Windsor

'You could just feel the tension in the air': Windsor residents recall 1967 Detroit Riot

Lana Talbot could feel it, tension like a "thick cloud" over the sun-baked streets of Detroit in the hours before a fiery uprising left 43 dead, hundreds injured, thousands arrested and whole blocks destroyed.

'It was an armed camp, literally looked like something out of the civil war'

Lana Talbot, of Windsor. (Stacey Janzer/CBC News)

Lana Talbot could feel it, tension like a "thick cloud" over the sun-baked streets of Detroit in the hours before a fiery, five-day uprising left 43 dead, hundreds injured, thousands arrested and whole blocks destroyed. 

"It was tense. It was hot. You could just feel the tension in the air," Talbot recalled this week, nearly fifty years after police raided a blind pig at the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue, setting in motion one of the most destructive riots in U.S. history.

"It's almost unbearable, like something is going to break loose or something is going to happen. You could feel it."

Multiple fires burn in a section of riot-torn Detroit on July 24, 1967, about three miles west of the downtown area. Five days of violence would leave 33 blacks and 10 whites dead, and more than 1,400 buildings burned. More than 7,000 people were arrested. (The Associated Press)

Talbot, then 21, had crossed the border, something she often did in those days, to get her hair done and attend her cousin's wedding. She went to a friend's house near the riot's epicentre after the ceremony to get changed for an after-party in Inkster. A commotion was beginning to bubble in the street but they thought little of it and pressed on to the party.

'Do you know that they're rioting in Detroit?'

As Talbot made her way home down Woodward Avenue, she was surprised to see fires and people selling records and rings for a bargain. The young woman didn't know it at the time but those people were looters and Detroit was beginning to burn.

"It didn't even dawn on me what was going on," she said. "Then all of a sudden I go home. I go to sleep. I wake up. And my mother says 'Do you know that they're rioting in Detroit?'"

Talbot could scarcely believe the violence visiting Detroit, a place she frequented to visit family or the Zoo, but like other Windsorites, who assembled on the riverfront with lawnchairs, she saw clouds of smoke rising high above the skyline and watched the news unfold on television. Her one solace was that her sister, who lived in River Rouge, was safe and visiting in Windsor.

Walt McCall was a Windsor Star reporter dispatched to cover the Detroit Riot in July of 1967. He recalls "block after block of burned out buildings" and Windsor residents watching the columns of smoke rising above the Detroit skyline. (Stacey Janzer/CBC News)

Walt McCall was working as a reporter at The Windsor Star in the summer of 1967 and reported from the battle-scarred streets of Detroit's west-side two days after the riots began. He helped tell the tale of the Windsor firefighters who crossed the border to offer what aid they could.

"Block after block of burned out buildings," McCall recalled this week. "Not just stores and commercial buildings, but I remember entire streets of two and three storey apartment blocks burned to the foundations."

National Guardsmen, called in to restore order by Gov. George Romney, stop their vehicle near a Detroit fire truck on July 24, 1967 in the neighbourhood that was ravaged by rioting the previous day. (AP Photo/File)

McCall remembers the stern faces of National Guardsmen patrolling the steets, a Buick flattened by a tank, the constant buzz of planes overhead and a temporary military base set up at Grand Circus Park on Woodward Avenue.

"It was an armed camp, literally looked like something out of the civil war," said McCall. 

'When something like this happens we all have to pull together'

It was a macabre scene back in Windsor, recalled McCall, who said residents could see as many as 11 columns of smoke rising from the streets of Detroit. 

"People were coming to Dieppe Park here with their lawn chairs," he said. "Setting up and watching the horror over there."

Though the violence never visited Windsor, McCall believes it had a negative effect on the Emancipation Day celebration here. The event later that year was subdued and eventually the annual event just faded away.

Hundreds of people run down 12th Street on Detroit's westside throwing stones and bottles at storefronts. The riot started on July 23, 1967 after police raided an after-hours club in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood. The raid, though, was just the spark. Many in the community blamed frustrations blacks felt toward the mostly white police, and city policies that pushed families into ageing and over-crowded neighbourhoods. (AP Photo/File)

"It was a lesson that we've all got to get along. We've got to work together," reflected McCall. "When something like this happens we all have to pull together."

For Talbot, the racism that fueled the riot still exists on both sides of the border. Casual discrimination is routine, she said, and just last week she was assaulted on a downtown Windsor street by a stranger hurling a hateful racial epithet.

Still, Talbot, who works with the Sandwich First Baptist Church, an important stop for those who found freedom via the Underground Railroad, sounds a hopeful note.  

"I think love, sound mind, and respect. Not enough of them," she said. "Once we start doing that we're going to learn more and we're going to be better people for it." 

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      About the Author

      Stacey Janzer was born and raised in Essex County. Self-described Canadian treasure. She currently works as a video journalist at CBC Windsor. Email her at Stacey.Janzer@cbc.ca.