Bennie Jean Johnson interview, 10 November 2006

In this 2006 interview, Bennie Jean Johnson, a life-long resident of Cleveland, recounts many of her living experiences as an African-American in Cleveland. She talks about her early childhood homes in E.55th and E.79th Street neighborhoods during the 1950 and 1960 decades. She describes her experiences during the Hough Riots. She talks about Leo's Casino and other well-known Cleveland east side institutions. She also talks about her experiences in moving to the west side of Cleveland--first to public housing near the Airport in the 1970s, and then to West 83rd Street in the 1980s, where she and her children were subjected to episodes of violent racism by neighborhood youths. Finally, she talks about her work as a Block Watch volunteer with the Detroit-Shoreway Association.

Participants: Johnson, Bennie Jean (interviewee) / Souther, Mark (interviewer) / Yanoshik-Wing, Emma (interviewer)
Collection: Detroit Shoreway
Institutional Repository: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Interview Transcript

Mark Souther [00:00:00] Okay. I'll mainly be to hear your voice to make sure that it's.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:00:04] [whispering] Why do you want to hear my voice? [laughs] So I just need to say something? Just like testing, one, two, three.

Mark Souther [00:00:17] That's your normal tone of voice. Okay. Sounded. Okay. Okay, we will go ahead and begin. I'm going to take off my watch so that I can keep track of time so that I don't, you know, keep you here for 2 hours or something or that sort of thing. Okay. My name is Mark Souther and I'm working with the Euclid Corridor Oral History project and the Detroit Shoreway Oral History project at Cleveland State University. Today's date is November 10, 2005. And I'm interviewing Misses BJ Johnson and I wonder if you could tell me your full name, Misses Johnson, for the record.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:00:57] My full name is Benny. B e n n I e. Jean. J e a n. Johnson. J o h n s o n. My maiden name is Moss if you need to know that. Okay.

Mark Souther [00:01:13] Could you tell me where and when you were born?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:01:15] I was born 1949, [redacted], in Cleveland, Ohio, at Mary B. Talbert hospital.

Mark Souther [00:01:27] Could you tell me a little bit about your parents and where they were from and what they did?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:01:31] My mom was from St. Louis. She was a homemaker usually. I had nine sisters and brothers, so she usually was at home every so often. She worked cleaning houses, you know, for Christmas or school. My dad was from Birmingham, Alabama. He was a general laborer, I guess that's what you would call him. He worked for the city in their garbage disposal. And he worked for the state, in the state liquor stores at that time.

Mark Souther [00:02:19] When did they move to Cleveland?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:02:22] My dad came to Cleveland when he was twelve years old. So he was born in 1922, so it had to be in the early thirties. And my mom came when she was 19, so she came. She was born in 22, also 1922, so it had to be in like in the early forties.

Mark Souther [00:02:51] What brought their families to Cleveland? Have they ever talked about that?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:02:57] My dad just, I guess, wanted to get away from the south. He was only twelve. From what I understand. He left on his own. None of his family came with him. But his brothers did. They were here, you know, as long as I can remember, they were here. He had two brothers. My mom's sister, younger sister, moved up here and so she came up, so that's how that happened.

Mark Souther [00:03:34] So he was very young, twelve years old, to go by himself.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:03:37] Right? Right. There was a family Jennings that. Excuse me. I guess, you know, kind of took him in when he got up here and you know, I didn't, unfortunately, my grandmother passed away when my mom was young. My maternal grandmother and my father's mother passed away when I was about seven. So if there were any grandparents that I could have called, it would have been the Jennings called grandparents, because they were. They were here in Cleveland and took care of my dad. You know, those were the people that he looked up to.

Mark Souther [00:04:27] Can you describe the neighborhood where you grew up?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:04:31] I had, in my earliest memories, I remember being around the 55th street area, which, you know, I guess was just a normal community, you know, I remember the stores, the market across the street. But after that. And I remember we lived in an apartment building. I remember that after we moved from over there, we went to, I believe, on Grand Avenue. And Grand was right by the 79th street rapid station. It wasn't too far from there. And that's where I spent maybe two years. But that was. A lot of things happened in those two years that we were there. And we lived in a house and we lived downstairs, and. And, you know, it was just a normal neighborhood. I remember the lady next door had a house, and she was older lady, and very protective. And then we had this guy on the corner that had all the fruit trees that you would ever want, but wouldn't let anybody in the yard. So people would go in and steal his fruit at night. I remember Mister White's corner store. You know, that's where you went to get the candies in the cookies and shoestrings. Don't ask me, you know? So where was that store? It was on 79th and Grand. It was right on the corner of Grand. Grand Avenue. Van Dorn was next door. It was Van Dorn. I don't know what it. I know they made cans, but there was a little short street. And I'm trying to think of what the name of the street might have been, but that came right into Grand Avenue. And it was this big warehouse type place. And they made cans, and they made a lot of noise. You could hear it every morning. You could wake up by it when they started, I guess, cutting cans or whatever the machines. But that factory was right there. But they were right on 79th street.

Mark Souther [00:07:35] Were there any other factories you can remember in that neighborhood where people were?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:07:42] No, no, no. It was pretty, you know, it had a lot of houses. There was a big junior high school, Rawlings junior High. Wasn't that far. I'm trying to remember at that time. I did relay classes at Rawlings. We went a half a day in the basement. The little kids went in the basement, because, you know, they didn't have enough schools. You know, I'm part of the end of the baby boomers. So I went to. I went to school there. So I remember my younger sisters went to Kinsman elementary, which was way, you know, it was quite a ways to us then. Quite a ways from where we lived at.

Mark Souther [00:08:44] I remember one story you told me on the phone that I'd like to ask you again about, and that was Leo's Casino.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:08:50] Oh, yeah.

Mark Souther [00:08:51] You could tell me a little bit about Leo's Casino and your recollection of it.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:08:56] Okay. After I. We lived there for a couple of years, I had my brother, the oldest brother, who passed away, and that's basically what happened there. We moved to 79th and Chester. And after, let's see, I was about twelve, I think we moved on 75th between Chester and Hough. And in the top of this house, Leo's Casino was on 75th and Euclid. So, you know, we could almost see it from where we lived at. That was, you know, that was the place that all the stars or anybody that was anybody came to when I lived there, sometimes we would just go up there and watch and see who got out of the cars and things like that. I went to Addison Junior High. I was a teenager by then, and some of the foot browns football players were trying to. To keep the neighborhood going, and especially after the Hough riots, so they were trying to keep the neighborhood going, keep the young black men and women focused on, you know, getting an education. So we may see football players up there. All of the groups, you know, the Supremes, the Four Tops, the Temptations, every Motown group that you could think of came through Leo's Casino. That was the place that they came to. I'm trying to think if there were any other groups that I could think of, but most of them were Motown groups.

Mark Souther [00:11:13] You saw the Four Tops?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:11:15] Yes, I saw the Four Tops. For my graduation from elementary, my mom let me go up for one of the matinees. Okay. And it was the best of the best. Unfortunately, I don't have my autograph book, because Obie did sign my autograph book for me, you know, of the Four Tops. So, yeah, I did get a chance to see them. I tried to see the Temptations a couple of times, but it was always just way too many people. You know, the matinee, I got through that because it was a matinee, I'm sure. But by the time I really realized what Leo's Casino had to offer, you know, I was an older teenager and I wanted to go in the evening, and it just never happened.

Mark Souther [00:12:13] Who did you go with?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:12:14] I went by myself. You know, my mom checked it out, made sure, because I was, you know, I always loved the Four Tops, but I went by myself, you know, it was a walk. It was a little walk, you know, for a twelve year old, you know.

Mark Souther [00:12:33] So one other thing that you mentioned on the phone was that you remember the Hough Riots. And I'm wondering, before I get to that, actually, I wanted to ask you about your first memory of the civil rights movement. If you can recall how you first became aware that there was something called the civil Rights movement.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:12:51] I remember about Rosa Parks, you know, not remember remember, because I was a little kid still, but I remember that they were having a lot of trouble down south. And my mom and my dad, they were both teachers, pretty much. I mean, they just. There were some things that they just. I'm trying to think of a. They were teachers. Mom and dad both had the belief that no one was greater than yourself and you were greater than no one. So they made things even though they knew the playing field was not even. You have to have the attitude that it is. So they really pushed for that with raising us. Okay. So anything that came up, if we asked them about it, you know, they talked to us about it. I remember, you know, we were one of the only people on the street that had tv. You know, dad worked for Alcoa, and before he got his fingers cut off, that's where he worked. So he made good money, and so we had a tv. I remember having a washer, the automatic washer, not the ringer, you know? You know, I remember that. But they taught us that if there was anything that we wanted to know or anything we wanted to know about anything that we wanted to do, it was available for you to do it. You just had to work on doing it. So when the bus issue came up and I asked about it, they were more than willing to tell me about it. They even so far as. One of the reasons that, you know, we can't even take you down south is because someone would kill you down there. Okay? So they let us know that. So we knew about the civil rights movement when we were pretty young. When Martin Luther King came here, I was a teenager, but I was still in school, so I couldn't. There wasn't a whole lot of things that I could do about that. But there were several things that I knew about before the riots started. Okay.

Mark Souther [00:15:57] When the riot occurred, what was your first? When did you first understand that there were riots going on in your neighborhood?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:16:09] It wasn't until after we knew it was something going on that was not usual. We didn't know it was, quote unquote, a riot. One of the kids or young people ran into the hallway where we lived, but we were pretty far away from 79th. God, it's a line on 79th. We were pretty far away from that bar on 75th. I mean, you know, not extremely far away, but far enough. And someone ran into our hallway. My dad, you know, told him then, you know, get away from the house. Once we started hearing the shooting, shooting was not a normal occurrence then. So when we started hearing the shooting, that's when we knew it was something different. And so, you know, my dad made sure that we were, like, on the floor and, you know, turned off the lights and, you know, just tried to quell our. Any fears that we had.

Mark Souther [00:17:28] Do you remember how other adults in. You were 16 years old, right?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:17:30] Yeah.

Mark Souther [00:17:34] Do you remember hearing other adults talking about what was going on in the neighborhood?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:17:40] The only thing they were saying is, you know, what happened, that the four people that were killed, you know, one lady was just out calling her kids in, and she was shot. The guy who owned the meat market just came down there to protect his property and was killed. They didn't know who killed who. Was the police killing? Did the police kill these people? Was it random? And I think that's what fueled, you know, more burnings and things. They didn't. They figured the police had killed these people by accident or whatever, but. And for what? So that's basically what went on in the neighborhood for a while.

Mark Souther [00:18:38] You mentioned also that the National Guard was present. Of course. Can you recall the attitude of the National Guardsman that you may have encountered or did you not really encounter?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:18:50] I had to encounter them every day because I had got a “snike” job. I worked at the Board of Education that summer, and I didn't know what to do because the riots happened right as school ended, and I was supposed to start the summer job. So for a week or two, the Board of Education, I forgot how they got in touch with us or if I. No, I wasn't in school. I don't remember exactly what day the riots started, but I was not in school, but I had not started this job yet, and I must have called down. And the only reason I'm confused about the calling is because we didn't have a phone. I got a phone put in that year also, you know, with the money that I made from snike.

Mark Souther [00:19:57] What was the name of the money you made from? What?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:20:00] Snike. That was the program. That was the acronym for. It was SYNC. I think it was SYNC, and it was for low income. It's still in existence. I do know that because somebody was saying something to me about the snike jobs. [ed: possibly Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) or “sipe.”] They didn't have them this summer for Cleveland public schools. And I'm like, they still have that? That's, what, 40 years ago? And that's about when I. When it. When it started. Anyway. What? Repeat the question. I'm sorry?

Mark Souther [00:20:54] Well, I was asking about your encounters with the National Guard.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:20:57] Oh.

Mark Souther [00:20:57] One thing I could add to that is that you mentioned having to get to the bus on Hough avenue to go downtown.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:21:04] Maybe you could talk a little bit.

Mark Souther [00:21:05] About that as well.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:21:06] Okay. The bus. I was between Chester and Hough. So there was a Hough bus, but no buses, no traffic could come through the area from. I think they cut off from 55th and Chester to 55th. And I don't know how far over they went, but I bet you it was at least until Superior to. How far up did they go? And because I was a kid, I know about my area. They had to go past 79th street. Cause one lady that was killed, she lived on 82nd or 81st, but no traffic came through. No cars. I know. At least from 55th to 79th, from Chester, because Euclid was open, but Chester. And it's gotta be. I'm sorry. I don't know how far over.

Mark Souther [00:22:31] Maybe you could remember, though, recall for us the path you took to get downtown.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:22:40] The only thing that I did, I lived on 75th. So Leo's Casino was right on 75th in Euclid. So I would have to pass at least one National Guard every day. And that was going across 75th and Chester. So he. You know, he stood his post. And they. They didn't. You know. Cause it was usually they were two. It was one on one side of the street and one on the other side of the street, so. And they were. And they were on the. You know, on the corners. I mean. Well, on the streets, they weren't, like, in the middle of the. The middle of a street. They were on corners of streets. The National Guard, I never said anything to him because, you know, this guy is standing there. He's white, and he's got a gun and a big gun. So I never. I never. You know. But after. After a couple of weeks, this went on for about six weeks after a couple of weeks of this guy being here. And I can't tell you if there was. If it was the same guy or not, because. I don't know. But after a couple of weeks from being here, I have a brother that's. The baby brother was deaf, and he was just a card. He just, you know, he was just one of those kids, you know, he was an imp, and he would mess with him. He would, you know, play with him. So I guess they got to know him pretty good. And he. He, you know, they even took pictures with him, with them kneeling down and, you know, standing, you know, standing next to. And him standing next to him. Cause he had to be about. If I was 16, he had to be about five, six. So once that ice was broken, then when I went by in the morning, I could say good morning and expect a good morning back, instead of, like, don't move, you know, don't make any gestures. But before then, you know, I was petrified trying to. Just try to go to work, you know.

Mark Souther [00:25:18] So where did you work at that?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:25:20] I worked for the Board of Education. Where's that located? It's on 6th and, uh, Superior. Yeah, 6th and Superior. Or St. Clair was it. No, it's St. Clair. 6th and St. Clair, the old Board of Education building. Well, you wouldn't know because you don't live. Yeah.

Mark Souther [00:25:45] Could you recall a little bit about what Euclid Avenue was like at that time?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:25:49] Um, Euclid Avenue had several old houses on it still. I remember when the mammoth. I think it was mammoth building, which is right between 75th and 79th at Euclid, was put up, they had to tear down a big. One of those big old homes, tear it down. And there was a lot of big older homes, you know, I guess, you know, in its day, it was, you know, grand mansions. Leo's Casino was housed in an apartment building that was for the elite, you know, it was very, from what I understand, very nice, very well maintained apartments there. During that time, the apartment building, it wasn't that many apartment buildings. There were more houses than apartment buildings on Euclid. A couple of, I guess, not warehouse buildings, but business buildings, you know, with. Not storefronts, but, you know, just open glass areas. But that's what they were, storefronts.

Mark Souther [00:27:21] What about the east 55th and Euclid area? What was that like in the 1960s?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:27:29] I believe the train station may have been closed already down there, but it was closing. But there was a train station down there, real busy with, you know, it's amazing. 55th, 105th were, like, downtown areas. 55th around Euclid with the. With the trains, the overpass. Was a bustling little area. There were warehouse type buildings from 55th, let's see, maybe down to 66th, you know, like factory types, but I don't know what they were. And. But there wasn't a lot of big housing down towards 55th to maybe 60th, you know, that was maybe what you would call there the business district. The train station. I remember the train station. But from 55th down to maybe Cedar, all of that was big warehouses with, like, Warner & Swasey. Pioneer was on the other side. There were a lot of factories, you know, right in that area.

Mark Souther [00:29:16] What about the east 105th area? Do you remember any of the businesses along Euclid at that point?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:29:25] They had a lot of. It was like our downtown was, except, you know, they didn't have the big stores. They may have, like, Bobby Brooks, Lens was a popular spot. They didn't have Leo's Casino, but they had, what's it called? A Red Carpet. I'm trying to think, you know. Cause that was right during my younger years when that start, my younger adult years, when it started changing. The Red Carpet was a bar up there that they used to have movie houses. It was a movie house, and at night it was a bar and party place. I'm trying to think what other store stores. But they had all the little stores that you. If you want to get clothes, hats, anything on 105th. During that time, there were a bunch of little businesses between Cedar and Chester, so.

Mark Souther [00:30:43] Now that’s all Cleveland Clinic.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:30:44] I know. I didn't think the Cleveland Clinic would ever get over past Cedar. And, you know, I know that they've breached that, you know, because there were. But I didn't think about the people that owned houses and stuff over there probably are now gone. They probably passed away. So, yeah, I didn't think that they would get passed there. Yes, they took over. Let's see, they're all the way down to 89th, and the only thing they haven't touched are those two churches.

Mark Souther [00:31:25] Can you recount the time between 1966 and when you moved to Detroit Shoreway in 1981, just briefly, where you lived and what you did in those years?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:31:38] I moved out after the riots. You know, we stayed in the neighborhood. Of course, they started a big rebuilding after the 68 riots. My aunt had just moved over on Arbondale when they had the Glenville riots. You know, we still lived in the neighborhood. I moved in East Cleveland after I had, you know, I stayed in the Cleveland area, but things started changing. I stayed in after the riots. I stayed in the area, but what started to happen was the urban decline. You know, Fishers Foods, A & P Fishers foods were right there on the. Between 75th and 78th, I think both those stores. Well, Fisher Foods, no a and p closed first. Then Fisher Foods, they got up and got out of the neighborhood on the meat store. The guy who was killed, his store closed, of course. Then we had on 79th, across from the bar where the riot started, there was a drugstore with the soda fountain, you know, the whole nine yards that started going downhill. So all the businesses started moving out of the neighborhood. You know, any reputable business started to move out the neighborhood. I left. I got married. I left, and I went to East Cleveland, and I lived in East Cleveland. Oh, maybe for, I want to say, three or four years, and then moved in a couple of places in Cleveland. I went to in 76. I moved over on the west side by the airport and moved in the projects out there. And I was out there until I finished school. And I left and moved down on west 83rd in 1981.

Mark Souther [00:34:23] That brings me to my questions about that neighborhood. I remember. Pardon me. I remember you said that you felt uneasy about the race relations in parts of the west side when you were living over near the airport. Can you recount that for us?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:34:45] Moving out to the airport was. It was pretty nice. It was. For. If you had known or seen any projects, it's someplace you didn't want to live. So I had four kids, and when I applied for the housing, you know, they gave me a couple of choices, and I told them where I didn't want to live, and that was most of the projects that I knew about. So when I went out to the airport, it was total. It was a whole another story. You know, you had a front yard, you had a backyard. You had, you know, someplace that you had to take care of. So I moved out there, and there were a mixture of people, but it wasn't that bad. We didn't have a lot of racial problems out there, you know, in that area. Not until, like, right before I moved in. Like I told you on the phone, I was waiting for a bus, and, you know, one of the kids on the baseball team, you know, hollered out, nigger. To me, nigga, what you doing? Or something like that. And I was like, you know, in shock because I had been out there for four years, and I don't think I've had ever heard the word before that time.

Mark Souther [00:36:22] How did things go downhill when you moved to east. I mean, West 83rd?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:36:28] Yes. After. After I finished school and got a job, you know. You know, I looked for. Started looking for a house for me and the four kids. And I wanted to stay above West Boulevard because at least I had dealt with people who lived on the far west side and had not had a lot of problem. But I didn't know what was below West Boulevard. So I tried to look for a house, but I could only afford a house that was below West Boulevard. So I walked into this one house, and it was the house. Looked like a really nice street, a pretty decent neighborhood, you know, I may have to deal with some other things, but this looked like the house for me. When we moved in, “nigger” was scratched into the pillars of the house, and it went all downhill from there.

Mark Souther [00:37:36] Can you tell us a little bit about what happened in the, say, the first week that you lived there or maybe the first month?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:37:44] The. It was. We moved in in April, so we just mostly got the chance. We got vegetables thrown at our windows. Thank God for the screens, you know, basically, that was it. Once it got warm and the summer came, it got vicious. They started with throwing firecrackers up on our porches. On the porch. And then we got more tomatoes. And at first, I ignored it. You know, I told the kids to ignore it. Then they started throwing the bigger firecrackers, you know, the M80s or H100s on the porch, you know, where it would shake the windows, shake the house. So a couple of times, I, you know, I ran out trying to find them, you know, call the police. The police were no help. One time I got these two lady cops, and they said, well, ma'am, you know, we can't do anything unless you know that the kids names or people's names who are throwing them the stuff up on your porch. And I said, how can I find out their names? They're throwing this stuff up to scare me. Well, if you don't calm down, I'm like, just. Just leave. Just go. So it just got. It went from bad to worse. And, you know, they started threatening the kids on the street about, oh, what I did, miss, was, no, it was warm when this happened. I take that back. One kid threw a firebomb against the side of the house, and the neighbors did put that fire out. But the police, when the police came, they. I guess they told the FBI. The FBI was there. They knew who did this in two days, you know, and the FBI did keep in touch with me. They knew. But the kid who did it was 14. And at that time, in 81, they didn't prosecute children for hate crimes or what they call hate crimes now. They didn't prosecute them. I don't know. I don't know when hate crimes came into effect or racial motivated crimes, but they didn't do anything like that. But they did investigate it. So in two days, they knew. I had called NAACP, City Council, I called my council person. Nobody. Nobody helped. There was one youth group that I did talk to. I take that back. And they were. And they were from the City of Cleveland. It was one youth group that I talked to. And basically it was the same thing if you can't, if you didn't know. But at least they tried to talk to me and try to tell me what I could do. If you didn't know the people's name, then it wasn't too much they could do about it. So this went on for the summer, and the next year, you know, we were a little. We were a little more prepared the next year, and they just. They were just vicious about it.

Mark Souther [00:41:54] Was it all juveniles, or did you ever see any adults?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:41:57] It was all. It was all juveniles. The parents may not have the parent that of the kid that threw the firebomb. What eventually happened is one of the kids got drunk, threw a beer bottle through my window, and I saw him, and so I went down to get him. He started to fight with me, and I called. I told the kids to call the police. So by the time the police got there, they took him to jail. The kids on the street broke out every window in the bottom of my house. They terrorized us that night, you know, because this kid that went to jail and then they threw beer bottles on my lawn. I never saw them because my neighbors came and got them off the lawn. You know, I just removed all the kids and we went upstairs after. Then they started a block club. So, because these kids, I guess, had breaking into people's cars and houses and, you know, they were just rowdy kids, and all the neighbors knew who they were, but nobody was doing anything about them. The kid who threw the firebomb, the parents apologized for that, and soon after that, moved out of the neighborhood, so. But it was a while.

Mark Souther [00:43:46] You mentioned an article in the newspaper about you, and I wonder if you could tell us just a little bit about that.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:43:55] Why would you want to know that? After the window breaking incident, the next day, I did go out and buy a gun. I have four kids to protect. Their dad was a drunk, and, I mean, you know, I just. I didn't know what else I could do. And so I went and got a gun, and one of the and the next night, they were back again. And I did call the police. The police came out. They almost got shot because I told them, I said, these kids were around the house. Well, it was the same cops that took. Had taken Ronnie to jail. So they said, ma'am, you know, that's a nice gun. She said, but if you shoot one of these kids, they're going to be the best kids that you ever. That ever walked this earth. And he said, just make sure. He said, the next time somebody brings something up, don't. Don't shoot any of these kids. He said, shoot over their heads, shoot in the air, shoot in the ground, scare the hell out of them, but don't shoot nobody. So I did. I came out screaming and carrying on. And thank God the gun did misfire, because I would have shot this one kid. But anyway, I shot over his head, and he took off running. And after that, I really didn't have a whole lot of trouble. I mean, I still had a couple of things happen that were kind of bad over the years, over the next couple of years, but they pretty much stopped bothering me. Well, the Call and Post got wind of this story, and I think it was from the community resource. I can't remember the exact name of the youth group, but it was a youth oriented community service out of City Hall. And the call post got wind of the problems I was having over there and dubbed the order the article “the pistol packing mama,” took a picture of me with my gun. And, I mean, you know, I was showing him the gun. He said, can I take a picture? And I'm not. I'm not thinking he's gonna take a picture of it and then put it in the paper. But it was. And they, you know, they did write about the troubles that I had. Well, then the FBI got real interested again because they had misprinted. Instead of block club, they put black club. And this was in the eighties, so I'm like. And the FBI. But they came. They wanted to talk to me and talk to me about what was going on. So I'm sure I'm on some list in the FBI as a black club versus a block club. The only other thing the FBI did tell me I had a dog that came up missing and my cat, ET. And ET was, you know, one of those little fuzzballs when we first. That's why we named her ET. And she. She, you know, was a grown cat. And they told me if the cat or the dog showed back up at the house and was dead, to not touch it and to call them immediately. So that was. That was. And that was basically the last time I talked to them.

Mark Souther [00:47:51] Did the cat show up?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:47:53] No, she didn't. I don't. You know, we always wondered what happened to ET. The dog was my brother's and he, my brother that couldn't hear brought it. Brought it over to the house, and so he was only there for maybe a week and he just left. And I'm. And we never knew what happened with him. But, no, ET never showed back up.

Mark Souther [00:48:22] When all this was going on. Were you? I guess you were probably pretty surprised that something like this could be happening in 1981.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:48:32] Of course I was. But, no, I wasn't. I wasn't totally surprised. You know, racism is still alive today, you know, and it's 2005, so. And that's why I didn't want to go below West Boulevard, you know? Cause I didn't know what I would encounter. And I had all these kids. So.

Mark Souther [00:49:02] Did you ever get involved with the Detroit Shoreway CDA once it formed?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:49:07] No, I didn't. I didn't. You know, I was too busy with other things. And then I had the twins, and so I had the twins in 84, so, like, two or three years after I moved there, once we got past the worst of the racism there, you know, and people got used to us being in the neighborhood. I think what happened was if I had been renting there, it might have been a little bit different, but because I bought the house there and the people that I bought the house from, nobody could have known that we were, Black people were going to move in there except them. So they, you know, it's sad to say, but, you know, they probably perpetuated whatever started there because they didn't want to leave their house. And I understand because I was there forever.

Mark Souther [00:50:11] So was there any wave of people selling houses? I've read about that sort of thing happening elsewhere in earlier years.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:50:16] No.

Mark Souther [00:50:19] So there was none of that?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:50:20] No, no. Most of our neighbors, like the people that live next to us, next door to us on either side, are still our neighbors. The one. Were still our neighbors. The one. The one on the left side of us, they had, you know, a duplex, so they had. We had different neighbors from there, but the owners were the same. The people. The one house that was directly in front of us, that lady passed away. But the people that are there now are people that have been there for years. The. The one to the right of them had been there for years. Now, the house to the left, those two houses, is two houses over, the people that were there lost their houses and moved out in the neighborhood. But, like, the third house down from there, she moved out years after I. As a matter of fact, one of her kids called one of my kids a nigger, and she washed his mouth out with soap. Chris. And had my daughter to babysit her kids, you know. So there were some changes that went on in the neighborhood because we were there, and most of the people that were immediately around me, you know, are still there. Now, maybe about ten years later, you start seeing people moving out, but then you start seeing other people moving in. So.

Mark Souther [00:52:31] What is the neighborhood like today?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:52:34] It's still pretty racially mixed. It's pretty racially mixed. For a long, until maybe five years ago, I still was the only black person on the street. Then we got one or two other black families on the street. Well, one wasn't a family. It was just, I guess, a husband and wife. And then in the last maybe five years, it's been pretty, pretty well mixed, so. And most of those people are renters. They're not buying houses, so. But there's a lot of houses for sale.

Mark Souther [00:53:17] What do you like best about living in Detroit Shoreway?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:53:21] You know, our councilman is a really good guy, and he's really trying to help. I like being, you know, unfortunately, you know, he's one of the instruments that started getting me involved with Detroit Shoreway and what was going on in the neighborhood. It's a community, it's a collaboration of communities. And, you know, we even go. We even crisscross, you know, your little niche of the community in Detroit Shoreway. So, like, I know three or four other block clubs, and if they need to have somebody, you know, come and stand with them or whatever, yeah, I'll go. I don't, you know, I don't mind. And they would do the same for me. Detroit Shoreway brings a lot of those things together. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't know a lot about Detroit Shoreway because of a lot of things they do.

Mark Souther [00:54:39] Excuse me, I wanted to go back just briefly and ask a few final questions about the east side again that I left out. Earlier on the phone, you told me about a couple of places, one of which is the Wonder Bread bakery.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:55:02] Yeah, the Wonder Bread bakery was on maybe 50th in Chester, and they had an outlet store. And, I mean, that was a weekly trip for us. You know, we had our little bags that we had folded up that we would walk down, me or my sisters, because, you know, usually two of us would go at least two of us would go because from 75th to 50th was a good little walk. But, you know, we'd get our bags of bread and come down and if we. If mom or dad had enough money, you know, we could get some of the, you know, like the little donuts or some of the sweet stuff. So. But that was a weekly thing for us to go down and get the bread. That factory was there forever, and I was kind of shocked when they. When, you know, when they closed it up. But that was one of our. That was one of our routine walks.

Mark Souther [00:56:10] Is that located where the railroad track crosses?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:56:14] It's right, past it. It's right past it.

Mark Souther [00:56:16] Is it where that construction is going on?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:56:19] That's correct. Yeah, I guess the factory, that bakery stayed just closed up and the homeless moved in there and things like that. And nobody would touch it because of the asbestos, you know. But it's been closed for years. I mean, you know, when I was a kid going there, you're talking about, you know, in the sixties, in the early sixties that I was going there, you know, to go get the bread. And it has to been closed. It's probably one of. No, it didn't close right after the riots. I'm trying to think, because so many things close, close down right after the riots. So I'd say in the mid seventies, maybe. Maybe mid to late seventies, it closed.

Mark Souther [00:57:20] You also mentioned the Sahara Motel.

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:57:24] Yeah, the. You know, because there were really no hotels except for the Sheriton downtown that I know about. You know, there were really no hotels around. So the Sahara, I'm trying to think exactly like when it was built, that was a big thing because nobody had built anything big. The Arena was still in Cleveland, you know, on 36. And so they were building this hotel in conjunction, I think, with The Arena. Then, let's see, The Arena was on 36 and the Masonic Temple was at the end. Okay. I'm just trying to get it straight because the arena was a place, you know, that was the other place, you know, I saw Peter Pan down there, you know, all kind of stuff. And when my kids, you know, were little, we. I took them for a couple of things, you know. Cause that's where they would have a circus or whatever. But the Sahara, it was a big thing because it was this hotel that was going to go up, that was going to house anybody that was not all the way downtown, but right where things were happening. There was a movie house on 50th where Agora is. That was, you know, a movie building. I keep saying movie houses, but theater. There was a movie. Movie house there. So the Sahara. Anything that went on that was, you know, knocked downtown, the Sahara would house it. Unfortunately, it didn't last that long.

Mark Souther [00:59:38] What did the Sahara look like?

Bennie Jean Johnson [00:59:40] Oh, it looked like an Egyptian type, or not the pyramids, but, like, an Egyptian type. Even the coloring was basic browns and oranges and Egyptian type look. And, of course, it was all modern then. I'm trying to think if I went into the Sahara when it was a hotel versus the Y, and I can't remember. I can't remember. But it was beautiful from the outside. I remember that it was, you know, a nice thing to look at. Like that thing that they built down there where it was. It's like. It's weird because, you know, it's a sphere. The technology building or whatever it is.

Mark Souther [01:00:39] The Applied [Industrail] Technologies, I think.

Bennie Jean Johnson [01:00:42] I think so, yeah.

Mark Souther [01:00:43] The blue and white building.

Bennie Jean Johnson [01:00:45] I don't know what color it is, you know, because I just. I remember I was. I was. I was asking. I was asking a realtor about the Sahara, the old Y, and he said, I don't know anything. I don't know if anything is down there. And I went down to look, and that's when I found out they had torn it down. And then it was a few months later that I know that they had built a technology or something building, but I don't remember what color it is.

Mark Souther [01:01:23] Was it. You said it was a. Became a YMCA for a time after it was a motel?

Bennie Jean Johnson [01:01:29] Yeah. Yeah. It didn't. The most. The Sahara didn't last that long. The Sahara. And what is it called now, the other hotel down there, the three hotels, the dorm. Cleveland State's dorm was a hotel. The Hunnan or whatever it is on. And I can't remember. I think the. I'm sorry. I think the Cleveland State one was Holiday Inn, the Hunnan or Hannon or whatever, which I think is an. I don't know if it's another dorm or not. Up on 30, is it? No, it's not 30. 28. Yeah, it is. It's. I'm sorry. I I just. I can't. I'm trying to put it in perspective of where it is, but it's below 36, but not all the way down to 32nd. That was a hotel, too. They built these hotels to encase whatever was going on at the Arena area and what was going on on 55th. And probably just. They built those three hotels, basically, to house what was going on in this area, but it just didn't turn out. The Cleveland State. Why do I want to call it Case Western? The Cleveland State one closed almost immediately. And finally, Cleveland State took it over, and the one on 32nd stayed open for a while doing different things, and then I guess they started doing maybe low income housing or something like that. But the Sahara was around for a little while longer, and it's. And after it. And then it changed hands, and it was the Y so. And it was YWCA, not YM. I'm sorry. Cause it was for women, and it stayed open. It did a lot of things for a long time. Is the Y, YWCA.

Mark Souther [01:04:35] So the final thing I want to ask you came up in asking about the Sahara, and that's The Arena. You mentioned going to The Arena. Describe The Arena and what was in it.

Bennie Jean Johnson [01:04:48] I remember it looked like. Like the old ball stadium, you know, it looks like. It looked like a stadium with dividers in it. It was pretty steep. I remember that. And, of course, small in comparison to. Because you could pretty much see what was going on. You know, you didn't need the big. What do they call those big tvs. Yeah, something-trons, jumbotrons. You didn't have to have those in order to see things. You could see them, you know, I remember Peter Pan flying all over. You know, you could almost touch her. Touch. Who was it, then? It wasn't Mary Martin. It was one of the Olympic stars. The last Peter Pan I saw, she played Tinkerbell. Yeah, no, she played Peter Pan. Peter Pan is always played by a girl. Don't ask me why, but she was one of the Olympic stars, the last one I saw, so, you know, it's been a while. I want to say Kathy Rigby, but I think she's after. After that time. But in the wrestling, you know, any event they had down there, you know, you could pretty much see it. You could see it from. Even if you were high up, you could see what was going on. Now, I remember The Arena as being a round, you know, like an arena, so. But you know why I can't tell you, you know, exactly what it looks like? Cause I had little kids. Sorry. I was busy doing that. You know, I remember. I remember leaving my baby because I had to take the other kids to the bathroom with some strange person, you know, which you wouldn't even think of doing now. So she said, oh, I'll watch. I'll watch. Maybe while you go. Go take care of the other ones, you know? So. I'm sorry I can't tell you a whole lot, and it was red because of the Barons, I think because of what the Barons was our hockey team at that time. So The Arena was red, I remember. That's about it.

Mark Souther [01:07:47] Okay, well, those are all the questions I have. I wonder if Emma may have any questions she'd like to ask before we conclude.

Emma Yahoshik-Wing [01:08:00] I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the story and the shops that were in the Detroit neighborhood when you moved there.

Bennie Jean Johnson [01:08:07] When I moved there, in the neighborhood, they were little stores, a few little shops. Now, in the area where I was, it was mostly residential. We only had, let's see, Lawson's was on 89th. We had a big Revco, which is what it was called then on 91st. And the Pick and Pay, or what it was called Pick and Pay then. The Pick and Pay was on 98th, you know, which is a little out of the Detroit Shoreway. On. Around Detroit there, you know, were little, you know, little mom and pop stores, basically. Not. Little restaurants. A couple of little restaurants, but. And there, as a matter of fact, on 85th, there was an Italian restaurant that, you know, all the time I lived there, I never went to it. You could smell the food and everything, but, you know, I just didn't have the money to go to, you know, a restaurant, so I didn't, you know, I never. I just thought about it. That restaurant was there the whole time, and I never did that. But we did have a lot of little mom and pop stores. The one Arab store that I had in my neighborhood, he has since taken it and built him a nice store there, you know, a little market there. And, you know, he really caters to, you know, the neighborhood. You know, no matter how it changes, that's how he's catered to it. The big store, even. Well, I don't know if Sears, you know. Cause when I first moved there, Sears was still on 110th. So, I mean, so you had basically in our area, you know, maybe, you know, because Detroit Shoreway. That's right. Stops what, at 98th? I think somewhere in there. Yeah, because Cudell picks up then I heard more about Cudell than I did Detroit Shoreway. You know, it was a more community or close knit community fabric when I first, especially when I first moved there. So the stores. So you just, you know, it just depended if you wanted to go in and, you know, try to get to know those people or not.

Mark Souther [01:11:27] Are there any. Emma, do you have any other questions? Are there any other people that you think we should talk to about the Detroit Sherway neighborhood.

Bennie Jean Johnson [01:11:39] Probably, you know, Betty is over there, and Betty is one of the neighbors on 83rd who's been there for at least 35 years. Betty, you know, might be. I don't know if she'd be willing to do it, but she might even know a little more about the neighborhood. Now, the direct Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. Have you tried, like, Matt Zone or his family? Yeah, yeah. His family would probably know the most about it.

Mark Souther [01:12:19] Okay.

Bennie Jean Johnson [01:12:20] You know. Do you know your councilman is. Yeah, Matt. His sister Beth is a little older, so. But she probably really would know. Cause, you know, they had the travel agency right there on 65th. And, you know, Gordon Square and all of that. You know, I didn't have to come over there for a whole lot of stuff, so I didn't, you know, I knew where McDonald's was. You know what I'm saying? You know, in that particular area, I wouldn't know a whole lot about it. But Beth Zone or Matt. As a matter of fact, Beth still lives. She lives down the street from where I am now, so.

Mark Souther [01:13:06] Okay, well, thank you very much. It's been a pleasure interviewing you. Again, this is an interview with. This is BJ Johnson. And my name is Mark Souther. Emma Yanoshik-Wing facilitated. And. Thank you very much.

Bennie Jean Johnson [01:13:20] You're quite welcome.

Mark Souther [01:13:22] And we also. [audio ends]

Detroit Shoreway

Interviews in this series were conducted by students and researchers in the History Department at Cleveland State University in partnership with Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization (DSCDO). Interviews took place at Gordon Square Arcade and in other venues in the neighborhood. Select oral histories were accessible for several years in listening stations in the Gypsy Beans coffee house at Detroit Avenue and West 65th Street.