Make Black History Personal: #16 My Dad and the Detroit Race Riots

On June 20, 1943, my father went out on a Sunday afternoon date to Detroit’s Belle Isle. Back in the day, Belle Isle was this amazing recreation venue on an island in the middle of the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Canada. It was free and it was open to Blacks and Whites.

Detroit's Belle Isle Park.
Detroit’s Belle Isle Park.

Although there’s been a severe decline in the island in recent years, it’s still a place where people go to relax during the summer. Over the years, Belle Isle offered –

  • A lovely boulevard and network of paths for strolling and cycling
  • A canal where you could rent boats and go canoeing
  • A zoo
  • A conservatory/greenhouse
  • An aquarium
  • A band shell for concerts
  • A casino
  • Boat and yacht clubs
  • Sandy beaches
  • Food vendors and even
  • Pony rides for little kids

So for a young man of limited means like my Dad, Belle Isle was the perfect place for a Sunday date. He and his date (this was pre-Mom) would have taken a streetcar to Jefferson Avenue in Detroit and then walked across the McArthur Bridge to the island. The bridge is the only way on and off the island and it’s here that the 1943 race riots exploded.

The McArthur bridge that goes from the shores of Detroit to Belle Isle
The McArthur bridge that goes from the shores of Detroit to Belle Isle

The story of how the riots started is best told in this PBS article from the “American Experience” series:

Two rumors circulated which exacerbated the conflict. At the Forest Club, a nightclub in Paradise Valley which catered to the black population, a man who identified himself as a police sergeant alerted the patrons that “whites” had thrown a black woman and her baby over the Belle Isle bridge. The enraged patrons fled the club to retaliate. They looted and destroyed white-owned stores and indiscriminately attacked anyone with white skin.

Similarly, white mobs had been stirred up by a rumor that a black man had raped and murdered a white woman on the bridge. The white mob centered around the downtown Roxy Theater which harbored a number of black movie-goers. As the patrons exited the theater, they found themselves surrounded by gangs who attacked and beat them.

As rumors about the incidents in Paradise Valley and the downtown area spread through the night, so did the nature and the extent of the violence. White mobs targeted streetcars transporting black laborers to work, forced the cars to come to a halt, and attacked the passengers inside. They also targeted any cars with black owners, turning them over and setting them on fire.

Car of a Black man overturned during the Detroit riots and set on fire.
Car of a Black man overturned during the Detroit riots and set on fire.

Because my father was on Belle Isle when the riots started there, he was caught in the middle. My father was injured there on Belle Isle. As the mob moved across the bridge on to the island, Dad was attacked and beaten on the banks of the Detroit River right by the bridge and suffered a severe injury to his leg.

Thank goodness, he was rescued and taken to the hospital. He was one of the lucky ones. In his later years, my father would tell me he saw “terrible” things on his way to the hospital but he refused to say more.

Here’s a video that tells about the toll the 1943 race riots would take on Detroit:

After the riots ended, my father continued on with his studies to become a doctor. He met my mother the next year and they married in 1945. Unfortunately though, my father’s injury from the riots resulted in a severe and persistent bone infection in his leg.

There were no antibiotics then and the only treatment available would have required Dad to sit out his last year of medical school with no guarantees the treatment would work. Instead, my father opted to have his leg amputated at the knee in 1946.

As a child, I knew my father had a wooden leg. I’d see it standing against a chair when I came in to say “good morning”. But Dad never talked about how he lost his leg and it seemed the unspoken agreement that none of us would ask. And we didn’t.

I was adult before Dad would finally share the story of what happened that summer day in 1943. But as I think back, I understand now why my father had put the incident behind him and moved on. He refused to dwell on the negative.

That’s the kind of man he was.

My father, Dr. Thomas Melvin Batchelor. 1920-2002
My father, Dr. Thomas Melvin Batchelor. 1920-2002

P.S. Today is the 94th anniversary of my father’s birth. Remembering you, Dad. Always, always.

How can you make Black history personal?

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