Time 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.
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.
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.
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.