Since God and I are not on speaking terms, I have absolutely no idea how He might have learned of my plans to stay home this year. Unless He reads my facebookery.
When I made my announcement, I obviously didn’t know that Hurricane Irma would force a Road Trip on me. However, by the time I finally made the decision to flee, Irma was headed straight for the condo as a Category 5. Originally, I was only going to go to as far as Pensacola to get out of her path. However, in the final analysis that wouldn’t have done any good. Irma curved to the west side of the state. I’d either have had to continue north or make a left in the panhandle and head west towards Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
At the last minute, however, a facefriend of some years standing, whom I had never met, suggested we hightail it to Michigan, where he also has relatives. At first I resisted, then changed my mind. In the end that proved to be the least expensive option. Driving anywhere else would have required us to spring for hotel/motel fees, more meals in restaurants, and other accessories.
Talk about your synchronicity: It was only when I was finally in Ohio, traveling north along I-75, I asked Siri to call you. Siri didn’t know your number because it was in my old Windows Phone, where Cortana ruled the roost. Not long afterwards — at the very next rest stop, in fact — I opened up my facebookery and the top post on my timeline was one of your infrequent (compared to me) ones.
That’s when I facebooked you and we set up our time together. This year we spent more time together than any previous year. I especially enjoyed visiting the old neighbourhood with you:
What the next world is, however, is far from clear. The rabbis use the term Olam Ha-Ba to refer to a heaven-like afterlife as well as to the messianic era or the age of resurrection, and it is often difficult to know which one is being referred to. When the Talmud does speak of Olam Ha-Ba in connection to the afterlife, it often uses it interchangeably with the term GanEden (“the Garden of Eden”), referring to a heavenly realm where souls reside after physical death.
The use of the term Gan Eden to describe “heaven” suggests that the rabbis conceived of the afterlife as a return to the blissful existence of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the “fall.” It is generally believed that in Gan Eden the human soul exists in a disembodied state until the time of bodily resurrection in the days of the Messiah.
One interesting talmudic story, in which the World to Come almost certainly refers to a heavenly afterlife, tells of Rabbi Joseph, the son of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who dies and returns back to life.
“His father asked him, ‘What did you see?’ He replied, ‘I beheld a world the reverse of this one; those who are on top here were below there, and vice versa.’ He [Joshua ben Levi] said to him, ‘My son, you have seen a corrected world.’”
Ken, anything you can add to this internal discussion is always welcome, but it occurred to me a long time ago that I’m really writing to myself. These Pastoral Letters, as you know, are a self-examination of my spirituality, or — to put it into other terms — my relationship with a non-God.
Anyway, as I say, my mind jumps to sin at times like these. Having actually never done so, I decided to use Der Googleizer. Who knew there were so many kinds of sin?
There’s Mortal Sin,, when you’re going to straight to Hell, do not pass GO, do not collect $200. Venial Sin, in which you’re surely testing the limits of your relationship with God, but you know in the back of your mind that all you have to do is beg forgiveness, and BINGO! It’s a done deal. In fact, the same goes for Mortal Sins. That’s why confession is good for the soul. Because it lets one off the hook.
Then there are the Seven Deadly Sins, which is what people tend to think of when they think of sin. The WikiWackyWoo suggests the Seven Deadly Sins should not be confused with Mortal Sin. It adds:
The seven deadly sins, also known as the capital vices or cardinal sins, is a grouping and classification of Christian origin, of vices. Behaviours or habits are classified under this category if they directly give birth to other immoralities. According to the standard list, they are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth, which are also contrary to the seven virtues. These sins are often thought to be abuses or excessive versions of one’s natural faculties or passions (for example, gluttony abuses one’s desire to eat).
But later, just to confuse the issue, the Wiki also says:
The seven deadly sins in their current form are not found in the Bible, however there are biblical antecedents. One such antecedent is found in the Book of Proverbs 6:16–19, however only in the Masoretic Text (the earlier translated Septuagint version of this passage lacks a clear preface and lists only five). Among the verses traditionally associated with King Solomon, it states that the Lord specifically regards “six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto Him”, namely:
Another list, given this time by the Epistle to the Galatians (Galatians 5:19–21), includes more of the traditional seven, although the list is substantially longer: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, “and such like”. Since the apostle Paul goes on to say that the persons who practice these sins “shall not inherit the Kingdom of God”, such sins are usually listed as mortal sins (unless sufficient reflection and deliberate consent are not present) rather than capital vices.
Who’s got time to keep track of all those sins? Especially the “and such like” category, in which you can lump just about anything? Instead, let’s (quickly) take the Cardinal Sins one by one.
Lust. Most people think this means “sex”, but there is lust for things as well: money, status, and respect. Personally, I lust after nice pieces of brass.Meanwhile, sexual lust can’t be evil. Otherwise, only a practical joker of a God would have hardwired it into us. It’s what one does with that sexual lust that can be evil — or illegal, for that matter.
Gluttony. This week I ate a quart of ice cream by myself, but for the most part I’m not a glutton, except for punishment.
Greed. The unfettered acquisition of money has never been one of my problems. In fact, had it been one of my problems, I’d have fewer problems.
Sloth. It comes and goes. I can be real lazy when I set my mind to it. But a sin? Not to me.
Wrath. I get angry, but can blow & go; get pissed off about something and then forget all about it after the volcano erupts. But, I never take it out on people that don’t deserve it, if that helps.Yet I also recognize that there are some people on my shit list that I will take pot shots at again and again, and never forgive.
Pride. Like jingoistic flag-waving? Not my problem. However, there’s some things I justifiably take pride in. Is it Foolish Pride? Just crank it up and D A N C E ! ! !
Envy? You ask.
DING! DING!! DING!!! Oh yeah, that’s the one. I’ve long recognized it’s my biggest fault; my biggest sin.
Now, I’m not envious of people’s money, or the things they have acquired [see above]. I’m envious of people’s situations, which is really hard to explain. The story I told you about pretending to be on the Safety Patrol (way back when) must have been born from my envy of you.
Here’s how sick I really am (and I’m not talking about this vaguebooking): I have a dear friend, who happened to fit incredibly comfortably into a situation, due to an introduction I made. At the very same time a brass ring I had been reaching for receded well beyond my reach and was denied me. Thru’ the facebookery, I am forced to confront both of these things simultaneously. I should be happy for my friend for the former, but I am nothing but envious due to the latter.
Since I returned from Michigan, I even started to envy you, Ken.
As you know I offended one of your parishioners deeply. When I apologized and asked for her forgiveness, she replied that she had, but only because I’m an old friend of yours. I envy that relationship you have with her; instead of having her accuse me — in the same sentence — of both mansplaining and whitesplaining. She would never accuse you of Pastorsplaining. She would have listened.
I’ve always said that the most important thing to remember in discussions about race is that White folk need to listen when Black folks speak about Racism. I still believe that. They’re on the front lines. They have the experience(s). However, it wouldn’t hurt Black folks to listen once in a while. I may not be totally woke, but I’ve been wiping the sleep from my eyes about Race Relations since I was a teenager working in Pops’ store on 12th Street, now known as Rosa Parks Boulevard. I feel I have something to contribute to the discussion and to use terms like whitesplaining and mansplaining is not designed to have a dialogue, only to turn one into a pillar of salt.
TO BE FAIR: She was not wrong to be offended. I used an offensive word. But, here’s the thing, Ken: Pops never said “the N-Word” in his life. Pops said “nigger”. I’m not going to WHITEwash what Pops said, as ugly as it was. This is the titular “Sins of the Father“. I don’t let Pops off the hook just because he’s 1). Dead; 2). My father. Using the word when appropriate is just an extension of my essay, which predates our reunion, “A Reasoned Defense of the Word Nigger“. Furthermore, I see no contradiction in using the word and being sorry that I did.
If you think of it, Ken, please show this essay to her. Not to offend her all over again, because I truly fell in love with her. But, to offer her as much space in rebuttal as she’d like to take. I promise to print every word.
As always, the same goes for you.
I’ll sign off here, Ken, as this Pastoral Letter is long enough already. As they often do, this one went to places I never intended when I started and I’ve had enough self-examination for one day.
With all my love,
From your oldest friend in the world,
The little house I used to live in.
Pops bought it for around $3,000 in 1957.
I left Detroit in 1971, but my parents stayed in the little house I used to live in for the next several years. I returned to Gilchrist Street frequently for visits until my parents moved 2 miles north, out of the city, into Oak Park.
Despite my parents having moved, I continued to return, year after year, decade after decade, from one millennia into the next. It seems almost a lifetime ago because it was. I rarely visited Motown without dropping in on the old neighbourhood. Gilchrist was my talisman. I was looking for truths that remained hidden, especially from me. So, I kept returning, reaching for something just beyond my vision; just past my memory. I was looking for something I never found.
Just one of hundreds of houses like this in my old neighbourhood
I can still recall my first memory of what would come to be called Urban Blight in later years. It was a large, mixed-use, yellow-bricked building on the surface/ service drive, viewed from the John C. Lodge Ditch. There would have once been apartments on the upper stories with storefronts at street level. I was 14 or 15 when it was boarded up. It remained boarded up for more than 30 years that I recall. Then the Lodge fell into disuse as the highway used to get in and out of downtown from the ‘burbs, so I don’t know what happened to it in the last 2 decades. For all I know it’s still there. Or, it may be gone by now, just another building missing from Motown’s landscape. But for me this building was far more iconic of Detroit’s road to ruin than the Michigan Central Station, which I had only seen in pictures.
White Flight, Urban blight, and Demolition by Neglect — in that order — are the major forces which have helped to destroy Detroit, the once proud Arsenal of Democracy. People tend to peg the fall and decline of Detroit with the 1967 Riot. However, they are shocked to discover it began almost immediately after Germany and Japan surrendered at the end of WWII.
Racial strife was so common in Detroit in the ’40s that propaganda
posters were made to warn people not to give comfort to the enemy.
There had already been several warnings. As I have written in The Detroit Riots, the 1863 Riot set the stage for most of what came after. That was a White Riot determined to eradicate Black folk from Detroit. In 1863 Detroit was such a new city, it didn’t have a police force yet. The rebellion had to be put down by the army. When the Detroit Police Department was formed soon after, it was tasked — IN THE INCORPORATING DOCUMENTS!!! — with keeping Blacks in line. And, Detroit Police took that oath seriously, right into the 1970s.
However, the warnings that should have been headed were those in the 1940s that indicated the races in Detroit were never going to get along. As Black and White soldiers were fighting Fascism overseas, those who remained on the home front fought each other. During the war Black and White southerners migrated to Detroit to take up jobs in the defense industry. Racial problems began almost immediately. As I wrote 2 years ago in The Detroit Riots:
When the Feds announced a housing projects [sic] for Detroit, on the edge of a traditional White neighbourhood, the local community assumed it was for their own kind. When it was named the Sojourner Truth housing project, Whites protested. The government reversed its decision and decided this would be for Whites and it would find another location for a Black housing project, even tho’ it would retain the Truth name. Then Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries, Jr. got involved and the Feds reversed their decision again: This housing would be for the Black people of Detroit who desperately needed housing. On moving day Whites protested, turning away the first families. It was months before people would eventually move in.
That was just the appetizer. Less than a year later there was a wildcat strike at the Packard Motor Plant after the company promoted 3 Black men to work the line. According to the WikiWackyWoo:
In early June 1943, three weeks before the riot, Packard Motor Car Company promoted three blacks to work next to whites in the assembly lines. This promotion caused 25,000 whites to walk off the job, effectively slowing down the critical war production. It was clear that whites didn’t mind that blacks worked in the same plant but refused to work side-by-side with them. During the protest, a voice with a Southern accent shouted in the loudspeaker, “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work next to a Nigger.”
Then came the 1943 Detroit Riot. That was really the beginning of the end. White Flight began the minute it could. It started when peace was declared, increased as prosperity reigned, and became a wave when vast subdivisions were thrown up north of 8 Mile, outside the city limits. White Flight only became a tsunami after the 1967 Riot.
Two houses on Biltmore Street a few doors down from The Millers
Today Detroit’s population of 700,000 is a fraction of its 1950 peak of 1.8 million. Entrepreneurs are buying up whole swaths of Detroit for wholesale gentrification. Tens of thousands (!) of abandoned structures are slated for demolition by new blight removal programs. Urban farms are being planted where houses, parks and schools once stood. Detroit is being transformed and what it will become is anybody’s guess at the moment
Returning frequently, I watched the urban blight grow over the decades. It was as pernicious as the mold and mildew that attacks houses in the south. It kept nibbling around the edges, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, until it reached my old neighbourhood just on the northern edge of Detroit, immediately south of the famed 8 Mile Road. Then I watched as it infected block after block of the square mile I lived in bounded by 8 Mile and 7 Mile Roads, with Greenfield and Southfield to the east and west. Now, in that square mile are hundreds of homes boarded up, burned up, or missing entirely.
Danny Harris. of the Gilchrist Block Club, cutting the grass
As the years took its toll on Detroit, something unexpected happened to Gilchrist, the street I grew up on: NOTHING!!!
While every surrounding block had anywhere from 3-10 destroyed homes per block, Gilchrist — from Pembroke Avenue to 8 Mile Road — still appeared to be in pristine condition. While I watched blight strike everywhere else in my old neighbourhood, somehow this half mile stretch of Gilchrist was spared.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Obviously I didn’t drive up and down every street in Detroit on my 2nd Annual Sunrise to Canton Road Trip for Research, but I must have driven some
20-30 miles just up and down the streets in my old neighbourhood. I saw no other half mile stretch that appeared to be untouched
by blight except this 1/2 mile stretch of Gilchrist. There were small stretches of nice, but not a full half
mile of it.
TO BE FAIR: On closer inspection there are a few boarded up houses along Gilchrist, but because the lawns are kept neat and tidy, they don’t jump out at you the way they do on the other blocks. And, there are far fewer of them on Gilchrist.
While taking pictures of my old house I ran into Danny Harris two doors down. Mr. Harris is a member of the registered non-profit Gilchrist Block Club, a kind of “Keep Gilchrist Beautiful” community group in operation since 1984. Harris was cutting the grass of the house at the corner of Hessel. While he lived closer to Pembroke, Mr. Harris walked his lawnmower 3 blocks to take care of this patch of grass. Perhaps this community volunteerism is what spared Gilchrist from the same fate that’s affected all the other surrounding blocks.
Retired Detroit police officer Robert Miller on Biltmore Street
Biltmore, one street to the east, has no block club. Just around the corner from where Harris cut the grass live Robert and Kim Miller. The Millers bought their home 28 years ago and watched the block slowly crumble around them. The two houses pictured above are just a few doors down from the Millers, whose front yard is a testament to how a little landscaping and care can make all the difference.
Robert is a retired Detroit Police officer who paid for his home about what Pops got for his when he moved to the suburbs. At the time the neighbourhood was solidly middle class, but changing demographics rapidly as the first blocks in this neighbourhood were “busted” in the mid-to-late ’70s. That’s when White Flight would have begun in the area, accelerating over the years.
Now, on paper, Robert Miller’s house on Biltmore is worth the same $30,000 that he paid for it. However, he can’t even get offers on a house in a neighbourhood where hundreds of homes are abandoned and crumbling. He and his wife have their eye on a gated-condo complex in Novi, Michigan, with amenities, where they will be moving within the next 6 months. They’ll leave the house to their daughter, hoping that eventually the neighbourhood will stage a comeback. It can hardly get worse.
However, no comeback for Gilchrist Street because Gilchrist never left. I’ve watched this street for the past 40 years. It hasn’t changed. It hasn’t become blighted. It hasn’t suffered the same fate as miles and miles of Motown housing tracts. Gilchrist may offer clues to Detroit’s revival, provided the city’s not gentrified beyond recognition.
Yet visiting my old neighbourhood never fails to make me cry. This time it was my Junior High School that got to me and began the waterworks. Last year Coffey Junior High School was still in operation. Now it’s one of many schools closed as Detroit’s population, and tax base, can no longer support so many schools. However, the scrappers have already started to strip it of anything and everything of value.
This is why, for me, Detroit represents the total failure of ‘Merkins to live up to the lofty words about equality inscribed in the founding documents. Everything that subsequently happened to Detroit happened because of systemic Racism and White Flight. Your mileage may vary, but I contend that if people learned to live together decades ago, Detroit would not have become ”Merka’s first throwaway city.
Dateline May 3, 1948 – The Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants in real estate deeds — which specifically barred sales to Blacks, Jews, and other minorities — was illegal. Prior to that date the courts had ruled these discriminatory practices were simply matters between private contractors, and the courts had been there to enforce these restrictive covenants in deeds for decades.
Contractually enforced discrimination has long, proud history in ‘Merka, going back to the original Founding Fathers and their cruel compromise, counting Black folk as 3/5ths a person and leaving the “peculiar institution” of slavery intact. Hell, a whole war was fought over it.
When the country was built on such a crass foundation, is it any wonder that whole generations of people came to feel privileged? So privileged, in fact, that people thought nothing of putting down that privilege in their real estate deals. The idea really started to take off in the 1920s, when planned communities like Coral Gables became the suburban norm as people started moving out of congested cities. What we now call White Flight can traced to these earliest migrations; it wasn’t just congestion that some people wanted to escape. Blacks and Jews were other ills of cities that people wanted to move away from. The best way to assure yourself that you won’t have to live among THEM is to put restrictive covenants in property deeds, which specifically spelled out to whom you could sell your own property. Therefore, you would be assured that you would only be living among your own kindby moving into planned communities with exclusionary covenants. According to the WikiWackyWoo:
Example of a restrictive Florida deed:
6. At no time shall the land included in said tract or any part theorof, or any building located thereon, be occupied by any negro or person, of negro extraction. This prohibition, however, is not intended to include the occupancy of a negro domestic servant or other person while employed in or about the premises by the owner or occupant of any land in said tract.
In the 1920s and 1930s, covenants that restricted the sale or occupation of real property on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or social class were common in the United States, where the primary intent was to keep “white” neighbourhoods “white”. Such covenants were employed by many real estate developers to “protect” entire subdivisions. The purpose of an exclusionary covenant was to prohibit a buyer of property from reselling, leasing or transferring the property to members of a given race, ethnic origin and/or religion as specified in the title deed. Some covenants, such as those tied to properties in Forest Hills Gardens, New York, also sought to exclude working class people however this type of social segregation was more commonly achieved through the use of high property prices, minimum cost requirements and application reference checks. In practice, exclusionary covenants were most typically concerned with keeping out African-Americans, however restrictions against Asian-Americans, Jews and Catholics were not uncommon. For example, the Lake Shore Club District in Pennsylvania, sought to exclude various minorities including Negro, Mongolian, Hungarian, Mexican, Greek and various European immigrants. Cities known for their widespread use of racial covenants include Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit and Los Angeles.
Racial covenants emerged during the mid-nineteenth century and started to gain prominence from the 1890s onwards. However it was not until the 1920s that they adopted widespread national significance, a situation that continued until the 1940s. Some commentators have attributed the popularity of exclusionary covenants at this time as a response to the urbanisation of black Americans following World War I, and the fear of “black invasion” into white neighbourhoods, which they felt would result in depressed property prices, increased nuisance (crime) and social instability.
The Shelley House,
St. Louis, Missouri
In 1945 Louis Kraemer sued to prevent the Shelley family from occupying the house they purchased in St. Louis. The Shelleys were Black and there had been a restrictive covenant on the land since 1911, which the family had been unaware of when they made their purchase. Kraemer knew, however, and sued. He was counting on the courts to uphold the contract and keep the Black Shelley family out of the neighbourhood.
The Missouri Supreme Court obliged, ruling as courts had been doing for
decades, that the deed was a private agreement, attached to the land.
Because it was estate law, as opposed to personal, the contract could be
enforced by a third party such as Louis Kraemer, who wanted to keep his
lily White neighbourhood lily White. Shelley appealed the Missouri
The Orsel and Minnie McGhee House
By 1948 The Supreme Court was ready to decide Shelley v. Kraemer, which came with a companion case along the same lines. McGhee v. Sipes was a case that had bubbled up from Detroit, where the McGhees had purchased property that came with restrictive covenant. By then Detroit had already gone through several racial spasms, such as the Ossian Sweet trial in the 1920s and the 1943 Riot.
Then Orsel and Minnie McGhee purchased the house at 4626 Seebaldt in Detroit, in which they had been living as tenants for a decade. A neighbourhood group decided to sue to uphold the restrictive covenant in the deed and Sipes became the plaintiff in that case. It too was decided in favour of the discriminatory covenant. It was also appealed. When it came up to the Supreme Court it was rolled in with Shelley v. Kelley. Lawyers for the defendants, including Thurgood Marshall for the McGhees, argued their positions under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The Supreme Court didn’t QUITE rule the restrictive covenant was illegal under the 14th Amendment. The court ruled that contracts between private parties can still have restrictive covenants, which the parties can choose to abide by, or not, depending. However, the Supreme Court ALSO ruled that parties in dispute over restrictive covenants could no longer expect judicial review of these contracts because for a court to uphold the contract it would necessarily violate the Equal Protection Act of the Constitution.
And, let’s be clear: The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelley v. Kraemer didn’t end discrimination in housing. It just took new and different forms. Redlining was one way of restricting a neighbourhood. Condo and Homeowners Association Boards have their own ways of restricting who gets in.
As an aside: The Condo Association my parents moved into, and which I now reside to help take care of him, is predominantly White, while the surrounding associations (all a part of a much larger condo complex with several association boards) are far more mixed in the number of Blacks and Latino residents. That doesn’t happen by accident.
Just as Coral Gables being 98% White is no accident.
This is something that happened within my lifetime. It’s not all that long ago: a mere 57 years.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott didn’t end racism, of course. It’s just not institutionalized and is far less overt. Hell, President Obama’s reelection hasn’t ended racism. It’s just done through dog whistles these days.
Some years later my father had a store on 12th Street in Detroit, the city to which Parks had moved in 1957. Twelfth Street was at the epicenter of the 1967 riot and was eventually renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard.
Late last month I wrote about Detroit’s three major riots, one of them being the 1943 Riot. I am currently reading an amazing book that adds a bit more context to that riot. “The Warmth of Other Suns; The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize in History, as well as many other prizes and awards. They are all well-deserved. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to understand the pressures Black folks felt in the south and how moving north didn’t necessarily make them first class citizens.
Wilkerson tells this sweeping story by following the lives of 3 people: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney from Chickasaw County, Mississippi; Robert Joseph Persing Foster, from Monroe, Louisiana; and George Swanson Starling, late of Wildwood, Florida.
George Starling, married too early out of spite, found himself picking citrus fruit (and many other odd jobs) in order to save up enough money to send his wife to hair dressing school and finish his education at a university in Tallahassee. He dropped out due to finances, but always planned to return. However, during World War Two he heard they were hiring in Detroit. Against his wife’s wishes he moved north by himself to help assemble B-29 bombers in what was being called The Arsenal of Democracy; when the entire car industry was turned over to defeating Hitler and Japan. Wilkerson picks up his story:
Then on the humid night of Sunday, June 20, 1943, a fight broke out between several hundred white and colored * men on Belle Isle, a park extending into the Detroit River on the east side of town. The fighting spread north, south, and west as rumors circulated among blacks that white men had killed a colored woman and thrown her baby into the Detroit River and, among whites, that colored men had raped and killed a white woman in the park.
Neither rumor turned out to be true, but it was all that was needed to set off one of the worst riots ever seen in the United States, an outbreak that would mark a turning point in American race relations. Until the 1943 uprising in Detroit, most riots in the United States, from the 1863 Draft Riots in New York to the riots in Tulsa in 1921, to Atlanta in 1906 to Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Springfield, and East St. Louis, Illinois, and Wilmington, North Carolina, among others, had been white attacks on colored people, often resulting in the burning of entire colored sections or towns.
This was the first major riot in which blacks fought back as earnestly as the whites and in which black residents, having become established in the city but still relegated to run down ghettos, began attacking and looting perceived symbols of exploitation, the stores and laundries run by whites and other outsiders that blacks felt were cheating them. It was only after Detroit that riots became known as urban phenomena, ultimately centered on inner-city blacks venting their frustrations on the ghetto that confined them.
The Detroit Riots went on for close to a week, ending in thirty-four deaths and more than one thousand wounded. The Sunday night the riot began, as many as many as five thousand people joined in the stoning, stabbing, and shooting, so many people injured that the municipal hospital was admitting riot victims at a rate of one a minute.
George was living at 208 Josephine near Hastings and Woodward and heard the mayhem in the streets and on the radio all through the night. He was living in the middle of the crowded colored quarter mockingly called Paradise Valley, where blacks were stoning the cars of passing whites, whites were beating up blacks as they emerged from the all-night theaters on Woodward, and an inspector on the scene reported to the police commissioner that the situation was out of control.
The rioting continued into the next morning. It was now Monday, the start of the work week. A Co-worker of George’s called him up.
“Hey Starling, what you gonna do?”
“Do ’bout what?”
” ‘Bout going to work.”
“Man, you must be crazy.”
“What you talking about?”
“Don’t you know? Where you been? You didn’t know it was a riot going on?”
“Yeah, but I ain’t got nothin’ to do with it. I ain’t in no gang.”
“This ain’t no gang fight. This is a riot.”
“Well, they ain’t gonna bother me. I ain’t done nothing to nobody. I’m going to work.”
“You gonna get yourself killed.”
Streetcar violence on Woodward
George had to take two trolleys to get to Hamtramck. He boarded the first in a colored neighborhood, and instantly something was wrong. The colored people were sitting up straight; the white people were crouched in their seats so they couldn’t be seen out the window.
Wonder why these people down on the floor like they are, he asked himself.
The trolley made its way to a white neighborhood, and now the colored people crouched down and the white people sat up.
What in the devil is going on? he said to himself.
The trolley pulled into the intersection. A mob two blocks long stood cursing outside the trolley.
What’s wrong with all them people? he thought.
The mob became a single organism descending on the trolley. The trolley operator moved fast. “He went back the other way,” George said. “That’s the only thing that saved us. And that’s when I began to realize the seriousness of this thing.”
He managed to make it to work that day. But the trouble wasn’t over. The rioting continued all day Monday and into a second night. When he got back home to Hastings Street that evening, a mob was approaching from Woodward, howling and turning over cars.
“I ran so fast my heels were hitting my back,” he said.
As he rounded the corner onto Josephine, he could see a colored mob forming. “They were turning over white cars,” he said, “dumping the people out like you dump ashes out an ashtray and setting the cars on fire.”
Some colored men in his block stood on the sidewalk, trying to figure out what to do. They gathered the empty bottles in their flats to throw at people if it came to that. “We were wondering how it was going to end up.”
A white undertaker in the block joined the colored men contemplating the situation. He did not leave when the other white people fled. He fixed his feet on the ground with the neighbors who happened to be colored and let it be known where he stood. He might need their protection if it came to that.
“You know them white folks raising hell over there on Woodward Avenue,” the white undertaker started to say.
“Yeah, they sure are,” George said.
The white undertaker drew closer and into their circle. “But us colored folks is giving ’em hell over on Hastings,” he said.
The colored men welcomed a new brother, and they all laughed at the meaning of that. **
This book should be read by everyone interested in race relations in ‘Merka. It covers such a wide pallet, from the south to cities all across the nation, from Jim Crow laws to relative freedom. Don’t be put off by its 538 pages (not including index, end notes and notes on methodology). It’s a very well-written book and the pages breeze by, except for all the lynchings and ugliness, which cannot be ignored.
* Wilkerson explains that she is using the language of the times
** Hoping “Fair Use” covers this long excerpt; any mistakes or typos are mine
12th Street, Detroit. Michigan, one week before the 1967 Riot.
That’s Pops’ store way down the block on the left: Astor Furniture.
When people hear I am from Detroit, inevitably they ask about the Detroit Riot. “Which one?” I always reply. There was more than one, yet most people are only aware of the 1967 Black Day In July Riot. However, when you look at the history of Detroit, it’s apparent that rioting is in her DNA—both figuratively and literally—but I’ll get to that later. First I will tell you of my personal experiences during the ’67 Riot because that’s what people really want to know when they ask about the Detroit Riot. I want to get it out of the way quickly [or as quickly as my story-telling tangents allow] because there are much better riots to talk about. However, you will need some important context.
Astor Furniture, on Detroit’s 12th Street, was where my father had a new and used furniture store in 1967. The street is now known as Rosa Parks Boulevard and Pops’ store was at the corner of Blaine. My house on the edge of Detroit, near 8 Mile, was less than 10 miles from Pops’ store on 12th Street. However, it might have been a million miles away, as different as the two places were. My neighbourhood had no Black people; where Pops had his store, there were no White people. Detroit has long been considered one of the most segregated cities in ‘Merka and this gulf between where we lived and where my father earned his living was the personification of that for me as I grew up.
Gordon Lightfoot tells you all about it:
I used to go down to 12th Street with Pops on the weekends and, as I got older, would often go out on deliveries with the all-Black crew to deliver furniture all around the neighbourhood. Over the years I got to see the inside of many houses and apartments along 12th Street. One of the things that always struck me was how many living rooms had little shrines to both Jesus and President Kennedy. However, that’s not why you’re here. It’s the riot you want to know about.
Astor Furniture after the worst of the 1967 Detroit Riot.
Police have made the streets safe for firefighting.
The Detroit Riot of 1967 began on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmont, exactly four blocks from Pops’ store. I was out of town. That’s my alibi and I’m sticking to it.
Every summer I went to camp in the wilds of Ortonville, Michigan. At some point every year they’d pack us onto a bus and smuggle us into another country. We would head off to Stratford, Ontario, Canada to see a Shakespearean play written by Shakespeare. I guess so they could tell my parents, “We tried to civilize him” at the end of the camp session. After the play we would grab a late meal in Stratford like the young sophisticates we were pretending to be. It was the only place we could spend any of the money we took with us to camp. The Tuck Shop had crap for sale. Every year the counselors made us promise that no matter what we wouldn’t phone home, or otherwise embarrass them in the Sin City of Stratford, Ontario, while they ditched us.
In 1967, when the play ended, we spread out to various restaurants around town. It was on a newsstand at the restaurant I saw the 1st DETROIT RIOTS headline. On the front of the newspaper was a picture of Pops’ store with the riot in progress right in front of it!!! I started running around Stratford looking for a counselor who could give me permission to phone home. Later we learned that the counselors already knew about the riot, but had withheld that information from us so as to not worry us. Word spread quickly among the campers and eventually there were lineups at all the payphones in Stratford.
So, that’s my Detroit riot story; I missed it entirely. I bet my father wishes he could say the same. He lost every stick of furniture in the store, as well as his front windows. However, he was better off than other business owners who were burned out. After Marshall Law was lifted, and civilians were allowed back in the area, he was able to start all over again in the same location. However, it was a total loss for him. Insurance was so prohibitively expensive that he did without it. After the riot he was left to pick up the pieces by himself.
I never worked on 12th Street again.
This is the building on the corner of Clairmont and 12th Street,
where police raided a blind pig, triggering the 1967 Riot.
The 1967 Detroit Riot began over a single flash point, following many years of bad mojo between the all-White Detroit Police Department and the all-Black neighbourhoods they patrolled. The trigger was a raid on a “blind pig,” essentially an after-hours, illegal drinking establishment. Police decided they were going to arrest the people in the “blind pig.” That’s the official story and is correct as far as it goes.
Coincidentally, or maybe not, the blind pig was also a celebration for some returning Vietnam Vets. When police came to bust the joint it got loud. The veterans said, in essence, “Enough is enough. We just got back from Vietnam defending this country and we won’t be treated like 2nd class citizens any longer.” However, they didn’t start the riot. They were the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Due to the sheer numbers in the blind pig (reportedly 82) police were forced to call in several paddy wagons. As the arrests proceeded a crowd started to grow. It was a hot night and culturally this neighbourhood kept very different hours than the lily-White block where I lived, with everyone tucked safely into bed by 11 PM. It was always true that Black people were far more visible in their neighbourhood than Whites were in their own. Unemployment was one factor, culture was a bigger factor. During the ’50s and ’60s when White Home Life™ turned to suburbia, car culture, and backyard barbecues, Black Home Life™ was more street oriented; front porches, street corners, back alleys (which my neighbourhood didn’t even have) were all gathering places for friends and family, especially in the days before air conditioning was ubiquitous.
All this to explain why a large crowd gathered almost immediately while
police waited for the paddy wagons. However, that doesn’t explain the anger that
exploded into the ’67 Riot. Years of injustice does. The neighbourhood came to view the Detroit Police Department as an
Occupying Force and, despite the Civil Rights Act and promises of The Great Society,
Blacks were still getting the short end of the stick, and getting it in their own neighbourhoods. The amazing thing to me about the ’67 Detroit Riot was how instantaneous it was. It went from zero to Riot in under an hour and took five days to quell.
One of thousands of pictures of the ’67 Detroit Riot I have viewed. I have only found Pops’ store in two of them.
Just as fires cannot erupt in a vacuum, neither do riots. Among the
several factors underlying the 1967 Detroit Riot three loomed
large: White Flight, Police Brutality and a severe housing shortage. The housing
shortage stemmed, in part, from a growing economy. The Big Three were
hiring in those days. According to a web site at Rutgers:
Like Newark, Detroit was swept by a wave of white flight. During the
1950s the white population of Detroit declined by 23%. Correspondingly,
the percentage of non-whites rose from 16.1% to 29.1%. In sheer numbers
the black population of Detroit increased from 303,000 to 487,000 during
that decade. (Fine 1989:4) By 1967, the black population of Detroit
stood at an estimated 40% of the total population. (National Advisory
Committee on Civil Disorders 1968:89-90). As in Newark, some
neighborhoods were more affected by white flight than others. This was
particularly true for the Twelfth Street neighborhood, where rioting
broke out in the summer of 1967. “Whereas virtually no blacks lived
there in 1940 (the area was 98.7% white), the area was over one-third
(37.2%) non-white in 1950. By 1960, the proportion of blacks to whites
had nearly reversed: only 3.8 percent of the areas residents were white.
Given that the first blacks did not move to the area until 1947 and
1948, the area underwent a complete racial transition in little more
than a decade.” Sugrue 1996:244)
This rapid turnover in population in the neighborhood brought with it
the attendant ills of social disorganization, crime and further
discrimination. It’s impact in the 12th street area was devastating.
According to Sidney Fine, “The transition from white to black on
Detroit’s near northwest side occurred at a remarkably rapid rate…In a
familiar pattern of neighborhood succession, as blacks moved in after
World War II, the Jews moved out. The first black migrants to the area
were middle class persons seeking to escape the confines of Paradise
Valley. They enjoyed about “five good years” in their new homes until
underworld and seedier elements from Hastings Street and Paradise
Valley, the poor and indigent from the inner city, and winos and
derelicts from skid row flowed into the area. Some of the commercial
establishments on Twelfth Street gave way to pool halls, liquor stores,
sleazy bars, pawn shops, and second hand businesses. Already suffering
from a housing shortage and lack of open space, Twelfth Street became
more “densely packed” as apartments were subdivided and six to eight
families began to live where two had resided before. The 21,376 persons
per square mile in the area in 1960 were almost double the city’s
average” (Fine 1989:4) This neighborhood would serve as the epicenter of
the 1967 riot.
It didn’t help that, under the guise of Urban Renewal, it was decided to ram I-75 through the city. Paradise Valley and Black Bottom, the traditional Black areas of Detroit, were razed and paved over. While it’s true these were some of the worst slums in Detroit, it was also home to the thriving Black Culture of the city, with many self-sustaining businesses along with Jazz and Blues clubs up and down Hastings. When these neighbourhoods were torn down, the people had to go somewhere. Because of redlining, Blacks couldn’t move much farther than 12th Street. Had 12th Street not undergone such a dramatic demographic shift in such a short period of time, who knows how Detroit might have developed. However, that’s all water under the Ambassador Bridge now.
Rutgers also outlined the issue of Police Brutality, another factor leading up to the riot:
In Detroit, during the 1960s the “Big Four” or “Tac Squad” roamed the streets, searching for bars to raid and prostitutes to arrest. These elite 4 man units frequently stopped youths who were driving or walking through the 12th street neighborhood. They verbally degraded these youths, calling them “boy” and “nigger*”, asking them who they were and where they were going. (Fine 1989:98). Most of the time, black residents were asked to produce identification, and having suffered their requisite share of humiliation, were allowed to proceed on their way. But if one could not produce “proper” identification, this could lead to arrest or worse. In a few notable cases, police stops led to the injury or death of those who were detained. Such excessive use of force was manifested in the 1962 police shooting of a black prostitute named Shirley Scott who, like Lester Long of Newark, was shot in the back while fleeing from the back of a patrol car. Other high profile cases of police brutality in Detroit included the severe beating of another prostitute, Barbara Jackson, in 1964, and the beating of Howard King, a black teenager, for “allegedly disturbing the peace”. (Fine 1989:117) But the main issue in the minds of Detroit’s black residents was police harassment and police brutality, which they identified in a Detroit Free Press Survey as the number one problem they faced in the period leading up to the riot. (Detroit Free Press 1968, Fine 1989, Thomas 1967). According to a Detroit Free Press Survey, residents reported police brutality as the number as the number one problem they faced in the period leading up to the riot. (Detroit Free Press 1968, Fine 1989, Thomas 1967).
Despite the election of a liberal Democratic mayor who appointed African Americans to prominent positions in his administration, and despite Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh’s good working relationship with mainstream civil rights groups, a significant segment of the black community in Detroit felt disenfranchised, frustrated by what they perceived to be the relatively slow pace of racial change and persistent racial inequality. Local militant leaders like the Reverend Albert Cleague spoke of self-determination and separatism for black people, arguing that whites were incapable and or unwilling to share power. The civil rights movement was deemed a failure by these young leaders in the black community. At a black power rally in Detroit in early July 1967, H. Rap Brown foreshadowed the course of future events, stating that if “Motown” didn’t come around, “we are going to burn you down”.
Detroit was ripe for riot by 1967, especially following the mini-Kercheval riot of the previous year.
Over the period of five days, forty-three people died, of whom 33 were black and ten white. The other damages were calculated as follows:
467 injured: 182 civilians, 167 Detroit police officers, 83 Detroit firefighters, 17 National Guard troops, 16 State Police officers, 3 U.S. Army soldiers.
7,231 arrested: 6,528 adults, 703 juveniles; the youngest, 4, the oldest, 82. Half of those arrested had no criminal record.
2,509 stores looted or burned, 388 families rendered homeless or displaced and 412 buildings burned or damaged enough to be demolished. Dollar losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 million to $80 million.
That, ladies and gentleman, is your Detroit Riot of 1967. After John Lee Hooker reports to us via The Blues, we can get to the good stuff.
* I refuse to soften the ugliest word in the English language by using that awful construct “The N Word.” Don’t like it? Me neither.
Part Two – The 1943 Detroit Riot
When I start telling people about the 1943 Detroit Riot, they blink. Huh? What? Yet, the ’43 riot seems almost as predictable as the ’67 Riot. Just as fires cannot erupt in a vacuum, neither do riots. There were several pressures that led to the ’43 riot. Again jobs and housing were two of the main flashpoints, but systemic racism was at the bottom of it all.
Dr. Ossian Sweet, movin’ on up?
Not if the neighbours can help it.
One of the festering resentments in Detroit’s ugly housing legacy goes back to the ’20s, when Dr. Ossian Sweet found himself on trial for murder merely because he wanted to move to a better neighbourhood. Sweet purchased a house on Garland Avenue, on what would become my birthday, June 7, 1925. According to published reports, Sweet paid $6,000 over market-value to a White homeowner who knew how desperate Blacks were to find good housing. The trouble started when Sweet and his family tried to occupy the house in September. When a White mob formed for the second day in a row, it trapped Sweet, his wife Gladys, and nine other men recruited to help Sweet protect his Civil Rights. The mob threw rocks and shots were fired from an upstairs window; one of the mob was killed, another wounded. All 11 in the house were put on trial for murder, with Clarence Darrow defending. After a mistrial, there was an acquittal against Sweet and the prosecutors decided to dismiss all charges against the remaining defendants.
A sign near the Sojourner
Truth housing project.
Less than 20 years later Detroit housing would become another flashpoint, with Whites once again the instigators. When the Feds announced a housing projects for Detroit, on the edge of a traditional White neighbourhood, the local community assumed it was for their own kind. When it was named the Sojourner Truth housing project, Whites protested. The government reversed its decision and decided this would be for Whites and it would find another location for a Black housing project, even tho’ it would retain the Truth name. Then Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries, Jr. got involved and the Feds reversed their decision again: This housing would be for the Black people of Detroit who desperately needed housing. On moving day Whites protested, turning away the first families. It was months before people would eventually move in.
In early June 1943, three weeks before the riot, Packard Motor Car Company promoted three blacks to work next to whites in the assembly lines. This promotion caused 25,000 whites to walk off the job, effectively slowing down the critical war production. It was clear that whites didn’t mind that blacks worked in the same plant but refused to work side-by-side with them. During the protest, a voice with a Southern accent shouted in the loudspeaker, “I’d rather see Hitler and Hirohito win than work next to a Nigger”*.
The kindling was already there. Tempers were obviously at a boiling point and the muggy heat of a late June evening didn’t help. According to PBS:
Detroit riot began at a popular and integrated amusement park known as Belle Isle. On the muggy summer evening of June 20, 1943, the playground was ablaze with activity. Several incidents occurred that night including multiple fights between teenagers of both races. White teenagers were often aided by sailors who were stationed at the Naval Armory nearby. As people began leaving the island for home, major traffic jams and congestion at the ferry docks spurred more violence. On the bridge which led back to the mainland, a fight erupted between a total of 200 African Americans and white sailors. Soon, a crowd of 5,000 white residents gathered at the mainland entrance to the bridge ready to attack black vacationers wishing to cross. By midnight, a ragged and understaffed police force attempted to retain the situation, but the rioting had already spread too far into the city.
Man being dragged off a
Woodward Avenue streetcar
by an angry White mob.
Car burns on Woodward.
Two rumors circulated which exacerbated the conflict. At the Forest Club, a nightclub in Paradise Valley which catered to the black population, a man who identified himself as a police sergeant alerted the patrons that “whites” had thrown a black woman and her baby over the Belle Isle bridge. The enraged patrons fled the club to retaliate. They looted and destroyed white-owned stores and indiscriminately attacked anyone with white skin. Similarly, white mobs had been stirred up by a rumor that a black man had raped and murdered a white woman on the bridge. The white mob centered around the downtown Roxy Theater which harbored a number of black movie-goers. As the patrons exited the theater, they found themselves surrounded by gangs who attacked and beat them. As rumors about the incidents in Paradise Valley and the downtown area spread through the night, so did the nature and the extent of the violence. White mobs targeted streetcars transporting black laborers to work, forced the cars to come to a halt, and attacked the passengers inside. They also targeted any cars with black owners, turning them over and setting them on fire.
White mob overturns car in front of White Tower
By mid morning, black leaders in the community had asked Mayor Edward J. Jeffries to call in federal troops to quell the fighting. But it was not until late that evening, when white mobs invaded Paradise Valley, that Jeffries took the necessary steps to get outside help. Around midnight, a disturbing silence reigned over the city as a truce between the city’s warring factions was kept by U.S. Army troops. More than 6,000 federal troops had been strategically stationed throughout the city. Detroit, under armed occupation, virtually shut down. The streets were deserted, the schools had been closed, and Governor Harry Francis Kelly had closed all places of public amusement. Most of the Paradise Valley community feared to leave their homes. Yet spurts of violence still flared up. As late as Wednesday, white mobs threatened black students leaving their graduation ceremony at Northeastern High School. The graduates had to be escorted home by truckloads of soldiers bearing bayonets.
An arrest by police
If you read between the lines, it seems pretty clear this is a White riot. While there may have been some skirmishes between isolated groups on Belle Isle, it wasn’t until the [White] Navy got involved that things spun out of control. They were reacting to the rumour that a Black man did something-something to a White something-something. Does it really matter what details were? That’s the same excuse Whites always used when they went crazy and attacked Blacks. It was a “Get out of jail free” card for Whites for as long as anyone can remember. It was probably used as a knee-jerk excuse without any grounding in reality. The naval cadets attacked any Black leaving the small island over the only bridge and the riot escalated from there.
The chronology above is slightly off. The rumour that swept through the Black community came only AFTER the Whites were already rioting. It very well could have been true, based on what people were already seeing with their own eyes. Whites targeted any and all Blacks they could find, including innocent people who were just minding their own business. This was a White riot, with Black community defending itself and then retaliating. There’s no other way to view the events in retrospect.
the violence escalated, both blacks and whites engaged in violence.
Blacks dragged whites out of cars and looted white-owned stores in
Paradise Valley while whites overturned and burned black-owned vehicles
and attacked African Americans on streetcars along Woodward Avenue and
other major streets. The Detroit police did little in the rioting,
often siding with the white rioters in the violence.
violence ended only after President Franklin Roosevelt, at the request
of Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries, Jr., ordered 6,000 federal troops into
the city. Twenty-five blacks and nine whites were killed in the
violence. Of the 25 African Americans who died, 17 were killed by the
police. The police claimed that these shootings were justified since
the victims were engaged in looting stores on Hastings Street. Of the
nine whites who died, none were killed by the police. The city suffered
an estimated $2 million in property damages.
34 people were killed, 25 of whom were African Americans in which 17 of them were killed by the police.
Out of the approximately 600 injured, black people accounted for more than 75 percent and of the roughly 1,800 people who were arrested over the course of the 3 day riots, black people accounted for 85 percent.
Remember: It was War Time. Cartoonists feared the Japanese and the Nazis would use this incident to their propaganda advantage, with Jim Crow discrimination to blame. The mayor blamed Black hoodlums; Wayne County prosecutors blamed the NAACP for instigating. However, Detroit’s Black community knew the truth and passed it along orally for the next 24 years until the next riot.
Ironically, the 1943 Riot was also one of the catalysts for the city’s later decision to tear down Black Bottom and Paradise Valley for its so-called Urban Renewal. This was one of the direct pressures on the 12th Street area described in the section on the 1967 Riot above.
* as above, I refuse to soften the ugliest word in the English language.
Part Three – The 1863 Detroit Riot
Just as fires cannot erupt in a vacuum, neither do riots. The 1863 Detroit Riot — dubbed at the time “the bloodiest day that ever dawned upon Detroit” — has to be seen in context. It was during the Civil War, when Detroit was not yet a great city. Motown was little more than a small town, huddled along the river, which was also the international border to Canada. This is why Detroit was a terminus for so many escaped slaves traveling north on the famed Underground Railroad. This had created certain tensions within the separate Black and White communities of Detroit. Escaped slaves could be arrested and returned by bounty hunters. Some Free Blacks were arrested and sent south. Some Whites were sympathetic to the cause of abolition and others were not. Race was a big factor in the 1863 riot, as was the military draft. Many Whites didn’t see this as their war and resented being forced to fight for a cause diametrically opposed to what they believed.
Was it all President Lincoln’s fault?
In September of the previous year, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1st. The Proclamation had no practical effect on anyone –North or South. It merely freed the slaves in the southern states, already in rebellion. Those ten states had already refused to kowtow to Washington, having declared a Civil War in the first place, so it seemed unlikely they would do what Washington demanded. The Proclamation did not outlaw slavery, nor did it confer citizenship on ‘Merkin Blacks. It did, however, stir up intense feelings on the part of racist Whites. So did the Detroit Free Press, which published incendiary articles about Blacks in the months prior to the March riot. According to Matthew Kundinger in his thoroughly researched Racial Rhetoric: The Detroit Free Press and Its Part in the Detroit Race Riot of 1863 [PDF]:
Once the articles are examined, it becomes clear that the Detroit Free Press was a racist paper, and it printed racist stories in the months preceding the riot. The paper was pushing a racial ideology, one that taught that blacks were inferior and a threat. I will show this by pointing to four types of stories the paper printed in the months before the war: stories that connected blacks to labor problems, blacks to citizenship issues, blacks to the war, and blacks to crime and a general degradation of the moral order. Within all of these categories the paper portrayed blacks as a threat. The readers of the Free Press were mostly lower class white laborers, a class with little power. Even absent the racial rhetoric, issues of labor, of voting, of war, and of crime—especially sexual transgressions such as rape—are at their core about power. By showing how African-Americans were a threat to whites when it came to these issues, the paper was suggesting that the already limited power of the white working class was at risk. Further, each of these categories represent a function that was vital to a man’s main role in life, being the head of his household. In essence, the articles of the Free Press were portraying a threat to its male readers’ power to fulfill their primary functions. The paper was showing a threat to their masculinity.
Copy of “A Thrilling Narrative…”
Oh, shit! Can’t allow that to happen. Nothing is more fragile than the precious masculinity of the ‘Merkin White Male, especially if threatened by Blacks. In that respect, the situation was not a lot different than it is today.
However, the Free Press didn’t start the riot, no matter how incendiary were its articles. The riot started because somebody said a Black man did something-something to a White something-something. According to the contemporaneous document called A Thrilling Narrative From the Lips of the Sufferers of the Late Detroit Riot, March 6, 1863, with the Hair Breadth Escapes of Men, Women and Children, and Destruction of Colored Men’s Property, Not Less Than $15,000 [Electronic Edition], one of the few eye-witness accounts remaining:
The Detroit Riot in 1863.
On the 6th of March an organized mob made their way from the jail down Beaubien street. They were yelling like demons, and crying “kill all the d–d niggers.”* In the cooper shop, just below Lafayette street, were five men working, namely: ROBERT BENNETTE, JOSHUA BOYD, SOLOMON HOUSTON, LEWIS HOUSTON, MARCUS DALE. These men were busy at work in the shop until the mob made an attack upon the shop. The windows were soon broken and the doors forced open. The men in the cooper shop were determined to resist any that might attempt to come in. The mob discovered this, and did not attempt to come in, but stood off and threw stones and bricks into the windows, a perfect shower. There happened to be one old shot gun in the shop, a couple of discharges from which drove the mob back from the shop. The dwelling house was attached to the shop, in which were three women and four children, namely: Mrs. REYNOLDS, Mrs. BONN and one child, Mrs. DALE and three children.
Some ten minutes after the mob had fallen back from the shop, they made a rush upon the house in which were the women and children. The men in the shop seeing this, rushed out of the shop into the house to protect the women and children. The windows of the houses were soon all broken in; stones and bricks came into the house like hail. The women and children were dodging from one room to another to escape the stones. The men frequently stood before the women and children to shield them from the stones. Very soon after the men went from the shop into the house, the shop was set on fire by the mob. There were plenty of shavings in the shop, which facilitated the burning. The flames soon reached the house in which were the women and children. The mob by this time had completely surrounded the building. Mrs. Reynold attempted to go out at the back door but could not get out, for hundreds of stones were flying at that part of the building. Mr. Dale, in shielding his wife, got a blow in the face with a stone, which his wife might have gotten had he not stood before her. Some person outside was heard to say “the women will be protected–no protection for the men.” Hearing this, Mr. Dale told the women to go out at the front door. Mrs. Dale seeing the blood running.
Anti-slavery newspaper of the time.
And it goes on for pages and pages of hard-to-read, heart-rending descriptions of Whites attacking any and all Blacks who are unable to flee. This includes women and children alike, and didn’t spare the 80-year old pastor of the local A.M.E. Church. Essentially this riot, just like the 1943 Detroit Riot — or the Tulsa riot I wrote about earlier — was a White Riot. Whites went crazy and Blacks paid for it. A full reading of the two documents quoted above gives a much fuller story than can be given here, but you should take the time.
However, what was the legacy of the 1863 Detroit Riot? Wikipedia foolishly tried to sum it up with one prosaic sentence:
Detail from anti-slavery newspaper.
The riot resulted in the creation of a full-time police force for Detroit.
As I said above, Detroit was still not much more than a town and, in 1863, did not have police force. The riot itself had to be quelled by soldiers from Fort Wayne and some of the Michigan’s 27th Infantry out of Ypsilanti. However, 35 burned buildings, 2 people dead and a “multitude of others, mostly African-American, mercilessly beaten” has a way of focusing the citizens on Law and Order. As a result of the 1863 Riot a full time police force was constituted. Written into the originating documents incorporating Detroit’s 1st police force were the fateful words that guided Detroit ever since. Detroit’s first officers were tasked with keeping the Blacks in line, because the 1863 came to be blamed on them. Some things never change.
Is it any wonder why I say riots are in Detroit’s DNA, from 1863 to 1943 to 1967?
* as above, again, I refuse to soften the ugliest word in the English language.