big Four. Okay, the Detroit - these police guys, the Big Four - and I never had any problems with them, and what really - like I said, I didn't have a car, so I went to see this young lady. And I was on East Seven Mile, and I was at the bus stop. I was at the bus stop and there was a guy in the phone booth beside me. They pulled up, and immediately I was terrified, because I heard about how they were basically racists, too. Okay, I was terrified. And I thought that they pulled in, they stopped right in front of me. They got out of the car. They went to the guy in the phone booth. They roughed this guy - I don't know why, but they roughed this guy up so bad, and then they got his ID, and looked at his ID, and looked at him like "Well, wrong person," and like shrugged their shoulders, looked at me, and I said now what they did to him, they're going to kill me. This is what I felt. I honestly felt that. I said, they're going to kill me. But they got in the car and they drove off. And they never touched me. But the guy in the phone booth - I mean, the phone booth just rocking. You know. I mean, it scared me. I mean, it really terrified me.
You know, but as far as racism, I really didn't see it. I honestly - to be perfectly honest with you. You know, I mean, it was like I said. The area we lived in was outstanding. It was - you know, it was called the Avenue of Fashion. And it was beautiful over there, and it was a lot of Italians, and you know, it was mixed. It was an integrated neighborhood. Slowly, it changed, you know, but I still didn't really see - in Detroit, I don't really think I ever experienced, to be honest with you, racism. But my job, when I started working at Ford's, in Dearborn, I really experienced racism. Oh my - it was horrible. It was horrible.
WW: So, moving in to 1967, you're 22 years old?
LS: I was. Yeah. Yeah. My birthday - I was 21 going on 22.
LS: Uh-huh. Yeah.
WW: Do you remember how you first heard about what was happening?
LS: Let me tell you, I saw what was happening. This is why I called you. I was on the Hamilton bus. We were at Hamilton and Clairmount. I was going to visit a young lady that worked with me. They lived on the east side. So I would catch the bus downtown and then catch the Seven Mile bus to where they lived. They lived on the east side, right off East Seven Mile Road. We're right at Hamilton, we're on the service drive. And it's about maybe two or three of us on the bus, counting the bus driver. And we see all this smoke, you know, all we saw was like big pummels of smoke. And so we got off the bus, and we're going toward what was going on. And the closer we got, we saw, I mean, the chaos. I mean, it was just like people running around. We still didn't know what was going on. But we saw people running around and everything, and then they started running toward us. When they started running toward us, we all ran back toward the bus and got on the bus.
And I never knew what was going on. I went downtown, I caught the bus, went over to my friend's house, and my aunt knew where I was going, but she didn't have a phone number, and I never thought to call her because I didn't realize what was going on. So eventually I did call her, and she said, "I was worried about you." And she said, "Do you know what's happening?" And I said no. "Well, have them turn the TV on." So, we turned the TV on and we watched it. And I spent - actually, I spent a couple nights there. Yeah. And then I found when I finally got home, you know, maybe two or three days later I did come home. And I got home and like I said, I was going to work every day, during this, but every day I turned around and came home because no one was working. You know, no phone, they weren't calling me. I didn't know how to call them. I would just get on the bus, every morning, going downtown to Crawley's. Going downtown - it was like a ghost town. I mean, you saw the National Guard, you saw someone with their rifle, you saw someone, you know, in buildings, you know, floors up in buildings. But they never - you know, they would speak. I would look, and I would get right back on the bus and go back home. But, I mean, it was like something out of a movie. I mean, it was really eerie. You know.
And then, going back to where I stayed, the Avenue of Fashion, they camped there. That was because there was such - like I said - there's neighborhood, and a lot of them - my cousin and I, we would go - not late at night time, but at night time we would go talk to them. Sometimes my aunt would - a couple pieces of food or something, you know. And they were appreciative, and we would just talk to them, you know. Just say hey, how you doing, and you know, they would always tell us, "Well, be careful." You know, but like I said - where we stayed it was fine.
But then again, working at Crawley's - I remember when it was all over, and we were like family. I mean, black, white, green, yellow. We were like family, I mean all of us. And we had an employee's cafeteria in the basement. And when I first went down there, as soon as I opened the door, all the black people were sitting here, and the white people were sitting toward the far end of the employee cafeteria. And I'm thinking, I said now, to myself, I said, now this isn't right. So I sit with my friends first. With the black people. Well, all of them were my friends, but they were - and I said what's going on? This is what they did, you know. And so I went over there and I sat with the other people, the white people. And I sit with them, I said, what's going on?
To me, a lot of people would theme it a race riot. I never thought it was a race riot, honestly. I never thought - I thought it was just - you know, they - they said the police force was racist. And they were rebelling against them more. More, after the joint incident, where they raided it, and they roughed up some of the people, from what I understand. But I never thought it was race. I went over there and I sat with them. And when I got up, I got between each group. And I just shook my head, I said this isn't right. And I went and sat with the people that I sit with in the first place. But it wasn't out of anger. I just couldn't believe it. I'm thinking, well, why? You know. You know, but eventually, in a day or two, everything was okay, but it just surprised me. As soon as I open the door, I see the black people here and the white people way over there. And I looked and some of my best friends were over there, and I went, and that's who I sat with. You know. And I said what's going on? To both groups, you know, well, what's going on? You know, it worked out.
WW: Was your aunt's neighborhood damaged in anyway?
LS: Not at all. They never came - they never even came in that direction, no. Not at all.
WW: That's good. Are there any other memories you'd like to share?
LS: That - you know, that's about it.
LS: You know, that's about it, but like I said - when I called you, I said I had three small incidents, and one was the bus on Clairmount, and then one was the - well, four actually - spending the night over the peoples' house, and then talking to the National Guard, and then Crawley's. That was about it. Yep.
WW: Looking at the city today, how do you feel about the state of the city?
LS: I'm going to tell you something. Detroit, to me, it's nothing wrong with building downtown Detroit, okay. But I think they should put a lot more emphasis on the neighborhoods. Oh, my gosh, some of the neighborhoods are horrible. I mean, they are - where I live, when I lived on Meyers after I moved from the Y, I moved on Meyers – beautiful. I mean, you couldn't see the houses for the trees. I you know, I ride by there every once in a while - now - excuse me - it's sad. And my wife said, you couldn't give her a house in Detroit. She said she would not move in Detroit if they gave the house away. You know, but there's still some nice neighborhoods - Palmer Park, Sherwood Forest. Rosedale. There's still some nice neighborhoods over there, but - you know, the school systems, to me, need a lot of help.
Some of the housing is just - you know, it's just horrible to me, and it shouldn't be like that. And I've always said - I said no one should be homeless, and no one should be hungry. Everyone may not have a job, but no one should be hungry and no one should be homeless. And you know, I always say, one of my biggest thoughts, I always said, if I ever come into some money, all the homeless people that I could help - I would build something, and I honestly mean that. You know, because I don't think anyone should be homeless or hungry. No one. I think that's wrong. I think that's wrong.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
LS: You know what? If they get out of downtown Detroit, yes. If they start the neighborhoods. I mean, downtown Detroit is nice, and then you know, nothing's going to happen down there, because it seems like when something's going on, that's where all the police are. At least two thirds of them anyway. So, you know, so downtown - but go into the neighborhoods. I mean, bring - I mean, all of these houses, instead of tearing all of them down, you've got homeless people - I mean, try to get some kind of program where you can kind of house these people, you know. And make them responsible. Don't just say "Hey, here, we're going to give you this house" and give them the keys. Let them do something, like if it needs some work or something done on it. You know - and I think some people do that, you know. I mean, yeah. And - but - I don't know, man. I just don't think there should be any homeless or hungry people. Anywhere. Not just Detroit, but anywhere. And I think they focus too much on downtown Detroit. I mean, I'm not mad at Dan Gilbert, I'm not mad at Mike Ilitch - Mike Ilitich was a beautiful person, man. But spend some of that money in the neighborhoods, to me. Honestly. Spend some money in the neighborhoods, yeah.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
LS: Thank you, sir.
WW: I really appreciate it.
LS: Thank you.