Growing Up in Detroit in the ’60s

Detroit skyline
Detroit skyline (Photo credit: Bernt Rostad)

Because it is Black History Month, I’ve been doing some thinking about what that means to someone like me, a Caucasian woman who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s on the (at that time) mostly white East Side of Detroit. I was raised by a single mom, widowed when I was 19 months old. She was a nurse in Detroit. She worked the midnight shift in the emergency room of a large hospital in the heart of the city. We lived in the city as well, on a street lined with elm trees just south of 6 Mile Road (East McNichols). We all attended the local Catholic parish for church and school, but though the neighborhood had a lot of Catholics, there were plenty of Protestants and Lutherans as well. But of course, in those days, there were no African Americans in our neighborhood.

Although I did not know one black person in my school or church, my mother worked with people of all races and nationalities, so I was certainly exposed to other cultures from a young age. I do remember colleagues of hers visiting our home when I was small – not just black friends, but also people from India and the Phillipines and other far-away countries. Because Mom worked nights we also had a housekeeper when I was very young – I remember coming home from school each day and she would make me the best sandwiches and soup for lunch. I was the youngest of five children and the sister closest in age to me graduated from high school the year I finished fourth grade – so I was pretty much the only child at home in those years.

I don’t ever remember my mother talking down about anyone – black or white or anything – because of their color, religion or anything else. If she had any prejudice, I think it might have been against “stupid” people! Mom was a Democrat through-and-through. There was a statue of John F. Kennedy in our living room. I remember her talking about Franklin D. Roosevelt and how much she admired him and Eleanor Roosevelt.

I remember the Detroit riots of 1967. My mother worked right in the heart of that area in Detroit. Many friends and family told her not to go to work. But she did. She even had my brother’s Army helmet in the car when she drove in at night — because of snipers. It was scary and dangerous but she went so that she could help the people who were hurt during those terrible days in our city. And I know she helped many of them. Not just during the riots — but always — as the neighborhood there changed, I can remember many mornings Mom would come home with her white uniform covered in blood stains because of trying to help someone with a gunshot wound or other injury. I heard a story once about her jumping on a gurney with a gunshot victim and giving him CPR while they wheeled him to the OR. I believe it – she was only 5 feet tall and didn’t weigh much – it would have been easy for her to jump up there. And she was dedicated only to helping people. It didn’t matter to her what color they were or what their politics were – only that she help them get through whatever it was that had happened to them.

One time Mom was arriving at work and had parked. A man with a gun put the gun to her head and demanded her purse. Of course she gave it to him. I remember how sad she was when she came up the steps at home that morning — she was shaken, but she said she knew he was an addict because she could tell by how he was sweating and how his eyes looked. She never said he was black. I didn’t know that until later. And she only said it because of the police report. She didn’t see a black man. She saw an addict who needed help and was desperate to get money any way he could.

When I went into ninth grade, I went to a junior high for one year. That was the very first time I had black classmates. There were only one or two in our small school at that time, and I didn’t really know them. But that was also the year that there was a big protest about “bussing” in Detroit. I know that many parents one day kept their kids out of school in protest. At that time, I don’t remember being very politically involved but I do remember thinking it seemed silly. What difference did it make who went to our school as long as we had good teachers and got an education? And I don’t recall my Mom ever keeping me out of school for anything political … it was hard to convince her I was sick enough to stay home, let alone stay out for some other reason!

The next year, in high school, although it was still a predominantly white student population, there were more black kids in my class. And that’s when I made many new friends, including several of the black kids who were also new in the school. We had our own “crowd” and we hung out, learned to drive, got our first boyfriends/girlfriends, went to dances, etc. and had a blast. I do not remember any of us giving one hoot what color anyone was. Now, that is not to say prejudice was totally foreign to us or we were ignorant of it. Plenty of my friend’s parents did not approve of our black (or white) friends. Many of them were worried about interracial dating, etc. But as a group of friends, we did not care. We were just teenagers enjoying life and planning our futures. It was during these years and right after that Detroit Public Schools were being more integrated and I think it was a good thing for us and the generations to follow. It seems to me that most of the fear and prejudice was coming from the older generation who were adamantly trying to stop any sort of integration of schools and neighborhoods. Maybe because we were on the “tail end” of the ’60s “love” and “Woodstock” generation we just were more concerned about the “person” than their race or nationality.

I remember when the first black family moved into our neighborhood, just across the street from us. I remember the father was a really nice man who developed a friendship with my brother. The two of them were in the Neighborhood Watch together and also active in local Democratic politics. I also remember that the local real estate companies then started putting flyers in mailboxes and doors telling people their property values would be going down (without actually mentioning WHY, of course … that was to be understood). My mother would say that if people would just relax and not starting selling their homes and running away, they would realize there was nothing to be afraid of…..but of course, as more black people moved in — good, hard working families just wanting to live their lives — more people sold their homes and moved to the suburbs. And there you had “white flight”. My mother died in that house in 1980. Although there were still families we had grown up with in the neighborhood, by then many had moved away. And many more would leave over the next 10 years or so. I never really understood why people just believed anything they heard and ran — without giving their new neighbors even a chance — but I guess that’s the same thing we see today with President Obama — many people are against him as President — they give many reasons, some fairly logical, most ridiculous or couched in silly things like his birthplace or religion — but deep down I think it’s all still about race. Even if they won’t admit it — or deny it because they don’t want anyone to know.

I like to think I am not prejudiced against anyone. But perhaps I am prejudiced against people who have no tolerance for others who don’t look, act and think exactly as they do. I really don’t care what people look like, who they worship, what they eat, whatever. I just want people to respect me and my opinions and let me live my life the way I choose. And that’s the way it should be for everyone.

Perhaps if people stopped worrying about what everyone else does, they would find life more enjoyable and fulfilling. I certainly do!

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