Rosilyn Stearns Brown, August 8th, 2017
RB: Rosilyn Stearns Brown.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
RB: Thank you for asking.
WW: Would you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
RB: Okay, I was born September 7, 1946, in Detroit.
WW: Did you grow up in the city?
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
RB: Well, first we lived on the east side near the market, and then we moved to the west side of Detroit, in the Joy Road, West Grand Boulevard area. On the east side, we were across from the Eastern Market.
WW: What year did you move to the west side?
WW: What prompted the move to the west side?
RB: My mother wanted a better neighborhood, because at that time, on the east side, where we were—particularly, by the Eastern Market—it was kind of rough. There was a lot of fighting was going on and so she wanted to be in a safer neighborhood, so we moved to the west side.
WW: Can you tell me about that west side neighborhood? What was it like?
RB: It was nice, because we had a lot of businesses. Black-owned businesses in the neighborhood. You didn't have to leave the neighborhood to do too much, because everything that you needed was right there in the neighborhood. We had bowling alleys, we had grocery stores. We had cleaning, we had a black pharmacy that was right on the corner, on Blaine and Linwood, and then - well, on Gladstone and Linwood - and then right on the corner of Carter, where we lived - we lived on Carter between Linwood and Lawton - and right on the corner there was a black doctor. So, a lot of things were in the neighborhood that we could take advantage of. So, it was really nice then.
WW: So, the area was a predominantly black neighborhood then?
RB: At first it wasn't. When we first moved there in 1953, it was like half and half. And then, of course, the white people started moving out, and more black people moved in.
WW: When you first moved there, did you feel comfortable in the neighborhood?
RB: Yeah. Because everybody got along. My block, in particular, was like a family block. A lot of the people - everybody knew everybody, and everybody got along with everybody, and we had fruit trees in almost everybody's yard, and it was really nice. It was a good experience growing up there.
WW: As you're growing up, through the 1950s, did you tend to stay in your own neighborhood or did you venture around the city?
RB: No. Basically, because you didn't have cars, so people then - a lot of people didn't have cars, so you had to take the bus everywhere you wanted to go. And so we basically just stayed in the neighborhood unless you had some special activity going on where you needed to get on the bus and go, or if you need to get on the bus to go to work. Because then a lot of the traveling was done by bus.
WW: Are there any memories you'd like to share from growing up in that neighborhood?
RB: Oh yeah. We had a lot of fun, because my dad - he's in the Negro League, and he's in the Baseball Hall of Fame, because he played in the Negro League. And so we played baseball - because my dad didn't have any sons, and so he had two daughters - me and my sister - so we had to learn how to play baseball. And we did, and we played with the kids in the neighborhood. And we did a lot of stuff - not like now, with the cell phones and stuff, that's ruined the kids, always saying they're bored. But we were never bored. You know, we had a lot to do with the baseball - we were playing that almost as much as we could. And then we played hopscotch, and a lot of other games, like board games, like Monopoly and Scrabble and card games and stuff. There was a lot of activity going on. And we participated in all of that. And so it was a lot of fun.
My mother bought us a bike one time, and she was sorry she did [laughter] because we traveled anywhere on those bikes and if the other kids didn't have bikes, we just doubled up and went where we wanted to. One time, I remember, we got our bikes and everybody said "Let's go to Belle Isle!" And we were like - we didn't know where Belle Isle was, so we asked our parents and they told us, so here we go. Twelve kids - there was about thirty of us - and we had to double up on the bikes. We rode all the way from Carter and Linwood to Belle Isle [laughter] and back. We never did that again. But our parents were happy because when we came home we all fell out. The kids were real quiet that day. They didn't have to worry about us. And like I said, our neighborhood was nice. It was really nice. Everybody got along together. There weren't a lot of problems. You hear about all the killings and stuff, but none of that was going on. And we had apartment buildings. Everybody had paper routes - the kids, that's what you did then. You had a paper route. Of course, we didn't like delivering the papers to the apartment buildings, but - because you know, you had to go to every apartment - and we tried not to do that, but. Yeah, I have a lot of fond memories about that, because we did a lot of things and we were involved in a lot of things, and it was nice.
And our neighbors - they - when we first got there - they were mostly - it was half and half, caucasian and blacks, and we all got along. And we had fruit trees - we had one guy that had a cherry - he had cherry trees in his backyard - and I mean, his whole backyard was full of cherry trees. And you had to - when you went in his backyard you had to kind of lean down, because you were taller than the trees. And we would go in his yard and eat his cherries and he would get mad, and he'd come out and threaten us so we'd take off running. [laughter] But we went back, you know, to get the cherries. And we had a mulberry tree in our yard, and two peach trees. That whole block had all kinds of fruit trees, and I don't know what happened to them. But it's not like that now. But with our block, and the entire neighborhood, it was like where they say, "it takes a village to raise a child," that's what was happening then. Because if you did anything, you weren't just worried about your parents, you were worried about the neighbors, because they had permission from the parents to, you know, chastise you if it was necessary.
And then you were in double trouble, because not only were you going to get it from your parents, but you were going to get it from the neighbors too. So - and that worked with the caucasians, because they did the same thing. All of us had the same attitudes as far as behavior and keeping the kids doing what they were supposed to do, and keeping them in line. And since my mother was a teacher, you know, we got that too, so - that was - that was good.
WW: Going into the early sixties, were you aware of the Civil Rights movement, what was going on across the country?
RB: Oh yeah. I was a teenager then, when that started. We marched with Martin Luther King, when he marched down Woodward and had the black and white gloves on, and that was a wonderful experience because you had all those people together - was like three or four hundred people - marching down the street. We didn't have any problems. You know, everybody was getting along. Everybody was there for the same purpose, and it wasn't just blacks, it was all types of ethnic groups that came and joined us in that march. And I was a teenager then - I think I was sixteen - yeah. And we just had - it was amazing. I love things like that. And it was peaceful. We didn't have to worry about anybody shooting and fighting and all of that. None of that happened. It was a very peaceful thing. And I wish more people could have been involved in that, because that changed the whole perspective on life - to see people come together like that in a large group. And then you know, everybody got along.
WW: What do you mean by, it was three or four hundred people?
RB: Oh, I'm sorry, it's not. It was more than that. It was over a hundred thousand people marching together. I'm sorry. That was my mistake.
WW: No problem. I was thrown off by that.
RB: Yeah. I'm seventy. That was a long time ago. [laughter]
WW: So now, going into the later part of the 1960s, what did you do after you graduated high school?
RB: I went to college. And I got married, and I was working, because my marriage wasn't working out, so I had to pursue another career. I first started working at the Post Office, and then I went to - it was Michigan Bell then - and then they changed to Ameritech and I ended up retiring from Ameritech after 27 years working with them. But - yeah, but we were still part of the Civil Rights movement. There was a lot of civil unrest, and then what happened in '67- I was actually in that.
WW: Before we get to that, real quick - just a couple quick questions before that. Did you anticipate any violence that summer? Did you see that something could happen?
RB: No. We were caught totally by surprise.
WW: And then, where were you living then?
RB: On the west side. I was on Carter between Linwood and Lawton.
WW: Oh. Still at your parents' house then?
RB: Mm hm.
WW: Okay. Just to check. How did you first hear about what was going on, on Twelfth Street?
RB: Some of my neighbors came running down the street, and they said "Oh!" they said, "you guys better get out of the neighborhood because they're tearing up the neighborhood." And I'm like, what? And they said "yeah." Because then, I think - I was 21 years old then. And they said, you know, they were passing the word around, they were telling everybody because that particular day, we had all moved our - we had to park our cars on Linwood because they were cleaning the streets, and when they cleaned the streets, you know, they would put signs up to tell you don't park there, because they were coming by and cleaning the streets. Well, all of our neighbors' cars were parked on Linwood or on other streets, so that we could let them come and clean the streets. And then, before that, the gas station that was right on the corner of Pingree and Linwood, they had just come in and filled the tanks for the gas station. And that was one of the businesses that was there, and that was a big business then, because that was one of the closest gas stations in the neighborhood and they got a lot of business.
We were caught totally by surprise with that, and people were running around. They were excited, and then had a lot of panic in their eyes, because they didn't know what happened - because this started on Twelfth Street. And we were like three blocks from Twelfth Street, and then it was coming towards our - it was headed in our direction, because it went from Twelfth Street all the way to Grand River, and so we were right in the middle of all of that.
WW: What was your next step? How did you -
RB: Well, I went out to see what was going on. A lot of other people didn't - they stayed in the house because some of the people were afraid to go out, because they thought something was going to happen. And they really didn't know what was happening, because nothing like this had ever happened in Detroit before. Because it was a very peaceful neighborhood, you know, we never had anything like this happen. And so I went up on the corner to see exactly what was going on and I saw people I knew, and I saw people looting, and most of the stuff that they had was liquor, you know, they were really concerned about that - they were going to stores and taking all the liquor out, and they would set the place on fire.
And I was standing right on the corner, and right across the street from me was a carpet place, and that was on the corner of Linwood and Blaine, and there right next to the carpet store was the gas station. And I saw a friend of mine come up, and he had a Molotov cocktail and he had another friend with him that had a Molotov cocktail in his hand, and they were getting ready to light it. I said, what are you guys getting ready to do? And they said "oh, we're going to set this place on fire!" And I said, for what? And they said "Because. You know what happened on Twelfth Street." And I said, but that's no reason to burn down the buildings. You're in your own neighborhood! I said, why - if you're going to tear something up, why don't you go to St. Clair Shores or Grosse Pointe? Why are you tearing up your own neighborhood? I said, do you know what's going to happen after that? After you guys get drunk, and you get sober, I said, what's going to happen? What are you going to do then? "Oh, you just an Uncle Tom nigger." I say, excuse me? And then they took the cocktails and they just threw them in the carpet place. And of course, that was the wrong thing to do, because with those gas tanks just being filled up, the whole gas station blew up. And the fire trucks came in, you know, to put out the fire, but they wouldn't let the fire trucks put out the fire. They were throwing bricks and stones, and bottles at them. Anything that they could pick up that was heavy - to make a point. And so the fire trucks couldn't stay, because they were risking their lives coming down there to put out the fire.
And then, there was - right across the alley from the gas station was houses, on Pingree, and then on Blaine. And the fire - the lady in the first house that was right off the alley, she said she saw that and she had to pray to God, because she said she knew she didn't have time to get out of the house. And so she just laid on the floor. And the fire miraculously skipped her house, and burned down all of that - all the houses that were on her side of the street, and then it went around the corner, to Blaine, and burned up all of the houses on those two blocks. And that was - it was horrible - and I had to run and tell my neighbors when I saw the fire - I ran and told the neighbors, I said okay, you guys better go up there and get your cars, because they're setting fire to the gas station. It's going to blow any minute now. And so everybody started running to get their cars and when the fire first started, the heat was so intense that I went to get my car, and I burned my hand trying to open the car door so I could get in and move the car, because I was afraid my car was going to blow up too. And we got there just - everybody got there in time to move their car, so none of the cars were destroyed. But when we saw all those houses burning, that was just horrific. And we all went to other places - I had an aunt that lived closer to the Boulevard, so we drove the car down there and we went and stayed there.
But while I was standing on the corner talking to these guys, one guy came up to me and he - he had a whole - he had about two cases of Johnnie Walker Red - and he came up to me, he said, "yeah, you ought to go in here and get some of that stuff." I said, I'm not a drunk. I said, why would I just want to get liquor? And he said "because it's so good." And I said, no, I said, you're ruining the neighborhood. He said "oh, you're an Uncle Tom nigger." So he took the cases of liquor and he put them down on the street, and he was getting ready to hit me. But I saw his glance when I turned around to see what he was looking at. My boyfriend had pulled up, and he was standing behind me, and he was kind of a tall guy. He didn't look like a guy who could be messed with, so he turned around, he just looked at me. "Yeah, you're an Uncle Tom nigger." And then he just picked up the liquor and kept running. And I was like, how are they - I was thinking to myself - what a waste. We're tearing up our own neighborhood. And I said, and after this is all over, what are people going to do?
Because then, people didn't have cars. You know, they had to take the bus everywhere. Everything was right there in our neighborhood, and I was thinking, why would you want to do this? I could understand that we had some civil unrest, but that wasn't the way to solve the problem. That just made things worse.
WW: What did you do next?
RB: Well, after the riot was over, we went to my aunt's house. And then after everything started calming down, we - everybody, of course, was talking about it, and then we're trying to figure out, what were we going to do? Because now the neighborhood was messed up, and now we were going to have to recover from this. And I didn't see any way of us recovering, because this was - here we were, the neighborhood was exactly what we needed, we had everything at our fingertips, and then I felt so sorry, because we had a manufacturing company that was right there on the corner, and they would hire people from the neighborhood. So you didn't even have to leave the neighborhood to get a job, because the businesses were right there. And they would hire people from the neighborhood to get those jobs.
So now, not only did you tear up the neighborhood, but now you've created a situation where the job opportunities weren't going to be that great, because now you're going to have to go even further to get a job, than what you had before. So if you had problems then, now you really - you just added to your situation. And I couldn't understand why they wanted to loot the buildings, because that serves no purpose. You know, you just tore up the neighborhood. And there was really no reason for that. There was a better way to solve that problem than what I saw happening, and I was just really disgusted with the whole thing.
And then - being called by my friends, an Uncle Tom nigger? That really hurt. That really hurt.
WW: Was your house threatened by fire?
RB: No. No, it didn't, though. The fire just went almost two blocks, on Pingree and Blaine, and it went around the corner. It started on Pingree and then it went around, like in an "L" shape, and went around the corner to Blaine. And now that's a playground.
WW: Did you have any interactions with the Detroit Police Department or the National Guard during that week?
RB: No, but we heard about the stuff that happened at the Algiers. I knew some people that were staying in that motel, because that was the motel where some of the people - you know, there was prostitution, a lot of illegal activity was going on there, and I knew some of the people that were involved in that, and they were horrified about the guys getting shot, and so that - that added to the problems that we were having and to know that that was happening to people that I knew - that was horrific. That was a terrible feeling.
WW: Who did you know?
RB: I knew one of the guys that was at the motel and he was staying there. Okay - I'd rather not name names right now, but one of the guys that I knew - he was a pimp - you know, he was doing some illegal activity, and - but that was the only way he could make a living because he was a felon, he had been in and out of jail all his life, and so that's what he was doing, basically, to survive. And he actually saw the police came up - then they had a unit of police officers that were called the Big Four, and they drove around in these black cars, and there was four of them, and most of them were caucasians, and they were driving around in the neighborhood. And after the riots, well, during the riots - they were driving around - and they were just pulling people over for no reason - black people - and they were doing horrible things to them. They were getting beat, and they were handcuffing them and throwing them on the ground, and stomping them, and doing all kinds of things to the guys, just because.
And - and we never understood that. But that added to the civil unrest, because before then, our neighborhood was basically a peaceful and quiet neighborhood, and people were having fun and enjoying living together. And then after this happened, it was just a mess.
WW: How do you refer to what took place in '67? Do you see it as a riot? Rebellion? Uprising?
RB: You know, I've thought about that a lot. And I can understand why it started, but I just didn't like the way they handled that. I always thought that we could have done that in a better way, because violence is not the answer. Violence just creates more violence. And it creates more heartache and trouble. And like, what they did to our neighborhood - and I get teary-eyed when I talk about this - because I was right in the middle of it. And I saw people's lives being devastated because of what happened.
Because here you are, you have a lot of poor people in the neighborhood. And instead of people working together, it was like everybody was just concerned about looting, and getting what they could get out of it - instead of actually trying to figure out, how can we solve this problem without tearing up the neighborhood and destroying people's lives. Because a lot of people's lives were destroyed by that. Because we just added - the riots just added to the homeless situation and it just added to the economic destruction that was already happening. So, it just really made things worse. I didn't see anything positive coming out of that.
WW: Are there any other stories you'd like to add from your experiences that week?
RB: Well, like I said, our neighborhood - particularly our block - was a family block. And now - we weren't affected as much by the riots as some of the other people that were actually had their homes destroyed and had their businesses torn up. We had one guy that tried to come back - we had a black pharmacist that was right on the corner of Blaine and Linwood, and he tried to come back and renew the business that he had there, because then he moved on Joy Road and Linwood, and he tried to keep a business started there, but there was a lot of - he kept - people kept breaking in his shop and he just decided okay, I'm going to have to leave, because it's not going to work anymore. Because the whole attitude had changed. The riots changed people's attitudes about how to live and what they wanted to do, and after that we had - started having a lot of problems - especially with the Big Four, because the Big Four was coming in, and they were just destroying people. I mean, you know, there was no reason for them to do what they do. I like the idea that they were there to protect, but it was like - they weren't just protecting. They were just - they were out of control. And so we were glad when they stopped having the Four.
But it was good in a sense, for the protection issue, but afterwards when they started just pulling people over for no reason, that was wrong.
WW: Did you and your family think about leaving the neighborhood afterwards?
RB: Oh no. Because we knew - you know things are going to happen, and we've been black all our lives, so you expect to have some civil unrest because of certain situation, because we know there's a double standard. You know, white people get treated differently than black people do, and that's something that has not changed. It's better than what it was, but because of the riot, you know, that added to some of the frustration other ethnic groups were feeling, and they tried to stereotype black people to say, well, you know, we're just no good, and we're just a violent bunch of people.
And so that added to the stereotypes that they already had developed about black people. So - but as far as our neighborhood, especially on the street that I was on, that didn't interfere with us too much because we were like a family, on that block. We looked out for each other and we helped take care of the kids, and some of the businesses came back and we were able to, you know, participate in those things. But the riot really changed the way people lived, and it wasn't a good change.
WW: Coming up to the present for a couple final questions. What do you think of the state of the city today?
RB: I like what's happening. There's a lot going on. There are new businesses coming in, and looks like Detroit is on its way to being renovated and coming back to be one of the greatest cities in the country, because that's what we were. And we've got a lot of history here, and with Motown and that, we'd like to keep the legacy going, because - with the abandoned houses, that's a real serious problem and it hasn't been taken care of. And the city has received money to do that, but they're not doing - I don't know where the money is, but they're not doing what they said they were supposed to do, and we still have a lot of abandoned houses, so that needs to be - that's a situation that needs to be taken care of.
And nothing - it looks like nothing's being done about that. But I like, especially, what's going on in this area. But they need to concentrate more now on the neighborhoods and getting these abandoned houses out of the way.
And we still have problems contacting the city officials about things that need to be done in the neighborhoods, because, like, where I'm living, I'm at Cityside Townhomes, and the landlords are taking advantage of the renovations, because they're increasing the rent every year. And like where I am, the rent - what we're paying for rent - I'm paying a thousand dollars a month, and that doesn't include utilities. But what I'm paying for is not worth it, because the building that I'm living in - the stuff is old, and it's cheap - so the landlords are taking advantage of what's going on in Detroit as far as having people come back to the city.
But I like what's happening with Belle Isle, because that's one of my favorite places. I love Belle Isle. When I was working on my degrees I would go there and do my homework, and it was so nice. Because there's something about the water that just, you know, gives you peace. And you can get a lot done. I got a lot of my homework done there. So Belle Isle has been one of my favorite places, because my mother, when she was pregnant with me and my sister, my dad said whenever he came home, he said if he didn't see her, because they didn't live too far - I think they lived about three or four blocks from Belle Isle - he said if he came home and didn't see her, he knew that's where she was. And sure enough - so I think that's where I got my liking Belle Isle. [laughter]
But there are a lot of good things going on, but we still have problems that have not been addressed, like with the abandoned houses, and with the rent going up every year, and there's no reason for the rent going up because they're not renovating the places and making them worth what we're paying for.
And - and the insurance issue. Detroit is being red-lined. And they used to ask us, well do you live north of Schaefer or south of Schaefer. Well, it didn't make any difference, because one time I called and I said I was north of Schaefer and they gave me a price. And then the next time I called I said I was south of Schaefer - they gave me the same price. So that tells you right there, that we're just being red-lined. Nobody's paying as much as we're paying. We're paying almost as much for insurance as we pay for our house.
And that's why you have a lot of people now, when they had the Driver Responsibility law, which they said changed, but it didn't change. What they did, they just changed the name. You have a lot of people driving without insurance because they can't afford it. It's because between me paying my house note, or me paying for insurance, I'm going to pay my house note, because I have to have a place to live. I can't live in my car. So I'm going to drive - I'm just going to hope that I don't get pulled over by the police. And if I get pulled over then I just have to pay the ticket. Which would be a lot cheaper than me paying for five hundred dollars a month for insurance. Because my sister lives in Auburn Hills and she has Triple A full coverage. Triple A Plus, and she's only paying $800 a year. I'm living in Detroit and I'm paying $2400 a year for the same coverage. So explain that. There's no explanation for that.
So we have some serious issues. Then we have a lot of homeless people and nobody seems to be addressing that issue. And we have enough money that we shouldn't have - nobody should be homeless. And especially people that have worked all their lives, and all of a sudden they found out - because of technology, they no longer have jobs. You know, that's hurtful, and I hate seeing homeless people, and I try to help out as much as I can, because I can only imagine. A lot of people are living from paycheck to paycheck, and they're only one paycheck away from being homeless. That's a terrible feeling, especially if you worked all your life and you're thinking, you know, you're working so that you can have a better life, and then all of a sudden the hammer gets lowered and now you're out of a job. So those are the types of things we need to be concerned about. We need to get back to a village raising a child. If we all that attitude, then some of these issues would be resolved.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.