On a warm Saturday evening in June 1943, crowds were relaxing on Belle Isle, a retreat slightly larger than New York’s Central Park nestled in the Detroit River, which separates Canada and the United States. Belle Isle’s landscapes and structures were a showcase of great American architecture: Frederick Law Olmsted, Albert Kahn, and Cass Gilbert all were represented. Its botanical garden, yacht club, memorial fountain, golf course, and opulent marble lighthouse offered a serene testament to the grandeur of Detroit.
Exactly what started the riots that night, we’ll never know for sure. There seems to have been a confrontation between a white sailor’s girlfriend and a black man, which led to a brawl. As contradictory rumors raced through the city, the conflagration spread. By the time federal forces intervened to impose law and order three days later, dozens of people had been killed, mostly blacks, and millions of dollars of property destroyed, mostly in the poor, black, inner-city neighborhood of Paradise Valley.
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