Dr. Tommie Johnson

Title

Dr. Tommie Johnson

Description

In this interview, Dr. Johnson speaks about the daily life in the Black Bottom/Paradise Valley neighborhood. She specifically describes her experiences as a young girl having a very close community experience with her neighbors and family members (e.g. her aunts, uncles, and cousins) who also all lived in the neighborhood during her childhood. She also describes the atypical strongly academic values in her household particularly for the time.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society

Date

11/7/2018

Rights

Detroit Historical Society

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Dr. Tommie Johnson

Brief Biography

Dr. Tommie Johnson was born in 1925 in Gary, Indiana. She moved with her family to Paradise Valley, in Detroit, MI where she lived throughout the majority of her childhood and young adult life. She studied business and received her degrees from Wayne State University. She currently lives in Southfield, MI.

Interviewer's Name

Jack Fornasiero

Interview Place

Detroit, Michigan

Date

11/7/2018

Transcription

[Start of Track 1]
[INITIALS OF INTERVIEWEE:] TJ
[INITIALS OF INTERVIEWER:] JF
JF: “So I’m here with Dr. Tommie Johnson and doing an interview about the Paradise Valley/Black Bottom neighborhood and her experiences there growing up. So, let’s just start off, where and when were you born?”
TJ: “Gary, Indiana”
JF: “Gary, Indiana.”
TJ: “Gary, Indiana, 1925”
JF: “Very nice, so when did you move to the Black Bottom neighborhood and where exactly did you live there?”
TJ: “We moved here…actually, my parents lived here…lived in flint and my mother went to Gary to visit and that’s where I was born. I wasn’t supposed to be born till a month later and then of course we came right back. You know we came right back here to Flint and then to Detroit because my father’s brother lived in Flint and at that time when you came from the South, you always came found a relative first and then you got yourself [tapping] situated and everything. Then you went out on your own because there was always somebody in the family that had a big house and what not where you could go stay until you got yourself together. And so of course he went to Flint and then we moved here to Detroit.”
JF: “So what exactly did your parents do?”
TJ: “My father…my mother was a homemaker and my father just did whatever he could do. He worked at the different plants and what not.”
JF: “So odd jobs?”
TJ: “Yeah, odd jobs and so forth yeah and…he worked there until I think he told me until 1930 or something like that was when he got a job at Chevrolet Gear and Axel and my aunt’s husband had called him and told him that they were hiring there and he, and he went out there and that’s how he got that job at Chevrolet Gear and Axel…yeah”
JF: “So did you have some siblings?”
TJ: “Yes, I had four sisters and a brother.”
JF: “Were they older or younger?”
TJ: “Two sisters older and two sisters and a brother younger than me. [humming]”
JF: “So in the Black bottom neighborhood where exactly did you live there?”
TJ: “We lived on about a block and a half from Hastings.”
JF: “More East?”
TJ: “East, more east yeah we lived East of Hastings about a block and a half, yeah.”
JF: “So what did you…”
TJ: “On Farnsworth.”
JF: “What did you remember about living in the neighborhood? Did you go on Hastings a lot, what were some of the things you did?”
TJ: “We went on Hastings for everything really and truly because we didn’t go downtown to shop. Most of our shopping was done, most of our shopping was done up and down Hastings and what not and my mother…and so where we lived on Farnsworth my mother had a sister who lived on Fredrick and her Grandparents lived on Ferry so we were all in within walking distance of one another and I had another aunt that was in walking distance of us, because mother had three brothers and three sisters, yeah. And at one time they all lived in that same, we all lived in that same neighborhood and we could really walk to each other’s houses and what not, yeah.”
JF: “So you saw each other often?”
TJ: “Yeah we saw each other quite often yeah. In fact we had one aunt there was…we always called her the uh, the what, uh…we called her house the playhouse, but we’d never tell her that. But you could always come there she, her door was always open. In fact, at that time we didn’t lock our doors as I can remember. Her door, her door was always open. You could come in any time of day until it got dark out then she would lock it, but before that you could walk in at any time of day, you could walk in and you were always welcome there at her house no problem.”
JF: “Did you, did you live in that area through your entire childhood up until you were 18?”
TJ: “Yes.”
JF: “Okay.”
TJ: “Yes I lived in that area until I was 18 and because I went to Garfield Elementary School from kindergarten to 9th grade [tapping], yeah. And then 9th grade we went to Northeast, Northeastern, we went further east to school and I think about it now, when I, I think about it now and I start and I and I counted the blocks and what not I said we walked ten blocks to school it didn’t seem that long. But my, all of my sisters and my brother we all went to Northeastern still living in that neighborhood accept my one sister, my youngest sister. We had moved further East by then and she went to Cass. But then I had cousins, I had, we had six cousins who lived within walking distance and so therefore we…I guess, I guess you’d say we had our own village so to speak. We really did because…and my aunts and my uncles, they were interested in what was going on and what we were doing and, and how we were doing in school and so forth yeah. And so that…I think about it now, I think wow kids don’t have childhoods like that no more. Because they get on the bus to go to school. They get on the bus to go home.”
JF: “Everyone is a little more separated?”
TJ: “Yeah! And I think that causes all of this bullying and what not. Nobody has close friends. Because everybody in the neighborhood knew us, everybody in the neighborhood knew that, you know, that we were cousins and what not so nobody ever bothered us because we were all there together, because all the neighborhood kids knew each other and what not and we knew who…who to fight with or who to play with and all that sort of thing because we all went to school together. We all walked to school together. Nobody, nobody was bussed or driven to school I don’t think as I recall.”
JF: “Yeah.”
TJ: “Yeah.”
JF: “So your cousins were around your age as well?”
TJ: “Mmm hmm [agreeance] one thing with me there I had four…my, my aunt’s four oldest kids, those kids were boys. So I never had to worry about anything, me, and my brother and I, we never had to worry because they were all boys and everyone in the neighborhood knew you and knew who your friends were and knew who your relatives were and so forth. So they didn’t bother you.”
JF: “So what kind of places did you shop at with your family like grocery shops or retail?”
TJ: “We grocery shopped on Hastings, we bought shoes I think it was at Parker Brothers or I think it was something like that was the name of the shoe store where everyone bought their shoes. And, now my mother, as I say there was five girls, my mother was an excellent seamstress, so we didn’t buy dresses and things like that, she made them and but, she made them but where she purchased the cloth and what not is as I recall was at about four blocks East of us on Ferry and Chene, because they didn’t sell material, you know, yarn goods and what not on Hastings, Hastings and St. Antoine in that area. We had to go over to [sneezes] excuse me, the area, Hamtramck. Had to walk over to Hamtramck to purchase those goods. And then…then if my mother had money and what not she would go, go down to Hudson’s. Get on the streetcar and go to Hudson’s and shop there. But most of our shopping was done in the neighborhood.”
JF: “Because you said earlier you guys didn’t go downtown very much.”
TJ: “No.”
JF: “Mainly on Hastings.”
TJ: “Mainly on Hastings. The only person who went downtown was my mother, and at that time you see we didn’t have bank accounts and all that sort of thing so you had to go pay your bills.”
JF: “Mm hmm.”
TJ: “You had to go, you had to go to Edison and pay. You had to go to the gas company and pay and you could not…see they didn’t have satellites in the neighborhood, like they, like they had a little bit later, they had no satellites places where you could go and pay your bills because I remember one time they did have a place on Hastings where you could go and pay your electric bill later on but not, not in the beginning [zipper] they did do that. And as far as grocery shopping was concerned, we had a certain store that we went to that every, all, all, all my relatives went to this one store, Louie’s. My grandmother, my grandparents, my aunts, my mother. All of us went to Louie’s and at that time you had what was called a book, and you would, you would take your book to the store with you and whatever to bought then, you know Louie would put it in that book and at the end of the week or whenever you got paid then you would come and you would pay Louie, yeah. He had his own, in other words he had his own little credit, his own little credit union, yeah I remember that.”
JF: “You said that was on Hastings as well?”
TJ: “It was on Hastings, yeah Louie that’s where we bought our groceries and stuff like that and now…on the weekends my father would go to Eastern Market and get somebody to go with him who had a car and he’d go to Eastern Market and buy stuff. But in the summertime, my father always had a garden somewhere, I never knew where it was, but he always had a garden and that’s where we’d get all of our fresh vegetables and stuff like that from tomatoes and what not and my mother, and my mother was a very, as they say it astute housewife because she would can the stuff. She would can the tomatoes. She would can, the, can the green beans and can the [inaudible] all that stuff because I, I only went out to his garden once I think or twice but my brother, my brother would go with him and they would come back with just loads and loads of stuff in the summertime, that’s where we got all our free vegetables and as I said my mother would, what we, what we couldn’t eat she would can and so when the wintertime came we had, you had your tomatoes, you had for your spaghetti, you didn’t have to go buy your, you know tomatoes, things like that, and, and, and corn on the cob, corn on the cob she would take all the corn off the cob and you know and can that and green beans, you had green beans were all canned and what not and she became, she became very good at it because at our school, Garfield, at our school we had, you call it demonstrations once a year and you would bring stuff that you had made [inaudible]. You didn’t bring stuff that you had bought you’d bring stuff that you had made so the, you know and so because the…the neighborhood was still, you know, still quite mixed so there were white people in the neighborhood too and they would bring stuff that they had canned and so forth. They were mostly Hungarians and Serbians, as I remember, I don’t think they were Greek.”
JF: “What years around was this?”
TJ: “This was around the thirties.”
JF: “Thirties.”
TJ: “Yeah. That was around the thirties. Yeah because by, by [tapping] the end of the thirties [tapping], I know my…by the end of the thirties the unions were getting…were coming into the picture and his working conditions were becoming quite, became quite different. As far as, see as far as vacations and that sort of thing was concerned you didn’t get those, you didn’t get those back then. If you became sick then, that was your problem that you had to take care of. But then when the unions came in, then they started badgering, for these other kinds of amenities. It was during the time of Roosevelt, I remember because that was when the social security came in. Yeah.”
JF: “During the depression.”
TJ: “Yeah, during the depression yep.”
JF: “So your owned a property?”
TJ: “No.”
JF: “You rented.”
TJ: “Everybody rented.”
JF: “Rented, okay.”
TJ: “All of us rented.”
JF: “Was it a single house or was it a…?”
TJ: “It was…we lived in an apartment, once. We lived in a basement apartment at one time and then we lived upstairs over a store, yeah. You used to, we used to have these stores, these little storefront stores like that and then up above it though what usually was living quarters. In some instances the owner of the grocery store would live upstairs over the store and what not. But we were there and then we lived in a four family brick, but we lived on a…but we were always lucky enough to get on the first floor, we lived on the first floor of a four family brick.”
JF: “So, entertainment wise. What were kinds of thing your family did you individually or maybe you with your friends, cousins…”
TJ: “The movies.”
JF: “The movies?”
TJ: “Yes we had, a theater on Hastings that we went to [inaudible] and a theater on Russel where we went [inaudible]. And if we got real brave, we would…real brave and the weather was good we would walk up to Woodward and walk down to the Mayfair…and to think about that, that was a long walk! [Sighs] The Mayfair I think was like on Willis, Willis and Woodward. Yeah, that was a nice long walk, I remember…to think about it now we did a whole lot of walking! A lot of walking, I guess that’s why I’m still walking now! [laughs]”
JF: “That’s good!”
TJ: “Yeah! And we walked out to the Roxie, Roxie that was way downtown! The Roxie Theater those were the theaters we went to. The Roxie, the Wharfield, the Mayfair, I can remember those, yeah. But everything as I say that we had to do was on Hastings. Groceries, and shopping and…for shoes and you know for household goods and things like that, yeah we did on Hastings. And um but at but at see for the holidays like Christmas now we always had a big family Christmas dinner.”
JF: “Was that at your place?”
TJ: “No, it was at my, it was at my aunt Helen’s. [laughs]”
JF: “The one with the open door?”
TJ: “Yeah [Laughs] the open door.”
JF: “Yeah.”
TJ: “Yeah it was at her house and…everybody would come. All my uncles and their wives and my…you know all of us kids and what not.”
JF: “Was this your mom’s family or your dad’s?”
TJ: “This was my mother’s family. Didn’t know much about my father’s family. All I knew about my father’s family was his brother. John. But I never met any of the other people because my father, my father his mother died when he was born. So he, he didn’t have a lot of family structure. In fact my mother did. I guess that, I guess that’s why you know he fitted in so well that this was nice, pleasant and what not. And we would on Christmas…that was a ritual that was carried on until my grandfather died in 1964. Yeah, because I remember my grandmother, when my grandmother died, she said that she wanted them to continue to have the Christmas dinner as long as my grandfather lived.”
JF: “Would you have those on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?”
TJ: “Christmas Day and what we would do is the, always, they would always feed the children first, then, and then all the children would go off to the movies or something like that [muffles]. Then the adults and what not I guess were fed later. But the thing that…you know that fascinated me after I grew up and looked back at it, back on it I said we never had, we never had any fights. You know I hear people now you know they you know they don’t have family gatherings because there’s always a lot of drama and what not and so they just don’t bother or they go for a little while and they get out. But…you know my uncles and you know my uncles, the in-laws and all of them they seemed to gotten along [muffles] gotten along very well. And I say as I think about it now it was really amazing that, that, that really happened because my grandfather wouldn’t allow that to happen he would’ve told them to get out [laughs]. Or he would’ve taken you out himself!”
JF: “Was there anyone in your family that you specifically close with?”
TJ: “[Sniffles] my sister Rachel, she was two years older than me. I was particularly close to her more than anybody. And then my, my one cousin of mine that I, he was about, he was about my age. And I, and he went off to the army and what not, I used to write to him all the time and what not and we, and then we were both at Wayne State…in business education, yeah.”
JF: “So when did you enroll into Wayne State?”
TJ: “’40…’41? ’41 was when I enrolled into Wayne State.”
JF: “So how old were you?”
TJ: “Fifteen.”
JF: “Fifteen. Really?”
TJ: “Fifteen, I had no when I enrolled I had…just turned 16 by that time, yeah. I got a scholarship from a business, a business black female business sorority that I had never heard of but my counselor at Northeastern had said there’s a…an organization that offers scholarships she said here why don’t you apply for it and I did and I had to take a test, and I won. Mm hmm, now I think about that [inaudible] sometimes, sometimes you know you’re lucky, a lot of instances you’re lucky to have certain people in your life at a certain time because she was there and she was, you know, that interested in her students and so forth to the extent that she remembered this business sorority and she said goes…[inaudible]…why don’t you apply for it? She gave me the information so I took the little test and I won.”
JF: “So you enjoyed school?”
TJ: “So I got my first semester at Wayne, and it was interesting to me because I, you know, by that time though I had an older sister that had graduated. Yes. And to me college was not difficult. You know because I’d heard people talk about how hard it was and blah blah blah but I guess when you’re accustomed to doing your homework and turning your papers in on time and doing all those things, you know, you carry, you know you carry that knowledge or those experiences with you and you continue with them. Because one thing, one thing…we had a dining room table and that’s where we used to do our homework and what not at that dining room table after we ate dinner, dining room table. And…so I did get through that first semester but parents had no money to continue with me because I had another sister who was in college at the time too, see they were, and thank goodness for Franklin D. Roosevelt, in fact I have one friend who always says let’s have a moment of silent prayer in his name because he came out with the N.Y.A., National Youth Administration I think that was the name of it, and it was set up so that if you were making, if you were making, making the grades and what not…you…your tuition would be paid, if you…however, you had to work. You were, you worked at non-profits, you know like churches, and the YWCA or the YMCA, those kinds of places and I think you worked 20 hours a week or something like that, and the money that you were paid was enough to pay your tuition yeah, so that, remember when my sister graduated from high school and the counselor said, dear Miss Sanford, they called my mother over to school and said that, you know, Franklin Roosevelt had this N.Y.A., had passed this N.Y.A. and that Marie was, she was eligible because of the grades and what not and that she made and so forth, and that she’d be much more valuable to you after finishing college as she would now going out and getting a job in a what is it a fine and dime or something, that…and I remember my mother, I remember my grandfather, because my mother always talked over with her parents things, and she told them, you know, what the teacher, what the teacher had said, what the counselor had said but, she said that…[inaudible] and so she saying but she’s old enough to go to work maybe she can get a job maybe she, a job to help out you know blah blah, and my grandfather said, no if her tuition is you know, if her tuition’s going to be paid and all that sort of thing than…no you let her go, you let her go to school, because…there’s nothing she can do now that’s going to pay any money that’s worth anything, so let her go to school. But my mother said yeah but she’s going need spending money, what not and so forth and so my grandfather said, my grandfather said don’t you worry about that I’ll take care of that. And so away she went to Wayne State University and we lived close enough so that you could walk.”
JF: “Yeah.”
TJ: “See people walked back then, they didn’t ride. And away she went to Wayne State University and finished her…in four years. And the interesting thing about her was when she got out and got a regular teaching position and what not, she used to send my grandfather money each payday.”
JF: “Wow.”
TJ: “Mm hmm.”
JF: “That’s very generous.”
TJ: “Because by that time, he was you know, he wasn’t working, and…I’m not sure he was eligible for social security. Oh no he wasn’t eligible for social security because he had never worked where he had pay any social security but…he got SSI or something like that, but anyways…a small portion each month and what not but so she was successful and my other sister came along and she was accepted at the N.Y.A. because she worked at the YWCA yeah, the four years that she was there at Wayne, yeah. Then I came along, my brother, my brother went into the army for a couple years and so the army paid his tuition and he got a scholarship for running track, my sister got a scholarship to get started and she went away to nursing school. And at that time, nursing school was very inexpensive as I recall. The one that she went to was in New York. Lincoln? I think it was Lincoln School for Nursing and…it was a three year program and I think it was like 50 or 60 dollars a year. It was unbelievable. But what, the way the program was set up though was that after the first year of studying and what not, then you were a…became a, an assistant in the wards and what not so. And, and they also gave you lodging, you know I remember back then I guess any kid that wanted to go to school and what not if you had the where with all and the gumption to do it, you could do it. Because I think about that now.”
JF: [cough]
TJ: “She was in New York and…it was…only thing it cost my parents were for her to, you know, for her when she came home, you know, train fare, you know after the war ended, airplane, air travel, yeah because she flew back and forth.”
JF: “But its sounds like your family was…very academically driven.”
TJ: “Yes.”
JF: “Yeah.”
TJ: “Yes, my grand, yeah it came from my grandmother, my grandmother, because with all of her kids they all went to school as much was available you know to them in the South, yeah.”
JF: “Compared to some of the people that lived in your neighborhood, was that typical or were…your family…”
TJ: “No, it was…”
JF: “more academically driven?”
TJ: “No, it was atypical.”
JF: “Atypical.”
TJ: “Yes, it was atypical…it was atypical, it really was in terms of the neighborhood.”
JF: “Most kids went off to get jobs…?”
TJ: “Yeah, most kids went off to get jobs after high school. Was too, I’m thinking about a couple of my friends. Yeah they went off to get jobs, or they got married [finger snap].”
JF: Right.”
TJ: “That’s what happened, and of course the war came along in the middle of all that and soldiers and so forth back and forth but yeah. Mm hmm.”
JF: “So, when did your family move out of the neighborhood?”
TJ: “We moved out of the neighborhood in ’44. In ’44, because we were sleeping three in a room. Yeah, in ’44 was when we moved, yes, in that year as I said…my father was working five days a week [laughs] five days a week, eight hours a day and…[hits table] then, then the union had come in and they had given, they had got sick time and…vacation. We got vacation pay as…as I recall, yeah. Because before that we didn’t. Before that you know, you had, you know you had a job, you work everyday, you get paid, June comes, somewhere around then, June comes and bye, see you in August.”
JF: “[Laughs]”
TJ: “You, because they would…they would shut down, that’s what they said, they would shut down for…they would shut down for a changeover was what they called it. Changeover, then you would wait on…you would wait on bated breath until you got your, got your telegram in August or you heard them on the radio and would say Chevrolet…Chevrolet number blah blah blah report to work [muffles].”
JF: So after moving out of the neighborhood, where did your family move to?”
TJ: “Further east.”
JF: “In Detroit?”
TJ: “In Detroit. Yeah, further east in Detroit. We moved over to Gratiot and Crain that’s where we moved to, yeah. And we moved, we moved there really because we needed, we needed more space.”
JF: “Yeah.”
TJ: “We needed more space because that other house we lived in it had two bedrooms and you got eight people in two bedrooms, yeah. You sleep wherever you can. And so…we got a house with four bedrooms, because my mother was, my mother was determined to have a room [laughs] my brother to have a room…well we got four bedrooms out there, yeah.”
JF: “So, just wrap up what is something that you think a lot of people don’t know about the neighborhood Black Bottom and Paradise Valley that you think that people should know?”
TJ: “I don’t…well that it was a very protective neighborhood. In other words, you didn’t worry about being out after dark. You really didn’t. Now you did, you know, as they say when the street lights came on, yeah kids you went home and…but as far as, as I said, locking your doors and all that sort of stuff we didn’t lock doors, at least we didn’t. Maybe, maybe folks who didn’t have kids maybe locked their doors see when you got kids you’re going in and out in and out in and out all day and what not you know, and my mother…my mother wouldn’t give you keys, nope, because I know I had my one sister she had lost a key every week [laughs] it seemed that way. But…and people were protective on one another too. They really were.”
JF: “Neighbors.”
TJ: “Yeah, they were protective of one another, of one another, yeah. Mm hm.”
JF: “You’d say everyone looked out for one another?”
TJ: “Yeah, yeah if somebody didn’t…if somebody ended up going, you know, ended up ill or something like that you went to the hospital, you went over, you know, you went over and you would see what you could do to help them out. Because…as I said, I as I recall I can’t remember being too frightened about being out after dark, no. No, not on my street, no. And then of course back then people didn’t have all this air conditioning and so forth so that in the summertime everybody was out on their porches.”
JF: [Laughing]
TJ: “Everybody was out on their porches so you didn’t have to worry so you could just go along and, and speak to folks and keep walking because they were sitting out there looking at what was going on and so forth, I don’t remember being frightened about being out late.”
[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 37:09]
[End of Track 1]

[START OF TRACK 2]
[INITIALS OF INTERVIEWEE:] TJ
[INITIALS OF INTERVIEWER:] JF
JF: “Regarding the principal at Garfield Elementary.”
TJ: “Yeah.”
JF: “You described him as…as interested in the neighborhood?”
TJ: “Very interested in the neighborhood and in the…and in the kids succeeding. Because he…he would walk the neighborhoods during school time to see what was going on. You know, and if he saw kids that were…and my mother would tell me, you know, if you saw kids that were playing outside and weren’t…and were school age, he would go knock on the door. Mm hm, and people didn’t bother him! You know, people weren’t afraid of each other and the principal was white, in fact all of our teachers were white as I recall it at that school. But, it was a…it was a friendly school because I can remember my mother and my aunts…mother and her two sisters and what not…anytime they asked for parents, they were there. And they had… and they did it on a regular basis, you know, at parent teacher stuff. At a PTA, then as I say they would have that…demonstration every…every year. I’m trying to remember that in the fall. It was in the fall and…where the, where the kids would put on some kind of a performance and what not and they would, you know, and the parents, the parents could bring in their goods and stuff like that they had, that they had made to, you know, present and…just to, just to show. Yeah, mm hm.”
[TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW 1:40]

Search Terms

Detroit, Michigan, Black Bottom, Paradise Valley, 1930's, 1940's

Citation

“Dr. Tommie Johnson,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed December 2, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/748.

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