Interview with Grace Sweeney: Her Life and of Her Late Husband Council Member Pete MurdockAmber Fellows
What’s Left contributors Amber Fellows and Aaron Apsey met with Grace Sweeney, 40+ year resident of Ypsilanti and recent widow to Pete Murdock—a longtime representative of Ward 3 on Ypsi’s City Council and original ‘Mayor Pete’, who passed away from cancer-related illness this May—to interview her about her life, activism, and experience as a resident of Ypsilanti. In the interview, Grace spoke about what it was like growing up in the economic prosperity of the Flint manufacturing boom, her experiences organizing with Students for a Democratic Society, when drag racing on Miles St was not out of the ordinary, and her stint writing for a local leftist paper about Sesame Street being a ‘mindfuck’.
During this interview What’s Left contributors learned that almost all copies of the local leftist paper that Grace and Pete produced called ‘The Second Coming’ were lost in a house fire at Grace and Pete’s home in 1974. It is our intention to attempt to locate existing copies and reprint an article from The Second Coming in a future issue of What’s Left.
What’s Left: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and where you grew up?
Grace Sweeney: I grew up in Flint. It was a fairly prosperous town back then, cause I’m 77, so you’re talking about 50 years ago. Everybody was working and everyone worked in the factory, or was related to someone who worked in the factory, and money was—they had lots of taxes and lots of money. It was a good steady job [in manufacturing]. It was actually a fairly decent place to grow up in, not now, but then it was. 30 years ago is when they started losing all the manufacturing jobs and then they never came back.
WL: Did your family have any ties to manufacturing in Flint?
GS: Everyone did, but my dad was Fire Chief of Flint, and my mom was a mom at home. All my uncles worked at the factories—one worked at AC sparkplug, one worked at Buick, the rest worked at Chevrolet.
WL: Did you have a job while you lived in Flint?
GS: I went to Flint Junior College and then I started off at Flint UofM but then I transferred down here to the [EMU] education school, they had a good one. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but no one did at the time—those were very odd times to have grown up because of the Vietnam war and the draft. Everybody was worried about the draft. [The country] half made up their mind about the war, but they definitely made up their mind about the draft—they didn’t want it. The anti-war movement started, the Black Panthers started…there was a lot of unease in the country about the war then.
Photo by Aaron Apsey
WL: Can you talk about your involvement with the Black Panthers?
GS: I knew of them; I went to a couple meetings where they were at. I wasn’t involved—they didn’t have white people be involved with them for one thing. When I moved up here, the Panthers were in some of the schools, and they produced breakfast programs before the government did. So I got to know them a little bit more in depth then because the kids in the room I was in charge of had breakfast with [the Black Panthers]. Pete and I went to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) meetings and the Black Panthers would be there.
WL: What brought you to Ypsi?
GS: School. I went to Eastern. The story about Pete is true—he and his cousin were in a car and going to Mexico I believe, and the car broke down, and they knew someone who lived in Ann Arbor so they hitchhiked to Ann Arbor, along with two Siamese cats, and stayed there. The cousin moved back to Boston and took the two cats, and Pete stuck here and then started going to school at Eastern. [Pete] worked at the factory [at Willow Run].
WL: What made Pete stay in Ypsi?
GS: There wasn’t any employment in New England. He found a job and a place to live [in Ypsi] so he stayed.
WL: What did you study?
GS: General education; I ended up teaching but it took me awhile. I ended up with 5 majors before I finished. I met Pete at a party at my house actually. SDS formed on campus and so we went there—and there was big talkathons that they had a UofM—and I just came to listen to big debates about the war. It was quite an education for someone coming out of a catholic school in Flint.
Pete would want people to be treated more equally.
WL: Were you activated by the war?
GS: Sure. That and the civil rights movement.
WL: Was that most of your social group too?
GS: It was all of my social group. It was all consuming.
WL: Did your interest in the war start before coming to Ypsilanti?
GS: I had signed petitions for peace [in Flint], and I went to meetings at churches.
WL: Can you tell us about Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)?
GS: To us it was just a group of people who formed together so that we could stop the war. We did demonstrations in Washington D.C.—we would have our annual march on Washington: like people had their vacation, but we would go to Washington each year. Sometimes we went in a van, or four people in a car; We got there anywhere we could. UofM people chartered lots of buses, I know we used to make fun of them and say, “[UofM student organizers] talked things out so much.” We used to say, “UofM was still discussing the color of the bus while Ypsilanti had two buses going to Washington.” They were always ‘UofM’—they were snobs. It was the same feeling [as UofM today, but] they were just against the war [then]. The draft was a leveling thing because everyone got hit.
WL: What was it like being in an effort with the people around you for a singular goal?
GS: Well we had small goals like to get people to Washington to complain, or to get The Second Coming [Ypsi leftist newspaper] going and pass it out on the corners. We had a movie series on campus, which we brought to student council and got the OK to do it.
WL: Was The Second Coming a community paper?
GS: We were just a bunch of ragtag students and activists that put it out whenever we could. We were young, we were in our twenties, we really thought we could make a change. We were really idealistic.
WL: Looking back, do you think you were able to make that kind of change?
GS: We made changes for women, for Black people, and for alternative living people. We were not able to make a difference in class, we couldn’t get people to understand that it was the top 1% of this country that was controlling everybody and all the money. It was hard for students to understand that massive amount of money, and it was hard for adults who had a little bit [of money] to be angry about the class division in this country. What is showing up now is this whole thing about housing, it is really a spinoff of not being able to do something about the class. Society was able to get more affordable housing for the very very poor, but they were not able to get housing for the lower middle class, or if you just got out of college like what’s happening now.
Photo by Aaron Apsey
WL: You had said you changed your major a lot—what did you end up settling on and what was your profession?
GS: I ended up finishing a major in biology and I ended up in teaching because the Open classroom movement started, the Summerhill program started, and they had a different way of treating children and respecting their minds and that appealed to me. So I got into public school teaching because no. 1 that was where you could make a living, and no. 2 they were breaking into, especially in Ann Arbor, ‘open classrooms’ where they had a different way of teaching children, where [children] were making more decisions themselves instead of the real, almost military-like attitude [conventional schools] had about school.
WL: Did you end up teaching in this area?
GS: I taught in Ann Arbor, at the open school. I taught elementary school, I was certified through 8th grade. I remained in public schools until retirement.
One time, we went to a demonstration in Washington, and we drove there, but then I left Pete there and flew back because I had to go to work. We got tear gassed [at the demonstration], then I got on the plane, and I thought I was smelling okay, and then they decompressed the plane and I just stunk up the plane and thought, “oh dear.” Then I went to work the next day—you wrote on your arm the telephone of the lawyer in case you got stopped [at a demonstration]—and my principal noticed that. I was 35 [years old] maybe.
WL: Can you tell us about your house a little bit?
GS: We’ve been here since ’72. We bought it for $20k, which was the going rate for what houses cost then. The one across the street went for $18k the same year. This part of town was more rag-tag then. It was either union workers or it was rough.
WL: What made you pick this area?
GS: Oh we liked the idea that it was a working class area. We wouldn’t have gone where the college professors were.
WL: What was Depot Town like then?
GS: Oh it was pretty scruffy. Sidetrack was the start of the gentrification of that [space].
WL: We had heard that there were bikers and—
GS: Oh there was blood on the streets every morning they got out of work 3rd shift and had fights in 1970 here all the time. It took a lot of working with Depot Town Association to get people to come to this side of the river because people were afraid of it. When we moved here Prospect Park was pretty scurvy and so was Depot Town. And they’re both pretty nice now.
WL: What do you think about the changes Ypsilanti has had in the last many years?
GS: We worked so hard to have them happen. People in my house did. When we moved here we thought we would be here for two years and we just stayed that’s all. The house had a fire in about ’74. Burned right through the middle, burned straight up through the core right to the roof. The owners and the insurance company gave up on it but we kept it. We owned it because we paid 8 payments on it—it was on a land contract.
WL: What other issues or projects did you work on, or have been important to you over the last 40 years of living in Ypsilanti?
GS: The East Side Association. And that helped stabilize the neighborhood. We had a lot of halfway houses in this neighborhood here, now Ann Arbor had one in the whole city, and we probably had thirty over here and most of them on the East Side. We went through a lot of trying to regulate, get [halfway houses] so that they didn’t put 8 people to a room. [The government] were closing the psychiatric hospitals and then turned the people loose; people who owned houses [in Ypsi] who would say that they would put a caretaker in, and then they would put 8 people in a room. People were all over because they had no place to go.
Photo by Aaron Apsey
WL: Could you see the shift when the state psychiatric hospitals started closing? Did you see more homelessness?
GS: Yes. They were wandering all over downtown Ypsilanti. They just sent them outside and they walked the streets until it was time to go home for lunch.
WL: How did residents react to this change?
GS: There was a lot of fear. We had a lot of big ole rooming houses, and that was how they were dealt with. Now they’re all single family homes.
WL: This was before mass incarceration as we know it now…
GS: [Ypsi] had prison houses too where they would release [patients] to, there was one down on River St. It made this a difficult place to live, which heightened the West Siders fear of it.
WL: Do you feel that there has always been a division between the West Side and the East Side?
GS: Since time began.
WL: Do you see that there are different values between the wards/sides?
GS: There is a difference even between College Heights and Normal Park. [Editor’s note: both neighborhoods are within ward 2]
WL: Do you have friends in College Heights—?
GS: I have friends everywhere.
Sometimes you get into thinkin, ‘What can a city do?’ And some things, only the people can do.
WL: What do you think makes Ward 3 distinct from the other areas of town? How would you characterize Prospect Park and Depot Town?
GS: There is a range of housing and housing stock. And the people here, first there were the union workers, and as they started to die off or retire or go to Florida…We have a lot of artists in this part of town.
On Maple St I have a friend that is paying $1200 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. Those [same apartments] used to be $300 not that long ago.
The new crew that are coming up now, I don’t know if they’re Democrats or Republicans. I think they are what they are but that is the politics of that decade.
WL: What do you think Pete [Murdock] would have wanted to see for Ypsilanti going forward?
GS: Pete was into refining all the rough edges of Ypsilanti, by that he worked on getting the sidewalks straightened up over here. Now it seems like a funny thing but when we first came here they didn’t do sidewalks over on the East Side and the police didn’t answer calls over here—they responded to the West Side and the South Side. It was sorta like a coalition and they just cut us out in the middle of the city which was old Ward 5 [part of what is now Ward 3] …the police just kind of figured the students could handle themselves.
Pete would want people to be treated more equally. He would want the sidewalks fixed, which they did, the streets fixed, he wanted bikes back. He wanted to stop the racing of cars through the city, like over on Miles St. He wanted to do slowing of things. They are not ‘sexy’ issues but they’re part of that thing of making the city better. He like parks & rec—he thought parks were especially important even to the psychological wellbeing of the students and the people with kids. He worked very hard on the parks in the city because he thought [the people] needed green space. He backed the businesses in Depot Town and downtown. He encouraged people to move here and open up businesses, and it has worked because we have better shops down here now. He worked on solar, and he got the city to put it in. Solar allows people to stay in their houses—because it is a bill that’s paid.
WL: Because you and Pete had this relationship to news media [due to working on The Second Coming], do you have an opinion about what newspapers and media can do for a community like ours?
GS: Well we need a newspaper badly in this town. We’ve needed it ever since the Ypsilanti Press went out. It wasn’t the best of papers but it was our paper. And it went out when the Ann Arbor News expanded and they swore they’d cover Ypsilanti and they ended up not even covering Ann Arbor.
You need your own newspaper because it takes care of the city issues.
WL: What was it like to work on The Second Coming and what kind of issues did you cover?
GS: We covered the war and civil rights and that is all we did. It was an all-consuming issue.
WL: What was your role in the paper?
GS: I hawked papers on the corner, I helped type it up. I wrote one article about Sesame Street—I didn’t like [Sesame Street] and said it was a ‘mindfuck’, because it was another way [TV programs] were stratifying children to think a certain way. It came out of Flint, and in Flint public schools they educated kids to follow the authoritative system so that they would work in the factories—there wasn’t room for creative thought and interesting things.
WL: Did you think Sesame Street aided in that kind of thought?
GS: Sesame Street was at that time…When you think about Sesame Street now and think of it then, it was two different things. They wanted children to be obedient, but since then they’re [now] trying to get kids to think. There are a lot of things that have changed in our society. That is the problem with getting on about a word that everybody recognizes, because each decade of people remembers it the way it was for them; And the way it was for me is not the way it was for you, it was two different things, and it was three different things in between, too.
WL: What are your thoughts about organizing within our community toward common goals?
GS: That’s what Pete and I did a lot, we got into groups. We did stuff with the Friends of Prospect Park, we worked with Depot Town and Downtown—we went on cleaning brigades and cleaned the streets once a month so that store owners could see that it would be better if the streets were clean. We cleaned Prospect Park every week for years. Sometimes you gotta do it yourself. The city can only do so much, and the schools can only do so much. Sometimes you get into thinkin, “What can a city do?” And some things, only the people can do.
Photo by Aaron Apsey
WL: Is there anything about Pete that you want people to know about?
GS: Pete never changed his values from the old days until the new; He believed in equality, he believed in social justice, and he believed in racial equality—which is the basis of what we started off with. And he was against wars. He was a man of peace.
WL: Is there anything you want to say about the state of Ypsilanti and the future of Ypsilanti? Do you have anything else you would like to say?
GS: I just can’t believe I’ve worked 35 years for social equality and we now have Trump as president. I can’t believe that this is how the country went, that we have so much anger and that is what we got into.
I think that as long as we keep this balance between the past and the present, we can still have a future? A man that has four kids who needs tennis shoes and a way to get [his kids] to the park is equal to those that own the historic houses. We have to balance our money to serve everybody.