For immediate release
Cities Within The City
“Remembering Detroit’s Historic Black Communities
1920 to 1960s”
The Other Big Three; The Conant Gardeners, The Near EastSiders and The WestSiders each have a mission to research, record and present, from a Black perspective, the history of our three neighborhoods in the City of Detroit from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Each of these groups was organized to write a book about the neighborhood where we were educated, were nurtured and evolved. This publication trend started in the mid 1990s. This is the first event on which we have collaborated – to present an interesting and spirited Black History Program.Click on Image to Enlarge and View One-at-a-Time
Athletes from the 1920’s – 1950’s
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Holiday Fundraiser at Vladimirs
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INTERVIEW OF CATHERINE CARTER BLACKWELL
Oral History Project of the Westsiders
Interview Conducted by: Louis Jones
Q Miss Blackwell, first of all, thank you very much for taking time out of your schedule to speak with us. As you know this is about the Westside, and just to begin where are your parents from?
A My parents were both from Pennsylvania. My father is from a little town called Meadville, and my mother is from a not too little town called Bradford in Pennsylvania; and they met in Detroit.
At the time that they met, there was a friend introduced them at the church, an episcopal church — I am drawing a blank. They married, and two boys and a girl came along.
Q What brought them to Detroit?
A Well, my father was a barber, and his uncle had come to Detroit from Philadelphia and had a barber shop. He had my father to come because he was also a barber.
He worked on the boats in the summer barbering; and then in the winter he would work with his uncle. And then he decided to open his own barber shop, which he did. It was the first black owned four-chair barber shop on St. Antoine and Watson.
My mother was a school teacher, but she went into social work and she came here. That was how they started out. She was one of the first black social workers for the Department of Public Welfare, as it was called then.
Q What brought them to the westside as opposed to some place else in the city?
A Well, my father found a house on McKinley between Kirby and Hudson. It was a two-family house. He brought that, and thought this would be a good investment because we would live on the second floor and they would rent out the first floor. He had been looking for sometime for a place that he could afford to buy; and so, that was what he did. Then after about eight years I believe, I can’t remember the time length, length of time, they built a home on 25th Street.
And Mr. Pennick was a Construction Engineer, I guess he would be, and the house he built is still on Scotten; but he built our house. I can remember going from McKinley over to 25th Street and watching as the different stages of the house was being built, and the room that was mine. My two brothers had their room, of course, my parents had their room. There were four bedrooms, and so I remember that quite well.
Q Was it unusual for a family to build their own house as opposed to going to a structure that is already built?
A I think so. I can’t remember any of my friends whose families built their own homes. But Mr. Pennick of course, was an African American. At first they had a contractor. My parents had a contractor, and he was not very good. And so they turned to Mr. Donald Pennick, and he met them. There weren’t any in the block that we lived in, where the families built their own homes, but I am sure there were some in other parts of the westside.
Q Tell me about the block that you lived on, what do you remember most about it?
A Well, the family next door was German. Three doors from us the family was Polish. And across the street there was a two-family house, and the family there were African Americans. And then on the corner there was — On the corner of 25th and Kirby, there was an apartment building, The Latonia Apartments. And then across the street from that was a four-family building. Now some of the people who lived there became well known: Mr. Millender lived on 25th at one time. Mary Agnes Davis and her sisters lived across the street at one time. There are still members of The Group, we call it, I don’t know if you have heard of the Group.
A Well, we were westsiders.
Porter Dillard and my brother, Richard, and others were tired of meeting each other at funerals and they said, oh, let’s have a party where we can all meet rather than coming to the sad occasions. So they formed what was called The Group. They started having every other year, they would have a party. This year they had it, and it is sad to say the numbers are diminishing; but it is still a wonderful thing to see your friends that you have not seen in a long time and reminisce about the days of the westside.
Q When was The Group formed?
A When was it formed?
Q Was it formed when you guys were growing up or more recently?
A No. It was more recent than that. We were grown and moved away and had come back and all of that. I guess it has been in existence about eighteen years, maybe longer.
Q What was it about that group that allowed you to maintain the bonds over the years.
What was it about growing up on the westside that —
A Growing up on the westside was quite different than the east side. People that come to Detroit don’t understand this division that Woodward has between the west and the east side of Detroit.
Now, on Milford, that was a very busy street. We had black owned restaurants, gasoline stations, and the Thompson Brothers built their shoe repair shop. We had the dime store, pharmacy, the Nacirema Club. And then it sort of broke up when the expressway came through. That is what happened to our house on 25th Street, the expressway came through and our house was taken away. Of course, we were all very disgusted about that.
But we were not just — we had our own individual churches. There were about seven churches within that westside community: Hartford; St. Stephens; Tabernacle; St. Cyprian’s, and there was a Catholic church; and there were a lot of businesses, and it just brought us automatically together. Some of us went to the same school. I lived across the boulevard. That was the delineation between where we went to church. We lived across the Boulevard. Where are you going? I am going across the Boulevard. I went to Columbia Elementary School. And the friends on the other side of the Boulevard went to Sampson. Many of them went to Sampson. And we met after graduating from Sampson and Columbian, and we went to McMichael and Northwestern. So we came together again on the westside. It was a good life.
Q It sounds like it.
You talk about across the Boulevard, how were the communities different, on both sides, I sense there were some differences between the two?
A Well, of course, church was the one thing that made them a little different. Hartford at that time, with the minister was a very–
Q Charles Hill?
A Charles Hill, yes. He was a firebrand, and many people came over to, across the Boulevard to Hartford Church. It is still there. It is another church. But as you know Hartford brought a big building out on the Expressway. So we had many, many things to bring us together, rather than separate us.
We would have parties in each other’s houses and would go to the YWCA: The Lucy Thurman YWCA. There was a YWCA on the Boulevard — YMCA across from the Northwestern High School but my brothers couldn’t go. And so they went to the St. Antoine Branch of the YMCA, which was just down the street from the Lucy Thurman Branch of the YWCA. Sometimes we would meet out on the corner of Adams and St. Antoine and plan what we were going to do for a day. This meant our friends coming from Plymouth and Bethel and other east side churches; we all had, you know, quite a family of friends.
There was one thing I couldn’t participate in and that was to going to the movies on Sundays. My father made that very clear, that we could not go to the movies on Sundays. And I remember that clearly as if it was yesterday, the day I slipped in to the movies on Sunday. I couldn’t tell you one thing that was in that movie, because I was so afraid that something drastic was going to happen. Some of the parents, didn’t allow their children to go; but I never went again after that.
There were many things on both sides of the Boulevard that attracted us back and forth. There was a theater on Warren Avenue, and we could go on Saturdays and see the cowboy movies; and they would be continued. The cowboy would be riding a horse and all of the sudden he was going to go over a cliff and it was the end. So you had to come back the next Saturday to see if he fell over that cliff or mountain or whatever it was. So that was one of the attractions.
By the way on the corner of Woodrow and Milford, I don’t know if you know it, there is a church there. Can you picture that church on the corner? It was the Bernie Theater. Bernie Watkins was an old only child. Her father was a physician. And he asked her one day what did she want for her birthday. And she said she wanted a movie theater. Her father said, a movie theater? Well, he built it right there on that corner; and he invited all of Bernie’s friends to see the movies. And we would not go every week, but occasionally they would have movies. Now it is a church.
Q That was a black-owned theater; is that right?
A Yes. Yes; it was. But it wasn’t open to the public, so to speak. He built it for his daughter. So it wasn’t like a movie theater where you would go and buy a ticket and go in. But it was for her friends, and we had a great time.
Q That is different.
A That was very different.
Q Tell me something about Columbian, the elementary school, anything in particular stick out in your mind?
A Well, yes. In those days it was predominately white, and of course, I didn’t have an African-American teacher from kindergarten to the 12th grade. So we didn’t have that. But the auditorium teacher’s name was Mrs. Trombley. And I don’t know if that is why I became an auditorium teacher. But I loved Miss Trombley, she was a wonderful person. And I do remember Carter Woodson coming to speak to this class, and I was very excited about it. But I found that very few of my friends knew who Carter G. Woodson was. But my parents had become members of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History that he founded. So I knew all about him, and I was so proud when he came to our school.
I also know that there were two of us Geraldine Porter — I don’t know if you have met any of the Porters.
Q I have actually spoken to them, yes.
A Well Geraldine and I, we were good friends, and got in more trouble than anyone could imagine.
Q What kind of trouble did you get in to?
A Just talking in class, and you were not to talk in class and the teacher would reprimand us. We had roll down closets for our coats. And I remember one teacher, she put me on the floor of the closet, didn’t close the closet on me. But I came home and told my mother that oh, that they put me in this closet. I told her the worst story you ever heard. Of course, mother was not a person that would say, well, I am going up there to tell that teacher. She would say, oh really, what did you do? I wasn’t doing anything, just talking to Geraldine. Geraldine and I were very, very close friends. That was my big problem. You see I am talking now, and I talked then; I have talked all of my life.
But the school was, I remember one incident. Have you ever heard of Little Black Sambo?
A All right. I came home and told my mother I was not — I did not want to go to the library any more at Columbian. And she said, what? I loved to read, but I said I am not going to go to the library any more. The teacher always gives me this one book to read. And so she said, oh really, what is it? I told her. She didn’t say, well, I am just going up there, you know, and get at it. But the next day, she did. She went to the school and she she asked the librarian to let her see the book that she would always give me. The librarian was pleased. She thought that my mother was pleased about this; and she did. She gave her Little Black Sambo. Mother said, thank you. I am taking this to the principal, which she did, Miss McKenny. They called them the seven devils. There were seven principals that were really strict and very hard on the students throughout the school system and there were just these seven, and Mrs. McKenny was one of them. So when Mrs. McKenny — when mother said, I am taking this book, and if there are any more I suggest that you remove them, because this is certainly not making my daughter happy, and it doesn’t make me happy, and this doesn’t really give her anything of any consequence. She is not learning anything from this. So I credit my mother with taking the first book out of the public school library.
There were teachers who were — the teachers were very strict. I loved jewelry and my parents gave me jewelry to wear, not to school. My father made a jewel box for me. One day I slipped out with all of these bracelets on my arm. When the teacher would ask a question, I would raise my hand and these bracelets would go jingle, jangle. So, finally, the teacher was Miss Oven. She came back and she had a way of doing this, even though she wasn’t pushing up her sleeves, and she would do this, and you knew you were in trouble. So this day she took all of these bracelets off my arm and said, I am bringing them home to your mother this evening. Well, that was the worst thing in the world; and she did. And I didn’t see that jewelry box or jewelry for over a year. They hid it away from me because I wasn’t supposed to do things like that.
But we had many fun times, too.
Q Now, why don’t you talk about some of the fun times. Does anything in particular stand out in your mind?
A Funny how?
Q In the school; in the classes?
A Oh well, I don’t remember the school going on trips like we do now. I don’t remember anything like that.
At Northwestern I was in the A cappela choir, and we would go to the Bach Chorale every year. We would go up to Ypsilanti, and choirs from all over the state would come and perform the Bach Chorale. That was fun.
One year my mother let me go up to Ann Arbor to visit Margaret Matthews. Margaret Matthews lived in the next block from us, and we were very close friends. And she went to the University of Michigan. And she was a very talented musician. So after the Chorale my mother had given me permission and Margaret’s mother met me and we went to Ann Arbor. Oh, That was a thrill.
But I also was involved in badminton and archery. And of course, there were some unpleasant things that you remember now that you really did overcome these things. Such as my father, he made an archery target. He taught me how to make the arrow with the feathers on it and all of that. When I went to Northwestern, and I wanted to join the Archery Club and oh,no. Archery, no indeed. So, I said, well, let me try out. I was very persistent and finally I took the arrow, I had my own bow and arrows. And I shot the arrow and right into the bullseye. They couldn’t get over that. I was on that team and on the badminton team.
Q What was your perception of the resistance?
A Well, you know, well my mother was always very — she didn’t — there was a parent, one of them that would come up to the school and shake her fist and whoop and holler and all of that. My mother wasn’t that way. She was a very quiet kind of person. And she really, quiet in a way, but she got things changed; and she made certain that — there is a picture here of people at the Girls YWCA camp. We could only go the last two weeks, when I say we, I mean African-American girls could only go the the last two weeks of camp. And I don’t remember being really angry about this. I was upset about some things. But my parents both had different ways of approaching the fact that we were discriminated against.
She was really, my mother especially, did not allow discrimination to make us ugly and upset. She took a stand. It was a quiet stand. But the one thing I remember her about school, with McMichael. There isn’t a McMichael, there is a McMichael, but it isn’t in the same location. It was right there on Grand River where Northwestern used to be. And this was my first semester there. Well, the counselors would give you an outline of what your classes would be. So when I went to McMichael, I got my outline and schedule, and I came home and gave it to my mother. And it was cooking and sewing and child care. And my mother said, well, what is this? I said, well, these are my classes. She didn’t say anything. The next day she went up to school and she told the counselor that they would have to change my schedule, because I was going to go to college and so they had an entirely different schedule. The counselor said, oh, no. This is the schedule that they setup for, she didn’t say African Americans or Black or Negro girls. Mother said, well, she can learn how to be a maid from our maid. I had learned not to — by that time, not to say anything, when my mother said things. So they put me in the Language, that is what they called it, the Language Classes. So we got outside and I said mother, you called Grandma Harris, our maid. You know, we don’t have a maid. She said just, hush up. She was really quite something. So I did make it through that and then College Prep in high school.
As you can see I talk a lot. I talked a lot then, and I was told by the counselor in high school that there wasn’t a college or university in the country that would admit me not because of my scholarship, but because of my citizenship. So, I went on and began to — when I graduated —
Q Talking too much.
A Yes, I did talk too much. It is quite obvious that I love to talk.
We graduated in January. You don’t have that system here any more. So my parents thought it would be too — I shouldn’t just go off to college for one semester. So there was a Mr. William Hall who was a member of our church, and he was the only supervisor, so to speak, at J. L. Hudson’s. He was in charge of the maids, the elevator operators, and the janitors and the doormen. He was over that. So I said, well, Mr. Hall, I have until September, and I would like very much to get a job at Hudson’s. He said, well, I will see what I can do. So he got me a job as an elevator operator from February — I told Mr. Ogletree. He said, that is okay,I take people off the street —
(Pause in Proceedings)
Q Miss Blackwell you were telling us about working at Hudson’s?
A (Um-hum). So, the woman who was the counselor at Northwestern got on my elevator one day, and she was so pleased because she was thinking that her prediction had come true. I was not in college or a university and they would not accept me because of my citizenship. So I told her that I had been admitted to St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina and I would start in September.
So that is another story, too, because I wanted to go to Howard University. My mother went with a friend to pick up her daughter who was at St. Augustine’s and she liked St. Augustines, because it was a church school; and it was a very strict, and so forth and so on.
So that was just the place to send her wild child.
Q Going back to St. Cyprian’s, I am skipping here a little bit.
Tell us about your family’s initial involvement in St. Cyprian’s.
A Well, there were five families that formed St. Cyprian’s and my parents were among the five founding families. They had gone to St. Matthew’s, but that was quite a distance from the west side. And so these families all got permission from the Bishop to start their own little mission church. And it was just a little wooden structure. And many, many tales my brother would tell because the families had to carry their coal to church on Sunday. Each family would bring some coal on Sunday to keep the place warm. My oldest brother would have to go behind the organ and do some kind of manipulation to pump the organ so it could be played. That church, of course, grew and grew and then a new building was put up under Father Dade. Father Dade was a very moving force in the church. My parents still were there, and an important cog in that wheel. I was the first baby christened or baptized in that church and my father made the christening font.
My father was not just a barber, he was very, very creative. And he could make anything as I told you before. I didn’t have a store bought toy until I was 11 years old. He made all of my toys. The kids at Christmas would say, see what I got for Christmas. See what I got, and my Daddy made it; and made it ten times better than anybody else’s.
So my parents were a part of that church until the day they died. I am still a member of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church.
Q What type of activities did they have; did they have many activities?
A We had a lot of activities, yes. And of course, my father, in fact he was the scout master; and my mother had a Monday night class for older boys. Dr. Adams of Hartford, every time he sees me, he says, oh here is Miss Beulah. That was my mother’s name. And he said that he remembers so well her gathering the boys in the neighborhood whether they were members of the church or not and keeping them on the straight and narrow path is how he puts it. So the church was a very important part of the community. Of course, not just St. Cyprian’s, but all of those churches that I mentioned earlier were very important in the community. We are not able to keep it up. It is not as strong a membership; it is not as big as it was at one time, but we are working to get it up.
Q Okay. Tell me about the Nacriema Club.
A Well, the Nacriema Club, you know that is American spelled backwards, and it was started by a group of businessmen, so to speak, who wanted a place where they could have social gatherings in a place of their own. So these men became members. You had to pay a certain amount of money. Now, my family did not belong to the Nacriema Club. My oldest brother, Richard, after he grew up, he became a member of the Nacriema. But every — one week in the summer was Nacriema Week; and that was really the greatest time. They would have a picnic, a boat ride, just all kinds of activities.
Q Where would they take place?
A In and around Detroit,at Belle Isle, the boat would go on the Boblo Boat Ride. Then they would have the Boblo Boat at night, and oh, that was fun, because you danced, you dressed up to go on the boat ride, it wasn’t just like a picnic or anything. And we looked forward to Nacriema Week. And it is my understanding that they are trying to bring that back. St. Cyprian’s did join with them for one short time there in trying to get it going again. But, there is so many other activities now that young people can do and become involved in.
Q Why didn’t your folks join or your father join the Nacriema Club?
A Well, I really don’t know. First place, the membership was, I don’t know how much it was. But I know that my father was a bit frugal and he, I guess felt that it wasn’t necessary for him to spend his money on the Nacriema Club.
Daddy also was what we call a chiropodist. Do you know what a chiropodist is?
A Was that like with the Masons?
A Oh, with the feet.
Q That’s right. A podiatrist. Podiatrist, and I don’t know where he learned the business of being a chiropodist but he and oh dear, an opthamologist had their offices on Gratiot. And I can remember you go up the steps to Dr. Lawson and Dr. — well, it didn’t say, doctor, I don’t think. On the risers of the step, on the next riser would be an eye; the next riser would be a foot; and each repeating all the way up. I loved going up and then Daddy because he had his barbershop, and he would take his little bag on Sundays to church. After church he had patients that he would see on Sundays, and I would go with him. And I guess he felt that the Nacirema Club just was not something that he needed to belong to.
Q Do you think in your own kind of way about the depression. What do you remember about the depression?
A Well, we had just moved into the house on 25th Street then. My mother being a social worker, she had, of course, been paid then in script. The script was like — as I can remember, there were only certain stores who would take script. It is not U.S. dollars, but it was what — I don’t know how that worked out. But, they would have wheat and flour and milk and sometimes Mother would bring some home. And I would say, I wouldn’t like it. But she said, eat it anyhow. Other people, this is all they have. So you eat it; so we ate it. But it was a very difficult time for specially African Americans because we really were at the bottom of the ladder. The Welfare Department was not that easy. It wasn’t that easy for them to get on to welfare or for men to find jobs and so forth.
And then it came along the time when the depression was over. And I must tell you about the wine. You ever had Dandelion Wine? Well, we would go out to River Rouge on Sundays and pick the Dandelions. My father would make, we would have big crocks in the basement and he would make this wine. Now my brother and his good buddy, Henry Talbert would sit down and take cups of the wine and then they would replace it with water. They would take the bottle or the wine out. And my father said, well, I guess the wine is ready. He would go out and get a crock of water. So he knew who was doing that, so then he put it in the fruit cellar and locked it. Of course, my brother found the key and he and Henry, they were so funny — this is whole new chapter, but it was a fun time when you think about it.
Q Since the war stopped the depression from extending further, what do you recall about the war?
A I was in Washington, D.C. and I worked in the Rationing Board, and my husband was in dental school, and we married when we were both in school at Howard, sixty-years ago. And the reaction that I still have some ration books around with the stamps and all that you had to get for butter and wheat and sugar and flour and those kinds of staples. But it was not, I don’t think I starved, or any of us starved at all. It wasn’t an easy time.
In Detroit, of course, was called the Arsenal of Democracy because we kept the factories moving with the, I guess —
Q The tanks.
A — tanks and things like that.
Q This is a little bit out — Joe Louis: What comes to mind when you reflect on Joe Louis?
A Joe Louis’s sister and I were very close friends.
We were at Howard together and she was ahead of me. And when she graduated we were all so excited because Joe came to the graduation and gave her a car, a convertible. And both of us had decided we were going to stay over to take a summer class even though she graduated, she was going into graduate school. But I didn’t, I wanted to just stay in Washington. I loved Washington. So my parents agreed that I could. We would ride around and people all recognized the car. And when we would pass, you could hear them say “Joe Louis, Joe Louis”. We went to a baseball game and someone came up to Eunice and said, you are Joe Louis’s sister, aren’t you? She said, no, there she is and pointed to me. So they came up to me, oh, you are Joe Louis’s sister. We had a lot of fun. But Joe Louis was — we went to New York, I guess with the Braddock fight. He got tickets for us, and we were very excited; he was a nice guy.
Q Last point here a little about what you have done since you left the westside. How did you come to go to Africa?
A Well, I began teaching in 1955. My, of course, my connection, my family had given me with Africa and African-American history and so forth was deeply instilled in me, and had been deeply instilled in me. And of course our text books had nothing at all about our history, no pictures, and so forth. And the children would call each other, “the old African “in a derogatory sense, and I would say this is not right. Of course, we knew very little about Africa. So I was determined that I was going to go to Africa to find out by myself. So I did in 1960. I took off for Africa, and I visited eight countries. It was a wonderful time because of the independence of many of the countries. I was in Senegal when they gained their independence. They formed a Federation and now as I understand it, I guess about four or five months later I was in Ghana when Nkrumah became President. Nkrumah had been at Lincoln University with my husband. So I had an almost open sesame to the activities that they had. And I came back, and of course, going to Africa by myself in the first place was, everyone thought I was crazy. In ’63 I returned. I have been a total of sixty-five times visiting and studying in forty-one countries.
Q We have been told that you were going to Africa and yet you are getting young people here in Detroit?
A It has paid off, I think. My students — I have so many students who come back to me and they tell me all of the things they know about Africa and so forth, which makes me proud. But I was able to get them to understand what a proud people we are; what a great people we are. That Africa is where mankind began, and where all the things that we have today began on that very continent and to dispel many of the myths like Tarzan and Dactori and all of these films that have come out and have just given a wrong view of Africa and Africans. I wanted to change that; and I think I have. I have taken many groups to Africa, and I have had the opportunity of studying at some of their great universities, and I have met many people. I have had students, we have had students, I should say my husband and I living here that we have put through school; some have gone back. My Mbutu, the first one from Kenya, he is now a Professor at the University; he has his doctorate; he is a Professor at the University of Nairobi. The last young lady, Loretta Sieh from Liberia, she is now in Minneapolis, and doing quite well, married and has two children. So I feel that my mission, in fact my mother went with me twice, and she would often say that her mother sent $10.00 a month.
Now my mother was born in 1888, and her mother belonged to a Missionary Society in Bradford, Pennsylvania. And they sent $10.00 a month to, as she said, raise a child in Africa, and she wanted to go and see this child. So my mother said that I had fulfilled her mother’s dream, and she went with me twice. The first time she went through Europe and then met me in Egypt. The second time she spent six weeks on a study tour with me; and she was quite interested in it all.
Q This might be the last question. We will see, but I am curious: What is it about the Westside as you understand it and as you experienced it that was open to so many people in subsequent years becoming pretty prominent in their own life?
What was it about the environment that allowed that to happen?
A That’s a hard question. I feel that the east side of Detroit was not as heavily populated, number one, with African Americans. And the Westside was more populated and that we came together in many ways in trying to — our parents to try to raise our children, their children, and so forth. There was always this togetherness and even in school, we had a very close knit group because we had to really fight off so many things that had happened and were happening in those days; and still are happening.
Q What did you have to fight off?
A Well, discrimination in every sense of the word. So that’s still very much a part of the problem today.
Q There must have been something in the air almost that gave you something to fight that off?
A Sure. I mean our parents came together. Just like St. Cyprian’s Church, it started with just five families. But these five families were able to bring in more families and in that way — and this is the same thing that Hartford, Rev. Hill was a very dynamic man, and he fought discrimination in every sense of the word. He was the first one to bring Paul Robeson here, and he just fought for the rights of African Americans. Of course they were not called African Americans. We were called Negroes. Now we are called African Americans or whatever; just make sure that you call it in the right way.
Q Okay. Is there anything else that you would like to mention that we have not talked about?
A Well, one thing I have not told you about: I have gone to Africa to bring back to our children here in Detroit an understanding that our children are just like them. However, we have so many advantages in that the children there look like this little toy I showed you earlier, the children make their own toys. This little boy got off the bus and he was standing there and he was rolling this. He took some wire and wrapped some cord around it and made a little push toy. So one of the kids when I took it to school said, don’t they have Toys R Us? I said, sure they have Toys R Us. What do you have to have when you go to Toys R Us? What, money. Thank you. The children do not have the money that our children have to buy things and so forth. So they use their own devices and they make their toys and so on. I have just a whole bag of toys that I take around to the schools and the children here are very delighted. One little boy, he did make a toy. He said, I am going to make one, Miss Blackwell with a tambourine out of pop bottle tops. And he came and he brought that. It was right over here at Fitzgerald School. He made it. I am glad that I instilled something in them, too, to know that you can do. As I said my toys were wonderful in all of my years, my father as I was growing up, my father made them. And I wish that more children and more parents would become involved in doing things like that, using your own skills, creative and inventive skills; and that’s all.
Q Okay. There is a term, it takes a village.
Q It has not been used but many years ago, it was, but does that term apply?
Q How so?
A Well, the Westside flourished at one time and then when other things came in to the scene, naturally it disappeared. But we still have that old, when you think of the churches look at Tabernacle, they put up this big beautiful church there on West Grand Boulevard and the village that put that together. The churches were very important in the community, in helping to make this village a viable one. And the schools had a long — but now there is a Catherine C. Blackwell Institute of International Studies, Commerce and Technology. I had to get that in.
A I am so proud of it. Those children are wonderful, and are Pre-K through 8. We have a very strong administration and teachers and I am very proud of them making, having the school named in my honor, of course, I didn’t accomplish that, Detroit Public Schools decided that because of crediting me with being the first bringing African-American History in to the public schools.
Q I think that is a good way to end it. Thank you very much again. It has been a treat.
A You are welcome."> INTERVIEW OF FELIX SELDON
Oral History Project of the Westsiders
Interview Conducted by: Louis Jones
* * * *
Q Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk with us about the west side, and your experiences on the west side.
To begin, can you tell us a little bit about your parents, where they were from and how they got to Detroit?
A My father was from Arkansas, Texarkana, Arkansas. He was a blacksmith down there, and he went from there to Tuskegee and studied under Carver, George Washington Carver, for a while at Tuskegee; graduated from Tuskegee. He went back to Kickasaw, Alabama.
My mother was from Newton, Alabama where I have a farm. She met up with him. He would go down from Chickasaw to visit her. Then they came to Detroit around 1922. I guess the big thing, the big draw bringing them here was the Ford Motor Company with the inticement with the extra money. They came up here, bought a place on 28th Street. The whole family was raised on 28th Street. We still own the home over on 28th Street. I went down to Newton where my mother was born, bought the old farm where she was raised down there.
So now I was born in the front bedroom on 28th Street and most of the family was born right there and we still own the place, like I said.
Q You said that your father worked at Ford, what kind of work did he do?
A He was a milwright. He worked about 37 years, midnights, as a millwright out at Ford. He loved his work and, of course, he did retire from Ford. Then he lived about 12 years after that and passed away back in ’74.
Q Exactly what is a millwright?
A A millwright is a person that when the machines are operating, they have nothing to do. When the machines break down, they come out and they would fix them. Also a millwright when they are doing the change over, millwrights were working around the clock, practically. It is one of the skilled trades. These men are very, very knowledgeable and very productive when something breaks down, they have got to get it back up; that is what a millwright does.
Q So often when I hear about blacks working at Ford Motor, you hear about them working in the foundry. This was a skilled job. Was that unusual for a black man to have a job like that at Ford?
A My father started out in the foundry, and gradually worked up as a millwright. I remember immediately after the war they began to give him blueprints and things like this to read. They wanted him to become more and more skilled. My father became a Leader, a Gang Leader and then a Millwright. You say it is a skilled trade. It really requires a great deal of work. I went out there when I was going to the University of Detroit and I had a summer job at Ford. I worked there for nine days. My father thought it was the worst thing that could happen, to not continue to work for Ford Motor Company. I was working midnights. I couldn’t stay awake. I had a job with the City and I became a Forester for the City. Every summer I always had a job with the City. The fellows that went to the Ford Motor Company in the summer interns, the next thing you know they didn’t have jobs. So I was very fortunate.
Q Did your father talk about any hardships he had working at Ford as far as relationships with white or other folks more generally?
A He never talked about that, no. My father apparently kind of got on pretty well out there; he never brought that home at all. Many times he would come home and stay up all day. We used to wonder how he could do this. Apparently when a millwright is not working, he is not working. He is not working and he can rest. He seemed to enjoy his work out there.
Q Okay. Your mother, what did she do?
A My mother was a homemaker. Well, at one time in Alabama she taught school for about, probably a few years down there. She only had an 8th grade education; down there you could do that. She came to Detroit with my father and was a homemaker. She was in the Missionary Society at the Tabernacle Baptist Church. She traveled a great deal with the missionary work, as a missionary for Tabernacle. Upon her death, I didn’t know this until just recently when my sister told me the story. She would always room with Mother King, Martin King’s mother when she would go on the trips. When my mother passed away, Mother King was sick, and she couldn’t come to Detroit. When she passed away, I was 16 years old and didn’t even know this, but Mother King was sick, and she couldn’t come to the Detroit. But Daddy King came to Detroit and he was there at the funeral and talked about my mother and what went on between them. I didn’t realize the relationship with the Kings.
Q Do you recall what Daddy King said about your mother?
A See, that is the story. I was 16 years old. There were so many people at that funeral from all over the country. They were just lined up for the funeral. The funeral lasted about three and a half hours. It was the longest funeral. And Daddy King was one of the ones up there with Rev McNeil. I don’t remember what he had to say.
Q So she traveled all over the country or was it around Detroit?
A She traveled all over the country. She was a Missionary. She was involved with the Missionary Society, here locally, but basically she would go to the conventions and go to different places where they sent her. But she wasn’t on staff or the payroll, this is something she did voluntarily. I don’t know how she did it raising eight children, but she did it. We were proud of her for that.
Q Did she talk about what she did as a missionary?
A Well, the missionaries basically worked with families, worked with mothers. They worked different church programs; did work in other churches to establish missionary societies in other churches. Of course, back in those days, the parents didn’t do a lot of talking to the kids; didn’t tell us an awful lot. These things we hear, a lot we get from our relatives, as to the stories. But she was quite prominent within the missionary society.
She established the first block club in Detroit there on 28th Street. That got the whole city going with these block clubs.
Q With the block club, what kind of things did she do?
A She was President of the block club. She finally decided that 28th Street, she helped to organize, 28th Street, between McGraw and Cobb, and got the people together. Then they started having these meetings, coming to my house and the Clavon’s house next door, Mr. Hood’s house up there, and it was a club to keep the neighborhood up; to keep it from going down. Back in that time I guess you could get money, or money was made available through the government to keep some of these homes up. People could actually get together and they had to petition to get the money for the homes. It was a very close knit neighborhood. As you know the whole west side was like a family, you knew everybody. That block and the other blocks would look at 28th Street and they would start to form their block clubs, and now it is very prominent throughout the whole area right now.
Q How did she get the idea to even form a block club?
A She was an organizer. She was just a leader. I don’t know why she did it. She was in the missionary society. She was always President of the missionary group, and a lot of the leadership stuff kind of got to us, and you could see her; that is how I became a military person I guess and a leader.
Q I understand that the alleys were not necessarily paved before, and there were not a lot of lights on the street as we see today. It is my understanding that the block club had something to do with that?
A Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Back in those days you know, the junk men would come down the alleys with their horse and buggies. The garbage was in concrete containers. You put your garbage in there and, of course, the maggots and the flies and everything was on the thrash. They had barrels back in those days. But it smelled just awful. The block club would get with the City to make them cleanup the alleys. That was one of the the big things was to clean up the alleys and to encourage the people in the block to keep their grass cut, paper picked up. And of course, in those neighborhoods because the mothers didn’t work, there were many, many, many kids there. The kids were being raised by mothers and fathers. The father worked, the mother stayed home which made it really nice because mothers were always there cooking dinner. Sundays you would go to church, it was just something that you always did. You knew everybody. It was a good time, really a good time.
Q One of the things I have learned about the times were the number of clubs that were were around. Everybody was a member of some kind of club. There was a Leisure Club, Leisure Hour Club, does that sound familiar at all?
A I am not familiar with that one.
I know the Nacirema Club, of course. People just in the churches, the churches had a lot of influence on what went on in the neighborhood. Like Tabernacle: Every deacon in Tabernacle had a certain number of members he was responsible for. There was a deacon, I don’t remember his name right now but he stayed right down the street from us. Anything that went on in that block, and if you were a member of Tabernacle, your family would talk to that deacon. He would come to the house and sit around and have prayer and kind of get things halfway straightened out. The churches had a great influence on what went on in the neighborhoods, too.
Q Do you recall any particular thing that the deacon would have come to your house about?
A It could have been one of the boys not behaving himself, getting into trouble. Back in those days, it was very prevalent that children would raid the cherry trees, apple trees down the alley. We would watch those apple trees as much as the owner did. Maybe sometime you would get caught so you would certainly get a spanking or a whipping, they would call them. Then the deacon would sit down and tell us, you shouldn’t do this. This is the way it should be done. The Lord doesn’t like this, you know, and everybody just kind of perked up and understood. Next year, you did the same thing all over again.
Q Now, was your father a member of the UAW, and did he talk about it?
A He was a member of the UAW. The person in our neighborhood who was prominent was Mr. Clavon next door. He was always a big man in the UAW. In fact Walter Reuther would come in to the neighborhood and he would go to Mr. Clavon’s house. My father would go over there because my father really wasn’t in the leadership of the UAW. Clevand Clavon was.
Q Did your father talk about those meetings at all?
A No, no; don’t remember him talking about it. I do go through the history, reading about how things were going. I remember about the assembly lines would run them ragged until you tell the union. The union came in and slowed those lines down. The unions had a great influence on the salaries of the people. Then apparently the relationship of the blacks and whites in the unions, things were very – you know, down South things were segregated. Detroit wasn’t much better. People were in separate, not segregated, but separate. In the unions, apparently the people got together, they had a common mission and therefore you could always count on the union man whether he was black or white to come to your aid and come to your assistance. That was one of the reasons why my father got to where he got, because of the unions.
Q What kind of things did your father do leisure time; did he have any hobbies or people he spent time with or places that he went?
A My father didn’t have many hobbies. He was dedicated to Ford’s, come home, do the work around the house. He loved to garden. He would have gardens, he would provide the gardens all around Ford Motor Company. Every Ford employee could get a garden plot. That is how I got to know about flowers and growing things through my father. He would always take the family out there and we would work in the garden. The following year he would bring in the vegetables and things like this. He loved to work around the house with his, and water his grass and listen to the ballgames in the summertime.
Winter time, it was keeping the furnace operating down in the basement. We had one of these big coal furnaces. The following year you would get about five tons of coal out in front of your house. You get wheelbarrows and dump it into the coal chutes down in the basement. The father’s responsibility was keeping the fire growing. At night they would bank the fire. In the mornings, shake it out, and put more coal in the furnace. If that is a hobby, that is a hobby, to do that. I don’t know; he would love to do that.
Q Okay. Tell us about when you were growing up as a child did you have any jobs to do around the house or outside of the house?
A Every child had a responsibility. And my responsibility was washing the dishes after dinner. I remember many times I did not want to wash dishes after dinner, but I certainly did it. Then the other brothers had various responsibilities. The girls had their responsibility for cooking and washing the clothes and cleaning up the house and things like this. Everybody had a responsibility and it was your job, and you did it. That was a requirement.
I guess one of the things I used to enjoy doing around Christmas time was coming down the alleys and people would put their Christmas trees out. I would get big piles of Christmas trees and drag them down the alley. I would bring them home and my father would cut them up and put them in the furnace. Thinking back now I don’t know if that was such a good idea or not, because it would go up the chimmey you know and they saw the fire or something. Back in those days we would love to smell it, loved to see it flame up and it burns great.
Q I understand that you worked for your Godfather, a Mr. Simpson?
A Mr. Simpson owned Simpson Battery Electric on Milford Avenue. Mr. Simpson opened that shop up, he was a Cass Tech graduate. He opened an electrical battery company. He worked outside for I guess from 19 probably the early 30s to when he passed away in ’50. I would go up there and work with him on picking the batteries in and out of the vehicles, and changing the generators. I have done it many, many times in the snow. You would have to clean the snow off, and somebody would drive in the vehicle. You would get underneath it, put the battery in or change the starter. I worked with my Godfather for many, many years. When he passed away he left me with the business. I was a University student. I had to make a decision whether I wanted to continue with the battery electric business outside in the open or continue my college education. I decided I would go and continue with my education at college.
Q So you sold the business?
A I sold the business, yes.
Q How did you and your family meet Mr. Simpson and his family?
A The Simpsons were my godparents. His name was Felix. I was named after him. My sister’s name was Edna Lucille. She was named after Mrs. Simpson. Mrs. Simpson was, her parentage was from Belgium. Mr. Simpson was from Indianapolis. Of course they were a black and white couple. They practically raised us, you know. We were eight kids next door. They had no children. They adopted us completely. Many times when our dog would be taken to the dog pound, Mrs. Simpson would get it out. Many times we would break their windows, they never said a word, but would get the windows fixed. Mr. Simpson would be in the backyard raising his flowers. So around my house right now I have a lot of flowers based on working with him. He was a tremendous role model; tremendous role model. I never heard him swear; never said an unkind word to me. Mrs. Simpson was like another mother to me. I would eat at home and go over there and eat with him when he came in from the shop.
Q Was this a white couple?
A Mrs. Simpson was white. My godfather, Mr. Simpson was a very, very dark man. He was black.
Q That would be unusual back in those days, interracial couple, no?
A I tell you if you have ever seen a love situation, that was a love situation. He worshipped her, and she worshipped him. What a couple; what a couple. They both ran a shop up on Milford. Everybody knew Mrs. Simpson; everybody knew my godfather, Mr. Simpson.
Her family, her sisters, would come once in a blue moon to come and visit them. They kind of disassociated themselves from Mrs. Simpson; she didn’t seem to mind, because she had the whole family, our family, and other families in the neighborhood. We never thought anything about it.
Q What was the nature of race relations in that community back there; you are making me think about that with this relationship?
A This relationships, well, you know, on our street there were the McKissics, a lot of Polish families. We were raised up together. We had our little ins and outs, it wasn’t a racial thing. It was mainly kids, you know. My brother was telling me a story about McKissic boys, two rough guys finally when they grow up became priests in the catholic church.
Down the street there was a white fellow, a white family. we never thought about the race at that time. It was mainly just kids and families. I remember the McKissics could come to our house and eat, you know, and kids over to our house. I am not making it pie in the sky, but it was just not a whole lot of conflict until a lot of people began to come up, they had another another migration from the south. They came to the area and then a lot of the whites began moving out, and I remember experiencing things out at River Rouge that I never experienced before. That was then and now is now.
Q What kind of things did you experience at River Rouge and and what kind of things are we talking about.
A I guess we are talking early 40s, just before the race riot that happened in 42, I guess it was.
Down below Warren Avenue there were a lot of white families living down there, many Polish, I guess it was. The people there had conflict and pressing for jobs, I guess that was the confusion and anxiety. People began rather than taking it out on the enemy, we take it out on ourselves. There were times I guess when you couldn’t go up on West Grand Boulevard. I was going down to the General Motors Building and walking up West Grand Boulevard, and they didn’t want us, began fighting you, they didn’t want us to come up that way.
I remember when I was going to Northwestern High School, we couldn’t go to the Lee Plaza Hotel over there right next to Northwestern High School.
We had formed a bowling league there in Northwestern, an interacial bowling league and we couldn’t go across the street on Grand River.
Q Mr. Seldon, you were talking about how things began to change in River Rouge?
A Yes, we began to notice it, I guess in the 40s. I remember one time being out to River Rouge and being on the swing set. There was a gentleman with apparently a heavy southern accent. He wanted us to get off of the swings, and let his kid swing, you know. Mr. Clavon happened to be with us. He told him, man, you are not in the south any more. You can’t do this like you did down there. They were getting ready to go to fisticuffs. The fellow backed down.
Of course, there at the Granada Theatre over there on Warren Avenue, blacks had to go upstairs in the balcony. Then gradually because once the kids got in the balcony and began to throw popcorn and stuff downstairs they changed that rule, and let us sit down there together.
Then downtown at Stouffer’s, you couldn’t go to eat. There were certain places downtown that you couldn’t go and eat. This was Michigan. But things gradually changed. They had to change. The population, was getting too — the blacks were getting to get more money, and the population was changing, and they had to begin letting us kids do what we wanted to do.
There around Northwestern High School, the dime store, finally you were able to go to the dime store and eat in the dime stores. But things in Michigan, you might have a little a bit of segregation, at one time separation. Of course, it did change, has changed.
Q How do you feel about that. I mean not being allowed to go different places and have different types of experiences?
A I did spend a great time in the south. My grandmother was down in Bessemer, Alabama. I would go there every summer. So I knew about the racial policies. I would go on the train from here to Cincinatti, all mixed up. Get into Cincinatti and then catch the segregated coach where they separate you and send you on going down south, across the Mason-Dixon line. I remember one time my brother and I were going, I guess they call it Children’s Aid, was taking us down there. We went into the white coach area going to Cincinnatti, nice seats, air conditioned. We sat down. A white couple turned around, are you sure you should be in here Sonny. We got a ticket to Bessemer, Alabama. The conductor came in, said, you boys can’t be up here. He took us back to the cattle cars where the blacks would ride the trains down through the South. So I knew those coaches were not air conditioned, and you would go through the mountains, through those tunnels and the coaches would fill up with smoke. You were always behind the engines. They always put your coaches behind the engines, and they would ride those down there. It was very uncomfortable and very inconvenient. Guys would come through there with sandwiches and things like this. Normally we would pack a basket. Mother would pack sandwiches and chicken and things like this. And to this day, I don’t know how my mother could pack sandwiches, baloney sandwiches and chicken and things like this in those baskets with the mayonaise on them. For 24 hours, that is how long the trip took, no one ever got sick from that samonella or anything like that. We would have those soggy sandwiches with something to drink.
You would ride down and then you got on to the south, you knew your place down there. You were to get to the back of the line. My grandmother many times, the cars down there would be standing there, next in line and they would ignore her and go right to the white person. Of course, you would stand to one side of the counter. When they got finished over there working with the whites, they would come over there. That was very unamerican, but that is the way the situation was down there.
Now the little town that I bought my property in down there, they want to make me Mayor. It is only three hundred blacks. How things have changed; times change.
Q Were you cautioned before you went down south?
A We knew. Kids were, you know, it is something that you learn and something that it takes you forever to get over, you feel like the inferiority is ingrained in you. The people down there, I don’t know how they stood it. As I get older I figure they were able to tolerate it through I guess it is kind of crazy, everybody either dipped snuff or chewed tobacco. It was kind of a semi-mellow state that they stayed in down there. They were able to tolerate it down there. As a younger kid, I noticed, I guess in the late or early 50s when I went down there, the kids were coming out of high school and out of colleges. They knew about this stuff and they were challenging it. Nothing happened, of course, until after the Montgomery situation, 55, 55 and Montgomery and Rosa Parks.
Q Going back a little bit now to Milford Street: Describe what Milford Street might look like on a busy Saturday afternoon?
A Well, you had the five and ten cent store up there, a place to shop. We loved to go on Milford. We would come down the street to Mr. Campbell’s Drug Store, we got an ice cream soda. Campbell’s didn’t have a juke box in there. But right down the street there was another icecream parlor and they had a juke box and you could sit around, they would serve you sandwiches and everything like that. St. Cyprian’s was right across the street. St. Cyprian’s Father Dade was always keeping the kids busy around the area.
Then you go down a little farther to Skippies, across the street from the gas station. Skippy was a big numbers man. Everybody knew that. The maffia would come in there and the big guys would come in there, and it would allow you to see Skippy him in his handcuffs. That was kind of exciting, but they would take him down and twenty minutes he was back out there.
Then down the street there were barber shops and shoe stores. Milford was a very active street. Then they had the Swan’s Drug Store. And then Hawkins, the people had the drug store on Woodward and Milford. It was a very busy place. There was a lot going on on Milford Avenue.
Q Milford Street, again, as I understand it there were black-owned businesses?
A Oh, yes, virtually all of them were black-owned businesses. Of course, you had the Nacriema Club there on 30th and Milford, where all of the social gatherings would take place. We would dress up and go there.
But there were black-owned businesses, there were some — there was Dave’s Fish Store, right next to Mrs. Simpson’s. Dave was Jewish. He always had these black guys working for him. I remember they would cuss him out, you know, and they would quit and then come back the next day and Dave would hire them. He was a great guy. We loved old Dave, and his family. We would see old Dave until around the 60s or 70s, I don’t know what happened to him. There were a few white businesses there, but basically they were all black-owned.
Q You mentioned the Nacriema Club. Do you recall a specific event that you went to?
A You would go to the Nacriema Club for different parties, birthday parties, and different big events. I remember a fellow by the name of Major somebody. He led it for years and year it was always creme de la creme, the place to go on a very important occasion in that area there.
Then you had on McGraw and Warren,
you had these, they called them saloons. Even at that time a kid could go in there, to the saloon. It was a microbrewery down there. There were pool rooms down on McGraw; I remember that. Kay’s Drug Store was the place to go to buy your candies and this. Then there was the Beechwood Theater and the Granada Theater. The Beechwood was like going to Slum Gulley, kids would throw popcorn on the floor, the rats would run around. They always had the cowboys movies over there. You could go from the Beechwood to the Granada which was a little upscale. Then they had these midnight shows. We would go on Saturday afternoon, carry all of these sandwiches and stuff. They would always have three movies and then a chapter. You would see three shows or two shows. You would see these three shows or two shows over and over again until the midnight movie kicked in, which would be around midnight. Then you leave about 2:30 in the morning. There would be crowds of people going back towards 28th Street, and 30th. You never thought about anybody bothering you, it was something that you just did. You always knew who the bad guys were, the kids that got into trouble. If there was a bad person in the neighborhood, you always just knew that. Everybody was just family, like a family.
Q That is one thing I hear about the west side, people would leave their doors open.
A Oh, yes, you never even thought about anybody breaking in your place or coming in there. You knew everybody in the neighborhood. If there was somebody from outside of the neighborhood, they were spotted. They were watched.
I slept on my front porch many a night. The doors would be left open. You could sit out on the front porches when it was hot, there was no air conditioning. You would sit out there until things cooled down. We would holler across the street, back and forth, walking up and down the street.
One thing about 28th Street when I was a boy, this would always get me. You would walk from my hous to Milford Avenue, people would be on the front porches. You would say hello, as you would walk from house to house. Hello, hello, hello. When you left Campbell’s coming backdown, you would always say, hello; so maybe 20 times you would say hello to the same people. When you would come back, you could not ignore them, you would just greet everybody. Sometimes you walked on the other side of the street and greet them on the other side.
Q You talked about Tabernacle before and your mother being a missionary. As I understand it you were very active in Tabernacle yourself.
A As a busy youngster I would go to Sunday School every Sunday; I was in the clubs over there at Tabernacle. I really wasn’t that active there. Iwent to the University – well, I graduated from high school when I was 16. Tabernacle had a great influence on me: Rev. McNeil; Rev. Sampson had a great influence on me, and Rev. –
Q Rev. Pittman.
A Yes, Rev. Pittman was a dynamic leader around that era. Unfortunately then he was killed up there on Woodrow and Milford one night and just changed the dynamics of that area.
Rev. McNeil came in and was a fine leader. People would come from far and near to hear Rev. McNeil preach, tremendouos man, tremendous man.
Q Can you recall a particular sermon that appealed to you or a feeling that you got from him?
A The one sermon that always stood out in my mind. We were getting ready to build that community center next door. We were trying to raise money for the people around the area to donate to that building. He preached a sermon which always stood out in my mind, he preached a sermon about the eagle. The eagle would fly over the water and scoop down and pick up the fish and take the fish away.
He says, one eagle came down and got a big fish, and couldn’t pull that fish, couldn’t get the fish out of the water. He was telling everybody you know that sometimes you have to let go. He was asking for funding. Sometimes you can’t hold on to it forever. The people then said, let’s let go of some of this money and donate it to the church. That was one sermon that stood out for me.
Q Rev. Pittman: What kind of man was he?
A Rev. Pittman, I was pretty young when he was preaching. I don’t remember many of his sermons. He was a moralist. He was all for the children. He always made us feel like we were really special. He was an organizer. He had that church organized. He had those deacons organized.
Q How did he make the kids feel so special?
A He would always say nice things to you. He would come and visit. I remember back in those days, people would put the minister on a pedestral. I remember when Rev. McNeil came in and we had a square dance. Rev. McNeil, of all people, got up there and square danced. A lot of those ladies, just thought this was the worst thing in the world for him to square dance.
One time there was a banquet. Everybody had to stop and wait and watch the minister pick up his chicken. They would watch, would he cut it or pick it up. He was a boy from the South. He picked up his chicken and started eating it. There were a lot of little things.
Q Sounds like they had a great deal of respect for him?
A Oh, yes; no question about it.
Q The schools that you went to, I know you went to Wingert and Northwestern.
Q Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
A Well, in Wingert, I often tell my kids up until the 4th grade, I couldn’t read. I was not a reader. We had five groups and I would always be in the fifth group. I would go to Sunday School and kids would be reading all over the place. Here I was in the 4th grade, I couldn’t read.
One day, the principal, Mr. Stall, came into the classroom and wanted the kids to read to him from the different groups. She picked out everybody and she got to the fifth group, and there I sat. She called, Felix.
So I got the little paragraph that she wanted, I went home and came back the next Thursday and I read to him. As he was walking out the door, he turned around and patted me on the head and said, Felix, you are a good reader. From then on, I went from the fifth group to the first group, double-promoted, graduated from high school at 16; secured my Bachelor’s, my Master’s, working on my Doctorate. Just that one incident turned me on.
Q Sounded like a lot of important encouragement?
A A lot of encouragement at Wingert. The teachers were great. You could never say anything bad about Wingert. They were really nice teachers. There were some teachers where you feared getting into their classroom. But once you got in there, you understood; you learned.
Q Do you remember any particular teacher?
A Mrs. Parsons was one. She was a disciplinarian. She was there at Wingert, we thought she was there and the building was built around her. She stayed there forever. Mrs. Parson was one that stood out with me.
Q Do you remember any particular incident within your contact with Mrs. Parsons that you remember and can tell us now?
A Mrs. Parsons made me a leader in the class. She was very strict on the different assignments she gave. She would always pick me for the tough assignments and to be the leader in front of the other kids. If we needed some extra tutoring, she would put me in charge of that. But I dreaded going into Mrs. Parsons class. Then I got in there and I found out she was just wonderful. Mrs. Marion was the same way.
Q It was an integrated school; is that right?
A Oh, yes, we had that group that was across the street over there, I guess it was an orphanage. These were German boys and girls. They would march them across the street to Wingert. And we didn’t realize the plight of those kids, they were just like us, they were just kids. I remember one kid named Raymond Sambro (ps). I always wondered what ever happened to Raymond. He was my best buddy. He became my best friend. It was integrated, they were no smarter than we were, we were on the same level, really.
Q Did you socialize with them outside of school?
A No, no, we did not. They went into that orphanage, and they stayed there. They played on the grounds. We played at school. We were interrelated at school, but after school I went back to 28th Street and they went back to the orphanage. They didn’t mix too much with us, the other kids.
Q Tell us about Northwestern, what kind of school was that and what kind of environment was it?
A Going to McMichael, that was the transition. It was a middle school. I was like most kids, I was lot. At Wingert you had great structure. At McMichael, you had a lot of this freedom that kids experience today. I survived McMichael and I went into Northwestern, when I graduated I became the President of my graduating class.
I took different things, was in different clubs at Northwestern. I went to Northwestern. I would see these kids out there marching in their weapons and their uniforms. I said this will never happen to me, I will never do that. When I got to the University of Detroit the sergeant came up to me and said, wouldn’t you like to be commisioned one day? I said, I don’t know. He said, why don’t you join the ROTC Program; I joined it. I had four years of ROTC at the University of Detroit. I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and came back as a Professor of Military Science about ten years later, took it over.
But Northwestern, the ROTC Program stood out in my mind. The gym, of course I loved the gym program, and Spanish, and the different clubs and the camaraderie and you formed some real tight relationships over there.
Q Now, you mentioned the clubs at Northwestern. What kind of clubs were you affiliated with there?
A Well, I guess I was with the — let’s see I was in the singing group over there at Northwestern; the Spanish Club. I guess that was about it, really.
I never got on the paper, I always wanted to work on the paper, the Colt, but I never did that. Of course, I always worked and went to school so that there was not a lot of time. I wanted to play football one time, and I went out for the football team, I never made the team. I was working at C.F. Smith at the time.
Q What was it about Northwestern that allowed you or inspired you to form these bonds with your classmates?
A Well, we all grew up together. Most of us came through Sampson or Wingert. We got into McMichael together and we suffered there and continued our bonding, continued our friendships.
Q You say that you suffered at McMichael.
A Well, you know, it is a transition. Adolescence is a time of stress. What is it high elation, low depression. You get in there and things are so much different. I remember coasting through the halls of McMichael, you know. Getting your grades, getting your studies, I guess it is a one year growing up time period. Then you got to Northwestern things were a little different and you were more mature.
Q Tell us about the Boy Scouts, were you active with them early-on?
A No, I was never active with the Boy Scouts. We had one little Cub Scout pack that was formed there at St. Cyprians. I went about three weeks, and the Cub Leader never showed up again.
When I was Professor of Military Science at the University of Detroit, Joe Weikoff called me down and asked me if I would work with the Boy Scouts in the City of Detroit. I said that I would be glad to. So he said, we will make you a District Chairman. It will not take much time, just a few hours. I was District Chairman of the Springwells District, lots of time and lots of work. I learned about the Boy Scouts, and I have a lot of respect for those volunteers, and the boys and the principles that they instill in the boys.
Q What kind of values would you bring from the west side growing up on the west side to the Boy Scouts in your experience with the Boy Scouts?
A Basically the cammardie, and the know how, the interaction of men. Of course, I had been in the military for fifteen years before I took over the District. I knew the leadership skills that they should adhere to, the morals and things like that. Then there was the business of going out on these maneuvers and the business of campouts, working with the cookouts and things like this, working with the parents and you are working with volunteers; keeping the volunteers in line; keeping them busy. Then, identifying leaders in the program. It was very challenging, very challenging. It was very rewarding I would say in the Boy Scouts; wonderful program.
Q Backing up just a little bit, when you think of Joe Louis, what do you think about him growing up?
A Joe Louis was an idol, of course. Joe Louis saved my life down in Alabama, one time. My brother was there. Whenever you go into a different area, kids want to challenge you. Two little boys were going to challenge me.
So these guys were going to challenge me, they were going to jump on me. My brother said, you know he is from Detroit. Joe Louis is from Detroit. I thought, boy you saved my life. Joe Louis was a hero. He was a hero. He gave us a lot of self-esteem. We had a lot of pride because of Joe Louis. We loved to hear him fight.
I tell you that separation business, and that segregation business has a great effect on a kid as he is growing up. It took me years to get over it, it really did. You had to work through that. These kids don’t have that problem.
Q What kind of effect did it take on you?
A A feeling of inadequacy and inferiority because of skin color, just because of skin color.
When I got into the University of Detroit, being there, there were 9,000 students at the Six Mile Campus and only 25 blacks. When one black left, they put another black in there. Getting into the program was kind of rough; everybody knew each other.
You got into those classes, and you would say, well, you know, I can do this kind of work. Then when you excell, they start to look at you and say, well, this guy is all right, you know. They couldn’t believe when I got to my senior year. They said, Felix, you are not from Detroit, are you? Yes, this is my home.
Q So what did it take for you to get over segregation and its ill effects?
A It took years, it really took years. You begin to put yourself — you begin to realize that there is nothing any different. You are not any different than anybody else. All you need do is to put your brainpower to work and realize that you are as good as any one else. You felt that there is nothing that you can not do. If you come out in the top of the class, I am looking around and I see of these white faces in here, but I can excell, too. It wasn’t because they picked me out, that I was so great. Once you get in there you are just like anybody else. The inferiority gradually leaves you over the years. It takes time, it takes years.
Q Was there anything about growing up and seeing black businessowners that allowed you or pushed you to reflect on those days and helped you to pass the whole inferiority — I am not sure if I explained it well.
A I understand what you are saying. No, I realized that the businessmen were a great inspiration of those neighborhoods. The business of America is business. In order to make some money in America, you have got to go into business. These people were business people. They would work with us young kids and they would train us in the atmosphere of business; to want to excell; to become business people.
Mr. Campbell was one of my big inspirations with Campbell’s Drug Store. He had that drug store there and my Godfather, Mr. Simpson with his business. Business makes this country go around. It was very inspirational.
Q When you were at Northwestern, were you a part of the Recreational League?
A No, I was not.
Q World War II: what do you recall about World War II and growing up on the west side?
A I remember when World War II broke out on a Sunday afternoon, and I was on crutches. I was out in front of the house and my mother out of the house, crying. My brother was about 17 years old. She was telling us about World War II was started. I was so young, I guess I was about 12 years old when it happened. I realized that my brother would be going to War. During the War my mother worked at the USO and I was, I guess, reading about it all the time. I remember that my father and my cousin would sit around all of the time and talk about Mussolini and Hitler, and what was going on in the war. To be right at home, except for my oldest brother going into the Army, my other brothers went into the Merchant Marines. They traveled all around the country in the Merchant Marines Corps. I remember one time they were in New York and they were about to ship out. They only had openings for cooks on that ship. I said to myself, those poor people, those guys can’t cook, can’t even boil water; but they were cooks going to Africa. The War years were really interesting years, yes.
Q The depression before that, what was that like?
A We were all poor in that neighborhood. We didn’t know. The Goodfellows would come at Christmas time and we would all get the same shoes. We would all go down and get the shoes. We would all look forward to the Goodfellow Boxes. My father worked at Ford Motor Company, so we always had plenty to eat.
I remember going over to Hartford Memorial Baptist Church over there on Hartford and Cobb. They would always on Wednesday have bread over there, Welfare bread. Then you would always look forward to the donuts and stuff. I would go and stock up,and my brothers would stock up. Our house would be loaded with bread and rolls and things like that on that day.
That was one of the nice things that Hartford did for us. I guess the kind of food we had during that time, chitterlings. I would walk down the street and everyone would know who was cooking the very aromatic food. Of course, you didn’t eat high on the hog, but you always had plenty to eat, and a place to stay and clothes to wear.
Q I am curious what kind of music did you listen to in the home?
A I told you that my mother was a very religious person, so religious music would be playing. We loved the music from the downtown, different places. We listened to all different music. I remember one time my sister was dating Nat King Cole. She came home one day, he came to the house and sat on the piano and played the piano and sang. I said, God, he doesn’t sound good at all.
My sister said they wanted to know if she would become his wife. My sister said, no, I don’t think he is as handsome as he might be. She said the same thing about Martin Luther King, Jr. He wasn’t fast enough for her. That was my sister, Edna.
Q How did she come to meet Nat King Cole, I thought he was from Chicago?
A Well, Nat would come to Detroit. He would come around. He came to the house one time, I know. He met my sister, and they dated for a while there.
I remember that my sister was at one of the conventions with Mother King. They had tried to hook her up with Martin Luther, Jr. She met him and was talking to him. Apparently he was a very studious young man. He wasn’t fast enough for her, so that didn’t work out.
Q You mentioned before you had many siblings growing up.
Q What was that like with so many siblings and how were your parents able to raise so many folks?
A It was tight. We had two downstairs bedrooms and an open area upstairs. In the wintertime you would run up the back steps and it would be three to a bed. Many times I would be at the foot of the bed and these two guys would be up front and their bare feet would be in my face.
Of course, you took a bath once a week whether you needed it or not on Saturday night. I don’t know how those teachers ever stood us. You changed underwear once a week. Most of the kids would take a bath on Saturday night, put on their church clothes on, on Sunday, and wear the same underwear all week and change on the weekend. That was kind of an interesting situation.
At the University, we were talking about child care and they were talking about the kids changing towels every day. We changed a towel once a week whether we needed to or not. You used the same bath towel.
Q The neighborhood has changed over the years. Why did your family move from the west side?
A We always stayed on the west side. We never moved.
My mother passed away in ’52. She was there. My father was in ’74. He was there. My sister just passed away just recently, she still lived on 28th Street. I own property on 28th Street.
Q You remain there through your property?
A Oh, yes; yes.
Q The neighborhood did change, particularly in the 50s, it began to change?
A It did; yes. The initial homeowners were passing away or they were moving away. They were bringing in other people. Of course, during the war, people were
taking their homes and turning them from one single home into two families. People were going up the backsteps, and getting renters in there. Then gradually a lot of the property over there is rental property, rather than homeowner properties and that changed the dynamics of the neighborhood.
Q How were renters different from the homeowners, how so?
A Because they depend upon the owner to maintain the properties. Many, many renters, if you have a three bedroom property, a woman would move in there with her children and she would raise her family right there, never move; stay right there. If it is two bedroom, she may raise one or two kids and stay there. If it is one bedroom,they are in and out all of the time.
Some renters are very conscious of their environment and they want to keep it looking very beautiful. Others could care less. That keeps the landlord very busy trying to care for the properties.
Q Mr. Seldon, this might be the last question. What do you tell your children about the west side?
A I tell them the good things. Good things, because I have such great memories of the west side.
One of the good things that is happening is that the Westsiders are keeping the dynamics of the old west side up front. We have the videotapes, and the books and things like this.I have very fond memories. I tell them that it was a great place to live and a number of very influential people came out of the west side.
Q Many people call it a village.
A Yes, it was.
Q How was that?
A It was because everyone looked out for everybody else.
If you did something, the mothers and fathers knew you did something and reported it to your family or they would chastise you themselves. It was one great big family. You knew kids from the block, the other block, the other block. We all knew each other practically, and knew the mothers and fathers, basically, and their siblings. It was wonderful.
Q That is the end of the interview. Thank you.
A Thank you."> INTERVIEW OF GEORGE GAINES
Oral History Project of the Westsiders
Interview Conducted by: Louis Jones
* * * * * * *
Q Mr. Gaines, tell us about your parents, where they are from and how did they get to Detroit?
A My father was born in New Orleans in 1909. He was one of five kids. His family moved to Biloxi where my mother is from, Biloxi, Mississippi.
My mother was born in 1909 in Biloxi. My mother went to college. My father ended up going to Philadelphia, to be with his oldest sister, to finish high school in Philadelphia and he became a waiter.
My grandfather moved to Detroit after having lived in Chicao awhile. He brought all of his kids here. He worked in a Catholic orphanage around Burroughs and Woodward Avenue.
My uncles, everybody in my family worked around the restaurant business. My uncles, two of them ended up retiring from auto plants but they worked as hotel and restaurant workers.
My parents, my mother never worked. She worked at home. My father was a waiter and he felt that he could provide for the family and he did not want my mother to work.
Q But you say that your mother did work for a minute.
A Well, she worked one Christmas at the post office. My father was very unhappy about it.
Q You were talking about how your parents came here.
A Well, my father went to work after finishing high school. My mother went to Alcorn College in Mississippi. My father worked in the hotel and restaurant business as did all of his brothers. My grandfather who was a chef cook moved to Detroit, and then the boys, my father and all of my uncles moved here, and they moved into this neighborhood.
Q What was it about Detroit that inspired them to come here as opposed to somewhere else or remaining in Philadelphia?
A I don’t know. My understanding is that they moved to Chicago first and then they moved to Detroit. My grandfather worked in a Catholic orphanage down around Burroughs and Woodward during the depression. He was a chef cook for the orphanage. I don’t even know the building is still there, but I do remember going in to that building. All of my uncles and aunts lived in this neighborhood.
Q You don’t know what it is about the west side that made them move here as opposed to some where else in Detroit?
A I don’t know why they moved here. I think the first person to move here was my aunt though, and she lived on Ironwood near what was Awrey’s Bakery. My father and my mother and myself and my sister who was born here in Detroit lived in that house on Ironwood. Then we moved to an apartment on Hartford and Cobb. Then my father bought the house across the street. We grew up in the house across the street, 6040 Hartford which my sister and I still own.
Q What kind of work did your father do?
A My father was a waiter.
Q A waiter?
A Yes, he worked in the hotel and restaurant business as did his brothers.
Q Did he talk at all about what that experience was like working as a waiter?
A Oh, yes. Yes.
Q What kind of things did he say?
A Well, he was first of all, he was humble about it because he worked all during the depression. That was a rough period as well as his brothers and my grandfather who was a cook over at the Catholic orphanage. He was very humble about it.
He was a good waiter. He worked at the best places. He worked at the Detroit Club. He worked in the Whittier Hotel in 1930, when they had a nightclub there.
He got along really well with patrons. In later years he worked at a place called The Recess Club in the Fisher Building. He was very friendly with the members and customers. I think he even went fishing with them. He was really on with them. He was a very gregarious person, very sports minded, knew all of the statistics of the baseball players. He even followed hockey. He followed the horses. He followed the horses seriously. I remember when I was a kid he used to talk about Sea Biscuit, he won money on Sea Biscuit and bought a car.
Q Was that unusual for the family to have a car then?
A Oh, yes, in 1937? He had a brand new 1937 Pontiac, from Sea Biscuit earnings.
Q What kind of places did you go in the car?
A We drove South in it. It was a trip from hell?
Q How so?
A Here was an African American driving a brand new 1937 green Pontiac through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi. It was a mess. We had a lot of problems. I do not want to go into that. Some of them were very bad.
In terms of violence, it was bad news.
Here, it was all right. We were just an upper middle class African American family. But driving that car South was a mistake.
Q Can you share any of those.
A Well, the one that I remember, I was a kid. We had driven south and my father, my other grandfather had a tailor shop. My father turned the corner and parked in front of the tailor shop. A guy sitting on the porch across the street saw my father blow the horn at a woman who was about to step off the curb. He blew the horn.
She stepped back and that guy came over there.
Q Now, talking about your father: Did your father talk about any hardships in the job?
A No, he was very positive about that. As a consequence, the people that he waited on would oftentimes call him and ask him to serve parties at their house. He would take me with him. We worked all over Grosse Pointe. He was a very gregarious person. They would say, Gaines, can you serve a party at my house on Sunday afternoon. He would grab me and we would go out there and make extra money.
As I said, he got along very well with the patrons. When he worked at the Recess club, I am very sure that he even went fishing with some of the patrons. He was a sportsman. He kept up with the statistics. He was a gregarious person. He had savoir faire.
He was a golfer. He was an international type person. He could get on with any kind of person.
Q I understand that he was a flyfisher as well?
A Fanatic fisher; fanatic golfer. Yes.
Q What drew him to those sports?
A I think it was the people that he worked around. He identified with the middle and upper class people that he
worked for. He was an avid fisher and a golf fanatic; and really a sports fanatic. He would bet on everything.
Q And your mother, did she work?
A No, my mother was a homemaker. She never worked. She did teach school in Mississippi but when she moved here she never worked. She worked in the home.
Q Why is that?
A My father did not want — I mean it was a real traditional family. The man was the breadwinner and the woman was the homemaker. My father definitely did not want my mother to work. She got a job one time at the post office during Christmas and he was very unhappy about it.
Q How did he express that?
A He would take care of the house; he could take care of the house.
Q He let her know that he could do that?
Q Tell me about the block that you lived on?
A Well the block that I lived on had two apartment buildings, one built by a black numbers man by the name of Jim Stephens. That is the apartment that we lived in. That building is gone now. Then there was another apartment building in the middle of the block.
Almost all single homes, frame, really well kept up; some off them are kept upright now; very conscious of the lawns, and people were proud of their backyards. They planted flowers and stuff like that. It was a really nice block and coherent. Everybody knew everybody. All of my buddies lived on that block. My sister’s friends lived on that black, generally.
Q What was the relationship like between your family and you, more specifically, and the neighbors?
A Very positive, very positive. My mother belonged to a club called Entre Nous which was basically made up of women who were homemakers, who lived in this neighborhood. They probably used this club for their bridge clubs and bridge parties and stuff.
It was a very close knit block; very coherent. I don’t remember any conflict.
Q You mentioned the club, Entre Nous?
A That is one of the things as I learn more and more about the west side, a lot of people joined clubs?
A And still do.
Q Still do; okay? Were there other kind of clubs that either your father or your mother may have been members of?
A My mother was very active with Entre Nous for years and years and years. It was basically a woman’s club and I think mostly homemakers.
My father was a Mason and he was a member of this club. He was very active with this club. He was a Mason and he was active with the Nacirema Club, and basically the Nacirema Club was his social activity.
Q Okay. Entre Nous, now what did that club do?
A It was a social club of women.
Q Where did they meet?
A They met at different people’s homes and each member had to host the membership meeting, and had to provide food, tea, and stuff like that. It was, it was like you get that like every couple of years, it would be your turn to host or hostess the meeting. That was a big deal in the house, to prep for it for weeks.
Q Oh, really.
Q Mr. Gaines, what kind of rules and routines did your family have for you as kids?
A Basically, you are home by the time the street lights come on.
You have heard that before?
Q Yes, I have.
A That was definitely their rule. I was a wanderer as well as were the guys I grew up with. Saturday we would take-off and we would be gone all day, and it really upset my parents. We would be in the street all day. We would go to the railroad tracks and catch freights and ride them across town, catch a freight and ride back, stuff like that. That was all day Saturday and my parents were really upset about it. Finally they moved in on me. My mother figured out a way to keep me home.
Q What did she do to keep you home?
A Well, my buddy down the street, his mother borrowed a skirt from my mother, and put it on him, and said okay, now, let me see if you leave the block. So my mother got the idea and put a skirt on me. If the two of us had to wear skirts, we are not going any where. So finally Sam and I said, look, we got to deal with it and we went back in the alley and played baseball in the skirts, but we didn’t wander any more; that was too much.
Q You played baseball in the alley with a skirt on?
A Yes, both of us. Sam, the late Sam Pool, was a great baseball player. As a matter of fact he signed with the Chicago Cubs and had an unfortunate thing happen, he broke his leg the summer before he was supposed to start. He never, never made the team. He was an excellent baseball player. We would play with the skirts on, but didn’t challenge anyone to deal with us on the skirt. That was supposed to keep us from wandering. We were really street kids. Down to Michigan Avenue, catch the freights, go to the slaughter house and stuff like that. Just adventurous sort of stuff.
Q That is a little unusual whenever I speak to folks about the west side, their parents were pretty strict not only remaining at home but some of them could only remain right in front of the house?
A Yep. Yes, that is the way it was. But we, we guys, we were adventurous. We would go, I mean the big thing was to go to the railroad and catch freights or to go down to the foot of West Grand Boulevard and swim off the docks there, where the fire boat is and was.
Q You had chores that you had to do?
My basic responsibility was the lawn and the dishes, my sister and I. We definitely had chores; definitely had chores.
Q Tell us a little bit about school for you. You went to Wingert?
A I went to Wingert.
Q Any special memories?
A Wingert: I have really fond memories of Wingert. There were really dedicated teachers. Basically now that I think back on it, we are talking 1937, 1936, 1938, basically the teachers were socialists, I am sure. They were all white, they were very liberal and very dedicated to the education of those kids, dedicated to the education of those kids. The principal had been in the Army during World War II. He occasionally would come to the school with his uniform on, very liberal. It was a very liberal school in terms of social policy. It was integrated, in a sense, because across the street from the school was what was known as the German orphanage. The kids from the German orphanage came, walked across the street to Wingert and went to school there. It was integrated by the kids from the orphanage. The white kids that lived on West Grand Boulevard did not go to Wingert. They went to Marr, which was up on Grand River right behind Northwestern High School. But the kids from the German orphanage went to Wingert School. So it was an integrated school in that sense. They were very dedicated teachers. They were sensitive teachers. I do remember that.
Q How did that come out, I mean the dedication, the socialist kind of mentality?
A It was kind of a liberal mentality in terms of poverty and behavior. I mean it is kind of hard to express, but I am sure that many of those instructors were socialist. I mean, something in my gut just tells me that. They were very, very liberal white instructors.
Q Do you have any particular memories about any particular teacher or counselor?
A Oh, yes. Oh, yes, I do. There was one African American teacher who taught art, and she took a real liking to me. I had problems. I had learning problems. I think I am dyslexic, I didn’t know it at the time. She would pull me out of class and take me into the art room and really almost do art therapy with me. I remember that. Miss Baker, I remember that.
I remember this woman Miss Burch who was a Social Studies teacher and anybody you talk to in this group will remember Miss Burch because she was such a liberal person, very dedicated. She believed that you could learn and she would test you, she would challenge you to be your best.
Q How would she challenge you?
A She was strict. She was strict, and she expected you to learn. It wasn’t anything cynical about her at all in terms of your learning. She expected you to learn. She thought that you could learn just like anybody else and she expected that.
Q As you interview people you ask them about Miss Burch everybody will remember her because she was such a dedicated teacher.
Q From Wingert you were in military school; is that correct?
A No, actually I went to St. Benedict The Moor, boarding school in Milwaukee which does not exist now. It was run by Adrian Michigan nuns and Francisans fathers. I went there for the 7th grade, 8th grade and 9th grade. Then I went to Northwestern; but they got me out of Detroit just in time.
Q Why is that?
A Well, you know, I probably would be dead if I had not gone to St. Benedict. All of the guys that I grew up with ended up overdosing on drugs, everybody that I, with the exception of Sam Pool that I mentioned. Almost all of those guys ended up victims of the 1946 heroine epidemnic right after the war, heroin hit this neighborhood, it ran through this neighborhood just like wild flowers. Most of the people didn’t know, they used it, they didn’t know it was addictive. By the time they knew it was addictive, they were addicted. I was out of here. I was in Milwaukee. I missed it. I missed that epidemic.
Q You know I have not heard anybody talk about that before.
A Basically I am a public health person, as you know, and I pretty much have followed the heroin epidemic that hit this neighborhood in 1946. I kind of traced it back to actually the person who had the heroin. It was the guy that sold marijuana. The story is that he sold marijuana and the guys that he got the marijuana from were Italian and they gave him some heroin and they put it in, and they said, see if your customers like this. That was basically the start of the heroin epidemic.
Q Who was he?
A I won’t name his name.
A He may still be living. I pretty much traced the epidemic to that one person. That is not uncommon. Meyer Lansky, the famous mafia person is credited with starting a cocaine epidemic on the East Side of New York. One person, he was just one person that pretty much infected his neighborhood.
Q How did that change the neighborhood?
A It was devastating because now we are starting to talk about break-ins. We are starting to talk about people addicted. We are starting to talk about people stealing from their neighbors. We are talking about overdose deaths. We are talking about deaths from hepititis. The heroin epidemic ran through this neighborhood. Like I said, I was away, so I missed it. I probably would have, because these were all of my peers and basically one of my problems was that I wanted to be one of the boys. So naturally if that was what they were doing, I was be with them. I wasn’t a leader in that regard. They all ended up dead. I am talking about twenty or thirty people, that were all my peers. Susetta knows about it. She is a health person, and she knows about it.
Q You know one of the things I often hear people talk about the west side, maybe this was a slightly different era, it was extremely safe. People left their doors open.
Q But it sounds like at least during ’46 and after that it wasn’t really all that safe.
A No, the heroin epidemic definitely affected that; definitely affected that, in terms of personal robberies and that sort of thing.
Q So you come back from Milwaukee and you go to Northwestern?
A Yes, I went to Northwestern.
Q Tell us about that experience at Northwestern?
A Well, Northwestern by the way, by this time was a pretty well integrated school. It had very, very strong emphasis on sports, athletics. It was made up of many students who were probably college bound, Jewish kids, Italian kids, and black American kids who were going to go to college. Basically college prep was the theme at the school as opposed to a trade school situation. I got through Northwestern by going to summer school every summer. By now my sister had caught up with me. She is three years younger. She and I would have graduated in the same class if I had not gone to summer school.
I didn’t want to graduate in the same class with my sister. She was three years younger. So it was always summer school every summer. I graduated in January and she graduated in June. I had failed in grade school a couple of times. I had a rough time in grade school. St. Benedict the Moor is probably the best thing that happened for me. I had a lot of respect for the Adrian Dominician nuns.
Q This is your experience in Milwaukee?
Q And then you get to Northwestern?
A I am little better prepared for school. In boarding school you have homework and small classes. It was a private school and they are really emphasizing get your parent’s money’s worth. So that helped me to get through Northwestern.
Q I hear mixed things about Northwestern. On the one hand there are some teachers and counselors that are very supportive?
Q And then some that are not particularly supportive. They teach you like they teach everybody else, and are not particularly supportive and even discouraged some college prep courses?
A Yes. Absolutely. Keep in mind that Northwestern at the time, and the people you are interviewing were very much in transition, in terms of its racial composition. It was moving from a school that was “integrated” to a school that was going to be predominately African American. That is how it was moving. African Americans in 1946, I think it was, in 1947 moved across Tireman Avenue which up to that time had been an all white community under what is known as Restricted Covenant. Are you familiar with that?
A The McGee family went to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court ruled out the Restrictive Covenant and then African Americans began to move across Tireman. Those were all students that would eventually go to Northwestern. Northwestern ended up being almost a predominately black school. But at the time I was there there had never been even a President of the graduating class that was African American. I think the first African American President was a basketball player by the name of Duke Foster, who was a very good all city basketball player. It was an integrated high school and it had a lot of tension. There was a lot of tension there in terms of some teachers being very supportive and some teachers steering some African American students like myself toward trade schools as opposed to not thinking they would go to college. My parents had to go over and get with the counselors to indicate that they expected me to go to college. They expected me to go to college. I didn’t expect to go to college. They wanted me to go into a non-college prep track. The counselors wanted me to go into a non-college prep track. I didn’t really know the difference between the two. Northwestern was definitely a crisis situation as it moved from an “intergrated school” to almost a predominately African American students, and that happened quick.
Q I am told like in the earlier years blacks couldn’t join different clubs, couldn’t go to the prom.
A I don’t know about the prom. For example, there is a mental health center on the corner of Dexter and West Grand Boulevard. That was a YMCA. The Y-Teens met there. You couldn’t go in there. If they went in there they would call the police on you. It was basically a white YMCA. That was like a defining situation there. Anything north of West Grand Boulevard was basically white. Anything south of it was African American. That Y set there in that strategic place. The Y-Teens was the white club.
My sister and her girlfriend integrated the cheerleading team. Northwestern was really in transition when we were students there.
Q Did she talk about that experience?
A Oh, yes, she talked about it.
Q What was it like for her?
A She talked about it. It worked out good. She made friends with the cheerleaders, she and her buddy. I hadn’t even remembered that my sister Betty and June Bonner integrated the cheerleading team at Northwestern.
Q Do you recall any resistance that she had as she was about to join?
A She talked about it. That is an interesting thing, it was a presumption that you belonged. It was a real presumption. It is there, hey, I am going. A real presumption.
Q Was your family a church going family?
Q What church did you guys belong to?
A It was split up. I went to the catholic church, St. Benedict the Moor on Beechwood. My sister did too. My parents went to St. Cyprian’s right up the street or St. Stephens. Part of my family was Catholic, part of my family was Protestant. My aunts convinced me to go to the Catholic church. So I went to the Catholic church, St. Benedict the Moor which is no longer there.
Q I understand there was a priest named Capp and one named Diehl, do you remember them.
A Yes, I remember very well.
Q What do you remember about him?
A He was a very, very progressive person; very committed to an African American membership, real integrated in to the community, opened the school, I keep saying the school, opened the church basement to parties, very positive situation. Father Diehl was a very positive person.
Q Were you active in the church?
A Yes, I was.
Q In what capacity?
A My job was to — he had a dog. My job was to go there once a week and give the dog a bath. My aunt worked in the church house. So, I was close. My sister got married in that church. My cousins who lived up the street from there went to that church. My cousin was an altar boy there. We were pretty well integrated in to that church.
Q And it was predominately a black church.
A Yes, it was a black church. There was a white Polish church across Warren and they would come because we had the 12:00 Mass. If you looked at the 12:00 Mass it looked like an integrated situation.
Q How was that given that, well, it was integrated?
Q So what was the relationship like between the black parishioners and the white parishioners?
A The church was basically black. The white parishioners belonged to the Polish Catholic church. They were there for the convenience of the 12:00 Mass, and Father Diehl was very resentful of that. He didn’t like that.
Q How did he express that?
A He expressed it from the pulpit.
Q What kind of things did he say?
A “You people”. Why don’t you people go to your church. He was very forthright about it.
Q All right. Okay. Tell us about this club, the Nacirema Club. How did it come to be founded, what was the motivation for its founding?
A Well, you see the charter there. The club was formed in like 1922 of men who lived basically in this area. In 1925 they bought this building, the part from here to the door there. The rest of what you saw down there where the bar is was added during the war. This was basically the house until 1945, 1946. It was generally fathers and sons. It was an all male club at that time. If your father belonged you were expected to belong. They had a youth group. They had basketball teams, baseball teams with the Nacirema logo on it, et cetera. They were very active.
Once a year they would have Nacirema Week. They would have a boat ride, golf match, they would have parties here. This was basically the social center for this neighborhood. Many of the people you talked about would have their graduation party here, their wedding reception here. My parents had their 50th wedding anniversary here. My sister’s wedding reception was here. Basically this was the social center for this neighborhood. Even though people belonged from all around the City, but it was basically this neighborhood. Like I said it has been here since 1924. When I became the President three years ago —
Q We actually interviewed Juanita Rosario Diggs.
A She lived right across the street from the church.
Q She talked about Father Diehl and Father Capp.
A I didn’t know Father Capp. I knew Father Diehl.
Q Okay. He was a very outgoing kind of guy, Father Diehl as how she described Father Diehl.
A Juanita and I were classmates.
Q Now back to the Nacirema Club.
Q Do you recall or did your father talk about like what motivated them to build and establish this in the first place?
A No, you know, you are talking between a 1922 club, 1924 buying the place, you are talking about a neighborhood that was being populated by men who had been in World War II, who had come home from the war and were buying homes in this area. Many of them ended up being the members of this club. There were former soldiers from World War II. For example, you interviewed Horace Jefferson, his father who was a big member here, active bridge player here, had been in World War II, and his membership goes back to the 20s. So basically the club was like, you know, it was pretty well expected that if your father was a member then you would be a member.
Q You said there was a youth group?
A There was a youth group. I was a member of it. I don’t know if you have interviewed Russell Talbert, his father was a member. I don’t know if you have interviewed Horace Rogers, his father was a member. They are still members.
Q What things would the youth group do?
A Like I said they had basketball teams and baseball teams.
Q Who would you play?
A Other clubs.
Q There were clubs around the city?
Q What kind of clubs?
A Well, there were baseball teams like AAA. Northwestern Field had about eight baseball diamonds up there, and all day Sunday one game right after another from clubs. Pepsi Cola would sponsor a team. Nacirema sponsored a baseball team. The trophies that you saw down there on the bar come from their activity as basketball and baseball teams. The basketball teams played on Sunday at Brewster Center. It was club day all day Sunday, one team after another from various clubs. Michigan Chronicle had a team. Nacirema had a team, et cetera.
Q I am jumping around here, but you reminded me when you started talking about sports that you are a cross country track runner at Northwestern?
Q Tell us about that experience being on the team there and being a cross country track person as opposed to some other sport?
A I told you I had gone to St. Benedict the Moor. St. Benedict the Moor was a big sports school, and I ran track there. I tried to play football there. I came to Northwestern and I went out for the football team and I am weighing about one hundred ten pounds. I could see right away that that wasn’t going to work out. I saw guys run around Northwestern Field. I asked somebody, I said what is that? The guy said that is the cross country team. What do they run? They run cross country; they run two miles. So I turned in my football stuff and joined the cross country team. For three years in a row we were city champions. We won the West Side and we won the City. That is when it was two miles at Palmer Park, it is now five thousand meters, three point one miles. But we won three years in a row. They had a really good cross country team. The guys who ran cross country ended up being good milers, quarter milers, and all of them ended up being All City.
Q Can you tell us a little bit about the depression?
A What I remember about the depression – ‘my grandfather as I indicated was a chef cook. What he would do, he would buy in bulk for the orphanage that he cooked for. He would also buy for his family. My uncles who lived in this neighborhood would all come to my father’s apartment on Sunday afternoon, and he would distribute the food. Take this sugar, take this flour, take this bacon to the brother’s: my uncle Charlie, my uncle Robert, my uncle Oscar, and they would split it up. My father as I said worked all during the depression. But he would buy in bulk for the family and distribute it to the three brothers. We would keep the families going. Very, very conscious, it was a very close knit family; my grandfather being the patriarch.
It was rough during the depression. I remember the big deal of whether you got welfare shoes or not. Whether you got, what is that, the Old Newsboys, they still do it. They sell newspapers and at Christmas time they give kids packages and during the depression it was whether you got a package from the Old Newsboys or not. It was rough. I remember that it was not really a fluent time. I am talking 1936, ’37, 1939, it was tight. It was tight. Even though many of the people in this neighborhood worked in plants. They worked at the Rouge. They worked at Kelsey Hayes Plant, which was on McGraw. They worked at the Lincoln Plant, which is on Livernois. During the depression there wasn’t a lot of work. I remember it was rough. It seemed like it was cold, too.
Q You said it was rough, some people were doing okay, and some people weren’t?
Q Some people felt maybe ashamed and embarrassed about it?
A Yes; yes.
Q How did that come out?
A Yes. The Goodfellows, the things that the Goodfellows gave were very identifiable. They would buy shoes in bulk. They would buy socks in bulk, and it would be identifiable to people. That would distinguish you as a person who has having a hard time because you got the Goodfellow shoes and the Goodfellow socks and the goodfellow shirts. They would buy them as a whole package and then distribute them to everybody. There was that distinction. I am talking about at Wingert, Wingert Grade School. I have friends now who talk about looking forward to the Goodfellow packages.
At Christmas time they would give dolls to the girls and toys to the boys, et cetera. There are people who are doing real well now, who remember the Goodfellow packages.
Q One of the things that pretty clearly changed the situation from the depression was World War II. What do you recall about the war?
A What I do recall about the war? First of all, I remember my father going to work like this everyday. He wore a shirt and tie everyday because he was a waiter. When he would get there, he would put on the uniform. During the war, he had to give up that job and take a war time job. He went to work at Ford Motor Company. He started to wear overalls and jackets and stuff. So I remember the change. I remember from my father, I used to watch him when he got dressed. I would watch him tying his tie because he was very clothes conscious. Then I would see him going to work in the overalls and blue jeans and stuff. It was a change. It was required because he was eligible for the draft. So he took a war job and he worked at the Ford Rouge with everybody else around here who worked at the Ford Rouge. Everybody I know you have interviewed probably Including myself worked at the Ford Rouge at one time. I worked at the Ford Rouge.
Q What kind of work did you do at the Ford Rouge?
A Worked on the line at the Rouge. Everybody I know from this neighborhood worked at the Rouge.
Q When your father worked there, did he talk about what that experience was like for him?
A Oh, yes. That was completely different for him. He was going to work, working out in the cold, coming home dirty and that was completely different for him. But as soon as the war was over, he went back to his original work.
Q What was that like for you working in the Rouge?
A Ford came up to Northwestern High School and passed out slips for anybody that wanted to go to Ford Trade School. So I took one of the slips and then I went over to the Ford on the brick one time. I said, when will I become an electrician? Well, there is a waiting list of a couple years. I worked that summer, I went back to high school. So I went back to high school and I worked at Ford again when I was in college.
Q Now were either you or your father a part of the union?
A Oh, yes, absolutely.
Q Wel, tell us about the union?
A Well, I remember very distinctly when I worked at Ford that there was a union election. This guy by the name of — and anybody who worked at Ford will remember, Carl Stellato was running for Union President of Local 600. Local 600 is a powerful union. I remember guys passing out stuff. I didn’t know from nothing. Guys were passing out stuff for Carl Stellato. I think he ended up becoming President of Local 600, which was a real strong union. I mean that is the Battle of the Overpass, the Sitdown Strike, the whole business. And so I do remember it was very, very union conscious. I was only there long enough to work and not even get into the union. By the time it was time for me to get in to the union, 90 days, you got to join the union, I was back in high school.
The experience was, look, I don’t want to do this the rest of my life. I am going to college. That is really what made me decide I am definitely going to college. I do not want to work in the plant. It is too dirty. It is too noisy. It is too dangerous. So I went back to high school, finished high school, and then went to college.
Q Tell us about Joe Lewis?
A My father knew him. He was a golfer, and my father was a golfer. He put on a golf match every year. He put on a golf tournament every year. So my father knew him, from being a fanatical golfer. He had a country club called Joe Lewis’s Farm, where they had horses. We would go there for Sunday dinner, during the war. We would go out there on Sunday and have dinner and watch the horse shows. What I remember about it was he was an avid golfer. He was a fanatical golfer as was my father. So that is how I knew Joe Lewis through the Joe Louis Farm or county club, and the golf tournament that he put on at Rackham every year.
Q Did you listen to the fights?
A Oh, God, yes; listen to them, yes. I don’t know if it was Joe Lewis. We were like one of the first families that had a television. I remember people standing on the front porch looking through the window as the television fight. This is before they were completely popular, so we are talking what, maybe ’47. I don’t know if he was still fighting. I do remember that people would come and stand on the porch and watch the fight until television became popular.
Q Before that you would you listen to the fights on the radio?
A Oh, yes listen to the fights on radio and watch it on television and see the difference. It was like two different fights. Everyone would notice that, you know, the embellishment that the radio announcers made to the fights. If you are looking at it on televison, you would say what fight are they talking about?
Q What kind of social activities did the family do; did the family do things together as a family?
A Yes, the big thing for the family was Nacirema Week. That was like the boat ride, the golf match, the Nacirema picnic and the parties and stuff that they had here. That was a really big deal for this neighborhood and for this club.
My family’s social life was basically centered around this club, as was Susetta’s. This is where the women would give – the room I showed you upstairs, The Westsider’s Room, the Tommy Tyler Room, they would give their bridge parties. As I said earlier this was the center of social activity for the neighborhood. So it was for us, too. Kids could come here not in the bar, but in this section and have club meetings and stuff like that. It was open to member’s kids.
Q Tell us about Milford Street. It is my sense that it was a fairly bustling street. Tell us about Saturday morning on Milford Street?
A This is a very unusual situation. I am going to give you a write-up about it before you leave. Starting at West Grand Boulevard and running to Epworth on both sides of the street were businesses. I mean cleaners, shoe shops, drygood stores, ice cream parlors, hardware, theatre, et cetera. There is a fish market, poultry market, ice cream parlor, hardware, shoe store: Where you could buy shoes, where you could get your shoes repaired, dime store, 5 & 10 cent store it was called, supermarket. It was a very bustling business section, nothing like it is now. There is one story on West Grand Boulevard, and that is it. There are no more stores on this street. I am talking all the way from Epworth to West Grand Boulevard.
Q When did things start to change from being bustling to —
A I don’t know. See I went away to the Army, 1953 during the Korean War, and I came back, it was all over for Milford Street. Shops were gone or boarded up. This club advocated to tear down the last store because it was open to the public and there was garbage and stuff in it. We went to the City Council and got it torn down. It had been a shoe store, and a shoe repair store. It was sitting there just wide open. I think it was during the Korean War and right after integration of the downtown hotels and clubs – situation changed.
Q You know people talk about segregation in such negative terms, it wasn’t good, but —
Q But you say segregation had some silver lining to it, almost it sounds like.
A I am not sure I would put it that way. I think we I think African Americans missed the point, at least in Detroit. I don’t know if it is the same in the south, it may be different in the south. I hear it may be different in Atlanta. Our idea was if it is intergrated, then it is good. So, if it is not integrated, it is not good. I am not sure that that is what really people had in mind in terms of civil rights. That you give-up everything and go into an integrated situation. For example, during the early days, this is where you would go for a wedding or reception. You would not go to a downtown hotel. It wouldn’t be available to you. So, now that you can go to a downtown hotel what do you do you abandon the place that you originally had to go to. It seems to me that is what really happened. So once integration occurred people began to go to places where they hadn’t been perfectly welcomed before and that was “theirs” kind of go by the board. So I don’t think that is what the civil rights movement was really about. This is really just my opinion. Of course in public accomodations, buses and schools, et cetera, that was needed, but we started going downtown and this club was obsolete basically.
Q Even with that it sounds like there was something about the west side and I continue to hear this, a little bit, it was something about the west side that people maintain bounds over the years.
Let me ask you about the event just this past weekend, at the Yacht Club, what was that like?
A Packed. I don’t know how many, a couple hundred people, most of the people I know from high school or grade school. This is the tenth anniversary of the Westsider’s Club. The Westsiders gave this club twenty-three hundred dollars to fix the Tommy Tyler Room and dedicate it. We refurbished that room with their money. They gave a fund raiser here, raised three thousand dollars right in this room.
The Milford Street Gang meets here every first Wednesday. That is the picture that is up on the mantle piece there, they come here and have lunch.
The Sampson School has a reunion. They come here. Wingert School has a reunion. They come here. These folks kind of hang on to this neighborhood in terms of reunions.
Milford Street Gang gives a Christmas Party every year. Everybody that is well and not on a walker, shows up. Every first Wednesday, they come here and have lunch, catered lunch.
As I indicated we are doing Jazz here every first Sunday. People come back hear live jazz every first Sunday. We have to have somebody watch the cars, but they come back here.
Q What is it about the west side though that resulted in these continuing relationships?
A I don’t know, the relationships continue. This group that was at the Yacht Club Sunday, everybody knows everybody. But basically they went to Northwestern or Chadsey or Cass and they maintain their relationships, with people who went to school with them. They are upwardly mobile, but they still remember when this club was the place where they had to come. As I said, the Milford Street Gang comes here every first Wednesday and have lunch. The Westsiders Club continue to support, all of our new membership has come from the Westsiders Club. Now we have women, all of our new membership has come from out of the Westsiders Club.
Q You talked about upwardly mobile folks these days. What was it about the west side that resulted in people becoming successful in the way that we know them to be successful now?
A My understanding is and there is some disagreement about that, Sampson School which I did not go to was an excellent, no question about it being an excellent school. Even though I would say Wingert was an excellent school, but Sampson turned out doctors, lawyers and dentists, and social workers. It was like if you went to Sampson you would be in a track towards college mobility. A lot of the people who went to Sampson ended up being very prominent physicians, lawyers, et cetera. Wingert to some extent but I don’t think to the extent as Sampson. I think or my opinion is that Sampson was better academically and Wingert was better socially in terms of getting on savoir faire, how to get on, how to behave where Sampson was outstanding in terms of academnics. A lot of judges, the Circuit Court Judge from Detroit went to Sampson and went to Northwestern. So it was an area where going to college was really expected. The paper I will give you, it says the neighborhood in a sense was a victim of its own successes, because once people went to school they moved away. In other words, you grow up here, you went to school here, you were successful here and when you got successful then you move away. I guess that happens in most neighborhoods, but it is very, very dramatic in this neighborhood. This neighborhood is not at all like it was when I grew up in it. But the people who lived in the neighborhood, went to school, went to college, became professionals and moved away. So that is why we have the neighborhood the way it is now.
Q Quickly your own success, you became a very high ranking official in the City government here. Tell us what you did and how you got from being a westsider, from growing up on the west side to the position that you held ultimately?
A Really it started at Northwestern. Because I was a runner, because I was All City I got scholarships to college to Adrian College first and then to Wayne State and so that helped me get through college. Once I got through college, I went in the army. I came back. I got a professional job as a social worker. Then I went to the School of Social Work and got a Masters in Social Work. I was working as a Program Planner for the Medical School. And then I got a job working at Wayne County Community College putting together a program. Coleman tapped on me and said he wanted me to be the Deputy Director of Health. I had known Coleman all the way back to college days. I knew him when I was in college. My buddy said, look, Coleman wants you to be in the Health Department. I said, look I am on the track to become a Dean. He said, look when the Mayor asks you to do something, you got to do it. So I took a leave of absence expecting to be there four or five years, ended up there nineteen years the whole time that he was Mayor. I ran the Health Department. Basically I was the operations person. I was Deputy Director of the Health Department. I ran the Department. When somebody would leave as Director, I would run the Department. They would get another Director, and then he would leave. I would run the Department again. So, basically it started with being able to run and getting a scholarship to college, to Adrian and to Wayne and becoming a social worker and getting a Master’s in Public Health.
Q Were you at that meeting where your parents came to school to speak to the counselor?
Q What do you remember about that meeting?
A I remember my parents being very forthright that they expected me to go to college, that I needed to be in a college curriculum as opposed to a general curriculum or a trade curriculum. The counselor would say he is not college material. They said, well, he is going to go to college. This is not me saying it, this is them saying it. So I ended up on the college track and getting through high school going to summer school every summer to get caught up for the two or three times that I flunked in grade school. I graduated in 1949. I went to Adrian College for a year, transferred to Wayne on a track scholarship and ran track for Wayne and went in to the Army.
Q Any particular memory about Coleman Young?
A He was a great person to work for, genius with political instincts, a real fighter, very honest person. If he would have been a thief he would have gone to jail, because they were on him. He never took anything; so he didn’t have to worry about that. I loved working for him. You work for him, you do your job he didn’t bother you. He was a hard worker. He had a different schedule. He probably worked until 10 or 12 or 1 in the morning.
I remember being at Herman Kiefer one time at 7:00 o’clock in the evening. The phone rang. Coleman said, George, I want to ask you about something. I said, it is 7 o’clock at night. What makes you think I am here. I just happened to be there. Somebody told me later that it was a good thing I was there. He was a hard worker, good person, had great political instincts. I remember because of the heroin epidemic and the epidemic of HIV, I went to Coleman and told Coleman, I said look we got forty thousand addicts in Detroit. If we don’t do something this neighborhood is going to be devastated with HIV. He said, how are they going to get it? I said, they share needles. He said give them the needles. I said, you can’t give them the needles, it is against the law. He said, you got to do something. What we did was until we got the needle exchange program, we gave out bottles of bleach so that the addicts could clean their needles. We showed them how to clean their needles. In a sense I am sure that that made some difference here. Because it got to be a pattern that you just don’t clean the needle with water, you use a bleach. Coleman said, give them the needles. They ought to have the needles. I said, you can’t do it, it is against the law. We finally got the law changed, the Ordinance changed. He was a progressive person to work for; that is the kind of person he was. There are addicts, they need needles. They are going to share, give them the needles. That is the way he thought. He is a great person to work for.
Q Now the Nacirema Club, American spelled backwards. How did they come up with that name?
A I don’t know. That name goes back to 1922.
Everybody in the neighborhood knows that it is American spelled backwards. I do not know the origin. We are talking 1922. I guess you have to get into the history at the time of the Harlem Renaissance.
By the way, the new book The Ark of Justice. The doctor was a member of this club.
Q I didn’t know that: Ossian Sweet?
He is also a Kappa.
Q Okay. How did he come to join this club when he lived all the way over there?
A I don’t know. I don’t know. He was a member of the Nacirema Club and he was a Kappa.
Q Last question: The Milford Street Gang, how did that club or that group, how did it form?
A A friend of mine who lived right across the street, Larry
Blaine called us and said, let’s have lunch together. We had lunch at the Carl’s Chop House a couple of times.
He said, we ought to have lunch every month.
I said, we ought to have it at the Nacriema. So that is how it started. That was the beginning of the Milford Street Gang.
Q How would you become a member of the Milford Street Gang?
A I don’t know. You just show up. No dues. It is basically a very loose knit group with the membership. You saw a picture there. It is run by four or five people who are volunteers; that is it."> INTERVIEW OF GLENN WASH
Oral History Project of the Westsiders
Interview Conducted by: Louis Jones
* * * * *
Q Mr. Wash, first of all thanks for taking time out of your schedule to talk with us.
A Absolutely my pleasure; my pleasure.
Q We very much look forward to the discussion.
Just to begin tell us about your parents, where they came from and what they did for a living?
A My parents were Texans. Texarkana, Texas, Texarkana, Arkansas: My father was out of Texarkana, Texas. My mother was out of Texarkana, Arkansas. When they married, they moved from there to Chicago. From Chicago, my father came over and started working here in Detroit at Kelsey Hayes Wheel Company. That is when I came to Detroit, at a very early age. But my first exposure was probably to the public school system in Grand Rapids, which was unusual because at that point in time, I don’t think there were enough blacks in Grand Rapids to develop any prejudice. So I didn’t know I was black until I got to Detroit; it became very apparent, very fast.
Q What became apparent?
A When we moved in here, we moved over in the area of McGraw and Grand River. We lived about four blacks away from the Olympia. The living conditions were radically different from what we had been accustomed to. Not that we lived that well in Grand Rapids, but it was a lot different. We lived in that area, as a matter of fact, I lived on Tillman in the early days right across from the Stinson Funeral Home. We used to hear the pump going on the bodies. We used to sneak over and watch them in embalm bodies sometimes.
Then from there I moved over to 23rd, which was 23rd and McGraw. If I remember correctly, it was 5911 23rd, which was directly across the street from the McGraw Grade School. Now the funny thing when I lived eight blocks away, I got certificates for never being late to school and never missing school. When I moved directly across the street, I could never get there on time, because usually I would lay in bed and listen for the first bell, and try to get dressed and get to school before the second bell. That was the early days there.
Q How did you come or your family come to move from one place to the other, from Grand Rapids to Detroit and then to the different areas in Detroit?
A Well, what happened was, work was somewhat scarce in Grand Rapids. My father was always an entrepreneur. In the early days he had a restaurant in Grand Rapids. Work opened up here in Detroit, and he used to ride the rails between here and Detroit. So then after that he moved the family down with the intent of, you know, trying to get a better way of life for us. But he still, you know, still did things like make candy and so forth. I have to say that my father was always an entrepreneur. As a matter of fact, my grandfather and uncles back in Texas, we never worked for other people. My grandfather had a farm, and he had a small strip mall, a place called, I guess a little city adjacent to Texarkana there. So he supplied that store from his farm, the fruit, the vegetables, the milk, eggs came from there, plus he had a cleaners and then he had a little hardware store. Then he had a little ice cream parlor in the same strip. So we go back a long ways in there.
My uncle ran the cleaners but my father was a little more – he wanted to move a little bit. So he left there and went to Chicago. He came back, he married my mother, they moved to Chicago and from Chicago to Grand Rapids.
Q Was that unusual in some place like Texas for a black man to own a farm and have all of the other businesses?
A Yes, considering the conditions during that period of time, yes, it was very unusual, because most of the people in that area were employees as opposed to employers. He had several people working for him. But we used to go down there in the summertime in later years, and he had all kinds of vegetables and fruit trees and you know, which made it very interesting for us.
Q What was that contrast like, to grow up essentially in the north, in Chicago, maybe not so much Chicago, but in Grand Rapids and then Detroit and then have those experiences in the south?
A We really didn’t start going back south until we got here in Detroit. It was quite a contrast. As a matter of fact, my brother and I were known as the little bad dudes from Detroit. We would go around saying, sir, and that was all that was mandatory there in Texas. We had some unusual experiences during the time I was there. I can remember experiencing the aftermath of a hanging. So there were some things that impressed me about Texas, at that time but our family was, you know, pretty close knit. We stayed pretty much to ourselves, so we didn’t get in to too much trouble after going to town.
Q You said the aftermath of a hanging?
A Yes. They had had some incident downtown in Texarkana. You got to understand that Texarkana is a part of Arkansas and a part of Texas. There had been some incident downtown where somebody was supposed to have done something and the guy got hung. I can remember that, because everybody closed down and stayed at home until things chilled out.
Q Was it a black man?
A Yes, it was a black guy.
Q You don’t remember the incident?
A I don’t remember. All I remember is that he was hung in the area where they shipped cotton out of. That is about as much as I can remember. I was fairly young at that time.
Q It was in plain view, it wasn’t out in the woods?
A Oh, no, it was pretty much in plain view. Things were pretty touchy when I was a kid in Texas.
Q Wow. A lot we take for granted?
A It is not too much better here in Detroit. When I came to Detroit, the blacks lived on the west side of Grand River and the whites lived on the other side of Grand River. If you got caught on the wrong side of Grand River, you just might get your butt whipped.
Q Do you didn’t venture too much on the other side?
A Well, no, you didn’t go over there too much. Grand River was sort of the dividing line. A little later things got little better. There was an A & P there. In the early days we used to shop at A & P. One of our first ventures in business was carrying groceries home from the A & P.
Then I got in to the manufacturing business of making pushcarts for other people to carry the groceries home.
Then I had a little jigsaw and I used to make whatnot shelves and different things and sell them in the neighborhood.
Prior to that we were selling candy for my dad who made candy, and we used to go out with baskets and sell candy to the neighbors.
Q It sounds like the entrepreneurial spirit carried on from generation to generation in your family?
A Well, yes, I have always been — I never went to work for anyone with the intent of being their employee. I was there with the intent of finding out what was going on and try to learn as much as I could. It turned out to be a pretty good policy. My father always said, don’t get hung up with the money, that will come later, just learn what you can about what was going on. That is what we did.
Q How did you choose some of these ventures. I heard that you built birdhouses and carts as well as shoe shining. How did you determine those would be good businesses for you?
A Well, I have always loved woodwork. That has been a natural with me, a nail and a saw, and it was always something. I happened to get a jigsaw for a present for Christmas. From there I got my little sander and so forth. So I was fairly apt in the woodwork shop back in those days. In school you had like Manual Training and then you had College Prep. I was in Manual Training so I learned how to use all of the tools and things. So, I made a few things and people seemed to like them. My mother belonged to a lot of different clubs and things, when they would come over and see these things, they would say, oh, I would love to have one of those. I said, oh, boy, here is a chance to do some good. I look back and there were some major catastrophes, the birdhouse, I never did get the birdhouses big enough for the birds to get in the birdhouses. People bought them and encouraged me that way.
Then when we moved up to McGraw and Warren, we lived right next door to a poolroom and across the street from a poolroom. The neighborhood was predominately black. We had a drug store in the area. We had some shows and things. I can remember back in that period of time that some of the theaters and things you had to go in the balcony. We were not permitted on the first floor, the first theaters that I remember going to in Detroit.
We had a place there on McGraw, and I guess we expanded by, we had a big basement. So then we started having little dances in the basement and we kind of worked that out, because we had the musicians that used to come over and practice in our basement. This was in the later years. The Donald Byrds and the Barry Harris’s and Yusef Lateef and what is the guitar player’s name? I forget. I can’t think of his name right now. We had all of the local musicians used to come over; even Miles came over one time. All of the different guys used to practice in the basement. So in turn, we would have a little dancing and I think it cost a quarter.
Q You would charge them?
A Oh, yes. Yes, you had to make money. Then my dad had some brillant idea. It was a shoe shine stand built against the back wall of the poolroom that was next door. We shined shoes there. I guess one day my dad was out and he saw a place over on Milwaukee and Woodward, and he talked to the gentleman there. It was right behind the bank. We decided that we would put a shoe shine stand over there. We had the shoe shine stand there. From there we were looking at behind Cunningham which was over on East Grand Boulevard and Woodward. There was a Cunningham store there. In front of Cunningham at that time were lavatories that were underground, men’s and women’s lavatory. It turned out to be quite an adventure and it was about the time that I was getting ready to go to high school. We had a shoe shine stand there. As a matter of fact, most of the guys on the west side know my first employee, he was one of my dearest friends, who died not too long ago, Tommy Tyler. We made quite a bit of business there. We made quite a bit of money. I put my first thousand dollars or so in the bank across the street from there, shining shoes. You can imagine at fifteen cents, a piece and shining shoes, that is a lot of shoe shining. Tommy and I,I guess in the summer we shined shoes there and had quite a bit of business because down the street from us was the Latin Quarter. So in the evening it got to, I learned to drive on the parking lot. So we got to parking cars and I used to park cars on the weekend for the Latin Quarter. There was a parking lot behind Cunninghams’ and I, so on the weekends that is what I did, besides shining shoes.
Then we setup a business, we were doing very well. Then we setup a business whereas we would with the other parking lot guys, the people would leave their shoes in the car and we would go and get them, shine them, put them back in the car. We gave the guy a percentage for handling it for us, the parking lot attendant. So that kept us in business during the week. We worked seven days a week doing that.
Q What were your peers doing, your other friends that you grew up in the neighborhood with, and went to school with?
A Unfortunately, in retrospect, I guess I didn’t have too many friends, because most of them were out playing basketball and doing other things, not that I didn’t have the opportunity at times to do some things. I was predominately in the summertime, it got to the point there was a great dependency on us being there. A lot of our people were dependent on us being there because they would wear the same shoes in the factory that they wore to church. We learned how to shine shoes that had grease on them. That got to be a good thing. We normally shined shoes at fifteen cents and we normally got about twenty-five cents for the shine.
Q What year are we talking about now?
A Oh, God, I am not too good on years. I guess I was about, must have been around 13, 14 years old.
Q That wasn’t your first business, the birdhouses and the carts —
A It really wasn’t a business. It was something that I did, you know, otherwise. But yes, I guess that was my first business because, of course, all of the neighborhood was in danger, because I would pay for my wheels for my carts. I would go by and see these buggies with no wheels on them. I was slightly suspicious where the guys got the wheels from. That was an early business.
I went to Cass Tech. I shined shoes all the way through Cass Tech and earlier in my first years at U of D, I still had the shoe shine stand; it was fairly profitable. Of course, there were other things that we did on the corner. We handled a lot of different activities. I guess it is safe to say now, we were the lookout for the mafia when they would trading the betting slips in the parking lot behind us. There were different tickets and things that you come through to pick up for whatever, we didn’t know. There were different people picking up tickets, and they would leave. That was a focal point.
So Tommy Tyler and I were there, but we had other employees that sometimes were extremely busy. At that time I tell you how tight Tommy and I were. Tommy lived on Tireman and I lived at that time Warren and McGraw. You got to realize this is East Grand Boulevard and Woodward. The streetcars were six cents and the bus was a dime. We used to walk home. We were that stingy. We enjoyed it. It was summertime, but he and I were working together then.
Q Tell us about McGraw and McMichael and then Cass?
A Well, I went to, as I told you, I lived right directly across from Old McGraw which had the wood floors in the auditorium. I think the toughest person in the school was a girl named Daisy. Daisy could whip everybody in the school. At that time in our neighborhood you did one of two things well, you either ran well or you fought well. You had to learn how to do one of the two.
So when I left McGraw I went to McMichael and it was always kind of amusing because the majority of the classes I was in, there were very few blacks. There were two Glens. There was always a dual between the two Glenns. I was the black Glen and he was the white Glen. So when the instructor would read off the grades and things, it was always Glen. They would wait for the last name or the drop of the foot to see, you know, that was always a good school, though. I went to McMichael.
From McMichael, I went to Cass Tech, and I went into the Architectural Department. I think at the time I went in the Architectural Department it was initially about fifty kids coming into the Architectural Department. It was about four blacks at the time in the class. It was quite an experience going to Cass. We had everything going. We learned. We had the drafting and we had all of the different courses and things, electrical, mechanical. We learned how to wire a house in conduit. We learned a lot, hands-on learning. At the same time you had a good academic program going. When I came out of Cass, I was doing calculus and other things. Cass was a good experience and particularly for networking. I found that a lot of people that I met later in life were people who had gone to Cass. Now, the Mayor knows me, but I am too old. I am a Cassite. I guess I am too old. We have a lot of good experiences at Cass, because it was a lot more, the kids had a lot more in common. I was in the Architectural Department. We had the Architectural Club, and there were some things that happened in the Architectural Club. I can very vividly remember one time I was the President of the Architectural Club and we went out to Cranbrook or we were going out to Cranbrook. We stopped at a restaurant to get some food. I was the only black in the group. I was President of the club. They would serve everybody but me. That was sort of a shocking thing to occur, because then I had buddies they all ordered food and walked out and left it. I told told her to give me six cheeseburgers to go. So when I walked out, I left the cheeseburgers there, knowing when I walked out and left them, that they were not any good. Those are things that you experience and you look back and say that is the way it is.
I had a little hustle going there during the same period of time. There the World War II was going on, and there was a lot of need for housing. So I was doing a lot of drawings and stuff for converting four family flats, you know, and doing work in houses in order to get more room, cut it up for rooms and so forth. So I had a very early experience, down in the Building Departments. So I guess I have been doing this now over sixty years in construction. At that time it was no City Hall where there is. We had a City Hall sitting at the opposite end of where the County Building was, but on Woodward. It was a red stone building. I remember distinctly, it had bird crap all over it, pigeons. Where the Ren Cen sits is where a lot of the Building Department was as well as the Health Department. The building sitting on the corner where the Ren Cen is, and we would go down there to get permits and things. So I had exposure from the time I was in the Cass Tech Building Department to now.
Q Cass Tech, it seems so very unusual for someone from the west side to be at Cass as opposed to Northwestern, which I am guessing is where most high school students went.
How did you get to Cass in the first place?
A I was always interested in architecture, although I am a lousy draftsman. Well, I was a good draftsman, but I was never a good artist. I couldn’t get the renderings and stuff.
What occurred, well, at that time in order to get in Cass you had to have a B plus average. So that eliminated a lot of people. If you didn’t have the A, or B plus average you couldn’t get in Cass. They had a lot of courses and things I was interested in. I was always interested in construction, so that was the natural place to go.
Q At McGraw, could you fight or run, which was yours?
A It would depend. I could out run Daisy, so that worked for me. I was pretty good. As a matter of fact in later years I went to Kronk. I was going to try to do some boxing, and my boxing career was cut short by having gone to Brewster. I can always remember the fellow, I think he is about five foot fall. I was at that time about five foot six or seven. I danced around, I hit him every place I could. He finally said, well, enough of this and he was a terminator. He killed my boxing career.
Q Tell me about the block that you grew up on, 23rd near McGraw?
A Yes, 12th Street, at that time the show we went to was the Granada Theater and that was at Junction and Warren. It was a unique theater. At that time when we used to go to the show you would have the two main features, then you would have the news, then you would have the cartoons, and then you have the chapter picture plus they would probably give you a dish. Everybody’s house had all of these different dishes. None of them matched because nobody went back to get a whole matched set. Then they would have the movies, Frankenstein, the Werewolf. That is how you learned to run. You had to go to church before you went to the movies. That is how we got the show fare, either that or bottles. I can remember many a day running from McGraw, I mean Warren and Junction all the way down to 23rd and McGraw, nonstop, from seeing these chapter pictures and so forth. The neighborhood was good. They didn’t worry about us coming in at night. They were always talking about the Hatchet Man in the neighborhood. When the street lights came on, you automatically found your way home early. The parents were talking about so and so disappeared or this guy disappeared, so you were home early. We played baseball, when I wasn’t working, that was in the early days.
Q What kind of rules did your parents have, other than you had to be home before the lights came on?
A My parents were extremely supportive of most anything I ever did. I don’t think I had too much time to generate any real problems and so forth. My father always taught me to do anything you want to do, and that has always been supported. He didn’t have a lot of money and stuff to give me or anything like that, but I always knew he was in my corner on anything I tried to do. My mother, she did a good job early. All she had to do is give you that look and you knew from that look. I go out now and I watch the little kids jump up and down, and I say, boy, if you only knew. My mother would not have tolerated that.
You would go downtown and that was always a big thing downtown Detroit. The street cars, riding down and going to Hudson’s, and Christmas and going to the ten cent store across the street and getting the waffle with the ice cream. These were big times, exciting times; meeting under the Kerns clock; that was all part of being here in Detroit. I think that a lot of what is occurring, a lot of the fault that is happening in Detroit has been the fact that people are not cognizant of the history of Detroit. When they try to build back something and not understand the way it was built to begin with and they are trying to rebuild it back the way it was and times and things have changed radically since that time. That is one of the problems I have currently with the city, and trying to develop here in the city.
Q Back to your — actually your family in growing up and the west side, what kind of things did your family do together?
A Well, my father was working most of the time. My mother at times she did day work, but they had these clubs and things like I mentioned. There were the Craigs, and the Tylers, there were a bunch of families where the mothers belonged to these clubs, which proved advantageous, at times and it was disadvantageous. They had membership all over the city and sometimes you had to go across town. At that time we had what they called the west side group. Then we had the group on the other side of Woodward, below the Boulevard. Then you had the North End which was above the Boulevard on the east side. And sometimes you had to go to other areas, but I lucked out because I went to Cass Tech, so I knew people all over the city, I guess we did the simple things. We just didn’t know that we were deprived, I guess we didn’t know we were poor, because you know, there wasn’t any comparison; you didn’t get out to make a comparison as to what other things were going on. That is probably that.
Q What did these clubs do?
A In the summertime they might go out and have picnics, and they gave the mothers an opportunity to sort of get out get dressed, and get away from things. Sometimes they would have dinners. They would have little dances and things to get the husbands out. You got to understand that there was really no social life for blacks during that period, during that time, unless you went to the night clubs and so forth. So they would have their little social affairs, and so forth. The mothers would get together and have their little social affairs. That was primarily it. I really didn’t stop and look at it, we didn’t have too much to do.
Q In churches: I understand that you went to Tabernacle?
A Yes, my family went there for years, went there for years. As a matter of fact my father was there a long, long time. I kind of fell out with Tabernacle, though, in later years because the churches have not been consistent. They preach one thing and do another. I am in construction and I have a real problem with the fact that a lot of churches when it comes to do their construction stuff didn’t follow through with what they preached out of the pulpit. They took all black money, but didn’t use black builders to build the churches; so that irritated me.
Q When you were at Tabernacle growing up, do you remember any particular sermons or particular preachers that kind of had an impression on you?
A Yes, I had a fairly good life there, but I wasn’t that much in church as maybe I should have been. When I should have been in church I was shining shoes. Sunday morning was a big day on the stand on Woodward and East Grand Boulevard. I can remember some of the ministers, yes. I thought that Tabernacle was a real, was a big influence on the west side. Then during the same time we had, socially we had the Nacirema, oh, man when you went to the Nacirema that was high on the hog. I found that rather surprising when I went back there a couple of years ago. I was looking for the rest of it. As you know as a a child you see things one way, and when you get to be an adult you find out they weren’t as big as you thought they were. We had a lot of churches in that west side, in that triangular area. I call it the Golden Triangle. You take Warren and Tireman and Livernois and sort of a triangle. A lot of the prominent blacks in the city came out of that immediate area. We had quite a few churches, now that I look. We had Chapel Hill. We had Tabernacle. We had what is the church on — so we had the churches and things in the area. I guess if you look at that period of time, I guess we would be considered some of the middle class blacks here in the city. Most of us didn’t go — well a lot of the westsiders never went to the east side because they had illusions about what was happening on the east side, that was the bad side of town. I had quite a bit of experience on the east side with my shoe shine stand. In the later years when I was older I used to walk down John R. Walking down John R, you would go past Ann’s Bar and down further to the Chesterfield and the Garfield Lounge and all of the bars and things down there. Of course that was the exciting part being under age and getting in the bar sitting there with the beer in shaking hands, thinking you would be put out any minute. That was a period of time I can remember seeing a lot of people that were legends at those bars back in those days. Street folks. I get rather amused by a lot of the guys that call themselves street people who haven’t the faintest idea of what it was all about; but it was a good lesson.
Q It sounds like when you say networking with a lot of things going on in the city as opposed to some of your peers?
A They were sort of an enclosed area, had a very limited exposure. By having gone to Cass and having a lot of diversified friends that came from all over the city, I got to know a lot of other parts of the city and what was going on and other, different types of people.
Q Looking back on it, was it unusual that you as a young black boy being the President of the Architectural Club at some place like Cass?
A Oh, yes. I think what occurred is that in my early days in Grand Rapids, I found out that white folks were just as dumb and didn’t know no more about things than black folks, so I didn’t let that bother me. I have never gone into anything on the basis of saying, I am black and he is white. It is about, we are both, he is smarter than me or he is dumber than me, but it didn’t go to he is black or he is white. Even when I went to Cass my class, most of classes when I went to Cass, I was the only black in the class. The same thing happened at U of D. I was the standard. You were above Glen Wash or you were below Glen Wash. It wasn’t that you had As, Bs, Cs, or Ds, it was did you beat Glen; that was the word. They kept me in the competitive sense.
I went to Cass and then I went to Highland Park and then I went to U of D. At U of D in the winter time, I worked in the factories at night to go to school. I would come in early, sleep on the drawing boards, and wait for the class to start. My education unfortunately or my parents never really knew where I was in school. So I wanted to be an architect at the time. And at that time most of the counselors said, you don’t want to be an architect. Why do you want to be an architect. It was discouraging. So I probably ended up with more general courses than anybody I know. English Literature. A lot of courses were totally unrelated to being an architect, I ended up getting or having. U of D was an experience and unfortunately during that period of time and as it was I was the only black in the whole engineering school. There was another black guy, he claimed to be Hispanic, so I guess he doesn’t count. It was interesting; it was interesting times.
Q Did you experience any or much racism?
A Well, no. I was cognizant of the fact that there were times, but I didn’t let it bother me. I think if you permitted yourself to, and it wasn’t enough of me. It wasn’t enough blacks to get anything organized and going. I think in the whole school we used to meet at the library, which has just been built at the time I was there. The blacks used to meet in the morning at U of D and sort of discuss things. If it was ten or twelve in the whole school at that time, it was unusual.
Q What kind of things would you discuss?
A Well, you know, how the classes were going, the problems that we were having because we did, you know, we were beginning to understand racism and so forth at that time. They had a co-op system at U of D and when it got down to placement of students and so forth, it got to be a little difficult to try to get a black student into a firm was a little different as such.
Q So how did you openly do it?
You come along and worked with Leonard Jarosz. How did you find it?
A How did I find it?
A Well, I was out and I started getting, actually I worked in an architectural firm first, Nesbor & Williams (ps). It was out on Gratiot, the other side of Harper. I worked there as a draftsman in an architectural firm, and I did a lot of design and building in Dearborn. They had buildings all over the town. A lot of guys were building strips of offices. That is what I was doing at that particular time. One day I was there and I decided, enough of this. I went and made application for employment at that time, to tell you how far back, there was no John C. Lodge. I went and made application for a couple of places and went to work for a guy named Leonard Jarosz who was the ultimate of entrepreneurs. This guy was smart; this guy was super smart. He was a real hustler. Anything he touched or went into was something. He took up guitar and in three years he was giving concerts. He took up skiing and after a couple of years later he was one of the top skiiers for his age bracket in town. I learned a lot from Leonard. He built offices and developments and so forth. He gave me the opportunity but he always said, I made him a lot of money, so don’t thank me. With him I learned or was given the opportunity to go out and stake out property lines and build buildings as a builder, as a General Contractor. One of the first jobs or some of the first things was warehousing and stuff over on Meyers, on the other side of 8 Mile. Well I put up, worked on the Bell Telephone Company and a worked on a few other buildings, and that is what got me started going into construction. From there I went to two other firms with the intent of really learning what they were about.
I went to A.G. Etkin, Alex J. Etkin, he was a General Contractor. I was going to school at night and I was working for Alex J. and I learned a lot from him. He kind of took a personal interest in me. He gave me a lot of opportunity. As a matter of fact one of the jobs that I did, I was Superintendent on Housing in Battle Creek, Michigan on military housing. I learned quite abut about concrete and such.
From there the opportunity came up to work for a company Practical Homes. With Practical Homes we did a lot of housing developments and so forth. That was intentional because I wanted to know about housing and shopping centers and so forth. So I got experience in that area.
From there there was a company, H. L. Vokes out of Cleveland Ohio. I guess the last thing I built in working with Vokes was the Howard Johnson, which has since been torn down. I always had a suspicion that they found out that it was a black guy that built it and so they tore it down. That was the last job I really kid. It was always with the intent of having my own corporation down the line.
Q What was it about the owners of the companies, Etkin and Jarosz and so forth that took an interest in you and saw it was okay to hire a black guy to supervise and have a kind of responsibility?
A Well, I found it rather flattering. I was sent by Practical Homes to Benton Harbor to build a project and they wrote about it in Ebony at that time. That was biggest project that a black guy had built in the country and so forth. We have been very fortunate in being first and doing different things. We obtained the largest bond a black guy had up to that date in time. I think we broke the barriers because we didn’t let the racial – social aspect cut us back.
For example when we do deals with a corporation, we don’t get hung up with the fact that we are black. We go there with economics and we tell the bank how we are going to do it, how we are going to pay them back. That is all they want to know. Are you going to be able to pay it back. That has been our approach relative to doing things. When I worked for the firms I did not shuffle. I don’t shuffle. I came in, I came up front and hustled and worked, with the intent to learning the business. I was always volunteering for something, anything. Saturday, you need someone to work on Saturday, I will work Saturday. If they needed somebody to go and do that, I did that. I was always trying to learn and they appreciated somebody that was willing to do that. That is what I was willing to do.
Q The first job in that area, construction area, was with Jarosz?
A Yes, Leonard Jarosz.
Q He sees you walking in the door, I know this is during the era when there was a lot more racism than we experience now?
Q Why did he realize this was a good idea to hire you?
A I wasn’t exactly so naive. I brought something to the table. By the time I got there I knew how to survey, layout, I had worked in architectural firms. I knew how, not only to draw plans, I knew how to read the prints. I read electrical, mechanical, I read all of the plans. I brought that talent that a lot of the white guys didn’t bring. Whether or not, he was Jewish, Austrian Jew, and we got along fine. We didn’t have any problems. I fulfilled his needs and made him money.
Q That is always key.
A That is key, now. That is our problem I think one of the problems black folks have, we offer a socialist, not understanding the environment is capitalism. Make the money first and then donate. Too many people try to take the social agenda and try to make money, and it just doesn’t work. You are out here playing chinese checkers and everybody else is playing chess.
In this city this is the big problem. We have a social agenda which is contrary to what we are involved with. The dominance of the area is capitalism: General Motors, Chrysler, Ford and all of the other people are capitalists. We have a social agenda. We are trying to feed everybody, house everybody, but we should be concerned with employment, getting them a job or even better, I think too often we think in terms of employment as opposed to being employers. I am more interested in being an employer. I am more interested in being a leasor; more interested in being all of the other things as opposed to being a subordinate.
Q Your role as a Board Member in New Detroit, how have you leveraged your influence within the Board?
A Oh, I understand. I am known as, I don’t cut what I think. It is very fortunate from the point that most of them don’t have any influence over me. If I don’t like something, I say it. I am not independently wealthy, but I feel I have enough skills, I don’t have to subordinate or kiss up to any of them. It has been a good experience. New Detroit is not what it was initially. It is sort of watered down from what was done initially. New Detroit, you got to understand was sort of an insurance policy and not having an instance occur where these people all sold their money: Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. Unfortunately the end result is that it gives them an opportunity to get out-of-town. As you probably noted that General Motors got all of their plants out-of-town. Everybody got their plants out-of-town, to the extent that even Chrysler moved out of Highland Park.
Q What do you do as a Board Member of New Detroit. What do you do exactly?
A Well, at least you get the ears of corporate America.
When I first became a Board Member, only the heads were there at that time I was supposed to be a prominent black businessman. So I represented the blacks as far as business, but at that point in time when New Detroit was first put together, you could only be the top person at the corporation. I could cancel Henry Ford’s vote out, or I could cancel the vote of the Chairman of Chrysler, Ford, General Motors. All of the colleges and all of the major corporations, like Hudson and all of those people, those were the people that I was associating and dealing with, as such. The only thing wrong is that the blacks during that period asked for the wrong things. They were asking for the social agenda instead of the economic agenda. They let the major corporations get out-of-town without compensating for taking away the tax base and employment. The biggest thing though was tax base.
Q How do you stop a company from doing that?
A I don’t know that you could stop them, but you should be compensated if they did do it or come up with an alternative of what was to be done. I am watching the City and getting very disgusted and very discouraged. We have taken the position here in the city that most time we hear a lot of verbalization relative of what should be done, and no one ever does anything. I have watched the current trend as opposed to trying to get an economic base going in the city, in which the ministers have chosen to become Egyptians and start building pyramids, massive churches, putting the burden on their congregation as opposed to, how can you go out and cry about we don’t have anything here in the city and we put our money into momuments or nonfunctional buildings or buildings that only function on Sundays.
So I am really at the point of saying I will be going to Atlanta, and from there I will go down to North Carolina, and South Carolina and look at Florida; I am thinking seriously of attempting to leave the area. It is just too heartbreaking.
Q It has gotten that bad?
A It has gotten that bad.
We are attempting right now, we have two projects that we have been working on and attempting to do. We can’t get the cooperation we need in order to do it. We are talking about multi-million projects.
Q It seems like a no-brainer, what is the problem?
A I can’t talk about it too much because of the people I am trying to deal with, even more so. But when we were saying that they couldn’t build shopping centers here in the city, we built a shopping center. 7 Mile and Livernois, CVS, Boston Market; National City Bank; Standard Fed: We built that.
When they said housing was difficult, which it is. Housing is not going to come back into this City, we keep hearing our politicians talk about housing. What the hell are you doing when you build a house for $150,000 and sell it to somebody for $75,000 and then you give a twelve-year tax abatement. Everytime I look up my taxes are going up, because you are giving out abatements. If you don’t develop a economic base as you try to redevelop the city you are not going any place with it. If you don’t let free enterprise or private sector people come in and develop and work with them you will never redevelop the city. I am watching that go on. I understand it. I have been in this construction over sixty years now. I have watched it and every time we get a new mayor in, he comes in with a whole new agenda, and throws out the baby, bath water, and everything else and starts all over. There is no continuity for the city. I worked and had offices in Cleveland; I have worked in Atlanta; and I have worked in other places and everybody even Toledo has a Master Plan. It doesn’t change every time they get a new mayor or change every time they get someone new. But we don’t have the consistency. That is the part that gets discouraging. I don’t get the kind of cooperation that I feel that I should get. If I am willing to put up the dollars to do something, support me in doing it, and particularly a black guy in this community because I feel very frankly as opposed to telling the black youth this is what you should be doing, we should be showing them what can be done. When I try to be a role model relative to doing that, I don’t know how successful I have been at that. I hear them talk, but I am really a pussy cat.
Q You said or you made reference to a role model. Other than your folks what other kind of role models did you have growing up?
A None. I don’t need Jesse Jackson. I don’t need the guys. All I have seen them do is to runaround and talk about things. I look at these things that come on on Sunday morning, we got a whole bunch of people sitting up on the stage talking about what should be done.
But even like now, I heard somebody the other day being very critical of Bill Cosby. At least Cosby has contributed something material. The rest of the people have done nothing but come with the intangibles as to what should be done or how it should be done. We don’t need no more studies. We know what the problem is. You don’t need no more studies. You need to go out and do something about what needs to be done. We need to get people in that know what they are doing. Our political situation in this city is absolutely disastrous. I anticipate the City going into receivership and it might be a good thing. It might be a good thing because it may be like the phoenix, and we can come up from the ashes and evolve into what it could be. When you travel around the rest of the country and see what is going on. Like I said, I just came back from China, everybody in the world is building except Detroit it seems to me. Go to Atlanta, they just built a whole new city inside of the city. Every where you go when you go downtown, you see nothing but cranes going. We got a place in Destin, Florida, all you see is cranes going. Everybody is growing. Don’t even go to Vegas, they fastest growing city in the country. But you know it is just not happening here and there are very obvious reasons; very obvious reasons.
Q Backing up a little bit: The Nacirema Club, you mentioned before?
A Oh, yes; yes.
Q You had events there?
A The Nacirema Club was sort of the place, it was the place, we had the little coming out parties for the girls. You had the high school parties, high school affair or something, after the prom you might come to the Nacirema. It was sort of the elite of the elite; that was a whole different story. Must blacks we had a period of time when we had the elites and then there were guys my color. It was a whole different period in time.
But I guess it is like most things after it is dead you only remember the good things. It is like going to the funeral and sometimes you are sitting there wondering who is in the casket when you get the description of what they did do or what they didn’t do. As it is now, I can only remember the good things about the west side, and the people and so forth because it doesn’t do any good to remember the bad things. I think that I am a much better person for having been born and experienced and grown up on the west side where I did grow up.
Q Joe Louis: What comes to mind when you think about Joe Louis growing up?
A Joe Louis comes to mind, YMCA downtown Detroit, me hanging on his muscle without washing my hands for a week. Joe Louis brings to mind when I was a kid and I was in Grand Rapids, I will tell you how it was. He fought Max Schmelling. A matter of fact we were out there in bloomers, my brother and I, we were boxing. Joe Louis was our idol. There was a period of time when we had wagons with horses, junk men and so forth, but Joe Louis was symbolic and had a real impact on us. He was the Mohammed Ali of his day, more so, because for blacks that was the only shining star out there. We have a lot of shining stars out there now. Back in that day, Joe Louis was quite a guy. Then you got a chance maybe to go out to Joe Louis’s farm in later years. It was a good experience.
Q How did you come to leave the west side or your family come to leave the west side?
A I guess we really never really totally left the west side. I was probably the first to leave the west side, married a young lady out of Chicago and I moved to the Vernor and VanDyke area. That was the first east side experience for me. I would dare say that my parents ended up 90% of their life was west side. 90% of their life was west side after they got here in Detroit. We are old west siders.
Q The community has gone down a little bit, what is responsible for that?
A Well, a lot of things occurred: the economy, this city overly simplified relative to what occurred here, we lost our rapid transit system; General Motors; Firestone and some of the other companies decided to kill that off. We lost our tax base, with all of the plants and things moving outside of the city. It is just a lot of things that have occurred here in the city that has caused its downfall. And unfortunately we have not had administrations – they were good socialists, Coleman used to come here in my office next door which burned down at that time, but I knew Coleman personally. Coleman was a hell of a socialist. He was a good union man and so forth and so on, but he was not a good capitalist. I don’t think we have had any guys thus far that had the entrepreneuralialship that is necessary to run a three billion dollar corporation. You can’t three days before have difficulty balancing your own personal checkbook and then step up and try to run a three billion dollar corporation; and never have run a candy store or run anything in your life and have illusions relative to how you think things should go.
Then anybody other 50 years old is decrepit and is not useful.
It is not just with this current administration, I go back to Jerry Cavanagh and come back through. This is one of the cities that Council and Mayors and things have not done us well.
Q That is unfortunate.
Q Going back, you mentioned jazz in your basement?
A Oh, yes.
Q That is a little different.
A Kenny Burrell, that was the name I was trying to think of. Kenny Burrell, a guitar player. He will tell you that he did not play in my basement but I got news for you; Barry Harris and Kenny Burrell and Little Red; Big Red and all of the guys. Jazz was the thing. I still love jazz. I still go up to Bakers Lounge. I see some of the guys that used to play in my basement.
Q Did you interact with them at all?
A I can play the radio. I wanted to play drums, but my mother decided not to have me play drums. It made too much noise. I just enjoy good music; that is all.
Q Did you have a relationship with them; did you get to know them?
A Oh, yes; yes, I got to know those guys very well, very well. It is always good to be around guys who are super talented.
Q Did that inspire you?
A Being around people that are ambitious and talented doesn’t hurt you at all. If you surround your people, put yourself around people there, you know, depressing so forth, then that is where you are going to be as such. I have been very fortunate, I have had some good philosophers. I have always been taught that most people who dislike you, don’t dislike you for showing up what they haven’t done. My business philosophy is basically, show me the money. Then the other one is don’t get mad at somebody giving me a shafting in a business deal. You have to be in the position to get it done. So you don’t waste a lot of time worrying about what could have been, should have been. The old one is,it is not how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get back up. I have probably lost more money than most people will make in life.
Q Why do you keep on getting back up?
A That is the way I was taught; that is how I was taught.
It is like exercising with weights. The more resistance you get, the stronger you get in developing, so that has been pretty much it.
Q Seems like a good way to end the interview.
Mr. Wash, thank you very much.
A Thank you."> INTERVIEW OF DR. HORACE JEFFERSON
Oral History Project of the Westsiders
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED BY: Louis Jones
* * * * *
Q Dr. Jefferson, first of all, thank you very much for taking time out of your schedule to talk to us.
A My pleasure.
Q To start, could you tell us about your parents in the Westsiders Project?
A It is my pleasure, my pleasure.
Q To start, could you tell us about your parents, where they come from and how they got to Detroit?
A Well, I guess it is best to start with my father, John Lee Jefferson who was born in Fort Valey, Georgia and went in to the service in World War I. His picture is over there. He was discharged, I guess it was 1919, and he came here to Detroit. At that time Ford had their famous $5.00 a day line there. He came here not knowing anyone, on the train from Hartford, Connecticut, after he was discharged. He landed down at Griswold and Michigan Avenue and there was a police officer at the intersection there that had these little stop signals that they turned at that time, they were mechanically operated. My dad went up to him and asked where can a fellow get a job around here. He said, oh, you are a veteran, get on the streetcar and go on out to Ford they are hiring out there. He went out to Ford. He was hired and he had a job before he had a place to stay. As a matter of fact a fellow that he met on-the-job out there, that is where he stayed that night. So he was the beginning of it, the beginning of the Jeffersons coming up. In those days I guess he sent a letter to my mother and told her to come on up. She said she wasn’t coming up here, it is too cold. He said, I am not coming back down there. Oh, they were married at this time. So she came up and so that is what started the wing of the Jefferson family coming up. His brother came up; sisters came up, my mother’s side, the Masons came up here. So that’s the genesis of my parents coming here.
Now, my father married my mother down in Georgia. She was from Macon, Georgia: Mattie Louise Mason. I can go on back to my father’s father, I don’t know if you want to do that.
Q They came from the Georgia area?
A Yes, Georgia.
Q Well, what kind of work did they do?
A My dad’s side: They were carpenters; okay. That is what he did down there, and helped his dad build homes down there. On my mother’s side they were always business men, shoe repairmen. As a matter of fact Mason Shoes used to be on the east side, that was my uncle and there was another Mason over here on the west side, I think.
Q So family members from both sides of the family came up to Detroit?
A Yes, after John Lee Jefferson. He was the one that came up and then everyone said, you know, you were not going to go up easily unless you knew someone who had something of sorts. That is where the Masons and the Jeffersons started.
Q Just remaining in Georgia, was that an option at that time?
A Not for my dad, at that time.
Q Why not?
A Well, because of the Jim Crow situation down there and the fact that he had served in the Army and saw what it was like in another part of America. He made up his mind he wasn’t going back.
Q So when he came, he started to work in the plant?
Q What kind of work did he do?
A I wish I knew, initially. He went to Ford Trade School. He was always good with his hands. He went to the Ford Trade School while he was there and he became a machine repairman, all through the 20s and as a matter of fact whenever they had changeovers, he kept working because they had to make the dies; he was a tool and die man.
Q Was that unusual? I often hear African Americans, in those years, talking about working in the foundry. I don’t hear as much of them working as tool and die folks.
A That is what I am saying. You asked me the question what work did he do when he first got there. All I can remember was that he was a tool and die man; a repairman and a tool and die man. He was always good in mechanics. As a fact when we got to Cass I used his journeyman made tools in drafting and whatnot. They looked at it and said, where did you get these, because they were quality products.
Q Do you still have them?
A My son has some of them.
Q Did he ever talk about what it was like working in the plant?
A Oh, yes. Yes, he talked about the kind of problems he ran into. He developed a hand when automation was coming along. He developed a hand that was reaching and would grab doors and pull them out, and it wouldn’t jam. The ones they had coming out of Buffalo or somewhere, they would jam. Well, he designed and built this hand that would go in and pull the hand out of the press. But, in those days anything you did along those lines belonged to Ford at that time; inventions and whatnot.
Q What was the relationship between workers, like race relations, did he talk about that?
A It was racism in those days and they used the N word. That is just the way it was. You rolled with the punches and whatnot. He would always tickle me, and after he retired he said I would have outlived all of them. He lived until he was 96 years old.
Q Did he talk about how that racism manifested itself and how it affected him?
A It was blatant and blacks kept to themselves, and whites kept to themselves; okay. Really the only conversations that you had between each other was in conjunction with the job, and whatnot. Other than that when you went to lunch you were segregated. When you got on the streetcar, it wasn’t necessary, but they would still not sit together.
Q Was he a union man?
A Oh, yes.
Q Which local did he belong to?
A Local 600.
Q Did he talk about it?
A He talked about the days when they had the strikes back in the 30’s, and whatnot. I have forgotten the name of the persons at Ford. But initially no one cared for the union, and what they wanted. Why would you strike, you have a job; that sort of thing. The conditions were such that the men wanted better conditions. They knew how much the company was making, and they felt they should have a bigger share of the pie.
Q When he first came, the family ultimately moved into the west side; initially he didn’t move to the west side?
A No, no, no. He was down on Trumbull and Grand River in that area; okay, renting. When my mother came he moved over on 28th Street on the west side in a two-family flat. This was back in 1920, I think. It was there he saw them build our house on 30th Street, that I grew up in. He told my mother, I am going to buy that house.
Q What was it about that house that struck him or was it that neighborhood?
A At that time, he worked at Ford’s, and also they had quite a few single homes. People wanted to buy single homes rather than living in apartments. When he first went over there, he stayed in a two-family flat upstairs and renting.
Q Was he there for a long time before he moved?
A Well, two years. 1922 he bought that house that I was telling you about, that was built; it was new.
Q A new house?
Q Was that a big deal to buy a new house?
A Oh, what are you talking about: To buy a house period was a big deal. All we could do was rent all over Detroit on the east side, and everywhere else, we were renting from people.
Q So what was it about the west side that allowed your father to buy a house as opposed to rent one?
A Well, I say it was a single home and it was close to Kelsey Hayes and Ford and some of the other plants. I guess the people that came in there and bought the single homes are what made the west side that you are referring to. Do you understand? This was their property. They wanted this property. They wanted to keep their homes up, paint them, have lawns, all of that sort of thing and so it was like a village.
Q I often hear people talking about the west side and the village and well maintained homes. Can you tell me a little more about that?
A Sure. Karl Young started the Westsiders; okay. For me all my life, it had bugged me as to what went on there. It was a small area bounded on the west by Epworth; on the south by Warren; on the north, it would have been Tireman; and on the east by the Grand Boulevard. This was the area, and expanded a little later to go on out across the Boulevard. The people who moved in here and bought these homes and started raising families, their values were values of hard work, you know, and instilling that into your kids and education; okay. So the genesis came from those initial persons who moved in, in the early 20s. That is where that started and was passed on to the kids that came on.
Now if I can go a little bit farther, I hope I am not taking up too much of your time here. At one of the Westsiders’ meetings, a young lady asked a question. She was in the organization not because she grew up there, but because she is interested in what was going on there. She said, what made it so interesting; the same thing you said. Well I tell you this, while I was at the University of Michigan, there were hardly any blacks there. Those that were from Detroit, practically all of them were from that little area down in here. They had gone to Wingert, Sampson, Northwestern or Cass High Schools; okay.
Q Tell me something about the values that you grew up with, the routines or rules that your parents had?
A Okay. One thing, it was equivalent to capital punishment. As a child you learned that you didn’t hit a woman; that was instilled in us early-on. You do not hit a woman; do not touch a women. If your sister did anything, you come to me and I will take care of it. That was instilled in us early, number one.
Jobs around the house: I had to wheel coal into the coal bin around the side of the house and dump it. The coal man would come and dump the coal in front of the house. I had to shovel coal and put it in a wheel barrel and wheel it around the side and dump it down into the coal bin. I had to cut the grass. I hated this.
As soon as the snow was melted, I had to turn up the dirt all around the fence. My mother loved flowers. She was known as “The Flower Girl”. So I had to go all round the fence and turn up the soil around there.
Now, my sisters had chores also in the house, the washing of the dishes, and the ironing of clothes, and all of the things that you attribute to women. So you had your chores. You had things you had to do. And in those days there was corporal punishment. You can’t do that now. That was a great persuader for a young person.
Q Protesting about the jobs, is that something that would come to mind, why do I have to do this?
A You mean as a youngster?
A I wanted to get outside and play and go with my friends; that was paramount in my world. Some kids whose parents would not have them doing chores. You just didn’t want them to see what you were doing.
Q How old were you when you started doing these chores around the house?
A Oh, 10, 11, 12, yes.
Q What about your neighbors, your next door neighbors and down the block: What was the relationship between you and your family and other families on the block?
A Extended family relationship. You heard the old expression that if you did something bad, you got a spanking from them. When you got home, you got a second spanking, or if you did something bad in school by the time you got home your mother knew about it when you got home. It was a very close relationship, do not walk on the Jones’ grass; do not play on their grass; okay. It was something that was done early-on. You thought nothing of it, it was just something, you know, these were just the terms.
Q Did you get in trouble? Did that happen to you. You did something at school or down the block and the neighbor reprimanded you in some way?
A Oh, yes.
Q What happened?
A Well, we used to like to steal some cherries off of the neighbor’s cherry tree from across the alley on 28th Street. We would climb up on the garage and sneak and steal all of the cherries and whatnot. He caught us one time, and called my dad, and I got my punishment. Abe, that is my buddy, he got his; Nathan, all of us got ours. Later on when we grew older, he got tired and said look, whenever you want any cherries, come around here and just let me know. You can just go on back and get them. We never bothered him again because we didn’t have to climb up on the garage and move the tree over and pull the tree over and pull the cherries off.
Q Tell me about school. I know that you went to McMichael?
Q And Wingert before that?
A Yes. I went to Wingert Elementary School. I lived on 30th Street and it was the dividing line for Sampson and Wingert. If you lived on my side of the street which was the east side, you went to Wingert. Those who lived on the west side of the street went to Sampson. So I knew everybody, I knew those people on my street, but I knew the people who lived in back of me towards Wingert School a lot more that than I did the others. I went to Wingert.
Q What was Wingert like?
A Wingert was a good school, when I think about it because we had courses for elementary school. We had what was called Manual Training. We had woodworking courses at that time. We didn’t get into metal work, but we did get into lathes and power tools and that sort of thing, at that time.
The girls, of course, had their home economics type of courses where they learned to sew and those types of things. Besides the geography that we had, for example, I had geography there at Wingert and I remember studying the Baltic States. Later I was in Torronto and I was talking to a lady and she said oh, I am from — you wouldn’t want to know where I am from. I am from Astonia. I said, Astomia, yes. That is way up there Latvia and Astomia. That popped up from elementary school from the maps we had to color and whatnot, from Europe, from the countries in Europe and the populations and what were their chief products and so forth. All of that I had at Wingert. I don’t think they have that today in school.
At that time Hitler was on the rise and we, the kids in the 7th and 8th grade, they would gather us all in to the auditorium. We would listen to Hitler’s address. Now the purpose of this was to know what was going on in the world, and not to be, they would explain it in English. All over the country at that time whever that man spoke people all over were listening to him. Today, they would want to charge him with Naziism maybe or something. This is where you learn it is a lot bigger world than our little neighborhood.
Q This was before World War II?
A Just before.
Q What did they say about Hitler or what did you learn about him as you were listening to his speeches?
A Well, I was quite young at that time. I know how I felt as I listened to him. I thought, well, the United States is the strongest country in the world. We would be able to protect ourselves from this man, because you know, I think we have moved into part of France and moved into Austria and these kinds of places. Who is going to stop him, you know? It turned out that the United States wouldn’t have been able to stop him at that time, nobody could have stopped him at that time because none of the democracies were armed.
Q Also, Wingert was an integrated school?
A Oh, yes. At that time it wasn’t a thing of whites and blacks. We had a German youth home that was across the street, where kids without parents stayed and they attended Wingert, also.
Q And they were German kids?
A Yes, but also Jewish and English. They lived in that area across the Boulevard also.
Q As you were learning about Hitler with the German kids there, was there any kind of tension or did that incite any type of discussion?
A Well I don’t think so, too much, other than when we got into geography. They would draw the maps, it wasn’t in depth as a youngster. It turned out that it was very important to me later in life. Some years later I was drafted into the service. This meant a lot to me but the discussions occurred in the geography class, but primarily in terms of locating which country, if Austria had been invaded or what this was but not so much the politics of it.
Q What was the relationship between the black students and white students; did you have friendships?
A Oh, yes, we had friendships, but they were the same as I described where my dad worked. They were separate. Separate. Separate. You walked together. In class you were mixed up, and you talked to each other. As soon as you left class, you had to walk in lines between classes going from one room to the other and we usually kind of got next to our friends and that sort of thing. That is what racism does.
Q Were there any special teachers?
A Mrs. Adams, Mrs. Morrow, and who was my 8th grade teacher, I can’t think of her name right now. Mrs. Morrow, one time I loved doing model airplanes, me and my buddy, Abey, we would build the airplanes, and fly them and then we would hang them from the ceiling in our home and make all of the sounds, ah-hr-hr-hr-hr, and all of that. My sister told me after I left a kid made a noise like that and the teacher said, Horace Jefferson’s spirit must still be here.
But Mrs. Adams taught us so much about what we were going to run into later on in life.
Q Do you recall anything in particular?
A No. What were some of the things? Well, you got me, when I try to get the particulars. I don’t want to take up too much time. I will interrupt you when I remember something.
Q What about McMichael. What kind of school was that and what do you recall about your experience in going there?
A Let me backup a little bit. I was so crazy about these airplanes at Wingert that I flunked my class. It was the 6th grade, I think, I flunked that class; me and my buddy, Abey, both. That’s what turned me on and got me serious in school, because I was back with kids that I considered younger than me. All of my peer group had gone on and were ahead of me. So I started making all As in class, well in those days, it was Es for excellent. I started making all Es in everything. I did well in all of the classes I went in because I was repeating a lot of the stuff I already had. So Mrs. Morrow said, we are going to put you back up on probation with your class. Well after that I never needed any more motivation.
So now we can get over to McMichael. I cut the mustard at McMichael. In other words, I made As at McMichael. My problem was at McMichael, I wanted to be an Aeronautical Engineer. The counselor had shunted me into this machine shop course, which I loved, turning metal on lathes and all of that. When I got where I applied for Cass, I was told I couldn’t go there, you don’t have any algebra. I had machine shop there and that sort of thing. So I had to go to summer school to take algebra before I could be admitted to Cass.
Q Why would she try to move you into Machine Shop as opposed to —
A The counselor: Racism.
Q Racism; okay.
A In other words, they would look at some black kid and say well, you need to go into Machine Shop or something. Also you had the Woodworking and that sort of thing; this is a natural for you. I told my counselor, this was a man. I told him, I wanted to be an Aeronautical Engineer. I wanted to go to Cass. The neighbors that lived across the street from me went on to Cass. He wound up becoming an Aeronautical Engineer with Boening Corporation. So I wanted to go where the Aero program was.
Q What was the response when you said that?
A I don’t recall a response. You are just coming out of grade school, 8th grade. This is what is best for you. I am assuming, machine shop, this and that, that
U is what is I needed to go into for Aeronautics.
Q When you were held back for a minute there, how did your parents respond to that?
A My dad didn’t respond too happily. My mother cried. Because I think they knew that I could do better. We were so caught up in the airplanes. We modeled airplane after airplane, the spads; loved them. The response was nothing, not to mention how I felt. I felt just terrible; I had disappointed my parents. I never had a problem after that.
Q It motivated you?
A Yes, I said Mrs. Morrow, when she put me back up with my class, I never needed any more motivation when it came to studying.
Q My sense is that folks that grew up on the west side, I have heard from the folks, most of the folks after completing McMichael, went on to Northwestern. You went on to Cass. What motivated you to do that?
A The only school that had the Aero curriculum. I wanted to get into airplanes. And so when I got there, at Cass, the curriculum at one time they combined it. It was auto-aero curriculum; okay. I learned a tremendous amount at that school. We had to tear down an airplane engine, radial engines and put them back together. We had the old Liberty engine that was there. We didn’t tear it all the way down, but we had the engine that we had to take apart and whatnot. Then as you proceeded through the school, you learned about airplanes, wingfoils, the relationship of the wingfoils in terms of how much they could lift at the certain speed and stall speeds and all of that. When you got to the 8th grade, you were given certain givens like the horsepower of the engine or wingfoil which was standard with the government. This is the shape of a wing that was standard with the government. You had to design an airplane and give it characteristics, take-off speed, stall speed, and all of that kind of stuff, service ceiling, and you couldn’t cheat because your givens were different from anybody else’s; okay. But that was the kind of school Cass was along with learning of whales and all of that kind of thing, besides the normal courses, the courses of English and Chemistry and all of the other courses that you had.
Q Dr. Jefferson you mentioned when you left Cass and you went to the University of Michigan. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
A No, not directly. I left Cass. We had that riot in 1943 in Detroit, in July of 1943. And it was right after I graduated. I still had clothes down there. I had clothes down there in the lockerroom and me and my buddy, Willie Flennoy had to go down there to close our lockers. Unbeknownst to us, three blocks away they were pulling blacks off the streetcar at Vernor and Woodward and beating them up. We walked down Grand River. Willie and I always walked to school, to Cass. We walked down Grand River, Willie and I walked down Grand River to Cass, went in wearing our clothes and carrying books and things. When I got back to the west side, black area, people were standing on the porches. I was wondering what was going on. We got to Willie’s house first. His mother was so glad to see him. I still had to walk a little farther and when I got home I found out all of this stuff that was going on.
Q Did it surprise you at all?
A Yes, when I got home, we knew nothing about it.
Q Did it surprise you that something like that would take place?
A All because this happened over at Northwestern also. It happened at Northwestern also, in 1940.
Q We will get back to 1940 in a second. But in 1943, were you surprised?
A I certainly was because I didn’t know what was going on even though I was three blocks away because we had walked to Cass. We always walked and stopped at the Wonder Bread Company and spent our money on day-old cakes. Money I was supposed to use for other things, bus fare and other things. So when we got back home that is when I found out about the riot. People were standing out on their porches. I didn’t know what was going on. Our parents were worried about us.
Q In terms of race relations at that period in history, did that surprise you based on that, that there would be a riot in the first place?
A I didn’t think there would be a riot. People got along. You said hello to each other. They were separate, but they got along. Once in awhile you would pickup a paper and see things. People would use the “N” word a lot of times, you know, but hey, you live with that; that’s life.
Q Now in 1940, before there was an incident at Northwestern?
Q What do you remember about that?
A I only remember that Abe and I, in order for us to go home where I lived, we would have to cross the Boulevard and Grand River, the confluence there. We had to cross there so we had to walk out the front of Northwestern. We saw all of the people standing around, the white guys, and I thought nothing of it. We walked in the middle of it. The next thing I knew, boom, the guy hit me. I turned around, Abe and I, we ran past McMichael, straight past Northwestern over by the Olympia. Then, we had to walk home down McGraw. So that was my first taste of blatant racism.
Q What happened to make that incident take place?
A I have forgotten what caused that. I have forgotten what caused that one. The historians would be able to tell you.
Q You can tell us first. But, if you don’t know, that is fine.
Now, tell me you mentioned that you originally wentto the University of Michigan?
Q Was that during the war: World War II?
A The riot occurred and right after that everybody on the west side was drafted; okay. I think it was a coincidence. I was 18 years old and had to go. I went in and I had had two years of ROTC at Cass. So I went in as a matter of fact I was placed over the group of five hundred men that went into the service at that time, because, you know, it was segregated at that time. There weren’t any blacks that had military training. I guess so they looked through the thing and said, Horace Jefferson? Yes. You are in charge of these men until you get where you are going. It wasn’t nothing. I had to call off the names of every one to the train. I think I have those Orders up in my home. I don’t throw anything away.
Q Did you see any action in the war?
A No, no. As I said I was ROTC and we didn’t have many trained black personnel so I spent my time training them.
Q Over here?
Q Where were you?
A First down at Camp Lee, Virginia and then down at Camp Ellis, Illinois and then finally Camp Poschay, Louisiana. The group that I went in with went overseas and fought in Okinawa.
Q Tell me about the University of Michigan. How did you choose University of Michigan and I also understand that you lived in a rooming house?
A That was the Alpha House.
No, I stayed in a rooming house. They started to stay in the rooming house. I chose University of Michigan. I was born and raised Wolverine. That is all I knew you know was Ohio State and Michigan and I wanted to go to Michigan from the start. There was no other school in my mind except to go to Michigan. I didn’t even apply to any other school.
Q What would you say about your education there?
A Excellent. Excellent education. Still had the racism but it was just excellent.
Q How did the racism manifest itself, what did you experience?
A For example, in Dental School, the white dental students were able to go into dental fraternities. The benefit of that is that you could see and also the Professors belonged to the dental fraternity. You could see the examinations that were given by certain professors. You could see the questions, their pet questions and whatnot. If you were black, forget it. We had to take that book and you had to know everything that was there, so that you could pass. So they changed that.
Q Did you ever consider applying to the white fraternity?
A No, my classmate Dr. Hanna applied and I think he was accepted in one of the dental fraternities.
Q He was black?
A Black. He was the only other black in the class, in a class of one hundred; okay. I think he was accepted to one of them. But I didn’t, I was already in the fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and the chances of the two blacks getting into a fraternity — you know. The reason that Hanna got in, I think he was a veteran also. He was married and he lived down in Ypsilanti in the quonset huts down there at that time. A Greek dental student, white, they drove back and forth. He became intimate with them, and I think that is how he got into the dental fraternity.
Q Who was your family dentist when you were growing up as a kid?
I remember Dr. Grimes, Sparks and Whitby, do you recall those names at all?
A I am sorry to say I didn’t have a family dentist. I was fortunate that I grew up and didn’t have too many cavities and whatnot. I didn’t see a dentist. I was not unlike a whole lot of other blacks. I knew people who had gone to them and I knew people would complain about going to a dentist, you know. So, as I was growing up I had not gone to a dentist. I hadn’t lost any teeth. My dad loved planting his vegetables. My mother loved to garden. He would plant his vegetables in the vacant lot. So we had plenty of fresh vegetables and I attribute some of that to keeping my teeth in good shape.
Q There is something I definitely want to talk to you about: Milford Street. The Milford Street and then the Gang. Can you tell us a little about that. Milford was a somewhat bustling street?
A It was quite a bustling street. It was the main commercial street for that area. You could get anything you wanted up and down Milford Street, no matter what, whether the clothing, or if you wanted a hair cut, drug store, everything was up and down Milford Street. Now, you always have a bunch of misfits in every neighborhood. They were the Milford Street Gang, and they call them that because they hung down on the corner of my street 30th and Milford outside of Kreugers which was an ice cream parlor. Some girls used to like to come there and all of these nogoodnicks were hanging around, the police would have to come and say get away from here. The Milford Street Gang.
When Joe Scaggs and my brother, I don’t think my brother was in with the initial one, my brother was younger than I am, he was in early-on with the Milford Street Gang when they started having a luncheon with the bunch of the old fellows who graduated from Northwestern, they called it the Milford Street Gang.
Q You hung out at the ice cream parlor. What kind of things did you do?
A We had a juke box there, you go there and you put your nickles in there and get your ice cream soda and the light was on there at night. It was just kind of a social gathering place for teenagers.
Q What would you talk about?
A Girls, didn’t talk too much about cars, nobody had a car except what this car looked like. Boy, this is my car, you know, I wish I had this or that sort of thing. You talked about school and the instructors and sports, you know, and what different people were doing.
Q Would Joe Louis be a subject of conversation?
A Oh, yes.
Q Tell me what you heard about Joe Louis?
A Well, what I really remember about Joe Louis was that on the nights that he fought, if you stepped out in the street, there was nothing, complete silence, in the summer time. As soon as he knocked out his opponent you could hear the screen doors, these old wooden screen doors, and they had clips on them and you could hear them, they went plop, plop. People running out and running down to the corner and cars would blow their horns, people screaming and hollering, run to the corner and it was just like New Years. Whenever he won a fight it was just like New Years down there on Milford.
Q People would gather around radios, there was no TV?
A Well, no, there were no TVs. They were around the radio. As a matter of fact you couldn’t walk past the house without hearing a right to the jaw, and a left to the right side. Probably hear through the windows in the summertime, no air conditioning, the windows were up. You could hear it, but in my mind I could always hear the screen doors, plop, plop, plop, all down the line and people were running out and running down to the corner and screaming and hollering and cars blowing their horns, just like a wedding reception with cars blowing their horns and whatnot.
Q Now, what happened when he lost to Max Schmelling?
A Man, it was just like a funeral, silence. You couldn’t believe it. It was of all people, man, Hitler’s Aryan Representative, that was just too much. later, it was sweet payback, sweet payback. That was all over the country, because Joe Louis was representing the country at that time.
Q One thing I heard about the west side is that it was a safe neighborhood, people left windows open, and doors open. Can you speak to that a little bit.
A Sure, I can. As a matter of fact, my dad used to take us out to Belle Isle, we would sleep out there overnight and we would lie on quilts and things on very hot nights. You left your windows open, you didn’t worry about anybody bothering anything. It just didn’t happen. It was a different time. There weren’t as many people then, the population wasn’t as thick as it is now. You knew people then. That has changed. I think we have, The Milford Street Gang has a Christmas Party every year and people come in from all over. I think that one of the the reasons that they come is that for that brief moment you were back in those days when people were civil to each other; okay.
Q Now, the Milford Street Gang was actually formed some years after you guys used to hang out; is that right?
A When you say “hang out”, I was not hanging out as much as some of the rubby-dubs. Some of the guys were in trouble with the police. They were the ones that were hanging out and giving the Milford Street Gang its name. Milford Street Gang later on was made up of teachers and all of that, but they kind of took the name of Milford Street Gang.
Q Now the more rougher guys, jitterbugs, I have heard that term?
A Right, right, jitterbugs, right.
Q You didn’t hang out with them, why not?
A No, I didn’t hang out with them, no. We knew them. We grew up with them; went to Wingert. We knew them. And they had these different gangs on the other side of the Boulevard. It was a gang and while these guys from the other side came over and bothered you, they would have to deal with the rough guys because they knew you growing up. There was one guy, Rob Roy, we were younger than him. We would see him. He would walk by with his peg pants on and say, take one, take two, two for me and one for you. We just thought that was so far out. Hey, man.
Q What was he talking about? When he said that, take one what was he talking about?
A It was I am on top you know. Take one, take two, two for me and one for you. I always remember that. It was something like that.
Q Your parents would not allow you to hang out?
A No, no. They would walk down the street real slow, wearing peg pants, there would be five or six of them. They would hang out on the corner and the police would come along and tell them to get going. But no, we were in to building model airplanes and building bunk houses and building kites. We would go to the library and build kites and all of that. I want to just, you are talking about the Westsiders, and before I forget this, I told you once before about the number of men from the west side who were up at Michigan. After I left this meeting in which this young lady asked this question, hey Jeff that was just the men who were on the GI Bill. How about all of the people who came from the same area who went to route that you were saying, who went to Wingert and then on the Northwestern, or Sampson and then Northwestern. When I started looking at that, a huge number came out of that area. They went on to be teachers and judges and what have you, professional people, business people, huge numbers. When I talked about the Michigan men, the women did not have the GI bill. They had to go through the Northwestern route. I started thinking about the women in my class that went on to become teachers. It was phenomenal, the ones that came out of there that went on to become productive citizens in Detroit.
Q What was it about your neighborhood, the west side that resulted in so many prominent people moving on?
A What was it about it?
Q About the neighborhood?
A It was the values early-on. You worked for what you got. You didn’t go and try to take it away from someone else. They didn’t B.S. You didn’t put it on the suit and tie and that is superficial. Values had to come from inside. They came from our parents with the working ethic and it is necessary to pass that working ethic on to our siblings and to those who have moved on. Very important because the current generation thinks that just because I put this on and look like Madison Avenue, I am there. No way. No way.
Q What was your faith; you were at St. Matthews?
A Yes, I was raised Episcopal. I married a Catholic woman and my kids and everybody are Catholic. I am non-committal in that area.
Q Does your faith have a role in some of the values you are talking about?
A Well, sure.
Q Can you speak on that a little bit?
A Your ten commandments, it is a basic as to how we treat other persons. That would be very basic. I was not a church going person every Sunday. My mother and father were; some of my siblings are.
But the Ten Commandments are the basis of our human civility.
Q How did your family, you and/ your family come to move from the west side?
Why aren’t you there today, for example?
A Well, when I got married, my wife and I did stay at my dad’s house there on 30th Street. We couldn’t stay there because my mother and father were there. So, I moved into Judge Ford’s, Geraldine Bledsoe Ford. At that time she was my wife’s age and we were starting our families out. I knew Lennie Ford from Michigan. They had a four-family flat and they had one vacant, and so we moved in to the one vacant flat, and it was over on Calvert and 12th Street.
Q That is not the west side?
A No, no. That would be the reason that I moved from the west side. Okay, I got married had a wife, started my own family. This apartment was available and this was over on Calvert. That would be the reason I moved away from the west side.
Q Were there opportunities to remain in the west side, though, why did you move somewhere else?
A Well, because at that time as a dentist I had taken over the practice of Dr. Catchings who was over on the east side. As a young dentist coming out you try to pick an area where you are going to be successful. I didn’t want to go into and area where there was an established practioner. I wanted to get an area where I could develop my own practice, something that is very difficult to do right now, by the way. That would involve me going to a completely different area.
Q Did you have any role models?
A Oh, yes. I spoke of Ambrose Nutt, who was an Aeronautical Engineer, who grew up across the street from me and went on to become a designer. He went on to become an Aeronautical Engineer for Boeing out in Seattle.
There was Dr. Remus Robinson, physician in Detroit who served on, was the first Registered black Surgeon in Detroit. He also was a member of the Detroit Board of Education, if not the President for a long time. Dr. Marjorie Pebbles Meyers who was married to Ricksford Meyers, the Rector down at St. Matthews Episcopal Church.
Q Can you tell us something about the relationship with them, how were they your role models?
A Well, Dr. Meyers, before I went into the service, established a class to introduce teenagers to Sex Education. It was mixed. Boys and Girls. She was the one who shared this. We were all on edge in the first session. We got to be comfortable with each other and we could ask what was very important to us. Not only that, just being a female black doctor at that time just spoke a lot to me.
Q Is there anything else that you would like to discuss that we haven’t already discussed?
Let me ask you this: You said that you wanted to pass on the values from the west side, I am assuming to your siblings, to your children and grandchildren. How do you do that; what do you tell them?
A You can’t just do it by talking. So many of us just want to talk. We have men who are fathers. Yes, I talk to them. Well, it is the way you live. It is not just the talking, it must be fortified by the things you do over a protracted period of time. That is it. We live in a society where we want instant this, instant that, videogames. Why isn’t this over with now and that sort of thing? As human beings it is not only the preaching, it is the way the individual making the noise lives, himself. For example, when my daughter, she would kill me if she heard me say this. The rooms of my son and my daughter weren’t quite the way my wife would like. But whenever we went to visit her – she went to Michigan – were immaculate. When we dropped in, so that means they heard their parent’s voice, even though you weren’t there.It is this sort of thing that I am alluding to. It is the way individuals live and the way they treat others. That is what is coming out of the west side.
Q I am assuming that you went to the Granada Theatre.
Q Can you tell us about that experience; did you go to the midnight shows?
A Yes, we would go and sit, at one time we had to sit in the balcony at the Granada Theatre. Later on what I recall about the Granada Theatre, there were always people walking around, cigarettes, with big hats on, Big Apple hats. You are trying to look at the movie.
The Beechwood Theatre, that was a smaller theatre at Warren and Beechwood. We would go and look at the spooky movies. After we get home we were shaking after leaving those theatres.
The Granada Theatre initially was a segregated theatre.
Q So they had to shut them down.
A Yeah, right.
Q Was there bitterness over that?
A Oh, yes, and then finally the neighborhood had to talk to that man, to those people, and broke that up.
Q So you remember going there on a non-segregated basis as well?
A Oh, yes.
Q How did that make you feel?
A Made me feel great, except it was quiet when we were there on a segregated basis. As time went on the people who weren’t there for the movie but were there for a social thing.It was quite an experience.
Q It was a whole different era back then?
A Oh, yes. The west side was a village, believe me it was a village. It bothered me all of my life from the time I was in the service, from the time I was at Michigan, well, what went on there? Why did everyone succeed? Why did that happen? That is a very small area compared to the whole city.
So when Karl decided to put the Westsiders together we were out of the Milford Street Gang group. The Milford Street Gang group, a bunch of fellows who got together with Joe Scaggs, and had lunch.The Milford Street Gang is a comrade oriented organization. Karl wanted a goal oriented organization. That’s what the Westsiders became.
Q The Milford Street Gang meets today?
A Every first Wednesday.
Q What do you do to this day?
A Meet, talk, have lunch, have a little wine. You don’t have to send out any notices, people show up the first Wednesday, period. It is not a formal gathering. The Westsiders are controlled by an agenda; they are goal-oriented. We need both.
Q Very good. Thank you."> INTERVIEW OF DR. JEAN ERNST MAYFIELD
Oral History Project of the Westsiders
Interview Conducted by: Louis Jones
* * * * * * *
Q First of all, Dr. Mayfield, thanks for taking time out of your schedule to speak with us. We are very excited about this opportunity.
Just to begin, tell me about your family in the south and when they came to Detroit.
A Okay. I grew up on Beechwood Street, between Moore Place and Milford as a small child. My family originally came from, our history goes back to my great grandmother, that is as far as we can go. Her sister, mother, and her sister were stolen out of New Orleans. They became a part of the Lister Hill Plantation. So we still have ancestors that relate to the present Governor there. We have had cousins to go down and validate it with gravestones and artifacts and the like.
So the best place to start is with the elder relatives that I grew up with, besides my mom. That would be Big Clarence’s Sister as we referred to them, Clarence and Hattie Searcy. They lived at 6385 Beechwood.
Along that street we knew every neighbor. So the neighborhood was very nurturing. We knew the neighbors up and down the street. My great uncle, Big Clarence was very proud to be one of the first homeowners along with the rest of the homeowners on that street. We took piano lessons. We had to be in before the sun went down. We came in in the evening and we cleaned up, oiled up, went back out to play and had to be in before anybody came out to get you. So we would sit on the steps and play hide and go seek, and do those kinds of things.
Q What do you remember about your neighbors right next door and up and down the block, any particular memories?
A Yes, I can go all the way down to Moore Place before John Wesley was built. The church was built during my teen years. As a child there was a store, Stark’s Grocery Store there on the corner. Next to that was a couple of neighbors that we knew quite well. We knew the Quarles. There was Ernest, Mildred and Fred. Next to them were the Tuckers which was a huge family. I won’t go through all of those names. The Jacksons. The Jacksons owned the fish and poultry market up on Moore Place. I used to babysit their daughter. They adopted a daughter, her name was Barbara Ann. Then there was me, it was Sister and Big Clarence. They helped momma raise all five of us. I would sit on the steps. I was Baby Jean, because further down on Beechwood there were the Seiberts and they had the Elder Jean. So, they called her Big Jean, and they called me Baby Jean which I resented it all the way through my middle school years. I dared anybody to call me Baby Jean when I went to high school. Then there were the Tuckers. The Tuckers owned a gas station: Stanton’s. I believe that is the correct pronunciation, it may not be. He owned a pool shop, right up on Tireman Avenue. That was a novelty to us for homeowners, now business owners. One of the first pharmacists was on Moore Place and further down Milford there was Mason’s Drug Store. We were very proud to do business in those black enterprises in those days. There was the shoe shop, that was the Thompson’s Shoe Shop up on Milford. There was a soda bar that we would go to, and a candy store. We didn’t have to go too far from the community to enjoy ourselves and the neighbors were very nuturing. They would tell on us. We had a school teacher by the name of Mrs. Brown that lived the other side, two-doors down headed towards Milford. She delighted us as youngsters because Mrs. Brown had the habit of answering her questions when she asked you, for example, how are you feeling, that’s fine, that’s fine. How is mother. That’s good. That’s good. We would imitate her and play school imitating Mrs. Brown. There were the Craigs that lived down the street. My mother and the elder mother were very good friends. Herb Craig is still living, I think. Many of the others have made their transition like in all families. The Tuckers opened up a car wash next to Vic’s Store on Tireman Avenue. There were many other exciting things to us as youngsters that we were able to participate in at that time.
Q Where in the south did your family come from?
A Okay. My mother’s family came from, all the way back through to my great grandmother and then my granddad Willie Burnette came out of Virginia, coal mining. My grandmother had three husbands, and this was I think the second one. When they pulled up in front of the house in a taxi cab. He got out of the taxicab, shotgun first, to the embarrassment of my aunt who was very straight laced. Many, of course, came through my great grandmother, Helen Hamilton who came from Louisiana. The great grandmother Helen Hamilton made her home in New York. She never, she said she never, that was as far south as she ever wanted to go. So she stayed, I think it was at 467 West 159th Street which they referred to as the Hill in New York. She came here to visit. So my family basically came that route. Many of us settled, of that Hill Family, which is immense, they settled in Chicago and they would come in and out to visit. They would all stay over to Sister Big Clarence’s house. So we took that kind of route coming up from the south.
Q So what is it about Detroit that attracted those family family members that came here?
A That was the five dollars pay that the Ford Motor Company was offering. Many of them came up to work originally. My great aunt would make room for them. Many of the neighbors, we put the old furniture in to the basement and that turned in to the kid’s playroom or the dad’s poker room, one or the other. Our parents were no exception.
Q You mentioned that Big Clarence and Sister?
Q That they were very proud homeowners?
Q Did your family own the home that you lived in?
A Yes, 6385 Beechwood. I have the old, old pictures of Sister and Big Clarence that are upstairs in our archives, and the old picture of our great grandmother, but that is as far as we can go back with the pictures.
Q Did you remain on that block throughout or did you move much at all?
A We stayed there but then mom moved a lot. So I was back and forth. When mom would get on me, I was the baby. So when mom would get on me too tough, I would deliver the shirts. She ironed shirts for the neighborhood. So the neighborhood specially guys always bought their shirts and she would iron them. Sometimes I would have to deliver them. So when my sisters and brothers would give me all of the dishes to wash then I would run to Sister and Sister would care for me there. So we stayed there. I was at 6385 Beechwood but basically I was also at 5349 Tireman which is with my mom and my sisters and brothers. We lived up over a dry goods store. It was called Passmore’s. So we would get a lot of things from Passmore’s like socks and undershirts and things of that nature. The building no longer exist. I think there is a church there that stands in the place of 5349 Tireman. But I basically stayed there until I went away to college. That first year in college I met my husband and we married in ’52. Our reception was held there. We were married by the late Jesse J. McNeil of Tabernacle, about five ministers ago. That house when Sister and Big Clarence made their transition, momma and her sister Eleanor were left there at the house. So Eleanor said momma could have it, because she already had a home. So it stayed, it lasted pretty well during all of those years.
Q Now what kind of rules and routines did your family require in chores, what chores did you have to do?
A All of them. All of the dishes, some of the washing because they had wringer washers and a couple of times I would get my hands stuck because I would always be curious to see about the roller thing and maybe as a kid I did it deliberately so some of the others would have to do that. A little of the ironing. My mother was the best ironer in the world. She didn’t trust us to iron much. As we grew older we would iron our own clothes. We had to do the dusting. Lots of furniture polish was used in those days. If you had bare floors, furniture polish also went on your floors. So we did all of the chores around the house. Momma used to pay me a penny a dandelion, which we had to get out here with a dandelion weeder because cutting them does not do anything but promulgate more dandelions. I have a tool that lifts it up by the roots, so even though the sons will do the mowing now, they won’t do the dandelions, momma will have to do that. We basically did all of the chores. We did some of the shopping that they would trust us with. The older we became the more they trusted us to do. Then babysitting with babies in the family.
Q What kind of things did your family do together, leisure time?
A Lots of fun stuff, basically centered around the churches and the social clubs. Momma and my great aunt belonged to several. One was called the Nonpariel, the Sorosis and we had fabulous tea parties in yards where you had to dress completely up, hat, gloves, the whole nine yards, white knee socks and that kind of thing. We didn’t have pantyhose in those days. We actually had tea parties in yards. The yards were immaculate and all setup for these. Those were lots of fun. We had lots of fun with all of the surrounding churches. We were surrounded by Tabernacle, Hartford, John Wesley. The one there on, that is still there. But there are many more churches that have cropped up around there that I don’t know the names of. They were all our nurturers.
We would do social things with the church. Rev. Hill was the pastor that I remember more so from Hartford. We would come back to Hartford and do dress up clothes and Easter clothing and those kinds of things. We were taught social skills. I remember two mothers that were mentors. That was Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Williams, no, three and Mrs. Goldsby in the community. They made me want to be play leaders, because we could go back to Sampson’s playfield and make things. Now days kids make lanyards that go around the neck and that kind of thing and weaving and that kind of thing. But they nurturered us. We would go back, we would do our chores, play on the playgrounds and do crafts inside. Before we could go to the playground we had to do our chores. After we did our chores we would dress up for the afternoon. Every kid on the west side would go in the house, dress up, get clean and then go back to the playground.
I saw Leon Miller play baseball. He became a baseball icon to us. Maybe there were others that I have forgotten. We didn’t know about it at the time. We would watch the ball games while they were at the field. Kronk played a very important part, too. I learned to swim at Kronk. Green Pastures played a great role. That was our first camping experience, because there were no camps for black children at that time.
I remember going back to Sampson for modern dancing, making things with our hands and becoming acquainted with the arts and music, thanks to the ladies that guided us through those kinds of activities.
When Green Pastures Camp hit through John Dancy was the head of the Urban League at that time, and I camped at Green Pastures from about the age of, I believe the youngest you could be would be 9. The oldest around 14 or 15. So I camped there for about the four or five years of my early childhood and then later went back to counsel as an adult. Those were extremely rewarding experiences for children and those camps were free.
Q I have heard a lot about Green Pastures over the years and that they really instilled some important values.
A There is a whole history in the discussion about that camp.
Q They really emphasized black history.
Q Can you talk a little bit about that?
A For example, there were five cottages over the hill on the girl’s side and they were all named after blacks that had contributed a lot to humanity. The camps on the girl’s side were: Phyllis Wheatley; Samuel Taylor, Ira Aldridge, Crispus Attacks, and J.C. Price.
On the boy’s side: Booker T; Charles Drew; Colonel Young; Frederick Douglas, and I always stop, it is a wonder my son isn’t yelling down. I think it was Benjamin Bannecker. I always get stuck on one of those.
Now in those cabins there were 12 beds and there were two counselors assigned to each cabin. Then when monies got tight, there was one counselor and an assistant. We stayed all summer. There were eight camping trips. The counselors taught the youngsters why, the children had to recite why the cabins were named after these persons. They had to know all about it. There was clean up every morning. Now, there would always be some child musically inclined and whoever that person happened to be usually it was a young boy, they played taps. They would play reveille in the morning, you got to get up, you got to get up. You would hear that and that would call us to reveille. We had at least 52 steps then to and line up on what we call a hill, and start off our morning with some sort of prayer, at reveille. We had to clean up, go to the latrine. We had cold water, there was no hot water; we had to take cold water showers, wash ourselves, clean the cabin and go to breakfast. Later that was changed to go to breakfast and come back and clean the cabins. The cleanest cabin was awarded the flag. They got to hang the flag out in front to let everybody know that their cabin was the best. Some of the cabins were quite rigid, and we followed kind of a military strategy, where they could bounce the quarter, we had to have hospital corners on those little narrow beds. Children that had accidents had to proudly put evidence of their accidents in the back of the cabins so the bedwetting soon stopped when they had to show off their trophies at the back of the cabin; that soon stopped. It was fascinating. At the end of the day there was another musician who played reveille: Day is done, gone the sun, that kind of thing.
During the day there are a variety of activities. John Dancy and his wife were in charge if it for the Urban League, but they would pick a head counselor to supervise us. I remember Conklin Bray and his wife were head counselors when I was a counselor. The activities that I was in charge of was handcrafts. So we would go in to the trees because we were surrounded by trees and pick the chestnuts, walnuts, or whatever we could find, farm products, on the floor and string them together. Before Open House we would make Hawaiian leis. We would just keep the children busy. Then there was someone in charge of those that liked to give speeches; someone in charge of sports, where we had baseball teams; then when the weather was inclement and you couldn’t go out, we had everybody come back to the dining hall. In the dining hall all of the chairs and tables were put away; they were all wooden. We would have this great big humongous circus of children all around in a great big circle and they played games in there that the children taught us. We would say grace before each meal.
Now the fascinating thing occurred later and that was when the Public Law 94.142 came along that stated that you couldn’t warehouse children with special needs. We pushed Conway who was a Dean of English over at Cody High School, she and I were counselors together. We were complaining and whining about, we don’t know what to do with the children with special needs. What are we going to do with them? John Dancy heard us. So consequently we got two children with special needs and they were both visually challenged. We learned a lot from those children. The one thing I learned from one of the young ladies that I had, her name was Juanita. We put the children, the campers through their rituals and then we would do the GP Roll to put them to bed. They would be so worn-out and tired that hopefully they would go to sleep. We actually would sleep because we would be worn-out from these children. Well late one night we heard this voice ring out, and the boy went down, and here this kid was reading a Judy Bloom book in pitch-black darkness. Who could do that, but Juanita, the visually challenged or what we used to refer to as the blind child. We soon found out that just being visually challenged did not mean that they were totally handicapped. That was just one part of their body not behaving the way that it should. While we were saying grace, we had to close our eyes and we would sing grace according to the standards of John Dancy. When you opened your eyes your brownie would be gone, your roll would be gone, your chicken or whatever it was that you had on your plate, Juanita scoffed it up because she could sniff it out. She gave us quite a run for our money. I later saw her picture on the front of Ebony, it has been about a few years ago. She was the Director of Human Resources in Cook County, Illinois. I said that is that little brat that used to worry me to death, I sent her a little post card. So those were some of the experiences that went on as we were growing up but I think that added greatly to the richness of the community. All of the westsiders now met the children on the east side, and the children on the east side met the children from the west side, and we all meshed together in the camp called Green Pastures. There are a lot of stories about that camp that need to be told.
Q Tell me about Sampson Elementary School. You talked about it a little but any special teachers or experiences that you had?
A Yes, my first black teacher I met at Sampson School. She was one of the Bethels that also lived on Beechwood. We called her across the street on Beechwood. She was a gym teacher. We had some teachers that worked with us. One of my best memories is that auditorium and later I found out that auditorium was simply a holding place for children who were on platoon, and there was no place for them to platoon to. So they all had to spend a period, a forty-five minute or so period in the auditorium. These teachers actually taught us public speaking. We had to recite or sing. I heard Minnie Jones do In The Morning by Langston Hughes. It knocked me off my feet. I never really could recite the whole thing so I would keep a little cheat sheet so I could expose the other children to it. Mrs. Grier was one of them. I can’t think of it now because different teachers would take you to the auditorium. Two in the main had us to give plays. During the war time, I am telling my age then I am talking probably World War II, and we had to sell or buy stamps and war bonds. So we would give plays to raise monies and invite parents to see us. If you want to get parents to come to school, put on a play for them. We would put on plays. One particular time we had Jerry Blocker playing a German man and someone else playing the other roles, because that was who we were fighting at the time. We did our roles successfully at that time. Mary McQueen Cheney was playing Shina. She was coming through the so-called trees to help cut-off Germans. We got Jerry safely locked up in the locker and we thought we had done a grand job; and we went on home. The next day when we came in the principal asked for myself, June, Gert and someone else to come to the office. We went with great fear because you didn’t get sent to the office. Your mother would come over there and spank you at the school. What we had done was we forgot to open the locker to let Jerry out. I don’t know if you are familiar with Jerry Blocker.
Q Yes, I am.
A I used to tease the late Jerry Blocker about that. We never should have let you out of that locker. He went on to become famous in his own right as one of our first broadcasters.
So those are just a few of the memories. I could go on and on about Green Pastures camp. There is a story in that all by itself. And Dancy recruited his teachers from either, they had to be either freshman or juniors in college. That is where he got his counselors. We had just as much fun as the children.
Q After Sampson was McMichael, is that correct?
Q What was that experience like?
A That was a growing up experience. We went to McMichael for just one year to get us ready for high school and that is where I learned algebra. It gave me great frustration at first because it was our first time mixing letters with numbers. I didn’t agree with that because it had never happened before. I see they have since changed that strategy. It was a great learning experience and it pushed me up a notch from elementary behavior, but it was just so brief, I can’t really remember a lot of anything except social life getting ready to go to high school from McMichael. We went from McMichael, some of us went to Cass. Some of us went to Northwestern. Those were predominately the schools that had the larger numbers of black children in Detroit because so many of the high schools were still totally white and other European mixtures and we weren’t so comfortable in those communities in those days. But McMichael was just a year’s experience and then from there to Northwestern.
Q We were just talking about Sampson and McMichael. I was kind of curious about these schools, they seemed to be integrated as I understood it?
A Yes, there was a little of that integration at Sampson because there was an Asian. We called all Asians Chinese in those days. There was Howard Yee. When I got to McMichael, there was Andy Mazuk. There were a lot of Polish that lived across Michigan Avenue that was sort of a racial dividing line. We used to walk with my great aunt over there to get hair supplies, because she was a milliner. I would take, I would have to take my two neices with me that I ended up raising when my sister passed. I ended up, my husband and I ended up raising not only our own four children but my two neices and we were altogether as one family which is still raising, doing the same thing. You see on the west side and maybe other parts of the town, but especially on the west side there was a lot of families that stood together and raised, I call it when the older children passed, someone was always there to pick up the baton and finish raising the children. We are still doing that, because I have a neice in particular who helped raise another neice’s children. We have been doing that all of our lives.
Q Do you have much contact with the white students at Sampson and McMichael after school. What was your relationship like after school?
A No, not really. There wasn’t as much of that as it appeared to be. When you got to Northwestern even there was not very much mixing. I remember playing on a hockey team and being in choirs and choruses with quite a mixture of people. I remember Andy Mazuk who sat next to me in homeroom and we always elbowed each other. The teachers never moved us. We had to sit there and fight it out. The Northwestern Reunions represented that sort of racial divide. It wasn’t until I guess we had been college graduates, some were in there, twenty years later that we saw this mixture. At high school we were kind of like the flies in the buttermilk because Northwestern was predominately white, Caucasian, European. There were so few of us, many of the high schools practiced kind of racist tactics, not kind of, but did. They would counsel parents to send their children to learn how to do graphs, and to get business education, and those kind of things and they would not counsel them to go to college. The parents began to object to that. I remember my parents did and Mrs. Williams and some of the others said, no, we want the children to have College Prep. So it was still pretty much some racial divides.
I remember the choir, Dominique came back and asked why we were not at the picnic. We were not invited to the picnic. We didn’t know there was a high school picnic. Some of the practices still were going on.
Q How were you able to get through that? It seems to be a discouraging kind of thing. But you moved past it, how were you able to do that?
A I think the mixtures in sports, music and the arts played a large part in that because we lived apart. Tireman in my early youth and maybe as a baby, because I heard these stories divided the blacks from the whites on the west side. There was an Orsel McGee incident which is known in history. They were one of the first to buy property across Tireman. There was quite a violent uprising that surrounded that. I remember we had a piano teacher on Tireman at 5120. That was as far as blacks could move. My great uncle would tell us stories about Tireman being a big ditch when he came to what he referred to as Michigan. I wish he were still around to tell us those stories. But he said it was a big ditch and the only blacks that crossed that line were workers in the homes over there, across on the other side of Tireman.
Warren was the same thing on the other side, separated us from most basically Polish on the other side. I would see it because we would walk across, walk Warren to Epworth and cross over and buy supplies for my aunt’s millinery projects. I remember coming home and I must have been very young, they are eating lard sandwiches because creamed cheese was unbeknownst to our household; I didn’t know a thing about that.
The other thing with jobs, I think my first job was at Grace Hospital. I was 14 years old. We got jobs with what they referred to us as Pantry Girls. What we would do, we would set the trays up and take them to the floors in Old Grace Hospital as we knew it then which was on John R, down from Harper Hospital. Even there we ran into racism because there were some floors when we took the trays up to the upper levels in private PPK Sections where we were asked, we were called by the N word, and told not to bring the those trays into their room. So some of the social activities brought about by the things I mentioned earlier I think had an impact, but we didn’t see a lot of it in high school. In fact when I played hockey and we played Cooley and Redford, we would have to watch out for our knees because those hockey players were literally out to get us when we came over there. We would hear the N word and all of those kinds of things because they were prevalent in society. It was acceptable in society and therefore we had to live through those.
Q One thing I learned about you in doing a little research, you were Queen of the Masquerade Party for the Rex and Regina Club?
Q Walk me through that. How did you become Queen and what was that all about?
A That was a fun time. We through Hartford Church there were a bunch of westsiders, there were probably about eight of us. We got together in a social club and we formed a social club that lasted quite a while. The boys were reluctant to join us at first, but we were beginning to play at courting. So we acquired our share of boys, too. We had about eight boys and eight girls in and out of that club. We had the audacity with one year of Latin to name that club the Rex and Reginas meaning the Kings and Queens. We had a great deal of fun. I got the shock of my life when we ran for offices, and the monies that we raised, I have forgotten the purposes that we were going to be using those for. I said there were so many attractive girls and so many fair skinned girls which was the status of the icon of beauty in those days that I knew were going to win. I did my share of collecting nickels and dimes and we wrapped them with adhesive tape. There was no such thing as scotch tape during this time. This was regular tape that we knew about. We wrapped them around and turned our monies in. There were homeowners and there were entrepreneurs and persons that had a much better salary backing than I did. I just knew that Shirley or Gloria or Shirley Graham or one of these others, I knew that they were going to be the queen. So when we had the culminating affair at the Nacirema Club and they announced the winner of the King was. I have forgotten who that was. I forgot everything when they announced the winner of the Queen was Jean Ernst. I said, no, it wasn’t me. I just knew it wasn’t me. I was absolutely floored that I had been picked as the Queen but I was, and that sent me in to shock about voting. I never did find out how that went down; nobody ever told me. That was a welcome thing that happened to me, I think at the ripe old age of about 16.
Q Folks got dressed up for this party, it was —
A Oh, yes.
Q It was no small affair?
A No, it wasn’t.
Q Can you tell me a little about that?
A We stopped and we wore the styles that our parents allowed us to wear. There was none of the skin exposed and all of that kind of stuff. We had the hair style of whatever it was in those days. We dressed up. We wore our gloves and the whole nine yards. There is a picture some where in Wayne that occasionally somebody when Jerry was the announcer for this. I think it was something about the Nacirema that we did there. They pointed out this picture of the Rex and Reginas and it is in there some where in Wayne’s library. It has pretty much something to do with the west side, but I think especially the Nacirema, which is American spelled backwards.
Q Do you know why it was or how that name came about?
A Well, the businessmen of that area and my great uncle, Clarence Searcy was one, who came out of Georgia. They would hunt and get together as businessmen. They established, they purchased that and established that. That was their struggle against racism that was so prevalent in the world. So instead of it being called the American, they called it the Nacirema.
Q Tell me about the depression. This was during the time when your mother was a day worker?
Q It may not have been the easiest time?
A It wasn’t. In fact the only ones filled with food and the easier living that we saw were the ministers in the community and the professionals in the community.
Awrey Bakeries was on Tireman at that time. They would give day old breads and things of that nature. I have a favorite story that my oldest brother, Bobby told; there were five of us. Bobby was one of the entrepreneurs of the streets. He knew all of the actors and actresss and the musicians that would come in and out of the Gotham and all of that kind of thing. Momma was showing out for one of her church clubs which I believe was the Nonpariel. She always had us embroidering and sewing and we had the little wheels of things and making the little things that you put up on the couches to keep them clean. She was ashamed of those packages that she had. They were labeled not to be sold, very big black letters like this. So in the cupboard she would turn them backwards so they couldn’t be visually seen if anybody came in from the club meeting and went in to the kitchen. We lived on 5349 Tireman which was like a shotgun apartment. You come in to the living room and you go straight back to the kitchen and there were two bedrooms adjacent, three if you count what could be a dining room. You could look straight back to the cupboards if you care to. Bobby would delight when momma was having the club meetings and he called it showing off. He would delight in going back and turning those packages around so that the public could see that it said, not to be sold. Momma could be seen chasing him down Vancourt. We lived on Tireman but it was Tireman and Vancourt with a broom stick, because she didn’t think that was very funny at all. We would howl, I still howl at that story.
Q Tell me when I say Joe Louis, what comes to mind when you think of Joe Louis?
A Oh, boy, I think like many others of my age group that was a night that you stayed glued to the radio with your feet crossed. Everything was centered around the radio then, and you listened and you listened and you listened and all you wanted to hear was Louis won. All of the neighbors, everybody came flying out of the house. We were able to run all the way across the boulevard and get away with murder when Louis would win the fights. The whole City of Detroit would turn out in droves just celebrating. The ice cream stores were open. The popsicle stores were open. The iceys were on the street, it was just a great celebration.
Q What happened when he lost to Max Schnelling?
A It was like a funeral, because you were all geaked up to celebrate. It was just like a funeral when he lost. But those were the good old days when we were able to run freely through the streets and celebrate this fight and nobody worried about you being out after dark. We had to be back within a good frame of time. Those were the good old days. I can remember running all the way across West Grand Boulevard where my grandmother used to live with my aunt. She said, how did you get over here? Well, we ran. It was nothing to walk, we walked every where. Even if we had bus fare, we would walk down Warren or walk down to Woodward and walk to the State Fair on 8 Mile and save the car fare to buy some food or pop with. We were great walkers. My mother wasn’t, my mother took cabs everywhere, she didn’t like walking. My great aunt did, so I usually walked with her.
Q The 1943 riot: Do you remember that at all?
A Yes. I remember being full of fear. I was still at Sampson. We didn’t understand what was going on. The rumors that prevailed just scared us to death. All of this hatred scared us to death. It was a very sad time for children. Once again we were sequestered and we were not allowed to leave the porch, not even leave the second step. You had to be up above the second step of the porch where parents could see you. It was all a very unpleasant time to be in Detroit.
Q Did it it create tensions between you and your white classmates?
A Not so much, well, yes, I guess fear more than anything else. Remember I was at Sampson and there weren’t that many white students at Sampson. Mostly Sampson was predominately black with a hint of Asians and a few, just a few whites at Sampson. The neighborhood schools reflected the community. There weren’t that many whites and blacks living together.
Q Okay. Tell me about Milford Street. It seems to be fairly bustling. What would an average Saturday look like on Milford Street?
A Let’s see an average Saturday, first of all, we would do our chores and get dressed up. We were allowed to walk Milford. There was a bustling ice cream parlor down there. There was a dime store down there. In fact, that was one of my first jobs. There were soda fountains, candy stores and just a regular business community up and down Milford. We were allowed to walk Milford and there were very few problems until high school days when the anger of children breaking and entering and that kind of thing began to seep into that street of Milford. I remember taking shoes to be repaired or shined at the Thompson Shoe Parlor. I remember shopping at the dime store for all of my needs or if we, when we got high school age, we had the dime store up near to Northwestern. But all of our needs were pretty much met on the Milford block. We could get mostly anything that we wanted.
There were five of us. We had a lot of fun, we played a lot of card games and board games and worked a lot of puzzles. I remember the two next to me, Reggie, who just passed recently, Dr. Reginald Ernst and Sylvia, my sister and then little Clarence my second oldest brother and then Bobby. There were five of us. The other thing that I remember about that period was sitting up and not being able to work the puzzle with the older, with Sylvia and Reggie. That would anger me so that I would sneak a piece in my pocket and say, I am going to spend the night with Sister, and take that piece of puzzle home with me. Well, they caught on to it and so they put a stop to it. They marched right over there and got me and made me bring the puzzle piece back.
I also remember during that period that we didn’t go picnicking very much except there was an Elizabeth Park. There was a Cass Park. The other parks later became a part of the larger Metropolitan system. On Saturdays and some Sundays and special holidays we used to go for a long drive out to these parks to picnic and enjoy ourselves that way. The brothers and sisters and I would play cards, work dominoes, we had card games going all the time. I remember Pitty-Pat in the kitchen and even the paperboys that sold papers in the neighborhood would come in and take a hand. Later years as we grew older and became young adults, we played bridge together. We did a lot of bridge playing together and everybody that came to the house could take a hand in bridge.
Now Big Clarence and Sister’s house, Big Clarence had poker games. So I didn’t participate in that. That didn’t mean that I couldn’t play which they used to find out when I got in college, when we played for cigarettes. They thought I thought I was above the game of poker. I would watch and learn by being around them. My favorite family game, our favorite family game was bridge. We played very good bridge together.
Q Let me ask, you know, when you hear so much about the west side from the 20s to the 50s and many prominent people coming up out of this community.
Could you spend a few minutes talking about it. What was it about this community that nutured this kind of ambition, if you will, specially during hard times, too.
A I can give you a pretty good example. I first learned how to play ping pong at the Hill’s house. Their basement was a rec room. Rev Hill and Mrs. Hill, they had a big family of Hills. They got to be very prominent contributors to Detroit in their own right. That is where I learn how to play ping-pong. The minister’s opened up their homes, many of them, to us in this way and that nutured us. In the neighborhood, you knew everybody. You knew everybody that lived on both sides of the street that would tell on you if you erred. They would say, what are you doing all the way over here, I am going to tell your mother when I see her. It wasn’t so much, we would walk down the street all dolled up in the afternoon and go to the tea parties and that kind of thing that I mentioned before. It was a very nuturing community. We knew one another.
Now it seems that we are so nonintimate community, we are a stranger community. We are up north and we don’t know each other and we don’t trust each other. I hate to see the demise of that togetherness that used to be in the west side. We could walk for blocks, and we would know people all along. People stayed in those newly bought homes; that was another factor. I don’t know all of the dimensions of the community that nutured me, but I certainly miss them for my own children’s sake. They didn’t get to go to these parties in others yards and get all dressed up and spend time in the neighbor’s rec room. Many of us do that now as family. For example, Monday, it will be a cookout here and the whole family will rally around again. That kind of togetherness we try to maintain still.
Q It seems as though segregation, there was something about a segregated community, I mean as horrible as segregation is, there is a silver lining there. It sounds like it required you guys to provide a close knit kind of neighborhood and community; am I right about that?
A Yes, I think you are. I think it made us more stranger related though to each other. As we grew through K-12 together and then before we became full adults and went our separate ways, we knew each other every place we went. We could leave the west side and go to a little place called Club Sudan which was over on the lower east side near downtown and we would go there and dance and meet people from all over the city. It was still mostly black, predominantly black, and the circles became stranger related all over again. It was east side-west side in some instances. We had that kind of dimension that we had to fight against as well.
Q What kind of values did you bring from the west side growing up to what you are doing now?
A I would think family first and then neighbors second. Usually everyone being here we have been here over 32 years. Usually when a new neighbor moved in, in my family, mother would take a lemon pie which she was great with, or Sister would bake rolls for the neighbor. I still follow that. I take a loaf of bread after I learned how to bake bread. I graduated from rolls to bread. I think anything that you can do to build a tightness with the relationship, tighten up your relationship with your neighbors that way are brought to me from the way I was brought up on the west side. Family first, then neighbors. So that you look out for one another. So if you see strangers walking around, you know they are strangers. When you stay so close and you don’t develop those relationships you miss out on a lot. When people passed in our family, this house was filled with people, west side, east side, all around that knew my husband. You could hear his voice cheering West Side Cubs or whoever our grandchildren now were playing with. You could hear him for miles around. They knew Mayfield’s voice. You don’t see that unless you cultivate it in your community. I think it begins with your community. It begins with your family and then you go from there. If I could say anything that would be more meaningful, it would be just stick together. You will have differences, family and community. You have to solve them instead of perpetuateing them. I don’t have any magic answer but we have a strong family.
I was recently given the opportunity of free Mother’s Day and Birthday trip to North Carolina where one of the neices that I raised, she and her husband flew me down to North Carolina to see her daughter graduate from North Carolina State in Raleigh-Durham North Carolina. That was just an immense historic thing for us. We took pictures. We watched the graduation. I got sunburned. The graduation was outdoors. Those kind of things that cross generations are important to me now. I think they might have always been important. I might have ducked it when I was a youngster, but I think it is important to cross the generations, too.
Q What do you tell your children about the west side?
A Well they listen and they don’t listen because as children are they are going to have their own growing values. I tell them how we used to go from door to door. Halloween we didn’t leave our community. We stayed in the block and went Trick or Treating, because that is where we were and we were not allowed to leave the block and go Trick or Treating. They know a lot about the west side because we sat around the table and talked about it. They hear these stories at cookouts. Most of the cookouts in our family we hold here except for the 4th of July. That is my emancipation day and I usually go down to the jazz concert or whatever is going on at Hart Plaza. They come together as family all of the holidays here. I have a tendency to like to do that the day before so they are not forced to come if they have some other things to do on the holiday. We have been doing a lot of that, and I think that keeps family together. They get to see the new children, the new babies and they get to see the elders as well and hear the stories that we tell. We sit around the dining room table and tell jokes and the children have to perform to get a gift out of the dollar store Santa Bag at Christmas. We have a dollar store Santa Bag at Christmas. Nobody misses it. Even the adults, if we find dollar store houseshoes, where are my houseshoes? You would think they are getting some four hundred dollars shoes or something and they only cost a buck. So the dollar store santa bag has become a tradition now. They have gotten organized and so the girls will get up and do a Brittany Spears or something and the fellows will do whatever they want to do. If they reach in, they have to perform to get a gift out of it. So things like that, we continue to add. The younger people come up with their own ideas. Then we can back up then we don’t have to be directing them anymore. We let the younger people direct the younger people. They kind of look forward to that I think."> INTERVIEW OF JEAN HURST MITCHELL
Oral History Project of the Westsiders
Interview Conducted by: Louis Jones
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Q Miss Mitchell, first of all thank you for taking time out of your schedule to come speak to us about the west side. If you could tell us how did your parents meet and how did they get to the west side, to Detroit, in the first place?
A Well, my dad was from Romeo, Michigan. My mother is from Dresden, Ontario, and she came down to Detroit. And I think she was working here in Detroit when she met my dad. And they got married and they bought their house on 25th Street, just off of McGraw. And that’s where we were born, all three of us. I have two sisters, two older sisters. Delores is the oldest and then Ila, and we were all born in the house on 25th Street.
So, even though some people say the west side stops at West Grand Boulevard, we say it does not, it continues on through almost to Grand River.
Q What kind of work did your mother do here in Detroit?
A Mother eventually became a Licensed Practical Nurse. Daddy had started working at Ford’s, but that’s when things were kind of hard, during the beginning or somewhere around the depression. And he said he could not support his family on two days a week. So he left Ford and he joined the police department.
Q Did he talk about what it was like working at Ford at all?
A At Ford?
A No. I don’t think he talked much about Ford, because I really don’t know how long he was there. But he was with the Detroit Police Department for like 25 years. And he had to walk a beat for like 20 years. He had a partner, James Leigh who, his family lived on 24th Street almost right in front of us; and they were partners for a long time. They first put him out in a Polish neighborhood but they walked the beat and they got to meet the homeowners and they didn’t have any problems at all. And he would tell us a few things about what happened with Prohibition, when they would go upstairs in some apartment place or house and find a still upstairs, and how they would use axes to crash it, and then all of that would rundown the stairways and all and alter the house. But it was a long time even though he had passed the detective test, sergeant test, it was a long time before he would get his promotion. And he didn’t get the promotion until 20 years after walking the beat. He didn’t ride around in a car like the young officers do now. But times were a lot different then. The last five years he was a plainclothes detective, and he worked out of 1300 Beaubien for his last five years. And his partner, Jimmy Leigh, he became a uniformed sergeant just about the same time. So there were changes in the police department and the City and so they finally got their promotions.
Q How did he come to join the police force in the first place?
A Like I said because he first worked at Ford. When he first came to Detroit from Romeo, Michigan, everybody went to Ford’s I guess. So he worked there, but things started getting kind of bad and he only worked two days a week. He couldn’t afford his house, and to feed his wife and daughter on that. So that is when he left Ford and joined the police department.
Q Was there something about the police department as opposed to some other occupation he could have joined or anything?
A I have no idea.
Q Did he talk about the hardships at all; what it was like being a police officer?
A He did not have a hard time. Like I said he was in a Polish neighborhood, but they got along fine, and they just, they really walked the beat. So they got to know all of the neighborhood, and the people, and the kids; there were no problems. But you know, as they were just kind of strolling along, the kids gave them nicknames. They called them “moke and poke” because they were just walking around the neighborhood, you know, and making sure things are okay. Because I asked daddy one time, I said did you ever have to shoot your gun. And he said, no. I said even in 25 years, I said, how many times did you have to draw it? He said he only drew his gun twice in 25 years; but never had to shoot it. So things are a lot different these days.
Q I am guessing there may have been some discrimination on the police force, the fact that he didn’t get detective for a very long time?
Q Did he talk about that at all?
A No, he just said he had passed the test. And I think Mr. Leigh had passed also. But it was discrimination. But at the point he finally, I think he passed so high, that they really couldn’t get around him and things I think were changing at that time too, so —
Q What was it like being the daughter of a police officer, I mean, because so many people worked at Ford or a factory or something like that. It must have been a little bit different?
A In a lot of ways no, except the boys would come by and they would sit on the porch for a half a minute or something and then take-off. Everybody knew that daddy was a police officer. So they were very respectful when they came in the neighborhood. But, other than that, no. It was, he showed us where his gun was, and you know, he never locked it up. He said, that’s my gun, do not touch it. We never touched it in all of those years. But it was right in the dresser drawer, you know, but so, really we got teased a lot, you know, because our father was a police officer with the young teenagers, the boys, they respected him very much, you know, and my mother, too. So when we were young we had some young boys that lived across the street. So they would come over and my mother was teaching us all how to crochet with cord. The boys were sitting on the porch with crochet needles, learning to crochet. So we had a lot of fun, and we really didn’t realize there was any particular difference then if he worked in an office.
Q What kind of things did your family do together?
A Not much. Daddy was a sports one, and he loved to play cards. Like he would take us down to the parade, the Santa Parade while mother was home cooking dinner, you know, Thanksgiving. He would take us down to Hudson’s and we would go to Toyland and all of that, but mother was home cooking. I remember when I was little he took me to the Olympia. There was a fight because daddy liked all sports. And he took me there and I can remember I was so young that I was holding on to his little finger walking around. And of course, being a child, I had to go to the bathroom. So he walked over there, got a lady and asked her would she take me in. But I can just remember being, you know, up near the top of the Olympia and looking down and seeing the boxing ring. At that point I really didn’t know what was going on. But daddy liked all sports, and he loved cards. So that we, he taught me how to count with cards before I ever went to school. We would sit up and play cards. He taught me tonk and fish and all kinds of games, and even whist. I remember one day a couple came over to the house to play cards. My mother, like I said she didn’t play. Daddy got out the good cards, and I got up from the table and left, started to leave, and then, what is the matter. I said I am not allowed to play with the new cards. Daddy said, okay, you can be my partner. And so, I played cards, since I was 5 or 6, whist you know, because he taught me. He taught all of us how to play cards. Many evenings we would be playing, Friday night, the three girls and my dad, we would be playing poker using the wooden matchsticks. We didn’t use money or anything. But we would play cards, poker, and then it would get kind of late and mother would go to bed. Then she would holler in later on, it is late, go to bed. So daddy had this little saying, I don’t know where it came from, since I was the youngest and my sister Ila was always kind of slow, the middle one. Delores she liked to eat but not just a snack or something. So daddy had this little verse, and it would say:
To bed, to bed said sleepy head.
Tarry awhile said slow.
Put on the pot said greedy gut, let’s eat
before we go.
And that was just a little joke we had in the family.
Q That bonded you guys together?
A Oh, yes.
A Oh, yes, and he was just, sports, he would come out and watch us play sports. Ila and Delores they played, they went to Northwestern so they played basketball and field hockey. And he would go out and support them, and everything. When I started work at Edison, I started a basketball team, and he would come out. He would always come out and support us. Mother was usually home cooking, or washing or something. But daddy would always come out and support us, no matter what kind of sport we were into.
Q Now, I imagine you would go to the theatre?
A Yes, I can remember mother and daddy, probably different times taking to us the Rogers on Warren, I guess. Geez, it has been a long time, but they would take us to the movies. And when I was, I know I was young, the youngest and then when I got a little older, teenager, then the neighborhood kids and I, we would walk to the Granada. So those were the two movie, you know, theatres that we would frequent.
Q Which one, was there a midnight show?
A Yes. I can remember the Rogers, yes. That’s when they would take us on to the Rogers, yes.
Q I understand that you would go ice skating in Canada?
A No, we went at Northwestern.
A Northwestern had an ice pond. And like I said, my sister Ila she was extremely good on her racers. And I had racers and I was good for five minutes and after that I was ice skating on my ankles. So I didn’t make that too much. But she was very good on that. Dee Dee, my sister Delores, she didn’t ice skate, I don’t think too much. But Ila was very good.
Q I understand that you spent time with your grandmother in Dresden, Canada?
A Yes, almost every summer, we would go up and spend the summer on the farm. That was something, because when we first went there, there was no inside water. There was no inside lights, you know. We didn’t have electric lights and everything. So we had to, I had to go out to the pump and pump and get the water and carry it to the house. That was my job since I was the littlest. But we had to gather eggs and oh, my aunt, I shouldn’t say this, but my aunt showed us how to ring a chicken’s neck, you know. On Sunday we would have chicken, and she just grabbed and chew — and it was gone. But don’t let the animal rights people hear that.
We had more fun when it was thrashing time because they had, we had like four farm horses and they would hook them up to the wagon and go back to the field and they would load the wheat or whatever on to the wagon and bring it back and put it in the, you know, the barn. So we would ride on the wagon and just have a lot of fun and then sometimes we would even just put the bridels on the work horses and put the gunny sacks over and get on them and ride them. It is a wonder we didn’t get killed. These horses were not trained, but they must have known we were kids. We didn’t have any problem. We would ride the horses, and it was great.
My grandmother, she had pigs and she would call them when it was time to eat. She would call them with the sui, and whatever and they would come. She would feed them. We would have to gather the eggs. Ila and I were laughing the other day when we were talking about that, because Delores didn’t like getting the eggs. So she would have a long stick and she would make the chicken get off the nest so she could get the eggs. We all did the little chores, you know, around. Grandma had a garden and so we would go out and pick the carrots or tomatoes or whatever in the garden; so, yes.
Q Did you have chores with your parents, too; I imagine that you did?
A I am sorry.
Q Did you have chores in your home on the west side?
A Yes. Yes, we would sort of take weeks, or yes, it would be weeks. We would wash dishes, one would wash dishes all week and then the next week it was the other one and like that. But, both of my sisters got married when I was 14. So, you know, I wasn’t doing a lot, too much before then, except like wash dishes. And I ironed, in fact I got very good at ironing. Mother taught me and I would iron some of daddy’s white shirts. It would take me 25 minutes, but when I got through there wasn’t a wrinkle in it. But that’s a long time. My mother being a nurse she had the white cotton uniforms, and it would take me 45 minutes to iron one of her uniforms but there wouldn’t be a wrinkle in it when I finished. But that is just the way it was. We had little chores back, now and then. But it would usually be weekly.
Q Did your mother talk about what it was like being a nurse?
A Yes, she would talk about it. But she would work sometimes like on holidays or weekends, and we would fuss. We would say, how come, you know, some people they don’t have time, they have to be with their families. Well, we want you with us; what about your family? So she would go in and work midnights sometimes so people with young kids could be off and things like that. But no, medicine is not one of my favorite things. So I didn’t talk too much about it with mother.
Q Where did she work?
A Women’s Hospital.
Q Do you recall the name of it?
Q It was called Women’s Hospital; oh, I see. Okay.
Q And I understand too that — this would be a good time to take a sip.
A Am I talking too fast, too slow, too loud, not loud enough, or what?
Q I think you are doing fine.
Is there a napkin. You need to wipe your mouth.
A Well, I have a kleenex.
Q Okay. Like with some of the pills I have been taking for bronchitis or whatever I am having a time. Okay.
Q We can start?
A I am sorry.
Q It’s all right. Tell me, I understanding that you would go swimming at Brewster Center or at Kronx Recreation Center: Tell us about that?
A Well, it was Ila that would take me. Mother sort of had Ila take me with her whenever she would go some place. So we went to Kronx and learned how to swim. We swam there a lot. And we also went over to Brewster and swam. I remember I got Ila in trouble because mother and daddy had gone and they were supposed to be watching me, Ila was, and I wanted to go swimming over at Brewster. Ila didn’t want to take me. So when she left to go in another room, I took off. I took off with my swimming stuff and I got on, we had the streetcars then running down McGraw, the Grand Belt line. When I got on the streetcar, luckily a cousin was the conductor. I don’t know how old I was, I might have been 11 or something. And I said I want to go to Brewster, so she told me how to get there. I went on and went swimming. When mother and daddy came home, it was like, where is Jean? Ila didn’t know. She said, well, she wanted to go swimming. Go over there and get her. So they made Ila come and get me.
Q Did you get in trouble for that?
A A little bit.
A A little bit, yes.
Q Now, speaking about Brewster: This is on the east side, Brewster?
Q Was that common for parents to allow their children to go to the east side?
A No. But I guess Ila knew some of the people. I think one of the guys was a life guard, and I think he went to Northwestern or something. And so I think she knew a few people that went there. But normally, no, because we had so many things on the west side. We would go to Kronx, but for some reason at this point a few times we went to Brewster and went swimming. So it was no problem at that point.
Q Now, was the east side around Brewster at least, did you notice much of a difference in terms of how it was over there as opposed to the west side where you grew up?
A No, I didn’t notice anything, all I knew was I was going swimming.
Q What other kind of values or routines, let me ask you that, did your family have. You mentioned like the chores. I suspect that you had to do chores before you went out to play?
Q Was there anything else that were kind of expectations that your parents would have of you growing up?
A Of course, we had to do homework. Homework came first, yes. But other than that, basically it was homework and chores and then we could go out and play.
Q Speaking of homework, tell us about McGraw. What was that experience like going to McGraw?
A It was okay. But it was the first time I had ever seen a what do you call it, African-American, Black, woman of color, whatever term you want. Irene Graves, she was my first teacher of color at McGraw and usually it was a good experience. I mean, I thought I learned a lot. The time I used to get in trouble was talking too much in class. But, other than that, I thought it was a good experience for me.
Q Tell us about Irene Graves, you said?
Q Must have been kind of a, was it a special thing in your mind to have a black teacher?
A It was nice, you know. But I was there to learn and so she was teaching as well as anybody else. So it wasn’t a big thing because at that point I was so young, I didn’t realize that we didn’t have a lot of teachers of color. I didn’t realize it, so I just enjoyed her. She was tremendous and just a wonderful teacher.
Q What do you remember, what was tremendous about her, what do you remember about her?
A So thorough and her diction was so perfect. And she was just being thorough, you know; so, I don’t know, I guess that is what —
Q You left McGraw and went to McMichael?
Q Were there any special experiences that you had at McMichael?
A That is where I learned how to swim. We learned the proper techniques for swimming and everything. But that was sort of, you know, nondescript also, just making it through trying to make it to high school.
Because I don’t remember any teachers that I had at McMichael; I don’t remember any, so, none stood out.
Q Now you had a somewhat different high school experience, because so many people went to Northwestern and, and a few went to Cass. But I haven’t heard of so many people going to Commerce. How did you even learn about Commerce; how did you come to go there?
A I don’t know, we were talking my dad and I, we were talking about where I was going to go to high school. Since Ila and Delores had both gone to Northwestern and they took the college prep course, then they came out and they went to Wayne, I think for about a year and then after that they got married, but they really didn’t have a skill, you know, a degree. They really weren’t prepared for any kind of job opportunity. And so, of course, at that time all of the schools were advertising and so we heard of Commerce. That’s when daddy and I were talking and I was saying, gee, whiz, I didn’t want to go to Northwestern, follow in my sister’s footsteps. They were both captains of the basketball team. And you just don’t want to follow your sisters, too much comparison, you know, at least I believed that. So I decided if I went to Commerce and I took the business course, then when I came out I would be qualified to be a secretary, typist, and I could qualify for a job. So that is sort of why I decided I would go to Commerce instead of going to Northwestern.
Q What was your experience like at Commerce?
A Well, you know, the first year it was interesting learning shorthand and the typing and bookkeeping, and we even had a biology course and everything. So it was really interesting.
But now the second, start of the second semester, two ladies from Detroit Edison came to the school and they were interviewing students because they wanted two students of color to intergrate the Detroit Edison Service Building. As it turned out I was one of the two they chose. So for the next two years I worked four hours a day, and I went to school four hours a day. So I did that until I graduated. And then, at one point I think in there they had hired two women of color to intergrate their General Offices. One of the ladies, she would be off and wouldn’t call in. She would stay around with the elevator operators who were ladies of color, and she didn’t circulate with the office people which was what they wanted. So after a while when she had been off so many times and wouldn’t call in they fired her. Then they asked me to take the steno test and even though I only had a year’s seniority, I somehow managed to replace her in the General Offices. And so I had no problem with the office people. It was great to have it. It was great coming out of college, I mean out of high school to have a job waiting for me. I mean that was really great. I didn’t have to go looking or send out a bunch of resumes or anything, you know. After the two years on the Co-op Program, walked right straight out into a full-time typist job at Detroit Edison; that was really great.
Q Where is your sense of why they wanted to integrate and why two black women, as opposed to more or less for that matter?
A Well, times were sort of changing. And this was like I think 1950. So, they were starting to intergrate in a lot of areas, and I think they figured it was past time with all of their customers of color. I mean it was about time that they hired someone. So I think it was just, it was just the time. They were already late, so I guess rather than be too late they finally started to integrate.
Q Do you know the name Snow Grigsby at all, does that name mean anything to you?
A No, not at the moment.
Q We will move on. We will move on.
Did you experience any discrimination there or any situations I might say racial —
A Just the first day, the first day it was Emily, the other lady’s name was Emily. We were in the ladies room and a little Caucasian lady came in and she looked at us and she said, oh, you two are in the wrong room. And we said, what do you mean? She said, oh the elevator operators’ room is around the corner. We said oh, we are not elevator operators. We work in the office. Oh, so she, of course, turned very red and then ran out of there and that was the only incident in all the years that I was there.
Q Commerce High School, was it located near you?
Q Okay. How did you get to school?
A I went to — I took the bus because it is down at Cass and Grand River. I would walk up from, either if the Grand Belt was coming, I would get on that or else walk up to Grand River and just take the Grand River bus down. So it wasn’t a big deal. Plus, I could do some of my homework on the bus. So, that’s how, it wasn’t difficult to get there at all.
Q One of the things I have been hearing about the west side during the 20s to the 50s a lot of not just children but adults too joined clubs. Were either of your parents members of social kind of clubs where they would get together and do things?
A No. Mother used to take me to church, St. Stephen A.M.E. when Reverend Howell was there. I was very young. I kept going. I went to Junior Church under Reverend Huggins and I kept going and I joined, I did join the choir under Reverend Spivey, Charles Spivey and the choir was sort of our social club. We would get together and go horseback riding. We went roller skating. We would do a lot of things together. And it was just a great group, and we sang without some music. You know, we weren’t staring at music sheets. Sometimes we would sing a acapella. So, it was a great choir. So a lot of things, we would go roller skating together and it was just a great bunch of young people. Mother and daddy didn’t join any organizations that I can think of, no.
Q Did both of your parents go to church as well?
A No. Daddy stayed home. No. He didn’t go. And sometimes we didn’t go. Daddy was kind of devilish at times, and sometimes we would like to learn how to dance and so we would wait until mother went to church and we would roll up the rugs and turn the radio on and we — they would teach me how to dance; so we would be dancing. Oh, wow.
Q Was that an important experience, well, important series of moments listening to the radio?
A Yes, it was just having fun with my sisters. You know, we used to have a lot of fun. So it was really, and you know, as kids we, of course, we thought we were getting away with something. It was just fun.
Q What kind of music did you dance to or listen to?
A All that was popular at that point, all different kinds. Like rap, I don’t even understand rap. I can’t even understand what they are saying. But this, they had beautiful songs back then. And they had songs that you could sort of jitterbug to. It was all kinds of songs, though. We would listen to the pretty ones and sort of dance to the others, and just fun.
Q Do you remember any particular song?
A No, not from away back, not right at the moment.
Q What about Joe Louis, did you hear the fights on the radio?
A Yes, daddy was into all of the fights, all of the sports, yes. He would listen to that. We would listen to all of the ballgames. I caught pneumonia when I was about 11. So I had to stay in bed. At that point we even had a family doctor, a Caucasian. He had his office out on Military. He came to the house because I couldn’t breathe. And listen he said, she has lobar pneumonia. I don’t think there were over ten cases in the whole United States that year. But he came to the house and said, I had to have shots like every 24 hours. So that is what my mother did. Then they let me up for my birthday. This was around Easter and my birthday was like May 1st and I cried and cried until they let me out of bed. I was only about 10 or 11 and I was really having fits not getting out of bed. They let me up and then I had a relapse and then mother had to give me a shot every four hours around the clock. So I would wake her up and then cry. But thank goodness, I made it. But those were the days where doctors actually made house calls. It was Dr. Sheraton, I can still remember his name. He was great. He was a great family doctor.
Q Tell us about your neighbors and the relationship your family had with the neighbors next door and around, on the block?
A There again when I was home sick, the family next door they had a daughter who was older than I am, more my sister’s age. But they had, I think an uncle that lived with them. The whole time I was home sick, he sent me a card everyday. I mean, you know, I knew who he was, we spoke and all of that. But when he found out I was sick, he sent a get well card everyday. So, the neighbors were just great, you know. We knew them and you know, my family wasn’t the kind to go in running into each other’s house for coffee. So we were not that type of family. But, you know, we knew everybody and you would speak to them and sometimes maybe sit on the porch or something like that; but not in and out of the house for coffee and stuff like that.
Q One of the things I have been told about the west side, it was a very safe, and people didn’t fear that some one might break into a home or something like that?
A Yes, as I remember we stayed upstairs. It was a small house. And in the summer sometimes it was very hot and we would say, can we take the mattress down and put it in the middle of the living room floor, because it is too hot up here. We would holler and holler, it is too hot upstairs. So sometimes they would let us bring the mattress or feather tick downstairs, put it in the middle of the living room floor and we would sleep there that night because we did not have air conditioning. We did you know, have fans, but when it got real hot, it really didn’t help that much. But we would have the front door open, just the screen locked, and the same with the back, just the screen door locked; that was it. So I think we did feel a lot safer in those days.
Q I guess having a father as a police officer didn’t hurt?
A I am sure that helped a whole lot. The guys, some of the guys, you know, you meet later on, they would tell us how they felt back then just coming over and sitting on the porch. I am sure that helped quite a bit that everybody knew daddy was a police officer; so I am sure that helped.
Q Now, I realize you were pretty young when the depression was in full swing but, is there anything about the depression that you remember?
A The only real thing that I can remember, mother and daddy, I guess with these green stamps that they used to paste in books or something. I remember the green stamps. And I remember the oil, the white oleo, with the little yellow button in there, flavor, or coloring, that you would squeeze and knead the bag and the oleo would turn yellow like butter. That was always fun to me.
But other than that, I think I do remember there again when I was young, very young, we went up to Canada to visit my grandmother. It was at that point they decided to, I guess, get butter. And so they had two pounds of butter. And I was so young I was wearing a snowsuit with leggins and all of that. And so they put one pound of butter in each leg of my leggins to come back through customs. But that was really the only thing I can remember too much. All of those green stamps and that, but that one time, because you know, we were very fortunate in that daddy was working. So we never really had it hard, like you know, some people may have had. I can’t really say that much about, I guess, by the time I came along it was sort of ending. I really don’t know that much about it. Like I say, we were very fortunate. We were blessed that daddy was working and we had a house. We had enough food, so I was, we were all blessed.
Q Tell me about the war, World War II?
A There again, sort of followed it, but we did have one cousin who was in World War II, and he came by. He was a Marine, and he came by in his dress uniform. I remember how gorgeous, you know, he was so handsome in that. But as far as the war, daddy didn’t talk much about it. Of course, we didn’t talk much about it. He knew it was going on and everything, but it seemed so far away.
Q Did you notice that your lives had changed much as a result of the war?
A Not that I can think of, not at all. I really can’t think of it.
Q Right in the middle of World War II, right in the middle of World War II, the 1943 riot, there again you may have been pretty young then, but do you recall anything about that moment?
A No, I just remember hearing about it, reading about it and everything. But as far as like in our little neighborhood, there was no nothing. It is just what you heard. I don’t really remember if daddy had to work, like two shifts or something like that, no. I don’t really remember. But I read, of course, a lot about it since and am aware of it, but I can’t really say that it really affected us.
Q Tell me about the Nacirema Club?
A Oh, yes. That as I said we were in the choir and we decided to have a dance. And that’s where my first date was, we went to the Nacirema Club. It was the choir and everything, and we had our semiformal dance at the Nacirema Club. I think other people I knew were married there. So I went there for weddings and a lot of, I guess, different activities that they had; we went to at the Nacirema Club.
Q It would be on special occasions, I take it?
Q If you could tell us about what it is about the west side that is open so many people going on to do bigger and better things, so to speak?
A Well, I don’t know. I guess it was there again we had the opportunity to go to school, to learn, and I think that people sort of applied themselves and wanted to improve their condition and wanted to contribute to the community. And I think people on the east side could or would or maybe did the same. They had the same opportunities to go to school and do things. But I just don’t think there was any difference, just some people of the west side, they really applied themselves and really wanted to contribute. So, that we did have a lot of people who were successful because they worked at it.
Q I have heard the term the west side is the best side. Is that a common expression?
A Yes, because we lived there, yes. We are not going to say any other side is better than where we lived?
Q There was a sense of pride growing up on the west side?
A Well, yes, because the west side was the best side because that is where we lived, yes.
Q You went on to — you didn’t work at Detroit Edison for your whole career?
A No, I worked there until I married in 1956. And my husband was, he had gone to Cass. That is where I met him and when he graduated he went straight in to the Officers’ Cadette Training for the Air Force. So he was the First Lieutenant when we married, and he was living, he was stationed in Austin, Texas. So we married; we headed for Texas. It was in 1956, and at that point I would have, I had to resign anyhow because Detroit Edison did not employ married people, married women at that time. So if I hadn’t been going to live in Texas, I would have had to resign anyhow. Those were the good old days where they didn’t even employ married women.
Q How did that make you feel, that you would have to resign?
A Well, see it didn’t bother me so much because I knew I was leaving town. But eventually, you know, they changed it, and they would hire married women. But if you became pregnant, you had to leave in the fourth month, I think. So they just kept changing little-by-little-by-little, yes. At least they changed, yes.
Q And it is my understanding that you went to work at the UAW in a number of capacities. How did you come to work for the UAW?
A There again, my husband was — he was a navigator on a B-52 and we lived really in this little community that was like three miles from Austin and three miles from Lackland Air Force Base. It was just a little community of military people and professionals who, teachers and things like that and they, I guess most of them, it was more or less during the Korean Conflict. So, of course, they had the B-52s in the air all of the time. So he was always off to Iceland or Greenland or confined to the base or somewhere because of the 24-hour thing we had going during the Korean Conflict. So they all sort of expected to stay in the Air Force and make it a career. That in ’57 the Air Force decided to cutback and they cut the pilots and navigators. So I decided well, I better go back home and get a job. So I came back to Detroit, somewhere around Thanksgiving and one of my girl friends said, go out to the UAW, they are hiring. I said what is the UAW? But then I found out it was the union. So I went out and I passed the typing test, but I hadn’t used my shorthand in so long. So the Manager said, why don’t go home and practice your shorthand and come back. They weren’t sending a recommendation for me or anything. So I guess I always have to be one. So I worked there, I worked there a total of, almost, one month short of thirty-six years. But the first year I was in Clerical Center, so they sent me all over to different departments when ever someone was off or they were short. And then my first assignment was to the Chrysler Department and the first staff person I worked with was John Conyers, Sr. So, I worked in a lot of departments there and in fact I worked in the Washington Legislative Office and that’s where I met Victor Reuther. And he was, is, was the most gracious person I have ever met in my life.
Q What was so gracious about him?
A Just his demeanor. It was almost at the point that they introduced me to him, it was like he was thanking me for coming to work. I was doing him a favor by coming to work there. And he was so glad to have me. He didn’t even know me. He was just, had that gracious way about him. I think you would find a lot of people will say the same thing. He was the most gracious person you ever met. So I was there for awhile. Then I came back and well, my husband and I had separated. And that was sort of going to be a, well see if we could get back together. That didn’t work. So they had on opening in the Fair Practices Anti-Discrimination Department. So I transferred back to Detroit. I ended up in that department with Bill Oliver. I was his Secretary. So I worked all over in most of the departments there.
Q What do you remember about John Conyers, Sr.?
A Well, he was really nice. He was a very nice person. But I did have to write most of his letters for him. But he was nice. He was quiet, he didn’t make too many waves and everything. He was just a nice person. So many of the guys came in to the International from the factory. So they did need help with the correspondence and things. So I would write his letters, and he would check them, no problem. So —
Q What about Bill Oliver, I understand that he was more than just with the Fair Employment, I think Vice-President of NAACP as well around that time?
A I don’t think so, not at that time. They — Bill to me, the biggest thing that the UAW Fair Practices and Anti-Discrimination Department did was make up signs for strikes, you know, fair practices, you know — when The Urban League, if they were going out on strike. There were always fair practice signs and different things. But I don’t think they did as much as they should have done in that area.
Q What do you think they could done that they weren’t doing?
A Push more for equality, in all areas.
Q One of their functions was to see what kind of racial problems might have been taking place in the plants and Solidarity House?
A Not at Solidarity House, you know, perhaps, he was in the Chrysler Department, you know so, basically he would handle Chrysler plants and the locals, you know. But to me, I just didn’t — I just didn’t think they worked hard enough. In fact I don’t think the UAW worked hard enough to educate their own workers, much less the public. And I think it is still true today. So many people did not understand the importance of unions, and the sacrifices that those who were there before us made so that when you walked in the door and you get a job, you also get certain benefits. Well the people who worked there before you gave up things to get those benefits. So just because you walked in the door, you are not entitled to them. Other people worked very hard and very long and gave up thinks for you to get those benefits. I think too many people don’t understand that. They will say oh unions, this or unions that, and they don’t realize that if there were no unions they probably wouldn’t be getting the salaries and the benefits they are getting. It is the union that makes companies pay their workers a pretty good wage and everything, to get some benefits to keep them from joining the union. I just don’t think that labor, not just the UAW, I think labor itself has just not done enough to educate its own members and the public.
You didn’t ask for a speech did you?
Q Going back for a moment, growing up on the west side, one of the things I hear about is Milford Street. One of the things I hear about is Milford Street is a bustling kind of street. Describe what Milford Street would have been like on a busy Saturday afternoon?
A But see I didn’t live that close. I lived three or four blocks away from that Milford Street area. On 25th where I lived right at the corner, right near the corner we had a barber shop where my dad went to get his hair cut. There was the cleaners. On the corner was Beverly’s Drug Store and a lot of people came there for the sodas and stuff. And then you went around to McGraw to the alley and there was Rucker’s Ice Cream Parlor. It was like hand packed ice cream and people came from a long ways for the ice cream. So we sort of had our own little, you know, area there; and we didn’t go that much over to Milford Street. We did sometimes. We had some stores over there that we didn’t have, and we went over there. But me, not so much.
Q The ice cream parlor the drug store where they sold ice cream, was that, would that be a popular hang out, if you would. Ruckers was because they had tables that you could sit and eat your ice cream sodas or sundaes or something. It was hand packed. So, yes, they met more I think in Ruckers than they did Beverly’s.
That was good in that they were all minority-owned businesses, you know; and so it was great.
I think we did have a chineese laundry around the corner for the shirts and things. So, we had so many things right in our neighborhood.
Q Were there — people in the neighborhood, leaders of the neighborhood so to speak that you looked up to and — pastors or deacons or business owners?
A No. I think at one point we did have a block club, and I think my mother was pretty instrumental in getting that going. So we did have a block club, but other than that, no, just the neighbors.
Q What did the block club do?
A This is a long time ago. We might try to get a sign going, say a stop sign at the end of the street or if there was any problems with a house or some neighbors or something, traffic. I guess it has been a long time. And I think they did like take up dues and if someone died in the area, they would, you know, give flowers or something. I really can’t say, it has been so long and I haven’t really thought about it. But I know they did have a block club and my mother was Treasurer, I think. They really didn’t have a whole lot of big problems.
Q I understand that they sometimes would insure there would be lighting on the street and the alleys were paved?
A Or cleanup or something like that. There again, that was a long time ago.
Q One of the things I hear about the west side and it might be a repetitive question that I asked in another kind of way, but people were described as a village in the way that we use that the term now: It takes a village?
A To raise a child.
Q Does that term — is that a meaningful term as it relates to the west side as far as your experiences were concerned?
A Well, it was a fairly close, it wasn’t the type they used to talk about where someone else in the neighborhood would give you a whipping and when you got home your mother and dad would whip you. It wasn’t quite that much, but the neighbors did look out for the kids. They did look out, and you knew them all, and you spoke to them all, and like I said before they sort of looked out for the kids. But it was not quite, you know, where one of them felt like they would whip somebody else’s child.
The teachers: If you did anything wrong, the teachers usually contacted the parents specially for talking too much in class or something like that. It was not quite that much of a village, yes.
Q Did that happen to you at all, the teachers call or send a note home?
A No. It was on my report card. I might have As in everything else, and an E in self control, because I would be talking to some of the other students or whatever. That only happened once.
Q Okay. Well thank you very much, Miss Mitchell. I hope it wasn’t too painful.
Q We derived some good insight in to what the community was like and how you grew up in it. We appreciate you taking the time out and sharing that with us.
A Thank you."> INTERVIEW OF JUANITA ROSARIO DIGGS
Oral History Project of the Westsiders
Interview Conducted by: Louis Jones
* * * * * *
Q Juanita Rosario Diggs, thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk to us about the Westsiders and what that means to you and what that meant to you then. We much appreciate it.
Just to begin with, tell us how your parents, where they are from and how did they meet and how did they get to Detroit?
A Okay. Thanks for having me as a part of this; it is an honor. My mother was born in what was called Belize British Honduras. At the time they were under British control. Now it is called Belize City. It is in Central America. My father was from Bonaire, the Antilles, the Netherlands, which is really I think people would be more familiar with Curacao. My father was a sailor. My grandma, my mother’s mother came to the United States because she had been ill, and the doctors there suggested that my grandfather send her to the United States; they could not find out what was causing this pain. It wound up being gallstones. She did not want to go back to Belize. She had ten children. One died at birth and she brought all of them except two to the United States to live for a better life, which is what she told us. They were in New Orleans. My father was a sailor on a ship, and my grandma had a rooming house. My father came to visit one of the sailors that was on the boat that stayed there, and saw my mom, and that was it. Then they went to Chicago for again, a better living. There were other people from Belize that had migrated to the States and told them about Detroit, Henry Ford and the plant and the big money, what, five dollars a day or whatever. So they came to Detroit. My oldest brother, Calvin, was born in New Orleans. My brother Gustavas who is two years older than I was born in Detroit as well as the rest of the family. My sister, Maria, and my sister, Carmelita, we were all born in Detroit.
Q Where did your family first live when they moved to Detroit, was it the west side or somewhere else?
A The west side, but we lived I was told on Stanford for a short time. I didn’t realize until recently looking at my birth certificate that we were living on 30th, but not in the home that I remember as my home. It was a block down. I was born on 30th between Cobb and Milford, but all of my school days were between Cobb and McGraw. We also lived on Colfax, but people moved a lot. It was during the depression and you could find a better rent or more room because it was a pretty large family, because also two of my cousins lived with us that my grandma, well she didn’t bring them, my mother brought one cousin and my aunt brought the other. They were like sisters and brothers to us. They were older. We lived together and we had a very close family. We were certainly not wealthy, but we didn’t even realize, we were just happy all of the holidays and closeness, to this day, the ones that are still living, we are very close. I have an aunt that will be 102 this year; and she has lived, her home is still on Hancock between McKinley and Roosevelt. The family still lives there.
Q Did your family rent or own or was it a combination of both?
A We never owned. My aunt and her husband owned the house. We never did, we always rented.
Q Tell us something about what your folks did for a living.
A Okay. Mom was a housewife. I remember my father working at Hygrade Packing Plant on Michigan Avenue where they slaughtered animals, and packaged them. It was a packing company. I know in the summertime we could smell the unpleasant odor from that area, it was blood and whatever. I remember my dad was permitted to bring meats home that he shared with the neighbors. Like I said it was hard times; hard times.
Then he worked at the Ford Plant, River Rouge, and he worked in the foundry where they filed blocks. I don’t know what they were used for. I can remember his undershirts would be rust color when he would come home. My mom used to boil his shirts on a stove. We had a little gas stove in the basement next to the furnace. I guess women did their laundry, they boiled to get it clean. She would get them clean. They would be white.
Later after the union was at Ford’s he was given goggles to wear. That was the only protection that he had. Finally he was just fed up one summer during the World War II, he walked out and never went back.
Q What made him fed up about it?
A It was the conditions, the heat, I don’t know what all went on. You know at that time black people caught it. They had the worst jobs in the plant even though they gave them the jobs. It was hot because they had furnaces where he was grinding these blocks, and it was just hot. One day he left and never went back.
He was a decorator. He painted. He did that afterwards. He was an excellent painter. They finally moved to California and did buy their own home. People would ask me, oh, tell me, I miss your dad. I wish he was here to do my decorating. That is how he survived after that. They moved to California and lived a wonderful life until they both passed.
Q How did he get into painting?
A On the boat we found out later when he was a sailor, they painted the boats. That is how he learned that skill. We wondered, we asked him in later years. He also had his own paint store in Pasadena, California.
My sister, Carmelita married a young man that became a physician and they moved to California. That is how my mom and dad went to California.
Q What did your mother do for a living?
A Just a housewife, with five kids, that was full-time. She was there when we left in the morning and she was there when we came home in the evening. She was a wonderful mother, very strict. I don’t regret her strictness at all, because she made us turnout to be, I think, very good people.
Q Let’s talk about that. How was she strict or what did she do or have you do or not do?
A We could not go, our house was on the corner but there was an alley on the side. We couldn’t go across the alley until we were much older. We couldn’t go down the street. We didn’t dare cross the street. I never went to a basketball game, football game. I was on the tennis team, but I had to leave because she wouldn’t let me go to the games that took place other than at Northwestern. I guess that was it. We did go to the show on Sundays. We could go to the Granada and there was a Beechwood Theatre also that we went to. For the holidays, like Easter or Christmas, we could go downtown to the show. But other than that, we went to school and came home. She always knew where we were. Then as we got older we could cross the alley and rollerskate. I don’t miss any of that, it is such a small part of your life. Children don’t realize that now. They can’t go every where and have all of the designer clothes and shoes, they are miserable.
We played. I remember taking Pet Milk cans and taking the paper off of them when they were empty, and we took rocks and we would mash it, and take the rock and pry it up around the soles of our shoes. We would walk up and down the street with these Pet Milk cans on our feet because they made a noise. We played marbles. We had all of the little things to make us happy; hopscotch. Summertime we sat on the porch at night and we played movie star. You would give the initials and you would guess who the movie star was. We would stay out because it was cool to stay out at night. You would go in the house, nobody had air conditioning; you opened the window; it had a little screen in it to keep the mosquitoes out. We just had good times. We stayed out, that was great for us to stay out late at night. Mom was on the porch and so was my father. We still had good times.
Q Do you recall things that the family did together?
A Together: I remember Belle Isle. We didn’t have a car. My cousin, the one I told you lived with us was older. He had a friend that had a car. We would go out like in trips, first load would go and then the second load would go. We had a spot that was near the Canadian side which was like a little island, because my grandma was cripple. She had Infantile Paralysis as a child. So we found a place where there was a restroom. She could go right across the street. We would take her over there. Also they would permit you to swim on that side at the time that I was a child. They would have it roped off, that was the Canadian side. It was past the baseball diamond, but we went to Belle Isle. When we finally did get a car, I remember my father driving us, it was either Tireman or Joy Road west and there was a place that sold ice cream and people would line up. I can remember some people would have bowls like mixing bowls that you would use to mix cakes or whatever. They would buy the ice cream by the scoops. It was so good and I guess they took it back home. He would drive us out there. We went to Rouge Park. He would drive us to what I think was now Wyandotte, you go out Jefferson Avenue and drive and drive and drive. Let’s see what else did we do? Holidays: Christmas, my mom made fruit cake and would give it to the neighbors. She also made wine. You could make so much wine, if you wanted to. She made wine and she would give a bottle of wine and fruit cake to some of the neighbors. Also my aunt and her family at their home, we would share that.
I can remember my father bringing a Christmas tree home one year. He walked to Livernois. We didn’t have a car at that time. He pulled that Christmas tree all the way in the snow from Livernois to 30th. He just pulled the tree home. We didn’t have Christmas tree stands at that time, and we would use a bucket, that you would use to scrub the floor. He would put ashes and clinkers, what we call clinkers from the coal. We had the furnace that you would shake in the basement. He would put those clinkers in to support the tree. Then he would pour water in it to keep it moist. Mom would wrap a sheet around it. We had lights on the tree. I can remember coming home after Thanksgiving and the curtains would be down. We knew that mom was getting ready for Christmas. When we would come home, she would have the Christmas wreath that she put away each year. Then when we would come home and see the Christmas wreath hanging in the window with freshly done curtains, it was just little things that made you so happy.
I remember the old car, the first car we got. Like I said my father was painting then. He painted the car with paint that was left over. It was like a lime or chartreuse color car. We could always tell when when he was coming home. We called him, Dotty. We would say, here comes Dotty. We would see the car coming down from Cobb. We enjoyed that car. We had many, many good times. He would drive us on the east side sometimes which was like another world, down Hastings. The people that lived there, we felt, lived entirely different from the way we did, even though we were poor. It was just the different way that they lived. They barbecued out on the front; just standing out in the street, that we didn’t do on our side of the town. We were amazed, oh, look, look, look, you know, but those people were happy also with the way that they lived.
But we had wonderful times. I remember when my grandma had a stroke, though, that was a frightening time for me. She and my mom had been canning. I remember that night they were canning tomatoes. They came up to bed and my mom waited for my grandma to come out of the bathroom; she stayed so long and she finally knocked on the door. She didn’t respond. So my mom went in and my grandma was on the floor. There was a doctor that lived up over his office on Warren and someone walked down there and called him because we didn’t have a phone. He came and then they called the — I don’t know what you call it now. It is like EMS is now. I can remember them taking my grandma down the steps on the stretcher. It was, I think frightening to me because I didn’t understand it. I thought she had died. It was scary to me, but she was fine. She had no impairment from the stroke. She was fine after she stayed in the hospital quite sometime.
I was trying to think of things that we did as a family. We were very active in our church. We attended St. Benedict the Moor which was a Catholic Church. We were all christened in that church. I was in the choir. We had a lot of activities at the church. During the World War II, the men, the catholic men organized a group of young women to write to the men that attended our church and also St. Leo’s Church. We wrote letters to the fellows in the service. We were called the Catholic Girls Club. We even afterwards, we stayed organized until I guess we all married and drifted away from it. I had good times at church, like I said, the picnics that we had, and school.
I enjoyed especially Sampson School. I can remember, I thought about this, there was a group called the Sampson School Spiritual Singers. As I look back now, it might have been demeaning, but it was not demeaning to me at the time, and I guess, the other young girls. We were dressed like slave women that we see pictures of with the long dress, and the hair tied up like a turban. The material matched the dress. I don’t know if we wore aprons or not. You were honored if you were picked to sing in that group. I can remember one night, they would take us on trips to different places to sing, we went to the Rotunda. I don’t know if you are familiar with the Rotunda. It was built out near Ford, out in Dearborn. They had a lot of exhibits there at Christmas time. They had Christmas trees all decorated. It caught on fire in later years, and I don’t know if that building is still there or not. They also had affairs, like the singing group. We went on the bus at night. Oh, boy. We drove out, the bus took us out there and we sang all of the songs, the spiritual songs that they felt that probably the slaves sang. One of them was Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham. We were on the stage, just swaying back and forth. Like I said maybe it was demeaning to have been dressed that way, but we didn’t feel that it was. It was like, I said, an honor to be chosen to be a part of that. Mrs. Cunningham was the teacher. Mr. Reynolds was the Principal: O.D. Reynolds. They thought it was great. Maybe it was, I can’t say that it wasn’t. The lady, the teacher, our Home Ec teacher made the outfits for us that we wore. I guess the school supplied money for the material. It was good times there.
Q Can you think of any other things that went on in Sampson, things or any teachers or relationships that you may have had?
A I remember Mrs. Martin, our Literature Teacher, my brother Gustavas had pneumonia. She was very fond of him. I can remember it was around Valentine’s Day. She came to our house, and she brought cards from all of the kids in the class. She brought a heart, and it was wrapped I guess, I am not sure if it was tinfoil, because I don’t know if they had tinfoil. It was wrapped in shiny paper. It was a big chocolate heart that she brought for Gus. I remember that, and I also remember Mrs. Bethel, our gymn teacher. We had three black teachers. The first one was Mary E. Coates, and Miss Bethel was our gymn teacher. We were playing corner dodge ball, and a young man landed on my left foot, found out later it was a very bad sprain. Mrs. Bethel took me home in her car; I remember that. My brothers would tell me, she asked about me. How is Juanita doing. So those were things that I remember. The kindness of the teachers. Some of them were very concerned, if they thought you were friendly with some little girls that they thought were fast, they would say, I don’t want you to associate with her. I don’t think you should associate with her, like that, and they were very caring, most of them. There were some that were. There were some who were not. We were talking some of the Westsiders recently that we didn’t feel prejudice there. It wasn’t until later when I got to McMichael and especially Northwestern that I noticed a big difference in the teachers. They didn’t have that family feeling like they were concerned about you. Maybe it was because we were at Sampson for so many years, from kindergarten to 8th grade, but I didn’t get that feeling later years in school.
Q What happened at McMichael and Northwestern that made you realize it was a little bit different?
A They were just like teachers, like they didn’t really care. I remember once we had to do a report. I don’t remember the teacher’s name or what class it was. We had to back it up with some source, a book or whatever it was. It was in Life Magazine, that they had an article about race relations. It ended up saying that the biggest fear of the white man was that black man marrying white women. I wrote this and turned it in, and the teacher was so angry that she dismissed me from the class. She said, where did you get that information? I told her from Life Magazine. My brother always bought Life Magazines. He worked at the gas station around the corner, so he had a little change and he always bought Life Magazine. She was just upset about it. Mr. Bargett who was the Manual Training Teacher at Northwestern who was my homeroom teacher. I told him about it. He was so angry. I don’t know what happened. I think he went to the principal of the school. Of course, I was back in the class. She was never nice to me after that. She wasn’t nice to begin with. That, I remember.
There was another incident, my best girlfriend at Northwestern, we had double seats. I don’t remember this teacher’s name. My brother Gustavas was staying over to work with Mr. Bargett because he was taking Tool and Die. Tell mom that I will be home late. So he came to the classroom, came to the door and then he came in and asked the teacher if he could speak with me. I went out and he told me to tell mom. I came back in the room. The teacher took me back out in the hall. My best girlfriend and I were sharing the seat. She said, what nationality are you? I said, I am colored. She says, are you sure? I said, yes, I am colored. So she said, when you go back in take another seat. She had me sit with two white girls rather than sit with my friend. There was another in that same class, there were two seats, there was a black boy by himself and a white fellow by himself. She would not let them share seats. I stayed in that seat. Nobody, my parents didn’t come over to school, the rest of the summer, and it was hot. Two white girls and I shared the double seats. My girlfriend sat by herself. Those were some of the things that I went through.
I remember Mr. Bargett, the same teacher on Saturday, some of the boys would stay over at school. They would come and get extra help. Mr. Bargett took all of them to lunch up on Grand River. They wouldn’t serve my brother. This was the same brother, the other teacher saw and thought maybe he was another race or something. Mr. Bargett walked out of the restaurant. Mr. Bargett was a nice person. He was a nice person. The other teachers, they were not warm like the teachers at Sampson.
Q Now, I understand that you were a part of the Student Council. How did that happen?
A Yes. Mr. Bargett, homeroom teacher, and it was after that incident. He said, I want you to run for Student Council. I did. That was interesting. We did some things, but at that time they didn’t even have, I don’t think they had cheerleaders, black cheerleaders. Some of those things changed during the years we were there. They changed. They didn’t have black cheerleaders. I don’t think they had any black girl on the swim team. So some of the things took place, of course, the World War II was going on and so a lot of things were beginning to change.
Q Talking about the war: I am sure there were friends of yours in school with you at Northwestern that went off to the war?
A My two brothers did also. Yes, I remember my oldest brother, he graduated that June from Northwestern and went right in to the Army.
Then my younger brother went in to the Navy. I remember going down and seeing both of them off. My youngest sister cried and cried. I remember someone saying, is that her father; is that her father? We said, no, that is her brother. My mom lost weight. She was so worried and she said someone told her one of the neighbors, Miss Rosario, you are going to grieve yourself to death. You have three girls here that you are responsible for. She said that turned her around. She got so thin. She just worried and worried. I can understand especially now that I am a mom; how that must have been. My oldest brother was in Guam. He was over there in the jungles where the fighting was going on. My youngest brother was in the Navy. He stayed in Florida. They sent them out but he didn’t go overseas. Then the war ended I don’t remember anyone, I think that died that I knew during the war. We got our little V-mail, the letter. It folded over. You couldn’t write much, they didn’t want them to be heavy and thick, sending them back and forth.
I remember our stamps that we had for gasoline and meat. You had to tear these stamps off; you were allowed only so much meat. I don’t know what else, I think, butter. You got a book for each member of the family. You had to tear these stamps out to buy that. I can also remember the tin cans. We would wash the cans out, cut the two ends off and insert the lids inside and mash them flat. They would pick those cans up. I don’t remember how often, because they said they recycled. At that time they were not using that term. They used them in the war for something; I don’t know what they used them for. We used to have a box that we kept them in. I remember that about the Second World War.
Q Going back a little bit or I guess it is all during the same period, tell us about your neighbors that lived right next door and right across the street and the relationship that your family had with them?
A Well, the house that we lived in was a four family, like condos are now. They were up and down. We shared a porch, with the railing between. The Thompsons, I don’t know if you have heard of Jo Thompson, she is an entertainer. She played piano and sang. She lived there. She had a brother, I think he is a doctor out in California or some where; I am not sure. We were very close. Mom would sit there in the evening and Mrs. Thompson, and they would talk in the summertime about things that were happening, and share recipes and do little things like that. They talked a lot.
There was another family the Smedleys that lived down on the corner. There were four of these flats and we always said that every time mom had a baby, Mrs. Smedley had a baby. They were very, very close. We all grew up together. Those were the children that we shared games with and hopscotch and all of that and played with. There were other families going down, my best girlfriend, Mattie Hall lived further down. Then my sister’s friend, they were all scattered down the street. We were all friend. We inquired about each other, if anybody was sick. Like I said, when mom had a baby, Mrs. Smedley came. When Miss Smedley had a baby, mom went down and helped her. It was a close, close neighborhood. We all walked to school together from house to house, walked to school because you came home for lunch at that time. So we, it was a lot of friendship there, with the parents. Most of the men worked at Ford, so they were all friends there. There was Mr. Thompson and a Mr. Whitner lived there also. My father and my uncle, they played cards on Saturday. They played whist. They took turns from each house. When it was at my house, we could hear them downstairs if they had a Boston or whatever. You could the cards, pow, pow, beat that, beat that. It was no money exchanged. Every Saturday they would get together. Then baseball games, when the World Series and so forth and my father was for the Tigers. My uncle was for the New York team; whatever the team was, I don’t remember. They would have their little arguments about who was going to win the series. It was like, I said good times.
Q Did your folks or you for that matter, were there clubs or organizations that you were active in?
A Later, I think it was after the Second World War, my mother and father were in a Mr. & Mrs. Club. Of course, the Nacirema, that was like the social club in the neighborhood, it is still in existence. It was on 30th at Milford. My mom and father didn’t go there, but my aunt and uncle went to the Nacirema Club. They had boat rides that the Nacirema sponsored, they would go on the boat rides. But my parents didn’t go. We just had good times.
Q Was your father a part of the union, the UAW or any other union?
A Yes, we came across some receipts where he paid his dues. My sister had all of my mom’s things out in California and we came across some of the receipts where he paid his dues. He was a part of the union. I remember when they had that, it was like a fight at Ford Plant, where the union people, and I think they were locked in the building. Some of them were killed. There were some injured. My father wasn’t there, but the people that were there, they couldn’t come out. That was a scary time; I remember that.
Let’s see what else?
Q Was he active in the union?
A Other than paying his dues, that was it. They didn’t hold big positions in the union until later on, other than paying his dues, that was it.
Q I am skipping here a little bit. You talked about the church that you attended?
A St. Benedict the Moor.
Q Tell me about Father Duquette, was he —
A He was there before me. Then there was Father Cap, and then Father Diehl was the one that I remember. He was there longer during my time.
But there was Father.
Q Norman Duquette?
A Yes, he was black. He was a black priest. He was not there when I went there.
Q Any particular memories about the different priests?
A Father Diehl was very down to earth, very down to earth. A lot of the people would go there after church, go over to the house right next to the church and socialize with him, the older people. He was very nice. They used to bring the nuns from one of the convents during the week, it was either Tuesday or Thursday to teach us catechism, that was because there was no Catholic school there except for one across Warren. It was Polish and they only spoke Polish. So we didn’t go to that school. So they would bring the nuns in to teach us what they called catechism, which was all about the church and it prepared us for First Communion and Confirmation. So we had instruction every week. They would come during the school year. Summertime, they didn’t come. That is where we actually got our training and our lessons about the Catholic Church was through them coming in. I don’t know who, somebody drove them. I don’t know who it was. They came every week. We had bazzars at the church. They would have the wheel that you would spin, and they would have like gambling, I guess. I don’t know if they had money or not. Food was sold; breads and pies and things like that. We had Easter plays, and right next door to me they turned that house in to a church. It was a baptist church. Mom would let us go there. We had good times there; that was really good.
Q What was the name of the church?
A What was that church? I remember the minister’s name was Robert L. Jordan. I can’t think of the church’s name.
Q You said you had good times there, what kind of things did you do there?
A Well, you know the Baptist church is a little more lively than the Catholic church. They had a lot of plays and extracurricular activity over there. They would have banquets. I enjoyed going there, it was nice.
Q Okay. It seems in the same way, maybe not in the same way, as people watch TV similarly people listened to the radio. Did you guys have a radio?
A Yes, we did. We had a radio. We came home from school, we didn’t have homework at Sampson. But mom would turn the radio on. We couldn’t touch the radio. We had a Zenith, I think it was. She would turn it on. She always listened to the news. In the morning she would come down, and Hudson’s sponsored the program that gave news in the morning. Then they played music from different operas in the morning. In the evening the Lone Ranger and Mystery Theatre and Jack Dock and Reggie, I think they were Mystery Theatre. The Green Hornet, all of those old shows; Amos & Andy. I can’t remember all of the shows; every evening we would listen to them. They came on every evening not once a week. You would listen to that. About 8:00, we were on the way upstairs to bed.
I can remember when Joe Louis beat Max Schmelling and my father took the radio, we had a little portable, I don’t know what they called that radio at that time, took it upstairs and we were all in the bed, lights were out, and we were listening to that fight. People just celebrated afterwards. You could hear the newsboy on the street. We listened that night. I remember that. We used our radio a lot. We would read a lot. We would walk to the Lothrop Library on Saturday and get books which was at the Boulevard and Warren. We did a lot of reading. We had to do reports at school. I enjoyed reading a lot.
Q You mentioned Joe Louis before, how would people celebrate?
A If they were drinking, I don’t know. They were not destructive. They would just be out on the street, hollering, he won, he won, like that. Whoever had cars, they drove up and down the street. I remember that night.
Q Do you remember when he lost to Max Schmelling before?
A I don’t. I don’t remember that. I don’t even know what year that was that he lost. I remember when he won because I guess they didn’t expect him to lose, and then nobody celebrated; I don’t remember that.
I was thinking too, I mentioned some other time about the Lindburgh baby being kidnapped; and that traumatized me.
A Because all I could think of, again, our radio and my parents talking about it, that this man had climbed up on a ladder. My sister was born March 3lst, that same year. and I thought that man was going to come and take our baby. All I could think was the dining room window. I don’t know why, that he was going to climb in that window and take our baby. I remember that. I was 4 years old but I remember it.
Also that house we lived in on Scotten then. The fire station was behind our house. My grandma used to cook and take food to the fence for the firemen. I can remember that. She would take that, we didn’t have that much. That was like in ’32, probably ’31 and ’32 we were there. She would take food to the firemen at the fence; and they would come. I remember. I think that Christmas they gave us something, I don’t know what it was, fruit or what it was.
I can remember having a chick. My cousin brought a little chick home for Easter at that house. I don’t know what happened to the little chick, but I remember we were all excited about that.
Q Tell me about segregation and the discrimination that you would have dealt with?
A During that time.
Q Could you share with us a couple of instances that you experienced?
A Segregation: I remember the riot that they had, that was in ’43.
A ’43 I think. I don’t remember like at school like I said when I went to Northwestern. The segregation in the neighborhood, I don’t remember that too much.
There was a white fellow that lived on our block. We called him Birdie because he whistled all of the time. He used to cross go over to Warren. There was a bar over there that he used to frequent. He went over there and they beat him up on the way home. My father, when he got to our house, my father took him and walked him home down the street, because he was bleeding all over. People stood on Warren Avenue and McGraw because a lot of people that worked at Ford traveled through down Warren to go home. On one side were whites and on our side were blacks. They were throwing rocks at the cars as they would go by; I remember that. We were afraid at night though because they said they were going to come across and kill us. We had nothing to protect ourselves. It subsided and that was that.
Speaking of Warren Avenue, I can remember when the circus would come to town, the parade, they would bring the elephants down Warren Avenue because they housed the circus and the animals on Livernois. It was a lot of open space up there. They would bring the animals because they went to the Olympia for the circus. I don’t know if you are familiar with the Olympia. That was at Grand River and McGraw. That is where they had the fights, Joe Louis fights and hockey and whatever games took place, that type of sport took place there. That is where they would have the circus, and they would bring them down Warren Avenue, the elephants. We were all excited to see the parade come to town; I remember that.
Q I want to probe on the segregation a little more. I understand the YMCA across the street from Northwestern, you could not go in to; the Beechwood, you had to go into the balcony and that sort of thing?
A Oh, right, we did. Also we had to sit in the balcony at the Granada. The Beechwood, I don’t think had a balcony, the Granada did; and what was the other.
Q The YMCA —
A That was the Fisher Y at Dexter and the Boulevard. Blacks could not go to that Y. It was the male Y. They could not go there. Also you couldn’t live on the other side of Tireman.
I guess you know about the McGee case.
Q Yes, when that was getting off the ground and going through the system, so to speak, what were your thoughts about all of that?
A I don’t remember being aware of it until later. Now Orsel and I were in the same class and his brother, Reginald was a couple of years older. I think he was in my brother Gus’s class. I don’t remember that. We were probably at Northwestern at the time. I didn’t realize that was going on in their lives until afterwards about them bying that house there, and what they were going through to stay there. I don’t remember that until later years. I know that you didn’t live across there. I know that. You didn’t live across Epworth, either. That was as far as we went, and Warren. On the other side was a lot of Polish people and some Mexicans later. It was all Polish on that side.
Q Now, tell us, my sense is that you had a big wedding. I have seen photos of it.
A Yes, I did.
Q Tell us about that?
A The wedding?
Q The wedding.
A The wedding was at St. Benedict the Moor Church and afterwards the reception was at my husband’s home, his parent’s home. We had a garden reception and a wedding.
Q We can move on.
Q I have heard so much about the west side. Now, what is it about the west side that resulted in so many prominent people coming up out of that section of the city: Damon Keith, John Conyers and many other folks as well.
What was it about that section?
A About that, well I think one thing like I said, we had good teachers at Sampson. Now Damon didn’t go to Sampson. He lived across what we call the Boulevard. I imagine they had good teachers, too. Also the parents, you had striving parents and parents that had good morals and parents that wanted more for their children. Education was very important because I can remember, my mother never let me do dishes or anything, get to the table and do your homework. That was it. She never wanted anything to interfere with our homework. They exposed you to music. I played the piano. My sisters did. My brother played the violin. The oldest one, and the second one played the bass. He played with Dorthy Donegan and some other people. I was trying to remember and I have forgotten. They tried to give you everything they could give you. I remember taking tap dancing at one time. That was not my thing. I think not only my home, but I think that was repeated throughout that neighborhood. The teachers again, like I said had a big interest, I think in their pupils. They, we were there like I said at Sampson for — well, you were there for nine years counting kindergarten, if you started at kindergarten. They knew the parents. Parents came to school. They talked to the teachers. You were not threatening the teachers. We were threatened. We were afraid if we had a note sent home or the grades were not up to par; you were punished.
Q Did that ever happen to you, did you ever have a note at home or bad grades?
A No, but my second brother did sometimes. It wasn’t because he wasn’t smart, he was, I don’t know what he was doing. But they would get on him. Then he did fine. He did fine. They didn’t take anything from you. I think the interest of the parents and they wanted better for you. We had a lot of people that came from the South and came to Detroit for a better living. I think schooling in the South was more important than in the North. It was important for them. They saw what an education could do, where it could lead you. I think that had to lot to do with it.
Q You know the term we often hear these days, it sounds like it applies to when you are growing up, it takes a village?
Q How was the west side a village?
A Because you not only were concerned about what your parents were going to do, the neighbors would come and tell your parents, I saw so and so on the street; that you shouldn’t have been on. It wasn’t the way you came home from school or they were out in the street playing. They were rollerskating in the street. The people would come and tell your parents. The neighbors would tell your parents and you used that as a guide to say, well, I won’t do that because Mrs. Hall or Mrs. Thompson or Mrs. Blackwell will see and go and tell on you.
Q What role did the House of Diggs play in the community?
A The House of Diggs was on the east side. So I don’t think they played any part on the west side at all. I married into that, but I don’t think they had anything to do with the west side.
Q What do you tell your children and your grandchildren, if you have them, about growing up on the west side, anything in particular?
A I started talking to them recently because I realized that I am getting along. Even my children, I have told them about things that happened and about walking to school. My son was telling me his daughter wanted some shoes costing one hundred and fifty dollars. He said oh, no, no, no, your grandma walked to school with high tops two times a day going to school. She didn’t have all of those things, and you don’t need them either. I started telling them about experiences that we had. We wore long stockings. We didn’t have down jackets or somebody dropping you off at school in a nice warm car. You know, you walked, and you walked back home. Many times at school they would let us put our shoes under the radiator to dry and put our gloves on the radiator so when we got ready to go home, they would be dry. Our shoes would be wet. We had galoshes. If you had them, they were rubber, to pull up over your shoes. Sometimes they had holes in them, and your shoes would get wet. It is a different world.
Q Tell me about Milford Street, was it a bustling kind of a street?
A It was.
Q Tell us about that?
A Milford Street had ice cream parlors, shoe shops, barbeque, where they would sell barbeque, drug stores, stores where they would sell vegetables, it was a thriving street. And the kids would come from school you would walk down and get an ice cream cone on the way home, if you had the five cents.
The Thompsons had shoe shops, repair shop and later they sold shoes. Then you had Mrs. Hawkins, Hawkins Apparel. She used to sell clothes, I understand from door to door like ordering. Later she opened up her shop, it was on Milford. Beauty shops. You had just about everything that a little community needed to survive; much of it was owned by blacks. I don’t think they owned the building, but they owned the business. It was a busy little area over there.
Q Thank you very much, Mrs. Rosario Diggs.
A Thank you.
Q We appreciate this opportunity and this brfings it all to light what this community was all about and we appreciate that. I am honored to be a part of the project.
A That’s good; I think it is a wonderful project.
Q I certainly agree.">