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A frightening time to be a young mother

The Baltimore Sun

Surrounded by potted plants and photographs of grandchildren in her sunny living room, Ruth Stewart seems an unlikely participant in the looting that took place 40 years ago.

Now 62, the retired teacher's aide says that the riots were wrought by the anguish and anger people felt after the King assassination on April 4, 1968. As the mother of two young children, Stewart made survival her first priority.

"When they killed Martin Luther King, that did it," she says. "The peace just went. He was for nonviolence, but they brought out the violence in us."

All through her West Baltimore neighborhood, people smashed store windows and passed boxes of food, cigarettes and even pantyhose onto the street. Men hooked heavy chains from a truck onto a metal window grate, pulled forward until the grate snapped and then rushed into the store. People carried armfuls of clothing from a pawn shop and hung them on lampposts.

Stewart, then 22, was staying at her sister's home on Edmondson Avenue with her toddler son and infant daughter. Her husband, whom she had married in her senior year at Douglass High School, was deployed in Vietnam.

It was a frightening time to be a young mother.

"Look one way and you see smoke. Look the other way and you see smoke. And I was right in the middle of it," says Stewart, perched on a chair in her tidy apartment in a high-rise for seniors overlooking Lafayette Square, not far from her old neighborhood.

Men lugged sofas and TVs down the street "like it was an everyday thing," she says. Children raced along with cases of sodas. Drug addicts wrestled over gallon jugs of medicated syrup from a pharmacy.

Soldiers set up camp in a nearby park, and police patrolled the blocks, arresting anyone out after the curfew. Ministers roamed the streets, pleading into bullhorns for people to calm themselves.

Along with some relatives, Stewart scooped up big silver-label hams from the basement of a nearby store but dropped them when National Guardsmen sprayed tear gas. She says she picked up cartons of Newports and liquor, which she sold or gave away. And she took cases of Carnation Milk and Pablum cereal for her babies.

At the time, she says, it seemed as if she didn't have a choice.

"I didn't know how long this would go on for. ... I had to think about survival for me and my children. It could have gone on for weeks or months, or it could have been the end," she says.

Every business in the neighborhood - except for one bar where the owners stayed with shotguns and attack dogs - was looted. It didn't matter whether the owners had been stingy or kind. People wanted to send a message.

"They were doing this for what was done to Martin," Stewart says. "It was like 'We're hurting you to show you some of the hurt we're feeling.' People wanted an eye for an eye. Hatred of all kinds came out of people at that time."

Stewart had felt the sting of racism all her life. When she was in seventh grade at the newly integrated Garrison Junior High, white students stuffed excrement in her lunch bag. Later, while living on a military base in Kentucky, she watched white children steal her 2-year-old son's toys and call him "blackie."

Taking part in the University of Baltimore project has made her think about how she has seen race relations change - and stay the same - over the years.

"I just wonder if it will ever end," she says. "Will we all ever be in peace and live together?"

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