Philip Seymour, July 13th, 2016


Philip Seymour, July 13th, 2016


In this interview, Seymour discusses spending time in Detroit as a young child. He also talks about Grosse Pointe, and how moving there informed him about racial discrimination in America. He talks about how he lived in Royal Oak with his wife during the 1967 disturbance. Even though he was not there, he was worried for Detroit. He also talks about his experience as a Methodist Minister in the Detroit area.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Oral History


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Philip Seymour

Brief Biography

Philip Seymour was born on June 4th, 1945 in Detroit. He spent much of his childhood in the downtown area, but moved to Grosse Pointe and went through their school system. He went to Albion College, but finished his final Year at Wayne State University. He later studied to become a Methodist minister. He was living in Royal Oak with his wife when the 1967 disturbance occurred.

Interviewer's Name

Giancarlo Stefanutti

Interview Place

Detroit, MI



Interview Length


Transcription Date



GS: Hello. Today is June 27, 2016, we are in Detroit, Michigan. My name is Giancarlo Stefanutti with the Detroit Historical Society for the Detroit ’67 Oral History Project. Thank you for sitting down with me today.

PS: You’re welcome. Glad to be here.

GS: So can you first start off by telling me your name?

PS: I’m Philip Seymour.

GS: Okay, and where and when were you born Philip?

PS: I was born in Detroit, June 4, 1945. Lived in Detroit until I was about 13 when my father was a minister moved to Grosse Pointe, so I went through the Grosse Pointe system, which is a whole different other story, and then at the time of the riots—or before the riots—I went off to Albion College, my father was then living in Royal Oak. So Detroit’s my home town, and I’ve lived in Detroit itself since ’58.

GS: Okay. SO then where in Detroit were you living until you were 13?

PS: It’s called [Emberry?] Project, half a block up from the Manoogian Mansion, and my older brothers, who were the same age as the Manoogian sons, so often went down that half a block to play in their backyard, which was a couple acres. [laughter]

GS: Wow.

PS: Yes. And could watch the speedboat races from there. My introduction to bowling was in their private bowling alley in the basement of the Manoogian Mansion. Our doctor—my dentist—was downtown Detroit, and so that’s when the street cars were still going. It may not have been around that time, probably had to get the bus come to think of it then, but would get on the bus. Mom would give me money for the day because I was old enough to go downtown [laughter] and get on the bus. The dentist that I was going to was off Grand Circus Park. My aunt Bert sold leisure footwear on the seventh flood of J.L. Hudson’s. So as soon as I got downtown, I’d check in with Aunt Bert, “I’m here,” so that she would know I’d made it. I’d then go up to Grand Circus Park, because usually I had a couple hours before my dentist appointment, check because there are several movie theatres going there, which one I wanted to see, which one at what time, where I could eat. Went to the dental appointment. Afterwards, followed my schedule for where I was going to eat, the movie I was going to see, then go down Woodward before I got the bus home, have a creampuff and hot fudge at the Sander’s place across Woodward from Hudson’s. Go up, and if I still had an hour or so, I’d just sit and watch Aunt Bert sell shoes. Or mouse around Hudson’s because that was a great place for a kid to mouse around. They had plenty of fun stuff to look at. And then, get the bus home.

GS: That’s quite a day.

PS: Oh yes it was. And that was Detroit in the fifties. I remember when I was about three or four—I don’t remember a lot of this—but I do remember splashing around in a big pool. And when I came back as an adult, I asked “Where was that pool I used to—” but that was at the Waterworks out Jefferson Avenue—

GS: Oh, okay.

PS: —which was probably, for a kid, that might be a fifteen minute drive, but we would walk, because my father was the minister at the Saint Mark’s New Methodist Church across from Waterworks Park. The building’s still there, and it’s now—it’s a large African American church, I don’t remember what denomination. But just after the war, in the late forties, it was open. Back then, that was open. Everything was open back then. And they had a big pool, and so they let people come in and the kids splashed around in the pool. I think my mother said they closed it down, and I remember this too—even though I never told mom this—I remember I was into it and there weren’t any bathrooms around, and so I couldn’t hold it so I just went. And my mom said that—not knowing that I did, so she probably suspected that I had—they closed it down because the water was not as pure as when we started swimming in it.

GS: Nice. So it sounds like Detroit was pretty safe for you as a child.

PS: Oh yeah, it was. In the fifties, I remember the first blacks that came into the school. Back then, elementary school went through grades eight.

GS: What school was this?

PS: It was Monteith, it’s still there—I think it’s Monteith—but when I’ve driven by, it’s now, not experimental, but sounds like it was not preschool but for really early age. I don’t know, special education, but the building’s still there. And I walked there from where I was. So I walked to school, walked home from school, walked down to the Booth Theatre, it’s no longer there. Saturday matinees, that was the discipline when we hadn’t behaved during the week, we could not go the matinee.

GS: Wow.

PS: Major thing. I’m glad I wasn’t an usher there, all the popcorns we threw. And so by the later fifties, because we moved to Grosse Pointe, that’s when Dad got an appointment that took him to Grosse Pointe, integration had gotten to the point that there were, in the school system enough that my parents—my brother Jerry, who is retired now, was a top-notch physician, had gone through Eastern High School, and he, like me, was quick to pick up things that the teachers taught us. So he, like me, really didn’t have to do much homework. So he went through Eastern High School, think he was second in his class, never taking homework home. And he almost flunked out of Albion College [laughter], where our parents sent us. So my parents did not want me to have—they wanted me to have a challenge so that’s why he moved to Grosse Pointe, so I went through the Grosse Pointe school system. I’d thought I knew what prejudice was because we had blacks coming into our schools at Monteith. And my memory was, since boys don’t develop as fast as girls, my memory was all these tall black girls in my class [laughter], and they were different. Luckily, my parents weren’t violently racist, they were what I probably would now call “benign racists.” They just weren’t sure. They wanted blacks to have the same opportunities, but the culture was different and so they—because Dad was District Super Intendent of the whole Detroit area of the Methodist Church. So he had 120 ministers in 80 churches and during his tenure, which was from ’58 to ’63. Detroit was changing, that was when it was really changing from predominantly Caucasian to predominantly black. And so his responsibility in part was to try to keep the Methodist presence while the culture was changing. He was one of the first in the country to appoint a biracial appointment to one of the large—it’s still a Methodist church—I think East Grand Boulevard Methodist Church.

GS: Okay.

PS: it was a huge church back in the thirties and forties. By the fifties with the change in the neighborhood, the membership was wearing down.  And so that they wanted to try to transition from a Caucasian to a black congregation there. So they brought in a young black minister, Woody White was his name. He later became a bishop of the Methodist church.

GS: Okay

PS: I was thinking he’d be ideal for your project.

GS: Yeah.

PS: And he was open to those opportunities, he was aware that you really have to be careful if you’re a white talking to a white congregation about blacks. He was old fashioned, that women weren’t supposed to work, wives weren’t supposed to work. He was not racist in that blacks had nothing to do to be here, but the benign racism where you really didn’t have much contact with them and so you really didn’t know who they were to you, words respectful and polite. And they taught me growing up, because we had a black that came in to do housekeeping. And my oldest brother would follow her around and looked at her, and wanted to touch the skin to see if it would rub off, and ask my parents if it was out in the sun too long, and so my brother could clue me in so I didn’t have to ask those questions. But because of the change and experience with my brother almost flunking out of Albion after Eastern, they wanted me to go through Grosse Pointe. And that’s where I really learned about racism because Grosse Pointe’s still there. I got a good education there, I even invited Woody White to be a speaker my senior year at the class. And this would have been in ’63 before the riots—

GS: Okay.

PS: —to give you some of the background of all that. And back then, they didn’t have the requirements for high school graduation, and so most high schools had this one class that was something like “Effective Living,” or “Preparing for Life,” or whatever it was. I think ours was “Effective Living,” and there was no curriculum, but the class members could discuss and the teacher could work with them on coming up with things that were interesting to them.

GS: Okay.

PS: And I thought it would be of interest to them to have an educated black talk to them, since none of them knew anything about blacks except they’re the other side of the line and we don’t want them here at Grosse Pointe, and so “Yeah, okay. So Woody said sure, he’d come, and I remember that day. It’s one of the few class sessions I remember from high school. One of the few. I don’t know, you’re probably young enough you can still remember more than one. One of the few because he came in, and I think there are 24, 25 of us in class, he came and he talked about what the experience was of being a black here in the United States in the early 60s, 50s, early 60s. I think he grew up in the South, was not from Detroit. And at the end for questions, and there were four of us that asked questions. Me, the Methodist PK (pastor’s kid), the Presbyterian PK - daughter, Episcopalian PK, a boy, and boy who, like me, had decided he was going to go into the ministry. The only four to ask questions.

GS: Wow.

PS: The next session which is usually any responses having thought of our speaker, what we did yesterday, whatever, “That man knows nothing about being an American. He’s all wrong.” And there were, shall we say, four of us that said “You weren’t listening. Did you hear him say—” “Oh no. He was all wrong. All wrong. And that’s the problem with the blacks today. They’re all wrong.” So that, I think, set me up, because from there we went to Royal Oak and I started Albion College. Came back my senior year to Wayne to live at home, that’s why I was here the summer—the whole year before that. And there, of course, Wayne by that time, there were a lot of blacks, and Albion had a few. They even picked me, Albion College. All my friends going to Albion knew who their roommates were going to be I think by June. I heard nothing. I thought “What’s wrong with me?” And then, I got a formal letter. I had been chosen, of one of the two, this one came in I think like early July, I’ve been chosen one of two entering freshman to have foreign student classmates. And mine was from—then, was called then Southern Rhodesia.

GS: Oh wow.

PS: I learned later when I got there, asked some of the professors that knew that my father was a District Superintendent, Albion’s a Methodist College, they knew my last name, they knew me, a lot of them knew me from when I was about that high, and they said “Well, we have to be very careful—,” they did not call it vetting, “—vetting the students to see who could be open and helpful to their transition to coming here. So I guessed I passed the muster there. And it was interesting because Simon was his name, he’d come in, we’d be studying—Grosse Pointe taught me how to study which is what my parents had to tell me how to study, since 95 percent of the school’s graduates were going to college somewhere. And so, we’re studying and he’d lean over, “Phil?” “Yes Simon?” “I got a word, I’m not sure what it means,” because he didn’t learn it in Africa. English. Begins with F. I said “Oh.” “What is it? Fuck?” “Fuck? Oh, yes. I’ll tell you exactly what it means. I’ll tell you what the definition is but I’ll tell you what it means.” [laughter] So he’d come in so I could teach him the idioms. Now he wasn’t an American black, but through the next few years, I’d see him, because we just roomed that one year, he graduated, even after the three years I was there and I came to Wayne, he was still at Albion. I’d talk to him and he’d ask me of those questions. He’d also ask me some questions about the blacks here. I said “Well, I’ll tell you what I know,” [laughter] which was probably more than some of the other students knew. But with the experience at Grosse Pointe and my own experience in seventh grade, the tall black girls that were in my class, they seemed like this but I’m sure they were only about six inches. More mature. And then I was away, I went to Washington D.C., and then have served churches, Novi, Northern Michigan, Dearborn, and after two or three years of ministry, I went into teaching at Fordson High School, which is predominantly Middle Eastern, where I learned another aspect of prejudice. But watched Detroit trim around the borders, seemed to lose a lot of things, be dangerous to drive in. I’ve still come down to the—here, the cultural center, some restaurants that my wife and I would come down to, and neighbors would say “You’re taking your wife into Detroit?” I said “Yes, there’s still a lot of neat places in Detroit.” And now to see, my daughter’s generation moving downtown. She has a job now, with Bosh up in Farmington Hills, but she has a job in Detroit, she’ll be looking at moving downtown. Detroit’s on its way back. Part of me hopes I live to be another 30 years, become 100 so I can really see it all the way back. It won’t be ‘The Arsenal of Democracy” like it used to be, but still will be maybe the world center of automotive tech and all the stuff that the car industry’s [unintelligible 19:56].

GS: So backing up a little bit, so outside of Grosse Pointe during the sixties, could you sense a kind of growing tension or attitude before the riot or something like that?

PS: Not really. Before the riots, you know, from ’63 to ’66 I was at Albion, I was working at the Ford Rouge. I worked there for five summers to make money for college and for later getting married. And so Royal Oak, which was of course white. I served, one of my churches was in Birmingham, that would’ve been in the late eighties, early nineties. And the tension there,  [unintelligible] that I had my one and only interracial marriage of a woman in my church, started dating where she worked—I don’t remember where they worked but— a black man. And Kathy and Jeff thought “Sid is the most gentlemanly man I know. They were dating in the church, I married them in the church, really didn’t get into either of their families except when we had a young adult group that travelled. We went to Toronto for a weekend, and it seemed wherever Sid went, I guess this is more African American culture than Caucasian culture, but maybe it’s any ethnic culture. And I’m thirteenth generation American. 1632, Richard came over and I’m here. But he could make a connection anywhere he went. “Oh! You’re the aunt of so-and-so that’s the cousin of so-and-so that’s related to…” [laughter]

GS: Wow.

PS: Everywhere. And then when I went, shifted from 32 years of ordained ministry, got married a second time, because my first wife dumped me, after 22 years and eight months, not that I was counting, and then got married, and so I became a father for the first time at the age of 42—my mother was 42; I was 49. And so I realized that’s a full-time job. So, got married and realized I wanted to be a full-time parent. So I switched to teaching. But with the young adults back at [Emberry?], because that was where I met and married my second wife, and so we started a young adult group in which Kathy and Sid, the interracial couple were part of, and Kathy’s father, I think, was in the hospital. And I had picked up that their parents related to another Methodist church in the suburbs, but I didn’t know if the minister there was aware that Kathy’s father had just gone to the hospital, because Kathy called me that night. So I called him and gave Kathy’s married name because I knew what her married name was, and the minister said “I know of no Kathy Thomas.” Well, parents are there so she grew up with that church. “I know of no Kathy Thomas,” and I thought “Ah. She was Kathy Russel.” “Oh, Kathy Russel, yeah I know Kathy. Oh, her parents? Yeah, thank you.” “That’s her married name,” he says “Oh, she’s married?” “Yes, she’s been married about a year now.” “The parents never told me she got married.” And I said to Kathy, and Kathy said “Yes. Because I married a black man.”

GS: Oh wow.

PS: So here and there, since I’ve predominantly been in suburban places, Royal Oak, Birmingham, Grosse Pointe, you want to talk about bastions of white supremacy. And I grieve for Detroit. Now did I see a change through there? I really wasn’t looking. I’ve read the papers, knew that there were some places you did not want to travel. But since I had a couple black friends at Albion, but they were a minority and they had learned, I think, that you didn’t talk. Mt senior year in high school, I learned in the Methodist tradition that right after the Civil War, we became a segregated church, so that all the black Methodist Episcopal congregations, there are a lot of them, became part of what was called a “central jurisdiction,” because we had five geographical jurisdictions because the South did not want to have any northern bishops, and the West did not want any southern bishops, and I guess none of them wanted to have black bishops. So they created a racial—all the black Methodist Episcopal churches in the whole country did not relate to the local white organization. I learned this my senior year in the high school. And the summer before my senior year, the youth minister that was working with the conference-wide youth program of which I was reactive asked me if I would like to go to, in the summer, the central jurisdiction youth fellowship meeting because they were breaking up the central jurisdiction in the 60s. So all the black churches would amalgamate and become part of the local geographic districts. You know, new thought [laughter] kind of thing. And I hesitated and said “The girl you’re sitting with—” because you know, I was dating [laughter] rather steady. Bobby was her name, I didn’t end up marrying her, she was my first girlfriend. And you know how first girlfriends are, you know, you’re really in love—“And she can go with you.” “Oh. Okay, sure. Let’s go.” [laughter] So for four days went down there, that’s my junior year, that’s before my senior year high school, we went down there, and that’s where we stayed in homes. There were five of us from all the north central jurisdiction white conferences, only two conferences had representatives. Two of us and three from an Ohio conference. Out of 150, first time I’ve ever been a minority, out of 150, five teen whites, everyone else black, including the adults, living in a black part of Nashville. And so, I was staying in a home, and since I was at a home and there were five of us staying in that home, me and four blacks, and we would joke like teenage boys do. You just joke. And all of a sudden, we became real silent and started to walk fast. And they looked around, and I looked around, and I knew I was supposed to be scared but I didn’t know of what until I got home. I told Mom that experience, I said to Mom “All I saw was some graffiti.” “What did it say?” “Well, the biggest one was KKK.” My parents didn’t talk to me about race relations. They made sure that we treated everyone with respect, no matter who they were. And so that’s when she brought me up to date on civil rights. Of course I was at Albion College then, doing civil rights. The killing of the Freedom Riders, the killing of those three white students in the South. And that’s where—there were enough black students there that we did talk some, but didn’t really focus on Detroit. So I wasn’t surprised, to be truthful I wasn’t surprised that summer when I’m working at Rouge, and there’s a riot, because I guess I had seen enough in my limited mind and probably 100 percent more experience than most of my peers what it was like to be around blacks. So I wasn’t really that aware, but didn’t surprise me because I saw how they treated Woody White. Yeah.

GS: Moving to July 1967, you said you were living in Royal Oak—

PS: I was living in Royal Oak. I transferred from Albion to Wayne because Albion had changed their curriculum totally, and to be truthful, it was sort of tradition, my father was at Albion, graduated after one year because he couldn’t afford it, because that was called “the depression” back then. So he transferred to Wayne, so his bachelor’s is from Wayne, my oldest brother graduated four years at Wayne, my other brother was one year at Wayne and then they sent him to Albion College. And so I was three years at Albion College and when they totally transferred, I went to Wayne. So I lived with my parents in Royal Oak, and it didn’t hurt that my fiancée was two years older than I was and could get a job in Oakland County. My father got her a place to stay with one of her widowed retired teachers, and so we attended church at my father’s church, sang in the choir so we could see each other on a regular basis, and I worked in Fords as I said five summers, that’s back when they hired college students. The last three years, my father knew someone in the human resources department, and he said “You come in, check in with me, you know, I’ll make sure you get hired.” They were hiring a few, but I wasn’t like the full—just walk in and they’ll hire anyone. So I was working then at Rouge plant, commuting from Royal Oak down the Southfield Freeway to the Rouge so I was working in the four through midnight. I may had been in the engine plant that year. I’m not sure, but I was in engine or stamping plant that year.

GS: Okay. And how did you hear about the riot?

PS: I was working, I have no memory per se of when or how I learned during the work day, because it, you know, I was working on the machines. Lunch, it might have been during lunch break, which was somewhere around seven or eight. I don’t remember. It may have been just when they announced that they were closing down all the plant at nine o’clock so everyone could drive home, wherever they were from, Detroit or anywhere else, during daylight hours. And of course it may have been back when they announced why, there were riots in Detroit, so I do not remember when exactly when but that I was working and had to go home then at nine along the Southfield Freeway, which is my most profound memory personally of the riots, because the Southfield Freeway for, was it three days? I don’t remember the days, three or four days? I don’t even remember that. I know it was more than two—three days. Three days. There was a curfew and people stayed in. They did not go out. And for three days, with one exception, for three days, I was the only car driving the Southfield Freeway.

GS: Wow.

PS: The whole length of it, except one of the days—it wasn’t the first one, I think it was maybe the second or third day, there was a police car on the other side, going about 100 maybe the opposite way. And I was going the speed limit. I was not going to be pulled over. And probably shouldn’t now say on something that goes public, I usually don’t go the speed limit. A little bit faster.

GS: I don’t think you’ll get in too much trouble for that. [laughter]

PS: No. But I was going exactly the speed limit because you weren’t supposed to be out. But I had my work clothes on, they said if you get stopped, just let them know you’re going home. So I was going the speed limit on what could have been a raceway. No cars anywhere. And got home, and my wife and I just married. And since I had the car, she could walk over to Royal Oak, but then she hadn’t been out. And it may have been one of the nights—it may have been the third night, she said “Can’t we go out?” I said “We’re not supposed to.” And so I didn’t get home until nine, it’s like you’re going out just before midnight. So we looked up in Fairly [Thoroughly] Modern Millie, which you’re too young to know of, was just released. It was one of Julie Andrews’ first films.

GS: Okay.

PS: It was a comedy. During riots, and you’re not supposed to go out, you don’t want to go to Shakespeare. [laughter]

GS: Right.

PS: So it was a comedy. And theatres back then were huge. None of these poster stamps where you—you know. They were huge. And so we looked at it, and it was I think a five or six minute drive all in Royal Oak, I don’t remember but one of the theatres—probably one of the theatres in Royal Oak because we were right there—five minute drive there and back, and I thought “Can’t get in trouble with that can you?” So we went to the theatre, it would’ve been like a ten or a ten thirty showing, go to midnight or so. And in this huge theatre that seats, what, six, seven, eight hundred, we were one of four couples. We didn’t talk, we went to sit. At the end, we said “Nice show,” shook hands, “Safe trip home,” maybe whatever, didn’t talk about anything serious, but we sat in a ten to fifteen foot radius in the middle of this theatre. I mean, you go to a theatre, you want to be alone, right?

GS: Right.

PS: Well we sat close together, not that we’re going to interfere with any private space, but we sat there and watched Fairly [Thoroughly] Modern Millie. And then that set me up for the next summer, my first year in seminary, I’m ordained minister. First year in seminary in Washington D.C., and I thought “Is this going to be an annual thing?” And there, so the same problems here in Detroit, having read since then, and even there, I worked one summer—it wasn’t that summer but a later summer, I think my second or third year worked in an inner city church, in the summer, interned in a pre-school. That’s where I really learned what it’s like to be black because all the kids were black. And it was not air-conditioned, this huge church. It was sweaty and hot. But that summer before the riots, some of the professors were part of the food banks, and so they collected food, we collected money, we donated food, and I think there was like a eight, seven car caravan with all the food, and we weren’t supposed to leave—that was in Washington D.C., but I think maybe a mile or so from the border. So we got out as soon as they did, took the beltway around, I think came in from Virginia, drop it off at an inner city church and then got out and around. To be truthful, the only times I’ve really been scared have been the tree days here in Royal Oak, and then in Washington D.C.—we were in Washington D.C. in the northwest corner. It was more affluent, I think that’s where the ambassadors and embassies are. But just scary. Because you’re not sure. You worry about our country like I worry about our country now. Well now it’s not the blacks, it’s the Muslims.

GS: So a lot of people describe the riot with different terms, some people say uprising or rebellion. Would you call it a riot or would you call it one of these other words?

PS: I would call it a forest fire that happens in a forest that hasn’t been burned in a century. Because that’s what our national parks do. They stop forest fires. And so now a single match just lights it all immediately. I only use the term “riot” because that’s what people call it. Combustible economic inequality.

GS: So, how do you see Detroit now? We talked a little bit about it earlier.

PS: Yeah. Oh yeah. Detroit? Yeah there are some sections now I wouldn’t drive. A lot of the sections where I would drive eight years ago when I’ve gone through during the day, the houses aren’t there. [laughter] Yeah. And down here with Wayne, that year at Wayne, this has become a pocket that has been for a long time. Downtown is spreading out. My daughter spent last summer as an intern with the Tigers. I think maybe almost as interesting as yours [laughter].

GS: That’s pretty awesome.

PS: Yeah. The Tigers, so even though she’s never lived in Detroit, I guess being a daughter of a true Detroiter, she’s been contaminated and so she loves Detroit. And if her work is near, she does not want a long commute, but if her work ends up anywhere in Detroit, she’d probably live downtown because she’s got some friends that moved downtown that are a few years older than she is. That are on their own. I think Detroit is on its way back. Maybe because we Americans are following the old tried and true tradition that every few generations, we have a different scapegoat and they’re now the Muslims, they’re not the blacks. My wife has some Irish blood in her. Used to be Ireland. Then it became the Chinese, then Japanese. Then African Americans, even though they’ve been around for centuries, they have some lineages longer than some of the whites that think “Why don’t they go back home where they came from?” That’s why I tell them “You want to go back home? I’m thirteenth generation from 1632 when did your guys come over? If it weren’t for my ancestors killing off Native Americans, you wouldn’t have even had a chance. So you go back home. You go back home.” I think maybe because the Muslims are the latest bugaboos, the blacks aren’t being assimilated. I remember the first kiss of a black and a white, do you know when it occurred? On Laugh-In.

GS: What’s that?

PS:  “What’s that?” That’s what I thought. [laughter] Laugh-In. It was in the sixties, it was the latest hip mixed media show. They did skits on the edge of the political spectrum. I was watching it too. I think I was in high school so that would have been early 60s before the riots here. Early 60s. And they had a black and a white actor, because it was one of the first major shows to have blacks out of regulars, and they had a kiss in one of the scripts. And I think it was Lily Tomlin. That’s when Lily Tomlin broke in if you remember Lily Tomlin?

GS: Sounds familiar?

PS: Okay forget it. You’re too young. Too young. So Lily Tomlin looked at the screen—I think Lily Tomlin—and said “I think we just lost Alabama.” So now, I think the blacks are everywhere—of course that’s what I think Barack Obama’s problem is, he’s president while black. But, it’s no longer socially acceptable to be a racist. You hide that under other things. And you only talk about it when you’re with people you know that are safe. When I was in college, and serving churches, you could be a racist in a lot of these communities and that was fine. It worked for Hubbard how long in Dearborn? You probably don’t even know who Hubbard is. Orville Hubbard. Oh, forget it.  Read your history of Dearborn.

GS: Alright, will do.

PS: I mean, he pledged to keep the blacks out of Dearborn at all costs. Even then in Dearborn, this would have been—when was I in Dearborn—that would have been 80s? Yeah, 80s. 70s and the early 80s. We needed an organist. Part-time organist, because there’s smaller congregations, I was the only full-time person—I guess the secretary was full-time, but part-time janitor, part-time choir director, organist. And we interviewed I think about 12 people. One of them was a standout. He was in the U of M, studying a master’s of organ. Master’s of music in organ playing. He had one problem though. He was black. And this is Dearborn. And I could’ve forced it through the committee, because even the ones that didn’t want to hire him knew, “Yeah, he’s really good, but there’s got to be some whites out there.”

GS: What year is this?

PS: This would have been in the 80s.

GS: Gotcha.

PS: 80s. After all this. In the 80s. But we interviewed some more, but kept Tony in the mix, because I wanted a unanimous committee vote. Unanimous. In talking about who’s the latest one you want to be prejudiced against, one of the members was a World War II pacific veteran. And he said—he was the one that was most vocal—and he said “I went home talking with my wife and I know, Reverend Phil, you want us to hire him because he’s the best, and you’re right he is the best, and you’re right we should hire him, so I’m changing my vote because I realized I’m prejudiced against the Japs for what they did to us. And my wife said ‘Well what has any black done to you?’”

GS: Wow.

PS: So we hired a black. And for three years, we had a black organist while he was finishing his master’s. He’s now a full professor of music down in Nashville. You know, he’s prosperous too, he lives in a house larger than I ever lived in. [laughter]

GS: Nice.

PS: Yeah. And I did not want it to make the news. I did not want reporters reporting what we had. And one of the summers at the Greenfield Village, this is in the 80s, the Dearborn Pastor’s Association and I think one of the Detroit Pastor’s Associations decided to have a joint picnic, outdoor picnic at Greenfield Village.

GS: Okay.

PS: And Choirfest. And so various choirs met and, you know, would play, and directors of Dearborn. A white would direct a black choir and a black director would direct a white choir. It was a great afternoon. I think they closed down Greenfield Village for I don’t know how many hours. And Tony said he was pretty sure no one knew he was a Dearborn choir director. But, it was a little step, and Dearborn now has the Muslim population, the largest Muslim population outside the Middle East on any one municipality. And Detroit, I think, well the Millennials don’t care. The Millennials, by and large, don’t care because they’re used to blacks on TV. They’re used to blacks—Denzel Washington, girls scream at him. They used to the Beatles. And so I think Detroit, having gone through, let’s admit it, some really less than stellar politicians, some atrocious economic prejudice, not just the suburban white against black, but urban black against white. I think that’s why Michael Duncan became the first white mayor. Erma Henderson was a minority white council president, because one thing that the Methodist church has learned—my brother’s also a district superintendent, at that time it as just West Detroit—that we had not realized there were American blacks with slave genealogy, there were American blacks who came here directly from Africa as free. There’s three—he came up with three—there were blacks that had parents that were college educated, I think there are African blacks and—that’s right—Caribbean blacks. And so, the Methodist church, before my brother was on the cabinet, which was in the early 80s, just so often there are white churches, and in Detroit, there are black churches, not realizing there are different black cultural churches. So they would appoint an African black to a Caribbean black congregation, and it wouldn’t work. [laughter] Yeah. So I think differences—I mean, I’m a Methodist minister that married a Catholic. Our daughter used to call herself a “Cathodist.” But the Millennials are like that. And I think the experiences I’ve had with a few blacks that I’ve talked with, they’re like that. “Oh, oh you’re slave background?” “Oh, I came from the Caribbean.” Yeah, and so I think as a country we are becoming—what is it, by the time I’m going to die, I’ll be a minority. Because Caucasians will be a minority. And maybe we’re a minority now because of the number of blacks that quote unquote, by 1900, passed as white. That’s why I’m tempted—my wife thinks it’s a waste of money—but I’m tempted to get the DNA analysis to see what am I? I know I’m predominantly Caucasian, they came in 1630 and don’t have much of else. But I think as a country, and Detroit is benefitting from this, is our prejudices are more obviously economic and not racial. And I see what’s happening with business moving back in. I haven’t been down on the waterfront for probably about 20 years, and Julia, my wife, said I think about five or six years ago “Why don’t we go down? That waterfront looks fun.” Went down, it was a cold day I think in the spring, so it really wasn’t a weekday, it wasn’t busy and there’s a couple shops she wanted to go to that’s down along the waterfront. And so we went and walked and it reminded me of when I was in San Antonio, about 40 years ago. This is what Detroit should have had all along. But since we let the waterfront go to industry, now we’re reclaiming it. Yeah. Detroit I know is on its way back and part of me wishes I was 20, 30 years younger. I could do what I did in the 50s, when I took the bus downtown.

GS: Alright, well thank you for sitting down with me today.

PS: You are welcome. It’s been my pure pleasure.

GS: Excellent.


[End of Track 1]

Original Format



55min 5sec


Giancarlo Stefanutti


Philip Seymour


Detroit, MI




“Philip Seymour, July 13th, 2016,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed September 24, 2023,

Output Formats