Echoes of 1968

Baltimore's riots remembered

In a first, UB students document the deadly convulsion 39 years ago

April 04, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,SUN REPORTER

A black sergeant major in the National Guard recalls with pride how his troops prevented even a single window in Mondawmin Mall from being smashed by would-be looters. A white Bolton Hill couple tell of drinking National Bohemian beer on their roof while watching Greenmount Avenue burn in the distance.

An African-American mother remembers a ransacked West Baltimore neighborhood occupied by white National Guardsmen who demanded proof of employment before letting her go to her job in Timonium.

"That was really humiliating," said Rosalind Terrell. "It reminded me of slavery. A pass for slavery."

These recollections of April 1968 are from an ambitious University of Baltimore effort to comprehensively document, for the first time, the four-day convulsion of grief and revenge that swept the city's poor, black neighborhoods after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn., on this day 39 years ago.

By the time the Baltimore riots died down, six people had been killed, about 5,300 arrested and more than 5,500 armed troops were on patrol throughout the city.

Despite the magnitude of the uprising and its catastrophic consequences for already-distressed communities, the riots have never been thoroughly documented or understood, said historian Peter Levy.

"Our riots are overlooked," said Levy, a York College professor who is the University of Baltimore's scholar-in-residence for the riots project. Notable neither for presaging future turmoil nor for being unusually deadly, like the 1967 Detroit and Newark riots, Baltimore's days of civil disturbance were overshadowed by concurrent uprisings in nearby Washington, Levy said.

"We are like Nagasaki to Washington's Hiroshima," Levy said.

When university officials started planning a commemoration of the riots' 40th anniversary next year, they couldn't find many first-hand accounts from ordinary people who lived through them.

So UB historian Elizabeth Nix assigned students in her civil rights history course last semester to find witnesses and videotape their testimonials. The gathering of oral histories - about 20 have been collected so far - will continue through next April, when the university will convene a scholarly conference on the riots' lingering impact on the city 40 years later.

Meanwhile, university librarians are preparing artifacts for public display, such as converting to digital video the reel-to-reel tapes of WMAR-TV's coverage. They have created a self-guided driving tour of the city's east- and west-side commercial corridors that were devastated by looting.

Organizers are collaborating on exhibits with the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

For an urban public campus best known for professional schools that cater to working adults, the project is an opportunity to promote itself as a center of scholarship and civic engagement.

The diversity and hometown roots of much of its student body are an asset, said Jessica Elfenbein, a UB administrator and lead organizer of the riots project.

"A project like this might otherwise be seen as parochial," she said. "But we are a university of people from here. They bring with them contacts and credibility in the community that can then become very important" in persuading people to bear witness to a painful past.

Still, student historians found that for many eyewitnesses to the riots - particularly those who participated in the looting - the topic remains taboo.

"Some people thought it was too painful, some people just didn't want to be recorded," said recent UB graduate Bashi Rose, who participated in the oral history project. "Even though it happened decades ago, I guess it's still fresh in their minds."

And then there are those who have blocked out the experience completely.

Ida Pats, 82, doesn't talk about the destruction of her North Avenue pharmacy and upstairs home. She says she's wiped out all memory of seeing the building where she lived for 18 years and raised a family be looted, then burned.

"I don't want to remember," she said. "It's old history, and I don't want to know about it. It's like it never happened."

But her two daughters, who were teens at the time, recently brought her to UB anyway, so the video cameras could at least record her expressions as they spoke.

Elder daughter Sharon Singer said the full impact of the riots didn't hit home until several days after they began, when the white 16-year-old returned to her Western High School classroom. The recent violence fed a lively debate among 15 girls of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds.

"There was a black girl named Debbie and she was a leader-type of person ... and she said, `I want you to know they got exactly what they deserved,'" Singer recalled last week. "I started crying. I'm crying now. I had to leave the room. That one thing cut to me like nothing else could have cut to me. I thought, `What is happening in this world?'"

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