John Korachis, July 20th, 2017
JK: John F. Korachis.
ERT: Thank you for coming in and speaking with us today.
JK: It’s a pleasure to be here.
ERT: Let’s begin with where and when were you born.
JK: I was born in a town in southern Greece called Kalamata, famous for its olives and other wonderful things that it produces. It’s the most southern part of Greece, facing Africa, and what I remember distinctly about growing up in Kalamata is that whenever there was a storm in the Sahara, the sand would literally fly and drop in my hometown [laughter]. So, we had a lot of storms connecting us to Africa. So, I kind of grew up identifying with Africa as well as Europe, but it was more symbolic than in reality.
ERT: And how long did you stay there?
JK: I lived in Kalamata until the age of ten, but we also had a home in Athens, so my family commuted between Athens and Kalamata, two wonderful places to grow up in a beautiful environment with extended family, and I was very happy there, but my parents made the decision, not actually my parents, but my father, because my father was the youngest of ten children, and four of his oldest brothers, who seemed to have control over him emotionally somehow, persuaded him to come and live in America, and contrary to my mother’s protests, my father followed his brothers, who had already been here 20, 30 years earlier, and I was at first horrified to leave my beautiful country, my friends, my family, my relatives, but I have to say that it was a relatively easier adjustment to come to Detroit than I ever expected.
ERT: What year did you guys come to Detroit?
JK: We came here in 1955.
ERT: And what were your impressions of Detroit at that time?
JK: Well, Detroit at that time, and I’m looking at it as a young boy, was a booming city. My relatives who lived in Detroit before we arrived found a place for us to move into, which was literally a Greek ghetto. So, it made the adjustment so much easier. So, ghetto sometimes has a negative connotation, but in this instance, I give it the most positive connotation, but along with the Greeks who lived in this so-called ghetto, there were many other ethnic groups, particularly Italians and Belgians, and it was a wonderful place to grow up. My adjustment was relatively easy, probably because I lived in a community that had a support structure. The Greek church, the Greek school, the teachers at the public school that I attended already had been teaching Greek-American kids, they had a very positive impression and image of the Greek Greeks who lives in Detroit, so they all embraced me and helped me and guided me, and I think it was an experience growing up that I could have never had in Greece. It would have been totally different growing up in Detroit, America, at that particular time.
ERT: And what elementary school did you attend?
JK: I lived on a street called Beniteau. I came to realize very soon that many of the streets on the east side of Detroit were named after the French settlers who had farms, and these farms later became the street, because the government would only give them 40 feet on the waterfront, but as much space as they wanted going away from the river.
ERT: What they called ribbon farms.
JK: So Beniteau was the Beniteau farm, and later on it became a street. And the street next to Beniteau was St. Jean, another French farm, and the street that crossed St. Jean and Beniteau or Charlevoix or Charlevoix if you’re French, so and Detroit was a French name [laughter], so I thought it was really interesting to live in a so-called French community, but of course, I didn’t find many French descendants.
ERT: And you said the name of the school was?
JK: Littlebridge School. And I lived very close, a block away from Littlebridge, and a block away from my junior high school, which was Foch Junior High School, and my high school was Southeastern, which was next to the Foch High School. I contemplated going to Cass Technical School, because my junior high school teachers were prodding me to go there, but Southeastern was such a beautiful school and so convenient that I decided not to go to Cass Tech, which would require three buses to get there, and I stayed at Southeastern.
ERT: Did you have any siblings?
JK: I have siblings, a sister and a brother.
ERT: They also attended the same schools as you?
JK: I don’t know. My sister did not go to junior high school, she was six years older than me. My brother did go to the same junior high school, but not the same high school that I attended. He went to a different high school.
ERT: And what memories do you have of that time period, middle school and high school?
JK: Well, I kind of thrived in school. I loved school, and I loved the way the teachers were treating me, and I loved the opportunities that the school gave me, like music was very important to me, and they had a great musical program at Littlebridge, and not only that, they gave you the instrument to play and use, take it home and perform. I mean, it was my instrument until I finished my education. Junior high school was the same way. When I graduated from junior high school, they gave me the American Legion Award. They would give two American Legion Awards to one male and one female, and I think it was based on academics and involvement in activities and school like athletics, social programs, and clubs. So interestingly, I was an immigrant and receiving the American Legion Award, and the woman, or the young girl at the time, who received it, was also an immigrant from Syria, her name was Joyce [Ghazul ?], and she was probably the best student in junior high school. So, I felt honored to receive the award, and I enjoyed and liked the fact that in America you can be recognized for your hard efforts. In high school, I was in a special program for college preparatory, and I had the best teachers, and the best programs to study. When I was in the eleventh grade, I was nominated to become an officer for the senior class, and I was nominated to be vice president. I won the election as vice president, and it was a time when students were leaving Detroit for the suburbs, so the fellow that was elected president, Nick [Lopiccolo ?] was his name – I remember that distinctly – Nick’s family moved to the suburbs, so I became honorary president because there was no other president to take office. And I loved my high school years, and my teachers, I had great teachers in high school, and Detroit at that time had the highest paid teachers in the country, so many of the teachers that I had in junior high school and high school were actually graduates from out of state who came to Detroit to work in this high-paying school system, with new ideas, different backgrounds. And then I came to Wayne State University, and my parents were progressive enough to allow me to move on campus, and I lived on Second and Hancock, even though my parents only lived ten minutes away by car, and of course my mother would send me food for every day of the week in Tupperware labeled Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, [laughter], and of course my brother would pick up my clothes and bring them back ironed, but living on campus allowed me to grow and find myself as an individual, whereas I cannot imagine at that time any other Greek-American kids who had immigrated like me living on campus. There were lots of Greeks living on campus, but they were students from Greece; they were not citizens of the United States, so I was in a very special situation and a very special opportunity to discover, especially Detroit in the sixties, which was socially, politically and culturally very active. And Detroit was also selected to represent the US Olympics in 1968, and I had an opportunity to work on the process to get Detroit elected to the Olympics. I love getting involved in organizations, and there was this thing about America, anybody can join an organization. It wasn't by name of the family or economic opportunities that your family may have. Detroit was full of opportunities, and because there were so many ethnics, and it was acknowledged that it was good to have ethnics, I was never, how should I say, discriminated. I did forget to mention one school. Before I started Littlebridge, because of the large number of immigrants in the United States, I was sent to a special English school in Detroit where I attended for like six to eight months to prepare me to enter the normal public school.
ERT: Do you remember the name?
JK: I cannot remember the name, but I remember that I had to take three buses to get there. I lived next to Charlevoix, so I would take the Charlevoix bus at St. Jean to Van Dyke. I would get off at Van Dyke and take the Van Dyke bus to Gratiot. At that time on Gratiot there were trolley cars, so I would take the trolley to my school, and then reverse the process going home.
ERT: So somewhere on Gratiot.
JK: It was somewhere on Gratiot between Van Dyke and downtown Detroit. It was marvelous.
ERT: What was that experience like?
JK: Unbelievable. I mean, there’s kids from all over the world. All over the world, how exciting for me. And of course, we stayed in one class all day, with different teachers, and I got to know these foreign students, and then when I went to high school, and later in college, I encountered the same students.
ERT: How wonderful.
JK: And they were superstars in high school, and they were outstanding students at the university. So, America should be very proud of its immigrants, and I’m not bragging about myself, I’m speaking of the people that I knew who were so successful.
ERT: So, growing up, did you ever encounter any direct discrimination, or did you ever feel or see any racial tensions in the city between groups?
JK: Well, the city was segregated, although in my high school I would say ten percent of the high school was African-American, and then of course, lots of multiethnic students, and the students in high school, the African-American students, I do not believe were discriminated, because they all participated in the activities that I did, but perhaps the reason is that the African-American students came from working class families and already had the opportunities to become more acclimated and not segregated.
ERT: Did you ever feel any tension between the groups then?
JK: No, I did not feel any tension. In fact, what was interesting, my first crush on a girl, [laughter] at the age of 10, was African-American. [both laugh] Oh my God, I remember it to this day, she was so beautiful and so sweet, and she smiled at me so lovingly, it was the first time I sensed a romantic interaction with a girl.
ERT: That’s wonderful.
JK: Yeah, it was really wonderful.
ERT: So, fast-forwarding a little bit past high school and just kind of touching again on your time at Wayne State, you were speaking about the different groups and the different ethnicities that were at Wayne State. Did you ever encounter any tension at Wayne State, or what was that experience like?
JK: Wayne State, I don’t know what the African-American population was at the time, but it was predominantly a white school, and because the Detroit school system was so good and so powerful, I would say the overwhelming majority of the students had a Detroit Public School system background, but there were students from out of state in my classes, and there were also many Windsor [Canada] students attending Wayne State. The educators were top-notch, Detroit had incredible faculty members and very strong departments in a variety of fields of study, so I probably would have gone to University of Michigan if I could afford it, but didn’t. I had no opportunity. I received a scholarship to U of M of $750. Although there was a lot of money then, I used that scholarship at Wayne State, and it was so wonderful not to burden my parents with the financial strain of my education, and I don’t have any remorse or remiss of not coming to Wayne State University. It was a world-class school and living on campus felt like a world-class experience. One of the things I remember distinctly and fondly, just south of Wayne on Cass Avenue we had Chinatown, I don’t know if you know that.
ERT: I do, yeah. There’s a marker there now.
JK: And there were these wonderful stores and restaurants, and of course all the interesting people that lived in the Cass Corridor: the political activists, the poets, the artists, the anarchists, it was very exciting, very exciting. And of course, living on campus and always loving music and always appreciating the arts, I had the opportunity to visit the museum at least once a week, and to go and listen to the best classical music possible, not to mention the jazz and folk music that was around at the time, in and around the campus, and Detroit was very musically driven, of course, with Motown especially. I mean, we were so excited as young people to live in Detroit and to dance the music of Detroit. I mean, I love to dance, and this music gave me the opportunity to become a dancer. I didn’t become a professional dancer, but whatever I learned in dancing has served me well my entire life.
ERT: So, thinking about this period here in the city and definitely in the country as a whole, were you active in any of the political or social movements that were going on during this time?
JK: I was certainly against the war in Vietnam. I helped organize a committee to save the Rouge River – I still have movies from that experience, and even though we were the catalyst, later on the committee became so big and corporations started getting into the movement to save the Rouge River, that was one of my social activities. During the time that I was active in the inner city community, I was one of the organizers of Rescue Orchestra Hall, and it was a committee that I was a founder of, along with probably ten, twelve other people, and we made enough noise that people like Max Fisher joined our committee [laughter], and afterwards it was pretty well taken over by the aristocracy of Detroit, and it was a very exciting thing to belong to and be active in. But the process were, it became, how should I say, an acknowledged serious activity from the time that we formed the organization, it probably was several months, perhaps more than a year, and I continued to be active, but once the institutions took over, I mean, I didn’t have any role to play anymore, except to attend Orchestra Hall and enjoy the music.
ERT: During this time, were you aware of or involved in the civil rights movement?
JK: Well, I can’t say I joined any particular organization. I remember that in the back of my automobile I had a sticker with a black and white hand. I supported political candidates who supported the civil rights movement. I became more active in the civil rights movement much later, after I served in the military and graduated from law school, but I was not a member of a civil rights organization, per se, but my heart and soul was dedicated to that cause, and in my own way, I did, I was an advocate. Not necessarily from an organizational standpoint, but I was an absolute advocate of civil rights.
ERT: Sure, and now speaking to the events of ’67, where and when were you when you first heard about the events of ’67?
JK: Well, I remember that it was summertime, it was a weekend, it was July, and I had a favorite thing that I did every weekend in Detroit during the summer at that time, and I mean literally every weekend. I would go to Meadowbrook and listen to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and it was the most magical experience that anyone could ever have in the summertime in Detroit, in that environment, in such a great orchestra, and it wasn’t only the orchestra, the guest performers were always world class. And on the nights that the orchestra did not perform, the orchestra performed, I think, three nights a week, two nights on the weekend, and then they had another performance on the weekend, which was world-class, and the tickets were only two dollars and fifty cents for lawn tickets, so me and my girl [laughter] would come every weekend as often as we could, and we had gotten there the previous night, and then I stayed with my parents that evening when the riots started. The next day – I hate to say “my girl,” – my significant other and I again went to Meadowbrook.
JK: Sunday, and then we were going to come downtown afterwards, and as we’re driving on the Lodge, we could see the smoke, and of course we realized what was going on, because we had already heard of the incident of the night before, so I drove her back home, and she lived a mile from my parents, and I went to my parent’s house.
ERT: Where did your parents live at this time?
JK: They lived in the area of Moross and Mack, and she lived in the area of Vernier, which is one mile away, and Mack. And on Monday, I returned to my home, which was on Second and Hancock, and I stayed there a couple of nights, and then the third night, I went to visit my girlfriend, who was on Vernier, and there was a curfew at eight o’clock, and I didn’t realize how strict the curfew was, and her parents were prodding me to leave, but my parents only lived a mile away. I figures, you know, what’s the big deal, I’m going to take a side street and get to my parent’s house easily, within two minutes.
ERT: Were you driving?
JK: I was driving, and the police, the Harper Woods police, stopped me, and they took me to the police station, but they didn’t book me. They made me stay there overnight to teach me a lesson, which I was grateful that they didn't book me.
ERT: What was your interaction like with those police officers?
JK: My interaction was regret that I broke the curfew, it was only about seven minutes after eight when they stopped me. I showed them were my parents lived, because my driver’s license was there, but they took me in anyway, and there was an awakening experience to be in the police station at night, particularly a suburban police station. Lots of activity, I mean, you would think that they were at war, you know, anticipating the invasion of Harper Woods, but it was a stupid thing for me to do, but honestly, I didn’t realize how serious or critical it was, and it was only eight o’clock when I was in the street. I assumed seven minutes after eight I would be in my parents’ house. I went about three blocks and they stopped me. On a side street, so it caused me that evening to think and reflect on what was going on, and even though it was interpreted by the media and everyone, the word was riot, and it looked like a riot. I mean, I don’t know what a riot’s supposed to look like, but it certainly had the physical or visual characteristics of a riot.
ERT: As the media portrayed it?
JK: As the media portrayed it, it was the visual images.
ERT: Did you see those images yourself?
JK: Well, yes, they were on TV. Part of the news. But I came to think through that evening how, why are these people rioting? And it came not to my clear understanding, but my impression that there must have been a cause for people to be dying, for people to be injured, for buildings to be burned, the catastrophe of destroying on Twelfth Street all these businesses that serviced the neighborhood. I mean, there was no rationale to that, so I guess I came to the understanding that there must have been some anger, some frustration, some rebellion of sort, that it wasn’t all just rioting, but I’m sure that there were individuals who took advantage of it, just to be nasty, not necessarily understanding the protest or the political message, but just to participate in the expression of the violence, but I’m sure those were far and few between.
ERT: So, you were arrested—
JK: Not arrested, picked up by police [laughter] and taken to the police station.
ERT: That would have been Tuesday or Wednesday.
JK: Not picked up. Actually, I drove there and they followed me.
ERT: Escorted you.
JK: Escorted me, yeah, that’s right.
ERT: That would have been Tuesday or Wednesday.
JK: Yeah, Tuesday or Wednesday, right.
ERT: So, you were able to go home the next day.
JK: Oh, yes. Early in the morning they released me, I went to my parents’ house.
ERT: What was that like?
JK: Well, they were angry with me, of course, but I mean, they didn’t spank me. They were concerned. I called them that evening, and let them know why I didn’t get home, and they forgave me, and I learned a lesson of responsibility, and I think it probably has helped me moving forward in life in terms of following rules and regulations. I mean, it didn’t seem so awful to me at the time.
ERT: Did the events of that week impact directly anyone else in your family?
JK: I don’t think it had any direct impact on anyone else from my family, but we were all emotionally impacted by it.
JK: You could not avoid understanding the seriousness in the universal news media coverage of that riot, and the fact that forty-some people died, and six hundred-some buildings were destroyed, I don’t know how many people were injured. I mean, people’s lives changed irrevocably at that time. My life changed at that time. I mean, you could never look at Detroit again the same way, and I don’t mean I was hateful toward Detroit, no, but I looked at Detroit as a place going through a transition, and that accelerated the transition that was taking place. I mean, the exodus to the suburbs and the racial bias and discrimination, it accelerated discrimination. People had a reason to be openly, how should I say, prejudiced, and they had an excuse to be prejudiced, not realizing what precipitated the events, but then at the same time, a lot of people became actively involved in, they called it “the unification of Detroit,” the integration of the city. I mean, I didn’t leave the city as a result of that, neither did my family.
ERT: Were the neighborhoods you frequented, either the neighborhood here on campus at Wayne State or your parents’ neighborhood, were those impacted in any particular way?
JK: Interestingly enough, Wayne State was not impacted that I can recall, and my parents’ neighborhood was not impacted, and I graduated a year later. I served in the military for two years, I was in the Naval Officer’s Reserve Program, and they activated my unit, and I had a choice of serving and finishing or going to law school and coming back as an officer, but I would have to serve for five or six years, so I decided to serve, I had an E4 rating when I started, and then I got another rating subsequently, and I did not go to Vietnam because I had this law school interest, and the Navy knew about it. They assigned me to an administrative office to work in a legal office, and I avoided going to Vietnam. I was assigned to a naval air squadron on Whidbey Island in the state of Washington, I lived there for two years, and it was a very interesting experience, living and being active in the military during the Vietnam era and all the racial situations going on in America continuously outside of Detroit during the same time. By the way, I was Sailor of the Month in my unit [laughter], and they gave me 30 days free leave, which along with my 30 days, I had 60 days, and I could fly anywhere I wanted on a military flight, but I took the opportunity to explore the West Coast for 60 days, which was really great, and then I came back and I went to law school.
ERT: What year did you come back to Detroit?
JK: I came to Detroit in two years, 1970.
ERT: And how did you find the city?
JK: Well, almost the same way that I left it, and I lived in a beautiful neighborhood on the east side, Nottingham Street, in an incredible flat, gorgeous flat, and then I bought a house in Detroit on Harvard Street near Cadieux, and I lived there until 1987, and then in ’87 I had an opportunity to buy one of the most interesting houses in the universe, and it was on the border of Detroit and Grosse Pointe, and the house was vacant for 10 years, and I bought it and I saved the house, and I still live there, and it’s architecturally a jewel, one of the great modern architectures in the Detroit area designed by a famous architect, Alden Dow.
ERT: Alden Dow?
ERT: How do you spell that?
JK: Just like the Dow Chemical Company.
JK: He was a son of the founder of the Dow Chemical Company, and he has many, many great buildings throughout the United States, and particularly in Michigan, and this is a house he designed in 1935, which the city petitioned the court to demolish it, because it did not fit into the architectural integrity of the community, so it’s really a very interesting house. And I moved out of Detroit because I could not let go of this house, but my present house is only a block away from Detroit.
ERT: So, the next question has to do with language. Some people describe the events of ’67 as a rebellion, an uprising, disturbance. What words would you use to describe those events and why?
JK: Well initially, the common word based on news media publications and the verbal communications was that it was a riot, but as I mentioned earlier, I realized soon thereafter during the time of the uprising, let’s call it for the moment, that there was a probable cause for what was going on, although not defined in my mind and not understanding it so well as I did later on. Of course now, I would probably use another word, but clearly at that time, the only word available to us was a riot. Maybe some progressive thinkers could have called it rebellion, but it wasn’t the commonly used word during the week of the riot.
ERT: Do you believe that the events of ’67 have had a long-lasting impact on the city of Detroit?
JK: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it was like I said, the precipitating factor – the city was already afflicted because jobs were already moving to the suburbs, and people were moving to the suburbs, and Detroit was hit hard economically, and it was the precipitating factor for the segregation that has taken place subsequently. And Detroit is segregated, there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it, but I was never emotionally or physically segregated from the city. I mean, I traveled to Europe throughout this time period, they we’re discussing at least once or twice a year. I loved living in Detroit because Detroit offered me even then, and now of course, opportunities to grow and experience, whether it was music, the arts, opportunities to identify who I am, to create opportunities for me that I would have never had in any other community, whether professionally, socially, or artistically. I mean, Detroit – I don’t think I could ever experience all that I have in any other community in the world, and I’m being honest about that.
ERT: And what do you think about the current state of the city today as it relates to—
JK: Well, the city, I drive through the city every day. I mean, I drive on Vernor going home, which is mostly fields with an occasional house, and I drive on Charlevoix or Jefferson on the way to work every day, and I shop in the city, and I entertain myself in the city, and I educate myself in the city, and I find my culture and social activities in the city. I mean, I can’t ignore the fact that the city has been substantially abandoned, but maybe now it’s an opportunity with the positive things going on to recreate and define a better organized city for all the people of our community. One thing that makes me very sad is that the great school system that I had as a student does not exist anymore in the city. I mean, you could go anywhere in the city and find a wonderful school at the time, and I don’t know what the educational opportunities are now, I really don’t know. Maybe there are great opportunities, but I don’t know, because I don’t have the contact with the school system. But I have to look at it as an opportunity for the city to redefine itself, because the city suffered irreparable harm in the last 40 years.
ERT: Are you optimistic about where the city is headed?
JK: Oh yes, very optimistic. In fact, two weeks ago I had three friends visiting me from Europe, Milano and Paris. They thought Detroit was one of the greatest places they had ever been to.
ERT: That was their impression of the city?
JK: Oh, it was fabulous. They also thought it was one of the cleanest cities they’ve ever seen [laughter], and of course we went to the DSO [Detroit Symphony Orchestra], we heard all kinds of great music outside of the DSO, we went to the museum, there was a classical performance on a Friday night, then we went across the street, what’s the restaurant, Chartreuse, we were having dinner, and a friend of mine, Martina Gúzman, who is doing something with the Historic Museum, she took my friends from Europe and we came to the museum, and they loved visiting the Historic Museum, but everything we did in Detroit was unforgettable. Belle Isle, restaurants, interesting people, great places to shop, this was two weeks ago. And then I have friends who have been coming to Detroit from Europe for at least 30 years, and on July 22, three friends of mine are coming from Greece. They’ve been here at least 10 times in the last 30 years.
JK: I mean, they love Detroit, but of course because I love Detroit, and they feel the experience of Detroit as I feel and love Detroit. They have friends in Detroit, the people here are very interesting, and culturally, Detroit is very rich, and Detroit allows you the opportunity to experience culture without necessarily having deep pockets. I mean, a week ago, Concert of Colors. I mean, there’s no other experience like that in the country that I know of, and I get to experience that for four days every year, going to probably 10 different venues at that program.
JK: So I have a lot of faith in Detroit, and I also like the fact that the city government, the city council and the mayor, seem to be responsible to the citizenry and to the people that want to invest in the city, because that’s very important. We have to have investors. I mean, without investment, we’re not going to go anywhere, and there’s a compromise when you bring in investors, I know that as an attorney. There’s always a compromise, but you have to look at what product they’re giving you, and whether the investment, and whatever it is that we’re giving up, is worth the benefit, and I think so far, the choices that have been made are good choices, and I hope that they will continue to make these contributions to the city, but the city – no one knew the city better than me two years ago. I don’t know the city anymore, I honestly do not know how to get around in the city, even though I work downtown and I live only six miles from the downtown area. I’m lost when I go to places in and around the city now, it has changed so much and so radically, and it’s so different and it’s so exciting, and I have things to discover that I don’t know about.
ERT: Wow. Well, before we wrap up, is there anything else you would like to add?
JK: I’m not sure I have anything else. I want to make a statement regarding my parents. We went off the record a little while ago, and I mentioned that my parents were very progressive and politically intelligent and interesting people, and the thing that I loved about my parents, who influenced me tremendously, is that there was not an iota of prejudice, ever, in their minds or hearts, and I was blessed to have parents like that.
ERT: That’s wonderful.
JK: They embraced the diversity of Detroit. Never once did they infer or state anything racially negative. It never would occur to them to do that, so I was lucky to have a background where my parents and my family respected the community at large.
ERT: Well, thanks so much for stopping in today and speaking with us.
JK: Well, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you and talk about my love for Detroit. I’m sure we didn’t cover all the issues, but we might have another opportunity to do that.
ERT: Well, thank you so much.
JK: Thank you.