New book about the riots of April 1968

Many remember thinking, 'How could this be happening?'

March 25, 2011|Jacques Kelly

It was the first Saturday in April 1968. I stood alongside family members and looked out the windows from our home. No ordinary fire was burning in East Baltimore. It was the first night of the rioting that broke out two days after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The flames seemed out of control and shot far into the air. The next day, Palm Sunday, plumes of smoke crossed the skies.

A few days ago, I received an advance copy of what promises to be the definitive history of that incident. The book is called "Baltimore '68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City" and is due this summer from Temple University Press. It is a collaboration of University of Baltimore faculty members and staff and is edited by Jessica Elfenbein, Thomas Hollowak and Elizabeth Nix.

I was startled by their statement that professional historians had focused far more attention on the 1968 Columbia University student protests as well as the demonstrators at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The authors state that "during Holy Week 1968, the United States experienced its greatest wave of social unrest since the Civil War." Some 110 cities were hit by riots; Baltimore, Washington and Chicago experienced some of the worst violence.

The book contains passages about the big players, Gen. George Gelston of the Maryland National Guard; Spiro Agnew, then Maryland's governor; Police Commissioner Donald D. Pomerleau; David Glenn, of the Community Relations Commission; "Little Melvin" Williams; and police Maj. William "Box" Harris.

I reacted to the thoughts of a then-student at the University of Baltimore — Joe DiBlasi, who years later went on to represent South Baltimore on the City Council. DiBlasi was then in the Maryland National Guard and returning home from a drill session in Parkville. He was 22 and found himself in charge of 12 Guardsmen at North and Pennsylvania avenues. He recalled it as being a surreal scene. "You would just look around and say, 'How can this be happening?'"

As I watched the flames that night, I thought the same thing. My family lived in the city; we often shopped on the street — Gay Street in Oldtown — where the flames first erupted. How could this be happening?

The book also contains an account of the family of Sidney and Ida Pats, who owned and lived at Downe's Pharmacy on West North Avenue between Bolton and Callow. Their daughters, Sharon Pats Singer and Betty Pats Katzenelson, recalled driving back to their store that day and seeing it in flames. They recounted how they lost the business and did not return to a city neighborhood they had known as home for so many years. "Life as we knew it was over at that point," said Sharon Singer.

Urban renewal schemes were going haywire in Baltimore at this time. I recall walking along Mount Royal Avenue in 1961 and seeing boarded-up houses slated for demolition. It looked like World War II footage of Berlin.

In this regard, the book advances a fresh theory, perhaps a contributory cause, for the riot. Some misguided planners had sold Baltimore a line that it would fall apart if a major interstate highway were not connected through it. "In many ways, the highway plans and the riots were linked. To the people who lived in the neighborhoods slated for clearance, the expressway proposals made it clear their homes and schools and luncheonettes and grocery stores were less important than an exit ramp. Public policy declared over and over again that Baltimore's black neighborhoods were disposable; in 1968 rioters treated them accordingly," the book says.

Years later, my sisters recounted a personal story. That day, April 6, 1968, several of their classmates were at our family home in Charles Village, including the son of Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, when the doorbell rang. It was the mayor, who calmly asked that his son return with him that night. None of us had expected any trouble; events proved otherwise.

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