Monday, February 27, 2006

Another story about old Detroit

Writer's Note: This comment came from Hal Furlong, a reader of the Dallas Morning News, concerning my column "What about Detroit?" in last Sunday's (Feb. 26) Metro section/Collin County.

There are many times that I am tempted to respond to articles in the "News,"
and want to write in, but rarely does the temptation rise above the threshold of action to actually write. I have on one other occasion written to the Dallas Morning News, and that has been many years ago. But your article struck a familiar chord with me regarding my own history in Detroit similar to yours, but occurring 26 years before.
I'll try to be as brief as possible but there are many things that happened that have begged for attention.
I was born in Detroit in 1930. My father was from Texas and my mother from Detroit. It was a struggle during the depression and the tough years of the 1930s to make a living and take care of themselves and the three of us kids. Dad delivered milk and mom taught piano at the Detroit Conservatory that, by the way, is across the street from the Detroit Public Library mentioned in your article.
In 1940, my grandfather gave us a two-story brick home, one of a number of properties that he owned, and we moved up a significant notch in the living standard. Prior to that dad and mom worked hard to improve our situation.
Moving frequently but always improving the houses we lived in. The brick home we received as a gift was a half block from Woodward Ave. and just across Woodward Ave. from an upscale neighborhood called Virginia Park.
As it turns out it was about two blocks in the other direction, away from Woodward Ave., from the "color line." There was a distinct color line at that time in Detroit.
When World War II began in 1941, the defense industry, which had already begun to support the "Lend-Lease" agreement with Britain, went into full swing. There were jobs for everyone. Both mom and dad got jobs at Vicker's, a military equipment manufacturer, and began making good wages.
Things at least from a financial perspective were looking good. There were the
occasional confrontations between blacks and whites, both for my parents and for us kids. But things took an ugly turn in, I believe late 1942 or early 1943, when it happened.
I was about 11 or 12 years old at the time and had a paper route. It was Sunday morning, and seemed quiet. I had to cross Woodward Ave. going south, to pick up my papers blocks away from home. It was early still and perhaps 6 or 7 in the morning. By the time I returned to the house after delivering the papers about 10 a.m., the news was out. There was a full riot in Detroit that was mainly located in central Detroit along Woodward Ave., and at the same time near the Belle Isle bridge.
Cars were being turned over and burned on Woodward Ave. People on streetcars were being attacked and there were reports of snipers shooting people waiting for streetcars. There were reports of homes and businesses being looted and burned. The city of Detroit went into a complete shutdown.
A curfew was declared and the state troops were called in. However, it was difficult to receive the kind of support needed during World War II. They called in elements of the Texas 35th Division and placed the city under marshal law. Sandbagged, .30-caliber machine gun emplacements were located at each corner of the Detroit Public Library and the Detroit Museum of Art.
The streets were patrolled by fully armed military in half-tracks every 15 minutes. They used John R Street, half a block from my house, which became the black-white dividing line. We used to go down to John R Street to watch them go by. (The city remained under marshal law for, I believe, six months). John R, which was an asphalt street, was somewhat torn up after the constant use by the half-track vehicles. Later you could drive down Woodward Ave. and spot the burned spots where cars were turned over and burned.
I don't know how many people lost their lives during the riots, since most news was censored due the war, but I am sure there were many. Also the fact that news was censored has reduced the occurrence of historical references to the riot.
I can assure you that white flight began as well after this 1940s era riot. People were leaving as soon as they were financially capable. At the time, there was a technique known as "block busting." Since you couldn't sell your house if you were close to the black-white line, speculators were then buying into white neighborhoods and selling to upward mobile blacks for significant profits.
We sold out to a black family, which by the way made our neighbors very unhappy with us, moved to Greenville, Texas and never looked back. That was by far the best move we ever made.
I have been back to the area of Detroit on several occasions, but usually avoid the city proper. I have relatives on mother's side that live on Harsen's Island in Lake St. Clair. But in 1990, my curiosity got the better of me and I drove down to my old neighborhood. Detroit, in general, looks liked a bombed out city. Our old two-story brick home was still there, but suffering greatly from neglect, as was the neighborhood.
People keep moving out to the suburbs and the center appears to continue to decay. There are many cities in the U.S. that have similar problems, but most have addressed the need to fight the decay. I don't live in Detroit, so I'm not familiar with their attempts at renewal, but I'm not encouraged by what I saw 16 years ago. Also, I have not heard good things about Detroit since.
As you noted in your article, African-American History should also include this Detroit 1940s chapter as well.
Currently my mother is living with me and is 103 years old and healthy for her age. At every opportunity, she likes say even now, that the best thing we ever did was move to Texas.

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