James Jackson


James Jackson


James Jackson in this interview discusses growing up on the East side of Detroit in a segregated neighborhood. He recollects seeing segregation first-hand, and defending his family's store during the 1967 Uprising in Detroit.


Detroit Historical Society




Detroit Historical Society


Narrator/Interviewee's Name

James Jackson

Brief Biography

James Jackson was born in Detroit in 1948. He grew up on the East side of the city. His family was from Memphis, Tennessee but settled down in Black Bottom.

Interviewer's Name

William Wall Winkel

Interview Place

Detroit, Michigan




W. W. : Can you please start by telling me where and when you were born?

J. J. : Born in Detroit, 1948.

W. W. : Did you grow up in the city?

J. J. : Yes.

W. W. : What neighborhood?

J. J. : East Side, Gratiot and the Boulevard.

W. W. : What was that neighborhood like for you growing up?

J. J. : Oh, just heaven, just like heaven man. It was a mixed neighborhood, mostly white though. Everybody knew everybody for miles around, you knew the whole family. It’s just one of those things, that’s the way it was.

W. W. : Do you know why your parents picked that neighborhood?

J. J. : Economics at the time, that made everything work back in those days. They came out of Memphis, Tennessee, and they settled here in Detroit, and they first settled down in the Black Bottom, down by the market area, old eastern market, and as they started to having kids they got a flat over on Iroquois and Medberry, and that’s where I was born. And they decided that we needed a place for the kids to play and do what they wanted, so my Dad bought a house on Kirby, 6916 East Kirby, there’s nothing there now, it’s just a vacant lot, and we grew up over there. Probably in 1951 or ’52, my folks bought a little grocery store, well they rented, started renting first, and as time went on they bought the store.

W. W. : Where was the store at?

J. J. : 541 Canton at Kirby.

W. W. : Do you remember what the name of it was?

J. J. : Jack’s Market, yep. [Long pause, William begins to speak but James starts speaking again.] My dad always said it was Jack’s Market, the kids said that’s Mrs. Jackson’s store [both laughing.] He’d go crazy about my mother.

W. W. : Growing up in that neighborhood, what were some of the things you did for fun with your friends?

J. J. : We used to ride our bikes down to the river to go fishing, early in the morning, that was really huge. You did that man, that was big, and we did that quite often. We rode our bikes in the area, did all kind of tricks and things on the bikes, played cops and robbers.

W. W. : You mentioned that your neighborhood was integrated –

J. J. : Yes it was.

W. W. : Did black and white kids play together or –

J. J. : Yes we did.

W. W. : Did you ever feel any tensions from that?

J. J. : No, no. It was like heaven back in those days, that neighborhood? Yeah. We saw different sides of this and that, but we all got along. They were very good to us, and we tried to be good to them.

W. W. : What schools did you go to?

J. J. : I went to Thomas Elementary, which has a nice following on Facebook, about a hundred of us kids are on there. I went to Saint Phillips Lutheran, private school, then came back and went to [Riesel] Junior High, Detroit Public, and finally graduated from Northeastern, Detroit Public, High School.

W. W. : Aside from your parents store, what other shops were there in the neighborhood for you to go to?

J. J. : We had a big Sears-Roebuck on the corner of Vandyke and Gratiot, it was just like going downtown, we had Sears-Roebuck there, we had Western Auto there. We had seven-cent hamburgers across the street, [inaudible, Tophat?], [repeats for emphasis] seven-cent hamburgers, and they were dynamite, we had ten-cent hotdogs later on. And we had a place at Gratiot and [Mont Elliot], was right near the movie house, that did homemade ice cream, [Francucos Brothers?], and I’m telling you, you got so much ice cream for ten cents, you couldn’t hardly eat it all, and they had different flavors!

W. W. : As your friends are riding your bikes around the neighborhood, do you tend to stay in the neighborhood itself, or did you venture around the city?

J. J. : You ventured out a little bit, you sure did. Yep, you got in trouble for it sometimes too, somebody see you and say, “What are you guys doing over here, you know you’re not supposed to be over here,” you know about that stuff [laughter].

W. W. : Are there any particular memories you’d like to share from growing up in that neighborhood? Anything that still sticks out to you?

J. J. : I can remember, I must’ve been about seven or eight, we were always asked questions about what we saw, back in those days there was prejudice, but one of the clear signs of prejudice was that we had garbage trucks and the black guys always rode on the back of the garbage truck, you never saw them inside of the garbage truck, and as kids we asked the question, “Why don’t you ever see the guys, the colored guys, in the truck,” and my uncle told us, that’s the way it was, they couldn’t ride in the truck, they could only ride on the back of the truck. When lunchtime came, the white guy that was driving the truck would go dump the truck first and then he’d go home and get lunch, the black guys would walk over to a corner store and they would get lunchmeat or cold pop, you know, something you can sort of eat, and they would eat right there in the neighborhood, in our store, they ate in our store many a day, and we had asked the question, “How come you never saw the black guys in the truck,” so they finally let us know what was going on, but they also let us see the first Negro garbage truck driver for the City of Detroit. He lived on Kirby Street between Helen and the Boulevard, his name was Carl Robinson, and when he came home, with his garbage truck, for his lunch, they lined all of us kids up on the sidewalk so we could see it. Yep, that was something, my uncle said “That’s the first colored garbage truck driver for the City of Detroit, so you guys see it now, you’re always asking questions, now you know.” So, I never forgot that, never forgot it.

W. W. : As you’re growing up in the 1950s and early ‘60s, and you and your friends are venturing around the city, do you sense any growing tensions within the city?

J. J. : “Us against the crooks,” that’s the biggest tension you’d hear. You’ve got to stay on guard against the crooks, because their mission is to take over whenever, wherever.

W. W. : After you graduated high school what did you do next?

J. J. : Graduated from high school, tried to join the military, while I’m going to college, heavy equipment school first. Went to heavy equipment in southern Illinois, Braidwood, and come out with double A’s in that stuff, and really couldn’t get a job anywhere, tried, I was just ahead of the way things were. Back in those days they were not hiring colored equipment operators, and I was one of the few black guys – well, I was the only American black guy in the school, the rest of them, they had about ten or fifteen, came from Africa, we had a bunch of Native Americans, and we had some guys from Canada, but I was the only American black that was there. And the Canadian guys told me, they said, “Man you’re gonna have a problem,” and I’m like “What do you mean,” he said “You know there’s prejudice,” and I said “There ain’t no prejudice, what are you guys talking about, there’s only can you do it or can’t do it,” and he said “O.K.,” and I found out later on there was problems. They would tell you they did not hire colored equipment operators, I could hire on as a laborer, but I couldn’t hire on as an equipment operator.

W. W. : Is that part of the reason why you went back to school?

J. J. : Yeah, I did that, I wound up getting higher, I had to go overseas and work. I was a civilian contractor for [Vector or Bechdel] Worldwide, and I worked for them for a while, about a year or so, and it was overseas, it wasn’t in the United States, and I worked for them overseas, but I couldn’t do anything here to make that kind of money, but that was a government contract. But after I got tired of that I came back, went to college, and I studied law enforcement, after I studied law enforcement, I wound up getting hired in by the Detroit Police Department.

W. W. : And what year was that?

J. J. : ’68, ’68 or ’69.

W. W. : Were you overseas during the uprising in ’67?

J. J. : No I was here, I was here, back and forth yeah.

W. W. : Were you in the city during that week?

J. J. : Um-hm, yes I was.

W. W. : Do you remember how you first heard about what was going on?

J. J. : I used to listen to the police radio quite a bit back in those days and I watched out for the store, because we were right across the street from the store, and I think that’s how we heard it.

W. W. : Was the store threatened or damaged during that week?

J. J. : They did come to loot the store and I was sitting at the front door with a rifle, and I fired a shot at them, scared them off.

W. W. : How did the rest of your neighborhood hold up during that week?

J. J. : There was a white store around the corner from us that was a lot bigger, what you call a neighborhood supermarket back in the day, he got looted, really well they got him, Mr. [Laflore]. He had three stores I think at the time, one of them was actually over here.

W. W. : Did he reopen his shop afterwards?

J. J. : He did later on, yes he did.

W. W. : Did you stay hunkered down in the store that entire week?

J. J. : Yeah, we stayed, it was mostly me watching at night, and in the daytime my dad was there and took care of it. [unrelated conversation about conditions in the car] And during the day my dad was around, at night I was there, so we took care of pretty good business.

W. W. : How do you refer to what happened that week in July? Do you see as a riot or rebellion?

J. J. : It was kind of a rebellion, poor people against the world [laughter], because that’s what it was, black and white guys together, getting what they thought they needed. And there was no real race, race riot, type stuff going on, it was just people getting food, and getting televisions and different things they needed. Most times you could see the blacks and the whites together going down the street, getting what they wanted.

W. W. : Was that what the crowd was like for you when they came to your parents shop?

J. J. : When they came to our folk’s place they were coming to get food, because that’s all we really had in there.

W. W. : Did seeing that first hand, did that make you or your family want to move out of the city?

J. J. : No, no, there was no moving out of the city back in those days, you didn’t want to go nowhere, Detroit was just the place. I mean there was nothing like Detroit anywhere else.

W. W. : So you mentioned joining the police department in ’68, ’69 and earlier you talked about the prejudice you faced in your previous employment, did you face that same prejudice when you joined the police department?

J. J. : Yeah it was worse, yeah. What I faced was over in Illinois, that’s where I was trying to get the work, and as you know Illinois is way worse than Michigan back in the day, and it was rough, that was big time, because we were dealing with big time companies and stuff, and they just told us they didn’t hire any colored equipment operators, and I had never heard anything like that until I started dealing with them. Then when I came back to Detroit and got hired in by the police department, I ran into all that prejudice once I got on the police department. So I guess as a child I was kind of sheltered from a lot of this stuff, I really didn’t know nothing about it, and it was there, but it was kept from us as kids, as young adults. One of my best friends was an older white guy, I worked for him for most of my years as a youngster, I walked his dog and whatever else he asked or had to have done, he and his sister and his brother they were older people, and whenever they needed anything “Call the kid” you know. When I got ready to go for my driver’s test to get my license, the man let me drive his brand-new Oldsmobile Delta 88, can you imagine? Somebody letting a young kid drive their brand-new Oldsmobile, that’s like a Cadillac back in the day. These were my friends man, and they were just real good people in the neighborhood.

W. W. : When you joined the police department what precinct were you assigned to?

J. J. : Well when I joined I was in one of those extended stay classes, they’re longer than the others if you get in at special times of the year. I got in right around Christmas, so we wound up staying in longer, and when they dismissed us they do a break, and when they dismissed us for our break I wound up working at the tenth precinct, which was, at that time, the worst precinct in the city. And when I worked at the tenth precinct I worked inside on a desk, operator, and I also got a chance to work on the cruiser, which was the Big Four, have you heard about the Big Four? [William says “Yeah.”] Yeah I got a chance to work on the Big Four.

W. W. : Did you have any experiences with the Big Four growing up?

J. J. : Yes, yes, yes! [James starts laughing as he is repeating yes, he honks the horn of the car that he and William are in, and there are reciprocal honks from cars in the background.] Yes. Yes, I sure did. Got arrested by the Big Four when I was sixteen, yep.

W. W. : What happened?

J. J. : Riding in a stolen car, didn’t know it was stolen. Trying get home from school, and a guy stopped and there was a bunch of kids in the car, stopped, picked me up. We went about a block and the Big Four got us, yep.

W. W. : What were some of the things you faced in your early years in the police department?

J. J. : Just, grown up racism you know. At roll call they’d call your name, and they’d say you’re assigned to this car, that’s your scout car that you’re working, you and another guy. When they’d call his name after they’d call your name or called your name after they’d call his name, they would groan, stuff like that. And then at, just say, if you’re working midnights, they would go home at half of the shift, and they wouldn’t get docked for it, but they would – [gets distracted] the way the thing worked, if you worked half of the day and you went home sick, they did not charge you for a sick day, so what they would do, in protest of working with me or a black guy, they would work half of the day and then they would go home sick. And what happened a lot of time, the next guy they put with you to fill in, he’d wind up working a couple of hours then he’d go home sick. Just psychological things on you that made you feel bad, you had two white partners, both of them went home sick, they didn’t want to work with you. Young guys who were energetic, full of piss and vinegar, trying to get there and do the right thing? Man, that was a ball buster.

W. W. : Did things change after the election of Coleman Young in ’74?

J. J. : Yep, it did. He knew a lot about how they had treated blacks years gone by, and I guess it had just been over the top of my head, I didn’t know anything about how they had treated blacks. And we got chance to hear from different ones, they’d tell us about it, this is racism, that’s racism, they don’t want to work with you, they don’t want to be with you, all of this kind of stuff, I was like, okay I see now. Because we hadn’t experienced this stuff, going to Northeastern High School? We didn’t have any problems like that. Some of my best buddies, throughout my whole life, I went to Northeastern with were white kids, just never had any problems.

W. W. : During your early years on the force, did you continue to live with your parents?

J. J. : Yeah, we bought this place in ’68, over here.

W. W. : Where’s over here?

J. J. : Chalmers, 785 Chalmers. Yeah, we bought this right after we got on the job.

W. W. : Why did your family pick this neighborhood?

J. J . : Well my mother was an active mother of the NAACP, and she let us know that you’re not going to be able to live outside of Detroit. So you might as well be satisfied with something in Detroit, and we came over here, she knew I liked the water, being by the water and fishing and all that stuff, so she brought me over here and we saw the house on Chalmers – first thing we saw was the creeks, down at the foot of the river, the Fox Creek, and that was it, I was hooked.

W. W. : When you moved into this neighborhood what were some of the shops and the different amenities that it had?

J. J. : Just about what we’ve got now, maybe a few more. All the shops along Jefferson were full.

W. W. : Do you remember what some of them were?

J. J. : We had the biggest hardware store I’ve ever seen in my life was on Jefferson. We had a Bill’s Bike Shop, Schwinn bikes, that was like heaven man, like having a Cadillac dealer if you’re a senior or something [laughter]. We had a Detroit-Edison, had a store up there on Jefferson, we had [Row’s] Jewelers, we had two or three [Cancellation] Shoe Stores, we had clothing stores, men’s clothing, women’s clothing stores, Jefferson Avenue was like downtown Detroit.

W. W. : Did your parents keep up the store?

J. J. : Yeah, they kept it until ’72, ’73, they got robbed and they kind of just gave it up to a guy named [Yoeler], we wound up running it. They had one robbery there that just really scared them, and they had never been robbed before, but this one robbery just really scared my mother, and that was it, she didn’t want to stay in there anymore.

W. W. : As your family transitioned to Jefferson Chalmers, did your family ever go to the Vanity Ballroom or do anything else like that?

J. J. : No, the Vanity was a place for white people. The whites would come on Friday and Saturday night, and they would generally drive and they would park on our side streets and they would get out and they would walk down here to the Vanity.

W. W. : Could you describe some of the people that were going in?

J. J. : They were middle-aged and older white people, mostly older white people. The ladies would have these big, white, wide dresses on, and the guys would usually have some kind of little fancy tuxedo-looking suit.

W. W. : Have you ever been inside?

J. J. : Yeah, once or twice.

W. W. : What was it like on the inside?

J. J. : It was a big like, dancehall type building.

W. W. : Was the floor still working when you got to go in?

J. J. : You know I didn’t find out about the spring-loaded dancefloor until about twenty years ago.

W. W. : As you’re living in the neighborhood, and you’re still a Detroit police officer, how is the neighborhood changing over the course of the seventies and as we’re entering the eighties?

J. J. : When I came over here, I used to ride the bus, because I worked midnights quite a bit the first part of my tenure on the police department. When I would walk home just from Jefferson, walking down here to this house, I would get yelled at “Nigger go home, we don’t want any niggers over here,” and I had never been subjected to that at all, but that’s what we got back then. Then I kind of talked to one of my supervisors at work and let him knew I was having these problems, and he was like “Oh don’t worry about it, just wear your uniform home, that’ll stop,” man he knew what he was talking about. I start wearing my uniform home, and they were sitting on the porch waiting for me when I got there, wanting to know what was going on.

W. W. : Did you see that change happen or those incidents happening more and more, aside from just from your walk home?

J. J. : They got more friendly with me after they found out I was a cop, so that was one of those deals.

W. W. : When did you start patrolling the neighborhood?

J. J. : I think some of those Devil’s Nights, after those Devil’s Nights we got started. Really got into heavy doing it? When they closed up the precinct, when they closed up the police station, I think that’s been about fifteen years ago. That’s when we really had to knuckle down, because when they closed the police station, the neighborhood just kind of started to go crazy. It was more personal, “We gonna get you,” crooks were really busy trying to take over, you didn’t see the police hardly any more at all. Some of the stuff I did back in those days, I was the ice cream man, and all the kids knew I was a policeman, and I was a good-humored guy, and crime was creeping up, things were going on, and they’re like “Mr. Jackson what can we do,” so on, so on. This is happening and this happened, and I’m like “Yeah well, ok we’ll try to help out,” and I probably could have stopped, but when you’ve got that kind of connection with the people and they’re asking for help and you’re right there, you have to try to help them. We wound up starting to help, and I had been to school for community service type work for the police department, they sent me to the Model Neighborhoods school, I don’t know if you remember that, back in ’68, ’69. The Model Neighborhoods program was a program whereby the government sought to teach municipal police departments how to really connect with their communities, and there were about thirteen or fourteen of us that they sent to the school down at Wayne State and different other classes they had. But, I had been through this, I knew, and I had got the biggest part of it done because I knew everybody in the neighborhood, and their mission is, if you’re going to do this kind of work you’ve got to know the people in the neighborhood, so I was halfway there. I knew just about everybody in the neighborhood by first name, so, once we got all of that out of the way, I said, well let me go ahead and help. And we started helping out doing this, that, and the other, we put up rewards for information leading to arrests for guys doing wrong in the area, I know about videotaping, we did videotaping, which was something new to the community, and just the fact that we could videotape them at any time without asking anybody anything, scared the bejesus out of [laughter] – and they’re like, slow down jackrabbit that’s no good! I’m like, “Nah, what’s no good is you preying on all the people.” Back then is when I met the mayor, Mayor Dougan. Yeah, because he was stomping right along later on for the Superbowl, he was the point man for the Superbowl, and he came over and gave his big speech and everything, and I finally told him, I said “Look, I’ll help you, but I want some help from you guys,” [Dougan replies] “What do you need,” I said “We got these drug dealers setting up shop down here in people’s houses, and we can’t have that, we’ve got to do something.” So, he says “What do you want to do,” and I said “Well, I used to do undercover work, I know we can videotape them,” when you work for the feds that’s all you need is some video and some audio and you’ve got them. And he was saying “Yeah,” and I said “Well I think that’s enough, we can get twenty, thirty minutes of these guys selling drugs off the front porch, running back and forth between cars, I think that’s good enough,” and he’s like “Yeah, you want to bring it to me, if I’ve got to have anything else done on it I’ll get Warren to do it,” and he was talking about Warren Evans. And we wound up – we closed up quite a few dope houses.

W. W. : That’s awesome.

J. J. : Yeah, fast. Not with the normal delay. First one was 1130 Chalmers. Then we had another one right along here, and I’m going to show you, there was a nice young guy that lived in a house with his family and he was trying to get along and do well, and these guys were coming and they were setting up shop on the front porch, which is what they did back in those days. And selling drugs they’d go back and forth, and they’d use their cellphones to communicate with their customers and that, and they would come over there and just take over the house right next door to him, he was really afraid for his wife and his kids, so I told him one weekend, I said “This is what we’re going to do, we’re going to take them damn steps apart,” the house belonged to an older white guy who was really nice, but he was out of town and he was sickly, he wound up dying, just leaving the house there, and the house is still standing, it’s in bad shape. We wound up taking the steps apart, and once we took those steps apart going up to the front porch he never had any more trouble. And that house is still here, it’s in bad repair, but you can see where we took the steps apart. And just such as that was some of the stuff we did to fight crime. You had to become very ingenious and very hard on them, you had to get on them, because these guys were really busy. This is the house right here [William and James pause and look at the house.] Couldn’t get up on the steps to do their selling, [inaudible] still lives there.

W. W. : What was some of the reaction in the community to this work you were doing?

J. J. : People liked it, they knew it was working. They would check with the ones – because you know, doing that kind of stuff you usually knew somebody who was directly involved – and depending on the report you got from them, that was the thing that kind of made you ok.

W. W. : Thank you for everything so far, I have a few quick wrap-up questions.

J. J. : Go ahead.

W. W. : If you could see one project done in Jefferson Chalmers, what would it be?

J. J. : Well, I don’t know if you’ve been following me, but they just wrote us up, our neighborhood up, for Arise Detroit in the Chronicle, they asked if somebody was going to do something for neighborhood, what would I like for them to do. And I said well, we needed more lights, because too many people are getting hit at night, and that’s the problem, the poor lighting, and I said we needed some more cameras, and the Mayor got on, on his State of the City speech, and he didn’t talk about the lights, but he said we’re going to add a thousand more cameras over the city to the Greenlight program. So, the cameras work, you’re not going to get as many police officers as we used to have, they just don’t have the money anymore, we don’t have the population, and there’s not enough people paying into the pot. One police officer can watch twenty-five cameras, you can watch twenty-five screens with televisions, and when you see something bad going on you can press the button for record. Some of the new things that are coming down the road are photo I.D., we’ll be able to identify you by your photo, and find out where you live, and all of that stuff, if you’ve been wanted, all of that. So, that’s the way it’s going, and it works, it’s not too late, just something we’ve got to do. We’ve got to knuckle under and get to it.

W. W. : What makes Jefferson Chalmers unique?

J. J. : Well, Jefferson Chalmers is backed up by the water and by it’s being backed up by the water there’s nobody out there to make noise, so it’s quiet. On the other side going east, we’ve got Gross Pointes, which is quiet already, and they’ve got money and resources. So that’s two sides of us that are in good shape, no crime, so all we’ve got to worry about is the other two sides, the northside and then the westside.

W. W. : Are there any stories that you didn’t get to share today that you’d like to?

J. J. : Yeah there’s a few, I could tell you some stories.

W. W. : Go right ahead.

J. J. : I’ve got to think of them, there’s so many. And they relate to streets, as you’re going down the street, this happened on this street, this happened there. Have you been down by the water, seen that creek?

W. W. : Um-hm.

J. J. : Have you seen that park down there at the foot of Altar road?

W. W. : Yeah.

J. J. : Ok, you know that was once the reservation for the Fox Indians?

W. W. : No.

J. J. : Yeah, that was the Indian village for the Fox Indians, and it stretched from all that we have down there, all the way over to Gross Pointe side, and they have a plaque on the Gross Pointe side that commemorates the Fox Indian village that was down there. Now that is at the heart of the neighborhood, the Indian roots and that sort of thing, yeah, the creeks. You know if you look at the neighborhood, there’s no other neighborhood in the city that has creeks.

W. W. : Alright, thank you so much for taking me around and doing this interview today.

J. J. : Alrighty.


[End of Track 1]

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Detroit, Michigan, Black Bottom, 1967 riots, The Big Four, Police,


“James Jackson,” Detroit Historical Society Oral History Archive, accessed November 29, 2023, https://oralhistory.detroithistorical.org/items/show/757.

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