Welcome friends, grab yourself a ‘Cup of Joe’, pull up a chair and let’s chat about a Black Day in July
From my Saturday evening status posting on my Facebook page: “What’s Old is New, and what’s New is Old…” My thoughts at the end of this week of racial insanity south of us in the US.
Detroit and Windsor are one year away from observing the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Race Riots in 1967. Back then Canadian troubadour, Gordon Lightfoot, penned a classic hit “Black Day in July” recounting those ominous five days of blood and hell in the Motor City.
I just discovered this remake of that song covered by Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip. Same story, different time of retelling it …”What’s Old is New, and what’s New is Old…”
Spend the four minutes or so listening to Lightfoot’s words and watching the graphic black and white photos from 50 years ago … they could be the pictures from Ferguson. Baltimore, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge or Dallas ….”What’s Old is New, and what’s New is Old…”
The Detroit Race riots began on Saturday night in the early morning hours of July 23, 1967 with Detroit Police raiding a “blind pig” on 12th Street (today’s Rosa Parks Boulevard) and Clairmount. This ‘unlicensed’ bar had become a popular gathering for many of the impoverished and unemployed inner city blacks.
After five hellish days of looting, fires, snipers and discriminate arrests the death toll registered 43. Over 2500 businesses were looted or burned down, 400 families were left homeless and economic losses exceeded 50 million dollars.
I was 15 years old when these riots in Detroit broke out. On July 23, 1967 my cousin visiting from Toronto joined me in attending a Detroit Tigers New York Yankees Sunday doubleheader at Tiger Stadium. The Tigers split the doubleheader, dropping the first game but fighting back for a well-earned victory in the second game. The Tiger’s John Hiller, a left-handed reliever from Canada, chalked up the win.
During the half-hour break between the first and second game my cousin and I hung around the New York Yankee clubhouse door. For 40 years a gentleman by the name of ‘Skip’ had the job of taking care of the visitor’s clubhouse. He was a friendly old curmudgeon whose bark was exceeded only by the size of his heart. He loved to talk to the young kids who hung around the visiting clubhouse door. He would often attempt to bring some of the visiting players to the door to meet with their adoring fans.
While we chatted with Skip between games, he seemed very concerned and preoccupied about a fire he watched from the roof of Tiger Stadium in the final few innings of the first game. He didn’t know what the cause of the fire was, but he said it was enormous and cast a blanket of dark black smoke over the west side of the city. None of us youngsters really gave too much thought or concern to the fire. We just wanted to see the Tigers defeat the Yankees in the second game.
After the Tigers defeated the Yankees in game two my cousin and I joined a crowd of people waiting to meet the Yankees as they exited their clubhouse to board their charter bus parked just outside the stadium on Michigan Avenue. This turned out to be a very memorable day for me because I got to shake hands with the future Hall of Famer, Mickey Mantle, as he boarded the bus.
Once the Yankees’ bus left for the airport my cousin and I started walking down Michigan Avenue to downtown Detroit to the Detroit Canada tunnel to catch the bus back home. While walking along this cobblestoned major thoroughfare I took note of a number of military style vehicles passing us by with what appeared to be soldiers bearing heavy duty weapons. I thought this was odd. In all my many times walking from the stadium to downtown Detroit, I had never encountered such a thing.
A certain sense of urgency filled me and my cousin causing us to accelerate our pace. We arrived at the Detroit side of the tunnel and boarded the bus and began to hear chatter among other bus riders that there was a riot occurring in Detroit and that many of the neighborhoods were up in flames. We also discovered later that we were the second last bus to leave for Windsor from Detroit, before the tunnel was officially closed. We could have been stranded in Detroit for five days!
By the time I got home, my parents were beside themselves worrying about our safety. We watched coverage of the riots on all the local Detroit television stations. It was then that Skip’s earlier comment about the west side of the city being up in smoke and our observance of the military trucks and personnel started to make sense.
For the next four days I would sit with my dog Sandy on the Detroit River bank not far from my home on Partington and cry as I watched the smoke billowing up across the river in the city that I so loved. It was so senseless to me.
I had an aunt who was a nun, a member of the Ursuline Sisters. Aunt Kay (Sister Catherine Strong) was a teaching sister and was taking summer courses across the river at Gesu College, part of the University of Detroit. Her residence was in the heart of the worst area for the riots. I remember her phoning us from her room to try and reassure us that she was okay. However, when she indicated that she was lying on the floor below her window for fear of being shot by a stray bullet, I wasn’t all that reassured. While talking to her on the phone I could actually hear the sound of gunfire in the background. This was so unreal. She eventually made it back home unscathed.
Those five days of the Detroit riot were among some of the longest days I’ve experienced in my lifetime. I was heartbroken for a city that I loved as much as my own. And I was at an age where the underlying racial tensions giving way to the riots in Detroit and elsewhere throughout the United States just didn’t make sense to me. I guess as a 15 year old I was still at that innocent age, seeing much of life through rose-colored glasses. The 1967 riots quickly changed that perspective of reality for me. It became a very Black Day in July.
And now we fast forward some nearly 50 years later and really, how much has changed? Regrettably, with the events this week in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, not a whole hell of a lot has changed. ...”What’s Old is New, and what’s New is Old…” It’s still a Black Day in July, just 50 years later…