In the summer of 1967, latent tensions between the police and the black community of Detroit, Michigan exploded in five chaotic days of looting, arson and violence. In one of the worst riots in American history, some 43 people lost their lives and thousands more were injured or arrested.
Similar violence erupted in dozens of other cities across America that summer, including Newark, New Jersey. But the events of July 1967 left a special imprint on Detroit, a once flourishing city that will experience difficult times in the decades to come.
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The day before the riots began, Detroit-based Sheila Coffee spent hours dancing at her cousin Gwen’s wedding reception. She was 10 years old and she and another young cousin had been the bridesmaids. That night, Sheila slept with her grandmother on Monterey Street, just around the corner from where the reception was held.
When she woke up the next morning, July 23, Sheila went out to sit on the porch. She immediately understood that something was wrong. “I saw people walking down the street with arms full of goods, all kinds of things and smoking in the air,” she recalls recently in an interview.
Sheila and her grandmother turned on the television to find news of the riots at each station. Early that morning, police raided an illegal bar and casino – known as the blind pig – on 12th Street, near the house where Sheila lived with her parents and three brothers. After a crowd gathered at the corner of 12 and Clairmount, one of the spectators threw a bottle at a police officer. As the police fled, thousands of people flooded the streets, looted stores and torched many buildings.
Much of what was going on confused Sheila. She would learn many new words in no time: martial law. National Guard. Curfew. His parents always brought him in at night as soon as the street lights came on, and his grandmother explained that the city-wide curfew was a bit like that. Except that everyone – not just the children – had to leave the street between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.
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When Sheila’s father called, he told them to sleep on the floor and cover the windows with blankets. He was a military veteran and had served during the Second World War and the Korean War. Later, when Sheila herself enlisted in the United States military, she will realize that what he was giving them that evening were military instructions. Stay on the ground. Don’t go to the windows. Do not let any light shine from the inside.
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All night, Sheila heard gunshots. “Between my grandmother’s house and the house next door, it was wide enough and you could hear people running along the side of the house. You could hear bullets fired, people yelling at each other, and it looked like heavy equipment moving through the streets. “
The next day, July 24, Sheila still could not return home. His family’s house on Philadelphia and Woodrow Wilson streets was on the other side of the “front line”, as they would later think of. It was difficult for her father to make a phone call and she was unable to speak to her mother or brothers at all. On that second day, Sheila watched a group of people gather at the end of the block in front of a supermarket. Suddenly, they all dispersed, and about two minutes later, the building burst into flames.
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With the city’s police overwhelmed, Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanagh and Governor George Romney called in reinforcements from the National Guard, Michigan State police, and the United States military. At the bottom of her grandmother’s street, near the burnt grocery store, National Guard soldiers were lining up to buy ice cream cones in one of the only stores that remained open. The soldiers were nice to the children, said Sheila, and she stopped being afraid of them after her grandmother told them they were there to protect her.
After a few days, Sheila’s father told her that things had calmed down enough for her to come home. Back in her neighborhood, behind the front lines, she smelled of burnt brick and saw an accidental Jeep overturned on the street. Most of the shops on 12th Street – shoe stores, jewelry stores and even the donut shop – had been burned. White citizens owned most of these businesses, Sheila noted, and few or no blacks had even worked there.
Before the riots, Sheila did not have much sense of racial difference. His elementary school had black children, white children, Asian children, and they had not yet learned American history or the role of slavery. She would learn more about it all in a small building on 12th Street that survived the riots called the African Club. She and other black children spent time there after school, performing and learning dance routines.
Activist groups like the Black Panthers also became more visible after the riots, said Sheila. Members of another group, the Sons of Malcolm, gathered all the children in the schoolyard and trained them to do “trample” routines. They called Sheila a “little sister” and urged her and the other children to stay in school and continue learning.
If the riots were a turning point in Sheila’s young life, they were also a turning point in the history of Detroit. White residents began to leave the city in increasing numbers: according to the Detroit Historical Society, the white flight in 1967 doubled to more than 40,000, and doubled again the following year. Amid these demographic changes, the city elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, in 1973.
Shelia Sharp (née Coffee) stayed in Detroit until the late 1980s, then moved to Florida, where she lived for more than 20 years. In 2013, she returned to the city where she was born and found her transformed. “I would not recognize this place as the place where I grew up,” she said. “The house we lived in has disappeared. Monterey’s house [her grandmother’s], my brother told me that he had burned. I do not know if he is still standing or if they have destroyed him yet, but he is no longer there. The changes weren’t all physical, said Sheila. In his opinion, race relations had also improved considerably and the police force seemed more diverse than during his childhood.
In December 2013, the year Sharp returned, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, becoming the largest city in the history of the United States to take such action. The city has lost some 1.1 million inhabitants since the 1950s, and that year about 30% of the city’s housing remained vacant. Now Sharp lives a stone’s throw from Little Caesar’s Arena, the new home of the NHL Red Wings and NBA Pistons, created as part of a $ 1.2 billion sports and entertainment district in and around downtown Detroit.
At the age of 10, at 10, Sheila Sharp saw the streets where she lived with her family turn into a war zone. Now, as Sharp contemplates the “new” Detroit growing up around her, she has hope for the future of the city, but will never forget the five days she saw burned.