Eyewitnesses to History

Project captures five days of turmoil from a wide range of Detroit perspectives


Published:

Donors fill Red Cross headquarters to replenish the depleted blood supply for Detroit during the civil unrest of 1967.

Detroit Historical Museum staff are gathering the most comprehensive collection of written, audio, and video histories ever assembled on the five days in 1967 that rocked Detroit.

Billy Winkel, an assistant curator, is one of the project’s lead staffers. He conducted more than 100 of the 400-plus firsthand accounts gathered to date.

Like most people conducting the interviews, Winkel was not yet born in 1967. But the historian’s capstone research at Wayne State University was on the role of homeowners associations in Detroit from 1940-60, a time when blatant segregation was the norm. He gained a solid grasp of the topic by researching seminal books by Thomas Sugrue, Sidney Fine, and others (see page 75). He also dove into President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Kerner Commission” report that investigated the cause of urban unrest around the country. The report describes America as moving toward two societies: black and white, separate and unequal.

To obtain a wide range of Detroit perspectives, museum employees started feeding Winkel and other staffers names. They also reached out to prominent figures of the time.

On the Detroit 67 website, the oral and written interviews are broken into categories such as “teenagers,” “community activists,” “police, National Guard, and firefighters,” “business owners and workers,” and “government officials.”

Interviews were conducted both offsite and at the museum. A few memorable moments stick out among Winkel’s manyinterviews, including one that compares his own family’s story to that of Darryle Buchanan’s.

Winkel’s grandmother, who was white, worked at a Great Scott Supermarket that officials wanted to keep open. So every day the police would pick her up and take her to work.

“My mom didn’t think anything of it,” Winkel says. But for Buchanan, who is African-American, it was another story. “His mom was a nurse, and she would get picked up every day [but] he was terrified,” Winkel says. “He didn’t trust the police [and] he was afraid that members of the community would think she was an informant.”

Police perspectives revealed emotional stories, as well. Richard Viecelli was there when a little girl got killed. And David Bruce, one of the few African-American cops on the force, tells of being shot at by what he believes were National Guardsmen.

Museum staff are paring the interviews down for when the exhibit opens in June (see page 77). But Winkel doesn’t believe their work is done — by a long shot. They’re still transcribing interviews, and with the increased attention on 1967, he says “there will likely be a bunch of people coming in and saying, ‘I was there. Why didn’t you talk to me?’ ”

And when that happens, Winkel and the museum staff will be happy to accommodate them.

Want to add your voice or that of a relative to the memories from 1967? Visit detroit1967.org for a “field kit” on how to submit an oral history, sample questions for interviews, and more. You can also contact the staff at 313-885-1967 or email detroit1967@detroithistorical.org.


Excepts from the Detroit 67 Oral History Project

Detroit Historical Museum staff collected more than 400 firsthand accounts from people who were in Detroit during the 1967 unrest as well as some who were affected by the aftermath. 

Mike Hamlin was an organizer with the Inner City Voice and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers:

“It was clearly a rebellion. It was rebellion against oppression and exploitation, but more so against — it was a police state, you know … Looks like the way things are happening now between cops and blacks, we might be headed toward that kind of .... The police used to mess with us, you know, used to try to provoke us and things. Plus they was raiding peoples’ houses, that kind of thing. So there was rage and rebellion, in my mind. There were – obviously there were elements who rioted. But it was an expression of that rage.”

The block at 12th and Linwood streets is reduced to rubble by fires during the second day.

Carrie Davis was a child in 1967: 

“… Aretha Franklin’s ‘Never Loved a Man’ song could be heard from a neighbor’s radio … West Forest and 15th Street broke out in chaos. …Someone said there are no police available and all they got was a busy signal. However, police did show up and all I remember is as the sound of gun shots. … I was swiftly being snatched up by my mom. That was the only the beginning of what would be a nightmare. … Fire would later fill the skies … and the loud buzz and smell of burning electric wire all around us was something I had never experienced before.” 

Anita Gibbs was a child in 1967:

“A cherry bomb lit up the pawn shop on the corner of 12th and Taylor. We could feel the heat from it, all the way past the diner by the alley and the other businesses that lined their way up to the corner. … The summer of 1967, it was truly a ball, of confusion... Doorbell rings. ‘Are your parents home?’ a voice comes from the front door that is down the steps from the upper flat. The eldest child speaks, [hollers down the steps] and tells them no. The youngest child, buzzes them in. It’s the police. They briefly search while asking questions. ‘EVERYONE MUST VACATE.’ Leaving your home in the middle of the evening with the rage and mayhem of buildings on fire around you — imagine that at seven. Leave and come back when told to do so. … No warning, no waiting.”

Kenneth Volk was Vice President of the National Bank of Detroit: 

“I went to work as usual, [on] Monday morning. I drove down to Seven Mile and Schaefer… parked my car, and took an express bus to downtown Detroit. … I could see smoke billowing on either side of the expressway. When I finally got down to the office, I found that basically the only people that were there were the management group from the bank, and since I was a vice president … I was elected to go to two of the branches that were in the heart of the riots. The branch on Grand River was next door to Charles Furniture … [it] was totally destroyed. … An individual, I believe he was a reporter for one of the newspapers, came across the street. He wanted to come in and see what was going on in the branch. Of course, the police officer said that wasn’t possible, and asked him to step back across the street. The reporter was rather adamant about wanting to go in, so the police officer lowered his rifle, and asked him politely to please walk across the street, which he did. After we got the funds out of the vault and proceeded to the branch on Linwood and Clairmount, our trip took us down Chicago Boulevard. … As we were driving down Chicago Boulevard, the armored car stalled. The gentleman [who] was the branch manager was in the back seat of the police car with me looked like he was going to faint; he turned all white.”

Michael Smith was confronted by the National Guard: 

“I go to church, not knowing anything had happened. But when we got down on 12th, we heard some noise, saw smoke, little bit of smoke and fire … but the police kept us at bay. … [I] had an incident with some friends. … We played basketball at this elementary school outside. On our way, I guess I was about six blocks down, we were across the street from Central High School where the Guard were centralized. The Guard pulled their rifles out on us and made us lay down and put guns to our head. What their concern was a blow-back bag that I was carrying. I just had a small towel and extra shirts. … Anyway, they wanted to see what was in my bag, and after they saw it was nothing to harm anybody, just my own stinking shirts, they finally let us up and told us to get on our way. … As a 17-year-old, to see houses on fire, to see the city appear to be like we’re in a war zone, I mean, it was just amazing. It’s like watching a movie."

Three men brandish firearms to guard an unidentified market against further looting during the civil unrest of 1967.

David French was a member of the 182nd Artillery Battalion of the National Guard: 

“These guys that I went to school with, they said, ‘Oh, you ought to join the National Guard. You get your service obligation out of the way.’ … I said, ‘Well, what do you do?’ ‘Basically just go over one weekend a month and play cards all weekend.’... Then, when the riots broke out … I was in artillery battalion, 182nd Artillery Battalion, in an armored cab unit out of the East Eight Mile Armory. … As soon as I crossed in, I noticed this huge state police van, like an 18-wheeler … and I thought to myself, ‘What the heck is that doing here?’ Then I pulled behind the armory … There must have been 350 state police cars and another hundred Detroit police cars sitting there. So, I just parked my car anywhere, run inside, and these guys in my unit are putting 30 caliber machine guns on the jeeps. … I just changed into my uniform. … By the time we got down to Six Mile, it looked like the burning of Rome to me – nothing but smoke and from U of D down Livernois to Davison to Linwood and Linwood into Central High School. … I rode shotgun in ambulances, and they were shooting at ambulances. It got so bad we had to shoot out all the streetlights. Because when you drove under a light, somebody would take a shot at you. My sergeant was killed. He was the only guardsman, and he worked at Ford; he was an engineer. His name was Larry Post. I was 21 years old, I had never seen anything like that, and I thought everything was great in Detroit [laughter].”

Frank Boscarino owned a business in Detroit:

“I used to open on Sundays from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon. … I was home … relaxing, had the TV on, and all of a sudden, they said there’s a riot in the city. The city’s burning! I was shocked! I said, ‘Geez, it was all right when I left the store this morning!’ I called all my customers and they said, ‘Frank, your building’s still there.’ Next thing you know, phone starts ringing, couple hours later, and they were saying, ‘Frank, it don’t look good, but we’re protecting your building,’ they told me. Then they call me the next day and say the same thing, ‘We’re protecting your building, we’ve got “soul brother” written all over the building.’ My customers would run out there, some of them had guns and they were armed and they said, ‘You can’t touch this store, this is a soul brother store.’ They called me a soul brother, and that’s what happened.” 

Leeroy Johnson discusses looting: 

“They were wild on 12th Street, and I’m saying, ‘What’s going on?’ People were coming out of businesses, the pawn shops, everything, with all kind of items … police standing there don’t even try to stop ’em. ... So we started looting. … we were going, running in and out, in and out, stacking the merchandise in my car in the trunk. …I had a bag of jewelry, a little brown paper bag, full with diamond rings. A couple of times, as I was coming out of these stores, I met the police standing there, and honest to God they did nothing because it was like 50 people running in and out and we would’ve overwhelmed the police anyway. We were poor! … Now, the curfew was six o’clock. … But it was our time to sell all this stuff that we had stolen. So now we’re running through the alleys with cases of liquor at the after-hours joints. … Two or three times the Army shot at me because I was on the street past six o’clock running through the alley …. Like I say, I was looting alongside whites so I knew nothing racial was about this.” 

National Guardsmen at the Herman Kiefer Command Post care
for lost children caught in the sniper fire line.

Richard Viecelli was station at Kiefer Comand Center: 

 “I was in on the incident where the little girl was killed. She was 4 years old. We were come up on 12th Street, and we’re being sniped. We had sniped shots fired at us. So we ducked in the driveway, Gino, my partner, was across the street. Roger was over from the street, and I was right on the corner. … And I was shot at I think two or three times, and other shots were being fired, but I didn’t know where the hell they were going. … But then when I was hiding in the doorway and this place was on an angle from me, and I hear this truck coming, and I could hear this noise, tremendous noise, and I thought it was garbage trucks. They were pushing cars out of the street, you know, to open the streets up because they were abandoning cars and everything else. And it was a tank. … Boy, when that guy starts shootin’ out that window again [mimics sound of tank, gun shots]. Pow! The whole corner of that building came off. The windows were flying all over, the road was flying all over. And then the guy says, ‘commence firing,’ and then another bunch of rounds went off … and it ruined the whole corner of the building, and that’s when that little girl was laying on the porch, killed. Four years old. …” 

​Venita Shelton-Mitchell spent July 23, 1967, in Canada: 

“I was ... with the neighborhood block club [at] a picnic in Canada’s Pt. Peele. … When it was time for us to return to the U.S., we were stopped at the bridge for inspection. There was a lot of adult conversation going on around us about the rioting. ... There was talk about not allowing the bus to return. Eventually [we were] allowed to return. The bus driver scurried through the streets to return us to our neighborhood.” 

Dr. Carl Lauter worked at Detroit Receiving Hospital in 1967:

“I was off duty, and it was a Sunday morning that I first found out that there was something going on in the downtown area. I actually had been driving my mother grocery shopping … so I was sitting in my car listening to the Beatles’ music and my mother was in the market. And I listened to the news and it described that some rioting was going on in the city of Detroit. … I called Receiving and talked to some of my friends or colleagues … And I said, ‘You need any help?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ … ‘But don’t drive your car, it’s hard to drive through some of this.’ So they said, ‘Try and see if the police will bring you.’ … and the police said, ‘We know you’re probably needed, Doctor, but we really are too busy to do this.’ And they suggested that I call a black cab company. … I didn’t know there was such a thing as a white cab company and a black cab company. But there apparently were two black-owned cab companies in the … and the police gave me the numbers… they came to my house to pick me up. … The cab driver was a really wonderful African-American gentleman and as we’re driving toward Chrysler Freeway to get on the freeway, I could see him looking at me, and he was starting to get nervous. And he said, ‘Doctor, it wouldn’t hurt your feelings, would it, if I asked you to scrunch down in the back seat?’ Those were his exact words. … He was afraid we might be a target. … So I ended up spending the week there at the hospital. … There were gunshot injuries and knife wounds. … I never saw anything in the Air Force two years like I saw in that one week at Receiving Hospital.” 

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