Nothing would be same for Detroit’s children of ’67
I remember it like it was yesterday. The heat, the sirens, the smoke and the breaking of glass.
I was 9 years old, visiting my cousins on Vinewood near Warren. We decided to go to Warren Avenue for ice cream, and as we were returning to my cousin’s home, a crowd came at us hollering: “Get home. There’s a riot. There’s a riot.”
The fear spread so fast through my small frame that I literally ran out of my little brown sandals. I cried as my cousin and I ran home to her parents.
Once there, I realized something big was happening that July Sunday in 1967 as my mother had to figure out how to get me home in the midst of what appeared to be a war.
Across Detroit, youngsters like myself would have a front-row seat to several days of unrest that was both horrific and historic. The riot left an indelible mark that would be revisited in our minds for five decades to come.
The dinner-table discussions by the adults in our lives sort of unwittingly prepared us for “the rebellion.”
Housing discrimination, grievances of racism and complaints of police brutality were concerns that ruled the day.
Moms and dads lectured young black boys about steering clear of the “Big Four,” a unit of the mostly white police officers that planted fear in many of the city’s black neighborhoods. There had been reports of black men and boys being stopped by the units — which rode “four deep” in unmarked police cars — and being thrown to the ground or hit with “billy clubs,” with no questions asked.
Ironically, the epicenter of the pandemonium — 12th and Clairmount — was less than a mile from the place one of the world’s most celebrated civil rights icons, Rosa Parks, called home.
For Mary Chapman, that July 23 was like any other Sunday until her father unknowingly drove their family into the commotion.
Chapman, a Detroit-based national journalist, recalls witnessing an “apocalyptic scene of fires and people in the street” as her family headed from church to their residence on Holbrook.
“Black smoke ... plumes ... everywhere,” said Chapman, who was 6 years old at the time.
Chapman, now 56, recalls the horror she saw in her parents’ eyes, which frightened her even more as they made their way home.
“I had never seen my parents afraid before or even heard fear in their voices, and that is really something when your security blanket is yanked like that,” she said.
Like myself, Chapman believed the events of July 23 were “the beginning of some kind of a war before our very eyes.”
Just a few miles away lived Rick Taylor, who was also 9 years old at the time. He recalls riding into a scene of destruction as his dad drove down Joy and east toward Linwood.
'Summer of '67' producer and director Bruce Harper talks about his documentary on WTVS Channel 56, as well as his experience as an 8-year-old in 1967.
“Daddy told me to keep my head down,” said 59-year-old Taylor, who now lives in suburban Washington, D.C. and works for the U.S. Department of Defense. “I was able to look out the window and see people headed toward Linwood. I was able to look out the window and see people breaking into storefronts all along Joy from all the way from Yellowstone to Lawton, including the Joy and Dexter Safeway, Wrigley and A&P.”
When he and his dad arrived safely to their home on Pingree, Taylor said he got out his toy walkie-talkies and was able to connect with a police ambulance driver who warned him: “Son, stay home and be careful.”
My husband, Paul Williams, who was 8 years old in 1967, was greeted by National Guard tanks when he went to take out the garbage. He, too, remembers the hot, sticky nights of lying on the floors of his home on LaSalle Boulevard and Hazelwood to avoid being hit by gunfire in the area of 12th and Clairmount, just blocks away.
“You could see bullet holes on some of the houses,” he recalled.
Across Detroit, electricity and the water supply was shut off. My own home was no different.
My relatives worried as we made sure to keep our heads low in the front room of our downstairs flat. We tried to not create as much as a spark to avoid possibly getting shot by a National Guardsman.
The uprising had a different tone for Bruce Harper, now 58, and the director of a documentary “Summer 67: Finding the Lost.”
Harper grew up on Detroit’s east side near Van Dyke and Harper. He said his neighborhood was quiet, but still National Guard troops were stationed in his area.
“The National Guard were just as scared as anyone else,” said Harper. “Some people (in the neighborhood) were actually giving the guards dinner.”
Like Harper, Grover McCants, a local area media consultant and actor, grew up in Detroit’s middle class neighborhood of Russell Woods, which was north of the devastation but still felt the effects.
“It was devastating. It was horrific,” said McCants, now 60.
McCants’ dad, Grover, owned a delivery service in 1967 and had to send trucks and employees through police and National Guard lines to make deliveries to customers in Metro Detroit.
McCants, who rode with his father and older brothers during the riots, said that period presented a challenge for his dad’s business. They had to show identification and other paperwork to get through police and National Guard checkpoints. They also were eyed suspiciously when they went out to suburban neighborhoods to make deliveries.
McCants said while the damage from the “rebellion” left a lot of ruined businesses and destroyed neighbors in its wake, it brought forth something that was sorely missing in the city.
“The positive of the riots were the black businesses,” McCants said.