Animal farm

A rooster's crow cracks the silence and sends the chickens around him scattering in the yard. The only other sound is the faint whoosh of faraway traffic. All around are fields of trees and tall grass with houses in between, but in the background a casino rises above the landscape, a sign that this isn't the country but instead the outskirts of downtown.

Lounging in such rustic serenity is Mary King, an 86-year-old with brittle limbs and a stoop, sitting on her porch and wearing a straw sunhat. Her home and its urban barnyard are in the Briggs neighborhood of North Corktown, one of the city's oldest, a mix of renovated Queen Annes, simple shotgun houses and grass-covered lots. She's got a yard full of chickens on one side of her place and a wide garden on the other, underlining the pastoral look of her surroundings. Her husband died years ago, and her son, who lives next door, takes care of her.

The chickens, more than five dozen of them, give her fresh eggs and meat. The garden, split into neat rows of corn, squash, tomatoes and melons, gives her vegetables for the year. An abandoned apartment building stood there until it was razed, then she took over the plot, removing the brick fragments one at a time by hand until the soil was clear.

With farm life comes farm concerns. Red-tailed hawks perch in the tangled tree above the yard and try to steal her chickens. "They're about as big as a hooting owl," she says. "They'll come down and pick up a chicken in their claws and go up with it." Opossums, too, sneak into the yard for a free meal. And squirrels pilfer from the garden.

The city gave her grief for a time when her chickens would get out and run loose in the streets, but she clipped their wings to keep them home, and now the city leaves her alone.

"That's what keeps me holding on, just thinking about the garden and the chickens and the eggs," she says. "It's so much fun. I don't know nothin' else that makes me more happy."

It wasn't always this idyllic here.

Mary King was the first black person to move into the neighborhood after coming from Alabama in 1948, followed soon by her sister. The locals weren't happy about it. "Oh, we had some trouble 'round here," she says. "When I moved here, they busted out every window in the building. If I could tell you all that happened it would take me two days."

She says neighbors would throw dead rats on the porch. Someone once sent a hearse to the house. She received hate mail. Even a little old lady would taunt her. "She was so old she couldn't hardly stand up; she'd lean into that tree and she'd say, 'Hey, nigger! You old nigger!' She just had veins in her neck and she was calling me nigger. So I didn't do nothin' but smile at her because she was too old for me to hit her. But every time I pass that tree I think about her."

Ku Klux Klan members once detoured from a march to stroll past her new house. She and her sister's husband sat on the roof with a shotgun. "They spied us up there," she says. "They called on us to come back down and talk it out. But they went on their way. They didn't bother us that night."

She stayed through it all. "I would die before I'd leave," she says, still angry about it. "I felt I had just as much right as anybody else to live where I want to live. And that's why I wasn't going to move."

She worked as a maid and an elevator operator until she married and got pregnant with the first of six children and stayed home to raise them. Her white neighbors' rage eventually settled into a slow burn and their open hostility subsided. Some just moved away, figuring the neighborhood was going to hell. But the resentment had taken its toll.

"I had a hard time," she says. "I had a nervous breakdown. Just about all my hair started coming out of my head in bald spots, you know. I had trouble, but I'm still here and everything is mellow now and I just love it. I'm glad I stayed 'round here. God took care of me, didn't nothin' happen to me. But I could've been killed."

The family had trouble with cops too. One day, her son Howard and some friends were throwing a football around in the street, and the police pulled up. Yelling and shoving led to swinging fists and batons, and three of the four kids were beaten and arrested, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

A white cop broke Howard's hand, used a baton to split his head open over his eye. The fracas would've gone unnoticed if not for the black officer who witnessed and reported it; an ensuing investigation led to a cop's suspension.

A year later, just before the '67 riot, Howard got into a street fight and police were called. They broke down the door of the King house to find him, and Mary wound up in a wrestling match with a cop.

"I was 260 pounds back then," she laughs. "I got him right quick and I put him on the ground." She grabbed his gun and nearly blew his brains out. "The devil was saying, 'Shoot him! Shoot him!'" she recounts. Instead, Mary got up off the cop. Then she was thrown in the squad car, hit with a baton and bitten in the neck, which required a tetanus shot.

The story spread through the city, and community groups protested in Campus Martius and at police headquarters. Newspapers such as the Michigan Chronicle kept the incident alive and Howard King went from a sports-playing kid to a symbol of police brutality and an icon of the riot's root causes.

Howard was an impressive athlete, tall and thick-shouldered. He even tried out for the Tigers before his life derailed. He served time in prison for second-degree murder, but claims he was framed. After parole he began working with youth organizations. Now, at 59, he's community director at the Barnabas Youth Center a few miles away, counseling gang members and kids with lives heading where his once was.

He organizes a community block party every year, confronts drug dealers down on the corner, and mows grassy lots on the blocks around his own. "They should give him something for it," Mary says about the city. "If it wasn't for him, this neighborhood would be in a mess."

There's little sign today of the turmoil of the past. The Kings are now elders of the neighborhood where they were once unwelcome. Many houses are gone and the blocks look more like the Alabama Mary knew and loved; a place where a family can raise chickens without hassle.

"My mother's getting up in her last days, and I believe this is what keeps her looking forward year to year," Howard says. "She looks forward every year to that garden."

She's too old and frail now to garden herself, so instead she sits and watches her son work, and basks in days spent, she says, delighting in simple joys brought by little things.

"Sometimes I go out there where my chickens are and go in the fence and sit there and give them a little corn or something, and they be all around me," she says, beaming. "I love that. They start peckin' and I'm just sittin' there lookin' at them. It makes me feel good. It's just beautiful."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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