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Nancy speaks on the riots. Full interview available on Audio page.


Convulsion: The Detroit Race Riot – July, 1967

Arlene W. Keeling, PhD, RN, FAAN

“I watched the city burn. The days of fire, which changed the climate of Detroit if little else, had surrealist qualities. It was at once a mass involvement in the urban tragedy and a mass depersonalization, as though you were watching yourself through it all but could not believe you were part of what was happening, victim and perpetrator, ally and enemy.”
—Nancy Milio, 9226 Kercheval

Describing the Detroit Race Riot of 1967 in her book 9226 Kercheval: The Storefront that Did Not Burn, Nancy Milio captured the essence of the five day revolt in one word:  “Convulsion.”[i] That summer, the convulsion was a “grand mal seizure,” the culmination of years of racial injustice, police brutality, poor housing, lack of jobs, and poverty among the blacks living in the 12th Street area of Detroit. It started with the Detroit police raiding an unlicensed bar on the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount Avenue, one of the city’s oldest and poorest black neighborhoods. With rumors of police brutality, a long history of racism, and onlookers lining the street as police arrested between 60-80 citizens in the “blind pig” establishment, the situation rapidly deteriorated.  Bottles were thrown, windows broken, and fires set. By midmorning on Sunday July 23, much of the neighborhood was ablaze and all Detroit firemen and police were activated.  They could not control the mob however, and the Mayor called for the National Guard. By the end of the day, more than 1000 people were arrested and five were dead.[ii] 

Riot near Nancy's clinic

The fires raged out of control as firefighters abandoned the scene when they were attacked by snipers, their hoses cut by rioters. Looting was pervasive: in short, the uprising was out of control. By Monday, July 24th, 16 people had been killed – mostly by police or guardsmen—and Governor Romney asked President Lyndon Johnson to send in U.S. troops.  On Tuesday, nearly 2000 army paratroopers arrived with armored tanks, and a city-wide curfew was upheld.  The city remained in crisis until July 27, when the violence ended.  By then, 33 blacks and 10 whites had been killed, 1, 189 had been injured and over 7,200 people had been arrested.  Over 2,500 stores had been looted; property damage exceeded $32 million.[iii]  It was the worst U.S. riot in 100 years.

During those hot July days and nights Nancy Milio watched the city burn, helpless to do anything. She could not even get near the Mom and Tots Center, connected only by telephone messages from the staff who were keeping watch. As she noted later:  “Watching the flames, smelling the smoke from my relatively safe vantage point high above 12th Street, confined by the curfew, there was much time to think. But I could not. I could only feel the greatest sadness I had ever felt up to that time.  The tears seemed useless too. . . . I waited for the message that the Center was burning.” [iv]

But the Mom and Tots Center did not burn. There was no damage. “S.B.” – “Soul brother” had been written on the window – evidence to her and to others that the Mom and Tots Center was a part of the African American community—and a haven for mothers and their children.

[i]  Nancy Milio, 9226 Kercheval: The Storefront that Did Not Burn, (Ann Arbor Paperbacks, University of Michigan Press, 2000): 135

[ii] history/the 12th - street -riot   (accessed: 1/20/2015

[iv] Nancy Milio, 9226 Kercheval (2000): 142.