Tensions remain in Cambridge Progress questioned 25 years after riots


CAMBRIDGE -- Twenty-five years after this racially tense Eastern Shore city erupted in a conflagration of fire and passion, two things remain clear.

First, this city did not burn to the ground.

Despite confused and embellished reports that swept across the country the next few days, the fires that lit the sky over Cambridge on the night of July 24, 1967, were confined to two sides of Pine Street. And only one building, a dilapidated elementary school, was intentionally set afire. Race Street, the ironically named main business thoroughfare just a block away, was hardly touched.

And second, the fires that earned Cambridge its unwanted national reputation were never completely extinguished.

Blacks and whites go to the same schools, eat side by side in the same restaurants and sit together around the same tables to discuss government policy. Still, there's an undercurrent of racial distrust here, even if it isn't entirely understood by those who recognize it.

"A lot of people are frustrated," said Russell E. Wroton, Cambridge's police chief who, as a rookie officer in 1967, was wounded by gunfire during the violence. "I don't think it would take a heck of a lot to getsomething going."

National Guard troops sent by Gov. Spiro Agnew to impose "bayonet law" on downtown Cambridge in 1967 were no strangers to this city of 12,000 residents.

In 1963, some 500 guardsmen had been ordered to restore calm after organized efforts to end segregation in public businesses grew violent. They stayed for a year.

Local blacks, assisted by students from Northern colleges and what some community leaders called "professional integrationists," had been picketing establishments for months.

Lemuel Chester was 16 at the time. He supported the picket lines and joined them occasionally. He believed segregation could be stamped out through peaceful means. He wanted Cambridge to change, but he didn't see violence as the way to achieve it.

The U.S. Justice Department helped bring temporary relief to the situation by getting civil rights leaders and local officials to accept a public-accommodations agreement.

Four years later Mr. Chester was in the entourage that picked up H. Rap Brown at the airport outside Cambridge. They brought him into town to address a crowd of about 400 that had gathered to denounce what organizers said were broken promises by the white business and political leaders to end housing and job discrimination.

By that time, Mr. Chester had abandoned his non-violent philosophy. He no longer had the patience. "A knife and a gun was part of my wardrobe when I got dressed," he said.

Mr. Chester and about a dozen others in Cambridge formed the Black Action Federation to fight discrimination in public. In private, he and several others organized the Cambridge Guerrillas, a group he described as involved in underground activities.

Black activist Stokely Carmichael was supposed to have come to Cambridge that night. There was a change in plans, and Mr. Brown, then chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, flew from Newark, N.J., in his place.

It was hot and muggy. Mr. Brown finally appeared before a crowd that had grown anxious after waiting 90 minutes for him to speak. Then came the infamous speech urging blacks not to wait for the establishment to give them their rights but to be aggressive in their protests.

Police tape recordings never caught the militant saying, "Burn, baby, burn," but Mr. Brown was recorded saying, "Cambridge has to explode, man."

Three hours later, after Mr. Brown had been secretly led out of town by supporters, Pine Street began to burn. Shots had been fired. Bricks had been thrown.

Cambridge, the little known town on the banks of the wide Choptank River, was about to hit the front pages of the nation's newspapers next to reports about civil disorders in Detroit and Minneapolis.

Authorities blamed Mr. Brown's incendiary speech and "a well-planned Communist attempt to overthrow the city government" for the violence.

"They termed it a riot," said Dwight Cromwell, who was part of the crowd that night. "But it was a rebellion. Tensions had built up over the years. . . . You can only take so much."

Nostalgia for earlier time

Partly because of segregationist policies, partly because of a sense of community, blacks in Cambridge saw Pine Street as their Main Street in the 1950s and '60s.

Before they gained national stature, black entertainers like James Brown and Jackie Wilson performed in the Pine Street clubs.

There were several barbershops, a grocery store, a candy store, a dry cleaners, a bar, an Elks club for blacks. In the middle of all this was the Pine Street Elementary School -- the black elementary school. They all burned in 1967.

Someone had tried to torch the school a week before Mr. Brown came to town. The school was in disrepair and blacks wanted a new building for the children.

But the school didn't belong on Pine Street. They said it belonged in a quieter neighborhood, away from adult hangouts.

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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