In the summer of 1967, simmering tensions between the police and the black community in Detroit, Michigan exploded into 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 broke out in dozens of other cities across America that summer, most notably Newark, New Jersey. But the events of July 1967 would leave their particular mark on Detroit, a once-thriving city that would fall on hard times in the decades to come.
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The day before the riots began, Detroit native 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 flower girls. That night, Sheila slept over at her grandmother’s house on Monterey Street, just around the corner from where the reception had taken place.
When she woke up the next morning—July 23—Sheila went outside to sit on the porch. Right away, she could tell something was not right. “I saw people just coming down the street with arms full of merchandise, all kinds of things, and smoke all in the air,” she recalled recently in an interview.
Sheila and her grandmother turned on the TV to find news of the riots on every station. Early that morning, police officers had raided an illegal bar and gambling joint—known as a blind pig—on 12th Street, close to the house where Sheila lived with her parents and three brothers. After a crowd gathered at the corner of 12th and Clairmount, one of the onlookers threw a bottle at a police officer. As the police fled, thousands of people flooded the streets, looting stores and setting fire to many buildings.
Much of what was happening confused Sheila. She would learn a lot of new words in a short time: Martial law. National Guard. Curfew. Her parents always made her come in at night as soon as the streetlights came on, and her grandma explained that the citywide curfew was a little bit like that. Except everyone—not just the kids—had to be off the streets between 7 pm and 7 am.
When Sheila’s father called, he told them to sleep on the floor, and to cover the windows with blankets. He was a military veteran, and had served in World War II and the Korean War. Later, when Sheila herself enlisted in the U.S. Army, she would realize that what he was giving them that night were military instructions. Stay down on the floor. Don’t go to the windows. Don’t let any light shine through from the inside.
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All that night, Sheila heard gunfire. “In between my grandmother's house and the house next door it was kind of wide, and we could hear people running along the side of the house. You could hear bullets firing, people hollering to each other, and it sounded like heavy equipment moving through the streets.”
The next day, July 24, Sheila still couldn’t go home. Her family’s house on Philadelphia and Woodrow Wilson Streets was on the other side of the “front line,” as they would later come to think of it. It was hard for her father to get through on the telephone, and she wasn’t able to talk to her mother or her brothers at all. On that second day, Sheila watched a group of people gathering at the end of the block, outside a supermarket. Suddenly they all scattered, and about two minutes later the building erupted into flames.
With the city’s police force overwhelmed, Detroit’s mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, and Governor George Romney called in reinforcements from the National Guard, Michigan State Police and the U.S. Army. Down the street from her grandma’s, near the burned grocery store, soldiers from the National Guard stood in line to buy ice cream cones at one of the only shops that stayed open. The soldiers were nice to the kids, Sheila said, and she stopped being scared of them after her grandma told her they were there to protect her.
After a few days, Sheila’s father told her things had calmed down enough for her to come home. Back in her neighborhood, behind the front lines, she smelled burned brick, and saw a wrecked Jeep overturned on the street. Most of the businesses on 12th Street—shoe stores, jewelry stores, even the doughnut shop—had been burned. White citizens had owned most of these businesses, Sheila noted, and few if any black people had even worked in them.
Before the riots, Sheila didn’t have much of a sense of racial difference. Her elementary school had black kids, white kids, Asian kids, and they hadn’t learned yet about American history or slavery’s role in it. She would learn more about all that in a little building on 12th Street that survived the riots called the African Club. She and other black children would spend time there after school, putting on shows and learning dance routines.
Militant groups like the Black Panthers also became more visible after the riots, Sheila said. Members of another group, the Sons of Malcolm, would gather all the kids in the playground and train them to do “stomping” routines. They called Sheila “little sister” and urged her and the other kids to stay in school and keep learning.
If the riots served as a turning point in Sheila’s young life, they were also a turning point in Detroit’s history. White residents began leaving the city in larger and larger numbers: According to the Detroit Historical Society, white flight in 1967 doubled to over 40,000, and doubled again the following year. Amid these shifting demographics, 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 moved back to the city where she was born, and found it transformed. “I would not recognize this place as being the place where I grew up,” she said. “The house we lived in is gone. The house on Monterey [her grandmother’s], my brother told me it got burnt up. I don't know if it's still standing or if they've torn it down yet, but it's not there anymore.” The changes were not all physical, Sheila said. Race relations had also improved greatly, in her opinion, and the police force seemed more diverse than it was during her childhood.
In December of 2013, the year Sharp returned, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, becoming the largest city in U.S. history to take such a step. The city had lost some 1.1 million of its population since the 1950s, and that year some 30 percent of the city’s housing units sat vacant. Now Sharp lives a stone’s throw from Little Caesar’s Arena, the new home of the NHL’s Red Wings and the NBA’s Pistons, created as part of a $1.2-billion sports and entertainment district in and around downtown Detroit.
As a 10-year-old in the summer of ’67, Sheila Sharp saw the streets where she lived with her family transformed into a war zone. Now, as Sharp contemplates the “new” Detroit growing up around her, she feels hope for the city’s future, but will never forget the five days she watched it burn.