Shirley Schmidt, July 9th, 2015
Detroit Fire Department—Detroit—Michigan
NL: This is the interview of Shirley Schmidt by Noah Levinson and Lily Wilson. Today is July 9, 2015. We are in Sanilac County in the home of Shirley Schmidt right on Lake Huron, and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Shirley, could you first tell me where and when you were born?
SS: I was born January 1, 1941 at Parkside Apartments, which is on Conner, near Detroit City Airport. It was a home birth.
NL: And where did you live when you were first growing up?
SS: When I was very young, we lived at Parkside. I don't think we moved – I don't remember moving from any place except from there to Harper and Van Dyke area on Burns. My grandparents had bought, or they had built, a home and we moved there. It was an income with an upstairs that had one bedroom and downstairs there was two.
NL: How many people lived in the house with you?
SS: There was my mother, my dad, myself, my two grandparents at the beginning.
NL: Tell me what you remember about that neighborhood at the time you were growing up.
SS: It was a wonderful neighborhood. It was a mixed neighborhood. The man two doors down was German, and my best girlfriend was an Italian. The young man across the street was a good friend of my brother's and I'm not quite sure which he was. He had a darker, swarthy complexion. He might have been someone from Croatia, but they were basically European, from what I can gather, of all the people that moved in there. And it was friendly. It was fun. You sat on the front porch. You talked to people. It was great.
NL: So, you described it as a “mixed neighborhood.” Do you feel that these different families and different people knew that they still had – seemed like everybody had their strong particular national identity –
SS: Oh, yeah.
NL: – or whatever ethnic identity of significance they had?
SS: Yes, they did. They had big families and they were probably within, I would say, a couple miles because when they got together, it never took long for people to come and they would have parties in their back yard and be on their front porches. When Halloween came, my mother would send just my brother and myself out and we'd use pillowcases and we'd walk the streets and we'd go all the way down from ours, which was probably half a mile from Van Dyke and we'd walk the streets, fill the pillowcases – god, I hated it when people gave us apples. It made it so heavy. My mother loved it because she used them for cooking. But we could go in the bars. The drunks would give you a quarter. We walked down to a Better-Made potato chip store. The Eastwood Theater was down there and we were just by ourselves, and all the kids were. There were a few parents, but most of the time it was just you went around and you went home and no problems.
NL: Do you remember there also being non-white families or children in the neighborhood?
SS: One family moved in on the street in the back of us, and I can't remember if that was Iroquois or not. But they moved into a small house. Yeah. That was probably in ‘50, ‘52, in that area.
NL: Can you tell me about your schools that you went to?
SS: The original school I went to was Stevens Elementary and it was a great school. We had the safety patrol helping across streets and it was probably half a mile from home, and we would walk down the street and get to school. There were no school buses. It was a multiracial school because I had blacks in my classes. We all played together. We didn't after school. We didn't because they lived in one direction and I lived in another, but we were friends. There was no hesitation on standing up for someone if they were a different color. It didn't make any difference. It was just, everyone was – we were kids. That was it.
NL: So you didn't have any sense whether that was the norm or not for that time in Detroit?
NL: Whether most schools fit that description?
SS: I don't know. I thought so. I mean, when you're in a school and everyone's –you know, we're all getting along really well, you think everybody does it.
NL: Where did the black children live? You said they lived in a different direction of the school, so do you know what neighborhood that would have been?
SS: No, I don't because after school you just head on home. Mom was waiting. Dinner was waiting. We had homework to do. But everybody walked so it had to be within walking distance. I wouldn't think that people would live more than half a mile/mile from the school for kids to walk.
NL: Did you ever get any impression that any of your teachers treated white or black students differently?
SS: No. There was nothing. Spelling bees–whatever. Whoever was sharp enough to spell the words, and you stood against the wall and you spelled until you couldn't spell it and you sat down. No one was picked on. No one said, Okay, I'll skip them. Everyone was the same.
NL: Where were you living in July of 1967?
SS: I was married and I was living in East Detroit.
NL: Okay. Do you remember what street?
SS: Yes. It was on Holland, between Kelly and Wilmont, one block south of Nine Mile Road.
NL: Can you describe just what that neighborhood was like at the time?
SS: Predominately Italian Americans and they owned fruit stores. They had family get-togethers. The lady next door was like a grandmother to my kids and she was Italian. She spoke very little English. Well, I guess she did, but you couldn't understand her. Her accent was really heavy. But I would say in that area it was predominately Italian Americans.
NL: Do you identify as Italian as well?
SS: No. I'm not – I'm Polish.
SS: Polish, German, American.
NL: How do you remember first hearing about the civil disturbance at Twelfth Street?
SS: My husband at that time was a firefighter for East Detroit and he called home and said, “There are riots happening in Detroit. They're asking us – they're sending us down. Could you please bring my gun?” So, I walked up there with the kids and – no. I just had my son at that time. I walked up there with my son. I was pregnant with my daughter. And I took his gun to him and the guys took them in case they needed protection on their own. They were too busy fighting fires, but if something happened, they would be able to at least protect themselves because it sounded probably much worse than it was. I don't know if you realize that, but the media has a tendency to over-exaggerate many times and blow things up so that you go, “What? Oh, my god!” When really, it's, “Oh. That's too bad.” So I took him his – saw him up there. We came back home and that night, after I put my son to bed, I sat on our front porch, which faced Detroit and my neighbor across the street was also pregnant and she came and sat with me. We were on a little glider and we looked at the sky as it turned redder and redder over Detroit. You could see that over the tops of the houses.
NL: How long do you remember your husband being out working on the shift before you saw him the next time?
SS: I think he came home late the next day. So he was down there – by the time they went down – and it was still light when I walked down, so it had to probably been about five or six o'clock, and his shift ended at eight the next morning. And I think he came home fairly quickly after the shift, so he was down there one day totally.
NL: And how was that for you? So you were at home with a small child and pregnant with one more?
NL: How was that being home alone under the circumstances without him?
SS: I was fine. I was more concerned about him because I knew it was dangerous down there and the way they said with the National Guard coming in and I just had to think, well, I hope they're watching over the guys as they're down there. But for myself, I was fine.
NL: How many other times or shifts did he have down in the city that week?
SS: That was the only one. We were to start vacation the next day, so when he came home, he said, “We're still going. They seem to have things kind of under control.” At least I think that's what he told me because we packed up the car and we went camping for a week.
NL: Do you remember what day of the week that would’ve been? The riots started over the weekend, so if he was there the first day, maybe Monday?
SS: I would think probably Monday is when he came home and we packed the stuff up. We kind of were wondering if they were going to call him to fill in again, but nobody called, and so we packed up and left and went on our vacation.
NL: What do you remember about that vacation?
SS: We camped at a place and I believe it was the one that was up near Grayling, Grayling Roscommon area. It was a nice little place. They had a lake, I had Doug, my son, and it was fine, we had a good time. We usually went to a place where there was no electricity. It was primitive camping.
NL: Did you have radio?
SS: Primitive camping, no electricity.
NL: I didn’t know if you had a transistor or—
SS: No we didn’t. No, no.
NL: And how long did that trip last?
SS: A week. We came home the next Saturday or Sunday.
NL: Okay. So can you describe coming back into the city that next week? What did you notice?
SS: I don’t remember noticing anything, so I don’t think there was anything out of the ordinary. And he went to work the day after we got back, and that was it. It was life as usual.
NL: What was the next thing or the next time you read or heard about something regarding the riots or their aftermath?
SS: It was in the newspaper. The daily newspaper after we got back. We read those and I don’t think we got a newspaper while we were on our camping trip because you were just by yourself out in nature. But when we came home and you read about all the things that were happening, or had happened, he told me that they were told that the Ramona Theatre and one other place—Wards, Montgomery Wards at Seven Mile and Gratiot, both of them—because that was further up than Ramona. When he was down at the riots, he was told, I believe, that they were burning. When we came back and we looked, and we were wondering, what’s happened down there? How much different is it? And we found that those reports weren’t right.
NL: Do you remember a changing or a different atmosphere in your neighborhood at that time, after you got back from that trip?
SS: Not in the neighborhood. I just know that Ron wasn’t too excited to go down there. Of course, we didn’t really go down at that time. I started going down with my kids later on, when they were old enough to enjoy what I was taking them to.
NL: So, like, when would that have been, approximately?
SS: My daughter was probably—she was born in ’67, and she was about seven years old, and my son was about ten. I would drag them down there to the DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts] and we’d go to Emily’s, and Belle Isle, places like that, or over to Windsor.
NL: What do you remember about those parts of the city? So this is, we’re talking late seventies it sounds like, so about a decade after?
SS: Mid to late seventies.
NL: Can you describe your memories of the city at that time?
SS: Lots of burned houses. That’s the worst part. You know, if something happens and then they have to leave, the buildings stand there and they’re gutted and that; that’s the worst part of all. And they stood there for the longest time. It wasn’t just when I was taking my children down. When I remarried and my husband came here from Germany, we would go down and I’d want him to go by the house that I lived in as a child on Burns, and I’d say, “Here, let’s go check it out.” And I do have some pictures of when we lived there, and the last picture I took was back in 2008, but in between there he took me by, and to see the street just dissipate before your eyes. House by house, it disappeared. If they weren’t disappeared, they should’ve been taken down. To see the fact that the scandal with Kwame and what he didn’t do with the money to help the people who lived in Detroit, they had to live in neighborhoods like that. It was horrible. I just couldn’t believe that that could happen.
NL: When did you first move out of the metro Detroit area?
SS: Would you consider Center Line out of the metro Detroit area?
NL: No, I mean, that’s a suburb of Detroit. I meant more like where we are now, up on Lake Huron. When did you first leave the immediate metro Detroit area?
SS: We moved up here—
NL: Up to the thumb.
SS: Up to the thumb—we moved here permanently in 2002. Before that we had started to build this house. My ex-husband and I had purchased the property back in 1980, and after we got divorced, I met my current husband, and Ron had put it up for sale. And Utz loved it. He decided to move here from Germany and the first thing he said was, “Let’s buy it.” So we bought it from my first husband, and we kept it and then we said, we want to retire up here. So he designed a house around the furnishings and our hobbies, and we had the old place torn down, and every time we got some money we did something. First was the basement, then was the outer portions, and then we lived in it with nothing except walls: no toilet, no plumbing. You have to go out in the lake for showers, and every time we got any money, we did something to finish the house. It took until—we started the house in 1990, I believe it was, and it’s pretty much finished now, but we moved up here in 2002 when it was basically kind of like this.
NL: It sounds like a little bit more of a desire to move to this neck of the woods than specifically moving out of the city?
SS: Yeah. It’s amazing, it’s beautiful up here. And we have so much to offer. But there are very few people of color who come up here, and it’s not because anybody would be against them, because everybody’s friendly to anyone. We have some parks, and there’s a camping ground south of us. And I notice when – I deliver a little local newspaper, and when I took it in last year, there were people—black people—who were coming and renting the little cabins there or camping there and I was so excited. And I was hoping that they come to our museum because it’s an interesting thing to go to. I don’t know if they ever did, because I’m not there all the time, just most of the time.
NL: Are there any factors, that you know of, in the area here that make it hard for black communities in larger numbers to mobilize and move to this area?
SS: If you live here, most of the time, you’re a farmer. The houses on the lake, for the most part, are cottages and they’re places of weekend retreats for most people, second homes for most people until they decide, wow, it’s really nice, I want to retire, and some don’t last that long. But if you live here, most of the people are farmers. That’s what we do up here.
NL: So there’s not an enormous year-round population up here then?
NL: When you’re here in the middle of winter, how many people would you speculate are here in town?
SS: Within two miles, there are two, four, seven, ten people that live within a mile, not including us. Including us, it would be twelve people. And then the farmland starts. It’s pretty desolate. You have to really enjoy watching the lake in all weathers, solitude, and have hobbies.
NL: But you still go down to Detroit fairly frequently?
SS: Oh, yeah.
NL: Can you tell me about your more recent experiences of going back to visit the city since you moved out to the thumb area?
SS: The last time we were down there was an exhibit at the DIA [Detroit Institute of Arts] and I believe it was a Van Gogh exhibit—no no, I’m sorry it was Monet. I wanted to see that. We have some friends in Oxford, so we went down and spent the night with them, and then the four of us went down and went to that. We’ve been down to the Detroit Historical Museum, I can’t remember the last exhibit. Was it the eating? The Detroit Eats exhibit? So we drove down for that. It’s a little difficult now what with Woodward being torn up to try and navigate, but I said, “No, I think we can go one block further west then cut south and then get to it around the back streets.” We haven’t been to Belle Isle this year. Last year we went two or three times, because it’s another great venue. We’ve gone on tours with the Detroit Historical Museum. When people come from Germany, one of the things we like to do is take them down and show them the different buildings. Like the Fisher Building. They get out of their car and they’re kind of looking around because it’s not the best looking around there, and then you take them in the building and they just lose any objection to being down there because the beauty of the different places just overcomes any qualms you have.
NL: What do you notice or feel differently about seeing the city, seeing the places in the city these days compared to different points when you were raising your kids or when you were growing up yourself in that area?
SS: I don’t understand, can you reword that?
NL: What changes do you notice in the city from now compared to when you were growing up or when you were raising your children?
SS: When I was growing up, my dad had a car, but we walked everywhere and we took street cars. Public transportation was extremely good. Buses were around, but not that much. The streetcars were fantastic. They were always on time and you can fit lots of people, you could jump on and off. It was really great. In fact my brother, when you talk to him, one of the things he told me later on, and I didn’t know at nine years old, he’d hop on the street car and he’d go to Belle Isle and fish. Spend the day down there. Now how many nine year olds nowadays would go so many miles—and it had to have been at least ten miles to get from our house down to Belle Isle—with his fishing rod and go down there and fish? And that was something that you could do. And Eastern Market—I haven’t been down there in probably about five years, but I think it’s a great place to go. It’s really helping. I notice that there are more people and a lot of younger people that are moving into some of the buildings that were abandoned and they’re turning them into lofts. But they’re almost all white. If we go to dinner, if we go to events downtown, they’re mostly white. Where all the black people to enjoy what they have down there? I don’t see them participating as much. I find that sad. And I’d hate to be called racist, and when people say, “Oh, the whites, they don’t care about us,” but we go down there but where are you?
NL: Do you have any ideas why that might be or what the city can do differently to help promote better diversity at these events in the city?
SS: The events are there. They’re there for everybody. I think the black people have to get over their anger at whites, and I don’t know why they’re so mad at us. My grandparents, on my father’s side, came from Germany. He came with nothing. My grandmother and him, they came on steerage on different boats. They knew nobody, and they made their way to Buffalo, New York. Eventually he got here. He worked in factories doing things that nobody nowadays would like to do, but he did until he had enough money for a house. My mother’s people came in 1854—well, actually before that, I have the deed of their land—up here to the thumb with nothing. The settlers had nothing. And they had to clear 40 acres of land with trees and stumps, build a house—that they probably didn’t know how to build out of logs—and farm. My husband’s writing a book on the settlers up here. Most of the people that he’s writing about are Germans who came and settled here. They were weavers, they were tailors, and they worked in grocery stores and that. They had to come here and learn how to do anything to survive. We had nothing to do with that. Most people here now had nothing to do with slavery. So why are they afraid of us? Because that’s what it seems like to me, to be angered and afraid. And I don’t know why.
LW: What was your ex-husband’s name?
SS: Ron Subjeck.
LW: I just had a couple questions about when he came back from working that weekend during July of ’67. When he came home and you were going on vacation, do you remember him telling you about any of the things that he had seen that weekend?
SS: He did say that he was glad that I had taken the gun down to him because when they were fighting one of the fires in the back of a store, there were some young guys that came back there, and they looked like they were ready to start some trouble with the guys. So he kind of made a motion like he was going to pull something out of his jacket and they left. But other than that, he said, “They’re crazy down there!” I think they said they were throwing bottles at them. “They were trying to fight us off and we’re down there trying to save their stores, and they don’t want to be saved! They want to burn everything down!”
LW: Was he frustrated? Angry? What was your read on his emotions?
SS: I would think he was probably both, frustrated and angry. He says, “Let’s get out of here. We’re going camping, let’s go.” And so we went.
LW: So we’re looking at pictures at your house, the house that you grew up in, 6713 Burns. Your grandpa built this house?
SS: He had it built. I’ve got the deed some place up in my papers, too.
LW: And we’re looking at pictures of your family—your grandma and grandpa, and your dad and his brother, and you and your cousins—standing out in front of the house, then we’re looking at a picture from 2008 that you and your husband took—
SS: My current husband.
LW: Your current husband, not Ron. You took these in 2008. Do you blame what happened in 1967 for the deterioration of this house that your family lived in for so many years?
SS: I don’t blame it on it, I’m just sad to see that the deterioration has happened. This was almost the only house left on the block. The thing that I see with some of these houses: when the people moved out, and the poor people moved in, I don’t think they know how to take care of a house. I think they were used to having someone provide housing, or they might have lived in an apartment, but they wouldn't have known a thing about how to replace a broken windowpane or how to change a water heater. And in this house that we lived in, it was a huge old coal furnace. It was like an octopus downstairs. We had a coal bin where the coal man used to bring coal and drop it through, and it was like a chute and he would fill it with coal. What would these people have known about coal? Where would they have gotten the money to buy coal? And if a faucet broke, or anything, I don’t think the people who took over—the older neighborhoods that started to fall apart because they were so old—knew what to do to upkeep them. That you have to paint, or else your wood dies. It makes a big difference. I don’t know who’s supposed to teach them. Are they supposed to go out and try to find out themselves? I have no idea. It’s a sad situation.
LW: What year did your family sell this house?
SS: We moved out in 1954. My grandmother still lived upstairs, and she lived there for another four or five years until she became — a point where she needed someone to take care of her. Then we moved her out.
LW: Who lived downstairs?
SS: You know, I don’t know. They must have rented it to someone, but I don’t know. I don’t remember.
LW: So your grandmother essentially owned it until she could no longer take care of herself. And that would have been the late fifties.
LW: So looking at these pictures of your family and where you grew up, what does it feel like for you now, going back? We’ve talked about how it’s deteriorated, but how does that feel for you looking at these pictures and then looking at pictures of the house today?
SS: Just very disappointed and sad, that this has happened to the city. They’re working on the gardens, and they’ve got a lot of green space. I’ve looked at some of the videos and that that are out there. But what are you going to do if you have one house, by itself, with maybe one or two acres or empty land around it? And then another house with that amount of land. Do you take and consolidate the people in those houses in one area? They don’t want to leave their homes. So how are you going to go ahead and fill the void between the places where people are? I don’t know who’s going to figure that out. That’s a really drastic thing to do.
NL: The ultimate question of the city for probably, like, 30 years now, at least.
NL: No city has ever really been built up to look like that before.
SS: No. It hasn’t. You’ve got a population that can’t afford to move anyplace else. If you had the money where you could build a housing area and then tell the people, “We will give you X amount of dollars for your home and move you,” that would be something that might be possible if people would go. But then what do you do with all the extra space that’s going to be left? You’d almost have to shrink Detroit down considerably. I don’t know what the answer to something like that is. You know?
NL: Me neither. I have one other question. So you were born in 1941. In 1943 there was also a riot in Detroit that was known as the “Detroit Riots” until the ones in ’67 occurred. Obviously you were very small. Do you remember hearing anything about that ’43 riot from relatives, from parents when you were growing up?
SS: No, no my parents never, I never heard them talk about anything like that. My grandfather and grandmother would have been in this house on Burns at the time, I don’t remember anyone talking about it. So how big was it?
NL: Not as considerable as ‘67. We’ve not researched it as much, but in ’67, ’67 it just kept spreading, the area of looting and burning and things like that. That did not happen, so the city was not scarred to the same effect in ’43 as it was in ’67, I think. I mean, I don’t think the National Guard was called in in ’43, or the Army, for example, or Air Force I should say.
SS: Maybe it was contained in a certain portion of the city?
NL: Exactly, it was contained, it didn’t spread as much, and I think that city was just not – it was before the biggest population boom, I think, too, so there were less people to be affected.
SS: It could be.
LW: And in ’43, it’s widely regarded as an actual race riot, whereas 1967, using the term “riot” has become a bit more controversial. So, I’m curious what you think about calling what happened in 1967 when you were living in Detroit and your now-ex-husband was a firefighter. Do you think that it was race related in ’67?
SS: You know, I can’t answer that for sure. I’ve been watching some of the programs on TV, and how it started because of a blind pig operation. I’m not saying that the police are angels, because it didn’t seem to be. It looked like someone was just—they went too far in doing something. And the people that were in there said they were tired of being pushed around. You know, were they pushed around for years and years? Who’s going to know? And then it started like that. I don’t think it started as a race thing so much, just as anger and they thought that something should have been kept open when it was against the law to keep it open. The police could’ve maybe turned a blind eye for a while, but it just carried on, everything out of proportion. One person hits one, the other says, “Hey look at him man, he’s a white guy, and he’s beating him!” Who knows? And then, a lot of people say in their own minds, “Oh man, let’s go see what’s in that store, well it’s happening, I can take what I want.” It just got out of control, and I don’t know if it was all based on race. I think it was based on a lot of other things.
LW: Thank you so much. Is there anything else you’d like to add to the record?
SS: I don’t think so, except if you can talk to my ex-husband, I’m sure he can add a lot, and he’s got a couple firefighters that you can get.
NL: I think we’re talking to him next week. Thanks so much for sharing your time and memories with us.
SS: Oh, thanks.