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The fire both times: Baltimore riots after Martin Luther King's death 50 years ago left scars that remain

Firefighter Jerry Alfinito stopped for a moment after extinguishing the blaze at Gabriel’s Spaghetti House in Baltimore’s Broadway East neighborhood before racing to the next one. It was sometime after 11 p.m. on April 6, 1968 — the first night of what would be days of rioting and looting in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“That area is set up high, you could see a distance,” the now 81-year-old Alfinito recalls.

He saw plumes of black smoke rising from multiple fires that had been set since the rioting began around 5:30 p.m. It started on the east side — with two furniture stores, a jeweler and other businesses on Gay Street, three buildings on Harford, a dozen buildings on Greenmount and a grocery on Milton all set ablaze — before spreading in sporadic outbursts to West Baltimore as well.

“It was chaos,” Alfinito says. “I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

Fifty years later, the singularity of what happened in the days after the assassination of the civil rights leader remains.

More than 1,000 stores and businesses were torched, damaged, looted or destroyed. The National Guard and the Army descended on the city, and so many people were arrested in the mayhem that what is now Royal Farms Arena was turned into a temporary jail. Hundreds were injured and six killed — including two whose bodies were found in the wreckage of the spaghetti restaurant housed in a building at Federal and Chester owned by John and Mary Novak.

Even as they receded in memory over the years, the ‘68 riots have remained a touchstone in Baltimore, and an explanation — fair or not — for the many woes that have beset the city in the intervening decades: white and middle-class flight to the suburbs, the resegregation of city schools, the block upon crumbled block of empty buildings, the persistent distrust between police and parts of the community.

Fire
A fire at Caroline and Eden during the 1968 riot in Baltimore. William H. Mortimer, Baltimore Sun file photo

The riots came to mind when parts of Baltimore burned again, in a shorter outburst on another April night, in 2015, after Freddie Gray died in police custody. While much of the turmoil was on the west side of town, once again the flames found their way to the same part of the Broadway East neighborhood.

That night, in a still unsolved arson, a huge fire consumed a senior apartment building that Southern Baptist Church was building at Federal and Chester, one of the defining images of the 2015 riot. The blaze spread to an adjacent corner store, Novak’s Market.

harvin then
Baltimore firefighters battle a three-alarm fire around a senior apartment building during the 2015 riots after Freddie Gray's death. Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun

A line connecting then and now

The terrain still rises gently here in this part of the Broadway East neighborhood, providing the vista that firefighter Alfinito took in that night 50 years ago.

The city is much changed since then, from the building of the Inner Harbor and other waterfront developments, to the emptying of many of the homes and commercial buildings in Broadway East and elsewhere.

Political careers rose and fell in the wake of the riots. Families left; businesses changed hands, moved away or shut down. And Baltimore was faced with repairing itself in a climate of heightened divisions.

“The first task afterward was to do as much healing as we could do,” recalled Peter Marudas, an aide to then-Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. “We picked up as much as we could, but it was in an atmosphere of tension, and racial sensitivities. There were a lot of raw feelings.”

The neighborhood where first the spaghetti restaurant and then the half-built apartment complex and market burned is something of a microcosm of what has happened in Baltimore since the ‘68 riots. There has been both rebuilding and deterioration; shifting patterns in where people live, shop and work, but also a continuing legacy of inequality and segregation.

That the same site would burn twice in the space of five decades speaks to unfinished business in Baltimore, some say.

“I think there’s a line” connecting then and now, said Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winner author of the civil rights trilogy “America in the King Years.”

“There was a lot of despair that was loosed when King was killed,” said Branch, who lives in Baltimore. “But I don’t think it created anything, so much as [wakened] people up to a festering problem that had been ignored for a long time, and it’s still with us.”

The 1968 riots erupted in “the Negro slums,” The Baltimore Sun wrote at the time. It was there, Branch said, that white Baltimore largely confined the blacks who were part of the Great Migration from the South in search of work in the industrial North, through zoning, real estate covenants and redlining. While such practices have since been outlawed, much of Baltimore remains segregated today, with the most impoverished areas still populated largely by African-Americans.

While the rebuilt church apartments, called the Mary Harvin Transformation Center, join the renovated American Brewery building as hopeful beacons of their neighborhood’s revival, they are surrounded by many tired rowhouses, vacant buildings, empty lots and long-shuttered businesses. It is the kind of cityscape all too familiar in Baltimore, the image people have in mind when they say there are parts of town that never recovered from the 1968 riots.

But it’s more complicated than that, historians say.

Societal changes, from the rise of suburbanization to the fall of manufacturing, were already contributing to “urban decline,” said Peter B. Levy, a historian at York College in Pennsylvania who has written extensively about the Baltimore disturbance.

It’s really a tale of two cities. The areas that were black remained black, the areas that were white largely remained white.

Historian Peter B. Levy

“The neighborhoods were already deteriorating, distressed, and the rioting didn’t help,” said Levy, who lives in Towson.

“A lot of the [neighborhood businesses] were already falling into trouble just because of what was happening in retail in the first place,” he said. “Malls, the suburbs, people were already starting to shop elsewhere.”

But over the years, he said, one thing has remained constant.

“The residential segregation of the city has continued,” Levy said. “It’s really a tale of two cities. The areas that were black remained black, the areas that were white largely remained white.

“Parts of the city have enjoyed a renaissance and probably are nicer than they were in ’68 in some ways,” he said. But those neighborhoods are and remain largely white, he said, and it’s baffling that black parts of town, such as those near Druid Hill Park that have beautiful old houses, haven’t gentrified in the same way as a Canton or Hampden.

“The developers,” Levy said, “may be more willing to develop in those communities.”

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‘And then it snowballed’

Eric Booker was 5 years old in 1968, and doesn’t remember the spaghetti house on Federal Street. But the longtime Broadway East resident does remember other neighborhood businesses that catered to residents: barber shops, drug stores, groceries and smaller markets like Novak’s that would keep a tab for you if you didn’t have enough cash at the moment.

“My Aunt Doris would say, ‘Go up and see Melvin,’ one of the people who worked at Novak’s,” said Booker, an assistant Baltimore City housing commissioner and member of the New Broadway East Community Association.

“If you didn’t have all the money, it was no big deal: ‘Just bring it when you come next time.’”

Others say some stores took advantage of their customers, over-pricing merchandise and charging excessive fees to cash checks. In any event, neighborhood businesses would be among those that bore the brunt of the anger that erupted after King’s assassination.

The civil rights leader was killed on the evening of Thursday, April 4, 1968. While Washington, Chicago and Detroit burned immediately, Baltimore initially was calm, if uneasy. A police department action report from the time depicts officials in what it called a state of “watchful waiting.”

“I was hoping to make it to Sunday,” D’Alesandro remembers thinking, when ministers might be able to quell the anger from their pulpits.

The former mayor, 88 and still known as “Young Tommy” to distinguish himself from his father, an earlier mayor, D’Alesandro was a progressive on civil rights. As city council president, he shepherded a local civil rights bill through a bitter fight to passage, even enlisting Roman Catholic Cardinal Lawrence Shehan and Episcopal Bishop Harry Lee Doll to testify at a particularly contentious hearing. As mayor, he appointed more African-Americans to high positions in City Hall than ever before, and maintained strong ties in the black community.

Asked now about those relationships, his eyes flash with pride.

“When I was running for mayor, I won every black precinct,” he said. “How’s that for relations?”

But even that couldn’t hold back the growing agitation.

On Saturday, April 6, police monitored a midday memorial ceremony for King at Pennsylvania and Mosher on the city’s west side, and noted that about 250 people attended without “incidents.”

By 5:20 p.m., though, “disorderly crowds” had formed on the 400 and 500 blocks of Gay Street in East Baltimore. Soon, someone threw a brick through a storefront window.

“And then it snowballed,” D’Alesandro said.

Source: University of Baltimore, Baltimore Police Department

Rioting “broke out in the Gay Street ghetto area about 5:30 p.m.,” The Sun reported the next morning, “which city police declared out of control within five hours.”

As the unrest progressed up Gay Street, disturbances began erupting elsewhere in the city. Young men, mostly, threw bricks and rocks at storefronts, and looters rushed to grab what they could. Smoke could be seen rising above many parts of town. Gov. Spiro T. Agnew ordered an 11 p.m. curfew and called in the National Guard.

The following morning, Sunday, April 7, D’Alesandro and the commander of the Maryland National Guard, Maj. Gen. George M. Gelston, toured Gay Street and North Avenue.

D'Alesandro remembers Gelston saying: “I think things have calmed down.”

The mayor, seeing “too many people in the streets,” disagreed.

“All hell is going to break loose,” he predicted. “You can feel it.”

The fires and looting went on for several more days. There were multiple reports of sniper fire. Firefighters were attacked while they tried to extinguish the blazes, and groups of whites and blacks skirmished in the streets.

National Guard
National Guardsmen stand along Guilford and Preston Streets. William Hotz, Baltimore Sun file photo

President Lyndon B. Johnson sent Army troops to bolster the Guard, and the curfew was advanced from 11 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The Orioles home opener, on Tuesday, April 9, was postponed (and two players, shortstop Mark Belanger and relief pitcher Pete Richert, were called to their National Guard units).

On Wednesday, April 10, normalcy began returning, as did baseball.

“I threw the first ball out,” D’Alesandro said.

Political firestorm

Just as things were quieting down, Agnew ignited a firestorm. On Thursday, April 11, the governor met with Baltimore’s African-American leaders, including state Sens. Clarence Mitchell III and Verda F. Welcome and many black ministers.

Agnew upbraided the group for failing to rebuke the radical black power advocates Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, and said their fear of speaking up and being called “Mr. Charlie’s boy” or “Uncle Tom” had left “parts of many of our cities ... in ruins.”

Some of the black leaders had indeed taken to the streets during the rioting to try to quell the mayhem; now they stormed out in anger. But Agnew would build a national profile as a law-and-order figure — and be picked by Richard Nixon to run as his vice president later that year in what would be a victorious ticket.

“People said, Ag-who?” George L. Russell Jr., then the city solicitor, recalls. “You know how that turned out.”

Agnew resigned from the vice presidency in 1973 after pleading no contest to tax evasion to settle a federal bribery investigation that included allegations that he received kickbacks as Baltimore County executive in the 1960s.

Russell, 89, remembers the tensions of being a black man in a largely white establishment. He was the city’s first black circuit court judge and appellate judge and then its first black city solicitor.

“I was too black to be white, and I was too white to be black,” Russell said. “Both sides looked at me with suspicion.”

Russell was a D’Alesandro appointee, one of a number of high-ranking African-Americans in the administration.

“He had so much vision,” Russell said. “The riots came and crushed him.”

D’Alesandro, brother of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, maintains that he left politics after his one and only term ended in 1971 for financial reasons. As a father of five, D’Alesandro said, he needed to make more than the $25,000 that he remembers as his annual salary.

But whatever his reason for leaving office, he took heat during and after the riot. He came under fire in some quarters for immediately calling Agnew’s rebuke of the black leaders “inflammatory,” and for what some believed was an overly restrained approach to the looters and lawbreakers.

Archives of his tenure include letters from residents, some hand-written and many pages long, who seemed to have gotten personal responses from him, or at least his staff.

One man called his handling of the riot “inept.” He continued: “The condonation of crime and violence during that week is unparalleled in recorded civilized history.”

Another man, who identified himself as a “poor middle class slob whose only right is to pay taxes,” complained that the money was “being used to provide goodies for the loafers and goof offs who loot and riot.”

D’Alesandro responded to one letter writer by saying the “record-high arrest totals” (more than 5,000 were jailed) show police “did not coddle violators of the law.” He also noted that cities such as Newark and Detroit had used greater force against rioters, and “scores of persons, many innocent, were killed by stray bullets and fearful gunmen.”

Others residents, though, wrote to offer support for what one called “the cool headed manner in which you handled the recent unfortunate events.”

That writer was Samuel G. Gorn, whose company managed several apartment complexes, including the Village of Purnell in Northwest Baltimore.

White residents there wrote the company on April 8, 1968, taking it to task for “refusing to fly the American flag at half-staff” after King’s death.

They went on to speak metaphorically about the fences surrounding the apartments, and how they could no longer contain the “de facto segregation which exists here” or “stand against the winds of change now blowing in our country.”

The residents concluded by saying: “We earnestly request that the Village of Purnell be opened to people of all races … [as] a testimony to the principles for which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed.”

Gorn wrote the mayor on April 16, saying that as soon as Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 on April 11, outlawing discrimination in housing, his family’s company, Gorn Brothers Inc., immediately opened its properties to all races.

Gorn and his brother Morton wrote a similar letter to the president of the Baltimore NAACP branch, Lillie M. Jackson.

“I think you may be happy to know that the first colored family has been accepted as a tenant at the Village of Purnell,” they told her.

The Gorn family is still in business, although they changed the company’s name in the mid-80s to Questar. Morton’s son, Stephen, is the CEO, and the company is about to open 414 Light Street, a luxury apartment building on the old McCormick & Co. spice plant overlooking the harbor. Although the company sold the Village of Purnell and other properties in 1997, it will always have personal significance to Stephen Gorn.

“I lived there in ‘69,” he said. “I was 18 years old, and it was my first place on my own. It was great.”

Accelerating decline

Diane Lashley had spent 31 years working at the old C&P Telephone. After retiring, she became an administrative assistant at her church, Southern Baptist, on Chester Street.

She has lived on the east side most of her life. She did have a brief stint in Baltimore County, but her family complained she was too far away. Now, when she drives with her grandchildren through her old neighborhood, she tells them it wasn’t always like this: The crumbling or boarded-up houses, the dearth of businesses beyond the occasional corner store.

“Everybody took pride in their property, even if they rented,” the 68-year-old Lashley said. “We had marble steps, and we all came out and cleaned them. If your neighbor was too old, you cleaned theirs, too.”

She was attending community college when the riots erupted, working at a downtown five-and-dime and living on Lakewood Avenue with her three younger siblings and her parents — a father who worked at Sparrows Point and a mother who worked at Hopkins Hospital.

For Lashley, the riots began a decline in the neighborhood from which it didn’t recover.

1968 riot damage claims

Source: Peter B. Levy, Buildings damaged during riots

“Our grocery store, it never came back,” she said. “Most of the businesses, that was it.”

Other neighborhoods had similar experiences. While one post-riot report, from a regional branch of the American Friends Service Committee, said most stores in the “ghetto” did re-open, many replaced their plate glass windows with “walls of cinder block or glass brick with small high window openings, so that the shops have become fortresses.”

In Lashley’s mind, it’s intertwined: The riots, the lost businesses, the fewer and fewer men who had the kind of family-supporting jobs that her father had, the soldiers who returned from Vietnam addicted to heroin and the drug trade that spread through the inner city.

“It kind of destroyed a lot of neighborhoods,” Lashley said, and sighed.

After the riot, the city sought to revive Gay Street by turning it into the pedestrian-only Old Town Mall. It also resumed work on major developments — the Inner Harbor, Charles Center downtown — that were already in the pipeline, as well as building more low-income housing.

But all that activity couldn’t reverse the trends of growing suburbanization and declining manufacturing, which were already leading to population losses in the city, and whose effects were only exacerbated by the riots.

“It accelerated the movement out of the city of the white middle class,” said then-City Councilman Bob Embry, who became Baltimore’s first housing commissioner that summer. “There were fewer merchants than before.

“It reinforced the opinion of those who had a choice, they should move out,” said Embry, now president of the Abell Foundation. “That was already happening before the riot.”

D’Alesandro said he is proud of the way city staff handled the riots and the aftermath. But he, too, sees an incomplete recovery — particularly in achieving the kind of “racial harmony” that he believes only comes through personal relationships. It makes him wonder how much can be done, even by the most well-intentioned government leaders.

“It’s a question of how far did we go?” he said. “I don’t know, I’m not in the precincts like I used to be.

“I think a lot of work has to be done. I don’t know if it’s up to my successors, or is it up to the people?”

Twice burned

Over time, ownership and even addresses on the block that burned both in 1968 and 2015 have changed.

Gabriel’s Spaghetti House was listed at either 2050-52 or 2054 E. Federal St., depending on the document. State assessment and taxation records now list 2050 as part of the parcel owned by the Mary Harvin center, and 2052 no longer exists. The building’s owners in 1968 were John and Mary Novak, presumably the family that gave its name to Novak’s Market that until three years ago stood at 2054 E. Federal.

On April 6, 1968, according to news accounts and court documents, a Molotov cocktail was tossed into the spaghetti restaurant, followed by a bucket of gasoline, igniting a fire. As looters entered, a bartender opened fire, killing one man whose body would later be found. The fire spread and another man, Louis H. Albrecht, 56, who lived on East Madison Street, ran upstairs, where his body was later found. The coroner ruled the cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of the fire.

Also found in the restaurant was the body of an alleged looter. The Afro-American newspaper quoted the mother of that man, William McClain Harrison, 18, as baffled by his shooting death. She told the newspaper her son worked at the Bugle Laundry, nearby at Chester and Oliver streets, and that she wasn’t informed of his death until April 11.

“He loved his work, he was as good a boy as a mother could have,” she told the newspaper. “I just don’t understand how something like this could happen.”

Three men were arrested and charged with arson and murder; they were convicted and received life sentences. One had his murder conviction reversed on appeal, and received a new trial on arson charges, resulting in a 10-year sentence, according to news accounts.

On April 27, 2015, Novak’s Market burned. The fire created a bit of buzz online after Sun reporter Justin Fenton tweeted a picture of the market in flames, and noted that it had been featured in The Wire as the corner store where the character Omar, the legendary stickup man who robbed drug dealers, met his own violent death.

But in the chaos of the night, it was largely forgotten, and the blaze — which remains unsolved — became known as the Mary Harvin fire, for the larger apartment building under construction.

Neighbors remember it as the market that used to have a fruit stand — run by a man named Melvin — in front of it.

And Seong Ok Baik has her own fond memories of it. The businesswoman, originally from Seoul, said she bought the market and the land in the mid-80s from a Mr. Novak. She doesn’t remember his first name. She smiles as she talks about how her two children, now in their late 40s, grew up helping her in the store. She used to open at 7 a.m. to cater to workers at a laundry company nearby, since shuttered.

“They came in for coffee and a sandwich,” said Baik, 71. “I liked to sweep the street outside, say hello to the neighbors. I enjoyed operating the business there.”

When Melvin left — she doesn't remember his last name — she closed the fruit stand. Her husband had a heart attack, and they decided to sell the market, although they retained ownership of the land. The last owner of the market was the daughter of a friend, Baik said, and she has since moved to Pennsylvania for her husband’s work.

Now Baik, who is president of the Korean Society of Maryland, is part of a federal lawsuit by 65 merchants against the city, saying it failed to protect them on the night of the riots.

Baik, who lives in Howard County, remembers that when she first started buying property in Baltimore, many of the sellers were Jewish. They were among the merchants whose stores were damaged or destroyed in the ’68 riots, and in some cases eventually decided to sell rather than reopen.

Now, the Koreans who sometimes were their buyers are exiting themselves after the 2015 disturbance, said Charley Sun, one of the lawyers who filed the suit on behalf of the merchants. He said he’s increasingly seeing Koreans selling their properties to newer immigrants, often from from India, Pakistan and Nepal.

“The [2015] riot just put a period on it,” Sung said. “Korean people just said, this is it, we’re leaving.”

From the ashes

The Rev. Donte Hickman said many churches stayed after 1968, and his is staying and growing after 2015.

Hickman, 46, wasn’t around for the 1968 riots. His Southern Baptist Church was founded 87 years ago, but only moved to its current Chester Street home in 1972. When the West Baltimore native became its pastor in 2002, the church already had plans for building housing. As Hickman considered the state of the neighborhood, he said, he wanted more.

“What can we do to bring about transformation,” he asked, “not just build houses to become dilapidated again?”

The apartment building was named Mary Harvin Transformation Center, after a founding member of the church and its aspirations for the neighborhood. The center offers health and counseling services in one wing of the building. The church has been acquiring property in the area with further plans for neighborhood services, Hickman said.

On hearing that the site of the transformation center burned not only in the 2015 disturbance, but in the riots that followed King’s death in 1968, he paused.

“Some would say, secularly, that it’s coincidental,” he said. “I would say it’s spiritual.

“With our tenacity and resilience, we can overcome it,” Hickman continued. “I think Dr. King’s message still resonates. We have to go from the assassination to the transformation.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Jonathan Pitts and Dan Rodricks contributed to this article.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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