Detroit had been immersed in a sweltering hot summer, with temperatures lingering in the 90’s. Our family could not afford the luxury of air conditioning so most of my time was spent in the back yard making castles in the sandbox or sailing through the air on the squeaky seat of our rusty swing set. The fenced in yard, with its towering Oak and lush lawn, felt safe and secure until the summer of 1967 when all hell broke loose and my safe, little world was forever changed.
It was the tail end of July and I was about to celebrate my seventh birthday. Mom and dad had promised me a party filled with hats, horns and balloons so I could barely contain my excitement. I also had a sneaky suspicion that a shiny new bicycle, complete with a bell, basket and training wheels, was hidden somewhere in the garage just waiting to make its grand entrance, right after cake and ice cream. I was so enthusiastic that the week was going to be all about me…until suddenly…it wasn’t.
I opened my eyes before daybreak, just 3 days before the grand birthday celebration, to the sound of the television blaring in the living room, where my entire family sat mesmerized by the images flashing in black and white on the little box. Yawning and rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I joined them, wondering what the fuss was all about. Chaos filled the screen as the newscaster bellowed words like intense fires, National Guard patrols and massive destruction. Being but a child, things seen on TV, including news reports, all seemed like programmed shows, broadcast for entertainment only and by no means ever real. On this ominous morning, I had no idea that the devastation we were witnessing was actually taking place right outside our very doors.
As the sun rose and the temperature climbed, I became uncomfortable enough to change into my favorite, red shorts and headed toward the backdoor to get some fresh air. “Where are you going?” my mother asked in a questioning tone.
“Outside to swing” I volleyed back, with my hand suspended on the door knob.
“Stay inside” she snapped, “I don’t want you to leave the house today. I have to go to work, or I would stay home too.”
Prepared for an illustrious protest, I put my hands on my hips just as my mother gave me the look and said in an unyielding tone “Not today, Alana Marie….not today.” I crossed my arms and hung my head as she kissed me on the forehead and said, “Have a good day, listen to your daddy and stay in the house!” Picking up her patent leather purse, she opened the door and said” I will be home before curfew, now lock the door honey” and with that she feigned a smile, walked out and closed the door behind her.
After a morning of hot cocoa, burnt toast and more news broadcasts with my brothers, our father suggested we take a ride to check out the neighborhood. I wasn’t really sure just exactly what we were “checking out” but we were all for getting out of the stifling house, even though I knew that my mother would be furious when she found out. Dad grabbed the keys to the tan, Ford Falcon and we all scrambled out the front door. As we stepped out into the summer sunshine we could hear sirens in the distance, lots of them. The air was thick with the scent of burning wood and destruction and a cloud of black smoke rose continuously above downtown Detroit. We stood in silence on the porch and absorbed the strangeness of it all. With the exception of the endless whine of sirens in the distance there was an awkward stillness on our block. There were no children laughing, no barking dogs or transistor radios playing; just an eerie silence as we made our way to the Falcon parked on the street.
Dad started the car, shifted it into gear and we rolled slowly towards downtown. Suddenly, he rounded a corner which landed us on West Grand Boulevard. At that exact moment my breath stopped and my heart dropped into my shoes. At first glance it seemed like a peculiar street fair with hundreds of people everywhere, laughing and running carrying armloads of clothes, appliances and bags of random stuff. Driving into the madness, we became fearful as we were forced to comprehend the devastation which surrounded us. The world was on fire! The places where we had shopped my entire life were ravaged and burning while the owners and shop keepers stood on the sidewalk in tears, watching looters steal anything that was left on their shelves. Some of the shopkeepers dared to stay and protect their little stores, standing outside with baseball bats and rifles as the buildings all around them burned to the ground. The crack and pop of gunshots could be heard above us as snipers took pot shots at anyone in a uniform. The street we traveled twinkled as the sun reflected off the shards of glass which covered it. Policemen and soldiers seemed out of place and overwhelmed at the chaos which surrounded them. They stood in the street holding rifles, standing still like statues, as jeeps, firetrucks and even tanks rumbled past. I watched in horror with my brothers, as the car radio belted out statistics like: 7000 arrests, 1200 injured and more than 2000 buildings completely destroyed. I glanced at my father as he attempted to maneuver his way out of the madness and back to the safety of our home. I looked closer and I saw a tear escape his eye. At that moment my 7 year old senses became overwhelmed and I began to cry. My brother put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me to his chest, where I closed my eyes and sobbed, trying to understand why any of this was happening.
The damage and destruction went on for five long days in Detroit, ending for the most part, on my seventh birthday. It took many years for me to comprehend the intense significance of that summer and digest how it affected me as a person and my family as a whole. I can tell you that we moved out of Detroit shortly after the riots and eventually to a small country town nearly 300 miles from the city. As for receiving a new bike that year for my birthday, well, I never got it, since my parents refused to let me leave the confines of our little back yard until we moved 12 months later. The last thing I can recall about that turbulent year of my life was blowing out the 7 pink candles on my chocolate birthday cake, as our city burned down around us.