James VanVlerah, September 27th, 2016
WW: Hello. Today is September 27th, 2016. I am in Plymouth, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I am sitting down with -
JV: James Vanvlerah.
WW: Thanks so much for sitting down with me today, sir.
JV: You're welcome.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when you were born?
JV: I was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1930. July 29. We lived on Elmira, 10050 Elmira, which is just west of Wyoming.
WW: That's southwest Detroit?
JV: It's west Detroit, I guess. I don't know if it's southwest Detroit.
WW: Would you like to share any memories of growing up in that neighborhood?
JV: Yes. We had a horse-drawn wagon for milk. And he - we used to tag along behind him, because he had ice. In the summertime, you could reach in and grab a piece of ice off the milk crates. And of course, everybody burned coal, so there were coal trucks, and you had a coal chute, and we also had an ice man. We didn't have an electric refrigerator. The ice man came; he had a big leather thing on his shoulder and he'd carry the tongs. You'd put a sign in your window, it was four-sided - 25, 50, 75, or 100, depending on how much ice you wanted. So, we had horse-drawn milk wagon and trucks with coal, because everybody burned coal, of course. So those were different times. We roller-skated in the streets, those kind of things.
WW: Growing up, was that neighborhood integrated?
JV: No. It was strictly a white neighborhood. We were not wealthy, by any means, but it was a working class neighborhood.
WW: How long did you stay in that neighborhood?
JV: From 1930 until 1940, and my folks were renting a small house, and the landlord wanted to sell the house and my folks didn't want to buy it, so they arranged to buy a house just west of Southfield, just north of Schoolcraft. It was a new neighborhood, lots of fields, so we moved out there.
WW: What was it like growing up in that new neighborhood?
JV: Well, as I say, it was - the school, Vetal Grade School, was only two streets over, so - in Brightmoor, actually. It was a nice neighborhood. I made friends. I was in the sixth grade. I didn't have too many friends in the sixth grade, but then they moved me - we had fifty-some odd kids in our sixth grade class so they picked four or five of us and we moved up into the last half of the seventh grade, instead of - we missed the first half of the seventh grade, which was fine.
So we - but we had a very small class. It was - I had several friends in the neighborhood, and we graduated together. We had a graduation ceremony at Vetal School, for the eighth grade. But my buddies and I that lived nearby, we walked together up to Grand River, which was a mile. Took the streetcar up to Redford High School, out at Six Mile and Grand River.
WW: So, you were comfortable moving around the city?
JV: Oh yes. We went shopping down at J.L. Hudson's, and Crowley's, and Kearns, of course, downtown. We took the Schoolcraft bus to Grand River, and took the streetcar downtown. And we didn't think anything of the blacks, or Hispanics, or whoever. We just mingled on the transportation system. There were no blacks living in our neighborhood, but it wasn't a wealthy neighborhood.
There was no segregation in the area we lived in. I mean - it was a segregated area, I guess. The blacks didn't live in our neighborhood.
WW: You would have been in the ninth grade or so in '43. Do you have any memories of the '43 race riots?
JV: Just that my father worked downtown, for the Board of Education, on Broadway, back behind Hudson's, and he traveled around to all the schools because he was a supervising engineer for the Detroit Public Schools, and there were 250 schools at that time, so he - we were concerned - I know he and my mother were concerned about the fighting that was going on in the streets in Detroit at that time. I don't remember how long that riot went on, but it was - I know we were concerned about my dad.
WW: Did you - were you hesitant to venture around the city after that?
JV: No. No. Things had quieted down and we continued to shop. My mother - J.L. Hudson's was the place to go in the summertime, of course, because it was air-conditioned. There were no other air-conditioned stores. Maybe Sanders. Sanders Chocolate Shop. They were air-conditioned. And Kearns was too, probably. But my mother and us kids continued to go downtown and shop. We were not concerned after the riots in '43.
WW: You said your father worked for the school board?
JV: Mm hm. He was the supervising engineer for Detroit Public Schools. He was a graduate engineer, also.
WW: What did your mother do for a living?
JV: My mother raised my brother and I. She did not work. Of course, we only had one car in the family. At that time, there were no - there were no two-car families at that time. So, she stayed home and raised my brother and I.
WW: And then - you said you went to Redford High School?
WW: Was Redford High School integrated at that time or no?
JV: No. No. And of course it's been torn down since.
WW: Growing up, being a teenager in the forties, did you notice any tension in the city?
JV: Not where we lived. No. And at that age, you know, you're interested in tennis and ice skating and baseball. We weren't aware of any tensions in the city that affected us. Not where we lived.
WW: After you graduated from high school, did you stay in the city?
JV: After I graduated from high school I went to University of Michigan engineering school, and - where my father had gone, and graduated - I think I was programmed but I wasn't that interested in history and English, so math and science were what I was interested in. Actually, I wanted to be an automobile mechanic and my father said, "You can do that, but you're going to builder's college first." And after I graduated from college I didn't want to be a car mechanic anymore.
So that's what I did after. And I went out - I lived in Ann Arbor with my dad's mother and his sister, the first year, so I didn't live in a dormitory. And then I found another engineer, we decided to live together and we rented rooms for the remaining years.
WW: And when you came back to Detroit, this is where you settled?
JV: Well, we knew we were going to be drafted. This was - graduated in February of '53, and the Korean War was on. The Korean War wasn't over until the summer of '53. So, we knew we were going to be drafted. I didn't take ROTC. And so, I had a draft notice, and I knew I was going to be drafted, so I went out to Ann Arbor to say goodbye to some beer-drinking buddies, and one of the guys that had graduated in June of '52, from engineering school, was in this bar, with an Air Force Second Lieutenant uniform on. I said, where'd you get that? He said, "Well, if you go up to Selfridge Air Force base, they're giving direct commissions to engineering graduates."
I said wow. So, the next morning I took my college credits up to Selfridge and I took some tests and a physical, and other exams, and I raised my right hand, and I left there a Second Lieutenant.
WW: In the U.S. Air Force, you said?
JV: In the U.S. Air Force. And I had spent all my money on an engagement ring for who's now my wife, so I needed the money. The money was going to be a lot better than a G.I. solider, so that's what I did.
WW: How long were you in the service?
JV: A little over three years.
WW: Did you have to go overseas at all?
JV: I spent - we got married and I spent a year and a half in Japan. So, my little girl was born while I was away. My father died while I was away. Our first year of marriage was a real thrill. [laughter] I wound up having to go to Japan, my daughter was born, my dad died. So - it was an interesting year. But we survived.
WW: After spending all that time away, when you came back to the city, did you notice any changes in the city?
JV: Well, we lived with her folks, up in Royal Oak, while our house was being built. Well, when I came back - when I first came back, I was stationed - I had to spend my last six months in the service in Yuma, Arizona. And when I came back, we lived with her folks up in Royal Oak until our house was finished.
But I was working at Conners Creek Power Plant, working shift work, as engineers do, there in the power plant, and I don't recall any - and Conners Creek is at the foot of Lycaste, it's on the river, right across from Belle Isle, so it's on the east side - but driving to Conners Creek Power Plant, or anywhere in Royal Oak, there was no more things about the - no tension or anything with blacks or anything, that I was aware of.
WW: How did you see the city progress going through the late fifties, early sixties?
JV: Late fifties, early sixties, I had been transferred down to Enrico Fermi Power Plant. So I was diving thirty-three miles from - we had built a house in Dearborn Heights, near Ford Rord and Inkster. So I was driving to Fermi. I was not driving through the city. More of a rural drive down to Fermi.
WW: So did you - while you were living in Dearborn Heights and working down in Monroe, did you not go into the city much?
JV: Probably not. Although - yes, I did. Detroit Edison had a pistol club, and we had a range on the corner of Willis and Cass. It was a substation. And so our pistol team shot every Tuesday night there, on Willis and Cass. Upstairs. So I'm a target shooter, pistol target shooter, so every Tuesday night I'd take my son and son-in-law down there and we'd go shooting. Never had any real - there were no tensions with the people living in downtown Detroit that I was aware of.
WW: Going into the sixties, given all the social movements that were going on, did you see any changes that were happening in the city? Whenever you would come in?
JV: Not that I remember. Of course, occasionally - well, then, in '67 I transferred from Fermi to Delray Power Plant. In '67, and - spring of '67. But I had been in and out of the Detroit Edison general office building on the corner of Second and Grand River, and I had been - I used to go in and out of there occasionally. For meetings and things. Parking on the parking lots near Detroit Edison's headquarters was not a problem. Didn't worry about being attacked or anything, and they were not supervised or enclosed parking lots either. But we weren't aware of any problems in the sixties. Early sixties. But as I say, I didn't transfer to Delray until spring of '67.
WW: What prompted the transfer?
JV: A promotion. I was a junior engineer and a senior engineer, then they offered me a staff job at Delray Power Plant.
WW: And Delray Power Plant is situated right off of Livernois and Jefferson?
JV: Yes. Yes, on the south side of Jefferson, adjacent to Fort Wayne.
WW: And what was that neighborhood like in '67?
JV: Well, I - we used to - I know a little bit about that because our power plant was stoker fired - we burned coal, and it was stoker fired, and the dust collectors were minimal. So we put a lot of dirt on to the neighborhoods. Flue dust and coal, things that came out of the stack. And so the superintendent and I, we would get a lot of complaints from neighbors about the black stuff on their clothes lines, you know, on their clothes out drying, and so the superintendent and I used to have to visit the places and explain that we were sorry about the things that were coming out of our stacks at night. But there wasn't much we could do about it with - this is the way of the world.
In fact, Conners Creek, where I had started, was right adjacent to the Yacht Club - the Yacht Club that puts the Mackinac boat race on. The boat club was always complaining about the stuff that came out of our stacks at night. Landed on their boats and things.
So we were - but at Delray, we could - we felt sorry for the people that had the problems with the dirt, but there wasn't anything we could do about it, anyway, had to operate the power plant. And Mistersky Station, which was Detroit - city of Detroit power plant, only two blocks away from us. And they put out as much debris as we did - but I used to get smoke tickets from the city.
JV: Mm hm.
WW: So going into '67 you were still living in Dearborn Heights?
JV: Uh, yes. No. Uh, yes. We lived - yes, in Dearborn Heights. Yes. We had moved a mile south. My wife felt sorry for me driving thirty-some odd miles to work and back, so we moved a mile south - because - what I didn't realize was, we had another child coming, and she wanted a bigger house. So we got a bigger house, with a - only a mile closer. But we had wound up with four children, so - we moved a mile south.
WW: Going into that week in July, how did you first hear what was going on?
JV: I got a phone call from someone at the power plant - I don't remember who called me, it might have been the superintendent - saying that there had been a problem in Detroit and that all of the staff was to report to the power plant. This was like Sunday afternoon. And my daughter had been visiting a friend of mine, who had a job just like mine; we were both engineers. He was working at Conners Creek Power Plant and he lived up in West Bloomfield. And my daughter was up visiting with his daughter over the weekend. She'd been up there since Friday.
And so he got the same phone call, because he had to go back to Conners Creek, because he had the same job in operations that I did. So, we had - we arranged to meet the Parkers about halfway between West Bloomfield and our house, so they delivered the daughter - my daughter to us. And we came home, and then I gathered my - I was told to bring toiletries and clothing and things to the power plant, that I might be there a while. So that's what we did.
WW: Did you see anything on your drive into the city?
JV: No, I did not. I - to go to Delray, I used to drive down Outer Drive - take - well, Ford Road to Outer Drive and Outer Drive to - down near River Rouge, and go across the Rouge Bridge and into Delray on Jefferson. But I didn't see anything on the way that would have upset me. But I had brought clothing and things, so -
WW: What was the atmosphere like when you arrived?
JV: Well, the power plant operation did not stop. Other engineers and staff members were arriving, and the Edison Company provided metal bunk beds for us, that we put up in the plant, in the office building, and so we had - the operators continued to come to the power plant and the people that were - we had a security force at the plant, always, anyway, and they called all their people in. We had a gatehouse on the corner of our road into the plant at Jefferson. The gatehouse was not a real big building, but it was where the security people monitored - there was a gate, and they monitored the traffic in and out of the power plant.
And shortly after we got there, the - well, they arranged for the cooks and people to be there, to feed us, so they stayed at the power plant also, as well as the operators, and us staff members, and security people.
WW: How many people total do you think it was?
JV: There were probably 80 people.
WW: Did they give a reason as to why all of you were required to be there, and why they expected you all to stay?
JV: We needed to secure the property and the equipment. It was security, really. And eventually they called the National Guard in, and they came and occupied the gatehouse too. I don't remember when they were there - when they arrived - but Edison had arranged for that to happen.
WW: And what was the mood inside of the power plant?
JV: Well, we were concerned, because we could hear shooting on Jefferson, so we knew that things were not good. And so we were - we divided up the duties and we monitored, even at night, we were up on the rooftops of buildings and making sure - and patrolling the perimeters to make sure that nothing untoward was happening. And we never saw anything that would have jeopardized the operation of the power plant. There were no forced entries anywhere, over the fences, or anything.
So, people normally - operation of a power plant is kind of a noisy operation in the plant itself, so people wouldn't - that aren't used to that - wouldn't want to come in there anyway. But there was a large building on Jefferson that was our switch-gear building. It was a three-story building, you know, several hundred - at least 200 feet long, right along Jefferson, on our property, which housed the 24 KV switch-gear inside. So we didn't want anything - and there were windows, and maybe I think one or two doorways on to Jefferson, so those were locked and barred normally anyway, but we didn't want any forced entry into the switch-gear because that could have been disastrous to the people that were in places they shouldn't have been.
WW: And how long did you and the rest of them have to stay?
JV: You know, I'm not sure. I don't remember exactly, and I wasn't keeping notes at that time, of what I did, but I think we were there about a week, is my recollection. And of course the cooks and the food, and they fed us, and we slept, and we worked - we worked shifts, kind of thing. But otherwise, the normal operation, my normal job, went on in the daytime. At night we divided up the hours for patrolling, helping our security people cover the areas.
WW: Given that you heard gunshots but you didn't see anything, there were no attempts to break in. Was there, towards the end of that week, was there a sense of "Why are we even here? Can we just go home?"
JV: You know, that's been 49 years ago, so I don't remember a lot of the details of things - nothing untoward happened to us while we were there. We just operated the power plant. And we could hear shooting, but there was never anything - and of course, we weren't hanging out at the gatehouse, to see what was going on on Jefferson either. We were concerned with running the power plant.
But really, I think we were glad to be able to go home. My wife, of course, was very concerned. She's left unprotected, so to speak, if something should transpose back out where we lived. And of course, she was concerned about my safety also. I was in Detroit and things were not good. So, she was concerned about me also. So, she was glad when I got home, and I was glad to be home too.
WW: How do you view the events, how do you interpret the events of July 1967? Do you see them as a riot? Do you see them as an uprising?
JV: Well, we spoke of it as a riot. I didn't know at the time what had caused it. It wasn't until later that we found out what started the whole thing and how many people were involved, and - I think there were 25 people killed or something.
JV: 43? But most of this activity, I think, took place in the downtown area, and not out where the power plant was. And certainly not out in the neighborhoods where we lived. So, we were not aware of - well, we were locked in - we weren't aware really of what was going on. We didn't get a lot of information anyway. So, it was a different kind of an experience but we were glad when it was over and we could get home. Not fun sleeping on cots and being locked in.
WW: I bet.
JV: So we - one funny experience earlier - this is prior to this - when we were first married I was - we were helping - I was working at Conners Creek - they were building St. Clair Power Plant and they needed some people to help run the tests for the acceptance tests of the unit that was being built. So right after we were married, in February '54, the - I was up there on an acceptance test and we got this terrific snowstorm and the state police closed all the roads. We had a lot of snow. A foot and a half of snow. So we were locked into the - we were told we couldn't go home.
So they provided - this was two days after we were married, so I was all of a sudden away from her, and she said, "Is this how our life is going to be? You're going to be locked in?" [laughter] Anyway, it was just a snowstorm. We were only there for two - a couple of nights, and they cleared the roads and we came home.
But this, for a week, was a different situation, and she was concerned about my safety, and I was concerned that I wouldn't be there to help her if she needed help.
WW: How long did you continue to work at the Delray Power Plant?
JV: From '67 - spring of '67 'til '73, and then I was transferred in the same job, down to Trenton Channel Power Plant. Which was a bigger plant - more equipment, newer equipment. And so I worked at Trenton Channel Power Plant for - from '73 until '81, I think.
WW: Were you - so, the riot in '67 - did it make you want to transfer, or were you still comfortable in your job at Delray?
JV: I was comfortable with my job at Delray. I wasn't - they thought I was doing a good job so they thought I could move up to a bigger plant, so I was happy to go.
WW: Do you believe the events of '67 still hang over the metro area today? Do you think we're still affected by it?
JV: I'm sure that the people that are my age remember it. The younger folks probably don't know anything about it. You know, I'm 86, so I remember, but people that were born after that, or very much after that, I don't think are affected by it. Their parents, their grandparents remember.
WW: Are you optimistic for the state of the city today, moving forward?
JV: I hear a lot of good things, and see a lot of good things happening, so - the housing thing, is improving. They're building more central - central places to live, you know, so I think that's a good thing. I'm surprised - I'm always surprised when I hear how many areas - how many acres are still empty and how many houses need to be torn down yet. Of course, Detroit was a city of houses - individual houses - and people drove. That's why we don't have any central system for moving people around. It was cars. Cars and individual houses. But I'm sure if I drove in the city very much I would be amazed at the number of vacant lots and burned out houses there are. You see pictures on TV all the time.
But they're also trying to develop urban farming in Detroit, which I think is a terrific thing. There are acres and acres of land that's not being used. Some of it, of course, has got dilapidated or burned out houses on it. But there's still a lot of empty property that could be used for farming. And I think that's - that's a good thing that's going to happen, hopefully.
WW: Is there anything else that you'd like to add today?
JV: No. I don't think so. I wasn't aware of any non-segregation in Detroit until I took a bus - when I was called into service, I was sent to San Antonio, called in at San Antonio, Texas. Rather than fly and spend $100 for an airplane ticket, I decided to take a $20 bus ticket. And it wasn't until we got near St. Louis that I started seeing separate bathrooms for blacks. Separate drinking fountains. We had none of that in Detroit. We didn't - it was all - whatever it was. There was no segregation for transportation or restaurants or bathrooms or drinking fountains. I was amazed. And this is what the South was. There were separate places for - you know, motels. They couldn't stay - blacks couldn't stay in regular motels. So I was surprised. I had never seen that. But that's what it was. So I saved $80 but I learned a lot. [laughter] This was a non-stop bus ride. But I'm glad I took it.
WW: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with me. I greatly appreciate it.
JV: You're welcome.