I’d never seen Mr. Smitherman look this sad as we unpacked boxes in his new store front on Grand River in Detroit a few buildings west of the old Riviera Theater.
Basil Smitherman was a business man, the uncle of Marla Gibson who played Florence the maid on the Jeffersons and the best dressed guy I knew. He owned a men’s clothing store on 12th Street near the epicenter of the beginning of the 1967 Detroit riots called The House of Hats.
A group of friends silently unpacked boxes of silk shirts, dress pants, alligator shoes and hats. Mr. Smitherman was forced to move because these 2,000 buildings that were burned to the ground during the five days of looting and civil disobedience all have human stories and lives behind them.
I was confused as an eight year old. I believed that if you were a black owned business that the looters left you alone.
“Didn’t you spray paint soul brother on your building,” I asked.
“Yes I did,” Mr. Smitherman said breaking into his only smile of the day.
But those eyes turned sad again as he went about the task of unpacking and folding and ironing clothes.
The House of Hats survived the first two days of the riots. The moment of truth came on night three when Mr. Smitherman huddled inside a back room of his business. A huge rock slammed through the front window smashing glass into the front display where clothes used to lie. He’d smartly removed much of his merchandise but some clothes remained.
“Soul brother,?” the guy who threw the brick asked.
“Yes, soul brother,” Mr. Smitherman shouted back.
The guy looked remorseful and did not want to devastate the place. But it was too late. It was like a wild frenzy of shark pouncing on chum in the water. The House of Hats was torn to shreds that night and set on fire.
Mr. Smitherman tried to talk sense to the looters. He told them they were not making a statement toward the revolution by ripping his stored to shreds or getting back at the police in anyway.
No one listened and Mr. Smitherman drove himself home among the chaos, military tanks, police cars and shootings.
A few days later, the House of Hats had a new location. It did not seem right. He belonged on 12th Street, not on Grand River.
Business was never the same and neither was Mr. Smitherman, a soul brother.