Dying for a smoke: The first fatality of the ’67 riot

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

History remembers Walter Grzanka as the first person killed in the Detroit uprising of 1967. Or sometimes the fourth.

Historically, history has been somewhat uncertain.

Even after 50 years — or especially after 50 years — it can be messy. Chaotic, even.

At the Detroit Historical Society, senior curator Joel Stone and his team tried to figure out the precise timeline of who died and when, and gave up. Even the total fell into question.

For “Detroit ’67: Perspectives,” an arresting and innovative exhibit on display at the Detroit Historical Museum through December 2018, Stone settled on 43, the official number from the Wayne County Medical Examiner.

“We know of one case,” he says, “where two guys were fighting over something stolen from a store. One guy shot the other.”

Is that a fatality related to the uprising, or not? How about people who had heart attacks carrying furniture from their burning homes? Where anarchy reigns for five days, definitions become elastic, like history itself.

The Library of Congress, after all, lists 70,000 books on the Civil War. As Sunday’s golden anniversary of a tarnished date approaches, there are competing books and films about the civil disturbance, and even competing nouns.

Some call it a rebellion, others a riot or uprising, begun perhaps by people rebelling against unfairness and a dictatorial police force, but quickly devolving into a festival of broken windows and free merchandise.

Witnesses reported large and small appliances being hauled away on little red wagons — radios on Radio Flyers that might themselves have been spoils of war.

Walter Grzanka wasn’t a rioter or a rebel. He was a bargain hunter, essentially, with an alleged criminal history and a fatal taste for tobacco.

Caught in the act

Grzanka lived at 641 Charlotte in an apartment building that eventually became a parking lot on a decimated stretch between Cass Avenue and Third Street, according to media archives, including reports by The Detroit News.

A few blocks away, at Fourth and Temple, 30-year-old Hamid Audish Yacoub either owned or was in the process of buying a neighborhood grocery called the Temple Market.

Grzanka, 45, was the oldest of four children of Polish immigrants who were farmers in Memphis, Michigan, when he was born. The 1940 census showed the family had relocated to Hamtramck.

He became an MP in the Army and apparently a bit of a troublemaker out of it, though any criminal records no longer exist and articles give no specifics. He was the caretaker at his apartment building, and either a friend, the husband or the common-law partner of his widowed landlady, Edna Locascio.

From the porch of the apartment house on the evening of July 23, the pair watched some of their white neighbors parade past with stolen goods. Eventually, Grzanka and a few friends went exploring.

The Temple Market is now a Muslim prayer house, white with green awnings, nearly in the shadow of the MotorCity Casino. That night, it was an inviting target. As Grzanka, who was white, peered through a gap in what had been a plate glass window, a young black man handed him a bag of goods from the store.

Grzanka carried the bag across the street to his less adventurous companions. He did the same with a second bag. C’mon, his friends urged, it’s time to go, but he returned to the store and stepped inside.

As he left a few minutes later, shortly after midnight, Yacoub pulled up in his burgundy 1965 Mustang. He pointed his .22 revolver and shot Grzanka in the chest.

In the dead man’s pockets were seven cigars, four packs of tobacco, and nine pairs of shoelaces.

A part of history

Some chronicles list Sharon George, 23, as the first victim, and some list her first name as Sheren. She was shot half an hour before Grzanka, in a car at Woodward and Melbourne, but did not die until 1:30 a.m.

Friends Willie Hunter, 26, and Prince Williams, 32, were found asphyxiated on July 26 in the basement of a torched drugstore on 12th Street. Williams’ first name was recorded at least once as Princeton. They were last seen on Sunday evening, but exactly when they died is impossible to know.

That leaves the unfortunate distinction to Walter Grzanka.

Records show 117 Grzankas in the United States, making the name the 133,114th most common. None of them are descended from Walter, who had no children. None of the Grzankas reachable in Michigan claim relation to him, and Billy Winkel of the Detroit Historical Society’s oral program says that “I have not talked to any relatives, and I have not heard of anyone who has.”

Grzanka “was the type of fellow ... he didn’t think about getting hurt,” Locascio said a few days after the shooting.

But he died, and now he’s a part of history — a reminder of how long and yet how fleeting half a century can be.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn