Renee Giles, August 3rd, 2015
NL: Today is August 3, 2015. This is the interview of Renee Giles by Noah Levinson. We are in Renee Giles home in Detroit, Michigan and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Renee, could you please first tell me where and when you were born?
RG: I was born in Detroit Michigan, April 30, 1956.
NL: What neighborhood do you first remember living in when you were growing up?
RG: I would say on Burlingame.
NL: Do you know near what other streets?
RG: Burlingame and Dexter.
NL: And how long did you live there for?
RG: We lived there for approximately—probably three years.
NL: So that’s in Northwest Detroit. Did you live in any other neighborhoods of Detroit when you were growing up?
RG: Yes, we stayed on Fourteenth Street, and that was between Virginia Park and West Euclid.
NL: So also Northwest Detroit.
RL: On the west side.
NL: On the west side. So, what can you tell me about your memories of those neighborhoods when you were young, growing up in the 50s and 60s?
RL: On Burlingame, it was just fun. A lot of kids on the block, everybody just having fun, riding bikes. Parents looking out for other children; you now, as they say now, it takes a village to raise a child? That’s what they did back then. When I was still living on Burlingame, my father’s brother, he stayed on the corner of Burlingame. So it was like everybody was still close together, you know, during that time. And we ran from his house to a neighbor’s house to our friend’s house, so it was just nice back then. Then we moved on Fourteenth Street. That street, it was OK. It was different, you know? It was more traffic because we stayed on the main street. And the schools, they wasn’t far, because I went to Thurgood Elementary and I also went to Hutchins Junior High School during that time. And that was basically it for staying there, but I do remember across the street from us, well, category [kitty-corner?] from us across the street, it was like some older guys would stay there. And my father, he worked at Ford Motor Company during that time. And since he had more girls, it was like he knew he couldn’t live there for a long time. That’s when we moved over this way. He bought the house down the street from where we at now.
NL: Where was that at?
RG: 19318 Birwood.
NL: Oh! Right on Birwood, too.
RG: Yes, the next block.
NL: And when was that you moved to this neighborhood?
RG: We moved down in 1970.
RG: Valentine’s Day. That was my mother’s Valentine’s present.
NL: Pretty nice present.
NL: You said your dad worked at Ford. What kind of work did he do?
RG: He worked in the steel department at Ford Motor Company at River Rouge. I remember that. But one thing I did like, I never will forget: My father every Saturday, he would leave money on the dresser. He told my mother to take me and my oldest sister on the bus to show us how to get downtown and back. So she did that. And every Saturday he left money on the dresser for us to go shopping. So that was fun.
NL: Can you tell me about some of your memories? What part of town would you go shopping in? What stores?
RG: Oh, downtown. We went to Lerner’s, back then. And also, J.L. Hudson’s, back then. [laughing] And Whitney’s. There was a Whitney’s store on Woodward also.
NL: And, what do you remember about—what did that look like or sound or feel like when you were downtown?
RG: Beautiful. Ooh, downtown, everything—it was just people everywhere; I would say it was like Chicago. The way Chicago is now. That’s how downtown Detroit was. People everywhere. All the stores was open. No vacant buildings. You know, you can go from one store to another store. All different shops: stockings or wigs, everything. Everything was just so nice downtown back then.
NL: What kind of work did your mom do?
RG: My mother, she didn’t work. She stayed home with us during that time.
NL: Can you tell me a little bit more about the neighborhoods that you were growing up in on the west side and Northwest Detroit. When you were living there, was it mostly black families in the neighborhood? Was there a mix of people to some degree?
RG: No, all blacks, I do remember that. And those are the two neighborhoods basically I kinda do remember, that I can really talk about, you know. And it was just really, yeah, all black neighborhood for those two.
NL: And was that the case in your schools, too?
RG: The schools? Yes.
NL: So, in 1967, you were living on Fourteenth Street. Is that right?
NL: Ok, can you tell me, Fourteenth Street and what?
RG: Ok, Fourteenth Street is just like Seven Mile, okay, a main street. And it would be like Birwood and the next street there were the two side streets. They would be Virginia Park and West Euclid. That’s how we lived. The street behind us was Twelfth Street. Okay?
NL: Gotcha. Can you tell me about you first heard about or how you first noticed the disturbance on Twelfth Street?
RG: Me and my sister—we are 11 months apart–we walked to the store on Twelfth Street. And as we was coming back home, we was coming down West Euclid. And it was a lot of people outside just screaming and yelling, and we was like, we didn’t know what was happening. So we just continued to start walking and—I never will forget, it was a little three-wheel—a tricycle on the ground. This guy picked it up. It was a checkered cab driver, and he took the tricycle and he just was banging, breaking all the windows out in the cab. And the guy, he was a white guy that was inside and he was just all cut up. And me and my sister just looked at each other and we ran home. And my mother told us we needed to stay in the house. And so, you could just hear people outside. Just a lot of noise. And then, about a few days later, the National Guards came and we had to lay on the floor in our bedrooms. And my father told us do not go to the windows at all and look out, period, at all, at night time, do not look out. And one day, one of the National Guards came and he knocked on the door and they told us we had to leave our house. It was too dangerous where we was at, because we was too close to Twelfth Street, right then. So, it was six of us. There were six kids and then my mother and father. So, during that time my father didn’t have a car, so we got up and went to the closest relative's house, which was my mother’s cousin. She stayed on West Grand Boulevard. So we all walked there and the first night everything was fine, you know. The second night my mother was sitting outside with one of my sisters, the younger sisters. She had to be like one, no, less than one. A few months, I would say about eight or nine months. They was sitting outside. It was hot. A car came by and shot at them. The bullet missed them. It went inside the brick wall. So after that, we left there. My uncle came and got us. He stayed on West Philadelphia, off of Linwood. He came and picked us up, we went over to his house. And we stayed there. And over there, it was like those two family flats, okay. So, you can hear everything that’s shooting at night you know and everything. It was real bad, I mean, real bad. And you could see during the day people was looting. They had TVs, furniture, walking down the street and everything. So this one particular day, it was a gas station on Linwood and Philadelphia, on the corner. And it caught on fire somehow. I don’t know if someone started the fire there or whatever, but it was on fire. And the first house next to it coming down the block, the fire jumped over that house and burnt down all the rest of the houses in a row. Now, in the middle of that block, we was on the opposite side of the street and we can see how the fire is just burning all these houses down, one after one.
NL: Just keeps spreading.
RG: Just keeps spreading. You know, the fire department, they couldn’t come out. And this one particular house, the roof was like this [gestures], it was about to collapse. But the man that stayed upstairs, he was in a wheelchair and he couldn’t come down. But we didn’t know that he was in a wheelchair at that time, so it was people in the neighborhood, they knew he was in a wheelchair. And they was hollering whatever his name, you know, I don’t know his name. But they were hollering that he was in the house and he was in a wheelchair, he wasn’t able to come down the steps. My father ran inside. I told my father, “Don’t go in!” because I’m looking at the roof about to collapse, and I’m hollering and screaming, telling him don’t go inside. And my father went inside and brought him out and saved his life. And as soon as they made it out, the roof came down. But it was like 10 houses burned down in a row.
RG: Sure did
NL: That’s incredible. Did your father continue any kind of relationship with that man after that?
RG: No. He just brought him down to safety and that was that. And so then after a while everything had calmed down and we was able to go back home. Then in 1970, that’s when my father moved and bought the house down the street and brought us out of that neighborhood.
NL: How long do you think it was that you were out of your house before you got back to Fourteenth Street?
RG: Probably about, I’d say five days.
NL: Okay, and there was no damage to your house?
NL: What about your neighbors on the block?
RG: No, because the National Guards were on our street. You could hear the tanks before we left. We could hear the tanks when we laid on the floor. You could hear the tanks coming down the street: boom-boom-boom-boom-boom, like that. They were so heavy. They were on our street. That’s why there was no damage or anything to our house. Because that’s what they was like, on every block.
NL: Do you remember anything else specific about when the National Guard came to your door and talked to your dad and said you guys need to move out of here right now?
RG: That’s the only thing I remember is that when he came, he told my father “Be sure to tell your kids do not look out the windows at night.” That’s what he said the first day that he came. And the next time he came was when he said we had to leave because things was getting real bad.
NL: Okay. Did they help you at all when you were moving to your relative’s house or they just say, “You need to go.”
RG: They just said we had to go. And that’s what we did.
NL: And by the time you got back, were all the National Guard and the tanks gone already?
RG: Uh-huh. Everything had basically calmed down.
NL: What do you remember—actually, first, so I know you had the order from the National Guard and from your dad to not to look out the window. Did you ever sneak a peek?
RG: Oh no! The way the shooting was over there, you could hear all the shooting and it was just terrible. You wouldn’t dare look out the window.
NL: Okay. It was all around the clock?
RG: Yes. It was just shooting, especially at night time. You just can hear it, especially at night time just shooting everywhere. So you dared yourself to look out that window. And we just made sure we was on the floor. We made our pallets and laid on the floor every night until we left there.
NL: What do you remember that next week after you’re back in your house on Fourteenth Street, the next time you went around the neighborhood, what did you notice?
RG: A lot of things was destroyed. I mean, it really looked bad. Twelfth Street really looked bad. Really, like, Fourteenth Street? I guess because it was basically houses, like the duplexes on that street, it really wasn’t bad like that. But Twelfth Street, bcause they had a lot of stores and everything, that was the hardest hit of the neighborhood, was Twelfth Street.
NL: Was there still any fires or looting or gunfire at that point?
NL: It was all safe?
RG: Everything was settled down then.
NL: And then you stayed living in that neighborhood for almost three years after that? Can you talk about what was the neighborhood like after all of that?
RG: You know, basically, it went back to the same. It’s just that the buildings were burned down or everything was just tore up on Twelfth Street. People was trying to cleanup over there, but basically everything just went back to normal. We went back to school, people went back to work. You know, trying to get their lives back together and that was basically it.
NL: Do you remember, in three years that you were still living there, had they started rebuilding any new things on Twelfth Street?
RG: Oh no. No. Everything was still burnt down. Nothing was rebuilt.
NL: And then, you were in middle school by the time you moved to this neighborhood here, is that right?
NL: And you went to high school around here as well?
RG: Yes. Mumford High School.
NL: Mumford High School. Can you tell me about your experience in high school?
RG: Oh, yes. Oh, I loved it over here, when we moved here. It was like a whole different environment over here, when we first moved in 1970. Mumford? Just wonderful. The teachers was nice, principal, you know. They made sure that you learnt. I just really enjoyed myself there at Mumford.
NL: Was it an integrated school at that point?
RG: There was some whites still there, during that time. Not a whole lot, but there were some. It was still majority African Americans, but it worked. There was still some whites there.
NL: Did you know anyone personally who took part in any of the looting and thievery in 1967?
RG: No. [laughing]
NL: Do you still – today, 2015 – do you go back and visit downtown or your old neighborhood very often?
RG: You know, this is what I did. I took my children over there so they could see where I lived at and grew up at, and just to show them the different houses I had stayed in. And that was basically it, you know. Nothing too much. But really, to really drive down Twelfth Street since I’ve really been over here? No.
NL: What about downtown?
RG: Downtown? I’ve been downtown and it’s not like it used be. It’s a few stores still open, but not like it was. I don’t even shop down there anymore because it’s not even enough stores open down there.
NL: So where do you go to shop instead?
RG: I go to Fairlane or Oakland Mall.
NL: Does anything besides shopping—I guess you do shopping elsewhere. Is there any other things you do when you are downtown?
RG: I go to Hart Plaza. It’s beautiful there.
NL: Does Hart Plaza is still feel or look the same that it did when you were growing up?
RG: Oh no. It’s much better now, especially with the walk? You know it’s beautiful now. I love how it is now downtown. It’s like it’s more relaxed downtown at Hart Plaza.
NL: Do you see the city continuing to make those kind of improvements to bring people downtown?
RG: Oh, yes! I really do. You see what Dan Gilbert is doing. He’s making that railroad or whatever on Woodward?
NL: Sure. Right in front of the museum.
RG: Yes, yeah my daughter works for him. So, this—Downtown is really going to be nice. I think in time, I think that people are going to buy more business downtown, on Woodward, to bring more business back there, you know. I think it’s going to happen in time. It’s gonna be the old downtown it used to be back in the 60s.
NL: That would be the dream, I think. Thinking back again to 1967: I know you were young then, but did you think at the time – or even now, looking back –what are your thoughts about what caused all of that to happen? All of the violence?
RG: From what I was told by my parents and what I was told by older people, they said that on that night, early in the morning on Twelfth Street – and I think it was Twelfth and Tuxedo [Clairmount] – but it was a blind pig, which they call an after hour joint. And the police went in; they said it was all white police officers went in, and they threw some black girls down the steps. And that’s what started the race riot during that time. That’s what I was told.
NL: Do you have any thoughts about how—because that’s what started it all, for sure, but everything that was happening really spread around these different parts of the city. Did you have an inkling as to why it got so big?
RG: No, I didn’t. I never understood that. Because it seems like it just would have stayed there, but it went everywhere.
NL: Yeah. Some people that we’ve talked to have talked about discrimination by the Detroit police at that time, you know, racial discrimination and profiling. Is that something you ever remember experiencing when you were growing up?
RG: No, maybe because I was too young, you know? My parents, I would say – they wouldn’t allow me to just wander off. I would never be by myself anyway. It was like me and my sister might walk to the store and come back, but that was basically it. We was always around the house.
NL: So you had good trust in police officers at that time, growing up?
RG: To be truthful, yes! Because I didn’t have any other reason not to. To me, it was like, I didn’t know about black or white, or a race thing or whatever until it was told to me after the riot. But I had trust in all police officers. It was, like, they were there to help me if I needed help, you know. That’s how I looked at it.
NL: Did you see – once you were out of your house and you were at your relatives’ houses, did you see a lot of police and National Guard and fire interacting with people to help calm the riots?
RG: No, none. Basically, my father he didn’t allow us, from my uncle’s house once we got there, because things were so bad, we basically stayed in front of the house. We wasn’t allowed to go on Linwood where all of the looting—there probably was police officers down there, or whatever, or National Guards, but we wasn’t allowed to go down there at all. We was just in one place, in front of the house. The only thing we saw was people coming with furniture, TVs, you know, stuff like that they were taking into their house. And then we just saw when all the houses burnt down in a row.
NL: Can you tell me about the picture of your aunt?
RG: Oh, yes. My auntie – a very sweet person, very sweet, you know. But she meant everything she said; she was firm. [laughing] I had asked her about—this is my second time seeing that, I had saw it once was before, but it was a very long time ago, and I asked her and she had told me, that she—I guess she was trying to bring her bed down, you know, just her and her husband. And my niece, when my niece was younger then, and she just was tired of bringing stuff down from upstairs—because back then the steps was steep, going up like that. And she said she just rested. She just was tired, and somehow they took her picture.
NL: You don’t know who took the picture, then?
NL: To clarify for the listeners, there is a picture that ended up being of Renee’s aunt, lying on a mattress, and that was shared around Facebook and that’s how she first found out about the project.
RG: Yes, and her name was Emily Jane [unclear]
NL: What neighborhood was she living in?
RG: On Linwood.
NL: Okay, so she was right in your neighborhood when you were growing up, pretty close.
RG: Well, she was close by. I would say from my house to where she was at, no more than 15 to 20 minutes away, from Fourteenth Street to Linwood. But she was close to her brother’s house, the house we had to go to and live at during the riot. But as I said, she lived above the restaurant that she was working at, or running –manager or whatever you want to call it she was doing then for someone. And she lived upstairs.
NL: Do you remember the name of the restaurant?
RG: No, I don’t remember the name of it, but that’s where she worked at. She worked downstairs from her apartment.
NL: Did it stay intact and keep running after the riots?
RG: Oh, no. That was tore down also.
NL: Do you remember, during that week—so you and your siblings were staying put under strict orders – were the adults coming and going from the house, though? Were they going to work, anybody?
RG: No. It was just: no work, no school, everything was just shut down, everybody was home.
NL: What about getting food and things, in the house?
RG: If you didn’t have food in your house then, that was it, because -- My uncle and my father, they didn’t go out to the stores. It was just too bad. But it happened so my uncle had food and he had a freezer also, so there was enough to hold us over.
NL: So you didn’t have to worry about that.
RG: No, we didn’t have to worry about it.
NL: That’s fortunate.
RG: Because if you didn’t have any food, that means you gotta be out there in the looting and in the grocery market, because there was nobody really that you could give the money to. That’s how bad it was.
NL: So the only way would have been to take the food. To just take it.
RG: [talking over each other] Yes, take it, right.
NL: Fascinating times. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us today?
RG: Well really, you know, I just hope and pray that Detroit never have a riot like they did in ’67. Because to be truthful, and I also told my children, if that ever happens, I will have to leave Michigan. Because it’s impossible to rebuild after something like that. Look how long it’s taking to rebuild from the ’67 riot, from Twelfth Street, Linwood, you know, a lot of things still probably aren’t up completely from where they were then. So, I just hope that Detroit stays on that forward, positive move that they’re trying to do now, because a riot is something that Detroit definitely doesn’t need. At all.
NL: Would you like to see that same area on the west side rebuilt, or do you think it’s better or easier for Detroit to focus on rebuilding downtown and other neighborhoods?
RG: Oh no. You know what? I think they should rebuild over there and downtown, you know, all different areas of Detroit. They need to go around and rebuild different places. Because people still have to live in different areas.
NL: How do you think we can get people involved to do that, because the city does not have much funds, unfortunately, to do those kinds of projects.
RG: And you know what, and that’s the thing. A lot of people will not get involved in doing any type of development to bring Detroit up like that, you know, because the first thing they will say [is that] the city has the money. Just like the roads, they feel the city has the money. Because we already voted no for the roads, because they felt the city has the money. So to rebuild Detroit, they wouldn’t do it. Because they figure, “I’m not going to waste my time doing that because downtown they have the money to do it.”
NL: Is there anything else you care to add?
RG: No, that’s basically it.
NL: Alright, well thank you so much for sharing your stories and memories with us today, Renee.
RG: Okay, thank you so much.