The Detroit Riots ► Unpacking My Detroit ► Part Five
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.

There’s Astor Furniture again on the right as police make the streets safe for firefighting.
This picture is © Kenneth Stahl, of The Great Rebellion who has graciously allowed its use.

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. 

When it’s all gone just the marker remains.
Is this the ultimate fate of the E.W.F. Stirrup House?

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.

The WikiWackyWoo sums up:

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.[19]

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.

Less than a year later, 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”*.[7]

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:

Belle Isle

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
A victim

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.

Black Past gives another perspective:

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.

An eyewitness to history:

Again, the WikiWackyWoo sums up: 

  • 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.

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.

14 thoughts on “The Detroit Riots ► Unpacking My Detroit ► Part Five

  1. Everyone talks about the white cops and Vietnam and joblessness as the triggers. But how were the conditions in those houses on 12th street and in particular the apartments? I heard 1/4th needed to be condemned. Were there lots of Rats or water leaks??

    just wondering.

    1. i was there and no you jerk, i assume you read this entire story and STILL came out with some BS in your small mind… Its far more comfortable for you to blame the riots on rats and water leaks…. like something out of a space fiction movie than the facts above. you MUST be from Michigan. Its a cultural sickness here.

  2. I grew up on 12th street in the late 40's , does anyone remember cream of michigan or bennys deli . I lived at 2045 Gladstone betwen 12th and 14th . I am writing a book. I need pictures . Thanks , I may be called at 805 551 7087

    1. I remember Cream of Michigan, Twin Pines milk and ice cream delivery, Chicken Delight in a bucket (Don't cook tonight, call….) On TV: Howdy Dowdy, Captain Jolly, Pop Deck Paul and of course Soupy Sales. My favorite soda joint was Rencher's Drug Store at the corner Gladstone and 12th, where every month I furtively flipped through the latest issue of Playboy. Benny's was always nice to me and the neighborhood kids, he let us trade clipped coupons for candy and pickles from the barrel out front. Hell I should write a book too!

  3. ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR: What Was All The Rioting FOR?
    Oh, Yeah, it made the Community feel the satisfaction of righteous in dignation for about five minutes, until the REALITY set in that they had just burned down what little they HAD in life AND chased away whatever JOB OPPORTUNITIES which might have come along by the late-1960's and 1970's and '80's!
    And I DO know what the fuck I am talking about. I was born in Richmond, CA in 1958 and grew up in Oakland, CA during the '60's and '70's. I am also multi-racial (African-American, Hispanic, and white).
    I saw the reality and aftermath of the over-glamorized 1960's riots with my own eyes and lived it with my own life. It has taken many decades for "O-Town" (Oakland) to begin to emerge economically from the true legacy of that era.
    Part of the reason is that periodically, Oaklanders and others from nearby communities ie. Richmond, Berkeley (radical students), and San Francisco revisit heavy street action whilst aggrieved by the latest reminder of the fact that this society, like all others, has major racial injustices. Witness the aftermath of the Oscar Grant shooting by the BART cop, one of a number of "reminder" incidents which reopen painful wounds.
    I believe that some of what drives some of our communities to engage in what can objectively be termed self-defeating behaviors is the profound fear that if they behave themselves and shut up, whites and Asian-Americans will be able to FORGET ABOUT THEM easily and forsake them all the more so. The sense is that it's better to be noticed and not forgotten, albeit in a NEGATIVE way, than to be ignored into oblivion.
    Trouble is, White Conservative America doesn't see it that way! And like it or not, OUR community's future will ALWAYS be linked to THEIR opinion of us!
    That is what living in a society is all about.

  4. Very informative and well written Headly. I guess the moment I personally realized things would never be the same ever again in Detroit, was when I was mugged one night in 1968 by two kids on a sidestreet near the old Tiger Stadium after drinking at the Top Of The Flame alone as usual.. Foolishly in my solitary reverie, I decided to walk around and soak up the atmosphere. They got $10.00 cash, and a 14 carat gold ring my parents bought for me in Hong Kong, that said "Good Luck" in Chinese.

  5. Hi Headly…great writing. My family worked and lived above that "Chinese Hand Laundry" in Ken Stahl's photo. I've been looking for that picture for over 30 years, researching Time-Life archives and others. Thanks for posting! Brings back mixed memories. I know there are more photos of our store. Do you know where I can find more?

    About the riot: It was exciting times for a 14 year old kid. I remember in the wee hours of that morning, Congressman John Conyers atop of car imploring people to go home. He had to retreat when the crowd started throwing trash at him. Then we were off to the races – smashing windows, looting, burnings, Huey's flying overhead, 50 cal machine guns atop a tank strafing the side of an apartment building down the street, tracer bullets streaking across the orange night sky. I remember vividly, a looter being shot in the back by police outside my window. My junior high school two blocks away, i.e., Hutchinson: the playground was turned into a vast Army base of operations with rows of tents, tanks, armor personnel carriers and Huey Cobra helicopters. Friggin surreal!

    And I do remember your father's store across from Miami Market and the five & dime store. They both burned bright orange as well that first day! Aside from the riot, I had a grand childhood growing up Detroit. Got along well with Black people – they were by buds, neighbors, customers and classmates.

    Oh by the way, there was a smaller riot in summer 1968 when MLK was shot, but the police, confined it, and quelled it. The news media played along and did not report it – to this day.


    1. Thanks so much for your kind words and memories.

      While I have hundreds of pics of the riot, that's the only pic I have of that section of 12th Street. Even Ken Stahl wouldn't share the original with me, which is why I had to use the one with his words across it.

      I just asked Pops and he doesn't remember the laundry. Pops is 87. However, if he thinks about it for a while, he might remember something in a day or two.

      Thanks again for the compliment.

    2. Doesn't that photo belong to Time-Warner? But I can't figure out how to find more like it. Before 1963 our Laundry was at 1744 Blaine, within sight of Astor Furniture? Isn't it located at the T-bone dead end of Blaine at 12th? Was your dad's store formerly a Five and Dime Store which before that, a Kresge Dime Store in the 50's?

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