Dec 15, 2006

On Race, Being a Kid, and Growing Up in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s

Firemen putting out a fire in the 1967 Detroit riotsTime magazine photo of firemen putting out a fire in the 1967 Detroit riots

(Toledo, OH) I am not sure why I started reminiscing this morning about growing up in Detroit. Once the memories began to bounce around in my head, I decided to jot some of them down for posterity.

Or, perhaps, so they will quit bouncing around in my head.

I have few memories about the 1967 riots, as I was a wee lad more interested in running around the backyard and digging holes in the lawn with a shovel. I know that my dad - who was a Detroit Police officer - was away from home a lot, and I have a vivid memory of seeing Army trucks on Plymouth Road while I was eating an icecream cone in front of the Dairy Queen at Mettetal and Plymouth.

Racial tension was an everyday fact of life in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, and yet I somehow grew up white in Detroit without getting sucked into the vortex of hate that enveloped more than a few white Detroiters.

Hearing the slur nigger was commonplace at that time, but I had nebulous ideas about the word as a child. I knew that it was associated with African Americans, but the blacks I knew certainly weren't niggers.

Piano keys I remember Mrs. Lola Johnson, my music teacher from third through fifth grades at Leslie Elementary School. She was an older black woman who had a passion for music, and went out of her way to encourage those of us who wanted to experiment with the piano, the autoharp, or any of the sundry musical instruments around.

I remember how her nimble fingers would fly through Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee," and I remember the funny way how, when students would act up, she would stand and begin her chastisements with: "Hear me now!"

You didn't mess with Mrs. Johnson, but I loved being around her. I remember that she had special shoes she kept in a closet that she only wore when she played the piano. She would sometimes ask a child to get her shoes for her, and when she asked me once, one of the third-grade thugs whispered to me: "EWWWW! You are touching that nigger's stinky shoes!"

I, of course, hadn't even considered that Mrs. Johnson was a "nigger" - she was just my teacher, and I wasn't sure anymore what to think about that word.

Detroit protesters against busing I can remember when desegregated busing affected my school. The first day that bussed students were to arrive at Leslie was one filled with wonderment. We had heard that "niggers" were going to be sent to our school (which, of course, already had some black students), and a few goons shouted "Niggers Go Home" when the busses pulled up.

What a surprise when some of the students getting off the bus were white and Hispanic, in addition to the black kids. Were the white and Hispanic kids "niggers," too?

One of the new kids was named Carlton Whitsett. He sat next to me in Mrs. Calloway's fourth-grade class. Mrs. Calloway, I might add, was another excellent role model who happened to be black.

Carlton and I listened to the same songs on CKLW-AM, the biggest, baddest radio station in the world. 50,000 watts of Top-40 music from, of all places, Windsor, Ontario. Little did we know back then that "The Big 8" could be heard all over the eastern half of the United States. We just knew it played all of the cool songs.

CKLW logo By the way - follow this link to hear some incredible clips of jingles from CKLW's heydays.

Oh, yeah - Carlton was a black kid. I almost forgot to tell you that.

I just thought Carlton was a funny kid who liked a lot of the same things that I did: good music, the Detroit Tigers, and the Three Stooges. Nobody told me that Carlton was a "nigger," at least until one of the racist seventh graders straightened me out on the playground one day.

"If you hang out with them niggers, you're a nigger-lover," he told me, adding a new term to my growing vocabulary of racist nomenclature.

I had to hide my friendship with Carlton after that, at least on the playground. It sure was a confusing thing to never know who the "niggers" were.

I remember one day trying to pretend I didn't see Carlton running over to me on the playground when I was near the racist bullies. He was smart enough to figure out what was going on, and we never talked about it, but I knew that I had hurt my friend by being too chicken to hang out with him that day.

Carlton - if you ever read this - I am sorry, man. I did not have the guts to do the right thing that day in 1974.


Anonymous said...

Whoa - too young to remeber any of that, but a powerful essay, Mike.


microdot said...

Mike, I was a Freshman Art Student at Cass Tech High School...Yes, I remember Plum Street, the Bell Isle Love In, The Grande...everything was happening that year...and then the riots. I lived around Outer Drive and Evergreen and my next door neighbor was a fire man. Of course we went out after was eery, no sounds but the sirens in the distance and the constant hum of the air conditioners. One day we were in a car,stuck in a traffic jam at Grand River and Joy Road? Where the Sears and Federals were and people started to run on the sidewalks... then a bullet hole appeared in the trunk of the car in front of us and we realizzed that there was a sniper on the Federal Store roof!
We had driven to my old neighborhood very near there, Whitfield Avenue and drove down the street to find that the entire block was a smoldering ruin! It was pretty wild to go out each day ad see cars that had been run over by tanks!
I had a lot of black friends and spent time at my friend Jackie Tapps house who lived on the block inback of the MoTown Studio Complex on West Grand Boulevard. Sitting in her yard we often got to see and meet Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, Tami Turrell and once Stevie Wonder!
A few months later, I lived on Canfield Avenue and the John C. Lodge...the Martin Luther King Riots took place and I remeber sitting on the Victorian Roof spire and seeing the city go up in flames again.
It's hard to believe that just a few months later, the Tigers won the World Series and there was a riot of another kind! The city was proud and everybody loved evryone else for a few weeks!

historymike said...

My only memory of the 1968 World Series is parking on I-94 by Metro Airport to greet the team.

Us, and about 10,000 other people. Back then there were just some cyclone fences, and all these people were hoping to see the Tigers as they got off the plane.

There were so many people jamming up Metro that the Tigers' plane had to land at Willow Run Airport, near Ypsilanti.

Do said...

Mike - great reflections. And more importantly - a heartfelt look at how far we have come.

Being from a different area, we (in the late 50s and early 60s) always got told not to "mess with those colored people" because they were "different." I never figured out why they were supposed to be different.

If we ever get to be a world where we acknowledge people because of their achievements or deeds instead of their color or ethnicity, then we will have become a truly civilized planet. Until such time...........we can only remain hopeful that perhaps a future generation will be able to experience that kind of total peace.

liberal_dem said...

I was in grad school at Wayne State in 1966 and left Detroit in September. I lived with other college guys on Lamothe, near Linwood and Grand River. Our street was a white enclave surrounded by black folks with whom we got along fabulously.

I was saddened to hear, a year later, that the riots destroyed much of that area. The house in which we stayed suffered some bullet holes, but no one was hurt.

Then came 1968, a year I'd rather forget.

Stephanie said...

I was born in 1979, and not in Detroit. My youth was lived, sheltered from any notions of racism. I had white friends, black friends, Indian friends, and Native American friends. I had friends from Japan. I had friends from Iran. I had Jewish friends, Christian friends, non-religious friends, and friends whose religious practices seemed quite inexplicable to me; mostly because I never asked for an explanation, I suppose. Nobody ever bothered me about my friends' race, creed or color. Though I do remember one guy teasing me for playing with the "retard" and so I punched him the way my brother taught me, straight in the gut and as deep as I could go, and that was the end of that.

In all this time, the only time I heard the word "nigger" was in history class or in a rap song, which my brother explained was a redefinition of the word and thus acceptable. I honestly believed that racism was a thing of the past, something our society had rightfully out-grown.

Then, I moved to a little town at the southern edge of Minnesota. My parents were looking at a piece of property in an even smaller "town," called a thorpe by my dad, that had two houses on it. One was the house we would come to live in. The other was a very run down place that smelled a bizarre chemical that was never identified, and got it's water from a sistern, i.e. rain water.

A neighbor came up to us and told my dad that he was glad to have us if we wanted the house, but we gotta remember..."There'll be no "spicks" in this town," he said pointing to the extra house. The skin on the back of my neck started crawling, and I took a few steps away from the icky man.

I sidled up to my brother, who looked like he'd just bitten an apple to find half a worm on the inside, and asked, "Okay, so what's a 'spick.'"

My brother looked at me, pain in his eyes. "It's a slur for 'Hispanic.' The guys a f***in' racist."

Still, we bought the house. I rode the bus to school. I'd sat in the back of the bus for the last two years, but now I couldn't. Someone actually grabbed my arm, hissing, "Don't go back there. They'll kick your a**!"

I learned many ugly realities in those three years. I learned racism is alive and well. I learned it goes both ways. I learned that people who grow up on it have no idea how ugly it is for those of us who didn't. I learned that there are still places in this country where people draw lines across a town, solely on the basis of the color of another's skin.

I don't understand how they think. I don't want to understand how they think. But, I truly hope, that as time goes by, more and more people will grow up like I did...and someday we'll realize that racism really is something of the past. An ugly footnote in history that has no bearing on our future. I hope, but I know we still have a long, sad journey to travel before we get there.

Hooda Thunkit said...

You've stirred up some powerful memories Mike.

I remember only bits and Pieces of Toledo's riots and the night that Police Officer William Mescannon (not sure of the exact spelling) was shot and killed at Dorr & Junction.

Anonymous said...

Compare the White schools with what they were replaced with. You simply can not argue they are close to equal. What were once clean, safe places of learning are now violent, dirty, backwards, dysfunctional shells with police substations in them that still can't control the violence and crime. Seems those who opposed Integration have been proven right in spades!

historymike said...

Ah yes - you know all about Detroit schools from your perch in College Station, Texas, right, Mr. not-so-Anonymous?

Take your Hal Turner-loving racist self and go back to the VNN forum or wherever you slithered here from.

Bill Hassen said...


We were classmates and friends at Leslie… Mrs. Johnson is someone I’ve frequently thought about over the years. I remember her nimble, but swollen, arthritic fingers playing the piano. Her hands were always wrapped in bandages.

She’d tap the side of her desk with her conductor’s baton to settle the class. “Hear me now.” The side of her desk was worn down to light colored wood. Sometimes she made the threat: “I’ll tan ya hide.”

She was strict, tough teacher-- mostly unpopular.

The windows to her classroom were constantly vandalized. One day words were written on the windows. I don’t remember the exact words, only that they were racial. She conducted the class without referencing the window.

I also remember tears of pride in her eyes when a student, black or white, pulled off a performance in one of her operettas.

Donald Howard was a friend of mine. He was a black kid who was bussed to Leslie. We made plans that he would go to my house for lunch one day. But as we were leaving the playground, one of the “lunch ladies”, as I remember them to be called, ran over to tell Donald he was not permitted to leave the school grounds. I remember feeling bad that he had nothing to eat for lunch that day.

I didn’t know it then, but those were turbulent times.

historymike said...

Thanks, Bill!

I sent you a lengthy email to respond to your comments and reminisce. I don't remember Donald Howard, though the name rings a chord.

Agreed that little old Leslie Elementary on Plainview was a veritable battleground in Detroit's racial conflict, and as kids we had no idea how weird those days were.

We just wanted to be kids.

Renee said...

I remember Mr. Blair! The coolest math teacher ever! And Mrs. Day too! Funniest, sweetest, & strict teacher. They were black, & they came to our house. My mom had lunch with them all, Mrs. Chapman, Mrs. Calloway, Mrs. Panish, etc... Remember when they cut out grades 6-8? I do. Our family was close to everyone! I even remember Mr. Sepla on Sat. mornings running the summer program! Teachers would Never do that now! I remember tbe good ol days! R. Doody

Anonymous said...

14Hi Mike
I went to Leslie from '72 - '77. Lived a block away down Plainview St. Do you have any information on what the cub scout pack numbers would have been? I cannot eem to track down any info for the Warrendale are of Detroit.

Thanks, mpo