INTERVIEW OF JEAN HURST MITCHELL
Oral History Project of the Westsiders
Interview Conducted by: Louis Jones
* * * * *
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.