Sharon McNeil, December 6th, 2016
WW: Hello. Today is December 6th, 2016. My name is William Winkle. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society’s Detroit 67 Oral History Project. I’m in Monroe, Michigan, and I am sitting down with Sharon McNeil. Thank you so much for sitting down with me today.
SM: You’re welcome, glad to be here.
WW: Can you please start by telling me where and when were you born?
SM: I was born in Highland Park, Michigan, August 22, 1952.
WW: Growing up in Highland Park, did you stay in your neighborhood or did you venture around Detroit growing up?
SM: Well, I actually lived in Clawson, which is just outside of Royal Oak. Then when the white flight was happening, my father decided to move to Highland Park because he owned a grocery store there and had the store from the 1940s to the 1970s. He just decided at that time, we’d rent our house in Clawson—while everybody’s moving that way, we’re into the city. So we moved near Six Mile and Woodward. My dad’s store, my parent’s store, was on Second just south of Davidson.
WW: Mm hmm. What year did you make that move?
SM: Let’s see: it was 1966. I was in eighth grade.
WW: What was it like to move from Clawson to Highland Park?
SM: As an eighth grader, all my friends and my school was out in the suburbs. So, it was a challenge. I kept up with my relationships there. It was hard for me, really, to be honest. I can say that. I can also say that when the riots happened, I was going to school in Madison Heights. My parents wanted me to go to school in Highland Park at St. Benedicts but they had closed the year that I would have started. So they allowed me to go to the high school that I wanted to go to, where all my friends were going to, which was Bishop Foley in Madison Heights.
So the year the riots took place my school out in the suburbs was all white, and they would be saying things like, “There’s fires burning at Eight Mile Road.” And I said, Well, that really isn’t true, because I live at Six Mile Road and there are no fires. So there was just not an understanding of–at least with my classmates who lived in that area and then where I lived. So there was a little bit of a disconnect. And it was a different city compared to the suburbs.
But I spent a lot of time walking around Highland Park, and it has changed a lot since my high school days, a lot. There was movie house around the corner, which is now kind of a triple x art theatre or whatever they want to call it place, but at that time it was a regular theatre with a popcorn place next door. So I kind of liked having all these different stores nearby–Sears was down the road, and then I could walk to my dad’s store which was about a mile and a half south.
WW: What was the name of your dad’s store?
SM: McNeil’s Market.
That was really a great place because I learned a lot about race relations. There were people from all backgrounds. It was very, very diverse where the suburbs were pretty much all white. So it was really good. I worked in the store when I was in high school and there was a lady who was my age, 16, and she was African American and had moved up here from Georgia. So people would call us salt and epper. Some of the militants would come into our store, Black Panthers at the time, and she was – calling me a honkie and she would them to cut it out. So it was really good. My dad, since he had been in that neighborhood, that store, since the Forties, had a great relationship with all of the people. He knew the grandmothers and the parents and kids. And so when anything happened, it was really a community store. A lot of good things happened there.
WW: Going into ‘67, do you remember how you first found out?
SM: Well, I was in high school, and I don’t know exactly how I first found out. I’m sure from the news and the radio, and just people talking–you know, it was all over. Especially at my dad’s store there was concern if it would come that way because it wasn’t that far off–I don’t know how far. But there were a number of people, black people, who said to my dad, do you want us to write soul brother on your storefront windows? Because other people did, and that’s the way we could protect you. He said, “No, I’m not really a Soul Brother, you don’t have to do that.” Instead, they did kind of watch his store which was a really good thing. I remember there was a parking lot across the street, an apartment building and a parking lot, and they would just kind of be out there, just watching the store that nothing happened.
I do remember that and I do remember that people were getting up on the apartment roof, and the police had told them to get down just because they could be snipers or whatever, and they just wanted to see the burning or the fires. Gawkers.
I talked to my brother, who is almost five years older than I, and my dad’s store was only broken into one time or robbed one time, most of the stores in the area were robbed. I was told too, I can’t confirm this, but that there were owners that were even killed who lived in the area. Most stores at that time—there weren’t a lot of big like Meijer’s and Kroger’s and things like that—they were more mom and pop type stores. So anyhow, I talked to my brother, and he did say when we were robbed–and he was at the store at the time–that was the first day of the riots. Either the first day–he said it was the first day, which I do believe him–I thought it might have been the day before. But anyhow, two men came in, who were not from the area, and had shotguns, and robbed, just took all the money, got everybody on the floor, and no one was hurt. My brother gave them the money and they left. So that was the only time anything happened. So that was the first day of the riots. But other than that, nothing really happened in that area except the fear and the tension and the worry from both blacks and whites. It was just a scary, scary time.
WW: Did you have any other firsthand experiences during that time?
SM: No. I wasn’t in the riots, I didn’t go there. Not really. Just at my dad’s store: I was still working there at the time, and I just remember how close it was and how people felt in the suburbs and the knowledge that we actually had being very close to the area.
WW: What was the fate of your father’s store? Did he continue to operate it?
SM: Yeah, he sold it probably around ‘73 or ‘74, and he sold it to some Middle Eastern people—I forget who they were. They had it for a long time; in fact, the pictures that I sent were from the eighties and the storefront looks completely different. It’s all kind of bricked up, where we had more glass, so it was different. I couldn’t find any pictures of when the store was–they’re around, my brother has them, and he doesn’t know where he put them—but we do have pictures of the store in the sixties.
Right now, I went by that area about five years ago, and it’s gone. It’s just grass. So, somebody demolished the whole thing. There are a lot of stories there. I remember this one woman ran in the store–this wasn’t right at the riots, but it was during that time of a lot of problems–and she ran in the store and asked my dad to protect her, somebody was running after her. And that wasn’t unusual, and he kind of scared them off and called the police. So that was not an unusual time back in the sixties. That was the way it was. So my dad did sell in the seventies.
WW: A couple times you said, riots. Is that how you interpret what happened in ‘67?
SM: Well, that’s the word that was frequently used.
WW: Mm hmm.
SM: So probably that’s still in my mind. Probably if I was older today, I may have looked at it completely differently but that was how it was–the looting and the riots and the tension–I didn’t know as a ninth grader what was really going on. That was the word that we used back then.
WW: So your family experienced it firsthand. What was it like to go back to high school and interact with your friends?
SM: Yeah, that was where people were really just, saying all of these things that weren’t true, and I could say that, I’d say, No, that isn’t true. No, all the stores there aren’t broken into. No, there’s not fires there, there’s not at Eight Mile, not at Seven Mile, not at Six Mile. So there’s all these rumors and fears–all of that. And, Oh, I can never go down there. My parents would never let me go to Detroit or Highland Park, or anywhere. In fact, even to have some friends come over to our house, some parents wouldn’t allow them to come because it was just too dangerous in their mind to come to that area.
WW: After he sold the store, did you continue to live in Highland Park, or did you move out?
SM: No, we went back to our house in Clawson. He never sold it. He just rented it out and moved back. I went off to college myself, but my parents and my younger brother and sister moved back to Clawson. That was just a four year period during the riots. [laughter] We moved toward that area, Highland Park area—where my dad, he was just thinking, You know, this is a long ride for me, I’m falling asleep, I work long hours. He worked seven days a week. He said, “I’m tired of driving that much,” so he said, “Let’s move closer.” So that’s really why he did that.
WW: How do you feel about the state of the city today?
SM: Highland Park or Detroit or both?
SM: Well, I look at Highland Park, because that’s where I lived, and it looks like a warzone. It’s just horrible, just to be honest. It’s shocking to me. Like I said, to see all that kind of triple x theatres and trash, and many, many homes that were there are just like bombed out shells of buildings like a war was there. I find it very sad. I do. I had a really good time during that period. I met a lot of fascinating people, a lot of hippies, all types of people, and that was gone.
So now, how do I see Detroit? Well, Detroit is coming back so much, so I’m more excited about Detroit. I see a lot of that integration and people getting together and building gardens, and local food, and the bread company downtown, I go to. It’s starting to come back and be a little more alive. It’s not like Cleveland. I was just in Cleveland, where they had a similar thing happen but I think we’re on the way. So I have hope for Detroit. I hope that happens for Highland Park as well. I think it’s a little behind but I haven’t kept up with it either. Maybe it’s improved more than I know now. I just remember when I went back and I thought, Wow, this is so bad. So sad.
WW: Is there anything else you’d like to share today?
SM: Well, I’d like to know about your project. When it’s done or even just a little bit. What is it exactly?
WW: Well, I’ll tell you that after—
SM: Okay, okay.
WW: Thanks so much for sitting down with me.
SM: Oh, you’re so welcome.