Robert Stevens, July 27th, 2015
LW: Today is July 27, 2015. This is the interview of Bob Stevens by Lily Wilson for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. We are in Livonia, Michigan. Bob, can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
BS: I was born in Detroit in 1951.
LW: Okay. Who were your parents, what did they do?
BS: My father is Walter J. Stevens. His name was [Szopinski ?] but it was changed when I was a year and a half old because even Polish people had trouble pronouncing it. He grew up on Seminole, near Harper and Van Dyke. And he was born in 1920. He was an engineer at Ford Motor Company. My mother was a house maker, and she’s 87 years old. She was born in Detroit and lived in a couple of neighborhoods, one near Belle Isle Bridge and last near Baker Street near Vernor and Junction.
LW: And what neighborhood did you grow up in?
BS: For the first couple of years, I lived in a flat above the salt mines in Detroit.
LW: Okay, and where’s that?
BS: Where Fort Street meets the Detroit River, approaching the Marathon Oil Refinery. This was after the war, and it was very difficult to find housing. I also spent some summers at my grandmother’s house on Baker Street, because our apartment was over a furnace and I was getting blisters.
LW: Oh my!
BS: And when I was five years old, my family and I moved to Allen Park with the GI Bill and bought a new house. I’ve lived there in Allen Park and the rest of Michigan all my life.
LW: And where did you go to school?
BS: I went to elementary school at St. Mary Magdalen Catholic School in Melvindale, next to Allen Park, and then to high school I went to Holy Redeemer Church, which is right at the corner of Fort [Vernor] and Junction in Detroit, which is now I guess the Mexicantown neighborhood.
LW: So you went back to that neighborhood for high school?
BS: Yes, it was very common for parents to send their children back to where they went to high school.
LW: Hmm, why do you think that was?
BS: Maybe the values that they learned.
LW: Okay, and was this you think just in Catholic schools?
BS: --And there were not a lot of Catholic high schools in the suburbs.
BS: So if you wanted to go to a Catholic high school, you had to go to Detroit.
LW: I see. So tell me, in 1967 where you were living and what you were doing that summer.
BS: I was 16 years old. I was living in Allen Park, and I had a job selling ice to milk men, back when milk men went door to door. And I would get up at four in the morning, and at their depot I would sell them large chunks of ice to keep their milk cold.
I would also visit my grandmother in Detroit every weekend. And, if I can get into Sunday the 23 of July?
BS: I guess there were troubles in the morning—I didn’t really hear about them. But I was coming back from my grandmother’s house in southwest Detroit through Melvindale, and it was about 6 or 7 p.m., and I noticed a motorcycle gang of about 30 African American men, and this was very unusual, especially in the suburbs. I had never seen a motorcycle gang before, and they were very stern looking, and they were taking the back roads into the south of Detroit, and I was surprised at that.
Then the following day, Monday, I was selling ice to the milk men, and some of them were placing very large orders for large blocks of ice, because they were selling it to store owners—food store owners in Detroit—because I guess their electricity had gone out—
LW: I see—
BS: I know one of them said that on his way back he had obtained a very large television from somebody looting the stores—he didn’t use the word “loot”—and let me know if there was anything I wanted, you know, to ask him. I didn’t have any money or inclination so I said no.
Monday around noon coming back, I rode my back past the Allen Park police station, and I noticed 200 armored cars parked nose to tail. These armored cars belonged to a company that was based near Tiger Stadium, and after that, I just stayed glued to the TV.
I have some friends who went to University of Detroit right out of high school. They told me a story that they had—there was a black student there that was at the high school and he invited his white friends to stay with him in Detroit during the riots and just see all the excitement. And the young man lived in like a large apartment over a strip of stores in Detroit. And while they were there, the Michigan National Guard strafed the building around the middle, so they all had to hit the floor, and they had some exciting stories to tell.
LW: Wow! Now the person that asked you if you had wanted a TV or the person who had gotten the TV, what was his job?
BS: He was a milkman—a white guy. He sold milk and juice to people in southwest Detroit and he also sold the ice to the storeowners that needed it.
LW: I see. So he had gotten a TV—he had stolen a TV?
BS: He probably bought it or obtained it from somebody who did steal it.
LW: I see. Okay, so he was perhaps buying looted goods, I see. So, where would you get the ice that you sold to the milk men—just in general?
BS: The Detroit Ice Company. I would call them and place my order for the following day. And I had an old trailer in Allen Park where the Sealtest milk men obtained their milk, and after they got their milk they would stop by my little shed, and I would sell them blocks of ice.
LW: So you had really high demand that week, because electricity was out, and refrigerators and freezers were out—
LW: At the grocery stores—
LW: So did you go into the city of Detroit at any point during that time from Allen Park?
BS: No, I did not. One, I didn’t drive, and two, the suburbs had curfews too during that time, they instituted temporary curfews.
LW: Yeah, what was that like?
BS: It was unusual because my—I had never heard of a curfew—my dad had to explain to me.
LW: Okay, so your parents were born in Detroit, you said?
BS: Yes, if I could say just one other thing—
LW: Sure, absolutely.
BS: A week after the riots, one of my friends who had a car, we drove down Twelfth Street, and that appeared to be popular, you know, to seek your thrills by driving down Twelfth Street.
BS: We did that on a Saturday night. I remember all the streetlights were out but there were a lot of lights on from the businesses, and there was a lot of traffic, and I have a feeling there was a lot of people out sightseeing.
LW: Yeah, wanting to see what had happened there—
LW: And that was your first time seeing the neighborhood since there had been all of this unrest there?
LW: And what do you remember thinking at 16 about that?
BS: I was just shocked and surprised, because I didn’t realize that there were that many black people in Detroit, first of all, and there was nothing in the newspapers about any rumblings or any—it was a surprise.
LW: So you mean leading up to the 23 of July, there had not been—you do not remember there being reports of unrest in the city?
LW: So, of course, during that that time, during that week at the end of July, there was lots of news and television coverage—
LW: But leading up to that, you don’t remember there being any—
BS: No, to tell you the truth, except for traffic accidents and corruption at City Hall, there were not many articles or news reports about the city of Detroit.
LW: Oh, why do you think that is?
BS: I don’t know. The reporters lived in the suburbs and the action was in the suburbs, and I myself, I guess I didn’t have that much interest.
LW: At 16?
LW: So your school—what was the name of it?
BS: Holy Redeemer. Holy Redeemer High School.
LW: And what was school there like? Can you tell me a little bit about classmates and the racial makeup of the school?
BS: Well, there were 800 students, and I would say it was about half white suburban and maybe another quarter Mexican, and some Irish people. That neighborhood 100 years ago was originally Irish, and there were only a couple of black families there. I thought it amusing in that they were also the richest families at the school—their families owned funeral homes. So I got the impression that black people were rich and drove brand-new muscle cars.
LW: Because the people that you knew—
BS: They were the only ones I knew, yeah.
LW: I see. So that must have made it seem what happened on the news, and what happened on Twelfth Street—when you went for a drive afterwards—that must have been surprising, and I’m wondering—
BS: It was surprising, and you know we were just sarcastic, smart-alecky high-school kids, and just making jokes about it, too. But it was like—it was very foreign to us.
LW: Uh-huh. So were you friends with the black students at your high school?
BS: No. No, not because I didn’t—just, I don’t know, they traveled in a different circle.
LW: Okay, what kind of circle?
BS: They had driver’s licenses, and I didn’t. And they could go out places, and I didn’t have a lot of money, so—
LW: I see.
BS: But I didn’t see any racial animosity, it was—I had almost no contact with black people all my life, up to that point, and it was—I don’t know, they were just like a little curiosity, like, you know, maybe, as if they were two Eskimos at our school.
LW: So there was a divide in terms of class at your school, and it just so happened the black students were actually among the upper-class students, and some of the white students in it such as yourself were working/middle class.
BS: Yes, the tuition was pretty high.
LW: Do you remember what it was? I mean, you weren’t paying the bill, I assume.
BS: Oh, I’m going to say it was several hundred to maybe a thousand dollars a year.
BS: That’s in 1960s money.
LW: So perhaps that would be substantial for some families to pay.
BS: Right, for instance Catholic Central High School out here in the suburbs is about 10-12 grand now a year.
LW: Yeah, okay, and you think that’s comparable in like today’s – with inflation?
BS: I think so. I’m not a statistician, but I think so.
LW: Okay. So in terms of other interaction with integrated communities, it sounds like your high school was somewhat integrated—
BS: We had a lot of different ethnic groups—
LW: Yeah, tell me about it.
BS: We had Albanians and Lithuanians and—the Holy Redeemer area was kind of a first stopping point for immigrants, first generation immigrants—their parents coming in the forties and fifties after the war. And we just—we were conscious of nationalities—we’d just kind of make jokes about it. Like, they said, “Yeah we can tell who the Albanians are because all four corners of their cars are dented.” And they would laugh at that. And there were a few Poles, and there were a number of Irish, and people from Mexico. You don’t dare call a Puerto Rican a Mexican, because they, you know—. So there were a lot of different groups in that neighborhood.
LW: Was there interaction socially between the students—
BS: Yes. Yes.
LW: Across racial boundaries?
BS: Ethnic boundaries, yes, amongst all the ethnic groups. Yes, yeah, yeah, and we got along and it was like the streetwise urban kids versus the naïve suburban kids.
LW: I see—
BS: I mean, it wasn’t “versus”—we were all sort of in the mix. I don’t see anybody being ostracized, although they did tell a lot of nasty Polish jokes.
LW: Okay, so perhaps you remember that—you identify as Polish-American.
LW: And in terms of the types of friends that you kept while you were in high school, can you tell me about them?
BS: Well, I had friends that I grew up with, that went from the suburbs to high school with me.
LW: Okay, so there were other children from your neighborhood that went to high school that their parents sent them back to—
BS: From my grade school there were three large school buses that left every morning to take the suburban kids to the high schools—St. Gabriel’s and Holy Redeemer.
LW: Wow, so it was very common as you mentioned to send your children back into the city of Detroit.
BS: Right. And they all grew up in those neighborhoods. I don’t know if it was particular to southwest Detroit, but again, there were no Catholic high schools in the suburbs, so Detroit was the place to go.
LW: So during that week in July, school was obviously not in session. When you went back to school, in the fall, was there any talk or mention of this, when it happened?
BS: There was talk about it because Twelfth Street wasn’t—isn’t too far away from where our high school is, our neighborhood is, and there was just talk about—you didn’t go into certain neighborhoods, just because it was dangerous. But, yeah, it was like a big adventure, and it affected the people in Detroit as well as the—we just heard stories from the people that lived in Detroit from all these different ethnic groups about the police, and the military, and the tanks parked in the local high school football field. And we—you know, we were just fascinated hearing these stories.
LW: So the other students who lived in the city, as you mentioned, it was a neighborhood—
BS: Southwest Detroit, yeah—
LW: So it was a mix of students who lived in southwest Detroit and went to Holy Redeemer, and then the rest of the school was suburban kids that were bussed in. So, they would tell you stories about what they had seen.
BS: And we would ask questions based on what we had heard from the news media.
LW: Yeah, like what do you remember being curious about, or what do you remember them specifically saying?
BS: That—how violent it was. I was surprised to hear—because I had never really heard about police violence or ruthlessness—and how actually that increased. The people in southwest Detroit said that young people, they were just, they started—after the riots the police started throwing them against walls and shaking them, you know, just patting them down more than they did before.
BS: And there was kind of a—let’s call it a hardening of police attitudes. That’s the impression that the people who lived there told me.
LW: I see. And did you, had you ever witnessed anything like that before, or have you since?
LW: Okay, alright. Is there anything else about that summer that you can remember, or that you remember talking about at school?
BS: Let’s see. Yes, it involves my parents. Can I talk about that?
LW: Of course.
BS: Okay. My father’s attitude was—the Catholic Church, they started having some fundraising and getting, trying to get appliances and clothing for people that had been burned out of their houses. And my father and—I started to hang out with him and the Dads’ Club members from church—and they thought it was, you know, like the people of Detroit committed crimes—they burned their own city down—and why should we be nice to them and, you know, replace all the things that they destroyed? And there was a lot of talk about the neighborhoods, because when they grew up in the neighborhoods—and they had romanticized visions of what the neighborhoods were like and sentimental ties. And they talked about their neighborhoods and what had happened to their neighborhoods in Detroit, that they had left a decade or so, two decades before. And my father and I would have arguments about, you know, you’ve got to help people in need versus – the deserving versus the undeserving poor.
LW: I see. So his thought was that people had burned down their own neighborhood, and that they shouldn’t be helped?
BS: Yeah. He and others that I heard of his age were angry that their neighborhoods had been damaged—
LW: [Speaking at same time] That they had -
BS: That they had burned down. And there was also a group called Focus Hope, which was a white suburban woman, Mrs. [Eleanor] Josaitis and Father Kern, I think [Fr. William Cunningham]. And about building up brotherly love and trust. And there were a lot of arguments about that [chuckling] with my father.
LW: What were those like? What did you tell him during those arguments?
BS: Well, his attitude was like an “us versus them,” and I was saying well, there were also a lot of innocent people, and we just can’t let them starve, we need to – we have to make sure that whatever caused the riots doesn’t happen again. And there were also a lot of sermons from the pulpit about this, and you could just see the steam coming out of people’s ears in the pews, some of the things they were hearing about brotherly love and the poor people of Detroit.
LW: What church did you go to?
BS: I went to St. Mary Magdalen in Melvindale, next to Allen Park. And it was tough for me to feel charitable, because you would drive down some of the streets, like Livernois and whatever main streets, and you would see these skeletons of stores that had been burned down, and hear stories on the news about people burning and looting, and so it wasn’t easy for me to feel empathy. I worked on it, but it wasn’t easy.
LW: I see. So what types of things would the priest talk about then at church, I mean what specifically did he direct his congregation toward?
BS: About segregation and equality—this is like coming after the Civil Rights Acts—talking about equality and loving our fellow, our neighbor as ourselves. That was like the basic thing. And looking into our own hardened hearts, that if we had hard feelings about it, there was something wrong with us. And that disturbed my father, because he didn’t think there was anything wrong with him, because he didn’t burn anything down. But there were just turning us off with the “hardened hearts,” and the people who had felt badly about the destruction in Detroit. At the same time, the Catholic Church was trying to make changes from Vatican II. There were reforms going on, so there was a full plate and I just saw the tensions growing.
LW: Within the church?
BS: Within the people in the pews.
LW: Okay. Did it seem that it was generational, that the divide was generational?
BS: Yes and no.
BS: I also heard from people my age, and I can almost hear their parents words coming through them, like there was a Motown song about dancing in the streets, which was very popular, and I remember some Lithuanian lady who lived in Detroit, saying that she had heard that that was the anthem that the black people had celebrating the riots in Detroit. And so there was no one set of values or feelings, it was—you know, people picked up things from their parents and grandparents, and I did, too.
LW: Do you think your attitude changed since then, now that you’re an adult?
BS: Yes, it’s taken 64 years, but in 1969 I got a job at the [Ford] Rouge plant, and basically if you knew somebody who worked at Ford, you’d get a job there. But at the same time they were hiring what they called the “hardcore unemployed”—people in Detroit, African Americans—and they were a tough-looking, street-wise bunch, especially if you were a naïve white suburban kid. And they just smiled (??), and then one time the foreman said “Now when the lines stop, you pick up the parts that fell off and put them back on the conveyor.” Well, I did that once, and then the guys—the African American guys—threw door hinges at me. So I learned not to do that again.
LW: Why did they do that?
BS: Well ‘cause when the line stopped you were supposed to sit down and take a break. And there were a lot of authority issues. A lot of—these folks—I don’t want to say that they were bad or inferior—they had not had a lot of experience working before, and they had a lot of negative experience, and a lot of negative attitudes about white people and a lot of other things. But I did get to know the younger ones, and we got along, and they’d invite me to their house.
It was funny, one time I went to one guy’s house, an African American, and he put on a record, and it was kind of one of those “Get Whitey” records, anti-white. And he looked at me and said, “Oh, excuse me” and he changed the record to something else. And one time I was—I remember when I got transferred to the glass plant, and there were two white guys in the department, the foreman and myself. This was a hot, dangerous place to be. We were pulling windshields out of ovens and picking them up over our heads. And I looked at him like, “Hey, you’re going to take care of me, right?” and he saw right through me and he said, “You get over there with the rest of those ‘n-word’ people.” And it turns out he and the people that worked there were all from the country and from the farms down South. I was this white suburban kid, so he just let me know that I was not entitled to anything.
LW: Oh, and this was the foreman?
LW: Okay. What year did you move to the glass plant?
LW: Okay, and you were at the—?
BS: In the Ford Rouge complex: they had stamping plants and they had a dozen different factories.
LW: So within a year you were moving, you had moved jobs within the Rouge plant, I see.
BS: And then I spent up until 1970 working in the glass plant. And, I don’t know, we just learned people are people and there are characteristics that are independent of race or ethnic group or whatever. And it was interesting—I mean, that I’d hear guys that would swear up and down all day, and then you’d find out they were Cub Scout leaders.
And we’d go to the bar, Mel’s Bar, on Friday all together, and that was integrated, you know, we were just—within our department. We didn’t drink with people outside our department. We had great Christmas dinners; people would bring things in from all kinds of other, different ethnic backgrounds. And there was a lot of social change that happened in the factories, and I would think that transferred in the people once they got back to their homes, necessarily.
And then I also taught at Focus Hope. It was interesting, we were all independent contractors—I taught computers—and the ones who were white, you know, we were interacting, you know, and all that, and we didn’t really care what employment agency you came from. We were just all here working together. But the ones from the black agencies, they were very fearful and competitive—they would, like, go to our bosses and badmouth us, that kind of thing, like we were some kind of a threat. I remember one of them opened up a computer store in Royal Oak, and I went there, and she was shocked, like “What are you doing here?” “Well, you said there was an open house, and I just wanted to welcome you.” So there was that conflict.
Currently, I work at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, on Conner and Mack, [that] area, and I tutor school children after school, and they’re from kindergarten through say, third grade—they’re the ones I work with. I approach them as if they were my grandchildren. One of the things I’ve learned through my life in dealing with people of different backgrounds is just to focus on the task.
But I still pick up—I have some negative feelings because of the poor quality of the education the kids are getting, and that they’re not hitting the reading level, the reading proficiency of third grade. So I told my boss one time at the soup kitchen, I said, “Look, forget this conceptual stuff, if they’re in second grade and they can’t multiply, I’m going to grill them in multiplication times tables like the nuns did.” He laughed and he said, “Go ahead.”
LW: So where is the Capuchin Soup Kitchen?
BS: It’s on Conner, near Mack.
LW: And the kids that come there for tutoring with you, they’re from the neighborhood?
LW: So can you tell me a little bit about those kids? You said they’re kindergarten through third grade?
BS: Right. Actually, the program is kindergarten through high school, but my efforts are focused on kindergarten through third grade kids.
BS: A lot of them come from charter schools, some from DPS schools, and some from EAA. It’s kind of sad, it seems like anybody and everybody can open up a charter school and they have a lot of unusual, non-traditional curriculum philosophies. Like, children should be free to explore the concepts of math at their own pace, but they can’t do the homework that their given – and basically I’m just supposed to help them with their homework, but they don’t have the tools. And it goes for reading too. They know how to sound out a word, but they don’t know how to put [it] all together. They don’t understand that several words make one thought in a sentence. And it’s not a matter of ethnic group, it’s the schools they’re in. I’m kind of a maverick and I try to teach them the basics and there are parents that are involved – some of the best kids come from the worst families and vice versa. What really hurts is families that are not involved. They just don’t have the desire to learn, that kind of gets turned off quickly. But, I do the best I can and I don’t feel like I’m any missionary to save anybody, but I’m there to help individuals.
LW: How long did you volunteer – how long did you volunteered there?
BS: Two and a half years.
LW: And before that you were at Focus: Hope?
BS: At Focus: Hope, that was about 5 years ago. I’ve been in the computer business for about twenty-four years and I taught computer repair at Focus: Hope. They have [a] computer school –
LW: As a volunteer?
BS: No, I got paid for that.
LW: Okay. So you were a teacher there and now you volunteer at the soup kitchen?
BS: Yes. I’m retired and I volunteer and teach there. And also on Saturdays, the homeless come in from the neighborhood and we have a lab that we open it up for them so they can go on the internet. And they can find services and benefits and jobs - and it’s ridiculous, if you want to clean toilets at a McDonald’s, you have to go and apply online. So I have to help people apply online for those things. Plus, all the normal, usual things that people use the internet for.
LW: Do you feel that that type of work is rewarding?
BS: Yes, it rewarding for me and I see results sometimes and that’s reinforcing.
LW: That’s great.
BS: And my family’s history, they’ve had an association with the Capuchins going back to the 1920s.
LW: Oh wow, okay. So you’re carrying on that family tradition too.
LW: Is there anything else you wanna share?
BS: Any time that something happens in Detroit over the last forty years, the people in the suburbs have strong feelings about it. But it was bussing, they thought that – the working people in the suburbs felt that the Federal Courts were using the suburbs to fix Detroit’s dysfunctional schools. I can remember running for County Charter Commission and being asked my views on busing. Well that didn’t really have anything to do with my job, but they were very righteous about that because it affected them. And… I go back to Detroit now, to the Capuchins, and my parents go back to their churches once in a while and my mother-in-law’s church in Detroit, and I see positive things happening… and… I don’t know, that’s about it. I can’t predict what’s going to happen in Detroit, but the things that are going on in the city of Detroit- the people in the suburbs care about those things too and they have strong opinions on them. They still have emotional ties to their original neighborhood.
LW: Yeah. Well thank you so much.
LW: I really appreciate it.**