Michael Smith, August 5th, 2016
WW: Hello, today is August 5th, 2016. My name is William Winkel. I am in Detroit, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project, and I am sitting down with Mr. Michael Smith. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
MS: Thank you for having me.
WW: Can you please tell me where and when you were born?
MS: I was born 1950 in Camden, New Jersey.
WW: What year did your family come here?
MS: My mother and I came here in 1955, and I’m an only child, so it was just the two of us.
WW: What brought your mother here?
MS: We lived in New York and my mother and father separated. My mother had a brother here, in Highland Park, so she decided to leave New York. She said she didn’t want to raise a child alone in New York so she decided to come here because her brother was already here in Highland Park.
WW: And you moved into Highland Park?
MS: We moved into Highland Park originally. We stayed with my mother’s brother, which was my uncle, for about a year, until my mother’s paperwork came where she could get a job with the federal government.
WW: What was your first impression of the city of Detroit? Do you remember?
MS: I thought it was great, I thought it was nice. I mean, a kid growing up, we were having fun. I was going to school and playing ball, interacting with friends. I didn’t have any negative connotations of the city at that time. I hadn’t really experienced any type of prejudice of any type. I thought Detroit was a great city at the time.
WW: The neighborhood you moved into in Highland Park, was it integrated?
MS: I don’t remember if it was integrated in ’55. I really don’t remember, but we were only in Highland Park for, like I said, about a year, and then we moved into Detroit. I think the first place we moved to were the projects, which were not integrated at the time.
WW: So the kids you grew up with were primarily black kids?
MS: Primarily, yes. But I went to a parochial school, St. Dominic which was in the area, and that was very integrated.
WW: At St. Dominic’s, did you feel any racial tension at all?
MS: No, not at all. I mean, at that age, I was too young to—if anything was going on, I didn’t realize it. I was at St. Dominic’s for roughly two or three years before we moved again, so I didn’t experience anything there. At that point, we moved somewhere else in Detroit, and I went to another Catholic school called Visitation. The thing was there, it was just a handful of Afro-American kids at the school. It was predominantly white, and still, we had good times at the school.
WW: Growing up in Detroit in the ‘50s and into the ‘60s—mainly the ‘60s—did you become attached to any of the social movements that were going on? To the civil rights movement?
MS: I did not. I heard about a few things, but as a kid growing up, I wasn’t involved in anything, as far as activism or anything of that nature. I was just a kid growing up and minding my own business. I do remember an experience that really caught me was when Martin Luther King got killed, that particular night, I was being recruited by the University of Detroit to play basketball, and they were taking my mother and I out to dinner. In the car, on the car radio, they announced that Martin Luther King had been shot. Naturally, there was a silence in the car, and that really got me thinking about social events and things that were really going on around me. It kind of put a damper on the evening, but we still went about it. Wasn’t much said, the air got a little thicker, you might say, after hearing that. I mean, it was something that was unexpected, to me anyway. That was a strange night, to say the least.
WW: As you’re growing up in your later teens, did you explore the city more, or did you tend to stay in your neighborhoods?
MS: At that time, we were all over the city. The busses ran fairly well. We caught busses everywhere. We went everywhere. We went downtown. Downtown was very nice at the time, so we went downtown, went to movie theatres, went to dances, we went all over the city. We just didn’t stay in the neighborhood. We ventured out, and we enjoyed Detroit.
WW: Going into ’67, did you anticipate any violence that summer?
MS: Not at all. Not at all. I didn’t see it coming. Like I said, once again, as a teenager, you’re just caught up in school or maybe girls, a few sports. You’re not thinking that far beyond yourself and really your surroundings. We thought everything was fine. We didn’t get into adult business, whatever issues adults had. It didn’t appear to be discussed that much with the kids, so we weren’t really discussing it. Also, it was a time when I was getting ready to go into my senior year of high school, so we were just excited about that and that’s where our focus was. School, senior year, what your plans for the future, things of that nature. Kid stuff, basically.
WW: Do you remember what neighborhood you were living in then?
MS: During the riot, at this point I was on Sturtevant and Linwood area. I lived at 2750 Sturtevant and it was an apartment building. Very nice building. I was the only kid that they allowed in the building. Actually we lived in that building from—I started there when I was in the fourth or fifth grade ‘til I graduated, so we were there for a number of years. Nice clean building. It was owned by a Chaldean gentleman and he kept the building nice. Me being the only kid in the building growing up there, I had to be low-key, not making any noise or anything like that. Plus my mother wasn’t going to have it anyway. She was a stern woman. The neighborhood was clean, it was nice, and I enjoyed the time there.
WW: Do you remember how you first heard about what was going on on that Sunday?
MS: I do. I got up that morning. My mother worked, but she was off that day. Anyway, she sent me off to church and Visitation Church was on 12th and Webb. It was roughly a half mile to a mile from where the riot was starting from the first police incident. I go to church, not knowing anything had happened. We hadn’t heard. But when we got down on 12th, we heard some noise, saw smoke, little bit of smoke and fire. Curiosity led us to that direction, but the police kept us at bay. After church we decided that we were going to go home and change and come back down there and see what was going on. When I got home, my mother heard what was going on, and she said, “You’re not going down there; you’re not going back out.” She kept me in the house for maybe two days. Like I said, my mother was a stern woman, and what she said, went. I was in the house for two days. As bad as I wanted to get out, I couldn’t. I wasn’t going to buck her. I did that.
WW: Being so close to 12th Street, did you see people, did you see looters? Were they coming down your street at all?
MS: Not on that Sunday, no. Then after the first two days, I didn’t see any looters. I think maybe that third or fourth day, my mother finally relented and let me out, and I did see a few looters at that point. Not many, because I was right on Linwood, and that section of Linwood, it didn’t appear to be that wide-spread at that particular time.
WW: Was your neighborhood threatened by fire at all during the week?
MS: Not fire. We did have an incident with the National Guard in my apartment building. It was rumored that there was a sniper there. I didn’t hear any gunshots, but they sent the tank with some troopers down my street, and they turned the gun towards my apartment building and they asked that the sniper come out. There was no movement, but somebody came out and told them that the sniper wasn’t in our building, he was across the street adjacent to another apartment building. They turned the gun over that way, but whoever it was, I think they got away, because there was no shots fired. But it was scary because they meant business. If somebody didn’t do something immediately, we were going to have serious trouble.
WW: When the National Guard came into the city, for you, did it create more stress? Or did it alleviate the stress of the situation?
MS: It created more stress. People were really unnerved. I had an incident with some friends, like say, after my mother finally relented and let me out. Our daily routine in the summer—I had a couple of friends in the neighborhood. We’d walk about a mile past our high school, Visitation, on 12th and we played basketball at this elementary school outside. On our way, I guess I was about six blocks down, we were across the street from Central High School where the Guard were centralized. The Guard pulled their rifles out on us and made us lay down and put guns to our head. What their concern was a blow-back bag that I was carrying. I just had a small towel and extra shirts, because I played ball, I sweat a lot. I just had extra shirts in the bag to change, because I played all day from maybe one o’clock in the afternoon until it got dark. Then we’d walk home. I was there all day, so I had extra shirts. Anyway, they wanted to see what was in my bag, and after they saw it was nothing to harm anybody, just my own stinking shirts, they finally let us up and told us to get on our way. That was my first real incident with the negative side of the riot. We went on and played ball, did our thing. I didn’t tell my mother, because she probably wouldn’t let me go out the next day. I left that alone. Then after that, a few days, the riot started spreading more. I was wandering around the neighborhood, then I started seeing a lot more looting, a lot more burning, fires, mainly stores. I didn’t understand why the store right around the corner from us, which was a cleaner’s right in the neighborhood, nice cleaner’s—they broke in and were looting the cleaner’s. I couldn’t understand why they were in there because it was our clothes that were in the cleaner’s, and what was the purpose of going in there, trashing our clothes? It didn’t make any sense. Also next to the cleaner’s was a nice market. It wasn’t a large market, but it was a nice-sized market where you could get a lot of things. They went in there and looted, and here again, this was right in our neighborhood. These are stores that we use every day. The thing about these stores is that the Chaldeans that owned and ran the stores—and there was a few Jewish folks that had these stores—they always gave credit to the neighbors. You’re biting the hand that feeds you, to a degree. It made no sense to me, but this was what was going on. I can’t explain why. People get frustrated about different things, but they take their frustrations out in the wrong way. This did no good for us or our city, which we’re still trying to recover from, basically.
WW: Do you interpret the events as a riot or as a rebellion?
MS: More of a rebellion, I’d say. I would term it more as a rebellion, sort of an uprising. People were frustrated, and that’s how they vented. I think it was wrong, but yet, when you have frustrations, you take your frustrations out, I guess, whatever’s closest to you. It’s not necessarily the right way. I don’t know how we should have, whatever the issues were, how we could have solved them. They say everybody can come to the table and talk about it. Sometimes you get people’s attention when you rebel, so to speak, or riot. But like I say, I feel it was more of a rebellion than a riot. We were just—and I say “we,” I wasn’t rioting or rebelling, but I was there—people were just venting the best way they knew how. It was hot times, and I guess older folks that had jobs or were looking for jobs, they had more to be angry about for whatever reason. I’m a 17-year-old, I’m not angry about anything, at the time. I’m just sort of happy-go-lucky, so to speak. But people did have issues.
WW: Did what happen change the way you viewed the city?
MS: No, but I was just wondering how the city was going to come back after all the devastation. Where are we going to shop? Where are we going to buy the things that we need? Where are we going to go? What are we going to do? I was concerned about that. The people that did lose homes, where are they going to live? How are they going to live? I had a lot of questions, but we didn’t get many answers. They say after the riots, people started coming to the table to talk, but a lot of damage was done, and like I said, we still haven’t recovered from that damage. I still love Detroit and still want to be a Detroiter. I did go to college here in Detroit. I decided to stay. I had an opportunity to go to Michigan State, but I decided to stay here and go to U of D which was recruiting me pretty heavily at the time. Another bad thing that I know that came out of this was my mother’s girlfriend and coworker of hers, her son got killed in the riot. He was out looting, and he was one of the—I think it was roughly forty-three people that got killed in the riot—he was one of those forty-three, unfortunately. That really hit home because he was older than I was, maybe ten years. I knew of him, I knew his mother very well because his mother and my mother were good friends. My mother was very upset about that, naturally. That was one negative out of this little rebellion.
WW: Did your mother ever think about moving out of the city?
MS: No, I don’t’ believe she did. She worked for the government and she had a significant amount of years with them. I don’t think she ever—she never mentioned to me anything about trying to move. She wanted to stay here, which we did, and make a go of it. We did move from Sturtevant about two years later. Actually, we moved back to Highland Park, somewhere else in Highland Park. A nice area in Highland Park. But no, I don’t think she ever really, seriously contemplated leaving Detroit.
WW: So you already said that you believe that ’67 still affect the city today?
MS: I do. I do believe that.
WW: Are you optimistic about Detroit moving forward? Or do you think we’re still going to have this shadow over us?
MS: We’re moving forward. Naturally, after the riot, we had an extreme amount of white flight and things are changing back because they’re building up the city from downtown, which they always start with downtown. They’re branching out. I think it’s going to take some time, but I do believe Detroit will get better if people stay level-headed and work together. We do need to come to the table and work together. We need a lot. The economy has to pick up. The city still needs job, but the people in the city have to have access to get to those jobs, their jobs in the city. Our schools need to be maintained a lot better. They’re in shambles. A lot of work needs to be done there to educate the kids so that the kids are prepared for the good jobs that do become available, that are available. That’s on everybody. That’s on each parent. They need to put more effort to make sure their kids get all they can get out of school. They need to push them toward school. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, you had the automobile plants in Detroit that were going 24/7. A lot of people migrated towards those plants in a hurry because you could get a job so quickly in there with top pay. Those days are pretty much gone. The jobs—you have to have a skill to be qualified, more technologically, for those jobs. To qualify for them, you have to be somewhat educated now. Before you could quit high school and people went right into the plants, and you could make paying jobs, you know, make good money. That’s not the case now. The city’s coming back. There are jobs available. There are jobs in the suburbs, but people need to get educated and then you need access to get to those jobs.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to add today, sir?
MS: The only thing is the riot, as a 17-year-old, to see houses on fire, to see the city appear to be like we’re in a war zone, I mean, it was just amazing. It’s like watching a movie. You just can’t believe the devastation that you’re actually witnessing and I actually saw people looting, running into stores, and taking things, and interacting with the police. Naturally, it’s not a good thing. Interacting with the National Guard, which wasn’t a good thing either. Because if you’re doing wrong, there are consequences, naturally. But to witness what I saw, places that I frequented, and then after a week or two, then they’re all gone, it was devastating. It’s amazing. As I drive through the city now, I still see those places that were there that are not there any longer. I think about the riot all the time. Going forward, the lack of progress in the city of Detroit, in the neighborhoods, you see a lot more burned out structures, stores, whatever. That’s not good, but hopefully, Detroit will come back and things will get better, but it’s going to take a concerted effort on everybody’s part and everybody that cares and loves Detroit. We shall see.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
MS: Thank you.
WW: We greatly appreciate it.