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Recalling Baltimore's 1968 riots

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE 1968 riots rank with the 1904 fire that wiped out much of the downtown business district and the state legislature's 1947 vote to prevent the city from annexing additional land as major events that changed the course of history for Baltimore this century.

In the early hours, the unrest didn't seem like a momentous event. The city was relatively quiet after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on the evening of #F Thursday, April 4. But by April 6, sporadic, isolated incidents had gained momentum. Teeming crowds gathered on Gay Street in East Baltimore and began breaking store windows and looting. By 6:45 that evening, then-Gov. Spiro T. Agnew had called out the National Guard.

Hundreds of city and state police officers were deployed to limit destruction in East and West Baltimore. Many merchants decried the lack of police protection for businesses. The sky was blackened with the smoke of 800 fires in 72 hours.

The toll was steep: six people were killed, 700 were injured, 1,000 small businesses were looted or burned out and 5,800 people were arrested. Nearly 3,500 cases were tried in city courts.

Baltimore has since moved forward, forming multiracial coalitions address the city's ills, including the needs of the poor. Post-riot urban renewal efforts added some much-needed schools and recreational facilities.

But much remains to be done. Major corridors, such as Gay Street and North Avenue, and parts of Harford Road, Pennsylvania Avenue and Park Heights Avenue, still show scars from the riots. Some three decades later, the memories of that violent time remain clear for many people. Below are some recollections.

The events of Saturday evening, April 6, 1968, linger in my memory. Clarisse Mechanic, owner of the theater that bears her husband's name; my now-deceased husband, R.P. Harriss, then-arts editor of the News-American, and I were invited to a dinner party at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Irving Taylor, near Ellicott City.

We had just been seated when a policeman arrived and told everyone from Baltimore to leave at once and to take the shortest route to our homes because rioting had broken out in the city. As we drove, the streets were deserted except for soldiers.

When we dropped Mrs. Mechanic off at her home on North Charles Street, we could see flames shooting high in the sky from fires on Greenmount Avenue. By the time we reached our Guilford home, a strong odor of smoke was everywhere. That night, we did not sleep with guns by our side as several of our friends did.

Margery W. Harriss

Guilford

The Baltimore riot of April 1968 was a long Palm Sunday weekend of contrasts from Saturday through Tuesday.

People went to church and people looted. People were curious or scared to death. They went outside looking for adventure or to calm things down.

The skies were a sunny blue in one direction and black with smoke in another.

Tulips had replaced the daffodils in back yards and federal troops patrolled streets with bayonets on their guns.

The mayor said the riot was well-planned and others thought there was no evidence of that. Many agreed the trouble started in East Baltimore.

On the streets were Martin Luther King Jr. remembrance signs, an all-out curfew, no traffic, no liquor sales and no more mom-and-pop stores on corner lots.

We lived in Bolton Hill in the city - still do - and had a 10-day-old baby, a 1]- year-old and a 3-year-old. Buildings burned two blocks away and troops walked down our street. Since I worked downtown from darkness to darkness as an editor at The Evening Sun, we moved to Roland Park for a week.

From day to day, no one knew when the trouble would end. But by midweek, the curfew was eased; there were fewer fires, looting and arrests. City people helped dampen tensions.

For many, the riots ended with baseball. The Orioles opened their season at Memorial Stadium on Wednesday.

Ernest F. Imhoff

Sun reporter

People in the newsroom stood by the big east windows, as Saturday afternoon waned, watching plumes of smoke rise. The sight of Washington's rioters on television had been a signal to inner-city Baltimore. What next, here - the National Guard? The Army? I made one more call to New York - to Bob Parker, chief of domestic correspondents for Time magazine.

Time went to press then on Saturday evening. "We want you to size up the situation," Parker said, speaking very clearly. "If Baltimore's turning into another Newark, another Detroit, we'll hold everything. If your riots aren't that big, we'll close on the usual schedule.

"Call us about 6."

Four of us went off for a closer look: Phil Evans, city editor, and two reporters from The Evening Sun; I in my sideline as the local stringer for Time, Life and Fortune.

We drove up to East North Avenue - where several buildings were ablaze. I saw kids racing along the sidewalk and carrying burning torches. We turned south on Harford Road, where a big dry cleaning plant was already in ruins. No police or firemen were in sight. All this in daylight.

We headed north and over to the west side; a calmer scene. Vehicle traffic was scant; no one bothered a car with four gawking white men. We drove back to the Sun Building, at Calvert and Centre streets. I called New York.

"It's still early," I reported. "But we may not be having as hard a time as Washington. Nothing's going on downtown, nothing in the white residential districts. Don't hold the magazine for Baltimore."

Normally, the goal was some mention, any mention, of Baltimore. Now, with all this sudden power (the one such moment, it turned out, in 30 years of the Time tie-in), I was glad not to have to use it.

ames H. Bready

retired Evening Sun editorial writer

On Wednesday, April 10, 1968, my daughter, then 6, was scheduled for a tonsillectomy at Mercy Hospital downtown. Over the phone that morning, her doctor had assured me that it was business as usual there despite the rioting. So we made the trip from our Riderwood home.

From the windows of my daughter's hospital room, I could see fires from the riots dotting the landscape. I warned my groggy daughter that she would hear a lot of sirens in the night, but not to worry, she would be safe.

About 3 p.m., I reluctantly left the hospital to comply with the citywide 4 p.m. curfew. It was eerie to emerge from the hospital, midafternoon, onto silent, empty city streets. National Guardsmen wielding M-1 rifles were poised on every corner.

Irma C. Woodland

Riderwood

I was in private practice and handling the settlement on a Bolton Hill house on Lafayette Avenue for a bank on a day when fires were breaking out all around Bolton Hill. So, while we were sitting there doing the paperwork, you could see columns of smoke going up, and this couple that was buying the house kept getting more and more nervous, looking at these fires all around.

They asked us, "What in the world is going on?" I just tried to appear calm; I told them, "Oh, it's just the riots."

Thomas A. Ward

retired Circuit Court Judge

Driving to work in normal rush hour on an empty Jones Falls Expressway was my abnormal beginning to the third day of the riots. The road was closed to everyone except those with passes issued by the National Guard.

From Television Hill, the highest point in Baltimore, we of the Channel 13 staff had a panoramic and frightening view of some 300 fires - a city going up in smoke and anger. With some anxiety about my own safety, I joined one of the WJZ news crews going down for a closer look.

The smashed windows, the looting, the fires, the black banners from a thousand windows were pretty much what I expected from watching the coverage on television. But when we stopped on Pennsylvania Avenue in West Baltimore, I left the newsmen and wandered about - into the completely unexpected.

While I, a middle-aged white man clad in jacket and tie, walked self-consciously and fearfully along the street (and thankful for the National Guard presence), I encountered not one sign of hostility - not a push, not a word, not even an angry glance.

The atmosphere was an eerie combination of resignation and Roman holiday. I watched several burly men climbing through a smashed window of a liquor store, loading their loot into the trunk of a car. My presence didn't deter them; they seemed scarcely to notice me.

Up the street, yet another fire had broken out. The only visible firefighting equipment was busy with a burning building a block away, so the new flames were on their own. The bystanders watched passively amid smoke and confusion as if, despite this assertion of black power, they were still the powerless ones.

But fury, even when justified, is seldom rational. Vengeance was being directed against the physical symbols of white control, no matter if they were the local grocery store or coin laundry, or the apartment whose landlord wouldn't fix the leaky roof. A passing white person was not the enemy.

As we got safely back into the news wagon to return to the station, someone hurled a soda bottle against the side of the vehicle. That was the sum of the anti-white violence we endured that day.

Gwinn Owens

former editorial director of Channel 13

There's this myth that still persists that black businesses weren't destroyed during the riots - that all you had to do was put a black ribbon in the window or on the door to identify your business as being black owned and the looters would leave you alone. But many of the black stores were destroyed anyway. It really put them out of business; they lost everything because they didn't have the capital to rebuild, nor the business acumen to borrow money from lenders.

James Crockett

owner, Crockett Realty Co.

Before the 3 p.m. Palm Sunday curfew, I drove to a fire near Johns Hopkins Hospital. Walking down an alley, I saw an old black woman sitting on her steps, weeping. "This didn't have to happen," she kept repeating.

As I headed back to the seminary, I stopped for a red light. Suddenly, a group of stone-wielding youths appeared, and smashed the car widow of a nearby driver. As he sped off, the well-supplied youths headed for me. Then, one of them saw my Roman collar and shouted: "He's a priest, let him go."

Praise the Lord, and go I went.

$the Rev. Joseph Gallagher

retired Baltimore priest

My friends and I were milling around on the Towanda playground when two or three men came through and threw Molotov cocktails into Sam's Liquor Store at Quantico Street and Reisterstown Road. We hadn't seen anything like it; it was terrifying. The store burned in less than an hour.

ichael Johnson

owner of the Heritage Black Film Museum

Driving through the destruction that weekend, many people had a black cloth tied to the car's antenna, or wedged into a window. It signified mourning for Martin Luther King Jr. - also, if you liked, sympathy for the rioters.

Mother, who Sunday morning traversed the length of North Avenue, told of having seen, hanging out one residential upper window, a black brassiere.

R.C.S. Gladstone

Baltimore

We were staying at the Belvedere Hotel when the riots began, attending an Ocean City Dunes Club dinner dance. On hearing of the riots, some of us went up to the roof of the hotel to survey the unrest.

When we returned to the Charles Room, everyone at the dance had left the hotel, including the band and hotel staff, leaving the hotel doors locked behind them. We had a fitful night's sleep not knowing if the hotel would be torched.

The next morning, the streets were virtually deserted, except for trucks full of armed guards and police cars.

Francis J. Townsend Jr.

Ocean City

As a 21-year-old sergeant in the Maryland National Guard, my job was to cook for the guardsmen and city and state police. As I was cooking on the parking lot of the Fifth Regiment Armory, I could see fires all around us. I was scared to death, and I worried for my pregnant wife back in Pigtown.

I carried a .50-caliber machine gun and no bullets. I thank God no ammunition was issued because someone might have overreacted and killed someone.

David Brecht

Pasadena

While parts of the city were burning, life downtown seemed to go on relatively undisturbed.

Except for the soldiers and the gun emplacements on certain street corners, the sight of soldiers on these familiar sidewalks was chilling. Downtown suddenly looked formidable, threatening, hostile.

Walking about you had the sense that the city would be forever tarnished by this sad sight, stained by armed rebellion.

You felt in your gut that things would never be the same again. And, of course, they never were.

ilbert Sandler

free-lance writer

As I rode the No.7 bus home on Palm Sunday morning, I saw parents looting stores with their children in tow. When I saw that, bTC I knew that they were going to have trouble reasserting their authority. The 1968 riots was a time when parental authority and respect for adults in the African-American community began to erode.

My parents told me that if I brought any stolen item into the house, I was going out the back door with it.

R.B. Jones

free-lance writer

After news spread that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot, you could feel the tension in the air everywhere. I went to Monument and Gay streets, because that's where I understood the trouble was going to start. A gentleman was there dressed in black - somebody I had never seen in the neighborhood. He threw a rock through the window of Sun Cleaners at Aisquith and Monument streets.

Then, all hell broke loose. They started looting stores, going north along Gay Street. The first fire started at the Lewis Furniture store on Gay Street.

I thought the best thing to do was to go home, and that's what I did.

Nathan C. Irby Jr.

executive secretary of the Baltimore City Liquor Board

Pub Date: 4/03/98

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