Cheryl Pierce-Reid, July 25th, 2015
LW: Today is July 25, 2015 this is the interview of Cheryl Pierce-Reid by Lily Wilson. We are at the Detroit Historical Museum in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project and the Detroit Historical Museum. Cheryl can you tell me, where and when were you born?
CPR: I was born in Detroit in Edith K. Thomas Hospital August 1, 1944.
LW: What neighborhood did you live in growing up?
CPR: Growing up until 1960, my family lived on Beaver Street on the west side of Detroit.
LW: What was the neighborhood like when you were growing up?
CPR: It was a nice neighborhood. It was still people moving up from down South, so there were people moving in and moving out. My grandparents actually purchased that house in the 1920s when they moved here from Tennessee and it was actually it was all Polish at the time. So I think they were the only blacks on the block. And my grandfather worked at, there was a name before Hygrade, it was a Hygrade meat packing place on Michigan Avenue, he worked there, my father worked there for a while. He eventually became a city of Detroit employee and that is where he stayed until he died. So I was influenced by that and that’s why I ended up at Receiving, I was a city employee.
LW: Wow. So tell me what you were doing in July of 1967?
CPR: July of 1967 by this time I was married. I had finished nursing school the year before and I was working at Receiving Hospital, midnights in the emergency room. I was living with my husband, with my father-in-law at 2252 Edison which was right between LaSalle and Fourteenth, and my mother and father were at Russell Woods on Sturtevant between Broadstreet and Livernois. So, I was going to cross all of the areas that were affected by it. So that particular day, I remember it being a very hot warm night, I don’t remember I don’t think we had air conditioning in the house, so I put my son in the car and we went out for a little ride. And my husband at the time was in school and was, I believe he was working midnights at Ford Motor Company and so we went out for a cruise I had a little convertible and we went out for a cruise.
CPR: That night. Sunday night. That was the first night of the riot, I don’t remember what day it was, I do remember some of the events. But anyway we came through Twelfth Street on our way home about 12:30 and I remember seeing people standing around and I just thought to myself this is kind of odd because there were so many people out that time of night and there was nothing happening they were just milling around. So we went home and went to bed. My husband came in the next morning and he had to go back out to get something for the baby and he came back and when he came back he said someone had approached him and told him not to be out on the street. So I don’t know if they knew whether something was going to happen or not. I didn’t have the TV on so he went on, went to bed and then he went later on that day, he went to study or whatever he was doing I don’t remember now. But I kind of hung out at home until it was time to go to my parents' house because my mother kept the baby when I went to work. I got in the car packed up the car and I went Edison to Linwood. When I got to Linwood, I looked to my left and all I could see was smoke and fire trucks. I had no clue what was going on. So I went down Joy Road to Broadstreet, cut over Broadstreet to my mother’s house and I got there and nobody seemed to really know what was happening. So my brother and I, and I can’t remember if my sister was there, but my brother was still a teenager, he was still home, we jumped in his car and went down on Dexter which was two, three blocks away to see what was happening. There were a lot of people standing around, and we were there just as the bricks started going through the glass and we looked up in the rear view mirror my dad was there, "Get home now." So we had to turn around and go back. So didn’t know what else was going on. I got myself dressed later on that night and went to work, it was no big deal.
LW: To work midnights?
CPR: Midnights at Receiving.
LW: So tell me about that.
CPR: The first night I don’t remember anything too terrible. I do remember, I thought it was just a disturbance because this type of thing was happening everywhere. It was not common in just Detroit. The whole country was going nuts at that time; this was just one more incident, okay? And so I didn’t think too much of it. It was maybe two, three days into it that things were not resolving and by this time they had called in the National Guard and stuff and I remember I went down Lodge Freeway to downtown and having to stop at the check points and these were kids – I was about almost 23 – these were kids the same age I was, okay? But they were nice, they stopped me they asked me what I was doing I said, I was probably in a white uniform so they could see it, I said I was on my way to work and so they just let me go. I was young and stupid. It never occurred to me that there were snipers and things in the area that, you know I could have had my head blown off. Never thought about it. But anyway went to work. There were always a lot of – whenever you have an incident you have more police, you have more city officials, and I didn’t know who was who at that point. Subsequently I kind of got the gist of how things work. But at that time I couldn’t identify who was what, but there were people there. I remember people being injured during that week, more self inflicted injuries, seriously, than other stuff, because people were paranoid. There were people still going to work, they were pulling their guns out of the closet and leaving them out and subsequently getting injured. Well this is what we were getting in the ER because I never, when I tell you there’s conflict, with what I saw, and what I hear built up in the news was a little bit different.
I saw, I did see or had a couple of reports of bayonet injuries. There were a couple of guys that they brought in sometime during the week that shot at a tank – and these were white guys and the tank from what I understand blew up the house, they fell out of the house so they brought them in for us to put them back together. I just remember thinking, How stupid, how do you shoot at a tank? But anyway they did. I know that we were, this was the old Receiving that was across from Frank Murphy, I think it’s a parking lot now or something. But the front end of the hospital that faced Frank Murphy had big huge glass windows and we had blinds up there, and so police would call us periodically and tell us don’t look out the window, keep the blinds closed cause there would be snipers in the area.
LW: Oh wow.
CPR: But I remember more than anything the buses that were across the street full of people all night long. They would arrest anybody who was out on the street without a good reason and that’s where they’d house them, and so they had city buses and whatever else lined with people.
LW: Outside of the hospital?
CPR: No it was at Frank Murphy, it was across the street. Across the street at the court house or police headquarters, whatever is over there.
LW: So when you talk about self-inflicted things that you saw can you elaborate on that?
CPR: Accidental gunshot wounds, people shooting themselves in the foot, cutting themselves. I just – I remember the paranoia and the fear, everybody was afraid. Now I have to tell you about my neighborhood though. The neighborhoods that I was associated with, these were your middle class neighborhoods, these were not ghettos whatsoever. Twelfth Street, because I knew the fathers of some of my friends who owned businesses there, the businesses were destroyed. Same thing on Dexter, these were black owned businesses gutted, okay? Russell Woods, where I lived, was still probably 40% percent Jewish at the time. Most of my neighbors were Jewish and the rest were black; we had one Chinese family across the street. But these were doctors, lawyers other folks, they were not – and business owners and so you know this was the population that was effected because their offices and things were in this area. Now I do remember rallies, I do remember that there were rallies because I attended a couple of them against my parents wishes down there but it talked about economics, the condition of black people, what we needed to do to improve our state. There was no violent anything that I can remember and I just -- didn’t even know what triggered it for a long time. I thought it was just an uprising because of the heat, there was a lot of police brutality in the neighborhood up to this and I thought it was related to that. I didn’t know about this blind pig stuff for years, really, and I said, “Is that the trigger? Really? I never knew that.” So I had heard about some policemen and some sheriffs who played cards together, and things got ugly. Now whether that was the same incident, these were guys I work with at Receiving, they were through there all the time, you know so I was exposed to them all the time. But like I said there was just so much going on.
LW: Now I wonder, most of the people that you were treating at Receiving during those few days in July, would you say that there were more black patients, more white patients, same?
CPR: It was about the same. I would say that— because I do remember one guy who shot himself in the foot, he was a little frustrated but like I said there was a lot of paranoia. Everybody was nervous. It wasn’t just white people, everybody was nervous. And people – especially the older generation – they really didn’t know what was going on; they didn’t necessarily agree with what was happening but they were living in it. And so consequently people were setting their guns out; self-inflicted gunshot wounds, kids getting accidently shot, because these are people who don’t normally use firearms, and so when you set them out and no one knows the dangers of them somebody is going to get hurt or if you’re afraid that someone’s going to hurt you and you’re not used to using it you are going to hurt yourself and that’s what I saw outside a couple of bayonet stabs that came in. But I didn’t see any dead bodies. I know – I looked at something before I came in, I said, "Oh, that many people died?" Well maybe they brought them in on a different shift or maybe they went to a different hospital I don’t know what they did. But during my week there, I didn’t see a lot of that.
LW: Okay. So thinking about the neighborhood that you and your parents were living in you mentioned that it was predominantly a middle class neighborhood--
CPR: Very middle class.
LW: --hard working people, like yourself that were just trying to go to work and that didn’t really even understand maybe what was going on, so I wonder who do you think was sort of to blame them for the upheaval in those neighborhoods?
CPR: You know I don’t know. And I don’t want to influence what I say because I’m supposed to be saying from that point I was almost 23 I really wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the politics and stuff. I’ve read a lot since so I don’t want that to color what I say. Because I had my own theories but I do remember rallies, there were live rallies on Dexter in which there were people my age and younger out there, and I think there was a moment when H. Rap Brown came to the city there was a rally and shortly after some of the stuff took place.
LW: Now the rallies that you attended, those were going on leading up to?
CPR: Leading up to.
LW: And tell me where those took place.
CPR: Those were on Dexter, as I said there were a lot of establishments. I couldn’t tell you exactly where it was now, and they weren’t “ra ra ra” pep rally type things, it was more like a session where you go in, it was like a learning thing. We had a speaker and they would be speaking, but again it would be about economics and the state of African-Americans in this country basically and what you need to do: we need to own businesses, dah-dah-dah-dah-dah, but I understood. I was aware, because I did lose, I’m not sure what year he died, a classmate that went to high school with me on Wayne State. This was during the time with the [Black] Panthers were very active, I was very sympathetic with the Panthers and what they were trying to do at the time, until they started executing them like crazy and then I wore my hair in a big fro and I had a Wayne County Sheriff approach me one day and told me I looked a lot like Angela Davis and so my mother was freaking out, so I had to change my hair style, you know, I mean because, because my neighbor three doors down, we had driven to high school together. We went to Cass Tech and he was killed, mistaken identity. You see during that time that’s what was happening. People were getting killed and then they find out later oh, it wasn’t the right person. And so he was a victim of that so you’re aware but not aware. I wasn’t participating in the active stuff, I was defiantly sympathetic but I was married with a small child. I couldn’t do all of that stuff with a job, and my family was pretty conservative so you’re kind of caught in the middle, so if my mother and father found out I was participating in stuff that wouldn’t have gone over too well, so, you know.
LW: When you were in the hospital July of '67 at Detroit Receiving, what were you being told if anything by the doctors and the patients that were coming in?
CPR: Nothing. Nothing, that was the trauma hospital, we were used to trauma so you go in, you get your room and your equipment set up for whatever may come through the door, and so we really didn’t talk about politics or what was going on; it’s like, you know, we would joke well you know, wonder what it’s going to be like tonight? you know, but in the processes you’re getting your IVs together, you’re getting everything set up so that whatever comes through the door, you’re ready. And that’s basically it. I don’t ever remember having any conversations with anybody because that was secondary, you know, we were just in a state of readiness all the time is what I remember.
LW: What else do you want to share about 67’ or about Detroit since then?
CPR: Um, Detroit since then - I think we are headed back that way, seriously.
LW: Back toward civil disturbance?
CPR: Yeah, I see some of the same conditions that triggered a lot of the unrest happening again not necessarily in the city but yes in the city, you know, indirectly.
LW: So like what?
CPR: I see some of the things like the tax issues, people losing their houses, the water being turned off, you know money going downtown not to the neighborhoods, but that’s not new that’s been going on. I feel an effort to move people further and further away from the city so that they can convert the city into this metropolitan area like some of the other cities, but the neighborhoods are not included in that, I just don’t see that happening. And I feel like you have people that are trying to fix it, people who are trying to organize. But since that time, we didn’t have the gangs and stuff 50 years ago like they have now, you’ve got another whole subculture out there that you’re dealing with. They’re not political, they’re not - they’re just there and I don’t understand the mentality of them. Maybe it’s a generation thing, but they’ll hurt anybody because you see an equal amount of black on black crime, which is wrong. I don’t know-- I feel bad about what happened in '67 because it was my neighborhood that was hurt; you go through there now it’s a wasteland. You know, all of those businesses, those men lost their business - these were my neighbors, these were my friends' fathers who owned those things and so they were the losers in this, you know and they were never able to recover.
LW: What happened to some of them do you remember?
CPR: Yes, they just folded up they couldn’t go back in business.
LW: Did they keep their homes?
CPR: Oh yeah they kept their homes. Many of them, many who could afford it moved. There was, they talk about white flight, there was black flight. When I say that my neighborhood was a mixture of-- I mean like ok, Dr. Lionel Swan lived across the street from me we went to the same, he did his internship where I went to nursing school so I got to know them, they packed up and moved out of the city.
LW: Where did they go do you know?
CPR: Well, I won’t say out of the city, I take that back because we were not allowed to move too far. They went to northwest Detroit over by Sherwood Forest and then the next stop would have been Southfield and then beyond. So we’re in Bloomfield and places like that now but they weren’t yet.
LW: You say that you weren’t allowed to move too far what do you mean?
CPR: You know this was the sixties, there were scandals about housing and stuff back then, I was, listen, I bought a house on Rutherford off of Puritan in 1969-ish, somewhere back in there, I bought it. My husband and I had separated so I bought my own house. They used me, the real-estate agent, to blockbust on that, I didn’t know, I was the only black on the block and so they used me there and then I started watching my neighbors move, they moved out one by one, they were gone. I even had one guy come over and said, “I’m not selling my house because of you.” And I’m like really? It was the kid across the street was horrible and he would terrorize the neighborhood, it was a white kid. And so he said “I can’t deal with him anymore.” Because there was a night we had to call the police he used a BB gun to shoot in several windows and so the parents would go out and leave this kid alone and he would terrorize the neighborhood. So my neighbor, his next door neighbor came and said, “I don’t want you to think I’m selling my house because of you, I’m selling because I can’t stand that kid anymore.” But there were still a lot of restrictions on where you could move to. And so Southfield, I don’t think Southfield was an option yet and I said my neighborhood was 40 percent Jewish at the time. Synagogues were up on Dexter. So they were in the middle of this mess. So they left and then the people who could afford it left, so we had like I said doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs there and they started to migrate further north. And so that Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest, places like that was the next jumping ground before Southfield and then after Southfield came Bloomfield and all the others. Because we weren’t allowed to get housing there because somewhere in there, HUD [US Department of Housing] was sued, somewhere between the late sixties and seventies, they were sued and then it opened up more things. Yeah.
LW: And where do you live today?
CPR: I’m in Southfield. I moved back to Southfield from Canton. I had moved to Canton in '78. '77,'78, we built a house. By this time I had remarried; me and my first husband had split up and I remarried, and my husband had lived somewhere around Chicago and Dexter in there. He had been robbed. He had spent some time in New York. In Harlem, he managed a supermarket and then came back. He said, “I’m not going into the city. I will not move there, we will go somewhere else.” So that’s why we ended up in Westland first and then we moved to Canton. We built a house there and I lived there for 22 years, raised my children there. Then I decided, he had passed away, I decided I didn’t need the subdivision anymore. I was still working midnights, my neighbors religiously cut their grass when I’m trying to sleep and stuff and the houses are close together, I said, “I have to go.” And so after he passed away my son and I actually flipped houses. I moved into - so he had restored this house in Southfield on an acre with trees, it’s all retirees around me, it’s quiet and then he took his wife and children out to Canton and that’s where they went to school out there.
LW: So you’ve lived all over Metro Detroit.
CPR: Yeah. I started out on the west side. I went to, I guess I don’t know if you call it northwest Detroit on Rutherford, it’s kind of northwest, then from there we went to Westland and then Canton and then I moved back to Southfield and that’s where I am now.
LW: Well I really appreciate you talking with me about your experiences especially in the sixties. Is there anything else you want to add?
CPR: Let me see. You know I went to nursing school in St. Louis, Missouri because I could not get in here.
LW: Oh, tell me about that.
CPR: I went to Cass Technical High School, pre-nursing. I was accepted at Highland Park General Hospital School of Nursing. Then I got a D and I was grateful for it my last year in high school, my graduating semester and so they sent me a letter and said that I would have to go to Junior College half way through the summer and said that I could not come there to their school. I applied at Henry Ford, we had to attach a photograph, and so that was an automatic, you know, Sorry, and I met a nurse from there who was in at the same time that I would have been there and said they were accepting their first Jewish students so they were struggling with that, let alone a black student, they weren’t ready for that. So, I tried Wayne State as a Cass Tech graduate with science and math behind me it was Greek to me, the entrance exam. It was Greek, and all I remember is this one problem they wanted me to calculate some weather and I said, Wow. So needless to say I didn’t get into Wayne State. So anyway, at that point, midway through the summer, too late to apply for anyplace right, I get this letter saying that Highland Park says no you have to go to the Junior College, so I’m heartbroken. My dad knew a graduate of Homer G. Phillips, he spoke to her, she called the school. They sent an entrance exam to her brother who was a teacher. I went to his home, took the exam, which was full of anatomy and physiology, and about two weeks later I got a telegram saying that I’d been accepted. So that is how I ended up in St. Louis in an all-black school.
LW: That was Homer G. Phillips?
CPR: Homer G. Philips, city No. 2. St. Louis Municipal Hospital No. 2. They had a No.1 and No.2. No.1 was the white hospital, No. 2 was the black hospital or the Negro hospital back then. Seriously, you’re looking at me like, “Really, for real?” It was.
LW: I believe you.
CPR: So a lot, well I don’t want to say a lot, some of the black doctors that I knew here had gone there to do their internship. I wanted to go to Maherity [unknown] and they stopped their nursing school the year that I graduated. While I was here, I did work at Kirwood General Hospital, you know about that one?
CPR: Kirwood General was a black owned and operated hospital right on Davison, used to be a Jewish Community Center and they converted it into a hospital, so I worked there for a while so I got to meet a lot of the black doctors, most of them are dead now, but Coleman Young was one of ours, all of your who’s who: James Del Rio was a congressmen I think I remember him as a patient, Dr. Claude Young was the physician for the mayor and he practiced there. All of the black physicians we’re connected in some way, so I got a chance to see some of them.
LW: How interesting.
CPR: It was.
LW: And you graduated from Homer G. Philips in what year?
CPR: 1965 was my graduation year and I actually finished in - I had to go back to finish up some time so I came out in '66. So I got my license in '66.
LW: And came right back to Detroit.
CPR: Oh yeah. I was married, got married my senior year and so my husband did not want to go to St. Louis and so I came back here. But you know he had gone to Fisk. He was at Fisk during the sit-ins and stuff. And something he told me that I didn’t know until his mother passed away a few years ago was that he had an incident with the Ku Klux Klan and that brought him back to the city. He had gone to a rally.
CPR: In Nashville, and somehow was separated from his group and was walking back to the school at night when a pickup truck with some guys pulled up and he thought he was going to die and they let him go. And I know he went down there for one year, he came back, I never knew why he came back, that probably scared him to death. But I heard about it maybe four years ago at his mother’s funeral. Never discussed it with me. So yeah, those were some interesting times, so yeah.
LW: Well thank you so much for sharing this with me.
CPR: You are so welcome!
LW: Yes, it’s great, thanks a lot.