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A drugstore owner's feelings of betrayal

The Baltimore Sun

Years before the first panes of glass were shattered, Stuart Silberg could sense a change in the neighborhood.

His father's shop, Manhattan Drugstore, had been a fixture in East Baltimore since the mid-1950s. And yet, Silberg felt that customers were becoming less friendly.

The shop at Rutland Avenue and Monument Street had become the target of burglaries. During one, someone even shot the family's two German shepherds.

So when news of the Rev. Martin Luther King's assassination reached the family, the younger Silberg feared that tensions would boil over. Concerned for his father's safety, Silberg, then 22, accompanied him to work Saturday. But they closed the shop within an hour.

"It just seemed like there was a tremendous amount of uneasiness," Silberg says.

The next day, father and son found the store ransacked: windows shattered, money missing, prescription containers and their contents in disarray. The elder Silberg packed up what he could. Soon after, he closed the store for good.

"He always felt he was a buddy of the community," Silberg says. "He felt betrayed. Our family was raised to be colorblind."

In the mostly black neighborhood, most pharmacies were run by Jewish families. Silberg remembers that his father's shop employed both whites and blacks. In the early days, customers called his father "Doc Harvey," and the elder Silberg offered them "Jewish penicillin," or chicken soup.

After the riots, Harvey Silberg became a different man, his son says. He grew argumentative and angry, routinely using racial slurs. The native Baltimorean felt as though his city had been lost. He grew so afraid of crime that he retreated to his Upper Park Heights neighborhood and never set foot downtown again.

"He got so mean," Silberg says. "I hated it because, while I empathized and felt for what happened to him, I couldn't understand why he became so distant."

The younger Silberg tried to reason with his father and offered context behind the riots. While Stuart Silberg was himself frightened and troubled by the violence, over time, he came to understand the frustration that sparked it.

"Many were kids in the neighborhood seizing the moment. I don't believe they understood the gravity of things," he says. "But in general, things were escalating. From the March on Washington to the assassination, the community became very uncomfortable with their lot in life, and I don't blame them. They had a right to be angry. We had forgot all about poor people."

Father-son relations were strained for decades. But four months before Harvey Silberg died of emphysema in 1990, the pair agreed to disagree and made amends.

"We already knew what was said and knew each other's opinions of things," says Silberg, now entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Baltimore's business school. "We were able to come to grips with who we were and what we meant to each other."

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