Jesse Davis, November 29th, 2016


Jesse Davis, November 29th, 2016


In this interview, Mr. Davis discusses growing up in Detroit's close-knit Davison neighborhood and the effect the Chrysler Freeway had on the area. He was drafted into the military and was home on a two-day pass on July 23, 1967.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Oral History


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Jesse Davis

Brief Biography

Jesse Davis was born in Benham, Kentucky in 1944 and moved to Detroit when he was two years old. He had nine brothers and sisters and grew up in the Davison neighborhood. He served in the army for two years and still lives in Detroit.

Interviewer's Name

Celeste Goedert

Interview Place

Detroit, MI



Interview Length



Julie Vandenboom

Transcription Date



CG: So today is Tuesday, November 29, 2016. My name is Celeste Goedert and I'm here at the Detroit Historical Museum. This interview is for the Detroit 67 Oral History Project and today I'm sitting down with Jesse Davis. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.

JD: Mmkay.

CG: Can you start by telling me where and when you were born?

JD: Okay, I was born in 1944, on Mother's Day, May 14, in Benham, Kentucky. Coal-mining country.

CG: Okay. And -

JD: In the Appalachian Mountains.

CG: All right. What was it like growing up there?

JD: Well, my family - my father didn't want us to be in the coal mine. So there was ten of us - six brothers, four sisters - so he moved us to Detroit. I got here when I was two years old.

CG: Okay. So most of your memories -

JD: So most of my memories are the city of Detroit. And I was raised up on Davison, at the end of the underpass, you know, the first expressway in Detroit. It was a full neighborhood, you know. I can say it was integrated, you know, like - or segregated - they had different spots of the neighborhood - we had Hamtramck right there, a lot of Polish people, then on the other side of Joseph Campau a lot of white people, then our section, was separate - where the underpass start - it was a neighborhood called Davison - it was a lot of - full neighborhood - everything, three or four movie theaters in the neighborhood, grocery store, everything. Everything you needed was right there in the neighborhood.

This was before Chrysler Expressway came through. You know, then when they start building on the Chrysler Expressway kind of tore the neighborhood up. You know, a lot of people moved out, this and that. Even today we still - the old timers and stuff - because we learned a lot - there was a lot of black-owned business and stuff there, and they taught us a lot of stuff, you know, like - when my father died I was young. I was about six years old. When I was about eight, guys in the barber shop knew my father so they gave me a job there and stuff, you know. That was - you know - because they knew my mother had a lot of kids. [laughter] We had a large family, you know. Every little bit helps.

CG: So you were eight years old when you started working at the barber shop?

JD: Yeah.

CG: And what was that like?

JD: I wasn't doing too much. Sweeping up hair off the floor. Going to the store for people, stuff like that. But they taught me a lot, you know. Taught me a lot about life and stuff. Because they knew my father, so they took to me. They taught me how when I go to the store - that little change, don't give the change back. [laughter] Keep that in your pocket. Break the five dollars down into singles and stuff, so if they want to give you a tip, they'll give you a tip. They don't, they don't. So they taught me how to respect money and stuff, you know. They took their time teaching me little stuff, how you got to respect money and money will respect you. Always keep your job, do the best you can on your job and stuff.

I grew up with some - when I said, a lot of morals about life. And like a lot of the things I learned back then stick with me now. And then my mother, you know, she knew how to deal with all those kids she had. Lady of few words.

CG: You said there were ten of you?

JD: Beg pardon?

CG: There were ten of you?

JD: Ten of us. And then she - we had three cousins stay with us too, so we had a lot of people in the house. And then my older brothers and sisters going back and forth, they were in the military and stuff like that. So everybody helped out at the house and stuff. We was a close family, you know. Still is. Life wasn't that bad. We didn't have much but we didn't know that. We didn't know we was poor. [laughter] Everything's, you know, everything.

CG: Do you have any other memories of growing up in that area?

JD: Sure. You know, like, the area was a full area. We had recreation and stuff, before Motown and all like that, we had a recording studio, we had a baseball team, a football team, basketball team, swimming team, boxing team, all from this recreation - Elizabeth Recreation Center on Davison. Before the expressway came through there. So like - again, it was today, we have a luncheon once a year for the elementary schools and the junior high schools because everybody was close, everybody knew everybody, you know, from house to house, we all knew each other.

So Davison, Cleveland, and Washington. Cleveland was a junior high school, Davison and Washington was elementary schools. It was today – we have a luncheon once a year, you know, so all the old-timers and stuff get together. We also - that neighborhood today is depleted. A lot of vacant lots, this and that. But we get - we got a club, about two hundred of us and stuff. We get a picnic once a year. Four or five thousand people there at the picnic. We cut the grass at the vacant lots, have DJs out there, but the tents up, have horseback riding. These are the people from the old neighborhood, trying to teach the new ones how close we was. A lot of us still close, we're still good friends and stuff, and that's fifty, sixty years. But like, we just try to keep things going so the younger people - you know, there's more to life than at each other's throats

And then a lot of them that moved out of town, they come back in town just for the picnic or for the luncheon. They come back as far away as California, Colorado, different places. New York. Those people have moved out. They doing their things. Then we find out who's no longer with us and stuff - they read obituaries and stuff on the people in the neighborhood. Like I said, it was a close-knit neighborhood.

And then the expressway came through there and - Chrysler Expressway, 75, they kind of divided everything, scattered everybody out.

CG: Do you remember when that happened?

JD: Yeah. You know, it was before I went into the service. I went into the service when they drafted me, in 1967.

CG: They drafted you in 1967.

JD: Yeah. May 1. The same day Mohammed Ali posted - went to the draft. And we supposed to go to the same place, Fort Knox Kentucky. I was there, you know, but he didn't show up. [laughter] You know, they had started on the expressway when I left for the military. So it was in the middle Sixties, I guess, when they started the expressway. Then when I came back in '69, they still was working on it.

CG: Had you noticed how things had already changed at that point?

JD: Yeah. Started changing because they tore down a lot of the businesses and stuff, because they came straight down Davison. A lot of the black-owned businesses were no longer there, because - it was different. It was different. And before then, Detroit had - we had some millions of people in Detroit. We had a lot of stuff, that a lot of the young people could go to, like they had dance places and stuff, they had roller-skating rinks, they had all kinds of stuff. They had Belle Isle. Everything, you know. You could - life was okay.

And then things started changing. Especially like - okay. I went into the service in 1967. Okay, had basic training. And you asked me about the riot and stuff. I finished basic training, they gave us a 24-hour pass. We wasn't supposed to go but about a hundred miles, so I could have went to Louisville, Kentucky, this and that, but I had made a little money playing poker. And a friend of mine that I knew from Detroit, we both was from Detroit, we say, we can make it and get back in time. And so I pay for him and me. Plane ticket, to get to Detroit. We was going to come right back. Stay overnight, catch a flight out that morning, so we would be back.

CG: Was this in July?

JD: Yeah. In that 24-hour period, that weekend pass we had, we could have made it in time. But the people running us from the airport, they dropped us off on Twelfth, because I knew quite a few people on Twelfth and stuff, that was on Twelfth. We had our uniforms on. And then - in the evening, later on at night - we was enjoying ourselves, we went to a couple clubs, this and that - enjoying ourselves. And then chaos broke out on Twelfth and Clairmount. A lot of people was - police was - running these people out of this building. Somebody told me it was an after-hours place. They was arguing with the police, police trying to keep order and this and that. There was a couple police, so they call for some more police. So another car - police car - pulls up. And then this lady - because the police was manhandling her boyfriend or whatever it was - somebody seen it - she argued with the police, got up in his face, and he hit her with a flashlight.

CG: Where was this?

JD: On Twelfth and Clairmount.

CG: Do you remember where - which establishment you were at?

JD: Well, I was in the street, with the crowd then. Because the crowd had got big, because there was a lot of people coming out the after-hours place. And then cars of police was coming up, and they was - the crowd was unruly, the police got rougher. Like, they hit the girl with the flashlight - they hit the police. Throwing stuff at the police cars as they pulled up and stuff. But the crowd was so big. Chaos broke out. The crowd was big. That's when they started breaking windows and stuff and pawn shops and all kinds - clothing stores, everything. Because Twelfth Street was a full street. There was quite a few streets in Detroit had all kinds of stuff. They got to breaking windows and taking stuff out of the buildings and stuff. It got real rowdy and stuff. So me and my friend, I stayed a little bit too far. He stayed closer. He stayed in the projects, in Brewster Projects. So me and him left and went there. But so much trouble in Detroit had got to breaking out. Fires and all kinds of stuff, all parts of the city, so it was like a curfew, and I couldn't get from his house to my house. So I was stuck down there a couple days.

CG: And what street was your house on?

JD: On Fleming, right off of Davison. You know, like - I called my people and stuff. Let them know I was in Detroit. They wanted to come get me but it was so much stuff happening in Detroit. In the daytime, a couple days later, or a day later, my family came down and got me, because the curfew wasn't in the daytime, it was in the evening. And then like, stuff was all over the city. But so much stuff going on, the police let the people do what they wanted to do. So they was - it wasn't no race riot. It was like - people just getting stuff, breaking windows, furniture, TVs. It was everywhere, because the police be right there but wasn't doing anything, I guess they had orders not to do anything. And then it got so bad then the military came in.

CG: Were you still there when the National Guard was called in?

JD: I couldn't get out the city. I tried, man - my friend -

CG: You were stuck?

JD: Allan Trice, the friend of mine - was the next day, trying to get a flight out of there, but they had shut all that down. I couldn't get out of there. So I called my base in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and tried to tell my commander that I couldn't get out the city - "You got no business being there, that's over a hundred miles!" Said I'm sorry about that, but this is what the truth is, this is where I'm at. I let him know, so I knew I was in trouble, so he told me, said like, "What I want you to do is bring me some newspapers from Detroit." So that's what I'll do, bring some newspapers, as soon as I can get out of here.

It took me ten days to get out of Detroit. Before they opened up the airport, before they opened up the streets. I got back to Fort Knox, had three or four newspapers for him and stuff, let him know that this is where I was at. And then they had it on - they shut the city down, and all like that. So I didn't get in too much trouble and stuff, but I had to do a whole lot of extra work.

And then when I got back, Detroit was different, because they had burned down a lot of stuff.

CG: Just to go back really quickly - you were there just before everything broke out?

JD: When it broke out.

CG: Were you near the after-hours joint?

JD: I was right on the street, a couple blocks away, and hurried up to see what was going on down there. And was right outside the building where they was coming out, so I was right there. It was just - had been in the military, this was the first time I had got a pass - a weekend pass - and this is what I run into. But like before I went into the military, it was a lot of unrest in a lot of different cities, and Detroit got to feeling it too because we had - to be truthful, we had a police force that had - what they call it - STRESS -

CG: Or the Big Four.

JD: The Big Four. And they had a special force called STRESS. We called it STRESS, because they used to set a lot of people up, that wouldn't even be thinking about a crime. And come to the crime, and then - the way I believe, in the neighborhood, if they set you up and would kill you, or hurt you and put a weapon on you, you know. Because, like I witnessed this white guy going into this club, acting like he was drunk, flashing money, dropping money all on the floor, acting like he's unstable, then when he went outside, a couple guys, I guess they was going to rob him, when they went out there and confronted him - STRESS or the Big Four, they surrounded these guys, beat them pretty bad. So it was a lot of unrest.

CG: Do you remember what year that was? Around what time?

JD: Well, okay, I was in the military - I went to Fort - it was like in the early '68 because I was in New Jersey, came home on a weekend pass, went to this club. And I witnessed that. It was a club - kind of a little club, it was on Woodward and - Woodward and Collingwood, something like that. And then when we come outside to see what was going on, four, five police cars, unmarked - had the two guys, beating them. Because back then, slowly turning your head - what they call it, black power, everybody stuck together. So there was so much stuff happening, that wasn't right with the police and the communities and stuff. We stopped everything and gathered around. We wanted to know what they did, this and that. Don't be beating them and stuff like that. If they did something wrong, you ain't got to beat them like that. Lock them up but don't be beating them all out here in the street and stuff.

So there was a lot of unrest, not only in Detroit, a lot of other cities and stuff. When I was up in New Jersey, I'd go on leave, I’d go to Philadelphia, I'd go to New York, Boston, everything was right there near Fort Dix, New Jersey. You know, didn't take long to get to - there was a lot of unrest in a lot of big cities, you know.

I believe that's where a lot of stuff came from - Vietnam. Then the military - I was glad I was in the military because a lot of this stuff was going on and I didn’t have to be a part of. You know, when I went to Germany in '68, that's when Martin Luther King got killed. Even over in Germany was a whole lot of unrest and stuff. You know, in the military, black soldiers - and we didn't take it out on the white soldiers, but it was like the establishment, you know. Like something needed to be did. The only thing our people can do is black power. We stuck together. We wasn’t trying to do this and that. We just stuck together with each other. We're in this together, you know. And it was like that across the country. I was out of the country, but I had letters and you know, all kinds of stuff was going on, including in my neighborhood and stuff. That things had changed. In Detroit, all these burned out buildings, this and that, there was a lot of businesses got wiped out - the expressway wiped a lot of stuff out - but after the riot, a lot of business owners, they moved out of the city.

And then Coleman Young, when he got elected - he dismantled STRESS and all like that, because that's what the people wanted. They wanted the police to be from Detroit. Not the suburbs. So it was a lot of unrest in a lot of places. But to me, Detroit was never a race riot because the neighborhoods - we might have stayed in another neighborhood but we played sports together. I played basketball, I used to go down to Hamtramck and play basketball and stuff, with the guys, no problems. No problems. And we went to school together. No problems, no problems.

I could never say it was a race riot. Because to me, I didn't see it. It was just like - when that broke out, it was like - people just took stuff they thought they needed, or it was there so they took it. They had to break a window or run into a store, whatever, because there wasn't nobody there to stop them. The police - they was - until the military came in, and the military, they put their foot down. So they came in with some rules, with the curfew, with the set down, with everything. And I was glad I was in the military so I could get out of there as soon as they opened up the airport. And that's what I did. I was here ten days.

CG: Do you remember seeing the National Guard and the federal troops around?

JD: Yeah. It was everywhere. It was everywhere. And they - the word was, that they had just come from Vietnam, so they was combat-ready. You can hear some of the tanks, because they had tanks and everything. You could hear, every now and then, one of those tanks firing. And they were saying on the news and stuff it was snipers in the building. They evacuated the building, they got the snipers out, they let off a few rounds from those tanks and stuff. Then they had opened up Belle Isle - the people they were arresting and stuff, the jails were so full. They were just packing them all in Belle Isle. Like a camp or something. So I'm glad - right. A lot of stuff was going on those ten days I was here. My family wouldn't let me go out there.

CG: Did they mostly stay in the house?

JD: Well, in our neighborhood, because we knew everybody. And we even knew the police and everything. Because when I was younger, you're standing out, hanging out, the police tell you to go home, and then they come back, you're still there and stuff. They wouldn't take you to jail. They'll snatch you up, might slap you upside the head, but they take you home and throw you on your front porch because they was part of the neighborhood.

It's a lot different now. And then, that's why I was telling you earlier - it's a lot of unrest in the country now. I hope things don't get back like that, because everybody lose. Don't nobody win. So why should you tamper your own stuff? Because that's what they did. A lot of the businesses left Detroit, so Detroit been hurting a long time, so I'm glad it's coming back. Because I hadn't witnessed a lot of it - you know, for two, three million people down to seven thousand - that's a lot of people left here. And it hurt the city. But now, there's hope. There's hope, because people coming back - they're building and stuff. You can see some kind of hope, some kind of future for Detroit.

Always been the Motor City. Motown, Motor City and stuff. To me, like, I love Detroit. We put the world on the road. World War Two, we helped turn these assembly lines in. So we had a big hand in winning World War Two. Turning the assembly lines into making tanks and jeeps and stuff, airplanes and everything. The assembly line helped a whole lot of businesses, so I'm kind of proud that Detroit was the first one with the assembly line, the first one with the expressway. A lot of stuff. So Detroit has a lot of history. A lot of history.

CG: Could you talk a little more about - you said you came back in 1969. And you saw that your neighborhood had changed because the freeway had been built and changed things. Was the barbershop still there?

JD: Yeah. Not - not the one that I was raised in, but some of the barbers that worked there did open up their own shop. They had to move locations and stuff, what was still left there, like the service drive - the service drive. I was older, I was doing my own thing - I had worked in the factories, so I went back to the factory.

CG: Oh, you did work factory.

JD: Okay, I started when I was like 18 at the forging plant - that was General Motors. I worked there four years. And then I got drafted. I was trying to get out of the draft. And then back then they had unemployment offices at the plants. So I took a friend of mine over to the Chrysler plant on Jefferson, so he could fill out an application, so I got hired there too. So I was working at General Motors and Chrysler. And so, like, it was the wrong time for me to get drafted.

CG: You got drafted while you were working at GM.

JD: Right. They gave me a notice - okay, back then, they had the draft cards. And you know when it's getting close, because you'll start off with one number, like 4-F or whatever it is, but when you get down to 1-A, you know it's getting close for them to draft you. Because they had Vietnam War going, and didn't nobody want to go there, because we didn't even know where Vietnam was. And then we thought it was political. That was another unrest in the country. Because - the same - okay, they had it, so if you go into school, then college or something, you didn't have to get drafted. And if you had a felony, you couldn't get drafted. But if you weren't in school at a certain age, you're going to get drafted nine out of ten times. And to be truthful - I tried to get a felony. Because I didn't want to go to Vietnam. Because in our neighborhood, it was like - it seemed like - every eligible black guy there was drafted.

CG: You knew a lot of people in your own neighborhood.

JD: Yeah, they was getting drafted, so I tried to get out of the draft, because I'm working at General Motors and Chrysler. Got my own apartment, had a brand new car. Didn't want to get drafted, so I tried to get a felony. So me and this friend of mine, had a convertible car. We go to the Brookside Motel. He get a room, I get a room. He 1-A, he had a draft notice too. So we took down pictures, lamps, all kinds of stuff. Put it in the car, so it could be seen. He had the top down. So we sit and waited on the police.

And so when I went to court, I had one of those mammas went the court with me. Told the judge, “He ain't never got in trouble in his life. Always had a little job, since he was eight years old. He got drafted, that's why he did this. He didn't want to go in the military.” So the judge gave me a choice. Go in the military for two years, or go to jail for five years. So my mama made my mind up for me. "He's going in the military. All his brothers were in the military. He's going in the military." And that's - okay, my mamma has spoke. I can't go against her. Went into the military.

CG: Your older brothers had already gone?

JD: Yeah.

CG: Were you the youngest?

JD: Out of the boys, I had one younger brother. He's deceased now. I had one younger brother, younger than me. But all my older brothers, the four were already in service, or had been in service. Two in the Marines, one in the Air Force, one in the Army. So they drafted me in the Army.

CG: And so you - just to go back a little bit, can you describe a little more what things looked like when you came back in 1969?

JD: When I came back in '69, I stayed about a half block off the street - Fleming off of Davison. They had started building the expressway, and I had worked at the barbershop. That was gone. I had worked at a little small grocery store after the barbershop. That was gone. Cross Davison, across the street, I worked at the supermarket called the Twin Store. He hired people in the neighborhood, so there was about three of us teenagers that worked there. This is before I went to General Motors. That was gone. They were still building on the expressway, so all this was tore up. The recreation was gone. That we had all the sports activities at. Everything was gone. The black-owned businesses and stuff, they was gone, because there was about three cleaners there, they all was gone. Barbershops, grocery stores, black-owned businesses and stuff, all them was gone. The shoe shop. Everything. The pawn shops. Everything. The movie theaters, they was gone. And then - I look at it today - on Davison it just was an extenuation of the underpass, they used to call it. They didn't have to tear that down, but they was building the Chrysler Freeway and tore up the whole neighborhood that I was raised up in.

And so like, everybody had moved out and that's why we give those little things once a year, so - it's like our reunion. Neighborhood reunion, because we was that close. Everybody on the street, in every house, I knew everybody. Same with everybody. We knew everybody in every house. The neighbors - my mom would be at work, I know not to do stuff in front of my neighbors, because they're going to come out there and get me. It's like that's the way it was. You didn't have to lock your doors. You could sleep on your front porch. Wasn't anybody going to mess with you.

And then like - kids played together, we all knew each other. And then the schools and stuff. And then that was another thing in Detroit. Different neighborhoods had a lot of stuff. Boxing team, swimming team, baseball - we challenged each other. Get track meets and stuff. Different neighborhoods and stuff. And then like there wasn't no time for no trouble. We had stuff to do. We had to train, so we could beat them swimming, or beat them boxing, or beat them playing basketball. It would just be another neighborhood that we'd be playing, but everybody got involved. The kids and the parents and everything else.

When I came back, a lot of that stuff was changing. Because we had all those burned out buildings, tore up buildings, burned out houses, vacant lots. A lot of the businesses moved out and stuff, that would hire the young people, kept them busy and stuff. A lot of them sponsored us, made sure we had uniforms, just to challenge other neighborhoods. These was the businesses and stuff. All this was gone.

So I'm grown to it now. But the people that was coming up behind me, they didn't have what we had. So it's a big difference. It's a big change in Detroit. A lot of people moved out, got to moving into the suburbs, moving out of the state, you know. Just getting away. After '67. They slowly started - as soon as they was able, they got up out of here. That's why, for millions to a few hundred thousand. You can see part of it now - a lot of these buildings that was occupied with businesses and stuff, factories and stuff like that, they're just vacant.

And then a lot of big businesses left and left their debris. Left their garbage and stuff. Didn't clean up their area. Just left. Big difference.

CG: Do you still live in Detroit now?

JD: Yes. Yeah, I'd say on the north end. Down right off of John R. Down Woodward, right across the Boulevard, they're building all this stuff, so we the next neighborhood from where they're building the rail and stuff at. But me and my wife, we're neighborhood activists. My wife, she's the president of the block club and stuff. I used to be the treasurer but it was like a conflict of interest so I stepped back. I'm just my wife's supporter now. We've got committees and stuff. Have a lot of volunteers coming in. We clean up a lot of blight and stuff like this. And we help the senior citizens, we get their porches fixed, get them painted and stuff like that. We do a lot of stuff. At this church down on Woodward, 8000 Woodward, that's where we have our meetings and stuff, once a month. And we - third Wednesday of the month - six o'clock. We deal with the City Council. We deal with the city. We do what we can.

And then she knew how I was raised, so she knows it's in me, because I kind of get upset when I - but after I take a second look at it because a lot of people wasn't raised the way I was raised, didn't have the family that I had, because I had a large family and we all stuck together then, the neighborhood stuck together and stuff. When I see people don't want to stick together, don't want to work together, I get upset. So a lot of times in the meetings I have to be quiet, because I will say something, you know. But my wife, she handles it pretty good, she run a pretty good meeting, and she has the right people and stuff there. And then when we need dumpsters and stuff, she's got people she can call from the city and get dumpsters when we're cleaning up the blight and cleaning up the neighborhood and stuff.

Then we've got senior citizens and stuff - it works out. Just ain't a lot you can do, but every little bit helps.

CG: So have you lived in Detroit your whole life?

JD: Well, I did a lot of traveling in the military, and then when I got out, me and my wife traveled a lot when we first got married and stuff. Vacations and stuff. We went to California, San Francisco, Miami. A lot of places and stuff and then I got a lot of family - family reunions, we have them in different spots, so we still go places.

CG: So is your family, are some of them still in Detroit? Are you guys -

JD: Well yeah, basically my immediate family is in Detroit. I lost two brothers and a sister, so there's seven of us. We all stay in Detroit. We keep in contact with each other and stuff.

CG: Then just to go back, you said - you said, it definitely wasn't a race riot. But I know some other people will call it the "uprising" or the "rebellion." Do you -

JD: It was like a rebellion. But I don't know if it would have started - but it was like a ticking time bomb. When that happened on Twelfth and Clairmount, it was like it lit the fuse. And then just spread it, because once they start knocking out windows and taking stuff, it's like somebody had poured gasoline on the fire. It just spread it. But it went on -  because every nationality in Detroit, out there taking stuff because it was there. And then - I said it was like a rebellion against the establishment. And then I guess they joined the other part of the country because a lot of stuff was going on in different cities and stuff. And they might have been race riots - I don't know. Because I couldn't see it in Detroit. We had a lot of different nationalities in Detroit, but we all worked together.

I look back at it now. When I was growing up and stuff I played basketball with Davey Bush and Rockets Coach Tomjanovich and stuff. And they stayed in Hamtramck. Let's go down there and play ball with them and stuff. All kinds of stuff, like play football together, be on the same teams and stuff. A couple blocks, I want to be on y'all team. Yeah, you can play, we want you on the team. The only thing we wanted to do, could they play, you know. Yeah, you're on our team. A lot of - you know - a lot of stuff you can do. But like now, it ain't that - there's stuff out there but it ain't like it used to be. We had pool rooms, we had all kinds of sports, all kinds of everything. But people - something for somebody to do at all times.

Now they ain't got - they going to get in trouble. They have a attitude. We didn't have no attitude. I, how do you say it, idle time is the devil's workshop, you know. You got to - these kids, coming up, you've got to keep them busy and stuff. You got to keep them something to do. If you don't give them something to do, they going to find something to do.

And the same way with grown folks. They need something to do. Keep their mind occupied. Otherwise you end up doing the wrong thing. But if you're doing some of the things you're supposed to be doing, okay - but then, you know - ever since the day I worked in all these factories - but I've been taught a lot of stuff. I've got a lot of trades and stuff. That I learned when I was a kid. I learned landscaping from my mother because she knows the way, all us ten in the house, she wanted the house straight. So I worked with her with planting flowers and this and that. But she wanted it like a picture. They used to call our house - all us stayed in there - called our house "the doll house," because we had the little picket fence and stuff, you know. Wasn't no grass growing between the sidewalk. Line up perfectly straight because if it wasn't, she's going to make us do it over again. She was the kind of mom and stuff like, me and my brother arguing and stuff, she'd just walk past and say "Okay. The one with the most sense, shut up." Keep on walking, keep on walking. We'd be looking at each other. She'd know how to deal with all of us, with very few words because we'd know she was serious. And then we'd have stuff right. I learned how to make a bed up from my mama. Because she made me make it up about ten times, until I got the corners tucked in right, with the forty-five degree angle at the ends. All kinds of stuff.

So when I got into the military, I already knew how to make a bed up. And I do it now, because I been raised this way. Okay, we spoil a lot of kids, our next generation, because we got in those factories and was making money. Pretty good money. See, back then, we had to earn everything, what we had to do. We had to earn it. But we want our kids to have more than what we got, so we gave them. They didn't have to earn it. But we didn't know they wasn't learning nothing because you're just giving them. Back then you had to earn everything that you did. And you had to do it right. It was like we call "old school." There's a big difference in attitudes and stuff now, because a lot of kids got spoiled. They didn't have to do nothing. But then you look at some of them now, they don't know nothing, neither.

But then, I had like uncles and stuff, taught me home improvement. Learned landscaping from my mama because they used to take me to work with them when I was a little kid. "Pass me this, pass me that," but I was learning what tools was. A Phillips from a flat-head screwdriver, stuff like that. I know landscaping, I know home improvement, I know a whole lot of stuff. So they - I used to hate to go but they used to tell me like "We're trying to teach you something so you ain't got to go look for a job. People are going to look for you." You know, because my uncle, he had all kinds of licenses. When he died, he had an accident in his car coming from school, learning some code on electrical work.

I know electrical work, I know welding, I know brick work because he knew all of this stuff, and he taught me. And then when I went and stayed with grandfather in Alabama, he built houses. So I've been blessed, and had the right people in my life. Although my father died when I was young. I had a large family, my grandfather, my uncles and stuff. And then we taught each other stuff. It was in my family - I used my GI Bill for tailoring, because I took up tailoring in high school. You know, so I used to make a lot of my own clothes, until me and a couple other guys opened up a little business and stuff. But after we split our money up, went four different ways, then had to pay bills and stuff, sometime I didn't get paid. So when I got a chance to go back in the factory I went back in the factory. But I know how to do that too. Anything with a pattern and stuff, I know what to do.

So folks back then - attended high school, I learned how to read blueprints in junior high school.

CG: Which school was that?

JD: That was Cleveland Junior High School on Conant and Davison.

CG: And which elementary?

JD: Elementary, I went to Davison Elementary on Joseph Campau and Davison. We had everything in our neighborhood. They used to call it "drafting" in junior high school, cause they -

Okay, another thing I see in Detroit, we had a lot of trade schools in Detroit back in the day. You get in trouble in school, instead of kicking you out, they'll send you to Jacoby. We used to call it Jacoby College. It was an all-boys school. But they'd teach you trades, or they'd send you to mow. Or Washington Trade, they taught auto mechanics. They didn't send you to Juvenile or lock you up because you got in trouble in school, or kick you out of school and you're idle that year. They made you go to these special schools. They was hard on you, but when you come out of them, because the teachers get on your case, but now it's against the law for teachers to chastise a kid. Sometimes you have to when you're teaching.

So there's a lot of things have changed. They think you're doing - they think they're doing society good by taking some of the rules, but a lot of those old rules worked. It's a big difference.

CG: Definitely. So just to wrap it up and to go back a little bit, what you were saying before, you said you do have hope for the city moving forward? But you also were talking about how you don't want to see things that happened in '67 repeated.

JD: The reason why I said I don't want to see that, because in different parts, in different cities, in different - you know, like there's a lot of unrest with young people and the police. And that's the way it started before. A lot of unrest in different spots. You don't want all of this connected, because it's like a bomb with a fuse, and sometimes it don't take much to light it. You can see now that a lot of the stuff that happened back then to lead up to some of those riots in the cities and stuff, is getting close to it now. They ain't looking at the whole picture so it don't take much for - they might not even know the fact, of what happened, but it's something - there they go again and they're all out there again. And what they're protesting about, they might be on the wrong wavelength. They might be wrong. That all of this was justified for this to happen, but you just don't agree with it. And so -

CG: Which protests are you thinking about?

JD: Okay. Okay. The one that comes to mind is Black Lives Matter. Black lives do matter. All lives matter. But some of these young people, they're ready to protest, they're ready to join the crowd, and don't know what they're protesting about. And some of them, they're justified on doing it, but some of them, if they was to know the facts, they wouldn't be out there. But they're so uptight, it don't take but a little bit, they jump to conclusions. Instead of learning what they're protesting about.

This situation might not be the same as this other situation. It might be a different situation. Know what I'm saying? I might not be explaining it right, but I'm trying to say it the way I feel about it because all lives matter. But there's a whole lot of other times the police be wrong. But it's a whole other time, they be right because this is their job. And they're doing their job appropriately. But there's a lot of them don't do their job appropriately because sometime, in the police’s head, their culture might be different than where they're patrolling at. Might be a different race or different financial situation, or whatever it is, and they ain't understanding what's happening there.

Okay, for instance, the security guard that killed Trayvon, because he had a hoodie on, you know. All kids with a hoodie on ain't bad. So, only thing I'm going to say is back in the day, we had some leaders of people that talked to people in masses. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, he wasn’t all the way right, but he was still - people listened to him. There's still leaders out there but they, a lot of them ain't listening to them. We had Obama. And then Trump won because people don't trust the government, they don't - they don't trust nothing no more.

The country morals, it ain't the same. So we need real educated people that can communicate with people, then understand it, and put it out there in layman's terms so people can understand. And sit back. Because we're all in this together whether we believe it or not. We're in this together. This is our country, this is where we live. And then I look back the way it used to be. Christmastime, Hudson's downtown. It was like a party, you know. Everybody enjoying themself. You go on down to Hudson's. Eat lunch and stuff at Kresge's, like that. It's the attitude. It's different. And you can't blame people, because just like yesterday, day before, Ohio State, at the college because a person mad, he's going to take it out on some people that got nothing to do with this.

And there's a lot of them out there, because I don't believe there's a lot of terrorists in this country. Most of the time it be an individual with an attitude, and they take it out on people.

CG: Just to wrap it up, did you want to share any last thoughts on the future of Detroit?

JD: Well, not really, but I'm looking at Detroit. You can see a lot of hope.

CG: You're hopeful.

JD: Yeah. You know, the housing thing is coming back and stuff. People moving back into the city and stuff. They building the city up and stuff. Then the Pistons coming downtown, you know, and I'm a basketball fan. So there's a lot of hope for the city, you know, and you can see it, and I feel good about it. And then like, I don't care what nationality is. We need more people in the city with more stuff to do. People need people. Whether they believe it or not. Because I believe, how they say it, because I was a substance abuse counselor and I used to talk to people and stuff. God works through people so you need people. Because a lot of times, you be all bent out of shape, this and that, and you look up, the right person will come right there. Because God will send them.

So you have to have a balance in your life. Life ain't that hard. A lot of people just try to go through it without thinking. First they go to know who they is. Their dos and their don'ts and stuff. And treat - I used to have rules and stuff - they say, how you do this? It spells it out, how. H: Be honest, be truthful to yourself. Be honest with other people. The O: be open-minded, because a closed mind can't learn nothing. And that W: Be willing. Be willing to go to any lengths. Education, or whatever it is that you need, be willing to do it. And then add three more things to it. Talk to people the way you want to be talked to. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Give respect, then you can demand respect. If you forget any of those you're in trouble. You need them all. So you need people and stuff. So that's about the only thing I can add to it. But the city got a lot of hope. It's coming. You can see it.

So only - and then like we don't have the problems that a lot of cities have, because I believe the police is working with the public. Working with the people. I used to coach Little League football a few years ago, and we dealt with the police. In the PAL unit, there's a lot of police involved in that, a lot of these Little Leagues. So Detroit is okay.

CG: Well thank you so much for sitting down with me.

JD: Okay.

Original Format



1hr 5min


Celeste Goedert


Jesse Davis


Detroit, MI




“Jesse Davis, November 29th, 2016,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed April 12, 2024,

Output Formats