“Children, I said to her. For the first little while, they not exactly human, you don't find?”
Nalo Hopkinson

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tales From Under A Middle-Aged Colored Woman

The Detroit Riots of 1967

My mother said that our house could possibly be blown up and we had to be ready to leave at a moment's notice. When any of us children questioned her about what was going on she would change the subject. She just dressed us up in our best clothes and cooked a Sunday dinner of chicken, greens, and macaroni and cheese.

I was to start school later that year at Glazer Elementary. My older sister was ten. I also had a two year old sister, and a one year old brother. We had just moved with our mother from an apartment in the Clairmont and Fourteenth area onto the top of a two family flat on Kendall between Rosa Parks and the John Lodge Expressway. Our new flat was about a mile from the riot area on Twelth and Clairmont.

Ironically, I have very fond memories of the riot neighborhood. I remember being sent out with my older sister when I was three and she was eight to buy bologna and bread for our dinner. We wandered hand in hand over railroad tracks and crowded streets and most of the time we were safe. People were kind and helpful to us even though we had a habit of playing practical jokes on strangers.

There was a dry goods store we would always stop in to look around. The store had bins full of dishtowels, stoppers, ribbons, rubber bands, shoe strings, toothpicks, and I can still smell the sawdusty wooden floor. The proprietor was this skinny man with thinning hair who wore a white apron, smelled of garlic, and had some kind of Polish or Eastern European accent. He always let us wander his store but he looked as if he wanted to ask us where our parents were. The area had mostly black residents, but it still was about thirty percent white.

There was very little integration in the Detroit Police Department.  Most of the officers in the inner city neighborhoods were white and on July 26, 1967 police raided a unlicensed bar and decided to arrest all 82 patrons. There must have been some extra room in the prisons at that time.  Black people in the area were angry about the mass arrest and some decided to confront the police.

This is what happened.

I knew nothing about how and why the riots started until about five years ago when I began to think about my childhood and all the things about that time of which I had no understanding or knowledge.

My maternal grandfather and his brother came to Detroit from Arkansas in 1919 to find work in the Ford auto plant but were not hired because they were black. At the time, both brothers had no choice but to settle in segrated neighborhoods.

 Detroit of the1960's was a place of racial and class conflict. Black people were resentful of the harassment they experienced and whites were moving to the suburbs as blacks began to integrate formerly all white neighborhoods. As a result, I grew up in mixed race neighborhoods which caused me to prefer to live in diverse enviroments.

Forty-three years later, most of the riot neighborhood is blighted with poverty. There are a lot of drug addicts and abandoned buildings, but it was not always that way. I truly miss the Detroit of my childhood. Detroit has a genuine history of love and beauty.

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