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Resilient Shore city suffers, survives

The Baltimore Sun

So Cambridge burns, again.

Forty years and nearly six months after someone torched Pine Street Elementary School and set off a blaze that burned down nearly all of Cambridge's black business district, a fire this week destroyed two businesses housed in historic structures on Race Street and derailed efforts at an economic revival of the Eastern Shore city's downtown district.

That's a setback, not a defeat.

"We're trying to regroup," said Penny Tilghman, the associate director of Cambridge's Department of Economic Development. "The city government is trying to get funds for the businesses to relocate."

Cambridge Mayor Cleveland Rippons said the state and federal government have "come to the table" with offers to help.

"The governor called the night of the fire," Rippons said. "His secretary called the next day. Senators [Barbara] Mikulski and [Benjamin] Cardin also called."

News of the fire hit me like a Joe Frazier left hook to the solar plexus. I've been spending quite a bit of time recently in Cambridge. On three weekends in October and November, I was in the city doing interviews for a joint project sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University and the University of Pennsylvania's Africana studies department.

The study sent reporters to seven American cities that had riots in the 1960s to discern if any of them had implemented the recommendations of the Kerner Commission Report, issued on Feb. 29, 1968. Out of Newark, N.J., Detroit, Philadelphia, Tampa, Fla., Birmingham, Ala., Los Angeles and Cambridge, I was selected to write about Cambridge.

And I was darned glad I was selected. It was a homecoming for me, of sorts.

Many years ago I spent several summers in Cambridge, at the home of my uncle, Theodore Kane, and his wife, Mae. My siblings and I looked forward to the visits. "Going down to the country," we called it.

My work on the joint project - called "Kerner Plus 40" - allowed me to go into detail about Cambridge's history. I wrote about the two riots the city had in 1963 that erupted after violence broke out between blacks and whites following demonstrations against segregated public accommodations. Then there was that nasty business back in 1967.

On July 24 of that year, members of a Cambridge group called the Black Action Federation - rankled that black children still had to attend the dilapidated Pine Street Elementary School and angry about continued segregation, especially in the fire department - invited Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chairman H. Rap Brown to town to speak at a rally highlighting racial injustices. Brown gave what was his standard spiel at the time: The black revolution is coming, burn whitey out.

The ensuing arson at Pine Street Elementary School, which spread to several nearby businesses, was called a riot. An enraged Gov. Spiro Agnew blamed Brown, who was charged with inciting to riot. Brown went underground, eventually resurfacing in New York in 1971 after shooting it out with police while trying to rob a bar. The Maryland charges were dropped in 1973 - for failing to appear at his trial in Howard County that same year - while he was serving time in a New York penitentiary.

In April of 1968, Agnew publicly chastised black Baltimore leaders after rioting occurred here in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Agnew went on to become President Nixon's vice president. And Cambridge struggled along, trying to attract businesses to the town to provide jobs.

This past December in Cambridge, Richard Huang and Zhang Liyong, the executive director and president, respectively, of the China General Chamber of Commerce, visited the city to investigate the possibility of companies from the People's Republic of China bringing their businesses - and jobs - there.

What a difference 40 years makes. And what an ironic twist of history. There's a school of thought - espoused in detail in college professor Peter Levy's book about Cambridge called Civil War on Race Street - that goes something like this: Brown's speech and the Cambridge riot of 1967 helped shift the country to the right and led to the political ascension of Agnew. Agnew, after his remarks condemning Brown and Baltimore's black leaders in 1968, was chosen by President Nixon as a running mate. That was part of the "Southern strategy" that helped Nixon get elected.

In 1972, Nixon visited the People's Republic of China, which led to that country's more liberal fiscal policies and economic growth. By late 2007, we had Zhang telling a group of Americans in Cambridge "I hope to bring more Chinese companies here."

Cambridge rebounded from two riots in 1963 and one in 1967. After those trials, rebounding from this week's fire on Race Street will seem like a breeze by comparison.

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