Looting, fires and fright: Shop owners remember 1967

Some stores survived the uprising and remain in business today. Others weren’t so fortunate.

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When the civil unrest of the summer of 1967 broke out at 12th and Clairmount, buildings were torched up and down the street — except one.

“They burned down everything. Our building is the only thing they left,” said Lester Shindler, now 89.

Shindler owned Parker Brothers Shoes and Menswear, next to the blind pig where the uprising started on that July 23.

The clothing and shoe shop his father-in-law Julius Parker founded in 1918 relocated to the corner of 12th and Clairmount in 1962 after Interstate 75 construction forced the business to move from Hasting and Farnsworth.

Their customers, mostly black, bought American-made leather shoes for $7.99, Levi’s for $2.99 and dress shirts for 99 cents. Diana Ross, Berry Gordy Jr. and the Gordy family were loyal patrons. But all that changed overnight.

Shindler was traveling in Windsor when the typical late-night gambling and drinking near his business took a drastic turn. The police warned him not to return to the store, so he waited four days. When he finally ventured into the area, he found his 3,500-square-foot-shop had been ransacked.

“They took everything out,” said Shindler, sitting at his kitchen table in Farmington Hills, surrounded by black-and-white photos of shoe displays and old newspaper clippings. His son, Marc Shindler, who was 9 at the time, chimed in to tell the story, explaining the shop had gates over the windows.

“(The rioters) connected their cars and pickup trucks. They pulled the gates down. They smashed the windows. They smashed the doors. They threw the cash register out in the street. They emptied it,” said Marc, describing the heavy, four-drawer box. “They just destroyed everything — shoes were thrown everywhere. It took my father weeks to piece them together to resell.”

Like most shops, the Shindlers didn’t have insurance — the cost was “very, very, very high,” Lester said — but that didn’t stop them from restocking and reopening. And for awhile, things weren’t so bad.

“We did real well,” Lester said.

His son added: “He was the only one left. All the other stores were burned out.”

The Shindlers believe their building survived because a black dentist worked in an office upstairs.

“Also, they liked my grandfather a lot,” Marc Shindler said. “People knew him.”

Shindler’s business sat in the heart of a Jewish district. According to the book “Violence in the Model City” by Sidney Fine, Jewish owners ran 78 stores in the 12th Street area. By the fifth day of the violence, 39 remained.

Wayne State University Urban Studies and Planning senior lecturer Jeffrey Horner said many Jewish businesses hired black workers who got kicked out of the lower east side by urban renewal. Many moved to public housing and also to 12th Street in Virginia Park.

“It was a burgeoning place with viable businesses. So there was a lot to be looted there when the rebellion happened,” Horner said.

By the end of the week, 2,509 stores had been looted, burned or destroyed, including 611 supermarkets and grocery stores, 537 cleaners, 326 clothing and fur stores, 285 liquor stores and bars, 240 drug stores and 198 furniture stores, according to American Insurance Association data listed in “Violence in the Model City.”

“Many of those businesses never came back because they were literally burned down,” said Horner, who teaches a course “Detroit Rebellion at 50: Retrospect and Prospect.” “If you didn’t have insurance, you’re out of luck. And if you did, maybe you rebuilt somewhere else.”

As a result, the mom-and-pop shops that once packed 12th Street vanished.

“My God, you just look at any picture of 12th Street, and you don’t see any chains,” said Horner, acknowledging far less chains existed in 1967. “But every business on 12th Street that got burned down was probably a mom-and-pop business.”

The Shindlers stuck it out until 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. That day, Lester got several calls from his black employees.

“They called me up and says, ‘Lester, you better not open up tomorrow because the kids are talking about hitting your store.’ I says, ‘I don’t believe this talk. We’re going to open up.’ ”

The next morning, two policemen came by, warning there might be trouble. So Lester got out the wood he kept from the ’67 uprising and boarded up the windows.

“I closed up about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. By the time I got home, the alarm company called me and said, ‘They broke the windows,’ ” Shindler said. “They stole everything.”

Enough was enough. Julius Parker sold the building to the city, which then demolished it.

Lester worked at Saks Fifth Avenue and another retailer before buying Brody’s Camp Supplies and Custom Printing in 1969. The Oak Park shop relocated to West Bloomfield Township in 1979, where it remains today on Orchard Lake, managed by Marc.

“We’ve gone through a lot of things,” Lester said. “But it worked out well.”

Confiscating ammo

Busy Bee Hardware owner Richard Crabb let out a sigh when asked about ‘67.

“Aw man, bad times,” said Crabb, who was 11 then and remembers it being one “hot, hot, hot summer.”

“The biggest surprise was just sitting in our swimming pool (on the east side) and looking this way and seeing literally Detroit burning. It’s like holy crap.”

The family-owned shop is closing this month after helping Detroiters fix broken sinks and doors for 100 years. While Crabb has all sorts of stories from the last century, the 1967 uprising is a memorable one.

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At age 11, Richard Crabb remembers his father selling machine guns from Busy Bee Hardware for neighborhood protection. Also seared in his memory is the image of Army tanks, and how hot it was in July 1967. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

That week, Crabb went with his father, Raymond Crabb, to check on the store that employed 12-15 people, three-fourths who were black. Most customers were black, too. But Crabb, who’s white, didn’t see a difference in skin colors or nationalities.

“We grew up and colored meant absolutely nothing,” said Crabb, now 60. “It didn’t matter if you were black, Italian, Greek — it didn’t matter at all.”

Back then, Busy Bee sold Thompson machine guns — the same weapons Eastern Market store owners armed themselves with. When the Crabbs arrived at the store, a group of national guardsmen emptied out all their guns and confiscated the ammunition.

They did return the inventory after things settled, but not all of it.

“There was no computers or anything like that at the time,” Crabb said. “... Everything back then was all marked with a magic marker or ink pen, you know? I think the way they measured was how many trash cans of ammunition (we) did get back.”

Now six connected commercial buildings along Gratiot, Busy Bee was just one building in ’67.

While the store wasn’t looted, the storefront display was broken into.

“They stole two bicycles,” Crabb said. “And after the riots, they actually brought our bicycles back to us.”

The family did close the store during the civil unrest, but the disturbance didn’t phase the shop that already had survived the Great Depression and 1943 uprising.

“As soon as it calmed down, we were back opening up the doors,” Crabb said.

Taking care of customers

Why did Hot Sam’s Detroit, the long-standing men’s clothing store downtown, survive the ’67 looting?

“By the grace of God,” said owner Tony Stovall, perched behind the counter in a chocolate brown plaid suit. “And loyalty to our customers ... You take good care of your customer, and they’ll take good care of you.”

Stovall, 65, didn’t own Hot Sam’s, at 1317 Brush, in 1967. He purchased the store, established in 1921, from the Freedman family in 1994 after working there for 20 years. He remembers one of the salesman, Max Freedman, telling him how “rough” it was in ’67.

“They didn’t know if their customer base would continue to patronize them with this tenor of violence and racism going on,” Stovall said. “But they were such good people that they kept their customer base, and that’s one of the reasons we’re still here.”

Stovall also heard rumors that Hot Sam’s customers wouldn’t let thieves break in to loot the shop of its suits.

“Some customers that were so loyal to the local stores, they told the homeboys in the neighborhood, ‘Not this store,’ ” he said.

Then a teenager, Stovall lived on the east side and watched his friends carry TVs and “everything else” down the street. His father, meanwhile, wouldn’t let him and his siblings step off the porch.

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Hot Sam's owner Tony Stovall says some customers in 1967 wouldn't allow homeboys in the neighborhood to loot local stores. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

“Sometimes, we had to stay inside. Period. Because he wanted to keep us away from harm’s way,” Stovall said. “Back then, of course, we thought he was extremely mean. (I said) ‘Dad, my friends are running up and down the street. I can’t go with them?’ No. His compromise: ‘I’ll let you sit on the porch.’ ”

Watching looting through a lens

Dr. Michael Rolnick’s wooden office desk is covered with fading photos. One of them shows three policemen lined before his yellow Chevrolet Corvair, their rifles pointing.

“My father’s store was right down that street, and you can see the state police wouldn’t let me through,” he said.

This was the Sunday morning after the blind pig raid catalyzed fury within the city.

Rolnick — now 75 and Beaumont Hospital’s senior director of Speech Language Pathology — was 25 at the time and decided to drive downtown with his 35mm camera.

“My urge the next morning, Sunday, to get in my car and go down to Detroit was probably a very foolish thing, and in retrospect, probably a dangerous thing, but I just didn’t look at it that way,” he said.

Rolnick used to pack groceries at his father’s store, the Green Bag Supermarket, at Clairmount and Linwood — where the rioting had spread to by Sunday afternoon.

“(My father) always liked serving the community and being part of the community,” he said. “As kids, when we worked in the store, we were all part of the community as well.”

His father had sold the business about six months before that violent July. Rolnick wasn’t able to pass the barricade and see the old store but later heard it had been burned.

In the hour he drove through commercial areas — before police encouraged him to leave — he snapped the several dozen photos recently rediscovered in his basement.

“Other stores tried to identify themselves as black-owned, as in this picture,” said Rolnick, pointing to a photograph showing a boarded storefront with “WE ARE SOUL BROTHERS” written in white. Another had “BLACK POWER” scrawled in brown.

More snapshots reveal people walking by stores, sickened by what they’re seeing. One captures a young boy on his bike, staring at a charred building.

“He shouldn’t be on the streets! But people didn’t realize what this was,” said Rolnick, studying the photo.

“It was so confusing, I think, to people who were there. Those who didn’t go down there and heard the news reports, I think were terrified. Those lived in the city, these kids, they had friends — black, white — it didn’t matter. And all the sudden, things changed.”

Beer protecting peanuts

The owners of Germack Pistachio Co. can raise a glass to Stroh Brewery Co. for watching over their factory in 1967.

The nut company founded in 1924 by Frank Germack backed up to Stroh’s on the corner of Russell and the Fisher Freeway Service Drive. Stroh’s trucks and employees came and went at all hours, and the activity created a safety net for the Germacks.

“They had hundreds of people protecting their property so obviously they protected us, too,” said Stephanie Germack, 81, wife of the late Frank Germack Jr. who operated the business then.

There was just one complication: Germack delivered her second child, Frank Germack III, on July 21 — two days before the uprising.

“I was upset with my husband that he didn’t come to visit us as often as he should,” said Germack, who delivered at Grace Hospital. “And he says, ‘Do you know what’s happening in Detroit?’ He says, ‘They’re shooting across the freeway!’ ”

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The family-owned Germack Pistachio Co. wasn't harmed during the 1967 uprising, Stephanie Germack says. It helped that their property was adjacent to the heavily guarded Stroh Brewery Co. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

In the middle of the violence, Germack and her baby returned safely to Lafayette Towers, where they lived on the 20th floor.

“At night, we could see fires all the way around the horizon,” she said. “But our business was not at all in any danger.”

Sitting among jars of cashews and pecans in their shop on Russell, she said the manager slept in the office a couple nights to keep a lookout. She also thinks they shut down for a few days, since the 20-25 employees may have had difficulty traveling to the factory.

However, she doesn’t remember any serious break-ins or fires set in Eastern Market.

“Perhaps there was nothing that they would gain from it, because everybody shopped here,” she said. “This is why, I think, that we survived in Eastern Market from 1924 through the riots, through the downturn in Detroit, and we’re still here.”

The 1967 factory no longer exists (Stroh bought the property to expand), but co-owner Frank Germack III, who’s approaching his 50th birthday, said some practices have stuck to this day.

“In (Eastern Market), there is a real sense of community,” he said. “We look out for other business owners, even those businesses that are competitors.”

Fifty years later

“If you think about the 50 years post the riots that took place here, we are a resilient people,” said Ken Harris, president and CEO of the National Business League, formerly the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce. “I look at this as a time to celebrate the folks who have stayed here in the city of Detroit and kept it alive.”

While the uprising spurred many to flee to the suburbs, Harris said the black business owners who remained used their “survival instincts” to combat the flight and recessions to come.

Today, Detroit has more than 47,000 black-owned firms, and the largest concentration of African-American women entrepreneurs, Harris said, underscoring the Ilitch family and Dan Gilbert are not the only visionaries revitalizing Detroit.

“You hear about the Ilitches, you hear about the Gilberts, you hear about all these large firms, but you don’t hear about the 60 percent of all businesses in Detroit, which are African-American,” he said.

In hindsight, Horner, the WSU lecturer, said there should have been more efforts to work with displaced businesses and residents to have stakeholders meetings after July 1967.

“We didn’t do all that stuff in those days. We didn’t talk to the community when we wanted to rebuild something,” he said. “We just went ahead and did it.”

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

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