Historians seek personal stories about Detroit’s tumultuous summer of 1967

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published August 10, 2016

DETROIT — Anyone who was alive during the summer of 1967 in Detroit likely has powerful memories of the unrest during that time.

That’s certainly what Detroit Historical Society officials are hoping. In conjunction with a planned exhibition next year to mark the 50th anniversary of that fateful summer, the DHS is collecting oral and written histories from people who experienced the events. William Winkel, the oral history project coordinator for the community engagement project “Detroit 67: Looking Back to Move Forward,” said the interview subjects don’t need to have been living in Detroit in 1967, but they do need to have at least been visiting the city at that time. The unrest started on July 23, 1967.

“They have to have interacted with the events in one way,” Winkel said.

Bree Boettner, manager of school programs and “Detroit 67” oral history coordinator, said they’re looking for stories from everyday people.

“It’s open for everyone,” she said. “There is no story that is too big or too small. This is a chance for people to tell their story.”

At press time, project coordinators were slated to conduct interviews from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Lorenzo Cultural Center in Clinton Township; from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 12 and from 2 to 5 p.m. Aug. 18 at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial in Grosse Pointe Farms; from 2 to 4 p.m. Aug. 16 and from 2 to 5 p.m. Aug. 17 at the Chaldean Cultural Center in West Bloomfield Township; and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 20 at the Detroit Historical Museum. People who’d like to be interviewed need to contact organizers and register first.

Boettner said organizers have teamed up with the Detroit Police Department, Focus: HOPE, Temple Beth El, Welcoming Michigan, the Charles H. Wright Museum, the Hamtramck Historical Museum, the Isaac Agee Downtown Synagogue, the Italian-American Association and branches of the Detroit Public Library on the interviewing process.

Winkel said they’ve been collecting oral histories since last March and they already have 265 online.

Interviewees can expect to spend anywhere from about 30 minutes to an hour with the coordinators, and the coordinators said they want people to feel at ease sharing their memories and experiences.

“We’re trying to get everybody’s story,” Boettner said. “We will not ask questions that will make people uncomfortable. It was a turbulent time. People lost lives. We’re not going to breach (anyone’s) trust.”

By going into various communities to gather interviews, Boettner said they’ve gotten a wider array of stories so far than they would have by only conducting interviews at the Detroit Historical Museum.

The exhibition is slated to open in May 2017 at the Detroit Historical Museum, but Boettner said they plan to continue to collect personal stories until August 2017.

“It’s a huge project,” she acknowledged. “It’s a huge undertaking.”

Besides an exhibition, people like Winkel and scholars from Wayne State University, the University of Detroit Mercy, Marygrove College and the University of Michigan are engaged in writing a book that will trace the roots of the unrest and what it meant for Detroit in the post-1967 years. Winkel said “Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies” is slated to be published in March 2017.

“This is a defining moment in the region’s history, and we can either ignore it or learn from it,” Winkel said.

For more information or to set up an interview time, call (313) 833-7912 or visit www.detroit1967.org.