Frank Rashid, July 30th 2015
Federal Housing Administration Loans
Institute for Detroit Studies
Literary Map of Detroit
Rev. Albert Cleage
Sacred Heart Seminary
Shrine of the Black Madonna
St. Agnes School
Thomas Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis
University of Detroit
Veterans Administration Loans
NL: Today is July 30, 2015. This is the interview of Frank Rashid by Noah Levinson. We are at the Detroit Historical Museum on Woodward in Detroit, and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Frank, could you first tell me when and where were you born?
FR: I was born in Detroit at Harper Hospital in December of 1950, and I grew up on the near west side on Lothrop between LaSalle Boulevard and Linwood, one block north of West Grand Boulevard, near my father’s store, which was on Linwood.
NL: Could you tell me a little bit about that neighborhood when you were growing up?
FR: Yeah, it was a real interesting neighborhood. As I remember it, it was very diverse, it was—and in my studies since I found out why that was so. It had a strong Catholic—an Irish Catholic—presence, because there was a Catholic parish not far away, St. Agnes Parish, on Twelfth [Street] and Bethune, and it has a strong presence of a remnant of Jews, many ethnic groups of Catholics, and then an increasing number of African Americans. The reason for that as it turns out is that in 1948 restrictive covenants were ruled illegal in the United States and the existing African American communities west of Linwood and east of Twelfth Street started to move into that immediate area on Lothrop. And so there were increasing four or five families of African Americans whose children went to school with me or walked to school with me or played ball with me, along with Asians and other Arabs and other Irish and Polish Catholics. It was a very ethnically diverse area.
NL: Was your school at that time—it was ethnically diverse, as you said—did that contribute to any tensions among the student body there?
FR: The students generally did not. There were some tensions. I’ve talked to my African American classmates about this since—and they said those there — because I was oblivious, I think, to a lot of the racial tension that might have existed. And I said, “How was it, how did it go?” and they said, well, there were certain groups or certain students that they felt tension from and others that they felt no tension from.
I certainly noticed—I didn’t notice anything until I started not getting invited to parties with my African American friends and their birthdays and things like that, where before it just seemed like a natural thing. I think as tensions increased in the neighborhood and as the Civil Rights Movement gained steam, people became more conscious, as least the children became more conscious of race. And, of course, we were growing up, so we became more aware of what had affected our adults, our parents, and their generation. So there was that, and also the area became increasingly African American. White folks were moving out, in part because of race, in part because of the segregated subsidies for suburban housing that the federal government provided for whites only to move to places like Dearborn and Royal Oak. So, Detroit was – the white population of Detroit was moving out, because there were incentives for them to move out. One historian, David Freund, points out that it was possible for a white middle-class family to own a house in Royal Oak for less money than it would cost to rent a home in Detroit, because of the subsidies that the FHA [Federal Housing Administration] and VA [Veterans Administration] provided for white families only—not for African Americans.
So the reason that Detroit became segregated, and that that neighborhood became so, rapidly so African American, was that this was a period when the federal government was subsidizing suburban growth at the expense of the city and it residents. So that was something, of course, I discovered much later, but it explains what happened. My first grade class at St. Agnes school was probably about 25% African American, and by the time that class graduated from the eighth grade, it was probably 25% white.
NL: You said that it was federal policies that sort of promoted that suburbanization. Either in your memories or in your studies since you were a kid, did the city and local governments make any response to that to try to limit that amount of flight to keep more families in the city?
FR: Well, unfortunately during that same time, the city was led by rather reactionary and racist mayors. Albert Cobo was a – you know, got elected by opposing open housing, by opposing public housing, by doing race-baiting in his campaigns, and so and he was the powerful voice in the 1950s. And so, at this very time after World War II, we had leadership in the city that was—and this was true on the city council as well; there was certainly tension, there were strong progressive voices on the city council—but there were also real strong reactionary forces that tried to divide the community and increase its awareness of race and its spreading of all kinds of rumors and lies about what it meant when an African American family moved into your neighborhood. So that increased tension in some areas around the city.
And I certainly – and in addition there was blockbusting. There was a lot of real estate blockbusting going on, which I remember, I remember very well that it was not – I remember specific incidents when an older white couple lived down the block in the middle of the evening in the summer when everybody was out, there were kids who came running through—African American kids—came running through and threw a brick through their window, at a very visible time, and then they ran off. Well, that was a tactic that real estate agents would use, they’d pay these kids to go do this thing, and then they would show up the next day, you know, offering to take this house off the couple’s hands, and that would cause all kinds of movement in the neighborhood.
So, in my studies since, I’ve seen that this is a common practice. At the time it was just very puzzling that this sort of thing would happen. In the literature you see that you know, a common practice was for—on an all-white area—for a real estate agent to pay an African American woman to walk down the street with a baby buggy. Very kind of blatant practices that are supposedly illegal now. But they had their impact. They certainly had an impact and, along with the incentives for moving out provided by the FHA, increased that kind of movement out of areas—the very rapid movement—out of otherwise very settled, pleasant, middle-class neighborhoods that were getting along, at least from my perspective back then, fairly well.
NL: You mentioned a few minutes ago that your father owned a store in the neighborhood where you grew up. Could you tell me about that business?
FR: Sure, actually he owned two stores. He and his brothers owned two stores. The first was on Linwood between Hogarth and Lothrop—the street that we grew up on, at Lamothe and Lothrop—and it was at 7525 Linwood. It was a grocery store. It had been one of the original A&P stores.
My dad, his father, and his brothers bought that store, they moved from a store near Sacred Heart Seminary on Longfellow to that store in 1935. And it was, for the time, a market—Rashid’s Quality Market—and it was a fairly large grocery store. This was before the era of the supermarkets which then became the era of Meijers and the big Kroger stores and the big supermarkets we have now. But it was for its time a fairly large store, and it was a fully equipped grocery store with fresh vegetables and meats and canned goods and—a regular grocery store.
NL: And there was another location too?
FR: Yeah, then in 1954 my dad bought a little corner drug store on Lothrop and Fourteenth [Street], on the other side of where we lived, and turned that into what we euphemistically referred to as a “party store,” but which we would now call a liquor store.
NL: Right. And how long did those businesses stay intact or in the family?
FR: [Speaking at same time] Yeah, the grocery store we lost as a business in 1967. My father sold it temporarily to the Black Star Co-op, which was run by Rev. Albert Cleage from the Shrine of the Black Madonna, one of our neighbors, who wanted to make it a co-op, an African American co-op, for groceries for the area.
It didn’t work out. Co-ops are very hard to make work. And then that store sat abandoned until it was torn down about ten years ago. My dad and his brother ran the liquor store until 1976. Both of those stores were looted in 1967, but not burned.
NL: When did you move out from that neighborhood?
FR: We didn’t. My family still lives on Lothrop in the house that I was born in. My mother died there about three years ago, and my sister and my brother live in adjoining houses, next door houses, on Lothrop between – in that very same block. I lived there until 1983, when I was married and we outgrew the upper flat on the house next door, and I now live in the University District, not far from the University of Detroit and Marygrove [College].
NL: Okay. So, speaking of 1967, you were living at Lothrop and Linwood at that time. Can you tell me about your memories of that time, starting with how you first heard of or noticed the civil disturbance?
FR: Yeah, it was a “notice.” The rest of the family was away for the summer, and my father and I used to—when I was in high school, I would spend the summers with him, working in the stores. And my family was up north — the rest of our family was up north, and so we decided on—we were running some kind of an errand. We were going somewhere on Sunday morning. And we drove down from our house on Lothrop, we turned down Fourtheenth and then turned left on the Boulevard, and as we crossed Twelfth Street, we looked down and we saw—actually that famous image of Twelfth Street completely covered with smoke and crowds of people—and we knew something was going on.
We knew what was going on because there had been some disturbances in the previous couple of years. This was not completely surprising. It was the era of a considerable number of important riots and rebellions that took place in cities around the United States. So we knew what was going on. We continued with our errand and then went over to Chicago Boulevard, where my grandmother lived and her family, my father’s mother. Chicago Boulevard and Woodrow Wilson. And we got a call there from one of the customers at the store that the store was being looted—the store on Linwood was being looted.
NL: From a customer?
FR: Yeah, one of our neighbors, the neighbors who lived across the street, just at the corner of Lamothe and Linwood. So we ran over there, my dad, my uncle, and I, and—foolishly, as it turned out—parked across the street. There were all kinds of people milling about. The store, which had nearly ground-level to ceiling-level windows, was completely broken into. We went over there; the folks scattered when they saw us. We decided, again foolishly, that we would clean up the store. And we had four or five of our neighbors and customers helping us, and in a way, protecting us; all of them were African American. And so we started to sweep up the debris and all the stuff that was taken off the shelves and we’d put it in baskets and boxes—which of course made it easier to take out later. But we did that and we were cleaning it up. My dad was not going to leave, he was going to stay in the store. And these other three men were helping us, sort of watching out for us, because the traffic was moving down Linwood from the north to the south, and there were catcalls, and there was some—it felt tense. We heard that a man who ran a shoe repair shop down the street had been killed. As it turned out that wasn’t exactly true—he did die a few days later. But, he was one of the few white victims in the riot. But he is someone who kind of—it’s very interesting to go to the Rutgers University site on the both Newark and Detroit riots and read about what happened in this particular case, because he decided to go fight and charged out of his store with an old sword. And people were kind of—it’s a much more complicated and nuanced story. But we did hear about it, and I started to get scared, and one of the men who was watching us said, “You better tell your dad it’s time to leave; we can’t hold this off too much longer.” The folks who were coming down Linwood, by the way, were not predominately the residents of the area, they were coming from elsewhere because it was—you know, the events were moving very fast, and people were congregating and coming from other parts of town. At least that’s the way I saw it.
So, this customer of ours said, “We can’t hold this off too much longer; you better tell your dad to leave.” So I said to dad, “You know, you’ve been around for 56 years, I’ve only been around for 16. I’d like to hang around a little longer.” And that convinced him finally that maybe we should leave. So we, I mean, my dad had a thing about locking the door, [Noah laughing] even though the windows were wide open. So we locked the door to the store and these four guys surrounded us, walked around the three of us as we sort of, as we walked across the street—because we had to go through this kind of crazy, all the stuff that was going on—so that we’d be okay. And really—at considerable risk, I think—they did this.
NL: These are the people who had been helping you protect the store?
FR: Yeah, had been helping us and they wanted us to be okay. You know, it was not the kind of climate where folks who were protecting white folks were necessarily going to be okay themselves.
FR: And so they got us to the car and we left, and as we left there was a brick thrown at the car, it hit us, hit the car, so I know there was some animosity there, and that these guys were facing that as well. I’ve never forgotten that and it had a real impact on me, what these men did. They were—I knew two of them by name, at least by nickname, but I didn’t know two of the others. I mean, I recognized them but I didn’t know them by name. And so it has been very important to me to remember that sense.
NL: Of course.
FR: The next day, on Monday, this was the 23; Sunday was the day that the rebellion that began. On the 24, the store on Fourteenth was broken into and looted. And again, we were helped out by customers who sat with us and helped us to kind of work on things and then eventually the National Guard showed up and formed—used that location as a kind of place to set up. So it was protected. And so those were the two main events of the day, of those days.
I do recall before that happened, before the Fourtheenth store was looted, my dad and I went to Central High School, where there was an encampment of the National Guard. The tanks were all there, and everything was – and we went and talked to the—we tried to find who was in charge and told them that there was this store with a lot of liquor in it, and my dad was really concerned about it. But finally they—and they did show up after it was looted, but I don’t know if that was in response to our attempt to get them to come or whether they just got a lot of calls from people in the neighborhood.
NL: When did you next return to the store later in the week?
FR: Probably within a day or so, and we reopened it, and—
NL: Any idea what day that would have been?
FR: Probably Wednesday, it may have been Tuesday, it may have been as early as Tuesday. It wasn’t completely looted, and we were able to get resupplied fairly quickly because there weren’t a lot of stores open, so there was, you know, an incentive for our wholesalers and others to get us stuff, and my dad always ran around and got us a lot of groceries and things. In addition to beer, and wine, and liquor we sold a small line of groceries in that store. We didn’t reopen the Linwood store. It was too badly looted, and it wasn’t—it was still—and too hard to secure.
NL: I’m sure there were still fires and things like that?
FR: Oh yeah, there were fires, there were still fires, but the intense activity was on Sunday and Monday.
FR: Some degree Tuesday, but by the time the federal troops came in replacing the National Guard, or augmenting the National Guard, things pretty much had slowed down.
NL: So, after this had happened, you said your family still lived in the neighborhood where the stores were—
NL: Which I think is unusual for people who were business owners in that Twelfth Street district right there, that encouraged a lot of flight and a lot of fear in people. Do you remember your dad talking about that and his decision to keep your family in the neighborhood right there?
FR: Yeah, we’ve thought about it a lot of course in the years since because it is not usual. We are among the very, very few families that weren’t African American who stayed in the neighborhood. And we were, even for store owners at the time living in the neighborhood—you know, people were absentee store owners—but we always, my dad did believe in being in the neighborhood. But I will say, we weren’t untouched by all the movement out, and my folks used to—on weekends, on Sundays when the store was closed—my mom and dad, for fun, went out and looked at other houses, looked at homes, for many, many years. I don’t know whether it was inertia or just their attraction to the neighborhood that they stayed. But I will say, that really stopped after 1967. And we’ve often wondered why. I mean, we don’t know why, what was in my parents’ interests. there may have been other reasons for us to stay in that neighborhood.
I will say for myself, shortly after 1967, I went through tremendous soul searching. I was a student at Sacred Heart Seminary at the time, which was a very progressive institution. And there was an awful lot of strong civil rights activity. Father Bill Cunningham, the founder of Focus: HOPE, was on the faculty there. And I remember—
NL: At the high school?
FR: At the high school, yeah he was an English and Speech teacher at this high school. And later that year, in 1968, they founded Focus: HOPE, and I was around for that. And I remember feeling somewhat challenged by being the son of a white storeowner in the city, and really thinking about what was our role and responsibility for what happened in 1967. I remember my dad was a committed Detroiter and an honest businessman, and he followed the rules, and he did—you know, that was not it.
And yet I was concerned about, a real concern about price gouging, and about “other-ising” the customers, and making sure that—you know, really treating people fairly, and all of those things—which my dad basically did. I mean, he was a very good steward for the business and for the neighborhood. But I really challenged him. Every time I put a price on a jar of mayonnaise, I challenged him. I said, “Why is this 39 cents? Why is this—,” you know, all of those kinds of things. I mean, we really had a lot of discussions about that. And he was a strong FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] Democrat, and was a very strong believer in civil rights, and yet adults of that time had attitudes that were condescending and patronizing, and I challenged him on those things. And of course I had to outgrow a lot of that myself.
A lot of that happened as a result of what happened in 1967, because what I’ve studied since, of course, and really what happened in 1967, built in me an interest that I later translated when I became a scholar and a professor into a real serious interrogation of the city of Detroit and what has happened there. And a real interest in its history, a real interest in the racial and social justice issues that I grew up surrounded by. And so in 1967, that became kind of that turning point, that thing that forced those questions in my adolescent mind, and my challenges to my dad and to my family and to the status quo, and my interest in Detroit’s history and politics ever since.
NL: I do want to talk about your professional career, but I have a few more questions about 1967 first. As the neighborhood began changing afterwards into being more predominately African American—
FR: I think it’s important to trust Thomas Sugrue on this—that neighborhood had pretty much changed, was in the real strong process of change, well before 1967.
NL: Well, after the riots, do you remember there being a presence or an increase of any anti-white sentiment by the community, and if so, do you feel like that affected your family and your living there fort the next decade?
FR:I would say that there was an increase in all kinds of activity, in crime, in all that in the years prior to 1967, and in retrospect that was the case. Actually crime declined fairly soon after 1967 for a lot of very logical reasons: I mean, there wasn’t as much business; the whole area—Twelfth Street, Fourteenth, Linwood—the commercial districts became much less vulnerable to crime because there wasn’t as much there. So those kinds of things, those kinds of social problems that accompany radical racial change, which was going on in the 1950s and early 60s, those things kind of diminished after 1967.
White flight continued, certainly, and the movement out to the suburbs continued, and other areas of Detroit. But the idea that 1967 was the turning point for the city is something that should be challenged. Thomas Sugrue challenges it in Origins of the Urban Crisis very persuasively. Because all of the things that were going on in Detroit from after World War II, and you can arguably well before World War II, and into the 1960s had an effect on all of the frustration and anger that erupted in 1967. And so, rather than 1967 being the turning point, it was a culmination of a lot of social problems and injustice that happened up to that point. And certainly things intensified in the neighborhood. We lost our commercial—the businesses; the area became less populous; it became more African American—yeah, all of those things happened at increased speed after 1967.
NL: You mentioned Sugrue’s book a couple times. And that’s of course extremely an important text about the subject, about the history of Detroit, any way you slice it. One of the things that I noticed from it I really liked that it ties in all of these big ideas and talks about the confluence of forces that shaped this city in the middle of the twentieth century—related to the riots, not related to the riots—you know, a really 20, 30-year period. You’re a historian, you’ve studied these things, too: Is Detroit such a unique case there that you have such a confluence of forces, or is that a part of urbanism that you could tell that same story in other cities, just with their own separate results?
FR: Yeah, we’ve dealt with this a lot. I teach a course called “Detroit and the Contemporary Urban Crisis” with a historian—I’m a literature professor, but he’s a historian and a sociologist and an economist. And we’ve really dealt with that. We’ve hashed that out quite a bit. I think these forces were present in other cities, and they had an impact on other cities, but they hit Detroit with greater intensity because of the particular makeup of its population, its strong blue-collar work force, its ethnic population, the strong influence of Polish Catholics, and southern whites and other Europeans and Jews and all of these, all of this population, and their differing responses to the African American presence in the city, and sometimes their very vitriolic response to African Americans in the city well before 1967, as integration happened.
So because of the automobile industry, this particular combination of populations in Detroit felt the presence of African Americans, of the sizable African American population, and the increasing African American population in very, very, intense ways. So I think the vehemence of the response to integration in Detroit was a product of the makeup of the population that started in the nineteen-teens and twenties, with the strong industrial economy that we had. It was exacerbated by that industry’s decision to basically abandon the city after World War II when,as Sugrue points out, a period when these huge vertically integrated plants like the Rouge and Dodge Main—that Ford and GM and Chrysler decided to decentralize and move their operations elsewhere to the suburbs, to other parts of the United States, and the world. And that hit Detroit’s economy particularly hard. African Americans were still moving to the city for these good automobile jobs which were declining. And so you had a larger and larger proportion of African American young people who were unemployed, who had felt they’d been promised something that didn’t happen. In the meantime the city’s tax base was declining rapidly because of the movement of white folks to the suburbs which was, as I said earlier, subsidized by the federal government.
NL: So with that in mind, do you think it would be accurate to say that the urban crisis Detroit has experienced has been inevitable in some ways?
FR: Yeah, it was a manufactured crisis in retrospect, not intentionally manufactured—certainly the auto industry didn’t leave Detroit because of race; it left because they changed their structure. Yeah, the logic of capitalism, they followed that. They followed the logic of the bottom line. They decided that vertical integration was no longer the most profitable way to build cars, so they decentralized. They had this huge highway network that facilitated that, and this rail network that facilitated that. So they moved their operations elsewhere. The population shift in other ways was racially motivated, because the federal government’s policies were racist. Not always intentionally racist, but they were racist. The followed the sociology of the time, which said that healthy neighborhoods are segregated neighborhoods, are racially homogeneous neighborhoods. So when they built new neighborhoods in the suburbs, they said, Well, they have to be racially homogeneous, we don’t want integrated neighborhoods, and we will redline those neighborhoods that are. We will not subsidize people who integrate neighborhoods, which meant effectively that they were not going to subsidize African Americans. We will only subsidize new construction, we want new neighborhoods, we will build new places, which meant effectively that most of the city was not going to be—people within the city were not going to receive FHA and VA loans. So basically, this city in particular, because of its particular population makeup, and because of the deindustrialization that was occurring simultaneously, it was—as I think Sugrue demonstrates really persuasively—an absolute conflagration of forces that—and combination of forces—that led to the city’s crisis that happened that started in the 1950s, proceeded and gained steam in the 1960s, and has been, we’ve been feeling it ever since.
In fact, sometimes it’s amazing to me that we still have a really functioning, viable city when you think about how many forces combined at that period to basically attack the city in really compelling and forceful ways.
NL: What do you think is needed for a successful effort to rebuild the neighborhoods of the city?
FR: Well, that’s a huge question. I mean, federal policy contributed dramatically, and federal policy also encouraged the auto industry to decentralize, because they didn’t want—fearing the atomic bomb as they did—they didn’t want all of its, all of the war industry to be concentrated in single locations. So they facilitated that movement out of centralized areas. So the federal government—basically, federal policies created this inequality, and created this crisis, and federal policies really have to play a part in restoring our cities, and Detroit in particular. So, what America has not had ever is a comprehensive urban policy, a comprehensive set of social policies that basically address the forces that concentrate social problems in cities.
We have all kinds of ways of making sure that cities, and in particular Detroit, is going to be the place where poor people live, where people have housing issues, where crime is concentrated, where all of the things that are concentrated because of racial and social injustice, those things have all happened, and we’ve basically create gated communities, and restricted communities in the suburbs. We’ve got, as John Powell, another great Detroit-born scholar, says, We’ve got civil rights laws, but we’ve created white space elsewhere and created concentrations of poverty and inequality in the cities.
You even see this in areas like insurance redlining. The way, if you live in the city, you have to pay more for car insurance, just to have a car. Because the insurance industry assumes that you’re guilty based on where you live. You know, you are—there’s somehow, something wrong—you can have the same driving record as somebody in Birmingham, but you’re going to pay twice as much for car insurance, just based on where you live. That’s not just, because the problems that Detroit and Detroiters live with are national in scope; they are not Detroit’s problems. They are concentrated in cities by all sorts of forces that make sure that people elsewhere will not have to live with the problems that our economic system and our social system have created.
NL: So what do you think would need to be included in an effective federal-level comprehensive urban policy?
FR: We have to address, we have to undo the impact of racial segregation in housing, by resubsidizing people who live in cities, to be able to restore their homes and renovate their homes. We have to make sure the banking regulations prohibit the kind of foreclosures—and first of all, the insanity of the early 2000s when people were given homes they couldn’t afford, and then were chased out. The devastation of neighborhoods that followed in the wake of that has been dramatic. All of this, as David Freund shows, is related to the kind of housing policies that happened in the 1930s and forties and fifties. Fannie Mae is a descendant of the FHA programs that happened back then. And so we have to really rethink housing policies. There has to be a tremendous investment in our schools, and a rethinking of our schools. We have to stop the kind of really misguided policies that have happened at the state level. The takeover of the Detroit schools—not that the Detroit schools didn’t have terrible, terrible problems—but because of the way we fund schools with property taxes, as the property tax basis declined in Detroit, its public schools have suffered dramatically. And so we have educational inequality that happens as a result. All of this has to happen at a bigger level than local and even state level, even though we need the support of our state government and we should regionalize. There’s got to be a kind of comprehensive vision for cities in America and we have to attack the social problems that are national in scope. We’re not going to do that in the current political climate. But that’s what it would take in order to really address Detroit’s social problems.
NL: But you can’t see a time in the foreseeable future when the federal government would look to address that?
FR: I never say “never,” but I don’t see it in the immediate future. I don’t see the present political climate addressing that. I’m very concerned about the investment in certain areas in Detroit locally by the state and local governments that are being repopulated by young white professionals. I think that’s great, I’m all in favor of folks moving back to the city, but not to the furthering the inequality against African Americans who live in Detroit’s neighborhoods. We have to reinvest in our people, and we have to address the longstanding inequality that has affected Detroit’s black residents and continues to affect them.
NL: So what are the issues, as you see them, that affect that? There’s, as you said, young—white especially—professionals moving back into the city or choosing to move into the city from out of state and elsewhere, and I’m guessing you’re talking about Midtown, Corktown, neighborhoods are identified as revitalized in the last few years. What’s not working with that plan?
FR: Well, it simply means that police protection is going to go down there. Neighborhoods are still going to have problems with, you know, they’re still going to wait 20 minutes or a half-hour or an hour for a police response, where downtown on the riverfront you’ve got a real strong police presence. You’ve got that kind of thing. We’re not investing, we’re not addressing the problems of schools. We’re cutting back on schools, we’re cutting back on education in the city, we’re disrupting terribly the school system, because we’re letting finance people determine educational policy instead of really looking at what do we do with this underfunded, underpopulated school system that we have. How are we going to create and further educational equality for Detroit’s kids? How are we going to invest in repopulating and solidifying Detroit’s neighborhoods that have been so devastated by the foreclosure crisis in recent years? Those kinds of things have to happen, and that’s happening in neighborhoods on the west side, in the east side, the farther reaches that are more heavily populated by poor folks, by lower middle-class people, and by African Americans. Then Corktown, and what is called Midtown, and all of those kinds of areas.
NL: It seems like race is still the underlying, pervasive issue in all of this when you talk about education and police response.
FR: I think it’s absolutely still a factor. We have not outgrown this, as recent news stories have indicated. You know, a lot of the anger in Detroit in 1967 was based on the strong police response to African Americans. The intense response: Detroit was notorious for recruiting police officers from the South, from elsewhere, who had a longstanding antipathy toward African Americans. And Detroit’s police department was notoriously understaffed by African Americans until Coleman Young became the mayor. In the 1960s, Jerry Cavanaugh as mayor tried to attack the embedded, entrenched racism within the Detroit Police Department by appointing George Edwards, this longstanding racial progressive, as police commissioner in the city. And he was police commissioner through Jerry Cavanaugh’s early administration. He worked very hard to try to address the racism in the Detroit Police Department and ultimately threw up his hands. By 1967, Ray Girardin was police commissioner. There was enlightened leadership that recognized the problems embedded in Detroit but 1967, I mean the tinderbox—the problems were longstanding, the injustice was longstanding—but the tinderbox was lit by police actions as happened on the early morning of July 23. That those kinds of things were moments in time in which all of the frustration and anger erupted because the police presence was the focal point. The community met—the African American community met—the systemic racism and the systemic injustice in the presence of the police department. That was their most intimate connection with societal injustice. And so when the police acted as they often did—unwisely and without regard, without sensitivity to the situations of the neighborhoods—explosions happened.
NL: I’d like to backtrack slightly. You said a little, short while ago that there were some smaller civil disturbances prior to 1967—
FR: [Speaking at same time] Yeah—
NL: —that you can remember. Of course, in the 1960s there were many disturbances all over the country. Could you talk about your memories of those other ones in Detroit, pre-67?
FR: Yeah, they’re a little fuzzy, but I think in 1966 there was an event on the east side, if my memory serves me, that could have blown up, could have become a 1967, but was contained. There was always tension in the neighborhood. There were tensions in the neighborhoods that were there. And it wasn’t unexpected that that these things would erupt.
Of course 1943, before I came into the world, set the stage. 1967 was really not a race riot—it was kind of economic rebellion. But 1943 was a race riot. It was hand-to-hand combat in the streets, it was blacks versus whites, on Woodward Avenue burning cars, attacking streetcars, going into neighborhoods, and that was absolutely racial.
By the 1960s it was much more complicated. Race was certainly a factor, but it was also economics. We may have been visible on Linwood because of our race, but they weren’t attacking people based on race, they were attacking stores and store owners. It was much more economic.
NL: I’m so glad you shared that with us. I think there’s a common misconception of people who haven’t looked into it that it was a true race riot in 1967 when really there were just—
FR: [Speaking at same time] No, it was—
NL: [Speaking at same time] Like we talked about, there were just so many factors over at once.
FR: Yes, I mean when you look at the—Sugrue had some wonderful tables in his book, wonderful charts, that examine unemployment, the way disinvestment was happening in the city at this time—and if you really look at those you can see, this is, you know, you have large numbers of unemployed young men who thought they were coming to Detroit, whose families came to Detroit, because it was going to be better here. They were going to have jobs here. There were high-paying jobs here. And those jobs disappeared. This is economics, not race. It’s race in some ways, but from their vantage point, they’re not thinking of it in terms of race, they’re thinking of it in terms of lost opportunities, of broken promises. And so that’s really, really strong—and a strong, intense reaction can be expected when you see this kind of thing.
NL: Would you care to add and talk about your own research in history and in literature that you’ve done as a professor?
FR: Sure, yeah, I—and also my decision to be here, to stay here, kind of to not just study but to live here and observe what’s going on—I was in the seminary and I was studying for the priesthood. I left the seminary in 1970, and continued my study at University of Detroit. Went on to graduate school there and studied literature—which was my passion and my love—and I studied nineteenth century American literature, did my dissertation on Emily Dickinson.
So my scholarship went in that direction for quite a while, even as I was very involved in what was going on in the city at the time, and very involved in several political and social causes. When I finished most of my graduate work, I went on and worked for a short time at Focus: HOPE because of my connection there. But I really did miss the classroom and I was thrilled to get a job in 1980 at Marygrove [College], which has a strong social justice commitment and a strong commitment to the city of Detroit. It’s the institution I always wanted to work at as a result of that. And it allowed me to follow up my secondary passion for study of Detroit. And it has, I have, colleagues who share that passion in other disciplines—a historian, as I mentioned; a sociologist; an economist; music professors, other artists who also are intensely interested in the city.
And we built a curriculum, really, around that, and that has encouraged my own branching out into study of Detroit literature, using what I learned in studying nineteenth century American literature, in studying Detroit poets and Detroit writers; and creating a literary map of Detroit to emphasize Detroit’s significance as a literary site in American literature; and teaching courses with these colleagues on contemporary Detroit. So it’s been, for me, the passion that I have for the city, and the interests that I have in the city, I’ve been able to fulfill and to use to serve my academic interests, and I found the exact right institution to allow me to do that. In 2001, during Detroit’s Tricentennial, we had a series at Marygrove called “Defining Detroit,” which is a series of lectures and exhibits and performances and readings, all based on serious interrogation of the common myths about Detroit. And then we established the Institute for Detroit Studies, which is our attempt to look seriously at Detroit and the many issues connected with it. And really trying to look at the common understandings, common ideas about Detroit and interrogate those, think critically about the common myths about the city of Detroit.
NL: When was that institute established?
FR: We founded that in 2001. We started the Defining Detroit series, we planned for the Tricentennial starting in 1998, and as we were doing this we decided to combine all of our curricular efforts, our classes on Detroit, our research in Detroit, and our other Detroit-based projects into something called the Institute for Detroit Studies. We also have at Marygrove an Urban Leadership Curriculum initiative that is intended to infuse community engagement with serious analysis of the city of Detroit in our classes and serious community engagement on the part of our faculty, staff, and students.
NL: Does Marygrove serve—I’m guessing it serves primarily in-state and [unintelligible]
FR: [Speaking at same time] Yeah, we do have international students and we do have students from elsewhere, but we are still 70 percent African American; we are about 70 percent Detroit students. We are really unique in that way in the Detroit area in that most of our students come from the city. We have a significant population of students from elsewhere, but this is our undergraduate student body. Our graduate students are from elsewhere, and we have a distance learning program that is in four states. But, we have a real strong Detroit presence and a real strong—I think for a college that is not a historically black institution—we have one of the largest African American percentages of students of any college in the United States. And that’s by design. That’s something that the sponsoring order, the IHM [Immaculate Heart of Mary] sisters, who have a longstanding commitment to the city of Detroit and to minority populations, that’s something that they have encouraged and that the administration and faculty have embraced. So that’s something that I think is really distinctive and one of the reasons I’m really happy that I’ve been able to make a career there.
NL: That’s so great to hear, you can just see why you’re proud of that—
NL: I have no more questions at this moment. Is there anything else that you would care to share with us about your memories of 1967 and your researching career?
FR: Just that it’s been—it’s a fascinating study. Sometimes people say it must be so depressing to watch what’s happened in Detroit, in your lifetime. Detroit reached its height of population the year I was born, and it’s in a sense, the story of my life has been a story of social and economic decline, but it’s not just about decline. Detroit—as its automobile production declined, its artistic production has increased dramatically. Detroit’s great writers and artists and musicians—their production has increased dramatically, partly in response to the urban crisis. And so we really have, Detroit has a real strong and vibrant artistic and literary community that I think is really worth studying. So it’s not completely depressing. And also—as an academic, just watching what has happened in Detroit, understanding what’s going on—there’s a kind of reward in that, in understanding what it would really take to rebuild and regenerate a city, and how complicated and challenging that task is, and how exciting it is as the same time.
NL: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and memories with us today, Frank.
FR: Thank you, it’s been fun, Noah.**