Detroit Riots in 1967 About Civil Rights Changed Lives, Perhaps the City Itself.

#detroitriots #civilrights #raceriots

This is the final installment of a series that I have offered on my family’s experience living in Detroit during the mid-1960’s, a period of violent social unrest and the battle over Civil Rights. Readers are urged to read the previous post(s) before wading into this one.

John J. Hohn, Author

By Thursday, July 27, 1967, the rioting on the east side of Detroit stopped. The army had taken charge. The same was not true on the west side where the National Guard was deployed. The National Guard was under army command, but the units on duty were still led by their own officers.

Businesses in the downtown area—the banks, insurance companies, brokerage houses, and others—opened for business on Thursday in spite of the continuing turmoil. About 60 percent of our employees reported to work. My department went to work on the huge backlog of work that we knew would result in a deluge of telephone complaints as soon as the agency force returned to work.

The previous day, I had called the supervisor who reported to me and invited her and her mother to come stay with us until the rioting stopped. She lived in the troubled area, but she declined our invitation saying the she felt things were settling down. On Thursday, she and I began calling the employees who had not reported. Most agreed that, barring any increased violence, they would report the following day.

Thursday was also a relatively quiet day in the riot area. Fires were still being set, but National Guardsmen were no longer permitted to carry live ammunition. Preparations were being made for their withdrawal so that city could be put back into the hands of local authorities.

Peace and quiet may have returned to the inner city, but the lives of many were changed by all that had transpired. One of the older women working in my department sounded very frightened when I called her on Friday. She said that she did not want to leave her apartment. A neighbor went out to get her groceries for her. I felt her fear was understandable given her age, but she reported still being afraid on Monday even after a calm weekend. I told her that the company would allow Thursday and Friday as excused absences, but any additional time taken would be recorded as vacation time. I called her every day for a week. Each time she reported that she was afraid to leave her apartment. When her vacation time ran out, I told her that she would not be paid if she did not report for work. I held her job open for two more weeks, expecting that she would eventually be convinced to catch the bus and report in for work.

With a pressing backlog of work, I could not hold her position open indefinitely. I called her and reassured her that others from her neighborhood were making it safely to and from work every day, but she was not persuaded. A month after the violence ended, she was still in the grips of the worst of her fears. She was resigned to losing her job. She would not leave her apartment. I could hear the fear in her voice and nothing I could say made any difference.

My wife and I decided that my somewhat promising career was not worth the sacrifices and perils of living in a major city.. Bullet holes in the glass door of the school that my oldest son attended reminded us that the violence was just a Molotov cocktail away—that all it would take would be another brutal beating by the racist, sadistic Detroit police, and everything would erupt again. We wanted to return to Minneapolis where we were closer to family and friends.

I learned of a job with a Minneapolis hospital and flew back to interview for it. Weeks later, I was notified that my application had been accepted and I resigned from The Travelers. Leaving meant the loss of a number of company benefits. We needed to finance the move ourselves. We would sell the house in Detroit as best we could rather than take advantage of The Travelers’ generous relocation program that relieved an employee of a home if it did not sell within a given period of time. We would not benefit from a relocation allowance, typically a 10% bonus payment, to assist with incidental expenses associated with a move.

The Travelers, thanks to the intercession of the Detroit manager on my behalf, rejected my resignation and offered to move my family back to Minneapolis where I could resume work with in the office that hired me almost 5 years earlier. We found a home in south Minneapolis and moved in through the snow in February, 1969. Once settled, with the children back in school and the house in order, I realized what the downsides were to the accommodations my employer had made for us. I was placed back in an entry level position. Although I retained my title and my pay level, I occupied the same job that I had when I first came off the training program and assumed upon first reporting in Detroit. It was a setback.

When the Assistant Secretary for the region traveled out  from Hartford for a regular visit, he invited me to have coffee with him. We exchanged small talk for a few minutes, and then he asked, “When will you be ready to transfer again? We can’t afford to keep you in this office in your position for too long.”

What his questions meant, of course, was that I could not expect to stay in Minneapolis for the rest of my career. I did not want my family’s well-being to be subjected to a national transfer program that was essentially a lottery with the names of other big cities in it like Detroit. I did not want to move again–anywhere.  I knew that I needed to resign. Opting out was for me another road less traveled. I didn’t know it then, but there would be many more before I retired.

The last contact I had with the Detroit riots of the summer of 1967 came years later. I was traveling for another company and called on the Frito Lay Company in Dallas where I was introduced to  General Bud Bolling, U. S. Army retired. Bolling commanded the 82nd Airborne and when I told him that I had been in Detroit during the riot year, he very generously shared his experiences.

“We marched right down the middle of the street in formation. Marched into the  school house where the National Guard guys were all hunkered down hiding in the dark. We turned on all the lights, much to their amazement, and challenged anyone to take a shot at us. Nobody did. They hadn’t seen any force behave as we did. Blacks and whites. Taking charge. It was all over inside of 48 hours.

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