Mac Douglas, August 31st, 2016
WW: Hello. Today is August 31st, 2016, my name is William Winkel. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project and I am sitting down with Mr. Mac Douglas. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
MD: Thank you for having me.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
MD: I was born in Detroit in 1941 in the neighborhood which is fairly close to Livernois and Warren.
WW: What was your neighborhood like growing up?
MD: The neighborhood was fairly newly integrated. It was a Polish and German neighborhood and my family, with a few other families, were the first to actually move into that area, which ironically was only about four or five streets away from which was a pretty, predominately Black neighborhood. So just a few streets over the complexity of the neighborhood changed.
MD: So the area that I grew up in was pretty much integrated with a probably 90% white, which was a mixture of German, Italian, Polish–that neighborhood was predominately a Polish neighborhood–and then a few sprinkles of recently moved-in Black folks; most of them were from the areas just a few streets over.
WW: Did you feel welcome growing up in that neighborhood?
MD: I did. I did for many reasons. One, the neighborhood didn’t stay that way for long. It was a neighborhood that most of the residences there were multiple dwellings, and you knew just about–unlike the neighborhoods today–you knew just about everybody on your block, and even though the neighborhood was integrated, there was very few problems that I recall as a kid there in the neighborhood in terms of getting with folks of different races. As a matter of fact some of the bonds that you established back in those days were with people of different races. It was a good neighborhood. Mostly families, there were very few families that didn’t have mothers and fathers that I can recall. It was a pretty stable upbringing in my opinion.
WW: Growing up, did you tend to hang out in your own neighborhood, or did you wander around the city?
MD: Back in those days, you didn’t venture too far out of your own community. Even though they didn’t have the gang indications like they have today, there were different gangs in different neighborhoods and they knew that if you belonged there or if you didn’t, so we pretty much stayed in our own neighborhood. We weren’t really allowed, in my family, to go just any and everywhere, so my parents were pretty strict.
MD: Back in those days you had to be in the house when the streetlights came on. So we didn’t venture too far out.
WW: What did your mother and father do for a living?
MD: Well, my mother never worked, she was–I shouldn’t say that–my mother never worked outside of the home.
MD: She was a homemaker, and an outstanding, wonderful woman. And my father was a self-employed person: he had an auto-wrecking yard back in those days which was pretty unique for a Black family. I think we were the only ones probably in that state at this point to own that type of business. He did fairly well at it. He did that until the city took his property away, that was our method and means of survival or living at that point. The city through that process, eminent domain–
MD: –took his property. As a matter of fact, just pretty close to the area where the African American Museum is at this point. It was on Theodore. Yeah, Theodore’s still there. Supposedly, the property was supposedly for the Children’s Hospital, which was never built, but the city took his property so, that was somewhat devastating to us, but I was up in age at that point.
MD: So for him it had a different effect.
WW: Did you have any siblings growing up?
MD: At that point there was six of us. Two girls and four boys. One of the sisters and one of the brothers is deceased at this point, so there’s still four of us that’s remaining.
WW: Uh-hm. Okay. Going through the ’50s and growing up, did you ever think about joining the police department then, or was it later on you decided to?
MD: Never, never had the desire, never had the thought, and it was simply–I don’t know if you want to call it fate or what–but after coming back from the military, it was my desire to move from Michigan and go to California. One of the fellows that had planned on going with–he had the car and I had the money–when it came time for us to leave and go to California, he told me that he had a change of heart, and he had applied for the Detroit Police Department and passed, and there went my ride. I decided, ‘Well, if he took it, maybe I’ll try it.’ So I took the exam, and failed it the first time, to my amazement [phone rings]. Took it a second time and to my amazement failed it again. Each time you had to wait I think it was three months or something before you could reapply. And then finally on the third time I passed it, and so that’s how I became a police officer.
WW: What branch of the military did you serve with?
MD: In the army.
WW: Why did you join the army?
MD: I really can’t answer that. I don’t know why I did, it was not because of any sense of patriotism. Back in those days, I guess, it was kind of up in the air what you would do with your life. I was in the ROTC when I was in military, really not into sports or anything, probably just for the sake of adventure, something to do, something that I’m certainly not regretful about.
MD: Think it’s probably one of the better decisions I’ve ever made in life. But it worked out very well. That’s when it really kind of started opening my eyes towards life. So that’s why I went.
WW: Uh-hm. So you passed the test on the third attempt?
WW: What was your next step in becoming a police officer after that?
MD: This is when it starts getting a little complicated. It was explained to me that the only reason why I was able to get on the department was because of the relationship that the police officers had with my father. They used to always go by and get a tire [phone rings]. So it was explained to me that the only reason why I was able to get on was because the relationship they had with my father. They’d go buy–and I’d watch ’em there–they’d come in and get a tire or a battery and a headlight or whatever, he didn’t charge ’em anything. So my father was well-known throughout the police department. After I got on, I was accepted–and I’m not saying that’s undoubtedly, unequivocally the reason why I got on–I might have gotten on through whatever. The only difficulty that I saw in that process is of the fact that the numbers of Black officers toward the the white, there were only three Black officers in my whole class.
WW: How large was your class?
MD: I believe it was 16 weeks, I don’t remember.
WW: No, how–
MD: How large was it?
MD: Probably 30. I think that was about maybe the average size. [unintelligible name], the guy who referred me to you, he was a class member of mine, and as you know, today–
MD: –we’re still good friends. So out of 30, two was typical was back in that days, there was no more than two or three black officers in the class. That was very typical, and I think I’m the only one left–the only Black officer left–out of that group. The class itself was not particularly problematic in any stretch, I mean the problems perhaps started a little after the academy.
MD: The treatment that the Black officers experienced versus white officers. There was obviously some differences, no question about it. I can recall that out of the academy, I was actually the first one to be signed from the Police academy to go to the Fourth Precinct, which was the old Fort Greene Station back in those days, and it was probably one of the better precincts to work. You may have gotten two or three calls a day or night. It was kind of a sleeper, old man’s precinct, so it was very unusual to send a Black officer to that precinct. That was pretty much a Hungarian, down river community. There were other Black officers assigned there; I think there may have been, in that whole precinct, maybe five or six officers.
My treatment there was–how can I say this?–I don’t want to say that they were racist, but they were. It was more silly than anything else to me. I can recall that when I left there, the guy at the academy told me what I had to do was when I had my first day reporting was go to the front desk and stand there and salute and say, ‘Probationary Police Officer Douglas reporting for duty, sir’ and all that and had to salute at the front desk. Well, back in those days you actually did have to salute sergeants, but that process was I guess a joke on their part, so when I did that, everybody sitting there laughing at me. That’s funny, it didn’t bother me.
I guess the more offensive acts were number one, it was known that if you did not have a Black partner, if it was not two or three, I mean two where you could be working on a car, they wouldn’t put you on a car with a white officer. You weren’t allowed to use the pool table or the ping pong table, this didn’t come from the administration, but it came from the guys. I remember they literally threw me in the dumpster and they said that was a form of initiation to the new precinct. Could’ve been. So I won’t say that was for any other reason other than the joke.
I don’t mean to paint all of them with those attitudes because that’s not the case. There was some very fine white officers who were very supportive that to this day I still have a lot of respect for. It was few. Generally I think that old attitude came from the administrators there at the precinct again saying that you can’t work unless you have a Black partner.
I recall one night when I was working and the temperature–people tell me I’m wrong–but they said it was 13 below 0: people tell me that had to be the wind-chill, but I remember back in those days, and I guess records dispute my memory, but we had to walk to a beat right next to the river and I recall wearing newspapers and stockings, everything I could possibly do to keep myself warm, and I’m walking the beat on a regular basis, and I see this new officer comes out to the precinct–he’s still around to this day. He’s white, I see him come out the precinct, I’d been there three or four months and I’m walking the beat and he rides by and rolls his window down about that much and he speaks to me. He didn’t do whatever, he was just speaking to be friendly not knowing how I felt about me being walking and he’s riding. So I go back into the station and asked a lieutenant, ‘You know I’ve been here for three or four months, here’s this new guy out of the academy and he’s riding and I’m walking the beat.’ The lieutenant just flat out told me, he says, ‘the only time you’re going to ride in one of my scout cars is when I send you to get it washed.’ That was his comment. That was pretty much the beginning of my feeling that precinct, that’s when I knew I needed to get away from there. I put in a transfer to go to another precinct, which was a little bit more diverse, that’s when I ended up going to the tenth precinct.
And I worked for that same guy again [laughter]. He transferred him to the same precinct. I actually went to his retirement party to tell him what I thought about it [laughter]. The experience has not been all bad. You find in any occupation you have good and bad, both Black and white. Most of the guys I worked with, they were decent, decent folks, most of ’em were. But obviously I experienced a lot of negative behavior and attitudes from the part of some of the white officers, and Black officers as well. I don’t know if we’ve gotten to this point now, but, I think your focus primarily is that during the riots, during that time.
MD: One of the things that I particularly remember and almost use this as one of my claims to fame as to my role in what happened there at the riot. During that time I happened to be working the Big 4. I don’t know how I was selected, but I was one of the very few Black officers that was selected to work that car. A lot of that guys would come–let me take that back–I don’t know if I was actually working the Big 4 at that time. But a lot of guys looked up to me for some reason, I don’t know why. There was a particular incident during the riot where some of the officers had come to me and said, ‘You should see what they’re doing at the station.’ I said, ‘what is it?’ They said, ‘They’re actually taking pictures of Black women and they’re fondling pictures of them with their hands on their breasts laughing’ and all this kind of stuff, and I was furious about it. So what happened, I went to the station and I went back to see what was going to happen to see old Polaroids where they had back in those days, they didn’t have cell phones, they had old Polaroid cameras. Well, the Polaroid negatives, you could actually make out the faces on those old Polaroids–I don’t know if you’re old enough to recall that–but you can actually see, you can identify very clearly who these folks are. So I scooped up a bunch of these negatives, and I got them to an officer named David Bruce, and David Bruce’s father happened to work for a judge, and the judge, I believe, got those officers fired. Like I said, that’s one of the things that I felt pretty good–
MD: –about my actions in that role. Some of the other things that I had seen, it was pretty John Wayne-ish in my opinion about how some of the officers reacted during the riot.
WW: We will get to that.
WW: So going into the ’60s, as a police officer starting in ’62, going to ’67, did you notice any growing tension in the city?
MD: Yes. Probably because of the sense of kind of hopelessness, that same thing I was telling you about two or three officers in the class, very few Black folks in the city county building. It was a feeling of hopelessness, and I think that a lot of that came behind stress, the community felt like they were being taking advantage of, or abused–physically abused–by police officers. Yeah, you could feel the tension building. I never imagined that it would have reached the level that it did, but who knows? With that kind of attitudes and that kind of response, I can see why that would happen.
WW: You were an officer in ’63. Did you have to work the Martin Luther King March by any chance?
MD: I do and I don’t remember it.
MD: Later on in my career I had different responsibilities. I remember I posted along with Tom Robertson, who I think you’ve interviewed.
MD: And I think–Ben Johnson, Lyle Parsons–who was one of the offices who was mentioned in that article; we had the detail at Reverend Franklin’s home where Martin Luther King actually stayed, so we spent three or four nights there watching, but I don’t remember participating in any of those marches or anything or being assigned to those details.
WW: Going into the summer of ’67, was the police department expecting any violence that summer, or at least preparing for it?
MD: I don’t think they were. I don’t recall. I think this was a shock and a surprise to everyone. I knew it was certainly a surprise to me. I can recall when I happened to be out that night, and I heard all these sirens, and I said, ‘Man, what’s going on here?’ So I went in, and my wife’s telling me, ‘There’s a riot!’ And I know I have things out of sequence because I remember having to come back to work and being stopped by the National Guard on the way to work. They probably didn’t come that early, and they may have, but I think–
WW: It started Saturday night/Sunday morning at about 3:30 in the morning, and the National Guard came in Monday.
MD: That could be accurate then.
WW: Do you remember coming into the station after you first heard about it, and what the mood of the police department, or at least your precinct, was like?
MD: Cavalier. Fear, and cavalier. I think ‘cavalier’ is probably a more appropriate attitude. It was an opportunity for the guys to do some of the craziest things, and I’m not saying that if they would have acted any differently it would have changed the outcome of what happened. I can recall them, just for the pleasure of shooting out streetlights or something in that order, shoot the streetlights out because, ‘we don’t want ’em to see.’ This is an opportunity for them to act like idiots, in my opinion. There was a home that’s still there today –I don’t know if you had a chance to get a look by it – but I think it was by the Lasalle Garden and the bullet holes are still there in that home. It was almost like it was a warzone and a lot of the stuff that was occurring, was in my opinion, totally unnecessary. They seemed to take pleasure in locking anybody up for the purpose of locking folks up, and perhaps it was that kind of attitude that caused that kind of reaction in the first place. Again, you’re reading that article, if I recall that article you’ll read that the three of us, what we used to do was to go to different calls and scenes and locations where we thought that there might be some physical confrontation between police officers and the civilians, and we’d go to make sure that it didn’t happen. Just to be eyes near and to tell ’em you can’t treat people like that. That was some of the things that we were doing. So yeah, I would describe some of their attitudes–and again, not all of them–as cavalier, in my opinion.
WW: You just mentioned some of the duties you were assigned. What roles did you take on while the city was trying to combat the unrest?
MD: I worked, and again I might be confusing this, I worked with I believe I was back then on the Big 4 with the four men. We all went out with three or four people in the car, and I think that might be why my memory’s a little foggy. My responsibility was all patrol, I think we worked on 12 hour shifts. Just patrol with other officers, nothing other than, never worked inside the station. As a matter of fact, I was instructed by that lieutenant to stay out of the station, not to come back in there anymore, the one that I took the pictures from. He caught me and he told me to give him those pictures back and I didn’t.
MD: So I was ordered to stay out of the station. Primarily patrol, that was my responsibility.
WW: Was there any tension between white officers and black officers during the riot?
MD: Yes, yes, yes.
WW: Would you like to talk about it?
MD: There was. I don’t know if it was from verbal expression between Black and whites, but there was an officer there by the name of Cree (??) Mitchell, and I can recall that he got into a fistfight with white officers. There was one that I almost got into it with, and I don’t recall his name, and it had something to do with his comments about lacking a Black folks (??). I don’t recall what it was, but we’d invite each other to go out on the back patio of the tenth precinct to settle that dispute. Somehow, I don’t recall who broke it up, but we were about ready to get into a fistfight. There was another officer by the name of Kenneth Johnson, and–I don’t know if this happened before or after–but, you know, they slashed his tires, they did all kinds of devilish things to him, he ended up having to get transferred to another precinct. But yes. There was physical confrontation and a lot of verbal confrontation between Black and white officers. There was.
WW: Did that surprise you?
MD: Probably not. When you see folks doing that to people of your race and even though you don’t agree with what they’re doing, agree with the way it’s being handled either, those aren’t trained professionals. They, in many cases, respond with that group mentality: you see somebody breaking into something, perhaps that’s something the person never would have done ever again, but because now this is being done, it’s okay. That’s not acceptable, but it’s certainly understandable. But for police officers to respond and act they way they do, and you’re supposed to be trained not to hit people in the head with billy clubs, not to kick people in their butts, the kind of things that I saw them do… to me, no, it wasn’t, I had to say it was really not unexpected from the things that I saw.
WW: Given the racial tension that you’re describing in the police department, did you see the unrest as racial?
MD: I see the unrest as the actions of a few, it certainly was not the entire Black community, because most of the Black community was horrified what was going on. This happened right there in the community. We literally saw blocks and blocks of houses being burned down, these people were burned out of our houses. So, yeah, that’s very unexpected, in my opinion.
WW: How do you interpret the events of ’67? Do you see them as riot, do you see them as a rebellion, an uprising?
MD: If you’re sticking to the letter of the word ‘rebellion’ and ‘riot,’ I wouldn’t say that was a rebellion. I think it was probably more riotous than anything else. Riotous because of the opportunities to take advantage of situations that again, you could take maybe 50 percent of those folks that were involved in that, and their normal course of a day would never consider doing anything like that. But, you know, you have the whole neighborhood beating their chest and beating the drums as to, ‘Let’s do this, this is the time to do that.’ I think they probably took advantage of situations like that. There were a lot of Black businesses in that particular neighborhood that were burned out.
MD: People that they had dealt with for years. So I think they were overtaken by opportunity, and by the time, in my opinion. Some of those folks that were actually involved in that, I thought I had established a relationship with them, but at that point, I had no say with them in terms of stopping the activities, they could care less at that point. So I think it was just a thing where people were really swept up into the moment, in my opinion.
WW: You mentioned you did 12-hour shifts.
WW: How long did that continue for?
MD: Tough question. I don’t remember, but I don’t think it was months. I don’t believe it was. It might have been something like three weeks or something like that, it may have been more, I’m not really sure about that.
MD: I don’t recall it being over a real, extended, long period of time.
MD: After the National Guard came in, I recall we initially we started out, there were three men to a car, and it went down to–just a couple of weeks later–we were doing just two men per car, but we would ride in tandem. It kind of scaled down. I don’t recall that it lasting that long. Again, I might be a little fuzzy at this venture [laughter].
WW: What was the mood of the Detroit Police Department when it was announced that the National Guard was coming in to assist you?
MD: I think that it was, in my opinion, relief on their part. Initially, I think there was some fear among the officers because there were concerns about snipers, snipers that really never work. You hear a shot being fired, which at that point was really not uncommon in certain areas, and all of the sudden there’s officers swearing that he’s being fired upon, which was not the case. Many times we responded to locations where it was really nothing going on. I think there was–anytime you get that kind of support in that profession–it’s accepted as a bonus in terms of your safety I believe.
I didn’t particularly, I was not impressed about their being there. I’m not saying that it was good or bad, but I certainly did not condone, I did not respect, and nor do I believe that their responses to that situation helped in some respects. Again, it was that house I mentioned to you, that house was shot up by the National Guard, and I believe at that point there was a white female who lived in that house, if I’m not mistaken. The house was occupied by white folks and I think that they viewed her as being radical or whatever, just to shoot up a house like that to me shows you that cowboy mentality, you know, this is totally unnecessary. There was a lot of that unnecessary kind of activities going on, during that time, again, shooting out the streetlights and all that kind of stuff, cigarettes hanging out your mouth like they’re John Wayne, they enjoyed that, in my opinion.
WW: Did you notice as the week wore on, the conflicts you mentioned in the precincts, were they getting worse as the week went on, as the tensions are flaring due to lack of sleep and exhaustion?
MD: Yeah. There was a lot of tension. There was a lot of tension between white and Black officers. Again, I can’t speak for other precincts, but I think the focus of that predominately riotous area was there, near the tenth precinct, most of it was occurring, I think, there was some other incidents occurring over on Mack Avenue, but the area of concern was primarily around the tenth precinct. So speaking from that location, yeah, it was tense. It probably did not subside right away after the riot, you know?
MD: There was conflict. Fortunately, they started bringing more Black officers on the department, this was over a period of time, but there was tension. There was no question about it.
WW: Did you feel the same way about the federal troops coming in that you did about the National Guard coming in?
MD: It was hard to separate the two, but if I can recall, I thought the federal troops were a little bit more professional than the National Guard. I don’t recall exactly why, just in my memory, I remember them being a little bit more professional.
WW: Did you view the city differently after the unrest calmed down? Did you see the city in a new light?
MD: After working there and actually seeing all the burned-out structures, the city looked pretty bad. Just the makeup, you tend to paint, to brush the whole city as to what you see there, and it probably was not like that. But in that particular area, it was bad. I enjoyed working it because I thought I had a responsibility, and you asked why did I join the police department, I didn’t join it for any wanting to save the world kind of but, it became a point in my career where I actually did want to make a difference, and seeing what was going on there, this is a perfect opportunity to exercise those kind of desires and wishes and try to speak to the young folks, and to get involved in the communities, and those kinds of things, and to be a good police officer.
WW: How long did you stay with the department?
MD: I think I was on 34 years. I started–it took me a little while to get my first promotion. Back in those days, I think you had to have seven years before you took the exam. I think I didn’t start getting promoted until I had maybe 10 years on the job. But after that, if I don’t still have the record, I think I probably broke a record back then: I went from police officer to commander in less than six years. I had a variety of different assignments that kind of put me in positions to get promoted. Not necessarily smarter than anybody else, just being in the right place at the right time.
MD: I went up through the ranks rather rapidly. I think I was on 34 years.
WW: Do you think the events of ’67 still affect the Metro area?
MD: Only to the point where the folks who lived through that probably never want to see that again. I think it might have affected because some of those neighborhoods have physically changed as results of that in terms of, for example, on 12th Street, which was a very popular street, all that stuff is gone now. As a matter of fact, where the riot started, I believe it was on–
WW: 12th and Clairmont.
MD: –12th and Clairmont, I think there’s a park right there on that corner.
WW: Gordon Park.
MD: Yeah, right. The neighborhood has physically changed. I think attitudes, I don’t think most people would ever want to experience that. You want to build on those mistakes that they made. So, yeah, there’s a difference.
WW: Are you optimistic for the city moving forward?
MD: Optimistic is an understatement. I’ve always thought that this was a tremendous city. We have a tremendous group of all kinds of citizens. We have a big Hispanic population, we have an Arab population, we have white population, we got Black, and we’re right across the river from our major trading partner. Detroit is in probably one of the most strategic location that any city could ever want to be in in the Untied States. You see the growth, the things are going on downtown. Yes, there could be more work done in the communities, but the city to me is booming, it’s a tremendous city. It has an awful lot to offer. Very optimistic.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to share today?
MD: No. That’s about all that I can think of. I was wondering what I had to say, but fortunately, you were able to bring back some old memories. The guys that worked back in those days, we don’t too often talk about those things, not because anything that we want to hide or anything, it’s just that conversation never comes up. The officer that was actually responsible, Charles Henry, was one of my–I’m sure you’ve probably heard his name–
MD: –but he was in my golf group, but unfortunately he died a few years back, but we were very close with him and his family. It’s just a subject that we don’t talk about too often. Probably because water over the bridge, move forward.
WW: [Laughter.] All right, thank you so much.
MD: Oh, my pleasure.
TIME STAMP END OF INTERVIEW: 39:17.
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