Interviewer: Judy Richardson
Production Team: X
Interview Date: November 1,
Camera Rolls: 2066-2069
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Albert Wilson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on November 1, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
OK, going back to the mid 1960s, just before then, what, how did police treat young Blacks at that time?
Well, at that time, young Blacks were treated with discipline. They discipline--the poli--the police department disciplined, used more discipline and force--
No, it's OK.
--than I've seen in quite a long time. At that time, we had what we call the Big Four, the stretch units, and they were made to, they were made to be visible there, to be noticed at all times, their presence was very, very noticeable, and for Blacks, this was, it was like a threat. It was like mother and father being there at all times, and that's why, that's kind of the way I looked at, at the police department then, as big brother, mother, father--
Cut, because I'm rambling.
No, it's not you, it's the
Going back to 1967, what was it like for young Blacks in terms of the way the police treated you?
Well, we were treated--
Sorry. If you could say, the police.
The police treated us, they treated us fairly. They weren't, they weren't hard but they were very strict. They enforced the law very forcefully. I mean, we were made to, we knew what to do. We knew when we were wrong and when they, we saw them, we straightened up our act.
And what about the Big Four?
The Big Four was just like momma and daddy, when you saw them coming, they were always around some corner, around a corner anywhere, and they were there, one thing about it, they were there when they were needed. It didn't take 15 minutes to see them because they were always patrolling the area constantly. And so that's, that was, that's what we looked for. We didn't look for police cars, we looked for the Big Four. And they kept us in line.
Were you afraid of the police?
Not actually, yeah, we were kind of, we were afraid of them. Not that they would harm us or anything, but that we might do something wrong and be caught at it. If you were supposed, if you were supposed to be in a certain place and you weren't there, you might, you would possibly think that the Big Four would be somewhere to take you home or in some cases they did take you home if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time and as a child even.
Going into the, to the rebellion, can you give me a sense of what it was like from the beginning, from the time you first remember it?
Say the rebellion.
The rebellion was, now, well it was, it was, it's unexplainable. It was like a big party. Everyone was there and I happened to be there also. It, you know, I woke up and it was there, and so everybody joined in and--
How did you first hear, how did you first know there was a rebellion?
I got up and, I got up all of the stores were open on Sunday. Stores didn't open on Sunday.
I'm sorry. If you could say, the way I first--
OK. The way I first realized that our five and dime which didn't open on Sundays was open. Our gas station which didn't, which didn't open on Sunday was open. And the store owners weren't there. It was my neighbors. And my friends and in one instance, with the five and dime being open from the side, it was me. I was there. And that led me to know, and it just, it progressed and then there were, first there were one or two people here, then there were three and four, five and six. And then it was just, just a massive group of people from everywhere.
Did you get a sense that there was a carnival or what?
It was, yes it was kind of like a carnival, a parade, a party, a, because everybody that was there was laughing, because they had a smile on their face. No one was crying or worried. But if you saw me running down the street, you saw me running with a smile on my face. Now running for what and to what, I saw people running from stores with televisions but with a smile on their face. Everybody was happy. That's about it. Everybody was happy, that day. As it progressed on into the evening hours that happiness kind of turned into sadness though, the fires started to break out, homes began to burn, began to burn and fires began to catch from my house to my neighbors house. Paint factory went up. And, ah, the explosions were heard. Finally, ah, state troopers moved in with the tanks, the bayonets, the rifles. Ah, I, at first, at that time I first, I first witnessed, ah, someone being killed, ah, with a bayonet, actually being stabbed, my neighbor, actually being stabbed, coming home from a party, Saturday night, Sunday morning, coming home. And he was a drinker and he was drunk and he was disorderly and he refused to listen and, ah, he was, ah, attacked with a bayonet by one of the law enforcement officers.
Can you say that again and just give me a sense of why he was attacked with the bayonet?
OK. My neighbor was attacked, due to the fact that he, I don't think he really realized--
Say, my neighbor was attacked by--I'm sorry.
By one of our, one of the--
Sorry. Let me--Be quiet and then, I saw my neighbor--
I saw my neighbor.
I saw my neighbor being stabbed by one of the law enforcement teams that I believe it was the state troopers because he had come home that morning with a hangover. He had been out to a party, which he did on the week-ends. I don't think he knew what was going on. What had, what had happened, he was one of the people who didn't know this had happened. There were quite a few people who got up and didn't know that this was going on. It just so happened that we got up early on Sunday mornings to go play. But the, the playground was in our front yard this time.
Can you say one more time that you saw your neighbor being bayoneted and give me what happened?
OK. I, I saw my neighbor being stabbed with a bayonet by a state trooper after he was asked to go on his porch. He was only five or ten feet from his porch, but he was asked to get off the street in front of his house, city sidewalk, and to go on to his own property. And, ah he refused. And at this point he was warned and forewarned and he was stabbed with a bayonet. He fell to the ground. I'm not sure if he died. I do remember it took hours for an ambulance to get there to pick him up. But I do remember my mother going in to call an ambulance. I do remember the other neighbors bringing the blankets out for him and, ah, I'm not quite sure if the gentleman died or not.
Now, I want you to go back to the day when you were in the five and dime and how you decided to go in there.
I know your mother wanted you to stay home.
Talk about that.
Paint a picture for me of that day and what it was like and the chicken smell and the whole thing as if we don't have any pictures and you're going to tell it to us.
Well, Sunday morning and Sunday, early Sunday morning, 7:30 Sunday morning, which was the usual time for most of the kids in the neighborhood to get out and begin congregating in front of our houses or planning our daily routine or whatever. To come out and find that, ah, we didn't have a routine that day. The routine had been altered. The plan had been altered. There was no smell of chicken frying, which was usually the case on Sunday mornings. You can always smell breakfast, or mom's frying dinner, she's making dinner, she's cooking dinner, chicken and you can smell the greens and the corn bread. None of this was there that Sunday because no one had time. And everyone that would usually be in the house was over on the porch. I don't think there was anyone inside their homes that day. As I remember my family, my entire family was on the front porch looking in a westerly direction towards the scene of the, of the riot there, at the corner five and dime there, because that's the first thing we saw was the five and dime bars come down. And being, all the kids being warned to stay, stay at home, stay on the porch. I was forewarned myself to stay at home. "Don't go." And for some reason I went into the house. I remember going in the house and being the only one in the house which is one of the reasons why I say, "Well, nobody's watching me, nobody can see me, so I'm going out the back door." And I asked a couple of friends, come on, let's go. You know, let's go up here and see what's going on. I think they went about, ah, 20 feet with me and decided to change their mind and go back. And I kept going. And I went, ah, I went the long way to keep from being seen by my parents on the front porch. So I went through the alley to the other side of the street and back down 12th Street where I was confronted by a group of neighbors. And, ah, I asked what was going on. And they said, they were going in the store and, ah, they said, Come on. Let's go. I went in also. At that time why I went in, I don't know.
If you can ge--start with leaving out of your back door and the sense you're sneaking so you're neighbors and your mother doesn't see you. Just start from there.
All right, I, well, I, snuck out the back door after being, after being asked not to go off the front porch or out of the house. I went into the house just to find that there's no one there, you know. No one in there. Everyone's outside.
OK, we can actually take it, because we're going to take the beginning off.
OK you can start leaving out the back door and going through the alley so folks wouldn't see you.
I did. I snuck out the back door. I went through the alley very inconspicuously in the opposite direction of the houses around the next street to 12th street.
Sorry, if you could say I did this so that my neighbors and my mother--
And I did this--
Just start, the whole thing at the back door.
OK. After I, I went out the back door and I snuck through the alley in the opposite direction so that none of the neighbors would see me going here because they were all outside and they would sure stop me. So I went the other way to end up on 12th Street where quite a few stores had been broken into. I think there was only one, there was one restaurant, Howard's restaurant was open. Black-owned restaurant, and, ah, everyone was in there, all the prostitutes, and early morning pimps were in there discussing the matter of how this occurred and everything. And everybody, everyone congregated right there. I saw all my neighbors there. And I moved further on down the street to the jewelry shop, the loan, the savings and loan, the jewelry shop, where I saw a huge man carrying safes out and this was all hilarious to us because we never thought those things could be moved. They sat in the middle of the store. No one ever thought they would be able to pick them up, but they did. And I entered a couple of the places to see what was going on there. Not to take anything out of there though. But I went up there. I watched them. Places caught on fire actually while I was in there. And, ah, I think I was actually trapped in one place for a while with the fire. I think there was a, a loan office, and I was trapped in there for a while. I had to come down a ladder or, ah, there was part of a wall that was left and I got out of there and I went home and I went back around the back and came back out and went back up on 12th Street, again, where I saw my neighbors again and this time we were going towards the five and dime. And, ah, I was kind of skeptical about going because I knew that I could be seen from that corner. So I had to go around another corner and come through the side which is the side they opened the side of the store. And I went in. To get in there and find that clocks were being taken off the walls and things that you had always wished you could have next door, you could get. OK, so, um, I went to the back to see what was going on back there. And at that time I saw a roll of carpet back there. And, ah, this roll of carpet I looked at and there were my neighbors hiding down behind this carpet. And why they were hiding was, I didn't know. Ah, they told me to come lay down there, hide there, get, "Come here Alvin, and, ah, stay here." At that time I told them, "No, I'm going out!" You know, "I'm going back out." I remember standing up, ah, to go towards the door. I remember seeing the, the officer standing there with a gun pointing towards me and I remember his exact words. I didn't, ah, I didn't listen to him. I went to turn around and lay back down and at that time, ah, I don't know what happened. I kind of Blacked out. I don't remember, I don't every remember being hit by a bullet. I can tell you that. I don't know if anybody understands that, being shot like that and not being able to explain, ah, the feeling. Does it hurt? I don't know. I couldn't tell you. How did I feel? I don't know. I felt like I was asleep. I don't remember, I vaguely remember being taken out of that store. I don't remember too much after that. I remember waking up in the hospital with no one there. I remember a nurse who asked me if I knew who I was. Do I know, she asked me, did I know where I came from? Where I was at? "Sure I know. I was in the five and ten cents store." I, I told them my address, told them the church that I belonged to. She asked me things of, ah, home oriented relationships, like, "Do you know who your mother is?" "Sure I do." "Do you know your phone number?" That's how they contacted by mother, I believe. Because she asked me if I remembered my address. And I told her, "Yes." And at that time they told them to send a telegram because they were probably looking for me. And they was right. They had been looking for me, not knowing where I was. And, ah, I remember the heaviness in my legs and the burning sensation, and, ah, I asked her, "Why were my legs on fire?" And they never, they didn't tell me I couldn't walk or I wasn't going to walk. They said, "You were shot in the spine, in the side, and the bullet damaged your spine." OK, well that was fine with me. I was never in any pain. I was just there in a daze and, ah, the only thing that was ver--any important to me was the weight, the weight in my legs. I felt something leave, ah, spirit or soul. It actually got up and left the lower portion of my body. And I felt that. I don't know if people believe that or if they understand that but I explained that to the doctor. I said, "Well I felt something," you know. He asked me how did I feel? I said, "Well, I felt something leave." And he asked me to try to move my toes and everything and I don't remember if I did it or not. I was in some, he had me in iron shoes or something that I never seen before. And, ah, I think I, I must have slept for days. It just seemed like I slept for days. However, I remember waking up to see my mother, my neighbors, my sisters and my brother. This is in Intensive Care. I don't think they thought I was going to live. They let, where they usually just let one or two people into Intensive Care Unit, here I had six and seven people around, you know, crying and, and, and rubbing my head and I could hear them asking the doctor, "Was he going to live?" And at that time I remember the doctor telling them, "Yes, I think he might live. It's a 50/50 chance but he won't walk." That's the first inkling that I had that I wouldn't walk. Ah, I, I didn't know that. Ah, I remember being transferred from Intensive Care to the wards, ah, where I, I was in still in pretty serious condition at that time. I remember having dreams at that time of being right back there on 12th at the riot. It seems like I never left. I actually went back. I left that hospital room, I don't know how that happens, I, I was there. I never left. I never left. That's the strange thing and I don't tell too many people this because they say, "There's something wrong with this kid," you know. But it's the truth. Things that happened there while I was in this condition, ah, critical condition actually happened. And, ah, I told my mother about these things. And she said, "Well, yeah, it did happen. I don't know how you know." But, ah, I remember wanting my mother to come. And I remember going home, which seemed like I went home. I know I never left that room. But, and getting there, talking with my mother and asking her to come and see me and she would come. I think the doctor said that was all in my imagination, in my mind, possibly due to the drugs that they were, had me one and very--
If you can begin by talking about going into the five and dime, the sense of carnival and of not knowing what danger your in.
Well, ah, going into the five and ten cents store, we didn't know what danger we were in..** It was just like a carnival. It was, we didn't see the actual danger that we were in, although it was right there staring us in our face. Anytime you see a law enforcement agent, ah, officer standing around with guns or on roof tops and you don't, ah, acknowledge this, you can't be aware of it. It was a big party as I said. And when I went into that store, ah, that, that was, just why I went in there was beyond me. And when I went in there, it, ah, I had no sense of the danger that I was in. I wasn't scared. I was not, I didn't become fearful of it until I was asked by the, ah, law officer that I saw, he told all of us, "All you motherfuckers, Black motherfuckers, come out from back there." And, ah, I was the only one who stood up. I was asked not to by the neighbors. I saw them, my neighbors very clearly, who told me not to go out and not to stand up. And I remember telling them, "I'm going out." And at that point, I stood up to go towards the door. I did go to the door, to the archway of the door and I saw the gentleman standing there, with the gun, pointed towards me and, ah, I remember turning around to go back where my neighbors were because they told me to stay there. I knew that there was no other way out of there because they had looked and all of the back doors were barred and so I guess that were kind of penned in. We were penned in there actually. Ah, after, ah, being asked to come out, I just turned around and went back and lay down against some bolt-end rolls of carpeting, at which time I guess I had been shot at that time. From what I've heard, I, that's, I had been shot then. But I didn't know it, ah. So the sense of fear never, never got, never sank in. It never was there. It was, it was a big party. Ah, it had a lot of colors, ah, a lot of different noises that we'd never heard before. Ah, people that you'd never seen, ah.
What was it like, now, going into the five and ten seeing your neighbors going in before you, the sense of carnival and not knowing the danger.
I thin it's like ah--
Say, going in.
Going into the store was like a party that we would have every Saturday at your house, my house, someone else's house. Ah, only in the sense that, ah, there were certain people invited, just certain neighbors were there and myself. And, ah, going in there was, I wasn't afraid. There wasn't a sense of fear. There wasn't a sense of gaining anything. It was fun. It was a sense of fun, ah, exploring and doing something that you'd never done before. I felt kind of grown. I felt like, you know, "I'm here and no one, the rest of the kids are home but I'm here. So, I'm doing what everybody, all the grown ups are doing." That's really how I felt. I remember being, I was the only kid in the store. Everyone else was grown. And, ah, I remember going, being asked to come in the back by them because someone outside shouted, "The police are coming." Everyone ran to the back. I was asked to run to the back. I ran to the back. Hid behind some bolt-ends of carpeting. I remember getting up to come to the door, which was what I did. I did get up and come to the door to see the, the officer standing there with the gun, who had asked us to come out, you know. And, um, I turned around, I, I remember hearing someone in the back saying, "No! Come back Albert, come back!" And as I turned to go back to hide with them I remember, ah, just seeing a flash and going, turning around, and going to lay down on the carpet, ah, to wake up and find myself in the hospital after that, because it's, I don't remember, that's all I remember, it's, it's like as if I went to sleep. And I woke up, I guess it was the next day, maybe, in, ah, Detroit General Hospital. And I think that's about all I remember there, ah.
And you found out that you were paralyzed?
I did. I found out I guess about two days later actually that I was paralyzed. I did not know. I knew that there was something wrong, ah, I wasn't able to get up. But why I couldn't get up was never told to me until I, until I--
I think we probably, yeah, probabl--
So, you're in the store. What happens?
All right, I'm in the store and I'm behind a partition where they would keep the unused merchandise with the rest of my neighbors and I'm back there with them. And I hear this officer say, "You Black motherfuckers come out from back there." And, ah, me being I guess naive, young, and stupid, not knowing what danger I was really in, I get up to go and obey him. And I get to the door and at the time I hear my neighbors say, "No, don't go out there! Come back here and lay down with us!" And so I'm going to obey them anyway, more, rather than obey him. So I went, I turned to go back and, ah, at that time I don't know, ah, it seems as if, ah, I saw a flash of light and I went and lay down on a bolt-end of carpeting to wake up a couple of days later to find out that.** I couldn't walk. And I found that out through my mother. Listening, hearing the doctor tell my mother, "We don't think he'll ever walk again."
You're in the store and you hear the officer. What happens?
Right, I'm in this store, five and dime, and I'm behind a partition where the store owners would keep their unused merchandise until it's used, with the rest of my neighbors and, ah, friends from the block, from my street. And, ah, I hear someone from the front say, "You Black motherfuckers come out from back there." And immediately I get up to come out, towards the door.
Sorry. If you can start and mention that it's the police officer. Just start again from the beginning.
OK, I'm in the store and I'm behind a partition with my neighbors and friends from my block. And, ah, I, we all back there. Actually at this time we hear someone say, "The police are coming." And everyone began to look for a way out. But the bars are on the door so there's no way out. So, everyone finds a place to hide. And I was told to find a place to hide too. And I hear this officer say, police officer say, "All of you Black motherfuckers come out from back there." Well, I immediately get up and come to the door, as you know, head for the door, the archway of the door, to do what he says. When I'm told by, I hear a voice and I, one of my neighbors, I knew it was her voice, and she told me, "Don't go out there! Come back! Come back!" And at that time I went to turn to go back and get there next to her behind this bolt-end of carpeting and, ah, I just remember seeing a flash of light at that time and going back there to lay down on a bolt-end, to wake up, I guess a couple of days later and to hear a doctor tell my mother that, um, the bullet had injured my spine and I probably wouldn't walk again.** But at that point she said, they had told her that I would live, you know, but I wouldn't walk, so. I knew that I was paralyzed then and that I couldn't walk and what this was, you know.