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Tensions remain in Cambridge Progress questioned 25 years after riots

July 26, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

The other buildings were not supposed to have burned July 24. Black businessman Hansel Greene should not have lost his life's work that night. A nightclub and several retail stores he owned went up in flames anyway. Embers from the burning elementary school drifted across the street and landed on the rooftops. The fire spread quickly.

Police kept firefighters out of the area. There was danger of sniping and rock-throwing. Officer Wroton had been shot earlier, struck by shotgun pellets. Some property owners on Pine Street aimed garden hoses at their buildings to keep the flames away.

Two weeks after seeing the ashes of his livelihood, Mr. Greene took one of the fancy shotguns he used for hunting and killed himself. His was the only death directly linked to the civil disorder.

A few blocks down from where the school stood 25 years ago, three men in their 40s leaned back on porch chairs and spoke of days gone by. "Back then, things were good compared to now," said one.

A seldom used brick amphitheater now occupies the lot where the school stood. Kids play there, another man said, while drug dealers stand not far away. "In those days, if a person carried a gun, it was because they might need it," said one man. "Nowadays, it's 'cause they hope they get to use it."

"Everybody's bad, man," said his friend.

Why Cambridge?

During today's church service at the Bethel A.M.E. Church in Cambridge, Mr. Cromwell is scheduled to stand up and say a few words about civil rights and about those who helped blacks here before and since the 1967 fire.

Other than that, there was nothing scheduled here to observe the 25th anniversary of the night part of Cambridge burned.

"Most people here just want to forget it," said Edwin C. Kinnaman, the Cambridge clerk-treasurer. "It's not something we're proud of."

A Cambridge native who was 12 in 1967, Mr. Kinnaman said he was aware of segregation in Cambridge when he was growing up, but he also knew that blacks elsewhere were treated the same way.

"I don't think Cambridge was any worse than any other community," he said. "That's a white perspective, I know. I'm sure you could find blacks who thought it was."

Mr. Cromwell, now 44, thought it was. Salisbury and Easton community leaders made sure integration came more smoothly, he said. Hardscrabble Cambridge, with its economic ups and downs, was less willing to share jobs and housing.

"If Cambridge had opened its doors even gradually, it wouldn't have made the headlines," he said. "See what it cost them? It cost them this stigma down through the years.

25 years later

Mr. Chester put away his knife and gun years ago. He turned to religion, he said, when he was in jail for failing to pay child support. He broke his cocaine and alcohol habits, got a job as an addictions counselor, and entered politics.

As Dorchester County's first elected black county commissioner, Chester now sits on the government body that once asked him to leave public meetings when he was a young firebrand challenging their policies. "I'm at the bargaining table, and that's where I want to be," he said. He said his priority is jobs for minorities. He's looking for a publisher to help put together a book about the Cambridge civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Octavene Saunders, who was active in the Cambridge underground with Mr. Chester and others, was elected to the Cambridge City Council last week. She disagreed with those who said blacks are no longer as united as they were in the '60s.

"The blacks have never been united," she said. "You had house niggers and field niggers then. You got them now."

H. Rap Brown, now known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, was never tried on arson and riot charges stemming from the Cambridge disturbances. By the time his case came to trial, he was serving a prison sentencefor robbing a liquor store in New York. He refused to answer questions by telephone, but told the Associated Press last week during an interview at his Atlanta health food store that what happened in Cambridge 25 years ago could happen again. "As long as conditions exist as they exist, you will always have people who will rebel against injustice," he said.

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