Living through the unrest

The Baltimore Sun

For nearly four decades, people rarely spoke about the days when dark columns of smoke rose from Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods and mobs seethed in the streets.

But now ministers and schoolteachers, store owners and police officers, politicians and housewives are finally telling their stories about the city's riots as part of a groundbreaking urban history project spearheaded by the University of Baltimore.

"Ignoring the issues that came to a head in April 1968 doesn't make them go away," says Jessica Elfenbein, an associate provost at the university and the project's director. "We want to be part of moving the city ahead and healing wounds."

The stories told by people who lived through the unrest after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. form the heart of a three-day conference at the university that begins tomorrow evening. The idea is to examine unresolved questions about how the riots began and how the events of four days, almost exactly 40 years ago, continue to affect the city.

"We're trying to open up a dialogue and a discussion of not just the riots, but race and social progress," says historian Peter Levy, the university's scholar-in-residence for the project.

Researchers will talk about the legacy of racism and explore the social, political and economic causes of the riots. High school students will present a play based on the oral histories. Dancers will perform a piece called "None of Us Are Free."

The conference marks the first comprehensive study of this turbulent time in the city's history, university officials say. For many who shared their stories with researchers, it was the first time that they had revisited these painful memories in 40 years. And for some of the older participants, it may be a last chance to document their experiences.

Work on the oral history project began in the fall of 2006 when students in a civil rights class taught by Elizabeth Nix interviewed people whose lives were affected by the riots. They spoke with a minister who walked out in protest after Gov. Spiro T. Agnew insulted black leaders, a young white lawyer who was injured in the melee but spent nearly a week getting rioters out of jail, and a retired teacher's aide who says she took part in the looting so she could feed her children.

To date, nearly 100 interviews have been conducted, and researchers plan to continue compiling oral histories after the conference concludes. Many participants say that they had seldom spoken of their experiences before, Elfenbein says.

"These stories aren't rehearsed. They're fresh," she says. "People are really grateful to have a chance to talk."

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