‘A Happy Moment’ as a Frank-Talking Detroiter Meets a Retail Icon at '67 Riot Exhibit

This commentary by a lifelong Detroiter is reposted from Facebook with permission. Under her pen name Marsha Music, she has a chapter in the "Detroit 1967" book from Wayne State University Press about her father, Joe Von Battle, and his Hastings Street record shop.
This essay mentions the great-nephew of J.L. Hudson, who founded a Detroit business in 1881 that grew into the well-known department store chain. Joseph L. Hudson, Jr., 86, was chairman and CEO of the family business until 1982. Three years later he became
 president and chief executive of the newly merged Detroit Medical Center.

By Marsha Battle Philpot

At Friday night's reception for the opening of the Detroit 67 exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum, I was struck by the number of elders there, white and black, who had doubtless attended any number of similar blue ribbon events after the uprising in '67 -- all trying to keep Detroit alive, in their own way, with their own time and money (or their business' or foundation's or organization's money).

How many hoped that there were "lessons learned" with each anniversary of the great unrest?

Well today, 50 years later, Detroit is still alive, with as many stories -- but for the first time with a seminal institution leading the way to accepting many more truths about the unrest.

The day that I met Kate Baker [the Detroit Historical Society's chief community and operations officer] and she told me about this project, I will never forget. I could hardly believe that the Detroit Historical Museum was really going to do this -- and in the way that she envisioned.

The writer with Joseph L. Hudson, Jr. and his wife Jean. (Photo from Marsha Battle Philpot)

Anyway, here's the highlight of my night: I had heard that Joseph Hudson was in the audience at the DIA [on April 1] for the documentary film "12th and Clairmount," in which I am one of the narrators; I talk about the looting and loss of my father's record shop in the upheaval.

I was told that Mr. Hudson was extremely impressed with my remarks on a panel after the screening and that he had gone on and on about me. He reacted positively even though I had talked at length about how, despite the nostalgia that so many have for the store, there was acute, open discrimination at J.L. Hudson's back in the day. We couldn't shop in or enter certain departments, try on clothes, work at any higher position than elevator operator, eat at the famous cafe, etc. I was describing how life really had been for most blacks in Detroit, prior to the uprising.

At this Detroit Historical Museum reception, he saw me and asked someone to introduce us. Sure enough, he told me that he was so delighted when I "took over the stage" at the DIA, and how impressed he was by my remarks. He said he wished that I could speak after every single showing of "12th and Clairmont" because I added context and a personal view of the history and events.

His wife Jean was also very gracious and told me how he went on about me after the film.

He was so tickled when I raised my camera. "Oh, so this is a selfie," he said with a laugh.

Museum admission is free this week.

I would have thought he'd have stormed out of the theater at my strong remarks. But it's not always what you say, but how you say it. And maybe, as a member of the third generation who ran Hudson's, he had seen the problems endemic to the store's old, discriminatory culture and had wanted progress back then.

Standing with such a retail icon of Detroit was such an honor. It made my day, a happy moment that balanced the somber minutes I had just spent in the exhibit in front of a re-creation of my father's storefront and a giant, wall-sized photo of it being looted.

It is clear to me, this exhibit represents a significant change in the narratives of Detroit that may actually move us forward -- for real this time.

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