By Bill McGraw | Bridge Magazine
This story contains crude language
As much of the city slept, 19-year-old William Walter Scott III stood at the corner of 12th Street and Clairmount, watching as police escorted scores of black patrons out of a blind pig on Detroit’s west side.
It was about 3:45 a.m. July 23, 1967. William Scott, known as Bill, was among a crowd of mostly young African Americans gathering to watch the police hustle club patrons into waiting paddy wagons. He had a particular interest in two of the people being led away.
His father, William Walter Scott II, was the principal owner of the club, an illegal after-hours drinking and gambling joint. His older sister, Wilma, was a cook and waitress. The night was hot and sticky, and the crowd’s initial teasing of the arrestees devolved into raucous goading of police as they became more aggressive, pushing and twisting the arms of the women.
“You don’t have to treat them that way,” Bill Scott yelled. “They can walk. Let them walk, you white sons of bitches.”
By the time the wagons were full, the crowd had swelled, the taunts had grown more hostile and, though police manpower was thin early Sunday, several scout cars responded to the scene. Cops stood at the ready in the middle of 12th Street, billy clubs in hand, forcing the throng back on the sidewalk.
Scott, tall and lean, mounted a car and began to preach to a crowd long accustomed to the harsh tactics of the overwhelmingly white Detroit police in black neighborhoods: “Are we going to let these peckerwood motherf—— come down here any time they want and mess us around?”
“Hell, no!” people yelled back.
Scott walked into an alley and grabbed a bottle, seeking “the pleasure of hitting one in the head, maybe killing him,” he remembers thinking. Making his way into the middle of the crowd for cover, he threw the bottle at a sergeant standing in front of the door.
The missile missed, shattering on the sidewalk. A phalanx of police moved toward the crowd, then backed off. As the paddy wagons drove away, bottles, bricks and sticks flew through the air, smashing the windows of departing police cars. Bill Scott said he felt liberated.
“For the first time in our lives we felt free. Most important, we were right in what we did to the law.”
The rebellion was underway.
A personal history
Bill Scott’s thrown bottle was a catalyst for one the most destructive civil disorders in U.S. history — five days of looting, arson and violence in Detroit that killed 43 people and resulted in thousands of injuries and arrests in a summer jolted by violence across dozens of U.S. cities.
But Scott, a bright but troubled product of the 12th Street neighborhood, left a multi-layered legacy more enduring than broken glass. It’s a legacy that still resonates today, as the 50th anniversary of 1967 draws near and Detroit reevaluates whether the despair and tensions of that summer continue.
Three years after the looting and burning, Scott, by then 22 and a student at the University of Michigan, self-published a memoir titled “Hurt, Baby, Hurt” that describes his experiences growing up as a young black man in majority-white Detroit, working in his father’s blind pig and living along 12th Street, the west-side thoroughfare that was Detroit’s crowded and rowdy sin strip.
He writes of growing anger at what he felt was the city’s racial oppression, where Detroit’s notoriously aggressive police were not shy about knocking heads on corners where black men lingered. Bill Scott’s account of his role in the violence comes from the memoir.
In 1969, an early version of his book won a prestigious Hopwood Award, the U-M literary prize whose student winners over the years included future heavyweights Arthur Miller, Lawrence Kasdan and Marge Piercy.
Largely forgotten, Scott’s memoir reads today like a newly discovered time capsule, but one with contemporary significance amid the divide between police and African-American communities across the nation. Perhaps no other account delves in such a deeply personal way into the rage and despair that drove so many black Detroiters into the streets that summer.
Scott, who spent a childhood steeped in self loathing, embarrassed by the radical black politics of his father and secretly imagining he was white, describes his political transformation through the racial animus he said he witnessed routinely in Detroit.
But the story of Bill Scott did not begin with a thrown bottle on that July night nearly 50 years ago. Nor would it end with his subsequent downward spiral, marked by drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness.
For Bill Scott would have a son, Mandela. And that son would have his own dramatic journey — from a privileged upbringing that led him to the Ivy League, to his own racial awakening, when he realized that no matter how carefully his life was constructed, his skin color would always set him apart from the white world he had so confidently navigated.
The saga of Bill Scott must be told without Scott himself. Now 68, he has disappeared somewhere in coastal Florida. The political fire and promise of his youth would be derailed by substance abuse and mental illness, those close to him say.
“I’d never met anyone remotely like him. It was terrifying and exhilarating,” said Auburn Sheaffer Sandstrom, who first encountered Scott in a U-M graduate class and married him four years later.
Percy Bates, a professor of education at U-M, knew Scott briefly when Scott was a child and became closer to him in Ann Arbor, when Scott showed glimmers of his potential.
“Anybody who knew him knew that he was very bright, but he was just unable to use that brightness to any positive end,” Bates said. “I think later he probably would not have been able to produce the book or anything like that that required persistent attention.”
The origins of the Scott family’s story is a familiar one in Detroit.
William Walter Scott II, the owner of the blind pig and Bill Scott’s father, was born in Georgia and came to Detroit as child, just as the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South to a fresh start in northern cities began before World War I. The influx would boost Detroit’s black population seven-fold within a decade as the auto industry transformed the city into an industrial metropolis starving for workers.
When Bill Scott, his sister Wilma and their siblings – Tyrone, Reginald and Charlotte — were young, their father made a good living at Dodge Main and other factories. But between 1947 and 1963 the city’s manufacturing economy hemorrhaged 134,000 jobs, triggering the start of Detroit’s long decline. William Scott lost his factory job, and subsequently the family lost its house.
Unable to find work, William Scott II turned to “the numbers,” the illegal, lottery-like gambling game ubiquitous in black neighborhoods, even as his political activism grew.
He eventually became involved in organizing black political power by training volunteers for local campaigns. His second-floor suite of rooms on 12th Street was officially known as the United Community League for Civic Action. On the night of the 1967 raid, one room contained a wall chart of local precinct delegates. William Scott’s wife, Hazel, worked in the Detroit office of G. Mennen (Soapy) Williams, Michigan’s Democratic governor from 1949 to 1961 who was popular in the black community.
But the elder Scott’s disgust with Detroit’s white political system grew. Years later, he would tell a sociologist studying the riot that political leaders pass legislation “just to control and contain the Negro.”
Mr. Scott did not hide his militancy, or his anger. He fumed at being called “boy” by police and roughly frisked for no apparent reason. In 1973, when Coleman Young was elected Detroit’s first black mayor on a police-reform platform, he told his daughter Wilma, “I can finally get off my knees.”
“All the people have had their revolutions, and we’re the last. It’s something that’s got to come, you can’t stop it. When people get sick and oppressed, they’re gonna riot,” William Scott told the sociologist.
“My father was a survivor,” said Wilma Scott, now 70, who spent more than 40 years as an office worker at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital. “And he was a survivor without being a criminal. Except for the numbers, which he did not feel was a crime, okay?
“To this day, I understand his logic. He was a black man that was determined just to be free. It’s as simple as that. To say he had to depend on a white man for his living – he did not like that. Especially after being in the factory and being laid off.”
Bill Scott was born two years after Wilma, in 1948. In his memoir, he describes a bleak childhood of constant moves, being bullied at school and spending lonely days wandering through alleys, looking for useable junk.
He was close to his mother, but she was often hospitalized with heart problems and died when Bill was 14. He said he feared his father, writing that he beat him, though Wilma Scott says she did not witness such violence.
Bill Scott did not see his own early promise. He had trouble learning in school, and thought himself “ugly,” “dull,” “strange,” “useless,” even “mentally retarded.” By age 10, he was unruly and suffering emotional problems. He was sent to the Hawthorn Center, a state-run facility for emotionally-troubled children in Northville, and later to a similar institution, the Boys Republic in Farmington Hills. In his own mind, he wrote, he pretended to be white because, he felt, being black was bad, but white children were considered good.
It was in the early 1960s that Bates, the U-M professor, first met Bill Scott at a camp in Pinkney. The boy, he said, “didn’t trust anybody, he couldn’t get close to anybody. He was constantly acting out, calling people names, throwing stuff, hitting people. It was just clear that he had some serious issues.”
But Bill Scott received counseling at the two youth homes and met adults who mentored him. He writes glowingly of both places, and they seemed to help him stabilize.
As he moved into middle school, the unruly boy began to blossom. Scott writes of becoming intellectually curious and aware of the importance of good values: respecting women and elders; obeying the law; refraining from stealing or premarital sex. He began attending church. “I liked the sound of this heaven place,” he wrote.
After a brief, tumultuous stay in a foster home, Scott returned to his father’s temporary home, a three-room apartment near 12th Street.
It was in this rapidly changing neighborhood that Bill Scott said he bumped into the reality of being a black man in Detroit. After years in white-run institutions and attending church, his values were “almost in exact opposition to the way my people lived” back on 12th Street.
Because of his polite bearing, he was mocked by neighborhood toughs, who called him “Proper” and “Whitey.” He said he stood out because he was a “decent” person. “I didn’t have processed hair, a rag hanging from my head or dirty clothes,” he writes, “and, most of all, I had the ‘proper thoughts.’”
At Northern High, Scott noted that virtually all the students were black and most of the faculty was white, a recipe for failure, he believed. He called Northern “a nigger factory” that churned out unschooled students who wanted to learn but were at the mercy of teachers who either didn’t want to teach black students, or didn’t know how.
Test scores showed 9th graders at Northern reading at a sixth-grade level. But Scott was smart and ambitious and determined to attend college, even as his white counselor tried to steer him to vocational courses. At one point, he tried to transfer to a more competitive majority-white city school, but was refused. So he made the best of it, playing drums in the band, lettering in football, learning to pole vault and, in 1966, graduating.
Three months later, some 2,300 Northern students attracted national attention by staging a walkout and boycott to protest their poor-quality education in a school that lacked the top-notch facilities and wider opportunities enjoyed by students at mostly white city schools, such as Redford High. The protests, a sign of growing militancy among young African Americans, were an unprecedented challenge to authority, and the principal and at least two other officials lost their jobs.
As he moved through his teens, Scott began to face another fact of life for many young black men in the 1960s: the Detroit police.
Scott wrote that he tried to live like a “civilized Negro,” staying active in a middle-class black church. But as he left a church meeting one day when he was 17, cops stopped him for jaywalking across 12th Street. When Scott asked what he had done, he said one of the officers threw him against the scout car and called him “boy.” They gave him a $10 ticket. Scott wrote that he ripped it up in front of them and threw in a trash can next to their car.
Next was a run-in with the department’s notorious Big Four — three plainclothes cops with a uniformed driver in a big car — a unit that cruised precincts and routinely harassed blacks. Walking out of a store, Scott and brothers Tyrone and Reggie were stopped and frisked for no reason, Scott writes. The confrontation ended with Scott shouting, “You can kiss my black ass.” He said police backed off when an angry crowd began to form.
Scott’s racial consciousness continued to grow during a months-long job search in the spring and early summer of 1967 when, despite an uptick in the city’s economy, 25 to 30 percent of black youths between 18 and 24 remained unemployed. Failing to find work, he was forced to drop out of Michigan Lutheran College, a Detroit school he attended before U-M.
The frustrations piled up, along with a growing perception that his fellow church members attended services to “wallow in their own self-hatred” and ask God’s forgiveness “for being black.” He felt like he was pulling himself up by his bootstraps – as society demanded – but getting nowhere.
It was these accumulated grievances, hardly unique to Bill Scott or to blacks in Detroit, that reached a boiling point in the summer of 1967, when dozens of U.S. cities exploded in violence. At age 19, the Bill Scott who threw the first bottle at police was a young man determined to break with his past. “I decided to reject anything that was white,” he writes.
It also softened how he viewed his father.
“I began to look at the cat and see that he was farther ahead than anyone I’d met in my entire life and he was the only person I wouldn’t listen to,” Scott writes. “I guess he was the most courageous and bold man I ever saw in my life.
“I could now understand why my father had given up in the white conventional world. I was black and being black meant I had to live black…no more hating myself because I was black.”
He went to work at his father’s club.
The blind pig
There is not a street in Detroit today that resembles the 12th Street of 1967 in the stretch near the blind pig.
Fifty years ago, the mile-and-a-half section of 12th Street north of West Grand Boulevard was a densely packed commercial strip of markets, pharmacies, party stores, bakeries, shoe stores, beauty parlors and photo studios. With two and three-story buildings along both sides, and a constant flow of people and traffic, 12th looked like a typical Detroit shopping district when the city had 1.5 million or more residents.
Many blacks living on the side streets off 12th were upwardly mobile and already middle class. But the stretch of 12th north of Virginia Park had developed into a frenetic strip of legal and illegal adult entertainment: bars, prostitutes, pimps, pawn shops, gambling, drugs, after-hours drinking, crime and cops.
The neighborhood personified the city’s rapidly changing geography after World War II. Up through the 1940s, the area had been largely Jewish, but as Jews began moving northwest, and African Americans took their place on side streets dense with apartment buildings and solid multi-family homes.
Urban renewal projects destroyed the downtown black ghetto in the 1950s and new laws cut into housing segregation, prompting even more African Americans to flood into the 12th Street neighborhood, though store owners remained mostly white.
“Twelfth Street was like a jungle or an unsolvable maze,” Scott writes, a “Hollywood strip” filled with “shady-looking characters” hanging out on corners.
“It was hard to predict what was going to happen next – I mean one night somebody might get shot or cut up and next night everybody on the street could be happy and cool; plain drunk.”
For much of the summer of 1967, Scott earned $25 a night as doorman at his dad’s club, letting people in and trying to keep police out. The club was dark and smoky, with a bar, pool table, gambling room, kitchen and a dance floor with loud music from a juke box. ”Everyone was dancing, laughing, having a nitty-gritty-funky good time,” Scott recalled.
Blind pigs like the one William Scott operated were long an institution in Detroit’s black neighborhoods. They served blacks when African Americans were barred from downtown restaurants and bars before World War II. After the color line was broken in mainstream establishments, blind pigs continued to play a major cultural role in black Detroit, historian Sidney Fine wrote, and raids by white cops were often seen as having “racial and symbolic significance.”
Police raided William Scott’s club twice in 1966 and again in June 1967, when the vice squad arrested 28 people on misdemeanors. The DPD tried to stage other busts but couldn’t get an undercover cop past the door. Once, they burst in only to find a children’s Halloween party in progress.
As summer unfolded in 1967, police confrontations with black residents added to racial tension in Detroit. Rumors of impending unrest raged across the city amid scattered disorders in African-American neighborhoods across the country, including a small, two-day disturbance on Kercheval Avenue on Detroit’s east side in 1966. By late July 1967, violence had torn through 33 American cities, most notably Newark, where six days of violence left 26 people dead.
Detroit was still on edge from the fatal shooting in June of a black Vietnam veteran. The man had dared to take his pregnant wife to Rouge Park, then surrounded by an all-white neighborhood. Whites taunted the couple with racial slurs, pelted them with bottles and suggested they might rape the woman. Someone shot the veteran; his wife was not assaulted but would suffer a miscarriage, according to the Michigan Chronicle.
Then, on July 1, a black prostitute was fatally shot at 12th and Hazelwood. Police variously said the assailant was a pimp or a prospective customer, but rumors circulated in the black community that an off-duty white officer had killed her after she allegedly slashed him with a knife.
Bill Scott said he was at the blind pig during the police raid in June and an officer hit him in the head. He wrote that he chose to “Uncle Tom my way out” that night and play nice with police, but he fumed. The next time, he vowed, he would fight back, “hopefully to kill him if need be.”
On the early morning of July 23, 1967, Scott wasn’t working the door; his job search had finally borne fruit, and he had found a good position in an auto factory. But he writes that he drove up to the club in time “to see this honky cop swing a sledgehammer into the plate glass door.”
After Scott whipped up the crowd, threw the bottle and watched the last paddy wagon drive away, he said he entered the club to find the interior in shambles. The jukebox and wine bottles were broken; even the typewriter he used for his writing had been smashed.
He said he returned to the street and threw a litter basket through the window of a drug store, triggering an alarm and jacking up the adrenalized atmosphere on 12th Street. “I had to destroy something,” he writes.
People slowly entered the drugstore. “I wasn’t even thinking about looting at the time it all started,” Scott writes. “My interest was to strike out at something that was more powerful and more legitimate than me; at the time this was the white store owners.”
He joined others in breaking windows, and mounted a box to play traffic cop, directing drivers along the increasingly unruly street. There were no real police in sight. At one point, a “young diddy-bopper” stopped him on the street and said, “I am so glad you started this thing.”
Scott says he was staggered by the comment, as his actions began to sink in. He felt sick to his stomach, but soon recovered, believing that whatever the motivation of the looters, they shared a lack of respect for the law, “the law that had abused them and their right to live,” he writes.
“Yes, I started a riot, although it was going to happen some other time. Nevertheless, I had made it possible for cats to get those material things they desired when there was a larger human fight on hand.”
The outline for the beginning of the riot that Scott describes in his book is generally supported by official city reports and studies by historians and other experts. But while Scott is the only person to claim he started the disorder, no official or researcher ever confirmed he was the instigator.
In “Violence in the Model City,” Fine, the U-M professor, took note of Bill Scott’s account and also wrote that police identified another young man, dubbed “Greensleeves” for his green shirt and pants, who screamed at police and urged bystanders to fight back. Fine wrote that Greensleeves, Scott “and, no doubt, others, helped to communicate” their outrage to the crowd, “which probably saw the blind pig raid in the context of long-standing grievances.”
By 9 o’clock that Sunday morning, police reappeared on 12th Street. And Bill Scott went home to sleep.
Arrest, and regrets
Scott awoke Sunday afternoon to find smoke in the house, which was on a nearby residential section of 12th Street. A neighboring home was on fire, and his father figured the flames would spread before the fire department could arrive. Firefighters showed up, though, and extinguished the blaze, but it rekindled, destroying their house and most of their block.
12th Street was a chaotic scene, with sirens, fires and stunned people running back and forth, fearing for their lives. Scott went to stay with a friend.
The next morning, with widespread confusion across the city, Scott looked for a newspaper. He walked more than a mile, to the usually busy corner of Grand River and West Grand Boulevard, but the streets were deserted, with buildings burned and looted. He watched as two young men climbed through the broken window of a drugstore when suddenly a line of squad cars drove up. Scott told the police he was only watching, but they cuffed him and took him downtown.
Charged with illegally entering the store, Scott spent the next 15 days in a gulag of crowded, sweltering, stinking lockups, from the oily confines of precinct garages to stifling buses with shut windows in the July sun to the Belle Isle bath house, as Detroit Police sought innovative ways to store thousands of arrestees. He was finally released after charges were dropped.
Taking the bus back to 12th Street, Scott got off at Seward and walked past the hollowed-out neighborhood of loose bricks, broken glass and boarded-up buildings.
Days of looting, arson and sniping had left 43 people dead; 1,189 injured; more than 7,000 arrested; 2,509 businesses and homes looted or burned; and metro Detroiters rattled to their cores.
“The further I walked down Twelfth, the more I became aware of the destruction around me, which made me feel less of a man for being part of it,” he writes.
“A man doesn’t destroy his home; he protects it at all cost. This I hadn’t done; I let another man come and force me to destroy my own. This put me at his mercy. I became a boy once more. He could control me completely.”
Bill Scott spoke to his father, who was laying low, fearing retaliation from police for what had happened outside his club. Bill returned to the factory where he had found work, but was fired for missing two weeks with no explanation. His car had been towed, and he couldn’t afford to get it back. He was filled with hatred, he wrote. The thought of killing police constantly crossed his mind.
A month later, Bill Scott paid the $1.80 Greyhound bus fare and moved to Ann Arbor, “never to return,” he wrote, “until?”
That is how his book ends. But not his journey.
Bill Scott never did move back to Detroit. For the Ann Arbor of that era was a cauldron of activism, music, drugs and experimental ways of living and thinking, with John Sinclair and the White Panthers, SDS, feminist scholars, the Black Action Movement, Iggy and the Stooges and $5 tickets for small amounts of marijuana. A CIA recruiting office on Main Street was bombed in 1968.
Scott was admitted to the University of Michigan and earned a degree in education in 1970 and a master’s degree in journalism in 1972. He won a second Hopwood Award in 1972 for a short story titled “The Black Astronaut on the Moon.”
He worked as a drug counselor, dressed well and had a steady stream of girlfriends. He also traveled, spending time in the Pacific Northwest. At at one point he suffered a debilitating back injury in an automobile accident, for which he began taking pain medication, and various street drugs.
He returned to U-M in 1987 to the school of education to work on his second master’s degree. That’s when he met Auburn Sheaffer.
The daughter of a dentist, Sheaffer was a white girl raised in comfort in nearly all-white Findlay, Ohio, 100 miles south of Detroit, who as a youngster became fascinated with the black experience. She studied the Underground Railroad in grade school, wrote a paper on racism in eighth grade and discovered novelist Toni Morrison as a teenager. The immersion in black culture had a powerful effect on her.
She first encountered Scott in an advanced English class titled “Class, Gender and Race in U.S. Literature.” Sheaffer first noticed Scott sitting by the window as the class discussed slave-era writing. He was tall, and wore a fedora, dark glasses, clogs and a tweed jacket. Sheaffer recalls a lot of debate coming from the feminists in the class when suddenly the black guy in the big hat spoke up.
“When I hear upper-class white women talking about black men with venom in their voices I worry about my penis getting cut off,” he said.
The other students were horrified.
“Stricken!” she recalled. “Just stricken! I mean, silence! Horror! It landed like a lead balloon.”
Despite the outburst, there was chemistry between Sheaffer and Scott, despite the difference in their backgrounds and ages. He was 39; she was 24. He was raised on Detroit’s streets. She took opera lessons growing up, spent a college year in Paris and belonged to a sorority. “I was pedigreed,” she recalled.
“Man, he was beautiful,” she says. “Forty years old and a radical revolutionary, fine-ass poet from Detroit. It was primordial with me. I wanted to make him my man.”
They drank at Ashley’s bar, discussed radicals and poets and attended anti-racism meetings. Scott shared his encyclopedic knowledge of history and politics. When Sheaffer won her own literary award, Scott sent her flowers and the soundtrack to “A Man and a Woman,” a romantic French film from 1966.
But Sheaffer, young and in love, failed to pick up on some danger signs. While it is unclear if he has ever received a diagnosis, his sister Wilma says she believes Bill Scott suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, which worsened as he grew older.
Alan Wald, now retired, was the professor in the class where Sheaffer and Scott met.
“Bill was not prepared for any kind of graduate class,” Wald said. “He didn’t really have the power of concentration or the commitment to carefully read the books and engage in thoughtful dialogue. He wanted to get up and sort of pontificate his opinions.
“He gave me the impression of someone who was already mentally in trouble.”
Percy Bates, the U-M education professor who had known Bill Scott since his youth, remembers well how Scott later would call him when he was in trouble – usually involving a problem with a young woman.
“Generally the crisis was pretty much the same,” Bates said. “He was into what he was doing, but they were trying to rehabilitate him or trying to get him on the right track. I think in most cases, he succeeded in getting them on his track rather than them being able to get him off where he was.”
Despite her concerns, Sheaffer stayed in the relationship, but one day their lives took an ominous turn: One of Scott’s activist friends introduced the couple to crack cocaine. It was the late 1980s, when crack’s surge in major cities was becoming an epidemic. Before long, drugs consumed their lives, leaving Scott more paranoid and unpredictable.
In February 1991 Sheaffer gave birth to a son. They named him William Walter Mandela, after the South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, who had visited Detroit the previous summer.
The baby’s early life was not promising. Sheaffer recalls speeding down I-94 in a car filled with alcohol, drugs and young Mandela eating chocolate to keep him quiet while mom and dad looked for drugs and got high.
There were run-ins with police. Over the years, Bill Scott was arrested for larceny from a building, retail fraud and possession of marijuana, and did several short stints in the Washtenaw County Jail. Sheaffer was busted for similar petty crimes.
Marriage ends. Mandela’s life begins
The liaison between Sheaffer and Scott did not end well. One night in 1992, Sheaffer found herself curled up in a fetal position, emaciated and covered in bruises from what she says was her husband’s physical abuse.
She sat on the dirty carpet of a cluttered Ann Arbor apartment, going through crack withdrawal while her baby slept in the next room. Scott was out on the streets, trying to find more crack. She knew if he scored, he would not share.
“I’d never been in a more dark or desperate place. If I could, I would have jumped out of my own skin.”
That is Sheaffer speaking last year on the stage of the popular Moth Radio Hour, the nationwide storytelling showcase in which ordinary people deliver monologues before live audiences, with their stories distributed via radio and podcast. Her talk is titled “A Phone Call.”
She describes how she worried that her druggie lifestyle would cost her her baby, so she punched in a phone number for a Christian counselor recommended by her mother.
It was the middle of the night. The man she awakened immediately started listening in a way that reassured Sheaffer. She talked for several hours. He listened to Sheaffer discuss Scott’s abuse and her drug problem. “This man didn’t judge me,” she told the audience. “He just sat with me, and was present and listened and had such a kindness, such a gentleness.” He would say, “Tell me more.”
As dawned neared, the conversation wound down and Sheaffer thanked the man repeatedly. Then she asked how long he had been a Christian counselor. He told her that he had been trying to avoid that subject but had to be honest now.
“That number you called? Wrong number.”
He was not a counselor, but a random Good Samaritan who had listened and cared. She never learned the man’s name and never talked to him again. Yet his hours of listening led her, gradually, to get her life together.
She divorced Scott in 1995, and eventually took Mandela — the “sticky, chocolate-covered baby boy,” as she put it — back to lily white Findlay, where she raised him, surrounded by her parents and other relatives.
Sheaffer later remarried and settled in Akron, where she teaches college English composition and studies for a doctorate in urban education.
Bill Scott made a different choice. He headed south, eventually settling in Daytona Beach, Fla., where by all accounts he has struggled. He has spent much of his time homeless, and has been arrested more than 50 times, for misdemeanors like trespassing, sleeping in the park and having an open container of alcohol, and such felonies as stealing from stores, possessing a weapon and buying drugs.
In July, I spent three days in Daytona Beach with photographer Brian Kaufman in a failed effort to find Scott. Street people and the director of a local homeless-aid center said Scott hadn’t been seen for months. His family has no idea where he is. Public records show he is not in jail and has not died in the county that includes Daytona Beach.
But this is not the end of Bill Scott’s story. For closer to home, there is his son, a talented young man with a promising future, like his father before him.
Now 25, Mandela Sheaffer remembers with fondness being raised as a biracial child surrounded by white people in Findlay, Ohio.
“It was a great place to grow up,” he says.
Mandela Sheaffer is thoughtful and self-assured. He talks quietly and laughs easily, like his mother. He wears his hair in dreadlocks, pulled back and resting neatly on his shoulders. His glasses are the browline style popular in the 1950s and famously worn by Malcolm X.
In Findlay, he recalls a few sideways glances from people while growing up because he looks black. Once, when he was 10, he said the manager of a market followed him down the aisles as if he might steal something. But by high school, Sheaffer was a football star, signing autographs for little white kids and feeling little discomfort.
“I was protected,” he said. “Generally, it was pretty cool.”
That does not mean young Mandela did not struggle with his blackness — and work to figure out the meaning of race in his life. He said he went through an identity crisis for years.
“I’m biracial. I grew up in a white community. I didn’t even know what it meant to be black in America. I was in a protective bubble.” He said he didn’t meet the black side of his family in Michigan until he was 21.
With good grades and his athleticism, colleges came calling. He narrowed his choices to Stanford and Princeton, and decided to go East. When he traveled to the Princeton campus in New Jersey for a football visit, the team paired him with a group of black players to show him around. It surprised him.
“I honestly didn’t know almost any black people in Ohio,” he said.
He said he began to realize that society was demanding he figure out if he was black or white. He said he tried to locate a middle ground.
“It’s almost an internal pressure, I would say. It’s almost like you have to perform for the black population and perform for the white population, not in a bad way. But I had to come to the conclusion that I was Mandela. I didn’t want to identify either way. I just want to be me, right?”
“It was absolutely a struggle,” he said.
Then Bowling Green happened.
Leaving the bubble
In March 2012, Sheaffer sat on the porch of a house in Bowling Green, Ohio – home of Bowling Green State University. The house was the home of his longtime girlfriend, who was white, as were her roommates. As he waited for the women to return, he said he bantered with the dozens of young people walking past. A pink flamingo on the porch added to the light-hearted mood.
It was a typical night in Bowling Green. He asked people how their night was going, and recalled: “At one point, someone said he was having a shitty night, so I went off the porch and gave him a hug. It was fun. The porch is right by the sidewalk. Everyone was within five yards of me.”
Suddenly, a squad car screeched to a stop in front of the house. Sheaffer, saying he had no idea what was happening, did not want to get involved in a possible police matter so he stepped inside and closed the door. After a few minutes, as more police arrived, he learned the cops were after him.
They wanted to see his ID, so he opened the door. The officers grabbed him, dragged him out of the house, snapped on handcuffs and took him to jail.
At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Sheaffer was bigger than most of the officers.
“They said, ‘Don’t resist, don’t resist, we’ll put you down.’ I was like, ‘I’m not doing anything.’ You could tell they were freaked out, just by my presence. I said, ‘Guys, you’re making a huge, huge mistake. I don’t even know why you’re arresting me in the first place.’ And they really couldn’t tell me.”
He spent 18 hours behind bars. Meanwhile, back at Princeton, student activists began a social media campaign on his behalf to publicize what some believed was racial profiling.
A month earlier, in Florida, George Zimmerman had shot and killed Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American high school student, and protests were beginning to spread nationwide. The Black Lives Matter movement was born the next year, when a jury acquitted Zimmerman.
“Racism claimed in student arrest,” read the headline in the Daily Princetonian student paper.
He was booked for disorderly conduct and obstructing official business. Police said he “recklessly” yelled at passersby “under circumstances in which the conduct is likely to provoke a violent response,” according to the Daily Princetonian’s reporting, citing police records. The police report said that when Sheaffer walked into the house he had delayed “the performance of a public officer.”
But the police story gradually fell apart. The charges were dropped and he was released from jail. Sheaffer said the BGSU chief of police later called him to apologize.
University spokesman Dave Kielmeyer recently confirmed Sheaffer’s version. After reviewing the incident, then-Police Chief Monica Moll “determined the officer could have made a better decision,” Kielmeyer said.
Sheaffer said he later learned the initial police officer suspected he might be up to no good when he noticed an African-American man on the porch of a house the officer knew to be occupied by young white women.
Despite the absolution, the incident left Sheaffer distraught and introspective.
“That’s when I had the stark realization that I’m black in America — that night,” he said. “Without a doubt, I’d been protected my whole life, in a white community. If I had been in Findlay it would have been fine. But 20 minutes away, it just blows up in your face.”
The encounter with police, he said, “flipped a switch” inside him.
“I started to really identify being black in America at that point because it was cast on me. I really wanted to keep ‘I’m Mandela, I’m myself.’ But in America, I’m black. No matter what.”
One way Sheaffer processed the incident was to pour his energy into his senior thesis, a major research paper that is a long tradition for Princeton students.
In some ways, he was following the path of his absent father, Bill Scott, who wrote about his evolving racial identity, racism and encounters with police four decades earlier. Mandela Sheaffer was thinking about race and the meaning of being black in the most personal terms. He called the exercise cathartic.
“It was not until I was unlawfully and unjustly arrested at the age of 21 that my eyes were opened to the fact that I was, in fact, a ‘black’ adult male,” he wrote in the thesis, “living in a white society where I could be harassed, detained and jailed, even though I had never had so much as an after-school detention in my entire life.”
Sheaffer said he knows the “white privilege” of his family, friends and fellow students at an Ivy League school, and his ability to hire a lawyer, gave him an advantage many black suspects do not have, leaving them to linger in county jails for weeks.
And he’s conscious of the privilege he continues to enjoy. Today, Mandela Sheaffer makes good money working with corporate clients in his job with Microsoft in Chicago. His 27th-floor apartment looks out on one of the city’s magical landscapes of a curving river flanked by glittering skyscrapers. It’s a status that young African Americans from his father’s era could scarcely imagine.
But Sheaffer said he wonders if he should be doing more.
He notes the irony of his white mother being more politically militant than he is. A year ago at Thanksgiving, when she was visiting, Auburn Sheaffer joined Chicagoans on Michigan Avenue to protest the shooting death by police of an unarmed 17-year-old African American named Laquan McDonald. Mandela Sheaffer stayed home.
“Right now,” he says, “it would be admirable for me to just throw everything away and start fighting, and doing whatever, but it’s not logical. It wouldn’t make sense right now where I am with my life.”
William Walter Mandela Sheaffer is the grandson of the militant hustler who owned the blind pig where Detroit’s deadly 1967 insurrection began. He is the son of the man who tossed a bottle that helped to start the disorder and then wrote about it in a searing memoir.
Mandela, succeeding in Chicago, does not know either man.
He did not meet William II, his grandfather. And he does not remember his father, though he has a photo of his dad holding him. He said he has not read his father’s book, though he believes he will check it out one day. But he’s not without his father’s writings. Mandela has note fragments written on cards and books that his father sent to him when he was little and living with his mom.
One note refers to a tiny koala bear, given to Mandela, that was originally part of a pair his parents had carried as tokens of their love.
“Dearest Mandela, you are now the keeper of the bear. Once there was two and now there is just one,” the father wrote. “Now you keep him safe with love and hope.”