Half a century after rioting ravaged Cambridge, town seeks to embrace history — so as to transcend it

Half a century after rioting ravaged the town, Cambridge, Md., seeks to embrace history.

As Victoria Jackson-Stanley remembers it, whenever her father left the family home to attend a civil rights protest in their Eastern Shore town in the 1960s, he made sure to tell the family not to leave the neighborhood until the action was over and emotions on both sides had cooled.

But Fred Jackson's warning on the night of July 24, 1967, was especially ominous: He told them not to leave the house at all.

"I knew something was going to happen," recalls Jackson-Stanley, now 63.

What Jackson-Stanley, then 13, saw through her window that night was a cluster of institutions on the black side of town — 40 thriving businesses and an elementary school — going up in flames. She heard gunshots in the darkness.

By morning, the hub of African-American life in town was burned down.

Fifty years on, longtime residents of Cambridge are still sifting through their emotions about what took place. Some remain angry about the conditions that caused the unrest. Some want to leave it in the past. Others say it should be remembered, as a way to help the still diverse community continue to move forward.

Jackson-Stanley, a social worker by profession, is now mayor of Cambridgethe first African-American and first woman to hold the office.

Now in her second term, she's also among the civic leaders pushing for a form of socioeconomic progress that "draws on the efforts and potential of everyone, "regardless of age, race or class" — and meeting with some success.

Her hope is that 2017 will be a watershed. Jackson-Stanley is backing a citywide plan to commemorate the anniversary of the riots, including festivities this weekend scheduled to bring pioneers of the local civil rights struggle back to a town where Jim Crow once reigned, and a four-day slate of cultural events at the site this July.

The goal, she says, is not to dwell on the past, but rather to release the city from its hold.

"The memories are so very painful, but there's no use pretending they aren't part of our legacy," she says. "You've got to acknowledge it before you can move on."

A slaving past

Cambridge — population about 12,300, as it was in 1967, and the seat of historically conservative Dorchester County — is a two-hour drive from Baltimore, across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and south along U.S. 50 through the heart of the Eastern Shore.

Enter town by way of the Senator Fredrick Malkus Bridge, which crosses the two-mile wide Choptank River, and you'll see the sparkling Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay resort to the east, clusters of modern homes on the waterfront to the west.

Those are multimillion-dollar 21st-century additions to a community first settled by English colonists, men and women who set up shop among the Choptank Indians in 1684.

Locals say it's difficult to understand the events of July 24, 1967, without taking a good look at what happened in between.

First and foremost, Cambridge — like many of its neighbors on the Eastern Shore — gained its economic footing during the Colonial era as a tobacco-farming community.

Its prosperity wasn't merely built on slave labor. The town was a center for the local slave trade, with auctions held regularly at the city pier and elsewhere.

Historic markers sprinkled among brick 19th-century storefronts celebrate the life of Harriet Tubman, who was born into slavery nine miles away, escaped in 1849, and returned to the area to help free as many as 70 other people — including a niece, Kessiah Bowley, who had fled an auction block on the steps of the still-in-use county courthouse on High Street.

"It's a difficult thing to commemorate your past when it also brings up so many painful emotions," says William V. Nichols, the only African-American member of the Dorchester County Council.

Cambridge remained prosperous long after slavery was abolished, in large part due to the explosion of the food processing industry in the town — for generations, blacks and poor whites alike worked for firms such as the Phillips Packing Co., which employed as many as 10,000 people in the 1930s. But when the Phillips factory closed in the early 1960s, the effects were calamitous.

Unemployment skyrocketed — and the collapse exposed a deep racial divide.

Dion Banks, 44, co-founded the Eastern Shore Network for Change, a nonprofit aimed at addressing the city's entrenched disparities creatively.

"The Eastern Shore had always been segregated, but it didn't seem like a day-to-day problem when everyone had a job and someplace to go," he says. "When the jobs left, the issues bubbled to the surface."

By 1961, joblessness had hit 7 percent among whites — and 29 percent among blacks. Long after the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that public-school segregation was unconstitutional, Cambridge maintained separate schools for the races.

Archaic housing laws limited African-Americans to living in the historically black Second Ward west of Race Street, then the unofficial dividing line between the black and white communities.

Most lived in homes without indoor plumbing.

"It's amazing to think about now, but I was in the third grade before I ever saw a flush toilet," says Larry Dennis, 65, an architectural designer who still lives in town.

Nichols, 58, is too young to remember those conditions, but as a county councilman he's aware that the memories of such indignities die hard.

"The oppressors don't always think those kinds of things affect anyone, but they do," he says. "Blacks were angry at whites for a long time. The fire just climaxed what had been building."

Evolving too slowly

Gloria Richardson was no longer living in her hometown of Cambridge the night of the blaze. She had moved to New York. But it would likely never have happened without her.

The Howard University-educated daughter of a prominent local African-American family, she was a divorced homemaker in her late 30s when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began busing white "Freedom Riders" into segregated Eastern Shore towns in 1961.

Tall and charismatic, she stepped forward to take over the fledgling Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee, becoming one of the few women outside the South who would assume a visible front-line leadership position in the civil rights movement.

Her forceful approach helped spark several high-profile standoffs, including a protest that escalated into a riot in Cambridge in June 1963 that inspired Gov. J. Millard Tawes to impose a state of martial law that would last a year.

It also led U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to summon her to Washington for face-to-face negotiations the following month.

"When I first met him, he was dressed in a pair of old khakis and a shirt without a tie," said Richardson, now 94 and known by her married name, Dandridge. "I thought, 'Why in the world did they send the janitor to meet me?'"

Kennedy and Richardsdon and other black leaders from Cambridge hammered out a "treaty" that addressed disparities in housing, employment and access to public spaces in town.

Dandridge is remembered as an early advocate for the use of violence in self-defense when necessary, a stance that edged elements of the national civil rights movement toward militancy.

She moved to New York in 1965 to marry Frank Dandrige, a photographer she had met during the demonstrations, and remains there today.

But in 1967, a group of activists still in Cambridge asked her to arrange a speaking appearance by the emerging black militant H. Rap Brown, then the newly elected chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Brown arrived from New York on July 24. Three nights later, he jumped onto the hood of a car in the 600 block of Pine St. and delivered a speech Dandridge says was more incendiary than she had advised.

"I told him, 'Don't get yourself in a bind blabbering about Black Power,'" she says. "You can give a strong speech, but don't do that."

His address suggests he didn't listen.

"Don't be trying to love that honky to death," he told a cheering crowd of about 500 people, according to historian Peter Levy, the author of "Civil War on Race Street: The Civil Rights Movement in Cambridge, Maryland."

"Shoot him to death. Shoot him to death, brother, because that is what he is out to do to you, but do it to him first."

Then he declared that Cambridge was evolving too slowly.

"If this town don't come around, this town should be burned down," Brown said.

Within hours, someone took him literally.

'Something's burning!'

It's not known for certain who started the blaze, or why.

Dennis believes black activists did it to draw firefighters away from the white business district. Jackson-Stanley says emotions got out of hand.

Dandridge says it was a mobster retaliating against a Pine Street businessman.

"Hotel owners weren't forwarding their cut," she says.

Whatever the cause, the all-white Rescue and Fire Company, citing fears of an ambush, let the fire burn for hours.

Witnesses say the horror of the night has never left them.

Nichols, then 8, saw flames leaping above Pine Street from six blocks away.

"Mom, something's burning!" he told his mother.

"They've burned the school! They've burned the school!" he heard her screaming.

Dennis, who lived outside town, heard the news on the radio. He and his brother tried to drive in.

They saw the sky glowing from miles away.

"It was scary," he says. "They had Route 50 blocked off. You couldn't get near the place."

Jackson-Stanley visited the next morning. The grade school she had attended, Pine Street Elementary, was in ruins. She was devastated.

"People were walking up and down the street in a panic, crying or just staring in amazement," she says. "The block was still smoldering. Everything was gone."

It was not the first civil rights riot that summer — fires had raged in Harlem, Cincinnati, Detroit, Newark and elsewhere — but Levy says the blaze in Cambridge changed the course of the movement, and in many ways not for the better.

For one thing, he says, whether Brown literally caused the fire or not — years later, he'd be acquitted of federal charges of arson and inciting to riot — it gave the movement's foes an excuse to close their eyes to its root causes.

"Cambridge gave politicians a chance to frame all the unrest as the result of agitation by black radicals, not the legitimate end product of generations of inequality," says Levy, a history professor at York College of Pennsylvania.

Among those politicians was Maryland Gov. Spiro T. Agnew, who rushed to Cambridge the morning after the fire and, many said, showed more rage at Brown than compassion for the neighborhood.

"I hope they pick him up soon, put him away and throw away the key," Agnew said.

Such words catapulted him from relative obscurity into the national spotlight as an avatar of the New Right — and to the attention of Richard M. Nixon, who picked him in 1968 to be his running mate.

Agnew resigned the vice presidency under Nixon in 1973 after facing bribery charges stemming from his time as Baltimore County executive, Maryland governor and vice president.

Brown — now known as Jamil Abdullah El-Amin — spent five years in prison for armed robbery in the 1970s. He is currently serving a life sentence for murder in the death of a Fulton County, Ga., sheriff's deputy.

'Reflections on Pine'

Many in Cambridge agree that the community has made enormous progress since the fire tore a hole in their lives.

The schools were integrated in 1969, followed by movie theaters, restaurants and the local ice skating rink. Whites and blacks have long lived side by side in nearly every part of the community, and customers of all races — the population is now 48 percent black, 46 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian — patronize the galleries, high-end restaurants and boutique stores that now fill historic storefronts downtown.

David Harp, a white longtime resident, credits hard work by "good-hearted" civic leaders of all stripes.

Harp has served on multiple community boards, including that of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, a nonprofit now working with Cross Street Partners, a Baltimore real estate firm, on an $18 million project to turn a 60,000-square-foot former factory building at the old Phillips plant into a mixed-use entrepreneurial facility. Plans include a food and farm exchange, a kitchen incubator and an innovation center.

"What happened [in 1967] happened for good reason, and if people still remember that, it's fine," he says. "But the people I know here, black and white, are passionate about building a nice town and living in a nice place."

The blaze of July 26, 1967, flared and died before Banks was born. But when he returned to town after years in the Army, he says, he saw Cambridge had made evident progress, but still lacked the tools to get to the heart of lingering racial disparities.

He formed the Eastern Shore Network for Change with Kisha Petticolas, a Dorchester County public defender, as a way of "opening dialogue so we can all move forward together."

Five years ago, the group called a community meeting to allow residents to share their feelings about the fire. More than 150 showed up, about half white and half black.

Banks was stunned to learn that the community had barely processed the incident.

"When the conversation got heated, we realized there had never been a public conversation about this, ever, in the city of Cambridge," he says. "That meeting ended up with people talking, hugging and crying. I told Kisha, 'We have got to do something about this when the [50th] anniversary hits."

That's the plan for 2017.

Banks' network invited Dandridge to town for a day in her honor on Saturday. When aides to Gov. Larry Hogan heard about the plan, they joined with the network and the Maryland Commission on African-American History and Culture to make it a Governor's Black History Month program for 2017. Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford was to deliver remarks.

The Eastern Shore Network for Change is working with a local radio station and a film company to produce a documentary in which local residents share their memories of the fire.

Their plan is to screen it during "Reflections on Pine 50 Years After the Fire," the slate of commemorative events set to take place over four days in July in and around the 600 block of Pine. The block now houses a community empowerment center and a police substation.

Speakers will honor Tubman, Dandridge and the man who served as Dandridge's lieutenant during the 1960s: Jackson-Stanley's late father, Frederick Douglass Jackson Jr., who died in 1984.

Events will include jazz and gospel concerts, a 5K "race to end racism" and an exhibit at the parsonage of Bethel AME Church, a key meeting place during the 1960s and one of the few buildings to survive the fire.

"We're turning it into a decompression house, where people can come and record their memories and their reactions," Banks says. "Once everyone gets their feelings into the open, we can move forward as a community and begin to maximize all the amazing potential here."

Fifteen local organizations, including the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce, the Harriet Tubman Organization and Cambridge Main Street, have joined efforts with Banks' group to stage the events.

That's all fine with Jackson-Stanley, who has been pressing for just such a coming-together for years.

"It's time to move on," she says. "I just wish we could all move a little faster."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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