Quality education is key to the betterment and stability of all communities. It is not only a civil right, but a human right and to deny that right to anyone is to exclude them from the promise of life, liberty, and justice. In the city of Detroit, the right to quality education was threatened amidst the privatization and disinvestment under the Detroit Public Schools takeover by the State of Michigan in 1999. John Telford, a longtime educator and social activist, has spent his lifetime fighting for social justice. He has based his platform on education as a human right, while fighting for Detroit city’s Black and brown children to receive the same quality of education he received in DPS as a youth. He is currently the Poet in Residence for the Detroit Public Schools and is affiliated with the National Action Network (NAN), (a not-for-profit, civil rights organization, to which he is a lifetime member), Keep the Vote/No Takeover, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management and is Vice President of the Detroit Track and Field Old Timers. John earned his nickname, “the lightening rod of controversy” for his righteous crusades.
Dr. John Telford, a native Detroiter, was born in 1936. He grew up at 602116th Street, near the West Side of Detroit and lived there until 1951. He grew up with his mother, a City of Detroit kindergarten teacher and his father, a Scotland-born coal miner, prize fighter, and union steward. When asked to describe the neighborhood he lived in, he described it as, “lower middle-class, integrated, and it kept getting increasingly integrated.” John’s house was situated near the corner of McGraw and 16th Street, just a few blocks from the old Olympia Stadium on Grand River and McGraw. He recalls, “When I was a kid, I boxed in that stadium and I also saw Gordie Howe play a lot of hockey games. We used to sneak in,” he laughed. Neither the stadium nor his childhood home are still standing.
In describing how the city has changed since he was a child, John recalls, “When I was growing up the city was predominately white. The city now is predominately Black. There have been some situations in the city that I witnessed growing up.” World War II, and the promise of jobs in Detroit’s automotive industry contributed to the steady influx of African American migrants from the south. Systemic racism, discriminatory housing, and police brutality set the stage for one of the worst riots in history. “When I was seven years old, there was a race riot in the city”, referring to the 1943 race riot. Remembering the 1943 race riot, John’s father saved an old man from getting stomped to death on the corner of Stanton and McGraw. “I still remember that- my father said, ‘You gotta go over me to get to this guy.’ We kept him overnight, and then my father drove him back home the next day.” The man had been beaten so badly that he died about two weeks later.
John’s father was a drinker and gambler and his mother eventually put him out. John attended Northwestern High School, and a short time after his father was put out, he got into an altercation in school which landed him in a youth home. After spending four and half months in a youth home, John was sent to live with his father where he began working at Keystone Metal Molding Company in East Detroit. John shared that at this point in his life, he probably would have never gone to college if it hadn’t been for his mother reconnecting with his father and saying, “No more boxing. No mor drinking. No more factory. He’s going to get his butt in high school.” John ended up at Denby High School where he was encouraged by his coaches and enticed with an athletic scholarship to attend Wayne State University. “I ended up at Denby High School where those coaches, once they got a hold of me, I couldn’t get into any trouble. Those coaches arranged for me to get an athletic scholarship to Wayne State University, and that was really something that changed my whole life.”
John shared that while originally majoring in Liberal Arts, English, he began substitute teaching in 1956 as a college junior at WSU. It was during this period that he realized that teaching was what he really wanted to do. John earned his B.A. in English (1958) from the College of Liberal Arts, his Master’s Degree (1961), and PhD in education (1968) – all from Wayne State University. Dr. Telford has been an English teacher, administrator and executive director at various schools within the Detroit Public School district since the 1950s.
“See, I keep coming in and out of Detroit. I’ve had a lot of jobs in Detroit,” Dr. Telford said of his relationship to the Detroit Public Schools at the time of the takeover. “But in 1999, I came back, and one of my old staff [Betty Hines] when I was an administrator at Butzel Junior High School in the 1960s was principal of Southwestern High School. So, she asked me to come and coach the track team and teach English, and at the time I was 64, 65 years old, but I did. I went back under that, under the takeover.”
When asked his thoughts about the state takeover in 1999, John shared, “They had no business taking us over. The Detroit Public Schools had a $125 million surplus and test scores were at the state midpoint and rising. Detroit had just passed a $1.5 billion bond and the Republicans in Lansing [Michigan] were looking at that money with hungry eyes, and they took us over because they could.” During the takeover, John joined with other grassroots community organizers such as Helen Moore, who represents the Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition group she founded. Keep the Vote/No Takeover was instrumental in the fight for a return to local control. “It is essential that the community elect their representation all up and down the line and that includes the school board. The school board is a very important body, and we had appointed school boards that were not knowledgeable.” Twenty years later, Dr. Telford notes that DPS test scores are the worst in the country and is now $3.5 billion in debt. “Detroiters didn’t do that. Lansing did that. The Republicans in Lansing did that to us. I would love to see a forensic audit. If we could bring an independent auditor in to do a forensic audit, people all the way to Governor Rick Snyder would go to jail because nobody knows where that money went.”
Dr. Telford served as interim superintendent during the period of emergency management from 2013-14. He has selflessly fought for Detroit’s Black and brown children to receive the same quality of education he received in DPS as a youth. He has worked tirelessly as a grassroots organizer and social activist against institutional racism in Detroit. “It makes me very angry, you know, as a Detroiter and as an educator because they ruined a district that was doing a very fine job of educating some very poor kids, and now they’re doing a terrible job of educating these kids, and that’s their only chance. Education is their only chance.” Dr. Telford continues the fight to revitalize the DPS as an educator-activist. He has written several books and currently has his own radio talk show, The Dr. John Telford Show.
As a poet, Dr. Telford has written many poems but the one poem that will always remain most vivid in his memory is, “My Vision.” “I have a vision in my heart and in my spirit and my soul that all the children of Detroit will never have to pay the toll of poverty and ravaged mind or end up dead or on the dole, but will, through education, find their life-fulfilling future goal.” That’s my vision for these kids.”
John Telford, interviewed by Peter Blackmer and Oriana Yilma, April 12, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.