Click the headline to the get the article with pictures.
Detroit Museums Examine the Riots That Changed the City
By MICHAEL T. LUONGO Aug. 13, 2017
DETROIT -- The story of Detroit's July 1967 riots is, in some
ways, a tale of two cities, one black and one white. Now, 50
years later, three neighboring museums here are revisiting that
fateful summer with exhibitions that portray and explore the
riots in sharply different ways.
The exhibitions also amount to a forceful attempt by two of the
museums, the Detroit Historical Museum and the Detroit Institute
of Arts, to connect with African-Americans. These museums draw
predominantly white patronage in a city in which more than 80
percent of residents are black. A mere 10 percent of the
institute's patrons are black.
"Within the African-American community, we were seen as the white
museum," said Joel Stone, senior curator for the Detroit
Historical Society, which runs the Detroit Historical Museum.
The most provocative of the exhibitions is at the Charles
H. Wright Museum of African American History, an institution that
is more popular with black residents. Its examination of violence
against African-Americans mirrors the intensity of Kathryn
Bigelow's new movie, "Detroit," and like the film, it uses the
riots to comment on race in the United States today.
Detroit's riots began early on the morning of Sunday, July 23,
1967, set off by a police raid on a "blind pig," local
terminology for an illegal club. A combination of tensions, from
employment, discrimination, police brutality and increasingly
crowded living conditions finally boiled over. Parts of Detroit
burned for nearly a week, leaving 43 dead.
"It's like 9/11," said Mr. Stone, a Detroit native. "Everyone
remembers where they were and what they were doing in 1967 in
The historical museum's exhibition, "Detroit 67: Perspectives,"
has three sections: before, during and after the riots. In the
first, timelines, photographs, movies, newspaper clippings and
other ephemera plot the growth of Detroit's black community
during the Great Migration, with earlier examples of racial
In addition to timelines and placards, visitors are exposed to
the riots through more immersive displays, including a midcentury
living room with TV sets blaring ABC News, and a mock-up of
looted 12th Street businesses, including Joe's Record Shop.
A mock tank is around the corner, its side split open, displays
graphic-novel-style montages of residents recounting the
riots. Tanks are a common theme. Sounds from the looted shop
fronts and TVs compete for attention, a cacophony of smashing
glass, crackling fires and panicked news coverage that brings a
heart-pounding sense of confusion.
The historical society has also created programming outside the
museum, including at the site where the riots began. It has
dedicated a historical marker in Gordon Park, which is built over
the site of the long-gone club. Curators from all three museums
put together the program of events with input from focus groups
of locals, academics and activists. The society also coordinated
with Brothers Always Together, known as the BATs, a group of
African-American men who were children at the time of the riots
and have long held a commemorative neighborhood festival on their
Aspects of the exhibitions at the Detroit Institute of Arts and
the Wright Museum align. Their exhibitions share artists,
including Jason H. Phillips, Jeff Donaldson and Wadsworth
Jarrell, reflecting the museums' collaboration. For the
institute, that cooperation was an important component in seeking
closer ties with African-Americans in the city, a goal of the
museum director, Salvador Salort-Pons.
Looking beyond Detroit, the institute's exhibition, "Art of
Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement," examines the
civil rights movement's artistic impact. Some pieces are
influenced by African traditions, and are grouped by various
African-American art movements, including Spiral, the Kamoinge
Workshop and the Black Arts Movement. The exhibition curator,
Valerie Mercer, said she hoped that museum-goers learn how, from
the 1960s on, "artists participated in their own way in the civil
rights and black power movement."
Recent works by Detroit artists exemplify this, including Mario
Moore's 2015 "Queen Mother Helen Moore," painted on shimmering
copper and portraying his grandmother, protectively holding
photos of her sons. "1967: Death in the Algiers Motel and
Beyond," by the Detroit artist Rita Dickerson, who was 21 during
the riots, features the cherubic faces of the three young black
men killed in the incident, which is dramatized in Ms. Bigelow's
movie. In Ms. Dickerson's work, the names of young black men
recently killed by the police are juxtaposed with the names of
the victims from 1967.
Taking its name from a James Brown song, and with indoor and
outdoor components, the Wright's exhibition, "Say It Loud: Art,
History, Rebellion," is the most conceptually difficult of the
three shows in Detroit. Groupings of artworks also highlight
contradictions for African-Americans who might fight alongside
whites to protect American freedoms, yet still have trouble
reaching full equality, according to Erin Falker, an assistant
curator at the museum.
Ms. Falker said that they chose to place "Flag for the Moon: Die
Nigger" by Faith Ringgold, a distortion of the United States flag
from 1969 that spells out the racial epithet in its stripes,
across from the khaki-colored "Patriot" by Jeff Donaldson, from
1975, and "Weight" by Mr. Phillips, from 2001. Ms. Falker said
the grouping highlighted the remembrance that, on the night of
the raid that sparked the riots, the club was having a party for
African-American soldiers returning from Vietnam.
One of the most uncomfortable works at the Wright is Sanford
Biggers's 2015 "Laocoön." The cartoonish, bulbous black male is
made from inflatable vinyl and is clothed in a bright orange
shirt and bluejeans. He resembles a sleeping Fat Albert, but the
museum placard suggests that the work depicts Eric Garner, the
black man who died in 2014 after being restrained with a
chokehold by the New York City police.
Today's Black Lives Matter movement is reflected in all three
shows. The institute's final piece is a room almost entirely
filled with Adam Pendleton's 2015 work "Black Lives Matter #3."
The historical museum examines Black Lives Matter and that
movement's use of new media. At the Wright, in Mr. Phillips's
2015 work "Uneven Fight," "Black Lives Matter" is tattooed across
the chest of a black boxer surrounded by menacing white police
In a Detroit area with changing demographics, the Wright's
collaboration with the institute allows "people to see a much
broader perspective of '67 than they would have if they had just
seen one or the other," the Wright's president and chief
executive, Juanita Moore, said. She said she hoped it might also
encourage more white visitors to her museum.
Another goal at all the museums is teaching millennials and other
young people to make connections between the past and
present. The Wright's curator of exhibitions, Patrina Chatman, a
Detroit native who was a teenager during the riots, said art with
Black Lives Matter elements mixed with earlier civil rights
references reminds young people that "history is repeating
Ms. Chatman added, "This occurred and pay attention, because it
can happen again." The question she wants all museum visitors to
ask themselves is "how can we move forward" in racial
understanding, in Detroit and throughout the United States?