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Motown legend says Brewster-Douglass taught her "people are people"

Mar 18, 2015

Today on Stateside, we’re getting the inside scoop from former residents of the Brewster-Douglass housing projects about what it was like growing up in the Detroit projects. 

Their answers are overwhelmingly positive.

The Supremes grew up in the Brewster-Douglass housing projects. Pictured here are Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross.
Credit Nationaal Archief (Dutch National Archives)

Ruby Straughter lived in the Brewster-Douglass projects from 1957 to 1972. She remembers people in the projects taking good care of each other.

“If a family couldn’t pay rent, neighbors would throw a rent party and they’d give the money to whomever needed the rent paid.”

She says no one ever went hungry or made fun of anyone else for being poor. Straughter remembers parents were strict with their own kids, and looked out for other people’s children as well.

There was also lots and lots of singing in the Brewsters. People sang four-part harmonies on street corners, in the parks, on porches and in the stairwells, where the echo was best.

But why was music such a huge part of living there? 

Straughter and several other former residents think it was because of those strict parents.

Warner Doyle McBride grew up next door to the projects, in the Brush Park area. He says kids had to be at home when the streetlights came on, and when you were confined to certain areas as a kid, one of the nicest things to do was hang out and sing.

Mary Wilson from The Supremes grew up in the Brewster-Douglass projects, along with Supremes members Diana Ross and Florence Ballard.

“Moving into the projects as a child was like moving into a wonderland for me,” Wilson says.

Wilson remembers people singing and dancing on the streets because they were inspired by a new genre of music called rock-n-roll.

She says she met so many different kinds of people in the projects that it helped her prepare for becoming an international star, traveling around the world.

In fact, she’s got a story she likes to tell.

It took place at a special performance The Supremes did in London. After the show, there was a meet-and-greet between the artists and the royal family.

“There we were, lined up in our gorgeous pink gowns,” Wilson says. “Princess Ann came by and Prince Charles came by. Then we meet the Queen Mother, who was just charming!”

And then Princess Margaret came by.

“She stopped right in front of me and she said ‘Oh! Is that a wig you’re wearing?!’”

Keep in mind, the Supremes were known for their long eyelashes and their beehive hairdos.

Wilson says Princess Margaret made the comment very loudly, and everyone in the room turned to look.

Wilson was mortified.

“I looked at her like I could kill her. But the thought that went through my mind was, she reminded me of one of the neighbors in Brewster projects on the second floor. She was this loud, gregarious, uncouth woman. We’d always say, ‘Here comes Mrs. So-and-So with her loud mouth.”

In that moment, Mary Wilson realized that whether you live in the projects or a palace, people are people and no one is better than you, so you should feel good about who you are.  

Wilson says that’s what the Brewster-Douglass projects taught her.