I am happy to share my experiences with you. If no one talks about it, nothing gets done.
I was born in St John Hospital in Detroit in 1961. I was my parents third kid of an eventual 6 in total. Both parents white. We lived in Harper Woods, MI for a couple of years and eventually moved to a home in Detroit when my brother was born a year later. The Harper Woods home was getting too small for a growing family. My parents eventually had 2 twin girls a few years later.
The neighborhood we moved to was on the East side of Detroit and called Indian Village. This was three streets of large homes surrounded by much smaller homes. Two doors down from our house was Nichols Elementary School. The school was primarily black, but it had a few whites (just about all with the last name Kirby J). I was and still am amazed at the attitude of some of the kids at the school. Any one of us Kirbys has been subjected to race related taunts, fights and animosity by black kids at the school. These are YOUNG KIDS! I wonder how they could have so much hate at such a young age. Standing outside waiting for the bell to ring, it was common to have a kid run by and shout out a racial slur.
One story I love is my class went on a field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Lots of schools came there then for day trips, including suburban schools. My friend Larry was upset seeing all the white kids getting off busses. “Look at all these damn WHITE PEOPLE!”. Then realizing that I was standing right with him, he turned to me and said, “you are OK, though”. Probably just because he knew me. Maybe some of the other damn white kids were ok too, but…..
School life was mostly just name calling and not too much violence. I was gone from there by the age of 9. I remember a few white kids enrolling when the parents moved into the neighborhood and they would be quickly GONE once the parents realized the racial makeup of the school.
The bigger issue was outside of school. There, we Kirbys were harassed by black kids all the time. I was skinny and felt I was a particular target.
We had to take the bus often for my later school (Cass Tech) and to get to my paper route. The bus service was unreliable at best, so often you had to wait for long stretches of time. I would try to hide in bushes sometimes until the bus came to not be so visible. One time, a black kid jumps in front of me and says give me your money. He had ridden up on a bike with other kids. They surrounded me and started punching me. I covered up the best I could. Someone yelled at them and they scattered. The police caught one and I had to go to court to nab him. By the time the court case was called, I had grown about 5 inches, so I had to testify against one kid that was pretty small still. Don’t know what happened to is four buddies.
My paper route was about 4 miles away in a mixed race neighborhood. Back then, young kids had routes and collected the bills in cash from customers. Anytime someone saw your distinctive “route book”, they knew you were collecting cash. One time, I was waiting to be picked up by my parents. I had called them from a pay phone at a grocery store near my route. A guy walks in and sees my route book and starts his work day of robbing me. As he is beginning his robbery, Ms. Johnson (the mother of another carrier) says “leave that paperboy alone!”. The guy then turns to her and starts with his “you so fine….” Rap. Then (and this happened so fast, I did not see it) Mr. Johnson (a bald, thick black man who works as a prison guard) walks in and sees this idiot hitting on his wife. BAMMMM! Down goes Tyson! Mr. Johnson laid his butt out! Just for talking to his wife. Then my father drove up, I thanked them and ran out.
You learn the signs of trouble. One day, I was walking home from Downtown where I worked to my apartment in the area I used to have the paper route (this was still a half way decent area for Detroit). On the street two guys asked if I knew the time (aka: do you have a watch to steal?). I was wearing a coat that hid my watch, so I said no. I kept walking and got almost home, when the larger of the two hit me in the head from behind. I was dazed, but spun around to see him. He grabbed my coat and I thought this was bad; he could move me around. I needed to break his grip on me. I brought my arm down and then swung at him (missing completely; I am no fighter). Then I was AMAZED! He ran away! Almost a one on one fight (finally, first one ever) and since I put of some resistance he was gone.
Detroit has one of the few outdoor bicycle tracks in the country. I found out about it and invited my best friend Travis (he’s black) to go out to ride. I had built an actual track bike and was very excited to ride. Travis rode for a while and then it was my turn. I started out slowly and then built up speed to ride the banked turns. Just when I was starting to really love track riding, some black kids started throwing rocks at me. One hit me in the elbow. I was disgusted. I thought: goddamn it! I can’t just ride my bike. I pulled up and told Travis we were leaving. On the way to the car, I told him what had happened. In the car, I then saw the kids that did this. I drove right at them. Travis jumped out of the car. He was SO MAD! I have never seen a more angry person (except many years later, OJ Simpson was about 100 yards from me and I can tell you about this later). He screamed that the guys, “You wanna get some?! While pounding his fist into his hand. Apparently they did not want to get some. They ran away. Travis said he was so mad because “his people” would do something like this. I said that those idiots are not your people. A few years later, Travis, my friend Jeff (who’s white) and I were riding at a mostly white area. One white dude took a swing at Travis. He was not “my people”, but I was probably pissed as much as Travis was the other time.
I used to have to ride a bike 3 miles or so in any direction to get to a safe neighborhood. It was like going through a war zone. I don’t think I ever rode without getting something yelled at me, usually: “give me that goddamn bike” or the other classic: “Honky Motherfucker”. On one ride, the thugs raised the stakes. Three dudes saw me and I tried to spring away from them. They caught up to me and pushed me off my bike while I was going full speed. I tumbled and nearly hit my head (no helmets in those days) on a lamp post. I must have fallen pretty far, since I was in the middle of the street when they pushed me. I was laying dazed on the ground and saw all three of them hop on the bike (one on the handlebars and the other on the back axle). One black kid helped me up and walked me to the ladies at a beauty shop across the street. On the way, he showed me some brass knuckles and said normally he would “fuck me up”, but I guess this was my special day. The ladies called the cops; they took me home. Later, the cops brought my bike back!!!!! They found it abandoned in field. When they pushed me over, it be bent the derailleur and caused the bike to ride poorly. Maybe that is why they didn’t try to keep it.
I witnessed a scene once that I will never forget. Two black men accidentally brushed each other on the street. A situation where normally one says “excuse me” and the other replies “sorry, my fault” or “no problem”. Not in Detroit! It went something like this:
Man 1: Watch where you goin’, muthafucka!
Man 2: I’ll kick your ass, bitch!
Man 1: Who you callin’ a bitch?!
Man 2: Fuck you!
With me so far? They weren’t being polite. They had animosity towards each other. What to do??? Draw out your guns!! Both brought out pistols and had a tense moment. I wanted to rush in and say, “guys, is this the way to solve anything?”. They both screamed at each other a little more before both backing down.
Back to Travis. We were driving one night and saw an altercation on Woodward Ave. One guy was beating another guy up very violently. Nothing we could do, but just a little down the road, we saw two cops walking a beat. We said get in! We can take you to this fight. The cops got in and we drove back. By now, only the victim (or maybe I only thought of him as the victim when I saw the other guy grab his head and swing it down on his rising knee). The cops hopped out and asked, “are you alright?” to which he replied: “Fuck no, I am not alright!”.
During the 1967 riots, us kids were watching TV the night before. A news bulletin warned to not leave your home. We got scared and went to talk to my parents. They said some bad people were doing bad things. The next morning, we went to stay with friends in the suburbs for a week. This was not before we saw a tank going down our street.
Devil’s Night is a well-known Detroit tradition. Fires are started all over the city on the night before Halloween. The whole city has evidence of this to one degree or another. The smaller houses around Indian Village have been burned through the years. We would trick or treat early and then get home!
One day, my grandmother was making us breakfast when a bullet broke through the kitchen window, barely missing her and ending up in the cupboard behind her. We called the cops. They came and lined up the shot. One of the neighbors shot at our house. I never learned the motivation or the outcome of his plight.
Back to Nichols elementary. We had a teacher of the school shot once. I don’t remember too much of the specifics, but during the regular school day, someone shot the white teacher. It was a big deal then (late 60s, early 70s). We were sent home.
I was a knock out game victim (probably long before it was a thing) in High School. Just walking to the bus stop, I got hit from behind by some random dude. I ran to the principal’s office. Nothing came of this; no catching the bad guy. Just went home.
There was a Dairy Queen a few blocks from our house on a bad street named Mack Ave. My sisters, brother and a few friends went one Summer night. I was robbed. I very tall guy grabbed my hands and held them above my head. The littler guy grabbed my wallet. They took the money and tossed the wallet in the street. Lots of people around, but other than one guy retrieving my wallet from the street and giving it back to me, no one did anything.
You said a few hundred words, so I will stop here. Lots more, of course! Detroit is a hell hole, but has some good people too. Glad I am not there anymore.