He started the Detroit riot. His son wrestles with the carnage: Part 3
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 III. 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.”
We’ve been there for you with daily Michigan COVID-19 news; reporting on the emergence of the virus, daily numbers with our tracker and dashboard, exploding unemployment, and we finally were able to report on mass vaccine distribution. We report because the news impacts all of us. Will you please support our nonprofit newsroom?