Eleanor Rafal, July 14th, 2015


Eleanor Rafal, July 14th, 2015


In this interview, Rafal discusses working in the real estate business in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s. She recalls that it was difficult to sell homes in white neighborhoods to African American families, which she believed was mainly due to attitudes of the white neighbors.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI








North Martindale Street, Russell Street, Boston and Broad, Detroit, Highland Park, Huntington Woods, Southeastern MIchigan


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Eleanor Rafal

Brief Biography

Eleanor Rafal was born in Detroit in 1926. She attended Wayne State University between 1943 and 1947, when it was a very small college. She majored in health education, and her first job was in an elementary school on Russell Street near Eastern Market, where she taught a predominately poor, African American student body. She quit teaching after the first year to work for Gross Realty, which she did until her family relocated to Huntington Woods.

Interviewer's Name

Noah Levinson
Lillian Wilson

Interview Place

West Bloomfield Township, MI



Interview Length



Cathy Seavoy and Noah Levinson

Transcription Date



NL: Today is July 14, 2015. This is the interview of Eleanor Rafal by Noah Levinson and Lily Wilson. We are in West Bloomfield, Michigan, at Eleanor’s home, and this interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Eleanor, thanks for having us over today.

Could you first tell me where and when you were born?

ER: I was born in Detroit in 1926. I was the youngest of five children. I had four older brothers. The youngest of which was almost 7 years older than I, so here I was, all of the sudden, this little girl enters the scene. When we lived in Detroit I think I was probably the first child of the family that was born in a hospital. I was born at Florence Crittenton Hospital out on—well it was sort of the Eastside to us at that time.

NL: What neighborhood do you first remember living in? Which neighborhood of Detroit?

ER: We lived on North Martindale. Which was near Boston and Broad Street in Detroit, and I lived there from the time that I was born, until the time that I was married, for many years.

NL: What do you remember about that neighborhood in the time that you were growing up?

ER: It was a very friendly, very middle class neighborhood. The school that I went to was probably three or four blocks away and on the way to the school there was an old fashioned, it was old fashioned at that time, but an icehouse, and we used to stop and get picks of ice [chuckle] on our way to school. I had a gym teacher in that school who, obviously, was very impressive to me because when I graduated from high school I went to Wayne State University, which was more of a one single, little building at that time, and I became a health ed. major and a gym teacher.

NL: When were you in Wayne State University? What years was that?

ER: What years?

NL: Yeah.

ER: Well, let’s see, I graduated from there in 1947 because that’s the year that I married, so I got there four years earlier so –

NL: ‘43, about?

ER: ’43.

NL: What do you remember about Wayne State at that time? Obviously, like you said, it was a smaller campus.

ER: Oh it was, absolutely, not only a smaller campus, there was one building, and there were a few houses on the next block that they had begun to use as some classrooms, for some classes. Other than that, there were no – what you see today is nothing like we had at that time.

NL: Yeah, the true campus now?

ER: Yes, there it was a building that had – well, I remember, the thing I remember the most, is that down on the first floor was where everybody congregated and smoke cigarettes, because everything was available at that time, you still smoked indoors in places, which I guess at that time I did which I think not very highly of now [laughter].

NL: Were there many other women enrolled in the college at that point?

ER: Yes, I had many friends who were also going to school at Wayne State at that time. And, in order to get there from where I lived, I took a bus, and we took the bus to school and it was, it really was, a very charming, friendly place. It had a very nice reputation at that time, also.

NL: Was it pretty diverse as far as having black students and white students and other races as well?

ER: I don’t remember.

NL: That’s alright. So you said you started college around 1943 which was also the time of another riot in Detroit, not the one that this project if focusing on. I was wondering, what do you remember about those riots in 1943?

ER: Um, not a great deal. I – see, I have the riots confused
in my mind, I don’t remember about ‘43 or ‘67, I just know that we were involved and that there were riots back at that time. The one in ‘43, if I tell you anything, I might confuse it with what happened in ’67. It’s very difficult. I do know that the way we lived at that time, I would get on a bus and I would go to school, and I would come back, and the only thing that hits me with the riots is that -- I think it was the ‘67 riot where we were told to stay in our homes and not to move out and that was a whole different – ballgame.

NL: Right, the ‘67 riots were characterized by more violence and more police presence and army and curfews and things like that. The 1943 ones were, we haven’t researched those as much, because that’s not the focus of this project. But, I just wanted to ask you about it because we have the opportunity from someone who was there. If you remember something else about it and want to bring it up later, please do.

ER: If I think of it, but I really, as I say, at this late date my mind is merging, there were riots then, but I only remember the major one.

NL: Where were you living in July 1967?

ER: We were living in Hartwell in Detroit. Let’s see, ‘47 was when I got married—yes, so I’m trying to remember if I was living – at that time, after we got married, a short time thereafter, we moved to Hartwell in Detroit, and my children were born are raised there, but at a certain point, we moved to Huntington Woods, and I really don’t remember the date.

NL: Okay, July 1967 is when those riots, that you just mentioned, were. The last week of July 1967 is when that started. I don’t know if that helps frame if you remember if you were in Huntington Woods at that point?

ER: I’m trying to remember if I was on Hartwell, or if we had moved to Huntington Woods already.

NL: What neighborhood of Detroit is Hartwell in?

ER: It’s near Seven Mile and, I believe, Wyoming. I’m not certain.

NL: What do you remember about living in that neighborhood? You lived there for some twenty odd years, so do remember that neighborhood changing over the time you lived there?

ER: No, because, I think as I was growing up I was more concerned with schooling, and friends, and, really it was like grade school. Oh, now I do know when I went to junior high school that I went, where I lived, I went to Tappan, and in the middle of junior high school I was sent to Durfee and that was the first time that I got an association of Jewish people. Because where I lived before, it was very eclectic, and when I would go, it was automatic that this area went to Tappan. Tappan had never seen a Jew in their lives before that time. But coming over to, there was Durfee, and that’s where the high school was, and that’s where I proceeded to go to school. I can’t tell you exactly about the neighborhood, other than, where I went to junior high was over by Dexter and Linwood. And it was an entirely different socio-economic situation.

NL: Did you feel – do you remember thinking that changing schools, was the quality of the schools and education very different?

ER: Yes.

NL: Can you elaborate on that?

ER: Yes, because at that time, the reason I was sent to Durfee was because they thought that I would get a better education. It was a more highly rated school. There was Roosevelt and Durfee and—I forget the name of the high school, but at any rate, those schools were amongst the highest rated, scholastically, in the whole area.

NL: After you got married and after you finished college, what were you doing for work at that point?

ER: I taught for a year. When I graduated and got married—I graduated in June and got married in June and that year I taught—as a matter of fact this was interesting—it was very difficult to get a job at all at that time. Everything was quite depressed and in our class with health ed, I was looking for a gym teacher job. I don’t know how many were in our class, probably not twenty. But I was the only one that was given a job that first year. I was very fortunate. Anyway, but the job that I got was on Russell Street, by the Eastern Market, and at that time—I don’t know whether you want to hear this part—

NL: Please.

ER: The children who came to us—here I was; a little girl who had graduated from one of the best high schools et cetera in the city and then on to Wayne State—it wasn’t called Wayne State at that time.

NL: What was it called then?

ER: I have to tell you how this happened. I’m sort of losing track of where I am, and I have to tell you, I just have to catch on to where I am. –Here I am; this is my first year in this school—and I really was fortunate to have this job. However, it was my first encounter with predominantly black children, from a very poor, poor neighborhood. And these children, they would come to school and say things like, “You know what? My real papa came to visit us yesterday.” In other words, they didn’t live together. This was a whole new socioeconomic thing to me. Here I was, it was like taking someone and throwing them into a pot that they had no idea of what was going on, but I got an education and I felt so badly for those children. As I say, sociologically, they predominantly were not being raised by a mother and a father. And they would come to school and one would say—with rat bites—I mean they lived so poorly it was so sad. I only lasted in that school for one year. We—Bill Gross, who had Gross Realty, but at that time I don’t think he had anything. I think that he was at a point where he said, “Let’s go out west and see if we would like to move.” So, at the end of the school year, we went out west. And we went to Arizona and we went to California and came back and this little girl named Eleanor said, I don’t want to leave my family. I don’t care what’s going on out west; I want to stay in Detroit, and so I did—so we did. And that’s when Gross Realty came into existence; that’s when he went into the real estate business. And that’s when—in the beginning his father, who had lived on the Eastside of Detroit always, came to work in the real estate office also. My husband was very successful, but it was on Linwood, and we both had very progressive attitudes—[laughter] at that time it was considered very progressive. There were white employees, there were black employees; and they were selling houses. Not only were the selling houses, but they were taking houses that—let’s say today it’s Highland Park, I presume it was called Highland Park back then too, and a friend of mine and I—this was a few years after he had established this. He would buy a property; my friend and I would go into Highland Park, but never without Charlie who worked in the realty office, who—I’m being very frank at this point— Charlie was six-foot-four and black. We were not permitted to go down there without Charlie. Charlie was in that car because when we would drive up there would be people on a porch with hoots and hollers, “Oh, look what’s coming!” and they were afraid to send us down there. That was the climate of the times. White people did not go into that neighborhood. We went into the neighborhood, we looked at the flat, and we put little dados up on the wall and made sure it was painted and that it was ready for sale again to somebody else. But that was one of the things that Bill Gross did in the realty; that was part of his business was to buy and resell properties, and also to sell properties. And then as time went on, and I can’t give you a year context, I can only tell you that as time when on, people started going away from Detroit and into—well it was still Detroit, but Seven Mile and Livernois. This was the new area mostly for, in our view, the Jewish population. When they were selling a house in the neighborhood in Detroit, and if they dealt with whoever they dealt with, if this was sold to a black person instead of a white person, then there was a lot of chaos because the realtor should not have sold this to anyone other than another white person. The climate at that time was so impossibly different from what it is today. I’m trying to think what else to tell you. It was called blockbusting.

NL: Can you talk a little bit more about that process? Who would—if somebody not white or somebody that was considered not okay for this neighborhood they’re selling [in], what person or what body of people is instigating this outlash against—

ER: The neighbors.

NL: Just regular citizens.

ER: As far as I know, the neighbors. We knew that the other people on the street were going to totally ostracize or they were going to do some kind of damage. A black person had to be brave to buy this property, because they were ostracized. Their children could be—not hurt, but certainly not accepted. It was a very difficult time.

NL: In your estimation, was this happening in different neighborhoods all over the city?

ER: Yes. I do think so.

NL: And the neighborhoods that you were just describing, you said was a Jewish neighborhood. If a white person was not Jewish and was buying in the neighborhood, would they have been met with that hostility?

ER: No, I don’t believe so. This was definitely a black-white thing. In fact the people were moving out, mostly to like Livernois and Six Mile Road, or Livernois and Seven Mile Road out, you know that was considered a nicer area. And those people who were moving out there, the people who were moving in, they wanted a white person, because they didn’t want their neighbors—their ex-neighbors—to criticize them in any way. That was the nature of what was going on at that time.

NL: Was there ever any police involvement?

ER: I don’t know. I would say probably, but I don’t know.

NL: You described yourself as being progressive for the time. When you heard these stories or saw these incidents yourself, what do you remember going through your head at that time?

ER: Going through our head was, that anyone who can buy a property should be entitled to buy that property. It was like today, but there were—and some of our younger people, our contemporaries, felt as we did. But the generation before us, the majority, I really felt they were hanging on to what they had; they didn’t know if they could afford to move out too, and away from this what was going on and they were going to fight it tooth and nail.

NL: Do you have any insights into what specifically would have caused this rift between black communities and Jewish communities? As opposed to non-Jewish white communities.

ER: No, I don’t think it was just black and Jewish communities, but I think it happened more because the Jewish people wanted to flee; they wanted to get out into the better areas and many of them could afford to do this, and so that’s why it became a black-Jewish thing rather than—I think it was more a black-white thing, but it happened. You know what let me catch it for one second.

NL: Sure.

ER: [phone] Hello?—

NL: So you said that there was sort of a difference in ideology between your generation and the generation before you. What do you remember, from your parents and their friends and contemporaries, talking about these kinds of issues?

ER: I think—like my parents came from Russia. They were the first generation and so many of their friends were also, and I really don’t think—they worked hard; my father worked downtown in Detroit. They had their thoughts of what was going on and I think because we were born in the United States and went to school here that we had a different ideology. Me, my husband, my friends I think that we felt differently. They came from what was called a “shtetl,” a little town in Russia. They were persecuted there and there was no way they were—they wanted to hang on to what they were living with and— those who could afford it and did well financially wanted to move onward and somehow I think that—it wasn’t just the Jewish people I think all people were really very bigoted when it came to the black people at that point. And I think that we’ve seen a great deal of progress, I think we still have great big probabilities and trouble, but not like at that time. At that time some of the people that wanted to move were afraid to move to another neighborhood because they didn’t know what would happen to their property, they didn’t know if they could sell this property, they didn’t know if it was okay to move out; so it was a real dichotomy, it really was.

LW: When you were teaching in the 1940s, and you mentioned you were at a school on Russell Street near Eastern Market .

ER: The one year that I taught school was in the Eastern Market. There was a school on Russell Street.

LW: Do you remember what neighborhood those children were from?

ER: Well, they were all obviously around Russell Street because they had to walk to school. These were grade children, you know, kindergarten through sixth grade, or whatever they were. They were not children who were bussed in. There was none of that at that time.

LW: Were there any white students at the school?

ER: Any what?
LW: White students at the school.

ER: I don’t remember.

LW: But it was predominantly black?

ER: Oh yes.

LW: And predominantly very poor, you said.

ER: Very.

LW: So, do you think that that was consistent with various neighborhoods within Detroit or do you think that was a particularly poor neighborhood?

ER: Well I think this was a particularly poor neighborhood, I really do, but I think the consistency which I thought at that time was—and this sounds bigoted—that the black people didn’t keep a mother-father relationship. These women were working in white people’s houses, but there was no father and these children were in such poor straits, and, as I say, they came to school with rat bites on them. It was terrible; it was just terrible what they had to live through

LW: So how did you as a teacher—and how did the rest of the staff at the school handle that?

ER: Well, if they child came in with a rat bite there was a nurse in the school and the child was sent to the nurse. That’s about as far as it went. This was not an extraordinary situation, this happened, this is what it encompassed and how it was handled. It was just there and that’s how it was. I guess at that point I was really glad at the end of the year not to go back.
LW: Yeah.

ER: And then by the time I got back from our trip out West into Detroit I was pregnant. And then I had my daughter and at that point, most people—I might be generalizing, but I think this is true—when you had a family you didn’t work anymore. My husband worked, I didn’t. I had three daughters, I raised my daughters, I did some community work, I used to do braille work for the blind—as a volunteer service, you know, but I found that I had time and I wasn’t working. So that’s what happened in those years, but those were the years when I was in Huntington Woods already.

LW: I see.

ER: I was out of Detroit.

NL: I had another question about the real estate that came back to me.

ER: Sure.

NL: Do you recall if other companies, other real estate firms other than Gross, were willing to work with black clients the same way that yours was.

ER: Yes. Absolutely. There were places on Woodward who were also—I mean, the realtors were happy to make the sale. It was the neighbors who were creating this and the overall population feeling that this is not right. These people are running away and we are getting people that are undesirable to us.

NL: So you think that most realtors were willing to work with black clients then?

ER: I do.

NL: Their bottom line is making a sale?

ER: I think they wanted to make a sale, they wanted the money, and it depended on—I presume that there were some who felt idealistically that they wouldn’t—to my knowledge business came first. I just know how we felt about it at that time.

NL: Do you know if your husband and his peers and colleagues, in that situation when they’re working with a black client who’s going to be moving into a predominantly white neighborhood, do you know if they would have any—would he have a frank discussion with his client saying something along the lines of, “ I’m happy to sell the house to you, but just so you know, this is the neighborhood, these are the type of people you’re moving in with, they might not be so happy about it.” Or is that not his business?

ER: I don’t think that was ever discussed.

NL: Okay.

ER: I really don’t, I think the realtor brought a person to look at the property, and some people would not permit them to bring black people.

NL: The neighborhoods?

ER: Yeah, some people who owned properties.

NL: Oh, were selling.

ER: Say I’m selling a house and they brought a black person in; a few people would say, “I will not permit this.” Most people were anxious to get out. They wanted the money from this in order to move to that, and that’s what created this situation. As I say, I know a heck of a lot more about this than I do the riot. The riots, we were told to just stay put and lock our doors, and by that point, I had a maid in the house who—in those days when you hired help to help with the children and to keep the house clean you had—first of all it was so reasonable, and secondly, they lived in your house, so this person couldn’t go home during what was happening in the riot, because it was too dangerous.

NL: How do you remember hearing about the events of the riots in ’67?

ER: I think the newspapers and word of mouth. I mean, we knew this was going on and we know that we were totally not allowed to go into that area. Some people ran in if they had a business, like on 12th Street. They’re going to run, you know they had to see, and their businesses were ruined. Of course you see that nowadays on the news sometimes too; looters, there are human beings who will take advantage of a situation like that, but at that point it was more black and white, because the white people were the business people in most of these areas.

NL: Did you ever feel afraid in your neighborhood in Detroit, that that type of violence could spread to where you were? Or did you feel separated enough?

ER: Felt separated enough. Yeah, I think that was part of what made some of those people to move; that they wanted out of there. They just did not—as neighborhoods were changing, the ones who were remaining, many of them were frightened to be there.

NL: Not totally related to what we’re doing here, but I’m just curious since I grew up in Huntington Woods: could you tell me—

ER: Did you?

NL: I did. I’m living there this summer. Could you just tell me briefly what the neighborhood was like when you first moved in there?

ER: Well, we lived right behind the [Detroit] Zoo. My children walked into Royal Oak, to grade school. I mean it was six blocks and there they went. We felt totally safe and we loved the neighborhood, we loved the neighbors. Came Halloween we would—we had a proch in the front and so we would take a table and we would put out all the stuff and all the children would come by and Halloween was a delight, but that’s how we all lived in those days. It was comfortable; [chuckles] we really were isolated into the Royal Oak area and that’s how they grew up. Of course, I think my children got, their education included, very independent ideas I do believe. One of them eventually lived, when she was in school, in the Haight-Ashbury district in California because she was such an idealist. I think that’s what happened to them and I think it was part of what happened in their growing up, but in Huntington Woods—did you find anything more than peace and quiet in Huntington Woods?

NL: Never.

ER: Neither did we. Never. We loved it. As a matter of fact, that’s why [grandson] David lives in Huntington Woods. He grew up there until he was fifteen. His mother—I don’t know if this should go into that.

NL: That’s alright.

ER: When they became separated and divorced, she lived in Huntington Woods and I would say to her, “Why don’t you move into a small condo or apartment?” and she said, “Because I want my son to be able to grow up in a stable neighborhood.” And that was a stable neighborhood.

NL: Was there a significant Jewish population in Huntington Woods when you first moved there?

ER: Yes, there was a significant Jewish population in Huntington Woods, absolutely.

NL: So for most of the city’s history then—

ER: Say it again.

NL: The city—it was a fairly new neighborhood at that point I think.

ER: Oh it was a very new neighborhood.

NL: So it’s always been known as somewhat of a Jewish neighborhood then. Because it still is.

ER: The section that we lived in—we were closer to Woodward, and I think that was more Jewish than the other side of Scotia.

NL: Interesting. Is there anything else that we didn’t touch on that you’d like to add for the tape?

ER: I really, really don’t. I mean I think—I thought that it would be more interesting to get into the movement and the blockbusting than the actual riot because that is sort of—all I remember about that is, you’re not allowed to go down there and stay away and we really didn’t want to go down there.

NL: Well, the blockbusting and the neighborhoods changing was one of the many really significant factors that led to all of the violence and unrest anyways. Are there any other thoughts or anecdotes that you remember in that regard?

ER: No, really not. I think that that pretty well encompasses it.

NL: Well thank you for sharing your time and your memories with us today, Eleanor.

ER: Absolutely.



Gross, Bill

Search Terms

1967 riot—Detroit—Michigan
North Martindale Street
Boston Avenue and Broad Street
Russell Street
Highland Park
Housing – Detroit – Michigan
Jewish Community
African American Community
Russell Street School
Wayne State University
Durfee Middle School
Gross Realty




“Eleanor Rafal, July 14th, 2015,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed July 3, 2022, http://oralhistory.detroithistorical.org/items/show/50.

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