Detroit 1967 historical exhibition looks back ‘to move forward’

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published August 2, 2017

DETROIT — When the Detroit Historical Museum was working on what would become “Detroit 67: Perspectives,” more than a few people who lived through that bloody, tumultuous time asked them why they were metaphorically picking at an old scab.

To which Marlowe Stoudamire, project director of the “Detroit 67” exhibition, responds: “What makes you think a scab ever formed?”

Using oral histories, photos, news accounts and more, organizers are trying to give people a broad look at what happened in Detroit in July 1967, when a police raid on a “blind pig” — an unlicensed establishment that served alcohol — touched off five days of rioting and civil unrest. Contrary to popular belief, Stoudamire said, this “wasn’t a race riot” — Detroit had experienced a race riot in 1943. But, many of the clashes, especially between a mostly white police force and the largely black population residing in the epicenter around 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue, were rooted in racism.

Some people have called what happened in Detroit a riot, while others have called it a rebellion.

“There’s a reason (the exhibit) is called ‘Perspectives’ — nobody experienced it the same way,” Stoudamire said.

And what people called it “wasn’t based on your race,” he continued, noting that even neighbors on the same block saw it differently.

“We thought it was very important not to define it (ourselves),” Stoudamire said.

With 43 deaths, 2,500 buildings destroyed and more than 7,000 arrests, the Detroit riot/rebellion was the worst incident of its kind during that period in the country. It demonstrated a bubbling up of tensions that had been simmering for years, and changed the future of Detroit. It was not, however, the trigger for “white flight,” which had begun years earlier, circa the 1940s. That’s one of the many myths “Detroit 67: Perspectives” tackles.

Because the summer of 1967 was so long ago, organizers know that many of the people who experienced these events firsthand are no longer alive. The exhibition underscores the importance of preserving history — even difficult, controversial history like this. This exhibition has been in the works since 2015.

“Even some of the folks we captured oral histories of have since passed,” said Rebecca Salminen Witt, chief development and communications officer for the Detroit Historical Society. “It’s so important to have that history and to capture that.”

With some 500 voices recorded for oral histories and 100 community partners, “It’s the largest project we’ve undertaken,” Stoudamire said. It includes the largest oral history ever collected on this topic, he said. And the museum is continuing to collect stories and photos from people who witnessed that period, and from family and friends who remember the accounts of deceased loved ones. Stoudamire said the goal is “to be sure the history we tell is balanced, accurate and meaningful.”

Visitors can listen to those stories and read accounts that have been collected by the museum, in person or online. There’s also a companion book, “Detroit 1967: Origins Impacts Legacies” from Wayne State University Press.

Joel Stone, senior curator for the Detroit Historical Museum, said there was a media blackout for several hours after the riot/rebellion began, so people initially found out something was happening from neighbors, friends and relatives. In an era with only a handful of local television stations and no Internet or cellphones, “It didn’t burst into everyone’s living room right away,” Stone said.

Although it took place over five days, Stone said the riot/rebellion “developed over a very long time.”

“This was an incredibly complicated event,” he said.

The exhibition is slated to be on view for the next three years.

“It’s an important story, and we want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to be a part of it,” Witt said.

The history might be painful, but exhibition organizers say opening up lines of dialogue is crucial toward creating a world where history won’t repeat itself.

“We’re hoping this gets people talking,” Stone said. “We’re having some of the same problems today.”

As people exit the exhibition, they’re being invited to leave their own messages and pledge cards about what they plan to do to improve Detroit’s future for residents to read in 2067.

“The moving forward (aspect) is, I think, one of the most impactful moments (in the exhibition),” Stoudamire said.

Those thoughts will eventually be stored in a time capsule to be opened in 2067. The Detroit Historical Museum is located at 5401 Woodward Ave. in Midtown. Admission is free. For more information, call (313) 833-1805 or visit www.detroithistorical.org or www.detroit1967.org.