Don Haffener

Title

Don Haffener

Description

In this interview, Haffener recalls his memories of the 1967 disturbances and relays stories told to him by relatives and friends. He also discusses growing up downriver in Allen Park, Michigan, his father’s work at United Shirt Distributors, his experiences of race leading up to 1967, and spending time in downtown Detroit as a young teenager. He expresses his affection for Detroit and his hopes for its future.

Publisher

Detroit Historical Society

Date

8/4/2017

Rights

Detroit Historical Society

Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Don Haffener

Brief Biography

Haffener was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1951, and grew up in the Allen Park, Michigan. His father worked for United Shirt Distributors. His grandmother’s second cousin, Ray Girardin, was the police commissioner of Detroit during the 1967 disturbances. Haffener is a historian with interests in local history of Detroit, and teaches history at Oakland Community College.

Interviewer's Name

Julia Westblade

Interview Place

Birmingham, Michigan

Date

8/4/2017

Transcription

JW: Hello. Today is August 4th, 2017. My name is Julia Westblade. I am in Birmingham, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit ’67 Oral History Project, and I am sitting down with…
DH: Don Haffener.
JW: Thank you so much for sitting down with us today.
DH: Sure.
JW: Can you start by telling me where and when were you born?
DH: I was born in Detroit, Michigan, Deaconess Hospital, which is – was on Jefferson Avenue. It’s now no longer there. It was knocked down – the building was knocked down I think about ten years ago. And I grew up in Allen Park, Michigan. My parents moved out of Detroit when I was a baby, and graduated from Melvindale High School. And I was born in 1951, so I was sixteen years old when the riots hit.
JW: Yeah. What made your family move from the city down to Allen Park?
DH: The story that my parents told me is that I cried every night for several months after I was born, and my parents were living with my mother’s parents. And my grandfather worked at the Chrysler plant on Jefferson Avenue and he was having trouble getting up for work because I cried the whole night long. So they decided they had to move and get a house of their own, and my mother’s sister lived in Allen Park and so they moved out to be near my mother’s sister.
JW: Yeah. And what was Allen Park like? What was it like to grow up there?
DH: You know, typical suburban, I suppose, lifestyle of the ‘50s and ‘60s. We lived – it was a small story-and-a-half bungalow, two bedrooms to start with, and then my dad finally, when I was a young teenager, finished the upstairs bedroom and I got to move up into the bigger upstairs room. And it was as – as unfortunately Detroit was at that time, it was totally white. I never – didn’t go to school with any black students at all. Melvindale was all white, and I think Allen Park, Lincoln Park, and Dearborn and all of the Southgate – the cities that were in the league that Allen Park and Melvindale were in – the high schools were in – it was all – they were all totally white, and yet Melvindale High School’s maybe a half mile from the border with Detroit, so it… And now that I think about it, it was a real strange upbringing, but at the time it just seemed normal and, you know, I didn’t think anything of it.
JW: Mm-hm. So growing up in one of the suburbs downriver, did you – did you go into the city very often? Or did you primarily stay in the Allen Park, downriver area?
DH: We – My grandmother lived on East Jefferson – off of East Jefferson. The street was named Coplin, very close to where Jefferson turns into Grosse Point Park, I think is the first of the Grosse Points, so right near the border of Detroit and Gross Point Park. It’s right next to the Fisher mansion that’s now a Hare Krishna – owned by the Hare Krishnas. So we went there virtually every Sunday. So we were always – of course we’d take I-94 and go across from Allen Park up to the east part of Detroit and get off and go to my grandmother’s house. Also, my father worked for United Shirt Distributors, in their headquarters and warehouse. The address is 1927 Michigan Avenue, kitty-corner from where Tiger Stadium used to be, and the building is still there. United Shirt went out of business back in the 1990s I think, but at one time was a pretty company – local Detroit company. And I sometimes – my dad would go on Saturday mornings to the office and didn’t really work, would hang out and just check the week’s figures and do things like that, and I’d sometimes go with him, run around the warehouse and have a good time so.
JW: Yeah.
DH: Yeah, we went into Detroit often.
JW: Yeah. But did you venture around the city beyond your grandparents’ house or beyond your dad’s store?
DH: Yeah, we’d go to Belle Isle, and my parents, when I was older, would go to plays at the Fisher Theatre and things like that, and I’d go to the Detroit Institute of Art as a child. I’m a history major in college and I’m a history teacher now at Oakland Community College part-time, so history’s always been fascinating to me and I always loved going to the Detroit Institute of Arts. My friends and I used to go into the Detroit Public Library and study on the weekends sometimes, because it was such a beautiful place. And my uncle and my grandfather had jewelry stores in the Metropolitan building, which was – I think it’s 33 or 44 John R. – right before John R. reaches Woodward, and the Metropolitan building was all jewelers and engravers, watchmakers, and… So often, before I got my driver’s license, when we were young teenagers, we’d get on the Allen Park – Allen Road bus and go downtown, wander around Hudson’s, and go to Cobo Hall sometimes, and go to the public library behind Hudson’s, because that’s a beautiful building. I think it’s now closed and unfortunately empty. And then we’d go visit my uncle in his shop at the Metropolitan building, and then we’d go to the Broadway Market
JW: Mm-hm.
DH: on Broadway and – which is very close to the Metropolitan building – and have lunch. I remember we always got a Loganberry juice drink, which I don’t think they have them anymore, but that was one of the stalls they had – Loganberry juice drinks – and we’d get a deli sandwich at one of the places and then sit there and… That was the first – I remember reading – that was the first time that I read that Detroit is due north of Windsor and that if you had to cross the Ambassador Bridge, you’re heading due south into Canada. Probably the only place other than Alaska where you go south to get to Canada, so
JW: Yeah.
DH: I thought that was real fascinating when I was a young teenager.
JW: Yeah. So it sounds like you were pretty confident moving around the city.
DH: Yeah.
JW: Yeah.
DH: And also visit United Shirt stores. I’d wander in because my dad knew – I knew everybody, and I’d say hi to the managers at the United Shirt stores
JW: Yeah.
DH: and I never, never felt threatened or anything wandering around.
JW: Yeah. Moving around the city, even as you were a young teenager, did you sense tension in the city at all? Or was it a pretty happy place for you?
DH: It was a happy place for me. The only – the only time I remember some tension – a very strange kind of story – one of the managers of a United Shirt store was from down south – South Carolina or Tennessee, someplace, but he had a southern accent – and I was in there with my father one day and a black man ran by and police were running after him and blowing their whistle and, you know, yelling, you know, “Stop thief!” or something like that, and the guy who was the manager at United Shirt store grabbed a hammer and ran out the door and took off after the man who had obviously stolen something from another store somewhere around there. And I thought, even as a young, you know, twelve- thirteen year old kid, I thought, “That man’s crazy.” He’s [laughs] got to have something – a few screws loose to do that. But he did. And then he came back, he didn’t catch the man, and came back into the store. But I – that was, you know, one of my first…
JW: Did he say anything when he got back, or just came back and acted natural?
DH: I don’t remember. I think he just came back and said, “Oh, you know, another day at the office,” or something like that. To him that was a normal thing to do, but it gave me a feeling of the racial tension in the city and of some of the things that were going on in Detroit that, you know, up – before that I hadn’t really thought about,
JW: Mm-hm.
DH: been exposed to at all.
JW: Yeah. So growing up downriver where things were primarily white, and then seeing something like that, was that unusual?
DH: Yeah. Yeah, it was very unusual. I started working at United Shirt store in Lincoln Park – there’s still a Sears store there at the corner of Dix and Southfield, and there was a United Shirt store in that center and I started working at thirteen and, you know, black customers would come in and, you know, I never thought anything of it, because it… And I remember, you know, them asking for thick-and-thins, were a sock that were like a nylon sock that had thick and thin fabric and they called them thick-and-thins and, “Oh yeah, we’ve got thick-and-thins.” And they’d come in, “You got any gabs?” and they wanted a gabardine shirt. And so I’d picked up some of the language of the clothing that black people liked to wear, where in Allen Park, no one would say, you know, “I’m wearing a gab.” And so I picked up some of the words, and got to know some black people when I was a young teenager, but before that I hadn’t even known any to say hi and know their names. So.
JW: So then going into 1967, did you have any sense that anything was going to happen that summer?
DH: No. No. None at all.
JW: Yeah. How did you first hear about what was going on?
DH: Well, I think I mentioned earlier that we went to my grandmother’s house every Sunday. So the Sunday that the riots started we were at my grandmother’s house, and sometime in the afternoon we either turned on the television or another relative came over and said, “Oh, there’s problems in Detroit, there’s riots going on.” And I remember my father saying, “Well, we’re not going to go home across on I-94 because that goes very close to downtown.” He was worried that people might be throwing things on cars on the expressway, so we went across 8 Mile Road all the way to Southfield and then back down. I didn’t know it I don’t think at the time but now, another part of the riots that is of interest to me – makes it more interesting to me – is my grandmother and – my maternal grandparents were from Canada. My grandmother was born in Amherstburg and her family name is Girardin, and Ray Girardin was the police commissioner of Detroit
JW: Mm-hm.
DH: at the time of the riots. And he was a first or second cousin of my grandmother,
JW: Oh interesting.
DH: which, again, I don’t think I knew that at the time, but I’ve since learned that and it makes it even more interesting to me that here someone who was actually related to me was the police commissioner and, by all things that I’ve read, maybe didn’t do such a good job. [laughs] But he was in that position. So.
JW: Yeah. So, you took a longer way to get home, so you didn’t see anything on the road as you were driving?
DH: No. Because 8 Mile is the dividing line between Detroit and Oakland County obviously, and so we drove across, saw nothing, and then drove down Southfield. I think Southfield might be on the western edge of Detroit
JW: Mm-hm
DH: and you go through Detroit a little bit but, you know, there were no, I don’t think, any other – the uprising never got that far anyway, so.
JW: So then once you heard about what was going on, and so your parents decided to not travel through the city, were they anxious at all? Or was it just, Well, we’ll avoid this part.
DH: I think it was, Well we’ll just avoid that part. My father probably knew the city like the back of his hand. He worked for United Shirt Distributors, which I mentioned, and they had stores all over Detroit, and he was originally a display man. He did the window displays. So he’d go to all the different stores and do displays, and by the ‘60s he was head of display and a supervisor, and went to the office near Tiger Stadium every day. And I think even on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, he went to the headquarters and warehouse on Michigan Avenue every day,
JW: Mm-hm.
DH: and didn’t think anything of it. And then, one of the other stories that I’d like to mention is that I think it was Thursday night, he came home and he said that his boss, the president of United Shirt said to my dad and one or two other executives, “Go check the stores,” because they had heard that one store burnt down completely and two stores had been looted. And so they went and I think they drove by the one that had burnt down, because by that time things had quieted down quite a bit, especially during the daytime. And then they went to the first store that had been looted, and my dad said they went in and every single one of the windows and all the doors in the front were busted in. And they went inside, and there was nothing on any of the shelves. The cash register had of course been emptied, and the back room there was nothing. They came out and then they drove to the third store that they heard had also been looted. And they went into that store, and the same thing – all the windows had been broken out, everything had been stolen out of the windows and off the shelves, went into the back room, again there was nothing in the back room that – left. And my dad said they walked out from the back room, and he looked and on the floor was one pair of socks. And I remember the joke I told. I said, “Boy, those must have been really ugly socks!”
JW: [laughs]
DH: And my dad and mom laughed, and my dad said, “Yeah, they were so ugly, they didn’t even want them. They left them on the floor.” And another story that he told us was that his boss had a cabin cruiser, and at night, I think Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday night, every night, he went down the river, and he said, if you didn’t think about what was going on, it was almost beautiful. You’d see these fires going, and lighting up parts of the city, and when – I think when the military came, the 82nd Airborne, he said every so many bullets was a tracer bullet that was lighted, and they would be shooting these bullets, and you could hear the sounds, but you could see these tracer bullets going off from – heading from the ground up towards buildings, and he said it was almost pretty if you didn’t think about how horrible the situation was in Detroit. And, you know, interesting – he got an interesting view of the city that most people wouldn’t have been able to get at that time.
JW: Yeah. Did you ever…
DH: Other people in Windsor maybe. [laughs]
JW: Yeah. Did you ever go into the city with him, or did you stay in Allen Park?
DH: During that whole week, up until the Friday, which is I think the last story that I would like to mention, I did not go into Detroit at all. You know, my parents didn’t want me [laughs] heading anywhere near Detroit, at least certainly not near downtown. So, I didn’t go into the city at all, until Friday. And on Friday, my best friend, who’s name was Joe, he and I on Friday night or early Saturday morning were going to go to Louisville, Kentucky. We were in the Key Club -Joe was the president and I was the vice president of the Melvindale High School Key Club, and we were going to Louisville, Kentucky for a national convention, or international convention. And on Friday night after dinner, I went over to see Joe – he lived on the next street over from where we – where I lived. And Joe’s mom and dad were divorced, and he lived with his mother and his younger brother in Allen Park, and his dad lived in Detroit. And his dad had swung by sometime around dinner and given Joe a check and said, “Here Joe, this is spending money so you can go to the Key Club convention.” Well, by that time, the banks were closed, and I think he went up to the drug store near our house and they wouldn’t cash the check, and Joe called his grandmother, who lived in Old Del Ray near Patton Park in Detroit – southwest Detroit. And Joe’s grandmother said, “Oh sure, I can give you the money for that. Come on over.” So we jumped into Joe’s car and it was after seven o’clock, and the curfew in Detroit from from seven at night until I think dawn each night. So we drove up Allen Road and turned onto Oakwood, past Melvindale’s High School, and headed into Detroit, and the minute we got into Detroit, it was like it was a ghost town. There were no cars on the road, no people walking on the sidewalk, it felt like we were in an apocalyptic novel or movie and there’d been a nuclear war and we were the last people living and we came out from our bunker and there was no one around. And it was just eerie to be – you know, it was still light because it was July in the summer, and yet there were no people anywhere. And we drove, got near Patton Park, and we turned a corner, and in front of us was a Jeep with an 82nd Airborne soldier and a machine gun pointed at us. I think the machine gun must have been on the hood of the Jeep, or maybe it was on the back and he had it back and it was pointing, but the machine gun was pointing toward us. And Joe hit the breaks, and the soldier waved at us and told us to back up and keep going the way we had been going. And so we backed up and said, “Yes, sir. Yes, sir,” and I think we saluted, and did whatever we could to make him know we were friendly, and kept driving and took a longer way to get to Joe’s grandmother’s house. We got to Joe’s grandmother’s house, and we ran in, and his grandma gave him the money and he signed the check over to his grandma, and we said, “Thank you, Grandma.” And we got back in the car and drove back out, and again, the whole way out until we hit the Melvindale border, it was just the eeriest feeling to be on – in a huge city – at that time I think Detroit was the fifth largest city in the United States, and yet it looked like an abandoned town. An abandoned city. And then the minute we hit the Melvindale border, suddenly there were cars again, and people walking around, and everything was back to normal.
JW: Mm-hm.
DH: And we drove home, and then that night, I think at midnight, we got on a bus. My dad drove us to wherever the pick-up point for downriver Key Club members was, and we got on a bus with kids from a lot of other high schools, and drove down to Louisville, Kentucky, and got there the next morning and enjoyed the Key Club convention. And then we came back, you know, the riots were pretty much over, and
JW: Mm-hm.
DH: or the uprising,
JW: Yeah.
DH: however you want to term it.
JW: What was the mood like in downriver, in Allen Park that week? Were people anxious that it was going to come and reach the suburbs too? Or did they go about life as normal?
DH: The only mem – well, actually I have no memory of anybody being worried or scared or thinking that, you know, it was going to flow over into the suburbs. So, my recollection is that, you know, my parents and my friends’ parents weren’t worried. Or if they were, they certainly didn’t say anything in front of all of us kids, because we didn’t – I didn’t think that there was any problem. It seemed like, you know, it could have been that it was happening in Vietnam or somewhere a million miles away, and it didn’t seem like it affected us at all.
JW: Yeah. And then just a minute ago I heard you kind of waffling with terminology. So, what do you tend to refer to that week – what do you call it?
DH: Well, I – the term of the time and the term that I grew up with is “riot,” and I understand people who were in the city at the time might think of it more as an uprising, and yeah, it was. It was an uprising. And I’ve read – I just read a book called Once in a Great City about Detroit just before, you know, from ’62 to ’64, and I’ve read things about Detroit up in – up to ’67, and the causes for the uprising, or the riot. And I’ve read about the ’43 riot also in Detroit that started on the Belle Isle bridge, and I know the history, so I, you know, I think now I’m more likely to try to be careful of what term I use. But, you know, throughout my life, I’ve mostly called it a riot, because that’s what it was called at the time.
JW: Yeah.
DH: Yeah.
JW: So then, did that week change your opinion of the city at all? Your attitude toward it?
DH: I don’t think it changed my attitude toward it. I still felt the same, I still, you know, I grew up thinking of myself as a Detroiter, I still, you know, if I travel anywhere and people say, “Where are you from?” I don’t say, you know, “I’m from Beverley Hills, Michigan” – although sometimes I do, because then they always think you mean Beverley Hill, California, and it’s fun to go back and forth with that.
JW: Mm-hm.
DH: But, you know, I always say I’m a Detroiter. Beverley Hills wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Detroit, and Allen Park wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Detroit, all the suburbs, you know, rely on being a part of a metropolitan area. And I think, you know, even if Detroit is now the twentieth biggest city or whatever it is, the actual city – the metropolitan area is much larger than your – you know, I don’t know, maybe it’s the eighth largest metropolitan area – so, you know, I think we – and I’ve always, always thought that Detroit, in many ways, it’s sad that Detroit was such a segregated city and one of probably the most segregated cities in the United States. And hopefully that’s now finally changing. And I think people in the suburbs need to think of themselves as part of a larger entity. And, you know, thankfully with, like the voting on the Institute of Arts and the fact that Macomb County and Oakland County now support the Institute of Arts, you know, we have to begin thinking and hopefully someday mass transit will include, you know, the Q Line and maybe someday it will go all the way to Pontiac, and maybe someday there’ll be a way to get from the airport downtown on something like the Q Line, and we join the rest of the world and be a modern city with efficient mass transit. That would be a wonderful thing,
JW: Yeah.
DH: and I think we need to work toward that.
JW: Yeah. Did you ever – after things calmed down, did you ever go into the city and see what had happened there? Or did you just kind of leave it alone?
DH: I think I kind of left it alone. I never went to the places that – where the blocks burnt down. I don’t remember ever visiting those.
JW: Mm-hm.
DH: I continued to go downtown, and go to Hudson’s, and go visit my uncle, although they finally – I think it was probably when I was in college that the Metropolitan building – all the people that were in the Metropolitan building were asked to leave. Think the owner stopped paying taxes, and the City of Detroit took it over and kicked everybody out. Thankfully it right now seems to be under renovation. I’m excited to see what it looks like when they reopen it. So that’ll be fun and bring back a blast from the past. But yeah, I kept going downtown and
JW: Yeah.
DH: didn’t think anything of it.
JW: What are your thoughts on the state of the city today? You talked about mass transit a little bit, and the building, but
DH: Yeah.
JW: just the city in general?
DH: Well it, you know, I’m very optimistic. And I listened to Mayor Duggan’s talk at the Mackinaw conference about the city, and he did – he went through a very excellent and concise history of race relations in Detroit and how we got to the point we were at at the [nadir?], I suppose, and he talked about the things that he’s doing to – and the administration is doing to make the city better. And I’m very optimistic, and hoping it continues. One of the things that I didn’t realize, that he talked about, was – and it’s a small thing, but, you know, every small thing, they build up – and he mentioned that people who have vacant lots next to their houses, for a hundred dollars they can buy that vacant lot. And so there have been a few thousand people who have bought the lot next door to their houses and then, you know, they cut the grass and fix it up, and they now own two lots instead of one. But it takes a lot that was, you know, probably just overgrown with weeds,
JW: Mm-hm.
DH: and now you have somebody taking care of it and they own it and have a vested interest in
JW: That’s cool. [indiscernible]
DH: keeping it nice. So, you know, that was just one of several things that he talked about that were exciting, and, you know, all, you know, small ideas like that can, over time, make a big difference. Especially when you start getting more and more ideas, and more and more people involved. So. I’m hoping it’ll continue.
JW: [indiscernible]
DH: Of course the Q Line is exciting. And my son and daughter and law were just visiting from the Seattle area, and we went downtown two or three times while they were here, and visited, you know, the Shinola shop and Third Man Records, and John Varvatos, who’s from Allen Park, Michigan, originally, in men’s clothing, so I’m interested in it because of the men’s clothing background
JW: Mm-hm.
DH: and the Detroit connection, and to Jack White with the Detroit connection. And so it’s exciting. We went to Pewabic Pottery and they bought Pewabic house numbers for their house, so now there’s a house on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound that has Pewabic Pottery house numbers, because
JW: Oh cool.
DH: one of the first things he did when we got home was put up the house numbers. So, yeah, you know, I think that Detroit’s a great city. It’s got an interesting history. I just – side note – I just read a book that talked about why Detroit was founded and – I had never read this before, but the Ottawa Indians in the Michilimackinac – Fort Michilimackinac – were kind of middlemen and controlling a lot of the fur trade, and the French wanted to be able to trade directly with some of the tribes farther to the west. And founding Detroit was a way they could cut out the Ottawa Indians in the Straits of Mackinaw from being middlemen, and try to trade directly – more directly with western Indians. So, in 1701, the French founded Detroit to try to cut out the Ottawa Indians at the Straits of Mackinaw from being middlemen. So, I had never heard that before and it was
JW: That’s interesting.
DH: an interesting little tidbit of history. [laughs]
JW: Yeah. Do you have any other stories you’d like to share about ’67, or about Detroit?
DH: Nope. Not that I can think of. Those are the ones that I wrote down, I think.
JW: Yeah. Well thank you so much for coming in and sharing your memories. We really appreciate it.
DH: Ok. Thank you. I hope that some researcher someday will find some interesting little thing there and,
JW: Yeah. I’m sure they will.
DH: yeah, I’ll be quoted in some book sometime. [laughs]
JW: [laughs]
DH: Thank you.
JW: Yep.
[30:20]
[End of Track 1]

Search Terms

Detroit, Michigan, Allen Park, Broadway Market, Hudson's, Del Ray, Downriver, Gerardin, Ray

Citation

“Don Haffener,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed December 2, 2020, https://detroit1967.detroithistorical.org/items/show/752.

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