Justine Smith


Justine Smith


Justine Smith was twelve years old working as a camp counselor and recalls memories of fear and uncertainty in July, 1967.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society, Detroit, MI






Written Story


Downtown, Detroit, Michigan


I was 12 years old. My life was about to be changed forever. I am Caucasian and lived in the inner city of Detroit, [with] mostly African Americans on our block.

My first "job" was at our church’s camp property in Hartland, Michigan. I left every summer to work in kitchen washing dishes or whatever needed to be done. I was there for several weeks, enjoying being with all the campers and fellow church members. A call came in from my parents in Detroit, which was relayed to me: I can't come home as planned. I can't come home? How does a twelve year old take that in? All the phone call said [was that] there were riots back in Detroit and I needed to stay far away. Riots? I was barely familiar with what a riot was. I was getting "bits and pieces" from some of the adults out at camp. I was truly dismayed. Was my family OK? What about my neighbors? Where exactly was this happening at? [There were] so many heartbreaking questions, [and] so few answers. I felt helpless & scared. Days (seemed like weeks) went by and I was grasping for any bit of information I could grasp.

Then the camp nurse came to see me. We went back to her cabin where she had a small black and white TV. I got my first glimpse of the 1967 riots. I was petrified at what I was watching. This can't be Detroit! Buildings and cars being set on fire. People looting from businesses and sheer devastation. This was my city? My home? I knew Detroit would be changed forever. The tears streamed down my face. I was born in Detroit (on Woodward Avenue)! [I was] baptized in Detroit, [I] went to school and was raised in Detroit. What caused such a tragedy?

[It] didn't matter, though; the damage was done. Talk about timing: My step-sister was getting married in a week, [and] I was in the wedding party and had to come home. It was a feeling I had never felt before. Coming home to what? The uncertainty was chilling. I was told our neighborhood was not involved. My step-sister was getting married! In downtown Detroit!! How, I thought? There are riots. But, by this point the National Guard was there and "Marshall Law" was in force. (I had to learn what that was).

As we headed toward Detroit I was in great fear. I started to see tanks! Tanks!? Rolling down the streets, filled with big men with big guns. I was in shock. I started seeing some of the destruction of the cars and buildings and could not believe my eyes. I was never the same again. My home was different now. Are these buildings going to be fixed? Will it ever be the same? I just remembered the good things about Detroit. J.L. Hudsons, Crowleys, Cunninghams and more. Truly it was never the same. Yes we needed to move.

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Justine Smith

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arson, wedding, innercity, Hartland-Michigan,




“Justine Smith,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed October 1, 2023, http://oralhistory.detroithistorical.org/items/show/71.

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