In this interview, Dwight discusses growing up in the North Corktown/Briggs neighborhood. He discusses what life was like for him growing up in a poor neighborhood as a young African-American boy. He describes the neighborhood and the people who live there.
Detroit Historical Society
Detroit Historical Society
Dwight Stackhouse was born in November 1947 in Richmond, Virginia. When he was only a few months old, his family moved to North Corktown, Detroit. He remained there until he finished high school and has since returned with a passion for improving the city.
SS: So it is October 4, my name is Sally Schmitt and I am interviewing Dwight Stackhouse in Detroit about the neighborhood North Corktown. So first, let’s start with where and when were you born? DS: I was actually born in Richmond, Virginia. SS: Oh wow! DS: I wasn’t born in Michigan at all, but I was only there for three months. I was born in November 1947, by February 1948, my family moved here [to Detroit, MI] SS: Okay, did you have family here previously? DS: No. SS: Like relatives? DS: No. SS: No? Just moved here out of the blue? DS: Well it wasn’t so much out of the blue, Detroit was a destination spot, everybody wanted to come here, you know the automobile industry, the opportunities, and of course fleeing the racist South. You know… my parents… chose to flee the insanity, the racism. SS: Obviously, you were very young when you moved here, but had you, like, heard anything about Detroit before coming here, or do you know, like, what your parents thought about it? DS: No, the only thing they knew is that it was boom town, it was a destination spot, one of the fastest growing cities in the world at the time and you have to imagine being a black person in the oppressive South, you looking for ways to give something better to your children and Detroit, Chicago, the northern cities, were places where it was believed you could achieve that. You would be freer, opportunities would be grander if you lived North. So, in some ways it was a continuation of the Underground Railroad, just now it’s above ground. Exiting from the South to any major city where we thought… well my parents thought opportunities [presented themselves] SS: So, when you moved to Detroit, did your family move to North Corktown? Or was that later in life? DS: No, that was… insofar as I know… they moved from… well… it was the process… they didn’t know anybody here… but they came with several. My father and his two very best friends who they were like uncles to us. My mother and her two best friends all moved up here at about the same time and for the first year, six months to be sure, they co-habitated, they all lived in… wherever they could live. They all had to find jobs and so… then when they did that, each person found their own space and my parents found a very modest little house in a lovely little neighborhood, that I fell in love with, on Michigan [Avenue] and 23rd Street. The house is gone, but it is, that little spot, Sally, is the epicenter of my nostalgia… you know and I’m… I can get weepy about that little spot, I see it as it was, not as it is and I mean… I see it, I see it all, every tree, every shrub, all the neighbors, all the kids, I can hear them, dogs, and see them. The little corner store, manicured lawns and trees bowing over the streets. So that was where we landed, 23rd and Michigan [Avenue]. SS: Cool, so what neighborhood would you define that as? DS: Well that’s interesting, I don’t know. It is not Corktown, it’s not exactly Core City. SS: It’s North of [Interstate] 75, right? DS: No. SS: No? DS: No, oh wait a minute… Yes! SS: Yes? DS: Yes, it is North of [Interstate] 75. I don’t know if it has a name, if it ever… look, when we were there, it didn’t have a name at all. And if it did, we… it was unbeknownst to us, but I think people just called it the South End… I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s called. It’s not exactly Corktown, but I spent a lot of time in Corktown. It was part of my… play area, if you will. SS: Yeah? [Laughs] DS: Yeah SS: And what was it like there? Like, how would you describe it? DS: Uh, man, it was, I mean, it’s such an interesting question because my siblings would answer differently, we were all there at the same time, but for me… it was heaven and I would be hard-pressed… I would have to talk for a long time for me to recall some unpleasantness. It was wonderful, I was one of those kids though, you know I’m, tree-climbing, marble shooting kinda kid. I just, you know that kid running up and down the street, I knew everybody, and everybody knew me, “Well there goes Skipper,” you know. So, it was kinda, it was a slice of heaven for me. It was a place where all the lawns were manicured, and we had these little picket fences, and everyone was poor, so if you had a picket fence you had to build it yourself. It’s where I began to hone my carpentry skills with my uncle and so on. We were so poor that we would gather nails and straighten them so that we could reuse them, and now repurposing is a big thing. And we repurposed everything… everything you know, back then, everybody had a garden, everybody, you go in the garden for the beets, you go in the garden for the beans, for the cabbage, for pumpkins, you know, cucumbers, peppers, etc. So, this movement to urban farming it seems silly to us because we, it was simply understood, it’s what we did. That makes sense because everybody’s up south, they just came North from the South, they were used to having a garden, but it was there, plant, every spring you plant some. SS: Was it an integrated neighborhood, or was there some separation? DS: No, I tell ya this, I did not know this until… and … I’m a poet, I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it or not, and I write poems about this period because it is so precious to me. You know? I’ve got hundreds of stories, probably endless stories about this little enclave and I had no idea that the eclectic, ethnically, eclectic environment that I was in was unusual. SS: Oh, so it was like a little pocket? DS: Yeah, of Hispanics, Asians… Europeans, primarily Slavic, and then poor whites up from the South, and the poor Blacks up from the South and we all simply played together. You know… we just played together, now not so much the adults, because the adults were limited by their language barriers, you know, first generation. And their culture, you know, Soul food is very different food from Mexican food’s very different from Polish food and so on. Um, but imagine growing up with all those aromas wafting in the air. I did, as I said to Cassidy [the student who interviewed him before this interview], I literally remember the pies sitting on the window sill to cool, now that’s and image that’s Rockwellian, you know… Nobody does that anymore, nobody even makes their own pies, but that’s how I grew up, I knew all the families and all the kids in all the families, I knew all the pets. The dogs and the cats, knew them all, yeah we was… My childhood was the stuff of which movies are made and it was wonderful, my sister would say something very different. SS: Why is that? DS: I don’t know, I don’t know, we were both there… I am the only member in my family that loves the city of Detroit. SS: Really? DS: I’ll never leave, well I mean, I have left, but I’ll never leave. My brother lives here but he lives here because it’s cheap, but uh, the rest of us have fled. SS: So what kinds of things did your neighborhood kids do for fun? DS: All the old games, I mean, we were the generation that saw the birth of the hula-hoop. You know, the first time the hula-hoop showed up, it was a big, big thing. But we were, so wonderfully poor, that playing with tires and sticks and, climbing trees, and shooting marbles, hopscotch, jumping rope, what time is it Mr. Fox. All the games we played, and it was simply beautiful and then of course the street lights would come on and that meant everybody had to go home… looked like a bunch of ole rodents fleeing into our own little cubby holes, but yeah, we all had to be home by the streetlights, but no, I can’t imagine a happier childhood than the one I had. I can’t even imagine. Money wouldn’t do it. I don’t care where you would take me, you know, Hawaii could not have been more beautiful. I believe the Fords and the Rockefellers, and the Carnegies did not have as wonderful a childhood as I did. I loved being a kid. It’s what my book is about in some ways. SS: So, you are writing a book, or have written a book? DS: I have written a book. SS: Okay. DS: The neighborhood is in some way’s incidental in the book. The book is called Mother’s Milk and it is about what happened to me when my mother died, I being a momma’s boy, and when she died I died, and stayed dead for a long time. And I wrote the book in such a way that it’s reflective, it’s a reflective device all the way through it. So, I describe this neighborhood that I am trying to describe to you now and so it’s in the book. You know, if you read the first chapter, you’d see this neighborhood that you’re asking me about. And throughout the book I reflect back to those happier days, because I was clinically depressed for 20 years. SS: And so, speaking of your parents, did both your parents work? Just your father? DS: No, they both worked. They were both chefs, award-winning. SS: Oh, wow! DS: Award-winning chefs. But, I wrote it this way in one of my poems, “No blue ribbons for the Blacks.” My mom would make the pie but the mistress would win the award. My dad would bake the Wellington, but the mister would get the reward. So, they felt the need to get away from that and they came here and, you know, they’re moving on up. They’re moving into paradise and reality sets in that these are just white folks that didn’t have slaves [chuckles]. You know, you are still considered less then. So, my mother, this beautiful, elegant woman was a domestic. [She] cleaned houses for other people and washing their clothes and my father could no longer even be a chef. He simply became a cook, working for the County of Wayne. So, there was poverty all around, but no sense of it. [I] never ever felt poor. But then they were both [unintelligible]. When you would make 30 bucks a week, you can only afford… well there’s not much that you can afford. You make 30 dollars a week and you’ve got 5 kids to feed… but I remember that set of Brittanicas and I mean worn from A to Z. That set of encyclopedias was worn. All the classics were in the house, you know, from Joseph Conrad to Faulkner, to Dostoyevsky [I believe this is the author he was referring to], everything all in the house. My father would conduct these readings. You get the assignment, you gotta read the Iliad, let’s say, and he’d give you a day or a week at the most. And then he’d quiz you on it, and you’d have to tell him what you learned. And I hated him for it, you know, just loathed my father. [I] hated to see him coming, he was going to ask you something about what you learned and “Did you do what I asked” and so, but if he lived now, I would worship him. SS: Yeah. DS: I get it. So, they were both chefs and my mother, interestingly, [when] she was probably in her 40’s, mid 40’s, she did begin selling insurance and became one of the most successful agents in the city. So, she would make, every moth what she made all year [before]. So, that’s more money than she knew what to do with. When you think about it, you could buy a Cadillac for four-thousand dollars. So, she traveled the world and bought… I remember my mother, when we left that enclave and moved to Linwood and Henry [streets], and again a modest house by every way of reckoning, except for poor Blacks up from the South. This was a grand house and she remodeled the whole thing, added on to the kitchen. And I remember her standing there with a cup of coffee in her hand, “I have nothing else to buy. I don’t know what to do with my money,” and so she started just traveling the world. Everywhere, Europe, Mexico, Hawaii, started traveling and that presented some problems because she was making that money, not Daddy. Daddy was still making 30 bucks a week. It’s hard [tearing up]. But yeah, it was a two-family income all my life. SS: And so, where did you guys do your shopping? Did you just shop mostly in that area, or was it more in Corktown? DS: We had, Sally, then what every metropolitan area now wants. I could walk from my house to Michigan Avenue, which is roughly where that woman is sitting [points to a woman roughly 10 yards away] over at the desk, up the steps there. Roughly that far and on that strip, on Michigan Avenue, a butcher, grocery store, sporting goods, furniture, jewelry, we used to go to five-and-dime, drugstore, bank, restaurants, shoe repair. It was nothing that you would want that you couldn’t walk 2 blocks to get to. So, we shopped there and then there was something called the Western Market everyone knows of the Eastern Market, but the Western Market was its kid brother, if you will, and it was at Michigan and I want to say 18th or 15th or somewhere up there. It died young. I mean, I was around when it died, but that's where we would go. It was a farmer’s market and then I as I say, we grew vegetables and flowers in the yard, you know. [phone buzzes] Oh-oh is it time for me to do the thing? Can I try it right now? [talking about paying for his parking meter] Shopping was… the other visual I have of my mother before she became monied. My family is, how do I put this, they’re very well-made. My mother was splendidly built and most of her children of that way. My brother was just, I mean, if you have met my brother when he was young you would have thought that he been lifting weights all his life. [He] never touched any in his life, he was simply sculpted. My brother weighed 230lb and his waist was the same as mine and I weigh 167 [gesturing to his waist] this is how well-made he was. But I have this image of my mother walking home from the Western Market, with these bags two in each hand and my brother would have three in each hand but it's just an image of her coming down what were very clean alleys. You could walk the alleys. It is a very pleasant image, a very pleasant memory. And then sitting around the table when we would chop the vegetables and clean them. Back then, canning was popular for people, poor folks up from the South couldn't afford to go to the store to buy peaches or pears but you can buy them at the farmers market and then can them. Of course, I thought everyone did that. I thought that was the way people lived and I remember participating, but I would participate by handing her things and… I mean because I'm not moved by the culinary. I'm not a food guy. Food is almost no consequence to me. If I'm not hungry I'm not eating. I don't care how beautiful it is, I'm one of those persons that I simply must be hungry to eat a peanut. I can eat one potato chip that's who I am. But yeah, it was very easy going to the market and every now and again we would get into the car as a family and go to a large Market an A&P or a King Cole. I remember that, but that was rare. Mainly, we would just walk up the street. SS: Well that seems like a nice way to live, instead of having to drive to the supermarket every time. DS: No, it was. I'm telling you we must get back to that. We must become an ambulatory pedestrian community, that's what we need to be. This business of malls and such as just… of course I'm not fond of the internet either [chuckles]. I guess I'm just an old school obstructionist. SS: So, where'd you go to school at? DS: Well, my formal education begin at a place called Kraft Elementary and that was roughly at Vinewood and West Grand Boulevard. That school was gone, and for whatever reason there was a zip code change or whatever, so, I had to leave Kraft and go to a school called Cheney. That building still stands, no longer a public school, but the building, still beautiful, at Lawton and I forget the cross street, but somewhere between Myrtle and Buchanan on Lawton. Still a beautiful building, elementary school, but and for a little while I went to a, again still in elementary school, why can't I think of the name of that school? It won't come to me, but I was only there for 1 year. Then I went to Comden [?], junior high school, which was at the corner of West Grand Boulevard and Buchanan. Now gone, just a big, vast lot, you know, gone. And from there I went to Western High School on Scotten and Vernor. That's school still open, and that's the extent of my formal education. That's when you could get educated in in Detroit Public Schools. SS: What was the high school like for you, like, what was your experience in high school? DS: You know you and Cassidy are asking, obviously, the same questions. I'm not much of a student, but I've always been smart. You know, my mom used to get this comment all throughout elementary, junior high, and so on, “you know you can't keep his brain in the room.” I'm staring out the window. Just staring out the window, watching the birds, the butterflies and so on and having thoughts of my own. But I was, how do I put it? I was a good kid. I was a c student and I would only get to be a c student when it was time. Hell, if I don't get all A's I'm going to fail, so I had to hunker down and get the A's just to pass. I was not… I've always been a learner and always loved learning but, I've never liked compulsory learning. You know, you must learn this, and you must memorize it and spit it out on the test. I thought there must be a better way to do this. No one was going to listen to me, I'm a kid. So, I was not what you would call a great student high school. And I don't know that I was particularly popular, you know, I just came and went. I was in the middle of the pack. SS: Was it integrated schools as well? DS: Very integrated, again, equal parts like my neighborhood. I didn't know how special that was. You know again, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics, and Blacks, now and a smattering of Middle Easterners and Asians. I don't remember conflict. Now, understand I graduated in 65, that’s just two years before the big riot. I don't remember racial tension in high school, which isn't to say it wasn't there. I mean, I was always somewhat oblivious to conflict because I was always so happy go lucky. I’m that kid if you gave me… I'm sure you've heard of this joke. You give a kid, a let's say a box of horse manure for Christmas and it's only question, “where's my pony?” You know, and that's who I was. The horse manure… “where's the pony?” The manure would not have depressed me. And so, I had this thing about just enjoying being alive. Just about every moment. When I when I say I'd be hard-pressed to remember unpleasant moments, that's the truth. But my siblings would say it differently, because they're not me. They remember what they remember. I'm always stunned with [unintelligible] we were in the same house. I remember this and you remember that. SS: Which number of the siblings are you? DS: I'm the fourth of five. SS: Okay. DS: But there were always others, you know, poor folks who share a space. So, there was at least one cousin always in the house. He was raised like a brother, and another one who was there almost every summer. And then, my aunts, my mother's sisters, would come and stay in a tiny little house. But we pulled it off somehow. I mean, really, it was a two-bedroom house that we somehow managed to make it a three-bedroom out of it. But that bedroom was like the dining room, between the living room and the kitchen but we turned it into a bedroom. 1 bathroom and sometimes 9 people. It's amazing isn't it. It's inconceivable. I live alone, and my house is too crowded [chuckles]. In a house that is twice that size. I live alone. SS: So, are there any special stories from your childhood that involve your neighborhood as a background that you'd like to share? DS: I should have had you read the book! SS: I'll for sure read it in my research because I'm very interested! DS: Yes, the book is called Mother's Milk and it's about my… I don't want to use the word perverse but clinical attachment to my mother, which is very different from Oedipus it’s not like that at all. It’s physiological and it’s biological and I try to describe it in the book. So, that when she died, I could not stand life without her. Just, “that cannot be” and I lost my mind, but the book is written with a consistent reflective device. It opens with her death and my collapse and then I go into the memories of this neighborhood that were talking about, what it was like. Much of what I've just said is written in this book, and throughout the book, I reflect on those happier days. So, that neighborhood is, I don't know how prominent it is in terms of the 500 pages, but it certainly opens with that. If you read the first chapter, you would see this neighborhood being described.
“Dwight Stackhouse,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed October 1, 2023, http://oralhistory.detroithistorical.org/items/show/725.