Oliver Cole, April 21st, 2017


Oliver Cole, April 21st, 2017


In this interview, Cole discusses growing up as a teenager in the city of Detroit. He remembers the city in the summer of 1967 but at the time was not aware of everything that happened. As he grew older, he realized the implications of that summer.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Oral History


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

Oliver Cole

Brief Biography

Oliver Cole was born in 1951 in Kentucky and moved to Detroit in 1965 where he has lived ever since. He attended Cass Tech.

Interviewer's Name

Julia Westblade

Interview Place

Detroit, MI



Interview Length



Daniel Weed
Julia Westblade

Transcription Date



JW: Hello today is April 21, 2017. My name is Julia Westblade. We’re here in Detroit, Michigan, and I am sitting down with-

OC: Oliver Cole.

JW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. Can you start by telling me where and when you were born?

OC: I was born in 1951 in Henderson, Kentucky.

JW: Alright and when did you or your family move up to Detroit?

OC: We came to Detroit July 1, 1965.

JW: Alright and what brought you to Detroit?

OC: Came with my mom, had nowhere else to go.

JW: Why did your mom come up to Detroit?

OC: She was looking for different work. She had a brother that lived here, so that made it easier for her to transition.

JW: And what were your initial impressions of the city –

OC: I’m sorry?

JW: What were your impressions of the city moving up here as a young teenager?

OC: Holy smokes. Scared to death. From coming from a small town, never saw this many people in one place, one time. Stunned and shocked. At that time, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the United States, so there was a lot of people. Lot of – and had no idea a place like that could be this big- coming from where I came.

JW: When you first moved up in 1965, what neighborhood did you go to?

OC: We were staying with my uncle who lived out on Baylor Street, which is south of Six Mile and Puritan between- Baylor Street between Six Mile and Puritan.

JW: Did you stay there for a while?

OC: Stayed there from July 1 until almost the start of the school year, which would’ve been fall of 1965. Because I think I went to Webber the first year, finished up at Webber.

JW: Where did you go from there?

OC: Cass. Cass Tech. I think. I started at Cass Tech. Went to Webber in 1965. Let’s see I was 15 when I got here, 15-16. Probably started at Cass at 16.

JW: And then when you and your mom moved out from your uncle’s house, did you stay in that neighborhood?

OC: No, we stayed in – that’s where we came. Moved to Scotten. 6064 Scotten, I’ll never forget it.

JW: [Laughs] And what was that neighborhood like?

OC: That neighborhood was a nice neighborhood. I won’t say upper-middle class. It was renting. It had a lot of two-family rental homes: wooden frame homes, a couple of brick homes. West side of Detroit, north of McGraw, west of Grand River, south of Tireman. Just a neighborhood.

JW: Was it an integrated neighborhood?

OC: I beg your pardon?

JW: Was it an integrated neighborhood?

OC: I’m trying to think. Probably. Didn’t really pay- the racial makeup of the city at that time, I didn’t really pay that much attention to it. No. Because on Tireman, this was- you’ve got to remember, this was before, what freeway is that over there? 96? This was before 96 even was built. So, I had a paper route along Tireman Avenue and the Boulevard. So, that was quote, unquote “a well-to-do neighborhood.” So, it was quite- I think it was integrated pretty good back then.

JW: Did you primarily stay in that neighborhood, or did you like to go around the city?

OC: We went everywhere. From that neighborhood, we used to ride our bikes out to Rouge Park. It seemed like it would take forever to get down there. I used to take the- what was it- the Hamilton bus. It used to go from – picked it up on Lodge Freeway, would go south to Downtown. I never knew how far north it went because I never took anything further on it. But then I found out the Hamilton bus actually went from the old bus depot downtown all the way out to Northland. So, it was a pretty twisting, turning route that it took. Interesting route when you looked at it on a map.

JW: As you were moving around the city, did you notice any tension in the city?

OC: Uh-uh. The only tension was that the Tigers had just got eliminated from contention. Didn’t make the playoffs, or I don’t know what happened that year, ’67. They were up and coming, but they didn’t quite make it. I think that’s what the focus on – remember I’m 16 or 17 years old – 16 years old at that time. I’m just getting out.

JW: So, you said you moved here with your mom. Do you have any siblings?

OC: Yes, a younger brother came. I came here in the summer. He came here at the end of summer. So, we both started school at Webber Junior High, which was on Tireman in the – we were walking distance from where we lived.

JW: What kind of profession did your mom have?

OC: She worked. First she worked for the telephone company. She was an operator. Then she got a job as a receptionist, which I don’t know what she did, at Herman Kiefer [Hospital].

JW: So then, going into the summer of 1967, so you’re about 17 years old. What do you remember from that summer?

OC: Actually, I think I was 16. Because 17 would- 1951 to 1967- yeah 16. Don’t remember much. I mean I cannot remember like - First of all, I never went down on Twelfth Street, which was only like four blocks, because there was always a stigma about, “Don’t go on Twelfth Street.” So, I never went on Twelfth Street.

JW: What do you think made – why was there that stigma?

OC: Oh well, shoot! There was always something going on, on Twelfth Street. Nothing that a 16-year-old at that time in Detroit should ever be involved in. I wasn’t in any kind of illegal gambling, didn’t have any need for prostitutes, couldn’t buy liquor, I didn’t shop that much, so there was no reason for me to be going on Twelfth Street. Plus, you were told not to go on Twelfth Street, so just didn’t go on Twelfth Street.

JW: So, where – how did you first hear about what was going on, on the week of July 23?

OC: Well, you could see it and feel it. You knew something was going on because so many police cars were around. Then, you heard the news reports about the Algiers Motel on Virginia Park. You knew there was something going on, but information didn’t get out until way later on, you found out, “Oh this is what happened.” So, that was one thing. Then, you find out it really happened from a blind pig raid on Twelfth and Collingwood [Clairmount], which was a good distance from where we were, about a mile. But, word- there’s no social media, there’s no internet, and there was no cell-phones, but this information spread quickly across the city. I have no idea how so many people got wind of it so quickly.
[pointing outside] There goes a little trolley.

JW: So, what do you remember from that week?

OC: I’m trying to think what date it is? I think it started on a Thursday?

JW: It started on a Sunday.

OC: Sunday, okay. That’s right; that explains a lot. Obviously, it must have started Sunday, early Sunday morning. I think we went to church which was around the corner from us. So, the news hadn’t hit us yet, we hadn’t see anything. I think the first time you get notice of something, “Oh, there’s a house on fire.” Then its – because you’re looking at smoke, “Oh, there’s a lot of houses on fire. Wow, the whole strip is on fire.” So, your curiosity wants to make you go and investigate. That’s when you find out, “Oh this is something – something else going on.” Fire trucks are constantly going, night and day. Then the police are going constantly, night and day. You don’t realize what’s happening because at 16 years old, not this – a 16-year-old today would be on social media. They’d have Twitter, they’d have Snapchat, all these things. They’d be in communication a lot faster, a lot sooner, than we were at 16 at that age. I didn’t have a phone. My mom had a phone. So, there was nobody for me to call, and nobody to call me. Probably, she probably knew more than what I did – I hope she did, and probably just kept it from me. Just said, “You don’t need to know.”

JW: So, when you first saw the smoke and everything, did you go investigate or did you stay in your house?

OC: Oh, no, no no. I’d say, “What’s happening over there?” “Nothing. [Laughs] Stay here.” You got to remember, a 16-year-old boy, man, whatever you want to call it at that age and that era in Detroit would have done exactly what his parents told him to do. It wouldn’t be like today where you tell him don’t do something, “Okay I’m going.” And, you’re talking about a single woman raising kids, totally different then than it is now.

JW: So, did your mom and your younger brother stay home that week, too?

OC: It was just my younger brother. If she told one of us and both of us to stay home, we both stayed home. That was it. There was no chance – it wasn’t because of our upbringing and where we came from, it was unheard of to be, as they say “Boy, don’t give me not back talk!” It was unheard of to talk back to your parents. It just wasn’t – it’s just something we wouldn’t do.

JW: Did your mom stay home that week, or [talking simultaneously] did she have to go to work?

OC: [Talking simultaneously] No, she had to go to work every single day. Didn’t miss a day’s work and was never late. She kept that to herself, and she – I’m trying to think – I think she had a car then. Yeah, she had a car then. So, she got to work every single day. Never –

JW: And, so you said Twelfth Street was about four blocks away from where you lived?

OC: No, Twelfth Street was four blocks away from where she worked.

JW: From where she worked, okay.

OC: Oh, I’m sorry. Started on Scotten, we moved to Hazelwood two years later.

JW: Oh, okay.

OC: So, Hazelwood is where – I’m getting my getting my streets mixed up. On Scotten we were nowhere near Twelfth Street. We were on the west side – near west side of Detroit. We would have to drive – shoot – or walk or bike a half hour to get to Twelfth Street. Where my mom worked at Herman Keifer [Hospital] was four blocks from Twelfth Street. So, once again: Don’t go on Twelfth Street. There wasn’t any sense in going on Twelfth Street.

JW: And so then, as – when the National Guard was called in, did that increase the anxiety in the city for you or did that make things a little more reassuring?

OC: A lot of 1967, for me, was the knowledge of it came after, years after maybe five, maybe ten years after. I never knew about the snipers because I never saw any or heard any. It wasn’t until after the fact that you find out, oh 43 people were killed or some amount of numbers. There was snipers shooting. The only thing I can attest to seeing with my eyes: the devastation of the buildings, the commercial buildings because I was able to go up on Grand River and from the Boulevard north on Grand River, stores were just being looted, Cancellation Shoes, all the department stores and appliance stores were looted. There was a, what would be called a party store, drug store around the corner from my house at West Grand Boulevard and McGraw. Totally destroyed. I had just been in the store the day before and I saw all of the man’s products and small personal deodorant, things like that just strewn about on the ground and right next to it was a fire station. I had a buddy of mine that lived two houses up from that, so we used to cut through each other’s backyards to get to each other’s houses. And his mom and dad had him quarantined. He said, “Well, you’ve got to go home because this is what happening down here.” So, I couldn’t come over and play. That’s when it affected me.

JW: Did you see the National Guard then or was it just –

OC: I saw the tracks of the tanks, but I saw the Jeeps. That was the first time I’ve ever seen a Jeep with a .50 caliber machine gun. Didn’t know what it was at the time. Didn’t know what caliber it was but it was a Jeep. And it was soldiers, people in – it didn’t matter to me “National Guard,” to me it was the army and it was just shocking to see that in an American city. You saw it on television, you watched the news, you saw it in other places. This was something happening in, at that time, the fourth largest city in the country. And there was a disbelief, a disassociation; I’m thinking to myself, “This would never happen in Henderson, Kentucky and here it is happening in Detroit, Michigan.” Probably ignorance was bliss because if I had known how dangerous the situation was for me walking around on the sidewalk, I probably never would have been out there. But I didn’t know. That’s part of God looking out for you because I was too naïve to know how dangerous a situation it really was. I didn’t know about people sniping I didn’t know about the police being trigger happy. I was a young, black man-boy walking along the street. Would’ve been another statistic. So, just by the grace of God, nothing happened to me and I got home.

JW: When did the danger of the week begin to set in?

OC: When was the what?

JW: When did the danger, that you now associate with that week, when did that begin to set in?

OC: Because it’s after the fact, it’s like if – I guess the only way to describe it is you’re at the airport and a plane crashed but you’re not on it. You feel for the people there and you’re at the airport and you’re ready to fly or you’ve just flown in. But it didn’t happen to you but you can sort of emphasize with, “Gee,” I’ll say it again, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” The only thing I guess I can relate it to, the day after the plane Flight 91 or 93 or whatever it was that crashed out here at Metro [Detroit Metropolitan Airport] twenty-some years ago, I had just got from Japan. It was like phew. I don’t know. It was one of those things were, after the fact, when you sit down and read – a caveat of this, they just filed a movie here. 1967. Katheryn Bigelow [Detroit, 2017] I was an extra in that movie. I played one of the group of men arrested and we were – they filmed this at the Tenth Precinct and that’s where they actually brought these people in the night of the disturbance – and it was interesting watching the recreation, that chaos, because they were the police and how they responded and how we were supposed to be acting and pretending. So, that’s about as close as I came to it. They bloodied our faces up and put makeup on us to make it look like we had been dragged and beaten because apparently there was a lot of it going on. Now, poetic license, who knows? I wasn’t an actual survivor of it, but I played one on the TV.

JW: Oh wow, oh, that’s fun. That’s interesting.

OC: We’ll see how much I get cut.

JW: Do you think that that week and everything that happened, do you think that that affected your opinion of the city or the way you viewed the city?

OC: I moved into the city on July 1, 1965 and I’ve never moved out. I’ve never lived anywhere else. I never ran, I never hid. I bought and sold real estate. The kids grew up here. I’ve never had a problem with living in Detroit. So, to me, no, it didn’t affect me. I saw the changes in other people. I saw the changes in attitude toward Detroit long before Cleveland became the joke of the nation, Detroit was. I don’t like the term “Reinventing Detroit.” I don’t like that definition that we’re getting now because we’re looking out and seeing trolleys go up and down paved roads. Woodward was always a busy street. In fact, it was busy – in fact, we had streetcars on it before. So, streetcars now doesn’t make Woodward any better or worse that it was when I came here in ’65 because trolleys were running up and down the street then. As a matter of fact, when they dug up this road, they hit the tracks. They could have probably used them. This building – the Detroit Institute of Arts was there, Wayne State was here. It’s bigger now. This building was here. I say the biggest change in Detroit from then to now is you didn’t have the number of vacant houses and properties and that has nothing to do with the riots. The riots burned down commercial areas; they didn’t burn down neighborhoods. That’s the biggest misconception. Neighborhoods weren’t touched. But commercial strips were hit and hit hard. Grand River, Gratiot, McGraw. Any place where you had businesses, they were hit hard. But the actual neighborhoods were not touched. As much as people would like to believe that this caused the neighborhoods to – no, what happened was after the businesses left, the people left. Then that cycle of – and I’ve never seen it anywhere else in the country and I’ve been all over. I’ve seen vacant houses, I’ve seen a lot places with vacant – but there’s some sort of mentality, and maybe it’s in the water here, where people feel they need to tear up a vacant house and that’s what exacerbated the decline of the neighborhoods. Had nothing to do with the riots. The riots took the businesses out, the mom and pop shops. Took them out. What we used to have, like I said, Cancellations, B.Siegels, stuff like that. Livernois decimated because then the insurance companies significantly raised the rates for insurance in Detroit on just about every business and the people couldn’t afford it. And white flight, those people who own those businesses didn’t want to risk coming down to work in them every day for fear – can’t blame them – for fear of getting shot, stabbed, killed, run over, raped, robbed. There’s a lot of anger and frustration. Almost quietly you have the same frustration now. It’s amazing how it doesn’t take much. Thank God we don’t have soccer matches here because there seems to be an underlying current in soccer matches to go and explode. You don’t have that in football, baseball, or hockey. But soccer is expected to get the crowd involved, be hooligans. The problems they have over in London and England and all places where they play soccer especially, in the southern hemisphere they take that stuff way beyond us. But there’s always underlying powder keg of frustration in the general people. People who have felt they have been marginalized. Talk about a lot of things about disrespect. People feel they have been disrespected. The last election cycle was nothing but a big thumbs up, screw you to the entire country. We’ve been disrespected; we’re not going to take it anymore. And you see the results. That’s one way. That’s one reaction. The other reaction is to get angry. This country’s loaded with people with guns. One of the things they did, they suspended sales of gasoline. You couldn’t go to the gas station and get a container of gasoline. If you didn’t put it in your car, you couldn’t buy gasoline during that period because they didn’t want people buying gasoline. So, you have people feeling marginalized, people feeling like you’re not listening to them, complaints are falling on deaf ears. To fuel that, we’ve got an arsenal of weapons. It’s hot. Something about the scientific study that 93 degrees seems to be a breaking point for people. Once it crosses that, their minds start to get really anxious about things. Long hot summer, frustrations, economic frustrations, political frustrations, social frustrations, people just frustrated for whatever reason. They want to blame somebody and they can’t pin a finger on somebody so they strike out. Throughout my life I’ve never felt that towards anything or anyone. I’ve accepted responsibilities for my own mistakes but that’s the way I was raised. And so, justified? Absolutely not. No, absolutely not. Even if it was responding to a police raid on a blind pig – and there was a lot of – back then, Detroit was almost like an occupied camp. You could find one or two black police officers, maybe, so it was an army of white males you could find one or two black police officers, maybe, so it was an army of white males – there weren’t any white women – an army of white males like an occupying police force. STRESS [Stop The Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets], that came up. It was a definite resentment toward the police department. And it didn’t – now that’s something that I did experience. We used to have back then, it used to be called the Big Four and it was four officers – it was a regular uniformed, patrol officer – all white. A uniformed, patrol officer drove the car. It was a – I think we had Chrysler cars back then, too. It was afforded three plain-clothes officers. They used to slink low in the car and ride around. It was called cruise control. And their job was to go out, bust heads. That was their job. And everybody called then The Big Four. People terrified of them. They’d roll down the street and people scatter. And the car use to be always slunk down in the back, that’s because in that trunk they had a complete arsenal. Bullet-proof vests, helmets, machine guns. I mean machine guns. They were ready for war. And it was known, you didn’t mess with the Big Four; the Big Four messed with you. So that’s a precursor to this –

JW: You said you had a run-in with them?

OC: Hmm?

JW: You said had a run-in with them? Or you just felt the presence?

OC: Oh, I knew not to have a run-in with them. But I had a run-in with the STRESS people. Because back then, if you – fast-forward to next year I was driving a car so even after the riots there was a lot of – the police department, it wasn’t until Coleman Young – that’s how Coleman Young got elected mayor. He promised the number one thing is not have the police busting your head, cracking your door, pulling you over. This was a common occurrence in Detroit. If you were a young, black male, the police would pull you over in a heartbeat. Doing something or not, just driving. They used to call it “Driving While Black,” this was “Walking While Black.” You got harassed by the police department. So, there was a natural resentment for that. It hadn’t affected me until later on. So maybe for somebody that was 19 or 20. Also got to think about something else: this was the start of – yeah 1966, the start of the Vietnam War. So, a lot of people getting drafted, so they had to create an available pool of people that couldn’t get work so that would have to enlist and drafted and go to Vietnam. So, it wasn’t until you get older and see the handsprings, the political pulling, and the puppeteering that you understand why there was such discontent on the street because it’s necessary to feed into this machine so that you can – General Motors at that time – so they can sell M-16s. They made the rifles that wouldn’t work in the sand. And a lot of guys over there got killed because the rifles jammed. And fortunately for me, I didn’t have to go.

JW: Oh, good,

OC: But my brother and my cousins. So, you’re on a city level, you’re on a neighborhood level living and you’re totally unaware of the expanding circle of events that are international in some cases that are well beyond your control, but yes, they come back to affect you living in that little, small, two-and-three blocks and you don’t even see it. You’re such on a small ant level, you don’t even see how manipulated you are until you get out, until you read, until you educate yourself, and you learn. Then you see it bolster. This cause and effected this, this, this, and that and finally it gets down to you and you say, “Okay, I understand how the game is played now worldwide. It’s an eyeopener when you wake up. Unfortunately, we have probably two or three generations out here that haven’t woke up. They’re still disassociated with how the world works and how that something happening on the other side of the world in China can affect them walking down the street here. They have no clue as to how connected it is. They think, “It doesn’t bother me.” It does. It really does.

JW: So, I’ve heard you use the term riot a few times. Is that the word you use to describe it because we’ve heard a couple other terms as well?

OC: Well, “Insurrection.” An insurrection sounds like something that happens in South America. We’re going to go out and rise up against – an insurrection is you rise up against an oppressive machine. So, who do we rise up against? Didn’t rise up against the political structure. “Civil Disobedience,” that’s a polite way of saying it, but once again, that implies that you’re civilly disobedient to a structure, to a power structure. Going out and burning down a neighborhood business that didn’t cheat you, had nothing against you, but because now you have [air ?] and opportunity, that’s a riot. Because it wasn’t – there was not – it wasn’t like we were to do this to take over City Hall or take over the state government. It wasn’t an uprising against the city of Detroit or the state of Michigan – or even smaller, the county of Wayne. It was – that’s the definition of a riot: It’s a mob that acts violently and strikes out at whatever is near. Nobody rioted across Eight Mile Road. Nobody rioted west of Telegraph or east of Alter Road. They didn’t go over to Windsor and riot. It was specifically confined to the city of Detroit and a very small area. I mean, I think somewhere on Seven Mile somebody said, Oh, they’re burning stuff here, we’ll burn this place up. But that was rare, it was really confined to a very localized area. I mean, somebody will come and say, Oh, yeah, they burned the house down next to me. No, that was somebody that was in the neighborhood. It had nothing to do with the riot. And I don’t think, except for the first night or maybe the first day, I don’t think you had that many people – I cannot – because I cannot recall that many people out in the street in a mob situation going up and down the street. Because I came out in the daytime and I saw the destruction. I went home and went to sleep because of the curfew. So, I wouldn’t come out at night anyway. You see the after affects. I didn’t hear anything, I slept soundly, I didn’t hear anything. Nobody woke me up in the night with gunshots and stuff like that, I didn’t hear anything, I slept soundly. Wake up the next day and see another puff of smoke over here. Go around the block and they tore up this and that. Other than that, I didn’t see anything.

JW: Are you optimistic for the state of the city moving forward?

CO: Oh, I’ve always been optimistic. If you’re not optimistic, then you leave. I would have left a long time ago. If you’re not optimistic, you quit. You stop messing with it. You give it up. And I said, that’s another one of the mistakes about the city. The city never stopped evolving. It never stopped moving forward because even during that stretch, people still stayed. They still paid their taxes, they still cut their grass, they still raised their kids, they still did everything that normal human beings do. Even while you’re losing a million people that have decided on their own to leave. I’m president of our neighborhood association. I can tell you, these people have been in their houses for 30 or 40 years. They didn’t leave. They didn’t move. They didn’t quit. They went to work whatever job they had during this period. They coached Little League. The guy across the street is coaching baseball and has been coaching baseball for 30 years. We dealt with it. It was another thing that had to be dealt with and done and did it change? It definitely changed the political structure in Detroit and it changed the political structure in Detroit for the next 50 years because they elected Coleman Young and until Mike Duggen, Boom! We had black folk in positions of authority and power. Something that prior to that you never had. Couldn’t get – you couldn’t almost get – it was always, woah, we got a black person on the council. So, these things happen but then again, you had a city where one million people left so that city, by default, became a majority black city. It wasn’t that black people weren’t already here because black people left, too. Southfield was populated by black people, or it is now. But you had a contingency of folk that just left so the city was left with black residents. It wasn’t that we just came in and took over; we maintained. We kept all the lights on – no pun included but we kept all the lights on. The city functioned. The city existed. The city kept going. It didn’t just all of a sudden Detroit, Michigan disappeared from the map. It was always here. We won a sports championship the next year in 1968. We won three basketball championships during that period of time. We won Stanley Cups. The entire thing kept going, the city kept functioning. It did not disappear. We attracted new residents. People like me grew up, participated in the process, put down roots, made more people. Nothing changed. It’s the perception that something happened and it really didn’t. I think it’s like certain parts of nature have naturally occurring forest fires that have to occur to regrow and rebirth the area. In some small way, violently as it was, the riots had to – and it wasn’t the first riot Detroit ever had. It was not. It had to do that. But it had to be enough of a gut-punch to regrow and recycle the city for the next 50, 60 years. Maybe even 100. Right now, it’s getting – the city got another gut-punch with the quote unquote “bankruptcy” and every now and then you have to gut-punch society to make it move forward. The gut-punch in 1967 was the riots. The gut-punch in 2014 was the bankruptcy. All of these things have to happen – New York City went bankrupt. Cleveland went bankrupt. We’re not the first city to go bankrupt. So, you have to have a guy-punch to move a large organization because it’s like the Titanic, “Oh there’s the iceberg, we ain’t turning. It’s getting closer, we’re not going to turn. Oops, we hit it. Oh, damn, now we should have turned.” It sort of takes that. You don’t want to live through too many of them but you have to realize that you’re in a unique position because you can see where that – now you can see green grass where brown grass used to be. You appreciate that green grass now because you saw the brown grass before. And some visionaries can tell you, Hey you better do something or this grass is going to turn brown. Oh I don’t care about that and the ground turns brown. So now you have to come in and work hard to get it back to being green. Hopefully people and society and entities from labor, government, and the philanthropic people can see, let’s not let ourselves get to where we need powder kegs and gut-punches to make us change and adapt. That’s hard because some people are so entrenched that they can’t see that change is coming and therefore they won’t change. That’s not comfortable. I hope for gosh sakes that we won’t have to have a climactic gut-punch for us to realize that global warming is absolutely real. And it seems like that’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take that meteor hitting the earth for us to wake up and we’ll be just like the dinosaurs: extinct. Detroit didn’t go extinct. What we had are small meteors hit and knock out an entire underbelly that once lived here and thrived. It didn’t knock out the crime because the crime has been here since 1920. The Purple Gang was running up and down. Those are the people that Al Capone hired for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. They came from Detroit. So, did it change, yes. But it should change. You can’t have something happen like that and go back to what you had. In that case it was good because it forced the change. It forced a change and forced an acknowledgment that something is wrong. And people have been trying and conniving and trying to keep some of it going on and then there’s been another group that trying to right the wrong and figure out how to get it done. Even today, it’s still going on. People are trying to hold on to – and that’s power. People are very reluctant to share people. If people share power a lot more easily, things like this would never get to the point. That’s what it really is. Somebody has something, they’re not going to share it, and they expect you to keep living you are while they live like they do. It’s never going to work in any society.

JW: Are there any other memories from that summer that you would like to share?

CO: Other than that, it’s – I survived it. Truthfully, until July comes around and oh, it’s the anniversary of the riot. Is it 50 years? Yeah 50 years. It’s not something that I get up every day and think about because I’m not associated with anything to do with it. It’s not something I get up everyday and, oh my gosh I remember the riot!” Maybe if I had been one of the relatives of the 43 people that were killed or if someone had died that was close to me, then it would have a different meaning to me. My wife knows people whose parents were shot and I don’t know anybody that was shot or killed but she does. So, for them, that’s something they live with every single day, I don’t. A party store around the corner from where I used to live burned down or was destroyed. It’s something else now. I don’t go to it one way or the other so I have no connection to – today when I’m going to Twelfth Street, it’s because I’m going the Motown Museum and I cross Twelfth Street. I have no concept of Twelfth Street or related or Twelfth and Collingwood [Clairmount] or any of these things. It doesn’t register with me because I don’t have a perfect connection to it. I knew it happened. I was in the city, but, thank God, nobody I knew personally got harmed so it’s not an everyday I’ve got to live with this every single day about the riots are here or it’s the anniversary of something happened to somebody that I loved. It would be different – I don’t know if you have anybody that actually lost somebody in the riot but their story would be totally different than mine.

JW: Well, thank you so much for coming in and sitting down. We really appreciate it.

CO: No problem. Thank you. Take care and good luck.

Original Format



40min 14sec


Julia Westblade


Oliver Cole


Detroit, MI




“Oliver Cole, April 21st, 2017,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed October 1, 2023, http://oralhistory.detroithistorical.org/items/show/649.

Output Formats