Gwen Lanier


Gwen Lanier


Gwen talks about her family moving from Selma Alabama to Detroit during the civil rights movement. She dicusses growing up in an integrated neighborhood and what she wants to see next for Detroit neighborhoods.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Gwen Lanier

Brief Biography

Gwen Lanier was born in Selma, Alabama in 1954. Her family moved to Detroit in 1964. When she thinks of neighborhoods she thinks of unity, closeness, family and caring.

Interviewer's Name

William Wall-Winkel

Interview Place

Detroit, Michigan




WW: Hello, my name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society's Neighborhoods Oral History Project and I'm in Detroit, Michigan. Today is September 8th, 2018 and I'm sitting down with:

GL: Gwen Lanier.

WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?

GL: I was born in Selma, Alabama. Oh 1954 and we migrated to Detroit, Michigan in 1964.

WW: Why did your family come to Detroit?

GL: Basically, to be honest with you? My mother's mouth. We were like in the heart of the Civil Rights down in Selma. So my mom has never been the type of person to bow down to anyone. So my grandfather they were threatened so her best bet was to get out of town. So that's what they did.

WW: When you when you when you and your family came up north, what was your first impression of Detroit.

GL: Big, nice, lot of cars.

WW: Had you heard anything of Detroit before you came?

GL: No.

WW: When your family came to the city what neighborhood did you move into?

GL: We lived on the east side of Detroit.

WW: Do you remember what cross streets?

GL: Yeah between Warren and Hancock, Shane and St. Auburn. When it was very affluent and full of houses. Now, it's just property.

WW: What did you think of the neighborhood when you moved into it?

GL: Interesting. It was much different from where we had come.

WW: How?

GL: Well first of all there were like big houses. We had a diverse community because where I live that the Caucasians they had their area and African Americans had their area but in that neighborhood you had a mixture of everybody.

WW: You liked growing up there?

GL: Sure, it was fine. We only lived over there for about a year and then my father was working in this area and they found a house closer to his job.

WW: What's this area?

GL: Northwest Detroit over by the Livernois, the Lodge area.

WW: What was your father doing for a living?

GL: My father worked at Roman cleanser, which was on Six Mile and was that Conant, Dequindre area? So yeah, he was like a foreman there.

WW: What'd you think about your new neighborhood?

GL: It was interesting too. A lot of kids at the time. We had a lot of elderly people. So it was nice.

WW: Was it also an integrated area?

GL: Yes very much so. We made the fifth black family living in the block, on the block.

WW: Do you remember neighbors having a reaction to that at all?

GL: Well, the ones across the street from us, they didn't really care to be bothered. We had a lady living next door to us. Her name was Mrs. Nate. She was really nice and she [inaudible] and then we had Mr. Charles next to us.

WW: What about going to school, what school did you go to?

GL: I went to Dewitt Clinton, which is over on Chalfonte. It's no longer there now. They tore it down about six years ago, and I went to Lauren and Post Junior High which is closed now, and then my high school was Cass Tech.

WW: Would you like to share any stories about growing up in those neighborhoods?

GL: Sure, when I was going up kids would help the elderly they didn't expect to get paid. They were very polite. They weren't rude. Like I said the neighbors once they got to know you and they will accept you. Some decided to move out because they were older so their children who lived out like in Reverent, Livonia, and places, they wanted them to move out. Maybe they may feel threatened. But Miss Nate she and Mr. Charles they stayed in the neighborhood because she felt more safe around us because we would take care of her like she's out grandma and Mr. Charles we took care of him like he was our grandpa. So and schools were different. Clinton, we had a lot of older teachers. There was a few younger teachers. One of my favorite teachers was an English teacher. His name was George Kimbrough. I was always in trouble because I like to talk a lot or either chew gum and he had a rule about that. If you chew gum you had to write 50 times. I would not chew gum in class. So on the nights that I knew I wanted to chew gum, especially after Halloween. I would just come home and write my pages and I would save at least 20 sentences to write in his class.

WW: That is engenius.

GL: And I enjoyed my junior high school because we had teachers over there then, there was three teachers that I liked and I didn't like. I had a met him Kingston, Ruby Kingston. She was my French teacher. She was like, I don't know but you grew to like her and then I had Mrs., what was that lady's name, I think her name was Mrs. Smith. She taught home-ec so she was different and then I liked Mr. McClow, he taught math. And then in high school, I was in the health and welfare curriculum, so my counselor, her name was Dorothy Pat Nellis. We called her Miss Pat and she was something else too. But because of her a lot of students have excelled in a lot of fields that they wanted to go into because she was one of those caring teachers.

WW: Three years after you came to the city was the 67 Uprising. Do you have any memories of that?

GL: Of course. I was near my sister and some friends. We were sitting down in the Palms Theater for the Motown review, swinging time review, and my mother embarrassed us because she caught a taxi downtown and had the ushers to walk down through the aisles with a flashlight calling our name. So that is the most memorable one. We got out and we came out and we started down 12th Street, which is now Rosa Parks Boulevard. That's when we saw all of the looting, fires and so forth. Where we're at now the rioting took place a few Livernois and the corner of Finkle. There was like a good housekeeper there and people started breaking in and so on at night. This whole block you had all types of businesses. On Finkle at that time as on Livernois

WW: Do you remember how your parents reacted?.

GL: Well my mom, she stressed out and ended up in the hospital. My father, he just [inaudible]

WW: Did they ever talk about leaving the city?

GL: Nope. My sisters are older now so they've relocated in the South. One’s in Alabama, one is in Georgia, but my mom is still here, so I'm here. Plus there's crime everywhere. So a lot of my relatives they moved to the suburbs and it's crime out there too. They just don't advertise it as much unless somebody is like brutally murdered and you'll hear. Other than that, you don't hear that much. But I'm happy in Detroit. I love Detroit and I'll be in Detroit until I close my eyes for good.

WW: That's a good segue. What made you love Detroit so much? Why did you stay after you graduated?

GL: After I graduated? Okay, I went to school up north in Marquette. Then I came back here and it was just I just love it like I travel so I go to various cities and countries and everything but as they used to say, there's no place like home and I just love Detroit. It's coming back.

WW: Have you continued to live in the same area that you grew up in?

GL: Yes I moved from the area and I moved back. When my parents got sick I left from where I was living further down around Six Mile and Livernois area back over here. I found a home and I purchased it, rehabbed it, fixed up everything. And so now I'm closer to my mom. Yeah,.

WW: How have you seen the neighborhood change?

GL: Oh drastically. From houses to no houses hardly, from well-manicured kept lawns to individuals that are moving in now, maybe they're renters, they just don't care. We have a block club here, which is the soda Ellsworth AKA Diva. We have new neighbors, which is basically younger adults middle-aged adults and we try to get them involved in the block clubs, but they don't. We have cleanups twice a year. We've had block parties, you know back to school rallies. Last year we had a back-to-school rally over here at the Jay Hawkers Club where we have our meetings at and I would say only like maybe six families showed up from this area and their excuses they didn't know. But we pass out flyers every time we have an event and you know, we call on the phone. [inaudible] I don't know if they're just not interested or what but if something happens to them when they're home, they're always running to the block club president or myself and want to know what can we do and I tell them nothing because you're not part. If you come and you participate then you know, you would be able to learn these things and you will be able to reach out because we have a good rapport with the 10th Precinct. Their captain and there we have a good rapport with the 10th Precinct with Commander Kay and Sergeant Hall and the other NPOs. So, you know if we call them they're Johnny on the spot, you know doesn't take them long to respond. If they're not around they make sure that a scout car, you know come by and come through because this area is basically now full of seniors and most of them grew up here. They've had their children here. Grandchildren, and either they don't want to move or they can't afford to move. So in my case, I don't want to move [inaudible]

WW: [inaudible]

GL: Well, what was it? Two months ago I was getting ready to go to bed on a Friday night, the Friday before Memorial Day, and I heard a big boom. Didn't think nothing of it. Something said go check it out. And when I went downstairs as I was opening the door, a young man was climbing out of his car where he had zoomed across from the street and into my house went through the fence. Luckily, I had a tree there and the gas company when they came out they said had he hit the bricks would have been hit another inch I would probably blown up because he missed the gas meter by an inch and a half. So that's my most memorable story other that.

WW: That's a memorable story!

GL: You're right. [laughs] So, you know thank God, you know, and it stopped and so he got out and ran and I'm in the process now, they're completing my home now. So.

WW: What do you think of the state of the city today?

GL: Oh, it's getting better again. Yeah, I'm pretty pleased with the mayor that we have and some of our neighborhood reps. Yeah, pleased with the city, some of our neighborhood reps, and some of our representatives from the state. They're getting more involved. And so, you know, they're coming out more and the police precincts, like I said the 10th which we live in, and they're really supportive of the area. So I'm happy for that too. And the children. Hopefully we can get them involved in some of the projects that we're doing to you know, let them know, this is your neighborhood. You want to try to keep it up even though your mom and dad don't own the homes. Let's try to you know, keep it clean. Keep all the debris up.

WW: When you hear the neighborhoods, what does that make you think of?

GL: Unity, closeness, family, caring.

WW: Are you optimistic about the city moving forward?

GL: Yes sort of, you know, but I always think positive. I want to think positive and like I said last year we had a session that I think it's called meet with the mayor or the Mayor Duggan. He came to my home last year in April. So he brought his staff from various departments. And so we all met, we had questions and so far some of the things that we had spoke on, things have been happening. Like where I live at there's a lot of empty lots that was across from me that I've been paying out of my pocket personally since 2008 to keep manicured. It's costing me like from 50 to 75 dollars every two weeks. It all depends on how many lots that I want him to do. And when I feel like it if I have days off then I'll just cut the grass myself, but most of the time I have a little lawn company come in and cut the lots there. So my concern was I wanted to try to purchase the lot that land bank had, but I was told that I couldn't because you have to live next door to the property and not across from it. So I voiced that opinion. So he had one of his aides that was with him to make a note which was on a Wednesday. And then that Thursday I got a call from the Detroit Land Bank and we processed. So last year I was able to acquire that property. Right now they didn't sell it to me, I'm leasing it for three years and I had a proposed idea that what I wanted to do on it, but the way the weather's either been too hot or too raining. Now that it's cooling down I'll get a chance to bring that to reality because I want to do a memorial garden which will be for the people that lived on and gone to heaven on Ellsworth and on Desoto. And have a playground to be on next year have enough money saved so I can purchase like swing sets and things like that for the few kids that are here, but I will have guidelines. It'll only be allowed up for children 12 and under and they must be accompanied by an adult because that way the children won't be out in the street and I'm not responsible for babysitting for you because some parents not notice. They'll put their children outside the house and they close the door. Which is very unsafe for smaller children because most of them like to follow big brother and big sister or if they don't have anyone can come through the neighborhood because we have a problem with them speeding through here and get hurt. So that's what I want to do and few weeks from now. I have a young man coming over to give me an estimate about fence pricing so we can like black that whole area in so that way the children will be, you know, safer in that.

WW: That's awesome. Are there any questions that I didn't get to ask you that you want to talk about?

GL: I think you covered everything that you know, I was hoping that you would ask, so yeah.

WW: Awesome. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today, greatly appreciate it.

GL: You're welcome.


Search Terms

Detroit, Michigan, migration, civil rights,


“Gwen Lanier,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed February 25, 2024,

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