Brenda Peek, May 15th, 2017
WW: Hello, today is August 11, 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. And I'm sitting down with -
BP: Brenda Peek.
WW: Thanks so much for sitting down with me today.
BP: Oh, you're welcome.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when you were born?
BP: I was born in Brooklyn, New York.
WW: What year were you born?
BP: 1944. January 10, 1944.
WW: When did you come to Detroit?
BP: I came to Detroit in 1966.
WW: Do you remember what you first thought of the city?
BP: Well, I first - yes. When I first came to Detroit, I was looking for Macy's. I was pregnant with my son. And I had just left the military, with my husband. So, I'm looking for - you know, a little mimicking of New York. Well, it wasn't quite that. And one of the things I wanted the most was yogurt. And my aunt sent me to an area to go get yogurt, and some of the things that I was accustomed to, just walking in the neighborhood and getting.
And I was looking for something like Macy's, but there wasn't any. There was Hudson's. And I went to Hudson's, and she showed me the downtown, and I said, "Is this it?" That was it. But - through the years, having - as I started to become Detroit - a Detroiter - I started to feel very much comfortable with the community, because it started to mimic, and once I could get around, it started to mimic some of the things that I had missed, you know, having living in Brooklyn.
Still, complaining about the transportation, but, you know, I got a little Volkswagen, so that kind of sufficed.
WW: What brought you to Detroit?
BP: They were looking for teachers at the time, and my husband has a teaching degree in science. And they had built - King School was a new school that they had just built, and we walked - he walked into an interview and he had a school in a minute, and then we stayed here for a little while, and then we went back to Ft. Knox, and then we moved in September of that - of 1965. No, '66. Sorry.
WW: When you came to live in Detroit, what neighborhood did you live in?
BP: I lived in - I lived over by Taylor, in the Clairmount, Taylor, Atkinson, Boston - in that, Chicago Boulevard neighborhood. The Boston-Edison area. And I lived with an aunt. And then we moved to Columbus, which is right off of - Columbus Street - after the baby was born. And we - which isn't far from Henry Ford Hospital, West Grand Boulevard, and in that area.
And then we became - you know,we hooked up with a church, and then we - after the baby was born, and started getting up a little bit older, we moved to another area, on Courtland, between Wildemere and Lawton. Not far from Dexter and not far from - it was just a real nice west side neighborhood, and we stayed there for quite some time.
WW: Going into '67, did you anticipate anything going into that summer?
BP: My ex-husband's name is Lonnie Peek. And he's Reverend now. But he was in the MSU - he was in social work. He was working on a masters in social work at Wayne State University. And actually, Miriam Heffy was his counselor, at the time. And he had become very active on campus, and he became the president of the Black Student Movement. And there were movements all over the country, and they were very much sitting in, and doing this and that, and he kind of had a good relationship with President Keast, and he was able to keep an urban school - university - from having a shutdown and being the focal point of, like, some of the other colleges were having problems. And ended up on Sixty Minutes, and had done - he was involved in the tribunal.
But to backtrack, that wasn't the only thing that we were involved in. There was a lot of things going on, and you asked me, did I have an inkling? Sort of. But I wasn't sure, because it was mostly a guys' thing. They were moving. They had - there were - you could feel the tension that was happening. The newspapers did not have any black reporters. The Detroit News, at the time. The Free Press had very few - maybe two. There were - there were a lot of issues with the police departments. STRESS [Stop The Robberies Enjoy Safe Streets]. And the police were -
WW: STRESS was after.
BP: Was after it?
WW: Yeah. Big Four was during.
BP: Oh, it was? Oh, I didn't - there were a lot of things that were coming about, that there were some inequities. Lonnie wasn't just - wasn't like what you would say, a Black Panther. He was more of a philosopher, you know, trying to get things moving. Comes from a church background, his father was a minister, so he has that philosophy. So, we had a lot of meetings at our house. There were meetings for, you know, talking about some of the inequities that were going on in the city. And they were looking at a lot of things politically. Was I involved? Yeah, I became involved in politics. Helping campaigns. I was a little limited because I had two children, and he was gone a lot. And then I was a fulltime student at Wayne State University. And trying to quickly finish up.
Fast forward, while I was working on my degree, there was an opportunity, after the riots, for me to become involved in a survey.
WW: Let's not get there yet.
WW: We'll cover that in a moment. Going into that week, how did you first hear about what was going on?
BP: Well, my cousin in the neighborhood, lived across the street. And we all listened to the radio a lot. And I had heard that there was some - you know, Lonnie would come home, and he was coming home late, there was a lot of stuff going on with the Algiers Motel, and there was a lot of - there was a lot of phone calling. Kenny Cockrel - Kenneth Cockrel Senior - a lot of - a lot of people that were very much into the movement, in terms of trying to get correct things in the city of Detroit. Both black and white, phone calls.
And then I turned the TV on, and then I found out that they were having - that there was, you know - the military was coming in. So that didn't really frighten me, because I was so used to it, that - but they - when they had tanks coming down Cortland, that was a little bit different. And you could feel the neighborhood, the next day, after some of that was going on, and the looting, you know, and then I had to go to the airport to pick up my mother, because she was coming to visit - and I didn't bother telling her not to, so in the midst of all that, it took a little bit for me to even get down into my own neighborhood. It was easy to get out, but it was hard to get in, because things had really started to explode.
And where we lived, there were bowling alleys, delis, a mixture of businesses that were thriving, at that time, that we would go to, that people were looting, and you know, it was kind of like - how did I feel? I felt a little - I felt depressed, because I wasn't on the inside fringes of everything. But I knew that there were issues, because Lonnie was bringing them home, you know, every day. Talking about different things. And I was like, are we going to stay here? And he said "Yes, we're going to stay here. We're going to stay for the duration."
But on the campus side of things that he was dealing with, President Keist was very effective in terms of whatever Lonnie wanted, in terms of negotiating, talking with him, and actually implementing some things to make it better for the students, and for the black students on campus.
WW: Going into the Algiers Motel work that Lonnie did, were you involved at all in the Peoples' Tribunal? Were you present?
BP: I went. And at that time there were several different things that went on, and he picked up Rapp Brown and Stokely Carmichael and, you know, people like that would come to the house. And I wasn't as involved as - because I had little ones - I wasn't as involved, but I was involved in terms of making sure everybody ate, fixing food, you know, my house was constant - a lot of meetings. A lot of meetings.
WW: What was the mood inside the church for the tribunal?
BP: It was as if - I think - the mood was peaceful. It was like oh, we're doing something, you know. Even though it was a mock, they felt that somebody cared, and it was - you know, there were outbursts and "yay," and that kind of thing, and people had an opportunity to talk. It kind of soothed what was the conflict that was going on. That's what I got out of it, you know, I was like 22.
WW: Earlier you mentioned you started doing work after '67. Can you go into the work that you did?
BP: They couldn't find people. I did the survey. They couldn't find enough people to - to do these - the Kerner Commission had requested that - they wanted to know why the media - what happened. And so they came up with a survey. I think it was Henry - I think it was Ford Motor Company underwrote the survey, to have it done. But you had to get people to go door to door. A lot of people would go on the west side, but they didn't want to go on the east side. So, Lonnie just happened to mention it, and I said oh, I'll do that! "No, you won't."
You know, we said, "You're not that familiar with Detroit. You haven't been here long enough." He said, "Maybe we could find some others." And I went over to the Urban League and said I am doing it, and I'm not afraid, because I don't know what I'm supposed to be afraid of. These are people that - just like - live in Brooklyn. And in New York I'm not scared. And I said, I always talk about - well I'm - I got a lot of moxie from living in New York, so I am not afraid. I am fearless.
And it all depends, because - so I went, I found - he said, "You don't even know where you're going." I said oh yes, I'm going to find out how to get over there, I'll ask the gas station, because we didn't have cell phones then, and I went, and it was - I am so glad that I stuck to my guns and it was the best - I wanted to learn about - I wanted to learn - meet some people from the east side, that I didn't know, other than at school maybe. But I didn't stay at school - I was a commuting person. And so, it gave me a real opportunity.
So, when I got to my first survey, with the number of the house, went and knocked on the door, and I said - at first I was a little apprehensive, but I knocked on the door, this lady - I said I'm from, I'm doing a survey, we're trying to find out exactly what the true feelings that people have, after, you know, after the riots, and what happened. How are you feeling? And they said, "They sent you out to do that?" And I said yes. And I said, so don't feel that it's not going to get published, because I'm going to write it and say it just like you're saying it.
So, they welcomed me in, and then some of the other kids that came home from school, because it was around school time, some of the kids that probably were doing the looting, because this lady was old - she said, "My grandchildren are coming in and they'll answer some of the questions." And she answered the questions, and then the dialogue got to the nitty-gritty. How they felt. How they felt isolated. How, you know, there was a big divide between white and black. And that when they would go looking for jobs, the kids - the young high school students - they would do the interview, but they never would get hired.
So, an idle mind is the devil's workshop. And so I flipped the questions over, because the questions were very survey, you know, done out of a university, and they didn't want to infringe, or incite. But I turned it over, you know, and on each page I put the person's name. They were not afraid - they didn't even ask for names - and I wrote the feelings that they had. I was studying to be a teacher anyway, so I had experience doing that. I didn't have experience being a reporter, but I felt what was important was to get the true gut feelings.
And how they felt, from the young, to the older, and in some instances I was there for two and three hours, because they would bring other people to come. And so I think I did about 20, 25, surveys. But then you have to turn them over, and it really added up to much more. It's unfortunate - and the crux of it was, they felt - the older people felt that it was a good thing that the younger people were expressing themselves. Some of them felt that they shouldn't have messed with all the businesses, the viable businesses, because it kind of hurt them, because some - many of them didn't have cars.
And education was, you know, they didn't feel like after high school, what am I going to do? Because there wasn't any community college back then. And they couldn't afford to go to college, and there weren't very many good programs to help the kids to go to college. Anybody to go to college. So a lot of the grandparents were taking care of some of their kids and their daughters', and it was generational. They had more than just one family in a house.
And what I felt it - after I finished the survey and I had done as many as I could - some of the kids, when I would leave the survey, would take me over to another house that wasn't on the survey list to do - each survey had an address - but I felt incumbent upon it, for me to actually add what they had to say, because they knew that they had stories to tell. So I did that. And every time I went out I would leave with chicken, greens, with food. And they said, "You look too skinny to be a mommy, so we're going to fatten you up." And cake. I'm telling you, when I look back at it, and the more I talk about it, the more I get a warm, fuzzy feeling about the fun that I had. And it did just what I thought it was going to do. I got to meet the people on the east side of Detroit. Because I lived on the west side, and I knew a lot, but I didn't know the east side. And I grew to feel comfortable, and I met a lot of nice people in their neighborhoods. Some of them were tore up, and some of them weren't. But they were very nice people. And I enjoyed it - plus I got paid.
WW: Earlier you mentioned like, you thought to yourself, "Am I going to leave?" and Lonnie said no. Did this cement for you that you were comfortable with staying?
BP: Oh yeah. I grew to love Detroit, because opportunities that were - the opportunities that I had were just unbelievable. I started teaching school, with two and a half years of college. I was an emergency sub in a regular position, so I was getting regular teacher pay. Because they had the same problem that we have now - it's the same problem that was going on then. So my son got up some age, so I was able to - he was about - maybe almost a year - and I found a real good babysitter, and I started teaching school. And then I was going to school. And then I was working as a sub, initially, a couple of days a week, and going to school every Tuesday and Thursday. So it was a nice blend and a mix - I was able to buy a better car, you know, and we were able to do some things.
I got to be very involved in politics. I got to know Mary Ann Mahaffy very well. She called me - she was like my mother. I didn't have any family here. And she became like my surrogate mother. And when Lonnie and I would have our little issues, she would always try to referee, and treat me like I was her daughter.
I met so many people in high places, and got to do a lot of volunteer work. Got to do a lot of - Cushingberry unfortunately, didn't make it this - you know, through to the council, to stay on the council, but he became - he was a state rep, and he was the youngest state rep in the country. He turned 21 while he was in Lansing - and they met at my house, and we did the campaign, and we masterminded, and we actually knocked somebody else - somebody out, who had been a longtime legislator in Lansing. So it was quite a surprise.
WW: Just a couple quick wrap up questions.
WW: What was the reaction when you turned in your surveys? That they were not just like the standard survey, that they were so in depth?
BP: After I turned the surveys in, I mentioned to the person that took them - it wasn't the same person that gave them to me - that - they were in an envelope and I said I wrote on the back, so make sure - but what I did do, I wrote a note on the outside, telling them why there was stuff on - there were other peoples' names on the back, and a different house number, because everything was structured. And the reason why I used the back of some of them to engage in a deeper conversation.
And so, the day that it was published - and I wish that I could find that article, you know, I kept it, but I don't know where it went to. The day that it was published, one of my friends called up and said "Girl, you're on the front page of the Free Press. They're talking about your survey, or something that you did door to door, and how helpful you were." And they praised me because I went beyond the survey. I went and did exactly what I told you I did. I interviewed other people. I wasn't looking to get paid that way, and it didn't matter - I just wanted to get - at a certain point, you say hmm, I don't have any more surveys. I'm just going to write on paper, because this information is good. And then I assembled it how it was supposed to be, so that whoever was reading it would understand exactly. And then I wrote a note - a cover letter - on why I did it that way.
WW: Awesome. How do you refer to what took place in '67? Do you interpret as a riot, rebellion, uprising?
BP: I interpret it more as an uprising. And I didn't - I didn't feel - I didn't refer to it as a riot. Occasionally I will, if somebody says something to me. But I think it was more of a rebellion. I think people had reached their limits, and they were just frustrated. And the newspapers referred to it as a riot, and then they kind of drifted into the rebellion, uprising, and using a different vernacular in relationship.
Let me tell you something that's funny. Living on the west side, I always went to the same gas station and dropped my kids off. So here comes - one day, this man - at the gas station, because they pumped gas back then - and he said "Brenda," he called me Little One. He said "You're on your way to school. You see that car across the street, with those two white guys in it? They've been following you, and we've been watching them. And they leave a little after you leave, so we're trying to figure out who they were after, and then we figured it out that it was you that they were following."
I never look out the back of my car because I'm so busy trying to do what I got to do. So fast forward a little bit. This was during - after the - before and after, because once Lonnie got hooked into Rapp Brown, everybody was out, against us. Meaning, thinking, "Are they Black Panthers? Do they have guns?" You know, that kind of stuff.
Martin Luther King dies, and they didn't do their homework, because my cousin lived across the street in the upper flat, and he called up and he said, "Where are you?" I said I just got through - I'm clearing the dinner table. "Is Lonnie there?" Yeah. "Martin Luther Kind died." I said I know, I kind of had the TV on, I heard it, but I don't know. He says, "You better duck, because there's police all in the bushes, with hard caps and guns, and rifles." So, we - I said Lonnie, we better go get the rifle, and cock it, because it didn't have any bullets in it or anything, because we had little kids.
But it was a - not a bullet. It was a shotgun. That's what it was. It was a shotgun. So we were near - we were on the floor. I went and got it - we were on the floor, I had the kids underneath me, and Lonnie went near the window and he just cocked it and they left. But they were police. He cocked it and then my cousin called up and he said, "They're gone." He said, "They're moving." Now, they couldn't have been too smart because they would have known that - but that was the most frightening, because my kids bedroom had a window and we were on the first floor. So, you know, I didn't know what their - I didn't know if they thought we were going to uprise, or - because Martin Luther King got murdered. And I don't know what they thought Lonnie and I were going to do. Mostly him. But you know, they never came back.
So fast forward to when President Keist - after it all happened, and it was time for him to retire - I would say probably after - I would assume he retired a little after Martin Luther King got killed. And we went to his event, and they did a slide presentation. And in it, he had Lonnie, and he called him his son - actually, it was a film - and he called him his son, and it was very heartwarming to me. I remember feeling very proud, because, you know, there's a lot of - and he praised him for all the things that he had done during that time. And for keeping the university safe and open, and the kids - and keeping the - and we had it was called the Black Students, but they had white students that were very much involved with what was going on too, and so he was just tearful. You could see him tearing up while he was speaking about Lonnie. So that's how I'll end it. If you have any more questions?
WW: Just two.
BP: Go ahead.
WW: What do you think of the state of the city today?
BP: I'm disappointed that there's not enough local community interaction between the haves and the haves-not. I feel that the Mary Ann Mahaffys, the Mel Ravitzes, the Reverend Claeage, even though everybody didn't believe in his philosophy - but he provided a lot of stuff in terms of the blank slate, and there was Father Cunningham, he – Focus: HOPE. And that whole New Detroit thought process has kind of disenfranchised. It's taken on a different - a different stand, and it's not the same that it was, where everybody was trying to pull together to try to get the city back. There's a movement to, I think, it should have been thought out - even though they were thinking it out - it should have been thought out better on how to keep some of those minorities who stayed in the city and kept the city viable, and those landlords who were slumlords and didn't do anything with the buildings and stuff like that, but all of a sudden there's all new, and they're pushing them back again into old.
Or they've just been displaced, and they've either gone back to Alabama, Tennessee, or Atlanta, or some of the other places. I know they didn't go back to New York, but you know - and I think that's unfair. I have friends who have had businesses and they don't have them anymore. The landlord won't even renew the lease. That, I think, is poor planning.
But what has happened in the city of Detroit, and we go back to when the freeways were built - having a freeway - working for MDOT [Michigan Department of Transportation] for 25 years, I'm pretty good at what happened. And when they put I-75 in, and the Lodge - Black Bottom was a city within a city. You had doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, you had hospitals that were black hospitals. You had a lot of things, because it was a segregated city. And the state of Michigan gave them 30 days to cease and desist and move. How the heck - think about it - so you have that story, and when we do things over on the east side, the grandkids come to the meetings and they talk about what they know, and what they heard from their grandparents. How badly they were treated by MDOT, or whatever it was called back then. I think it was just called the Transportation Department.
And so, having worked there, I was able to kind of change some things, because I was Communications. But I couldn't envision - it was like a city, like Harlem, within Detroit - and you had people who owned hotels, and a lot of them lost their businesses. And they didn't get reimbursed for a fair share of the money. That, I think, is happening again, but a little bit more sophisticated. And having sat on several panels, and been to several panels, with respect to this, that have to do with the media, and just because I'm in the black journalists – NABJ [National Association of Black Journalists] - you get a chance to hear what they hear, because they're right in the midst of it.
And several of them are saying, we're a snap away from that happening again. Hopefully it won't. That there will be some dialogue, and that some of the masters-to-be will listen. But I don't know. You know. I really don't know. It's sad. I feel a little bit of sadness, when you hear that. Because - I don't know. We have a lot of friends - even from, you know - it's a different - there's more mixed families - my own - and they're very Bernie Sanders - so you have democrats, and you have a whole different thought process, and they're from the old regime. But the old regime works. We need to have the young and the old to help get things so that it'll stay - it'll simmer. It won't flare. You know.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
BP: Oh, you're welcome. It's been a pleasure. It's been an absolute pleasure.