Mary Ann McCourt, July 23rd, 2016
JW: Good Morning. Today is July 23, 2016. We are here at the Detroit Historical Museum and we’re recording a story for the Detroit Historical Society’s 1967 Project. Can you tell me your name?
MM: Yes, it’s Mary Ann McCourt and my maiden name is Janosky. J-A-N-O-S-K-Y.
JW: Thank you for spelling that. And then can you tell me where and when you were born?
MM: I was born on June 6, 1961 in Hamtramck, Michigan at St. Francis Hospital.
JW: So you grew up in the city of Detroit, then?
MM: We grew up in the city of Detroit. My dad was a Detroit fireman so it was required for city employees to live in the city.
JW: What neighborhood did you live in?
MM: We lived in I think it would be called now, I’m trying to think what they call it, but it was just south of the original Buddy’s which was McNichols and Davidson. So our house was located on Bloom Street right off of Charles across from White School which was a public school and then Jane Field which is a recreation area so technically it was like Conant and Charles.
JW: And then what was that neighborhood like? Was it an integrated neighborhood?
MM: It was slightly integrated. It was typical, middle-class, three-bedroom, ranch houses but I don’t think there were many multiracial people on the block. It was primarily white.
JW: So you said that your father was a fireman. Did your mom have a job or was she a stay-at-home mom?
MM: She was a stay-at-home mom.
JW: What was it like to have your dad as a fireman?
MM: Oh, you know it was great because we got to visit him at the firehouse and back then he could use his badge to get into Tiger Stadium for free and discounts at local stores and then of course his schedule permitted him to be home one day and then he would work the next and then he’d be off three days. It was great. It was exciting to be around the fire trucks and go to Fireman’s Field Day.
JW: And what do you remember about the city of Detroit as a child?
MM: It was good. I felt it was safe and enjoyable. I mean, I was six years old so I didn’t think there was anything I didn’t like about it.
JW: Going into 1967, can you tell me how your family heard about going on?
MM: And that’s a very vivid memory of mine because if you think about how we’re all contacted by phone or call forwarding or whatever, my grandparents lived next door to us and that was my mom’s parents. And so we lived on the corner house of Bloom and they lived next door to us and we were coming back from something. It was a Sunday afternoon and it was hot like it was today and we walked into my grandmother’s house and the phone was ringing and it was one of the rotary dial phones and so she answered it and she turned around and had this very strange look on her face and gave the phone to my father and said, “Jerry, it’s for you.” So we’re like, that’s weird, why would someone be calling Dad at Grandma’s house. The fire department had a large registry of all the houses in the city with phone numbers in case they had to evacuate them and they knew that his mother-in-law lived next door to him and so they were trying to call him at our house and of course weren’t there so he took the phone from my grandmother and said, “Okay. Yeah. Yep. Okay. I’ll be there.” In some sort of those words but very short answers and then hung up the phone and turned around to my mom and said, “Barbara, the riots are in Detroit, I have to go.” And so he went next door and gathered his stuff and talked to my mom about whether she wanted to stay or go and she said I’ll stay and so he showed her how to load his hunting rifle and so she said, okay I’ll load it at night and unload it after. And so we stayed. We stayed in our house and my dad was gone and I think that was the first memory of any real sort of fear because I didn’t really know what riots were about. I just new they weren’t good. I knew my dad had to leave and it was a big unknown and there was concern.
JW: Wow. How long was he gone, then?
MM: It was days and maybe a week and I’m not quite sure. I think the anniversary was today and I think that it was around today so it would have to have been after July 23 so I think his friend got shot very close to when the riots first came out and so that I would have to look to see when the other fireman was shot so I know it was day and I want to think maybe close to a week. And then for us to visit him we had to go to like, this baseball field on 12th Street and Erskine or something like that. We couldn’t go to the firehouse to see him. And there was a certain time where we could only visit him.
JW: Why couldn’t you go to the firehouse?
MM: I don’t think that they thought it was safe and trucks were going and coming and it’s my understanding that they were getting shot at and so they just didn’t want families to be in that area.
JW: You mentioned that there was a fireman who was shot. Did you have any relationship with him?
MM: Yeah, he was my parents’ friend and he would come over. His name was Carl Smith and his birthday was the day after mine, June 7 and his son Duane was three. He was as old as my sister. I’m the oldest of four girls and my sister Jackie was four, so when the parents of course would come over to socialize with my parents he would come.
JW: Do you remember when that happened?
MM: The shooting?
MM: Like I said, I have to look to see when his death was so I don’t remember if it was the day of the riots or following days after that but then I remember my mom would be on the phone at night with all the other fireman wives and that’s how I would fall asleep is to her talking to all these wives whose husbands weren’t home as well. And then she was on the phone when Carl’s wife received the call. She called my mom and said that the chaplain was at her door or had called her and if the chaplain comes, that means it’s not good news. So then I remember my dad and he’s in the photos with the casket on the fire rig and I can’t remember if we were at the funeral or not but I do remember going to his cemetery grave with my mom and Duane after he had died. And he’s buried at Elmwood cemetery. Fireman have their graves at Mt. Elliot which is the Catholic Cemetery and the right behind it is Elmwood cemetery so any fireman that has died in the line of duty or not I think has the option to be buried there but if you do die in the line of duty, you are buried there.
JW: What do you remember about being home that week?
MM: I remember listening and seeing on the TV everything that was going on and my parents trying to protect us and think that we were safe but I wasn’t so sure that we were because of all that was going on. You know, that my mom didn’t leave, I see now is something that – you know a lot of people left because they didn’t want to be in the city. We stayed and we didn’t move after the riots. I remember then, after the funeral that my parents, we went away to our cottage in Port Sanilac for a week and I think it was just too much for them. They needed to get away. It was hot. Like I said, for the first time I felt what real fear was as a child. I’m not quite sure that anything was quite the same after that until we won the World Series the next year, which I personally think was probably such a good thing to happen because it brought the city together and I’m not so sure if we hadn’t won the World Series in baseball if we would have really come together.
JW: I’ve heard that a few people. Let’s see, did your neighborhood change after that summer?
MM: Yes, people started to move. There was a housing project on the next block. The Buffalo Project and that started to change. Mostly African-American people moved in there and so a lot of people moved and then the neighborhood changed then but we didn’t move till probably about eight to nine years later. Then we moved closer to Hamtramck because my dad was still a fireman so we moved south. We stayed in Detroit but we left that neighborhood because then it was starting to change and we had a swimming pool and would find people swimming in our swimming pool which was crazy. Somebody threw an iron through our glass window for our house and stuff. We got robbed.
JW: Oh, I remember what I was going ask. Could you see any of the smoke or anything from your house or was it just watching it on the news?
MM: [at the same time] No, cause we were around 6 Mile so if you look at the map of the city, we were quite a ways from downtown. I do remember tanks driving around. I do remember that.
JW: Crazy. How have you seen – has the city changed at all? How have you seen it change?
MM: Well, it’s interesting because, you know, when we moved closer to Hamtramck and our family’s Polish, I didn’t realize what an urban, ethnic, ghetto neighborhood I lived in till I went away to school to Central Michigan. People would say, “Oh, what’s your major?” And I said, “Journalism.” And they’d say, “Where do you live?” and I would say, “Detroit.” And they said, “Oh, you live in Grosse Pointe.” And I would say, “No, Detroit.” And they would say, “Oh, you live in Sterling Heights.” And I said. “No. I live in Detroit. My dad is a Detroit fireman.” And some people would say, “But you’re not black.” And so that perception of people that lived in the city had to be black or people asking if I had a gun. So I became very defensive about the city people didn’t know. I mean, these were people my age who their parents had moved and they had never been to the city. They just knew from their parents’ experience through the riots that it wasn’t safe and it wasn’t good. So that was really – that bothered me. And it still does for a long time. I think the city is in a much better place but it’s always been a city. I live in Los Angeles and that is a city that people really, truly don’t get along. And I was there for those riots, for the Rodney King Riots. Half of my career I’ve spent in the city and we get along, it’s just the perception of what people think the riots did and, just like they said, it was the riots that the white people moved out. No, people were moving out before then but I think some people like to use that as an excuse. I think people love to be Detroiters when we’re winning the Stanley Cup or the Grand Prix is in town but I don’t think it’s fair if you left emotionally, you don’t technically have to leave here, but you pass that on the generations to come. So it’s encouraging for my son who is 23 and him and his friends who live in Detroit and Hamtramck and where I work now in Southwest Detroit, there are people coming back in the city. When I volunteered for the Super Bowl, the people from Pittsburg said you’re so nice in Detroit. I’m like, it’s never been about us not being nice. It’s just this perception. I mean, have I been robbed, yes, but I don’t want to not be in the city. And I don’t mean robbed personally or on hand. My car gotten broken into and part of that’s my fault; I left something in there. I’m more mad at myself. People that know me, I’m very defensive about the city and how people say things about it. I did work for Emily Gayle who [started] Say Nice Things About Detroit. You know, she really was one of the forerunners of bringing people back into the city and exactly, if you don’t have anything nice to say about Detroit, then don’t say it.
JW: So what do you think has caused that change that has made people want to come back? Was it just movements like this or do you think there’s something else?
MM: I think it’s been going on before that but I think that the negative outweighed more than the positive. You could always come down here in the 80s and there would be an ethnic festival or something going on or something good or the fireworks but I just think there were more people that just didn’t want anything to do with that but now that I think – for example, my kids, we’ve always brought them to Detroit whether we went on the People Mover or Belle Isle or whatever and so I think now they have a great love for the city because they saw that their mom had a great love for the city which wasn’t happening to people my age so that I think is – but the movement here and I think because real estate is cheaper and you can afford to live here, people are really realizing the opportunities. People from other cities like New York I think there’s an advertising thing that says “Go to Detroit” because you can be an artist or you can do it and it can be affordable. So it’s really good and it’s exciting to see the change. I don’t think – whatever city you live in there’s always going to be struggles but I don’t think people should use that to define the city and I think a lot of people used the riots to define the city’s problems.
JW: I’ve heard you use the term riot. Is that how you define what happened or do you have a different word for it?
MM: No, I think it was the riots because that was the word that was told to me but I work for a theatre company and we’re doing a play on the riots in June, which will be the 50th year as you know, and they use Uprising and then today they said Civil Unrest so I’m really not sure now that I’ve had these three words on my mind which one it is. I think whatever it was probably one of the most unfortunate urban actions that occurred in the city.
JW: Our project, we’re calling it Looking Back to Move Forward so do you have any words of advice or any message you’d like to leave for the future of the city of Detroit?
MM: Besides Saying Nice Things About Detroit? I think, Give it a chance. I think it’s funny; people that I know, I have the little Mary Ann Tour and we go to all these places in the city. Not so much that are the popular ones that other ones that may not be so popular and I think people just need to take a second look at the city.
JW: Great, well, is there anything else you’d like to add?
MM: I don’t think so. I think that’s it. I’m looking forward to the future of the city, actually. Very much.
JW: Good. Well thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
JW: It was great to have your story.
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MM: After that, we stayed in the city of Detroit because my dad had to but then other firemen and policemen were moving out and using fake addresses. And so that cause a little tension in between that because some firemen were staying and other ones were moving out but using their mother-in-law’s addresses or something.
JW: Interesting. So did the people in charge of the fire stations, I can’t think of what they’d be called, did they know this was going on and turn a blind eye?
MM: I don’t know if they did or they didn’t but internally that kind of caused a little, what’s the word I want to use, resentment.
JW: Between firemen who stayed and fireman who left? Interesting.
MM: Mm-hmm. So I don’t really now because I was young but I just know that for example, we had family members who left but used my grandmother’s address but we didn’t.
MM: Yeah. I just remembered that. I don’t want to call them out on that but the statute of limitations is up.
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