Gordon Park, Detroit’s Ground Zero, 1967
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The rebirth of Detroit’s Gordon Park, 1967’s ground zero
Bill Kubota, Detroit Public Television’s One Detroit and the Detroit Journalism Cooperative
Riot? Rebellion? A city comes to terms with the ‘civil disturbance’ that changed everything
Lamont Causey sits on the edge of the new performance stage at Detroit’s Gordon Park on the city’s west side. “This is more than just a park,” he said. “It’s a venue to us now, and we’ve been waiting for this for fifty years.” Gordon Park covers about an acre along Rosa Parks Boulevard, formerly 12th Street, on the north side of Clairmount Avenue. It’s just received a complete makeover, part of a 2017 improvement plan for forty parks citywide by Mayor Mike Duggan. Along with the events stage and a canopy covered picnic area, the park now has new playground equipment for kids and exercise equipment adults can use. “It was okay the way it was, it was some open space,” Duggan said in late June to a gathering at the park’s grand re-opening, “But it wasn’t the kind of quality park, that as far as I was concerned said to our children ‘you are valued, you’re important, you deserve the best.’” But the real significance of the event was left unspoken. Fifty years ago on the spot where they stood, a police raid on an after-hours party set off a week of looting, burning and killing. Officially, 43 people would die, damaging Detroit’s collective psyche so badly it’s still recovering a half century later.
The blind pig, the paddy wagons and the morning after
Late that Saturday, July 22, 1967, Loretta Holmes, then a senior at nearby Detroit Central High School found herself in a room above the printing shop at 12th and Clairmount. She and a friend had been invited to an afterhours party. Police and press accounts called it a blind pig, where alcohol was sold illegally. “We didn’t know what a blind pig was,” Holmes said, “We just knew we were going to party at a building.” Holmes remembers people sitting around tables talking, playing pool while the music played. She’d later learn she was at a party for two returning Vietnam veterans. Around 3:30 a.m., she said, she wanted to leave. “We walked down maybe three or four stairs, we see this big sledgehammer come through the door and we see a big white face, a big white man, so we ran back up the stairs.”
The man with the sledgehammer was a plainclothes police officer. “They got us all in a line and marched us down these stairs,” Holmes remembered. More police and paddy wagons waited outside, along with a big crowd, later estimated at 3,000 people. Inside the paddy wagon, Holmes recalled, “I couldn’t breathe it was so packed in there. I can’t remember if I was screaming or crying, but this lady slapped the stew right out of me, trying to slap me back into reality.”
With Holmes off to jail, on 12th Street someone threw a bottle at a policeman and the crowd erupted, eventually setting off the chain reaction across the city. Holmes was released as the sun came up. She walked home and went to bed, knowing she had to go to work that afternoon. “When I woke up my dad said, ‘You know that place you were in started the riot,’” she recalls, “Riot? We don’t know about any riot.”
Looting. Burning. Riot? Rebellion?
Lamont Causey’s family moved to 12th and Clairmount in the 1940s, one of the first African American families to settle here, near Gordon Park. “My mother played at this park when she was a little girl,” he said, explaining why his community group, Brothers Always Together has kept working to keep the neighborhood’s spirit alive and Gordon Park as its centerpiece. Causey worked for the State of Michigan and is retired now. He witnessed the uprising as an seven year old. “Some people call it a rebellion, some people call it an uprising. If you were over here, you actually knew what it was. It was a riot.” The neighborhood he remembers was packed with retail stores, “There were 200 businesses up and down 12th Street. Everything you needed was right here in this community.” A concentration of Jewish families lived in the area but most had left by the 1960s. “There were a lot of African American owned businesses, Jewish owned businesses,” Causey recalls. Then came the week that would bring the business district to an end, starting with the looting at 12th Street and Clairmount. “I had two uncles go to jail in the riot,” Causey said. “One had a box full of jewelry, the other had a box full of left-foot shoes.”
Wayne State University student Wayne Bradley found himself at 12th Street near Clairmount that day. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. Firefighters and police officers locked arm and arm in the middle of 12th Street.” By then buildings were on fire. “Kids with bottles of liquor were running between the lines, nobody was stopping them, but the adults were standing over by the sidewalk collecting whatever the kids brought them,” he said. Bradley remembers the police wouldn’t arrest the kids. He also recalled, “The cinders were flying, they weren’t putting the fires out, everything was just burning.” The fires from the burning stores would spread to some of the houses nearby.
Kenny Snodgrass watched the uprising expand to the street near where he lived. Snodgrass has just graduated from Central High School that year. “It (the uprising) moved from 12th Street to Linwood.” There he saw state troopers jump out of a patrol car. “Most of them ran past me,” he said, “One stopped in front of me, pointed his shotgun at my head right in between my eyes and cocked it.” Snodgrass froze, and looked down the barrel until the trooper ran off to a crowd of people down the street.
Dexter Avenue west of Linwood was also lined with businesses. Karl Hatcher, going into his junior year Central High School, remembers a local grocer who helped his customers when they were short of cash, “There was a little Jewish guy who had a store. His name was Ray. He was really good to the people.” Hatcher said black power symbols had been painted under the windows of stores owned by African Americans, with the hopes they wouldn’t be looted and burned. “Ray didn’t have that,” he said, “So we as a community stood around his store to make sure he wasn’t burned out, robbed and looted.” It was a strange situation, Hatcher said. But he understood the rage in his neighborhood, “You could feel it in the air. You have police officers abusing African Americans and getting away with it and that’s just being fed up. The people just couldn’t take it any longer.” From what Wayne Bradley saw on 12th Street, he defines what happened this way: “I’m standing in the middle of the street and I can tell you there was no riot, it was nothing but a rebellion.”
A few blocks east down Clairmount, the city-owned Herman Kiefer Hospital would be filled with people injured in the uprising, and became a staging area for the Detroit Police Department. The story of Lamont Causey’s uncles’ encounter with the police after their arrest for looting is part his family history now. “They took them up to the hospital and told them to get out of the car and run. They wouldn’t run, they (the police) said well we can’t kill no more n----- today, so they got back in the car, took them to jail.” Causey said his grandfather went to the jail to see them, and came back with just one of them. He said his grandfather told the police, “This one’s going to be a doctor. The other one, he can stay in there until the riot is over, because he’ll go right back out there and do it some more.” The one uncle did become a doctor. Both uncles have since passed on.
Soldiers, tanks and innocence lost
After her arrest at the blind pig and the short stint in jail, that Sunday afternoon Loretta Holmes went to her job at a nursing home several blocks away on Woodward Avenue. With the uprising spreading, her shift was cut short. Holmes walked home through the crowds and commotion as the sirens constantly blared. “It went on all night,” Holmes said, “The next day it was the same thing.” Michigan National Guard arrived, assembling guardsmen, trucks and army tanks on the fields surrounding Central High School, on Linwood Avenue right near Holmes’ house. Armored vehicles rolled down residential streets.
Holmes and her family was trapped inside her house, “Then they put on a curfew because we couldn’t go off the porch, then the next thing we knew the troops were coming in. That’s when we started hearing there were snipers at night. You could hear them shooting.” Street lights were shot out, reportedly by the National Guard and the police hoping darkness would make them tougher targets for the snipers. “We had to stay in the hallway between the bathroom and the bedrooms away from windows,” Holmes said. Two days after the National Guard, the regular US Army rolled in too. By all appearances the city had become a war zone.
Former Detroit City Councilmember JoAnn Watson, then a student at the University of Michigan in 1967 and a 1964 Central High graduate said, “We lost all youthful innocence as a result of having a militarized zone in our neighborhood.”
Ground Zero on the rebound?
A vinyl sign appears at Rosa Parks and Atkinson Avenue, across from Gordon Park and just in time for its reopening. The sign proclaims some retail and residential construction in the works, the first in fifty years for this stretch of the boulevard. Detroit-based, African-American owned Karasi Development bought the land from the city, including one of the once stately, now gutted homes that pockmark the area, this one to be transformed into the neighborhood’s education and cultural center.
Real estate developer Dr. Ray C. Johnson points to the old house, “This is the first phase, then we go to the mixed use.” Then he points to the other nearby strips of land along Rosa Parks. “This area will be developing forty lofts, on the first floor there will be retail space.” A bit like it was fifty years ago. As the city gets back on its feet new people are moving into the area, which is just a block south of the lush Boston-Edison neighborhood where Henry Ford and Joe Louis once lived. “This community is diverse now,” Lamont Causey said, “It’s not just all black folks you see walking around here anymore. It’s a start.” Causey wants more African American businesses to come in while preserving the history of what happened here in 1967. “No disrespect to the great Rosa Parks,” Lamont Causey said, but he’d like to change the boulevard’s name back to 12th Street. “That’s what I’ve always called it.”
Causey might not get the name change, but this week, July 23, 2017, Gordon Park will officially acknowledge for the first time what happened here exactly fifty years ago. A state historical marker will tell the basic story about the police raid in the mostly African American business district and the days of destruction and deaths that followed.
A Detroit Historical Society team led by Executive Director Bob Bury crafted the wording. “We didn’t want to sugarcoat it,” Bury said, “on the other hand there’s no word ‘riot’ in there, there’s no word ‘rebellion’ in there.” The monument uses the term ‘civil unrest’, citing the findings of the Presidential commission “that although the specific episodes of violence were spontaneous, they were in response to poverty, segregation, racism, unemployment, ‘frustrations of powerlessness’ and police actions that enforced a double standard for how people of different races were treated.” Marygrove College professor Frank Rashid grew up in the area too, a young adult at the time. He teaches about literature and the history of Detroit. “These are complex messages we’re sorting out. It is complicated,” Rashid said, “Is it a riot? An uprising? A rebellion? It opens up a lot of questions.” Detroiters have been reacting to trauma and it takes time for people to respond, Rashid added. He said it takes time to think it through. Perhaps fifty years is time enough.
Some of the interviews here were gathered from Detroit’s Central High School Alumni with help from Alexandra Overton-Nichols and her Central High School video production students.
LEARN MORE ABOUT GORDON PARK
Gordon of Gordon Park
“There’s nobody walking around in that neighborhood knows why it’s named Gordon Park,” said Andrea Gallucci, who probably knows more than anyone about the history of Detroit’s parks system. Some have suggested it’s named for Gordon Parks, the famed African American photographer, filmmaker and writer who died in 2006. But then this would be Gordon Parks Park.
Now the sign erected with the park renovation reveals Gordon’s first name as Thomas, offering nothing more.
Gallucci, an archivist and librarian by trade, has a website detailing her parks research. “Detroit has more than 300 parks, 200 named for people and the majority of those are named for war heroes.” After digging through old records at City Hall, Gallucci learned how Gordon Park was named.
Spartoco Giordano immigrated from Italy in the early 1900s, Americanizing his name to Thomas Gordon, he lived in Greensburg, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, where his family ran a neighborhood store. Gordon never lived in Michigan but he departed for World War II from Detroit, and his wife lived here for a time. He joined the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. Most likely his Italian heritage proved useful behind enemy lines but he was killed leading an attack near Corsica and was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Service medal. Post-war, as the veterans came back, married and had children, Detroit needed more parks. Gallucci said city delivered, providing one of the most vibrant, robust park systems in the nation.
Gordon Park opened October 11, 1951. “A banner day,” according to Gallucci, “there were like, fifty parks opening in one day,” mostly named from a list of war heroes picked by the city’s War Memorials committee. Thomas Gordon happened to be one of them.
The art in Gordon Park
In 1976, Detroit City Council changed the name of 12th Street to Rosa Parks Boulevard, trying to put a positive spin on the street now mostly known for where the uprising began and the blight that followed. By then, the printing shop raided by the police nine years before was gone and a small, non-descript public plaza took its place. The plaza would later become part of Gordon Park, which sat just to the north along Rosa Parks Boulevard.
Over the past fifty years, there’s been no plaque, no mention of what happened here, although the Detroit Parks and Recreation commissioned a sculpture for that location around the same time 12th Street was renamed for the civil rights hero who had made Detroit her home.The city’s design competition did not say where the sculpture would go. The winning entry still stands, forty years later. Angular, symmetrically welded steel, originally painted black and so far, impervious to vandals and the weather. Longtime resident Lamont Causey observed, “There’s no history to it, it’s of no significance really.”
“I submitted three different designs and that’s what they took,” said John Ward, the sculptor of the work he called Energy Column. He agrees there’s no connection with the sculpture and what happened in 1967 other than its location. Ward grew up in Port Huron, Michigan and studied art at Wayne State University. He was part of Detroit’s art scene in the mid-70s. He said he’d been inspired by modern artist Constantin Brancusi, wanted to do figurative sculptures but they’d gone out of fashion at the time. He started working with angular shapes, got some good reviews. Soon he was welding together pieces of quarter-inch steel. Sculpture meets industrial design. The commission helped pay for some medical bills as Ward’s wife was pregnant at the time. He’s now in Atlanta and sometimes hears how others try to connect his Energy Column to what happened in 1967. “People create their own significance,” Ward said, “Parks and Rec, they weren’t looking for controversial stuff at the time.” He says it was meant to be esoteric, an abstract, that’s all.