Ever since moving to Detroit eight years ago, I’ve been hearing the stories about Howell, which gained notoriety in years past for being a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity.
“You better hope your car doesn’t break down if you’re near Howell.”
“Howell is no joke. Those white folks up there are crazy.”
This is what I kept hearing from friends and acquaintances. Just mention “Howell” to most black folks who’ve lived in Michigan for any length of time and you get that look. Sometimes that look is followed by that whistle. It’s not a loud whistle, but more of a dry hissing like the sound the wind makes when it passes through dead leaves in the late fall.
“Howell? Oh yeah, I know about Howell, man. Believe me, I know about that damned Howell, all right!”
So when I heard that our band had a gig in Howell set for the end of February, I, uhh … had concerns. When I mentioned the gig to a few friends, I got that other kind of look. It’s the look that says, “Are you out of your @#!#$%*?!! mind, fool?”
See, you need to understand that this is an all-black band. At one point I reminded the bandleader of this, and his version of offering comfort was to say that he doubted there would be any Klan members at the club that night.
Great. Thanks. Just don’t make any wrong turns on the way up, right? And pay no attention to the burning cross on your way out of town. Those nice men in robes are proud members of the Howell Fire Department.
Anyway, soon enough it’s the evening of Friday, Feb. 23. The drummer and I drove up to the gig together. Regardless of what was or wasn’t going to happen, I was glad that the gig was paying good money, plus we got free food and drinks. I figured if I was gonna check out, at least I’d go on a full stomach, playin’ the blues.
Not more than 10 minutes after we’re at the gig, this blond woman approaches the stage and asks what kind of music we play. We tell her the blues. She seems pleased, and we’re glad she’s pleased. Then the woman asks if we might be able to give her a ride home after the gig because a cab is hard to get late at night. The band members start looking at one another, and we don’t have to say what we’re thinking. A strange white woman none of us has ever met asks a group of black men she’s never met for a ride home after the gig, which would be around 2 a.m.? In Howell?
“Hey, I want to know what’s going on after the show,” she says.
We didn’t say “Hell, no! Girl, you want to get us lynched?” But we did choose to politely decline the request and wish her luck in locating adequate and trustworthy transportation. As I watched her walk away from the bandstand, I was already beginning to contemplate whether I had lived a good life and what I had left to answer for to the Creator.
Then things changed.
By the end of the night, I had to keep reminding myself that this really was Howell. The crowd was one of the best and most appreciative we’d ever played for, but more than that? Man, I can’t count the number of times someone would approach our table, or one of us individually, and virtually beg us not to condemn all the residents of Howell for the sins of the resident idiots. And it wasn’t like any of us made the slightest reference to Howell’s history to get them to say this. Honest. It was like they felt compelled to apologize, but also to make a case for those of them that were never racists to begin with and were tired of being branded with the mark of “H.”
“Look, man, we’re not all like that, all right?” said one guy. “Please don’t think that we’re all fucked up in Howell, OK?”
Another guy I ran into in the stall next to me in the men’s room said, “You know this is Howell, right?”
“You know, the Grand Dragon used to live not too far from here.”
“Oh, really?” I said, trying to sound casual.
“Yep. Right over there. But those days are gone now. Thank God.”
Later, someone else was telling another of the band members how tired he was of “all that redneck shit,” meaning the kind of music that was played at most of the establishments in the area.
On the way home, the drummer and I were comparing notes about the evening, excited that everything had gone so well, when suddenly a tire blew out. At a little past 2 a.m. Just outside of Howell. My worst fears made manifest. Then, not 15 minutes later, a car with just one headlight working pulls up behind us on the side of the road. Young white guy steps out.
“How you guys doin’?” he asks.
We tell him the trouble we’d been having trying to change the tire (that’s another story), and what we were doing out there. Long story short, the guy jacks up the van, takes the bad tire off, puts the new tire on, all the while engaging us both with friendly conversation. Name was Steve. When we offered to pay him at the end of the night, he said all he wanted was one of our CDs. We gave him one, but we also insisted on payment. He took it, said we didn’t know how much that helped him out — yeah, imagine that — then we all did the group hug thing and we went our separate ways.
Oh, yeah. One thing he said I still remember.
“I’m a Howell boy.”Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org