Thursday, October 26, 2017

Joel Stone Speaks at the Library

by Frank Boles

Joel Stone, senior curator of the Detroit Historical Museum, spoke at the library on October 19. He discussed the Museum’s multi-year planning effort which resulted in the exhibit, Detroit 67: Perspectives. The exhibit takes the long view of the civil disturbance that swept Detroit in July 1967. It begins by looking at the complex factors that took place across metropolitan Detroit during the 50 years prior to 1967, reviews the unrest that occurred between July 23 and August 1, 1967 and ends by exploring the 50 years since 1967, detailing the progress the city has made as well the setbacks that have been encountered. 

Stone’s presentation did not comprehensively discuss this century-long history, but rather spoke about how the museum worked to tell the story of that week, what led to it, and the consequences of the events as that were felt then, and are still felt today. Over one hundred partners joined the museum staff to bring many perspectives into the exhibit.  

Stone shared in his presentation the tension of the discussions with partners. Everyone, for example remembered the “tanks,” even if in many cases they were not true tanks with a cannon mounted on a turret but an armored personnel carrier (APC). The distinction was not that important at the time in that they both were big metal machines, both were armed with machine guns, and both ran on tracks rather than tires. How partners remembered the tanks, though, varied dramatically.

In a discussion about whether to include a tank in the exhibit three Black women sitting next to each other at one meeting encapsulated the raw emotion the vehicle inspired. The first completely opposed including a tank, noting passionately that they were the ultimate symbol of oppression. The second responded with equal passion that her parents loved having a tank on their street – it meant their home was safe from the many fires caused by arsonists. And the third woman, listening to the first two, said that if a tank got that kind of raw response from these two ladies, then it had to be in the exhibit – what else carried that kind of interpretative weight.

An APC is in the exhibit – although after having found a real one and gotten into it the museum staff realized their initial idea of opening the back an allowing people to walk in was a claustrophobia attack waiting to happen. Thus the APC in the exhibit is “opened” with displays in the rear, and no admission into the interior.

And there also were a few myths to dispel, including a handed-down memory of U.S. Army troops parachuting into Detroit in July 1967. The U.S. Army was sent to the city to help restore order, and because they were easily mobilized most of the federal troops sent were paratroopers. However they were flown to local airports where their plane landed and the soldiers got off the plane and onto busses, which drove them the last few miles into Detroit.

Stone’s presentation offered an interesting an impressive window into how a contemporary exhibit on what remains a very controversial event can incorporate community viewpoints, serve as a springboard for discussion, and, one hopes, help create constructive dialog on topics that more often serve to divide rather than to heal.