William Chope, July 25th, 2015
Kean’s Detroit Yacht Harbor
National Bank of Detroit
LW: Today is July 25, 2015 this is the interview of Bill [William] Chope by Lily Wilson. We are at the Detroit Historical Museum in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Bill, can you tell me where and when you were born?
WC: Yes, I was born in Detroit, Michigan on March 23, 1949—right here at Harper Hospital.
LW: Okay. And tell me a little bit about your family and how they came to Detroit.
WC: Well, my great great-grandfather came here in 1856 from Bitterford, England and he was a blacksmith by trade but he started a wagon manufacturing company that was E. Chope and Sons and it became quite successful. And by the turn of the century he was asked to be on the planning commission that helped design Grand Boulevard. In fact, he was township commissioner of Greenfield Township at that time and as a politician and a Republican he got together with Hazen Pingree and developed the idea to build a beautiful boulevard that would surround the growing city of Detroit at the time. And because of his involvement he was written up in the Burton History of Wayne County, Burton History of Detroit so we were able to find out a great deal about our family and our great-grandfather because of his participation in that. When I’m thinking in terms of what happened in 1967, I like to note that my great-grandfather, Charles Henry Chope, served during the Civil War during the Iron Brigade, the Detroit 24th, which a lot of people may not realize but Campus Martius, the statue there, is dedicated to the Iron Brigade and they were a critical part of the war at Gettysburg and Michigan was an important part of defending and bringing the Union back together. And a true national hero back in those days was Abraham Lincoln.
WC: Kind of a lot of background there. Also, as a side note my mother Dorothy Schuler was living in Indian Village and was living on Iroquois just a few blocks away from the race riots of 1943 which were centered at Van Dyke and Kercheval in Detroit so when you think in terms of 1967 versus today, here we are 50 years later but back then 1967 was really just a few years—20 years or more since World War II.
WC: It was very much a different time in Detroit, a different place. In 1967 Detroit was a vibrant city with well over almost two million residents, and a real booming metropolis.
LW: Now what were you doing in July of 1967?
WC: In 1967 I graduated from Grosse Pointe High.
WC: So I had two summer jobs.
WC: So one summer job that weekend, I was a dock boy at Kean’s Detroit Yacht Club on the Detroit River. But my other summer job I had been hired as a part time employee by the National Bank of Detroit. There was a wonderful personnel manager there, Medina Caesar, and I had interviewed with her in the spring so that I would have a summer job and I had worked for her the previous summer doing surveys at National Bank of Detroit branches around the Detroit area and basically was counting the number of people in line at various teller stations—
WC: Which eventually developed the rope system we’re all used to today where we stand in line and then go one at a time. But believe it or not people had not thought of that and we were part of a study, or studying that, in 1966. In 1967, when I applied with Medina again for a summer job I was asked to become a large deposit teller and I actually worked in the headquarters of National Bank of Detroit the building is now the Chase Bank Building in downtown Detroit. But two stories below the ground was a large cash vault. And what would happen there is armored trucks would bring in bags of receipts from cash registers at Wrigley’s Supermarket or Borman Foods was a huge customer of the bank as well as Clark gas stations—Clark gas stations were pretty popular back then, as an independent gas company.
WC: Gasoline company. When it came to July of 1967, I would take the bus from Grosse Pointe—the Jefferson Avenue bus—from Grosse Pointe down to NBD and our family was pretty disciplined, my parents were disciplined about work and you never missed a day of work and you certainly always got to work on time. So while the riots had started that weekend and were peaking or being developed—a lot of the incidents you read about happened even that first Sunday evening. Monday morning I walked to the bus stop and took the bus down to NBD in Detroit. When I got there, found out that very few people came to work in fact, I think there was just 18 of us that came to work that day.
WC: Security was there security was present at any bank, that wasn’t unusual but the security people brought us inside and locked the doors behind us. And fortunately, or just as a side note for getting paid, I was actually there most of the day, down in the cafeteria area and also near the cash vault. Towards the end of the day, around four o’clock, security said it seemed to be nothing—not a lot had gone on that day, at least not in the downtown core, so they brought us up to go home. And I was stunned when we came up, out of the building, right there at Kennedy Square, there was a whole series of tanks and troop carriers, much like a scene that you would see in World War II, turning around Kennedy Square and heading north up Woodward. And it really was an unforgettable scene to think of our city of Detroit looking like Berlin at the end of World War II. And we were able to get over to the bus and I took the Jefferson Avenue bus back home and it was somewhat surreal to be riding on the bus because it was like you were looking out of a—at a TV screen of a dramatic scene going on. And one of the real memories is when we got to oh, I think, around the St. Jean area—and keep in mind Detroit at the time—Jefferson Avenue was just bustling with people. Certainly as you headed towards the east side and it was a very much an integrated community and then by the time you got to the Jefferson-Chalmers area, certainly more white and then at the time Grosse Pointe—the five Grosse Pointes—were almost all white. So we’re traveling down Jefferson in a very surreal scene we sat there at a stop light as a young man picked up a trash can, he was black, off the street corner, and hurled it through the plate glass window of a drug store. And while there really wasn’t much of a crowd, maybe a half-dozen people from the neighborhood, they kind of all cheered and jumped up and down. I don’t recall seeing any looting but we were just stunned to see a thriving business with that kind of destruction taking place while we were right there at a stop light on the bus. The next day, coming back to work—again, that work ethic, not wanting to miss a day of work [laughter]—a real surprising event at the time, again at St. Jean and Mack—this was before the new Chrysler plant—but at St. Jean and Mack was the relatively brand new headquarters called the Fifth Precinct. Again, the east side being a thriving area, close to the water, the Fifth Precinct was kind of the pride of the Detroit Police Department. And here right out on the front lawn, the National Guard had created a sand bag .50 caliber machine gun nest just like you would see during the war, and they were defending—or there to defend—the Fifth Precinct, from this machine gun nest. So again, here we are in traffic, on the bus, seeing this scene that you would never expect to see in Detroit or even in America.
LW: Wow. So how old were you at the time?
WC: I was 18.
LW: You were 18. So sitting on that bus, can you tell me about the other people on the bus? Were they black? White? What was their racial makeup?
WC: You know, I don’t know, but I would say it would have been a majority white at the time.
LW: Okay. And do you remember talking to anyone else on that bus? Or anyone else’s reaction?
WC: You know it was interesting. My recollection is there wasn’t a lot of conversation or alarm. Again, it was like you were just sitting at home watching TV and the surreal stuff was going on and the bus driver didn’t really say anything. He’d stop and the light and just continue on. So, very unusual from what you would expect. Again, it just felt like you were watching this stuff on TV but of course it wasn’t TV, it was very, very real.
LW: And what were the cross streets, do you remember, for Jefferson where you saw this young man throw the garbage man through the window?
WC: It would have been there on the east side very close to the St. Jean area.
WC: Not far from the police precinct of course.
LW: So as an 18-year-old, what were your sort of feelings--sort of deep down about what you were seeing?
WC: You know I thought of it as an unfortunate incident. There was some interesting things going on in Grosse Pointe. My parents were never gun owners, my dad never hunted. Yet neighbors were literally coming around on Sunday and Monday and offering my dad a shotgun and actually talking—at the time as a teenager I thought it was crazy talk—they were talking about, “The blacks were going to be coming, they were going to take us, and we better have guns to defend our homes.” And of course, “blacks” as a terms didn’t really—I don’t think it really existed very widely. That came years later with Black Pride. Of course everyone was “negroes” or “colored” or of course—
LW: The n-word.
WC: The n-word. That’s what I always like to say was the more popular word of the day.
LW: I see. So a lot of fear in your neighborhood anyways, at least.
WC: Yes, fear among people my parents’ age, not so much among myself as a teenager. In fact, as a side note, being a teenager and it being summer and dating at the time, one of the things my parents had said was you’re not to go into the city of Detroit at night. And as any good teenager of course I violated that every single night of the riots.
WC: In fact, a woman who’s still a friend to this day, we joke about our one and only date and I don’t recall if it was Monday or Tuesday night, but at the time, a group of friends and I had an apartment down in the Wayne State area on Prentis Avenue that our parents didn’t know about. But this was a place we could take dates and at times drink beer and enjoy ourselves without worrying about police or parents. So, here I drove that Monday evening down with this gal down to the apartment on Prentis and Detroit was pretty quiet. Coming down [I]-94 I can recall going over I-75 bridge to get to the Woodward exit and there were virtually no cars out there. Which should have been a real sign that this was a bad mistake. [Laughter]. We got to the apartment on Prentis and we’re sitting in there having beer and talking and listening to music. And there was no air conditioning so the screen windows were open and after a bit of time we could actually smell smoke of the city on fire, not really that many blocks away. And we kind of looked at each other and said, “You know, this is a really bad idea being down here right now.” So kind of my parent’s words echoing in my ears. We got back in the car and drove back to Grosse Pointe and again very little traffic around very little signs of what was going on just a few blocks away.
LW: Wow. Is there anything else you can remember about that time that you want to share with us?
WC: Well, one thing and this was kind of unfortunate but again it was of my parents’ generation but going to work part time back at Kean’s Yacht Harbor, which was gated and a boat harbor right there on the river, I can remember Louis Kean and older gentleman standing out by the back gate with a shot gun. At the time there was no security so you took care of things yourself. And just again, I never felt any fear or panic it just seemed unusual that people we acting this way.
LW: Wow. Well, thank you for sharing this.
WC: Well, thank you for having me.**