Sheila Sharp, August 20th, 2016
WW: Hello today is August 20, 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—
SS: Sheila Sharp.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
SS: You’re welcome.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
SS: I was born February 13, 1957 in Herman Kiefer Hospital.
WW: Did you grow up in the city?
SS: Yes I did.
WW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
SS: I grew up in central Detroit, west side. West side central.
WW: Which street?
SS: We moved a lot. I first started school when we lived on Euclid and John C Lodge. I started at Fairbanks Elementary School. From there, I went to Thirkell, from there I went to Crossman, from there Peck and Longfellow and Sanders. And then I went to junior high school at Hutchins, Hutchins Junior High. I went to high school at Northern, Northern High, which was on Woodward and Owens.
WW: The neighborhoods that you moved around in, were they integrated neighborhoods ?
SS: No, sir. No, basically, we had maybe an Albanian family here or there, a Chinese family here or there but it was mainly African American.
WW: What was it like growing up in that neighborhood in the late Fifties?
SS: That would be the early Sixties. It was fun during the time I was in elementary school. We used to play outside a lot, play tag and hopscotch, basketball, baseball. Different games like that. We didn’t watch much TV. When I got to junior high school, I was bullied a lot and that continued until I got to high school. When I got to high school, I joined the swim team and became co-captain of our swim team. And then pretty much stayed with the swim team and stayed out of trouble. There was always somebody who wanted to fight me all the time and I stayed swimming to avoid fights. I had good teachers, I also became pregnant at the age of fifteen, which wasn't very good back then. Nowadays, it’s commonplace. But I did manage to finish school and raise my son.
WW: Going back to when you were ten in ’67, how’d you first hear what was going on?
SS: When I was ten years old, I was in my cousin Gwen’s wedding. My cousin Paula and I were flower girls. At the reception, I danced and danced and danced. When her and her husband went off to their honeymoon, to the Pontchartrain Hotel in downtown Detroit, I stayed at my grandmother’s house that night. When I woke up that morning, there was a lot of commotion in the neighborhood. I didn’t know at that time what was going on but I found out later that day that there was a riot going on. I didn’t know what a riot was but from the way that everybody was acting, I soon realized that it was not a good thing. There was a lot of smoke in the air and I could see a lot of heavy smoke plummeting up into the air. There was a lot of fires burning and I was scared. I was scared that everything was going to burn including my grandmother’s place. I was sitting on the stoop on the front porch, people were coming down the block from Linwood Avenue to Lasalle Street. She lived on Monterey. They were coming down the street with all kinds of items loaded in their arms. I ran in the house to tell my grandmother what I was seeing and she came out on the porch and I know this is what she said, I’m commenting what she said. She says, “Niggers have gone crazy! Now they’re looting and burning up everything! Oh my god, what’s going to happen next?” I looked up at my grandmother and I asked her, “What is looting?” And she looked back at me and said, “Looting is when people break into stores and businesses and take things that don’t belong to them.” She told me to come inside, that she needed to turn on the TV and see what was going on out there. So we went inside and turned on the TV and the news was on every channel. We watched and listened to the news people and they said the police had raided a blind pig on the corner of Twelfth and Clairmount. I thought to myself, now remember this is from a ten-year-old’s perspective, I thought to myself, “What would a blind pig be doing on the corner of Twelfth and Clairmount? And why would police spray it with Raid? And why were people so angry about a pig? This had to be some special kind of pig.” Because we never had pigs in our neighborhood before. The telephone rang; it was my dad on the line, he spoke with my grandmother and told her what had happened the night before and that I should stay with my grandmother because things were really bad where my mom, dad, and brothers were at our house. My grandma got off the phone from speaking with my dad, she answered my question. I asked her about the blind pig. That is when I learned that a blind pig was an after-hours joint, a place where people went to party after the bars closed at night. My grandma told me that the police started beating up people who were at the after-hours joint and there were some young boys across the street on the roof and they were throwing bottles and bricks at the police and then everything went crazy. Then my grandmother, she says, “I knew it! I just knew it! I knew them damn cops would get theirs someday!” She was shouting and smiling and angry, all at the same time. I didn't understand why she would be acting that way about the police getting hit with bottles and bricks and things. She went on shouting, “It’s about time somebody put them sons of bitches in their place! They can’t keep treating us like they do!” I was really puzzled then because we had always learned in school that the police were our friends. Boy, I learned a lot that summer. That evening, the police came slowly down the block announcing over a loud speaker: “The city of Detroit has been placed under Martial Law. No one is to be outside of their homes from seven p.m. to seven a.m. or you will be arrested.” My grandmother quickly got me and herself inside the door, watched the TV to see what was going on around town. The TV was showing people looting, they were running with all kinds of things. We watched firemen put out fires that were huge. Some fires were more than just one building on the street. Later I learned it was Twelfth Street that was burning so badly. I became more scared than I was at first because my family was in the middle of the chaos. Our house was on West Philadelphia between Woodrow Wilson and Twelfth Streets. That was like, maybe a few- five, six blocks from Clairmount. The rioting went on for a few days more. My dad told my grandma to put blankets up to the windows so that the light would not shine through. I was attending summer school that year. We could not go, because of the riot. So we rode our bikes up and down the block. There was an ice cream store at the end of the block, at Monterey and Linwood streets and a lot of soldiers were sitting on the grass near the corner and some were standing in line to buy ice cream. Some of these soldiers looked very nice and spoke to us. I’d never seen a soldier before and I was fascinated with them because they had rifles. I heard some grown ups talking about the soldiers, they called them National Guards. And someone said, “If those National Guards tell you to do something, you’d better do it or they will shoot you!” I rode my bike as fast as I could to my grandmother’s place to tell her what I had just heard. She laughed and said, “Don’t listen to everything you hear people say. Those soldiers are not going to shoot you, they are here to make sure we don't get hurt while all this rioting is going on.” Days passed and things somewhat got back to normal. I went back to my mom, dad, and brothers. On the way home, I could see a lot of buildings had burned, some were still smoldering. I smelled the scent of burnt bricks in the air. Nothing much was the same. There were a few stores still standing that had not been torched by fire. Some places had “soul brother” painted on them. When I got home, my brothers were telling me about everything that was going on while I was at Grandma’s. They told me all about the shooting that was going on around the house. We lived in a four family flat on Philadelphia and Woodrow Wilson Streets, right there on the corner. My baby brother told me that he and my dad were walking down the street and gunfire had broke out. He said, “Me and daddy were walking down the street going home and somebody fired a gun. The police told us to get inside but we were not yet at our house. Daddy picked me up and put me on his shoulders and then a National Guard shouted for us to go inside and fired a shot over our heads.” I was hearing all kinds of stories from friends and neighbors; I was a little sad I missed all the action but from what everyone was saying, I was better off at Grandma’s house. The National Guard stayed around for a few days more. They had been staying at Hutchins Junior High School, that is where we were going to summer school at the time. The soldiers left and we returned to summer school. My classmates and I could not stop talking about the events that happened in the last few weeks. We all shared our stories with one another. I was telling everybody about an incident I had heard about. I heard that a little girl was killed on West Philadelphia and Twelfth in an apartment building by either National Guard or police gun fire. They had shot through an apartment window. Because her brother was near the window, he was lighting a cigarette, and they fired through the window, killing her. The little girl that was killed was one of my classmates’ little sisters. We all felt very bad for our classmate. When she told us it was her little sister that had been shot, she began to cry. It took things a while to get back to normal. We all stopped talking about the riots and began to concentrate on passing the class. [rustling of papers] That’s all I have.
WW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me and sharing your story.
SS: You’re welcome.