Dr. Martin Levinson, June 26th, 2015


Dr. Martin Levinson, June 26th, 2015


Detroit Public Schools--Detroit--Michigan, 1967 riot, Detroit—Michigan Jewish community


In this interview, Marty Levinson discusses his experience at his parents' tailoring business, which moved from Detroit to Oak Park. As a Jewish boy at the time, he describes his relationships with African Americans in school and the way neighborhoods were changing at the time.


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Martin Levinson

Brief Biography

Marty Levinson was born February 22, 1952 and grew up in Northwest Detroit and Southfield, MI where he lived during the 1967 disturbance. Levinson has worked as a pediatrician in Bingham Farms, MI for thirty-five years. He identifies as Jewish and currently lives in Huntington Woods, MI.

Interviewer's Name

Lillian Wilson

Interview Place

Royal Oak, MI



Interview Length



Alaina Kimmerer


LW: Today is June 26, 2015. This is the interview of Dr. Marty Levinson by Lily Wilson. We are in Royal Oak, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Marty, can you start by telling me where and when you were born?

ML: Sure. I was born in Detroit 1952, February, so that puts me at age 15 during the time period we're discussing.

LW: Okay. And who were your parents and what did they do for a living?

ML: My parents were Louie and Rosa Levinson. They were refugees from World War II and they came to Detroit in 1947, and they made a home here. I grew up here along with my two brothers. They ran a business. They had a business in Oak Park, which will come out in the story.

LW: Okay. Where did you live in July of 1967?

ML: We moved in December of ’64 from Detroit – from Northwest Detroit to near Mumford High School. So we lived in Southfield near Nine Mile and Evergreen. During that time I was already living in Southfield and my parents had a store that was on Coolidge in Oak Park, just south of Nine Mile.

LW: What was the reason that you understood, around age 15, for your family moving from Detroit to Oak Park?

ML: Oh, that's an interesting question. I mean it was clear that people were moving out. There was no question there was a big change. I didn't – I was sort of an airhead kind of kid when we moved, in terms of understanding anything. I knew that there were a lot of blacks moving into the neighborhood and a lot of whites moving out of the neighborhood. By the time we moved, I would say my school was probably about fifty-fifty or maybe slightly less, in terms of white versus black. So, I didn't understand what that meant as far as why we moved, but I knew that that was somehow behind the reason.

LW: What do you remember about when your school was integrated? What do you remember about the relationship between black and white students there?

ML: So, when the first black students showed up, it was clear that they stood out, and notice was made that they were the first black students. I mean, the fact that I can remember, by name, the first three black students who moved to my school says that it was a big deal because I wouldn't be able to tell you who were the white students that moved into the school while I was there. There was definitely some negativity. There were kids who would overtly make comments about the black kids and they were usually negative comments. I'm sure that this was something picked up through their parents. I don’t think they were intrinsically racist at the time, but they obviously heard it someplace. It's interesting in my family that my parents often spoke Yiddish, which we as kids understood but didn't speak. But the word in Yiddish for black is “shvartz,” like “Schwartz,” and a black person was known by that in Yiddish as “schwartza,” which developed the pejorative meaning, but it wasn't in our life because when you spoke in Yiddish and you said “a black person,” just like I just now said “a black person,” you would use that word “schwartza” and it was not used in a pejorative way but Americans who did not speak Yiddish, it was a term among Jewish Americans to use in a pejorative way. So, it was confusing to me as a child because I thought that was a normal way of calling a black person “black” and then I had to learn that publicly that was not how you speak. And it's interesting that even when I started dating Elise, my wife, who grew up in Detroit all the way through high school, and I would just use it in passing in a very – to me – innocent way, she would get very upset and angry with me because she thought I was putting down a person when I would – in my mind – I was being descriptive and in her mind I was being racist.

LW: Tell me a little bit more about your house growing up and how your parents dealt with subjects of race. Did they ever talk about black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish? Did they ever talk about those things?

ML: I grew up in an unusual household because my grandparents lived in the same house with us the entire time. My mother was an only child; my dad was the only survivor from a very large family from Poland. The rest of his family perished in World War II, so I didn't have any cousins, uncles or aunts, but we had a big extended family and most of my parents' friends were fellow refugees. A lot of them were Holocaust survivors. And I grew up knowing everybody's story and knew who was in a camp and knew who was in the Freedom Fighters in the forest, and I knew these stories about my parents' friends. So, having been a minority that was clearly picked on, I think my parents were pretty sensitive to that. My first girlfriend, if you can call it that, in sixth grade – excuse me, in first grade – there was a girl that I was friends with and she was black. And I don't even know that I noted it, to be honest with you. I think I noted that there was a difference but there was no discussion about it. My parents had no problem me being in first grade going over to her family's house or her coming over to us, but I do remember my older brother being very upset. And he asked me if I intended to marry her. He was three years older than I was, and I said to him, “I don't know. I might.” And his response was very interesting. He said, “Well, what about your children? Are they going tp be Jewish?” And I said, “Of course!” [laugher] And he said, “No, that's not the case.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Because she's black.” And I said, “Yeah, so?” And he goes, “She's not Jewish.” And my response was, “You're kidding,” because I thought I lived in a Jewish neighborhood—

LW: And everybody was Jewish.

ML: And everybody was Jewish. And it was striking that that was not an issue to him whether she was black or not, he wanted to know whether our kids were going to be Jewish. Now, to be real particular about this, she was very light-skinned black, but it was a black family, because I went to their house for meals and things like that.

LW: What do you remember about going to their house for meals?

ML: Just like any other kid that I went to at that time. Other than the fact that it was a girl as opposed to a guy, being most of my friends were guys, but this in particular was a girl. You know, we didn't do any hand holding or kissing in first grade. But it was clearly – you know, it was different because she was a girl, but I honestly can't remember that I noticed anything different about going to her house than to anyone else's house.

LW: Now, you're a pediatrician.

ML: Yes.

LW: What is your understanding of how children – or what can you sort of shed light on about how children's – when do they start to make that differentiation between race and gender and things like that?

ML: Well obviously in my case, later than usual. I think it's very dependent on their family philosophy. I think kids pick up things from their parents. When it comes to politics, you know, kids don't come up with their own politics. It's very rare that that happens, although I do have a 14-year-old patient who decided that he's a communist and he wants to move to Russia. But that's the exception, not the rule. I think you pick up the cues from your environment. Initially you pick them up at home. You obviously have a broader environment at your school and you pick up things at school, so I do not feel that my parents had racist tendencies. My dad employed a number of black people in his store – he had a tailor shop – and growing up one of the tailors was black. I don't know that I ever noted that he was treated any differently from the others. Now, one of the jobs in the store was a lower-level job that was pressing clothes. And I remember noting with my brother that all the pressers that we had happened to be black. It's something that we just noted that we never had a white presser; we had white tailors, we had black tailors, we only had black pressers. On the other hand, when my older brother, at one point at school, he was asked to write something about  what he wants to be when he grows up and he said, “Either a doctor or a presser.” That obviously didn't bother him – the racial component.

LW: So he didn't see the limits – he didn't see race or gender being a limit on the type of –

ML: Not at that time. I don't know how old he was at that particular time. I think the fact that in first grade I did not notate a difference between this black family and our family being white is – I think that's more me being unaware of the environment around me. I think that's sort of how I was.

LW: Do you think –

ML: Most kids by that age – by age six or seven – are going to have an understanding that there's differences in races. And religion, too, again, I thought everybody in my neighborhood was Jewish and I assumed that of all the white people in my neighborhood and I'm sure that's not true as well.

LW: So tell me more about the tailor shop that your dad owned. What was the name of it?

ML: It was called Radom Tailors and then later on it extended into a clothing store. It started in Detroit. It was on Dexter and Burlingame. It was walking distance from the house I grew up in – my first house. Not the one near Mumford, but in the Dexter-Davison area. It was just across the street, down the block from the Dexter Theater, which was a movie theater that everybody knew where it was. So, we moved when I was in second grade from there to the Mumford area. Now an interesting thing I learned many years later that I had no idea is we did move because the neighborhood was suddenly changing very quickly at that time, which I was totally unaware of. But, it was interesting now to me as an adult that I found out we moved from a larger to a smaller house. And I said to my parents, “That doesn't make sense. It makes sense that if you would move you would move to a bigger house.” And they said the neighborhood was changing so fast that they felt they needed to move and that was what was available. Now I didn't learn that 'til I was a young adult and it sort of blew me away, but it was interesting. So, their store was a fixture in the Oak Park community. Most people knew the store. My dad was a quadriplegic from the time I was two-and-a-half years old. He had a diving accident here, after he came to the United States in 1954, but he continued to run the business as a quadriplegic, so it was pretty outstanding and people knew – if they didn't remember the name of the store – if I told someone about us I said, “My dad who runs the store is in a wheelchair,” then everybody said, “Oh yeah, I know that store.” And because – well that was our family business. My grandfather was Radom, that was his name—my mother’s maiden name. My mother worked in the store after my dad's accident full time. So, it was a family business. My brothers and I worked there growing up, we knew people in the neighborhood. My younger brother, who was a physician, we often talked about the old days when we worked in the store and he would – where I see kids, he sees adults and elderly patients – he'll say, “Oh, you know who I saw last month? I saw Mr. Goldberg that used to come into the store.” And I would say, “Which one? The 42-short or the 44-long?” [Laughter] And we would remember that stuff because I worked in the store from the time I was maybe 11, 12 years old.

LW: So the store moved from Detroit to Oak Park when your family moved?

ML: It moved before we moved.

LW: Okay.

ML: It moved in the – sometime in the late fifties.

LW: Okay. And do you think that your parents made the decision to move the store because of changes that they saw in the neighborhood that early, or was it just economical?

ML: I think it was economic and I think their clientele that they catered to were moving, so they were moving to keep up to where their customers were going.

LW: I see. So tell me a little bit more about the types of people that worked in your parents' store and shop, and if your parents ever—maybe not at the time because you were young, but later on told you about any difficulties or any challenges that they encountered, whether it be because they were Jewish and a minority or whether it be because they were hiring black people who were a minority?

ML: So, most of the tailors were not American; they were European because it was a trade that was learned and it wasn't a trade that was particularly nourished here in the United States. They had one black tailor, as I mentioned. I remember him very well. I can picture him. We used to sit and have conversations when I was a kid working in the store. Most of the tailors were actually from Poland. It just worked out that way. That's who – we had a Hungarian tailor. In terms of clerks and sales people, we had all kinds. We had Jewish; we had non-Jewish. I don't recall that we had any black sales people, and I don't know if that was a purposeful decision of any concern about effect on clientele or not – I, uh, I just can't say. I just don't know. But the store ran very nicely and I think people had good relationships. It was very unusual to have friction within the store itself; it ran pretty smoothly. And as a kid coming in as soon as I started to drive I'd come in and open the store myself. People knew me and trusted me, and of course as a kid I'd be able to go for a run out to the bakery down the street to get some snacks, for coffee, for the people, but we had a nice relationship. The tailors taught me how to use a sewing machine, so as a kid I used to just sew for fun. So that was pretty neat. Was there another part to your question?

LW: Well, I was just wondering if you – about certain dynamic –

ML: Oh, yeah. So then I will mention a couple of other things. The only time we had difficulty with an employee was a young man – to me he was an adult, but he was a young man. He happened to be Jewish and he worked as a salesman and he was a very effective salesman. He was a schmoozer and was really good. But it turned out – I found out later that he'd had a history – he had done some jail time. My parents knew this and they hired him. It turned out that one time we were out as a family to – we went to Meadow Brook. We had a family in from out of town. We took them to Meadow Brook and we came home and our house had been broken into. And there was a small window leading to the basement that had been broken, but we found out retrospectively that the window was just, you know, to make it look like it was broken into; it was too small of an area for somebody to really climb through and it was this man who was the salesman who made a copy of the key and didn't do the robbery himself, but he set it up and he was part of it. He ended up disappearing and never showed up again. And that's what the police finally told us that they caught him and he was doing other things and he ended up back in jail. We had another tailor that was a young, white man who I knew had just done jail time and he actually learned how to be a tailor in jail. He was working and my parents hired him, so I found it interesting that my parents were willing to give this guy a chance and he worked successfully except for one thing – when he was trained to be a tailor in jail, he was only trained to do certain things – to not do everything. He'd thumb by pieces, so he – I remember worked on sleeves and few other things, but he couldn't do all the tailoring that was necessary, so we had to parcel it out as far as what he did. And I asked my dad about it, he says, “That's just how they did it in Europe.” You were trained initially as a kid. You were apprenticed to a tailor and you learned the trade completely and totally, and even watching how he worked with his hands compared to the other European tailors, I could see was not the same finesse. He was a nice guy. I asked him why he was in jail and it was for passing bad checks – not passing bad checks, but counterfeiting checks. I don't remember when he stopped working and why, but it was never because of a problem. And I was actually pretty impressed as a kid with my parents who were willing to hire a guy that they knew was a convict – ex-convict.

LW: So lots of diversity in a few different ways at your parents' store.

ML: Right.

LW: Why do you think that they took these chances when other people might not have?

ML: Well, listen. They came here with nothing. My grandfather had a trade. My dad was not the tailor, but he got a job in a factory before he even spoke English. They did whatever they could do to get by, so they – it was not that far distant in their past to see that you – that people need help. That people need to be willing to hire – just like people were willing to hire them without the language. My mother worked in a bakery. It was her first job. The first day she quit because at the end of the day they told her to sweep the floors. She grew up in Kiev, in a big city in Russia, in a cultural city and she thought that was beneath her. And she said, “I don't sweep.” And she quit. Of course, later on she came back and apologized and took the job and decided she could sweep. But that was just her mindset. But I think that they – as being underdogs – I think that they really had no problem going out of their way to give people a chance.

LW: What do you remember about your conversations with the black tailor that they had? Anything in particular?

ML: The biggest thing I remember that had an impact on me is that he was the victim of a gunfire incident. He was shot. And I don't know what the circumstances were. He lived in Detroit. I remember he lived on Tuxedo. I don't know why I remember that, but that's the street. And I remember we went to visit him at his home when he was in bed recovering from this gunshot injury. I don't remember – I'm sure that I asked him what happened because of, you know, curious kid, but I don't think I felt any different towards him than the other people. I remember that there were differences in how people were paid. This just came to mind. He, in particular, was paid by the piece. In other words, whatever work he did he kept track of it and he was paid a certain amount for each job he did. Other tailors were paid by the hour. And I remember asking my dad why this was, and he said he gives people the choice and they decide. So it had nothing to do with a racial consideration. He rather – he chose to keep track of what he did and get paid per job, and other people just would take hourly and that's what they chose to do.

LW: Why do you think that he would have chosen that?

ML: That's an interesting question. I honestly have no idea. I'm just guessing he figured that this way he could be assured of being paid for his work. If it got slow in the summertime I guess he would – summertime is usually when things got slow in the store – he might take off some more time. But this way if things got really busy and he was pushed to work harder, he would get paid more. I think that was what was comfortable for him, but I'd be speculating to tell you if I had any more feel for it than that.

LW: So you went to his house on Tuxedo and visited. What was the cross street? Do you remember?

ML: No. I just remember it was on Tuxedo. I remember it was funny because my dad rented tuxedos at the store.

LW: Sure. The name is interesting.

ML: Yeah, tuxedo. But I remember going to his house and I met his family and his kids. I remember his son's name and what he looked like. I mean, it's not like we socialized together, but we were very comfortable going and paying him a visit with our whole family as opposed to – we didn't see him in the hospital. We didn't do that. I don't know if my parents did or not, to be honest with you. But there was no level of anxiety or discomfort for me to travel to go to his home.

LW: What was his name?

ML: His name was Baron. I don't remember his last name. And his son was Baron, Jr., easy to remember.

LW: Did you ever find out from your parents or Baron later on about how he got injured?

ML: I don't have any memories, so I'm sure that I would have asked and I heard a story, but I'm not sure that I was given, you know, as a kid, the full story either, so…

LW: Interesting.

ML: I think I just dropped it at that point.

LW: Where was he shot? Do you remember that?

ML: In his neighborhood.

LW: Okay, so it was somewhere – 

ML: So I knew that it was in his neighborhood, but I don't remember if it was a break-in or it was a drive-by or whatever it was, I mean I'm sure I didn't know the term “drive-by” at that time. So, I just don't know. He was not doing anything. He was a victim. He was not doing anything inappropriate. And he came back to work after he was better.

LW: So, when your family moved to Oak Park –

ML: We moved to Southfield. The store went to Oak Park and we moved to Southfield.

LW: Okay, got it. Tell me about what your school was like there. You had come from this school that was racially integrated, fifty-fifty by the time you left, right? You were about 15, so sophomore in high school?

ML: No. By the time we moved, I was 12.

LW: Oh! Okay.

ML: Almost 13.

LW: So, the school in Southfield – tell me about the racial breakdown of that.

ML: At that time we had no – it was all white. We had no black students in my middle school. When I went to high school, we had a couple black students. It was actually a set of twins. It was interesting to me that I had gone into – got to seventh grade and seventh grade I went to a new school. This was in Detroit. So, it was a lot of new people and it was very difficult. It was a very challenging school. I had a B average in that school, working as hard as I could. We moved to the suburbs and I don't think I got anything less than an A for at least the first few years. I found it much easier.

LW: Interesting.

ML: Yeah, I think looking back it's interesting, too, that the being in the racially integrated school, it was more academically challenging than when I moved to the suburbs.

LW: What school was that?

ML: I went to Bagley Elementary School and this was called Hampton. And Hampton was one block east of Livernois, near Curtis. I would either walk or take a city bus to school.

LW: Before you moved to Southfield from Detroit, do you remember any of the changes that you mentioned your parents had attributed the move to and the way the neighborhood was changing. Do you remember any specific incidents, looking back, that you think is apparent now you might understand your parents' desire to move?

ML: It clearly was obvious to me that there were lots of black families moving in to the neighborhood and white families were leaving the neighborhood. In terms of my comfort level, I think I felt a certain level of discomfort not being in the majority anymore. I'm not sure if it was just that fact of not being in the majority as opposed to the cultural differences. I mean, there were troublemakers in the white kids; there were troublemakers in the black kids. As a rule, the black kids—now it's going to come off wrong, but I think they were given more freedom from their parents in terms of where they would go and they were a little bit quicker to get angry as a rule, I might say. But, you know, it's not universal because I noticed – in other words, I never got into a fight. I never had a physical fight with anyone, but I noticed – my recollection is that tempers would get out of control quicker with the black kids in general. I remember feeling very badly for the first two or three who moved into the neighborhood who were clearly made fun of. They were not made fun of to their face, that I recall, but I knew that people were making fun of them, and that was uncomfortable for me. But, clearly, I think that my parents felt that as the neighborhood continued to change, the value of their house was going to go down, so they would be able to economically recoup less for it. Then eventually they were going to move because, frankly, all their friends had moved into other neighborhoods, so you do tend to follow your people and your friends as well. We weren't the first to move out, so we clearly weren't running, but I can see as an adult that if I felt that my house was losing value, if I would anticipate that the level of schools might be going down, that that would make me interested in seeing, “Ok what should I be doing right now?”

LW: And did you notice — can you think back to any times, or did your parents later tell you about any times where safety might have been an issue?

ML: I do not recall any safety issues.

LW: So it was just the shift in the economics and all of that?

ML: And just people moving out and wanting to be around where all their circle of friends were living.

LW: So, when you got to high school in Southfield, when you were there, how was that – you said that it was a majority white—what was that experience like for you in terms of being a teenager and starting school, and going from a racially integrated to a —you said it was less academically challenging, but how was it socially?

ML: I frankly didn't — I mean, other than the fact that I knew that I was now in an all-white school, I don't know that I felt differently. I was not uncomfortable in my other school, but, clearly, there was an intrinsic level of comfort being an all-white school.

LW: Okay. Interesting.

ML: The first black kids that came to our school – this was Southfield High School – were clearly wealthier black kids. My impression was they were wealthier than my family based on what they did and their clothing, et cetera. I knew them. I was not particular friends with them. I didn't avoid being friends with them. I don't think I ever had a class with them, so I think if I had a class with them I might have become more friends with them. I remember when the school did a program about Martin Luther King and someone was chosen to read the speech. You know, the “I Have a Dream” speech. Well, duh, I mean it was one of the black kids because there were three of them. That was the logical thing to do and I didn't particularly think that that was wrong. I thought that made sense [laughter].

LW: When you would go – did you go back to Detroit at all – whether for sporting events, or restaurants, or fun things, family things, whatever – after you guys moved out? After your family moved to Southfield?

ML: Sure, we would go into town.

LW: What was that experience like after 1967?

ML: Clearly there was the obvious difference of going into a—I'm quoting now— “black neighborhood.” We would go to Tiger Stadium to go to games and we would park in neighborhoods around there. I remember a particular incident where probably a ten-year-old black boy came up to me after I parked the car, legally on the street, and he said he'd offer to watch the car for me and wanted to get paid for it. I remember telling him no and remember him looking at me and saying, “I can't guarantee your car will still be here when you come back.” He's probably about a ten-year-old kid and I was probably in my twenties and I just remember looking at him and saying, “Okay. I know what you look like and I'm going to remember what you look like and I expect my car to be here.” I wondered throughout the game, but the car was fine, no problem, but that was an interesting experience that I had. I guess I had a little bit of discomfort related to that. But otherwise, I didn't avoid going into the city. We went to concerts. We went down to Cobo Hall. We didn't go downtown. I mean when I was a kid we would take—me and my brother —would take the bus downtown and hang out downtown and then take the bus back. By this time, that we had moved out, I don't think I would ever had been comfortable enough to take the bus downtown. Or I didn't really know my way around all that well by myself. Again, I was going with my older brother, three years older, so I don't know that I would have gone totally by myself when I did go, but I don't think—when I think about would I let my kids take a bus – from here there's a bus a block away. It goes down into the city. I don't think I would have ever been comfortable. I don't know if it was a racial issue or just that they have no clue where they're going or where they are, I didn't think they were worldly enough to be able to handle themselves. I imagine there's some racial-based worry about that.

LW: What year was it that your family moved to Southfield again?

ML: In December ‘64.

LW: So you were watching, I assume, coverage or radio, TV coverage, of July of 1967 and what was going on?

ML: Right.

LW: What was your reaction as a teenager at that time to this news?

ML: It was actually sort of exciting. You know? For Detroit to be in the news. My first exposure to it was actually the Sunday night.

LW: Okay. Tell me about what you were doing.

ML: We went to dinner at a restaurant called Darby's.

LW: Who were you with?

ML: My family. We just went to Sunday night dinner. We often went out Sunday night for dinner. That was our family tradition. Darby's was on 7 Mile Road near Wyoming. We had gone there quite often. We were there and they served us part of the meal and I just remember looking around and noting that none of the black staff were there anymore. The black staff were either waiters, busboys, et cetera. And then the manager of the restaurant came up to our table and I think he came to us first because my dad was in a wheelchair and he was getting ready to vacate the restaurant, and he just said, “We're asking everybody to calmly leave the restaurant. We don't know what's going on. We've heard that there's some rioting going on in the city of Detroit.” This was that Sunday night. He said, “We don't know anything more than that, but just to be safe, we're asking people to leave. There's no charge for your meal.” This was probably around, between six-seven o'clock, I'm guessing. I remember asking him, “Is this why your staff is gone?”

LW: Wow.

ML: And he said, “Yeah.” And that was all. So we drove home. We listened to the radio. I don't remember that we heard that much on the radio. We came home and we got whatever news was available. Back then I think we only had three channels—

LW: —two, four, and seven.

ML: and a couple of UHF channels. We had Canadian Windsor channel nine that came in snowy at the time. So I obviously eventually learned there was rioting going on. And the next day the news was that it was building up. There was all kinds of speculation. There was speculation. We knew that there were fires; we knew that there was looting. I'm sure we saw something on TV Sunday night news about it. And there was speculation that this was going to continue to spread. So my dad's store was just less than a mile from the border of 8 Mile Road. Again, we didn't know how far it had gone. We didn't have that kind of internet capability to know what was going on. My dad checked with the people they had their insurance for the store for the fire insurance or whatever. You know, what happens if there's looting in the store? And they said that you don't have coverage for that. So, that next day, Monday, my dad and mom—as many as we could get together and just start taking trips to the store. It was from Nine Mile and Evergreen to Nine Mile and Coolidge, so that's – one, two, three miles. We just started loading stuff, inventory from the store, into cars, into vans, and just taking trips back and forth twenty – I don't know how many trips it was – we just got a bunch of friends together that were – that had either car access to a car or a driver's license. I actually had a driver's license at that time when I was 15, but I had – I was specially given a license because of my dad's condition so that I could drive him places. So it was a restricted license; I couldn't drive by myself. I had to drive with somebody else. We had friends – I was one of the youngest in my class. A lot of my friends were a whole year older than I was. We just made trips and we filled up our house; we filled up the living room; we filled up the den; we filled up the, you know, bedrooms that weren't being used at that time. My grandmother was still living with us, but my grandfather had passed. And we had just filled the house from floor to ceiling with clothing. Just because we had at that time I remember we – there was over a hundred thousand dollars worth of merchandise. In 1967, that was quite a bit of merchandise in the store. And what I don't remember is when it settled down, when we finally took stuff back, I think it was the following weekend. I believe so. I mean, basically, the store was closed. My parents would go in just so they would be in charge. They were still tailoring and dry cleaning, but there really wasn't much action; it was pretty dead. And at some point when we reached the reality that things had settled down, then we grabbed the same friends and – I don't remember how it worked. I think my parents just gave them a few bucks cash, you know, here and there, whoever was willing to help us out. I don't remember getting paid for it.

LW: Were there people working out of your parents' house during that week?

ML: No.

LW: It was just business was closed? It was just quiet.

ML: The business was open but there was really no business, and people understood. I don't think we told people we moved the merchandise because we wanted to make sure that this wasn't going to spread to our area—and once it was clear that it didn't, then just reopened for business. We tried to be as organized as we could. There's a lot of clothes – suits, pants, sports coats, shirts, ties, et cetera – and we tried to keep it organized by size, just so we could put it back in a reasonable way. We did a pretty good job. I do remember on one of our trips, not going back, but one of the trips home when we were really in a rush to keep going back and forth, I was—we were in my dad's van and the back door open somehow hadn't been adequately latched and just flung open right on Nine Mile Road, right in front of Providence Hospital. And a bunch of suits were just falling into the street and we just – whoever was driving just stepped on the brakes, right in the street. We didn't pull off and just got out, whoever was around, and picked up all the stuff and threw it back in the car. It was probably like just a pit stop, but it stays in my memory. Taking the stuff back was not as urgent. There was urgency in taking the stuff out. Taking it back was just a pain in the butt. You know, take the stuff back. So we did and that summer I was already working in the store. That was my summer job. The next experience I had that was a significant experience to me was that week that we reopened the store, it was still quiet. July, in general, was a quiet time. July and August were quiet times in general. There could be an hour could go by without a customer in the store, et cetera, where sometimes there would be eight customers in the store at a time. There usually wasn't more than a couple of people. We had some black clientele, but I think we had a pretty strong majority of white clientele. A couple of younger black men came into the store and they were just looking around. I would usually — the first person that would meet somebody at the door and I asked them, you know, could I show them something, what they wanted to look for. They said, “Nah, we're just looking around.” And that's fine, so we – I was there and they were looking around, you know, once it was clear that they weren't looking for anything in particular, I kind of would ask, “Hey, do you want to see where your size is or anything?” They said, “No. We just want to look around,” which is not unusual. That was fine. On that little strip mall where we were, there were maybe nine stores and it was very common if we ran out of singles, I would run over to the TV shop or the bike shop and ask if they could break a twenty so we could have singles or quarters or whatever. There was a bank but it was like a block-and-a-half away, so it was much easier. And this would be done all the time, and the guy that owned the bike shop happened to come by and asked for change for a twenty. I gave him change for a twenty, and I noticed that he started eyeing these two black men who were in the store and he specifically asked my dad, “Is everything okay?” And my dad said, “Yeah.” And made him the change and he left. About three minutes later he shows up at the back door of the store. There was an alley through the back, so he came into our store in the back and he's holding a gun—a handgun. And I was like, my eyes – I had never seen a gun up close. I looked at him, I said, “What are you doing?” He goes, “I just want to make sure if there's any trouble with those two black guys in the store, I'm here to help.” And it totally blew me away. It had never crossed my mind to treat these guys any differently. I was 15 years old. They're two black guys in the store. It could have been two young white guys. It wouldn't have made any difference to me at that time. Now, maybe thinking about it, maybe it should have because of the riots being just so new, but I don't remember noticing anything or feeling uncomfortable.

LW: And that was right after July of  '67?

ML: Yeah. That was the following week.

LW: Wow.

ML: So that had to have been a week after we brought the clothing back, so it would be a week after. And it just opened my eyes to – you know. And then I found out later on from my parents that this guy was an outspoken racist. So they were not surprised, but I was surprised. My dad told him to get – to take his gun and get the hell out of the store. [Laughter.] So that was an interesting experience for me as a kid.

LW: I can imagine. Is there anything else that you want to talk about that you remember during that time?

ML: Those were my memories vis-a-vis the actual time of '67, July '67. After that went back to business as usual. I know we did – and I don't know what time interval – we did take a drive down into Detroit, and that was totally out of curiosity to see the tanks, you know, to see the National Guard. I remember seeing the smoke from – I don't think I saw any active fires at the time, but there was a lot of smoke around. Smoldering fires. Oh, yeah. There is – so, in 1968, my dad decided he wanted to try to make a trip to Israel. He had a lot of people that he hadn't seen since he came to the United States, when they were living in Israel, and it was hard for him to travel as a quadriplegic in 1968, so they took me out of school – I was in eleventh grade – and I went for a month with him, to help take care of my dad. We went to Israel. I was an amazing trip for me as a teenager – so now I'm 16 years old – had a girl that I fell for, you know, kind of learning about things, et cetera, learning about my heritage has had a very big impact on my life. But it was really interesting because I'm a talker and with people to talk to, we were clearly tourists and whoever you talk to, or even the friends of my dad, would ask, “Where do you live?” That's the first question. They knew we were from the States and I would say, “Detroit.” And it was almost a hundred percent, that when you told somebody – especially if it was like a stranger, like a waiter in a restaurant or something – and I would say I was from Detroit. They would always ask two questions, and they always asked them in the same order. The first question is “Do you like Motown?” Okay? And the second question was – this is in April of 1968 – the second question was “Is the city still on fire?” And people were dead serious. So, in other words, nine months later, the mention of Detroit in the country of Israel immediately brought back memories of a city burning. And they were serious about this. They weren't tongue-and-cheek. They were dead serious. “Is the city still burning?” And when I would tell them no, they were like, Oh, that's cool. [Laughter.] I gave them news that they didn't know. They had assumed the city was still on fire, which was pretty eye-opening to me about the impact that this had on other parts of the world.

LW: Sure.

ML: And there was one other story that I had mentioned about, an experience with racism that was a new experience to me, this already happened now in my professional life. So this was in the early 80s, probably, '81 or '82. I had fairly new practice and I got to know my patients pretty well, I still do now. I think then I had a much less number of patients, volume. I had this one couple that both the mom and dad were police officers. They were Detroit police officers. I remember them telling [me] they all lived in the same – all the white police officers in Detroit lived around Telegraph, just south of 8 Mile because they had to live in the city itself. That was the law at the time, I don't think it is anymore, but that was the law at the time. So, this is a couple – I mean, to me it was cool they were cops. It was cool that the woman was a cop because she went back to work after having the baby. And on one of the visits I discovered a new heart murmur in the baby. It didn't seem to me like this was a serious or urgent scenario. I thought it was what we call an innocent murmur. But we wanted to get it checked out and I suggested that they see a cardiologist and, of course the first question was, “Do we have to go right away?” And I said, “No. This is not an emergency. If it was, I would call a cardiologist and say, ‘I'm sending this patient.’ This is something that you can just call and make an appointment and have it checked out. And I gave them the name of the cardiologist at Children's Hospital, who I think was the head of the department at the time, but I gave them the name because this is the guy that I had gotten to know the best and I really liked him. His name was Bill Jackson. And I wrote down the name, Bill Jackson, and the number and I handed it to the dad and the dad looks at it and he says to me, “This Jackson. Is he black?” And I really paused for a second because I totally wasn't expecting that. And then I said, “No, he's not. He's white. But now I got to ask you a question. If I said to you he was black, but this was the best doctor you should go see, would you not go?” And they both immediately said, “Absolutely not.” And I said, “Whoa.” I said, “You're kidding me, right?” And they said, “No, we're serious.” And I said, “You got to explain to me – I need some more input here.” And the dad said to me, he said, “You don't know how life is in the Detroit Police Department.” He said, “There is absolutely a schism between the black police officers and the white police officers.” And I said, “So strong that if I told you that the best doctor for your baby was a black doctor, you wouldn't go?” And he said, “I would not go. I would not be comfortable there.” And I was totally shocked. Again, early 80s and it blew me away. And I remember asking, I said, “is this like universal among police officers in Detroit?” And he said, “Absolutely.” I said, “Wow.”

LW: Wow. As late as the 80s.

ML: In the early eighties. And I was shocked.

LW: Wow. Well that is interesting. Brings it up a little closer to today.

ML: I don't remember having more discussion about it. It made me uncomfortable and I remember—was there any reason that I should bring this up again? You know I continued to see them and they actually then had another child, so I took care of both of their kids and I never brought it up again because I wasn't sure of the context why it would make any sense for me to bring it up.

LW: Of course.

ML: But, I could tell you for a long time, every time I saw them, as soon as I walked in the door I remembered that story. And then, later on I hired a nurse who has worked for me for probably 25 years now, maybe even close to 30, and her husband was at that time a police officer. This was a black couple. I remember asking him – and we had like an office party for Christmas—and in that many years I had met him a number of times and we spent some time together. I remember sharing this story with him and he was not the least bit surprised. He said, “Yeah. I would totally expect that.” It just corroborated that this was not unique to this particular couple; but it was more of a universal statement.

LW: Interesting. Well thank you for sharing that with us. That was great. Thank you so much for your time and is there anything else you want to add, on the record?

ML: I think I'm done.

LW: Okay [laughter].Thank you so much. That was great.


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Detroit Public Schools, Detroit—Michigan Jewish community, Integration of schools, Oak Park--Michigan, Southfield--Michigan, Israel, Yiddish language, European immigrant family


Levinson, Martin photo.jpg


“Dr. Martin Levinson, June 26th, 2015,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed September 24, 2023, http://oralhistory.detroithistorical.org/items/show/49.

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