“…and Baltimore is in flames.”
The above words were uttered by a newscaster nearly 50 years ago to describe the riot of April 1968, that ravaged the city of Baltimore after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I was 14 years old when that happened.
When I saw CNN using a similar headline recently, “BALTIMORE INFLAMED,” to describe the situation in April 2015, I experienced a disquieting sense of déjà vu. Today, at the age of 60+ years, I can’t help feeling disappointed and saddened that we all seem to have learned so little.
(The following excerpt is from the memoir “In Black In White,” by L.T. Woody.)
When I would take the No. 23 transit bus to downtown Baltimore, I would see the Soul Shack from the window. On the front of the building was a brightly colored sign with African symbols. Supposedly, it was a place where a part of the Black Power movement held its meetings. I did not know anyone who actually went to any meetings there, or what it was they really stood for. I was, however, aware of the National Black Panther Party, since they seemed to be in the news more and more.
The older teens and young adults in Harlem Park were somewhat more politically aware than they had been just a couple of years before. Typically, this put them at odds with their parents and grandparents, who had far more conservative views. The Black Power movement frightened many of them. On April 4, 1968, everyone’s worst fears were realized when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There was immediate speculation about the possibility of race riots occurring in cities across the country. The wait was not a long one, just two days.
Dr. King died from an assassin’s bullet on a Thursday evening. The next day, there was no school. Around the city, many of the merchants who did not already have steel gates to cover the fronts of their businesses spent the day boarding up the fronts of their establishments with plywood. If the business happened to be Black owned, they used paint to scrawl the words ‘Soul Brother’ across the front of the store as a sign of solidarity for anyone who might not be aware that Black people owned the store. On the streets, the feeling was that something was definitely going to happen, and the weekend seemed the most likely time. The day after the assassination was eerie. People seemed to be listening and watching to see how other people were going to react. It almost seemed that everyone was feeling that something big and bad must happen to show the country that it could not kill someone so revered, and then afterwards everything was just going to be business as usual. Other cities had already broken out in violence.
From Black community leaders there were appeals for calm. That was going to be sufficient for those who were older and more mature. What the city, and the country, had to be concerned about were the young people, who had already decided that they did not care about anything anymore. They were waiting for ‘it’ to start. Listening to some of the talk on the streets, it appeared as though the young people felt it was expected of them to act, to make a symbolic statement, like maybe burning this city to the ground. The thing is, for many of the older folk, there was a distressing sense that the threatened violence was going to have very little to do with how these young people felt about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; but was only an excuse to loot and burn. I suppose it came down to being a bit of both, but the violence that ensued was senseless no matter what the motivation.
That Saturday, just when and where the first brick or bottle is tossed, is deep down inside some dusty and obscure police file, most likely. However, when people started hearing about scattered violence around the city, the people on the streets knew that it was on! My block, the 1300 block of Edmondson Avenue, was sure to be a focal point for looting. We had the grocery stores, the drugstores, the hardware store, and a couple of miscellaneous small businesses that were undoubtedly going to be targets. Then, there was the coveted ‘plum’ of the block, which was only about four doors down the street from my house – The Pawnshop.
The looting of the grocery stores came first. My mother and father wouldn’t allow me to go out on the street, but I had an exceptionally good vantage point from which to see the action, from my mother’s second floor front bedroom window. I watched a small group of people strain together to pull off the plywood nailed to the front of a store. Next, was the sound of breaking glass as they smashed the windows and doors. Once they gained entrance, it was a free for all. Women, men, teenagers, and even children rushed in, and I watched them come running down the streets clutching boxes of candy and pre-sweetened breakfast cereals in their arms, sodas, cartons of cigarettes, you name it. You had to be first inside to get cigarettes because they disappeared quickly. I saw some of the looters gleefully run home to drop off their loot, and then boldly return for more.
Now that the ice had been broken, so to speak, parts of the crowd moved across the street in order to be the first to get inside the other grocery store. As word spread, and the word went out quickly, I could see people on the run coming from far up Edmondson Avenue, desperate to get a piece of the action. At this point, no one had much fear of the police. The word was, all the cops would be downtown guarding the larger White-owned department stores and surrounding businesses. The smaller neighborhood businesses were somewhat expendable.
Yet, it did not take long before the police arrived, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, but in that short time, everything was gone. The police officers that came were able to arrest one or two stragglers. After securing the area, they would leave one officer on the scene and speed off to the next emergency. By this point, all over the city, the violence had escalated. Businesses were now being looted and then torched, and there were reports of gunfire being directed at the police. The shit was getting way out of hand and this was still only the beginning.
Before you knew it, the police officers left on the scene were hopping into their cars to go to some other hot spot. Almost as soon as they left, the looting started all over again, except now it was obvious that people had taken some time to consider how best to do this thing. The next places looted were Caplan’s drugstore and Adam’s drugstore, with their shelves filled with drugs – of course. They also sold watches, radios and jewelry, the kind of items that were very portable and therefore valuable. Both drugstores had licenses to sell liquor. With that in mind, people were now bringing bags and even shopping carts to cart off more loot. Now they were running away with bags, boxes and carts filled with hard liquor. Some people started acting as lookouts, to warn the looters of approaching police. They were organizing this thing!
Soon after Caplan’s drugstore had fallen to the looters, the hardware store was next. For me personally, that was one of the saddest parts of it all. The old Jewish guy who ran the Hardware store was such a kind person, and funny as hell. I liked him. He had this bushy moustache and he was always smoking a pipe. The floor in his store was rough and splintered, and it was beyond me how he ever found anything in there with everything piled on top of everything else. I liked to go in there and look at all the different kinds of nails he kept stored in wood bins.
After another round of looting, the cops would return and there would be a couple more arrests. That would restore calm, and a momentary peace would ensue. Of course, now everyone knew the city cops would likely leave again. A very orderly dance was in play. I could see, and feel, the collective anticipation for the inevitable assault on the Pawnshop. At first, a small group of men went up to the imposing steel gates and gave them an exploratory shaking. I watched this from my front steps; by now my Mom and Dad would allow me to go that far, but under no circumstances was I to go any further. They were not going to allow me to participate in any looting, and to this day, I am not sure whether I would have done so if my parents were, less present. Sometimes I think I would have. I really wanted to get in on all that free/stolen stuff.
Even I could tell that those steel gates on the Pawnshop would come down easily enough if enough people put their weight to bear on them. Those boys on the street saw the same thing, and shortly after their first tentative effort, they returned in numbers. A crowd of twenty or so, men, women, boys and girls started shaking those gates back and forth, until the bolts securing them broke from the walls. Even before the gates completely came off the wall, a couple of the people had scrambled over the top and slid down through a small opening. From there, they proceeded to push from the other side, and the walls come tumbling down. Glory Hallelujah! They were in. There was a roar of glee from the crowd that was as joyful a noise as you were ever going to hear. It was like the sound children make at Christmas in that instant when they first see their toys. The speed with which I saw more people descend on the Pawnshop was breathtaking. My Mom and Dad made me come inside the house.
In the ensuing weeks, people justified what they did by saying; it was because of the somewhat predatory nature of the Pawnshop. When you were in dire need of cash, they took your most valued possessions, gave you far less in cash than it was worth, and then charged you a little more to get it back, if you were ever able to afford to get it back. Moreover, it was felt that the Pawnshop owners bought items from known thieves, who preyed upon the community, with very little crisis of conscience in patronizing these criminals. Everyone understood that the owners were just doing business. It was the nature of the conduct of some of that business people found objectionable. For these reasons, even people who had avoided any participation in the earlier looting were now showing up to loot the Pawnshop. Looking almost directly down upon the scene from my mother’s bedroom window, I watched in envy as I saw people strolling out with musical instruments, clothing, tape recorders, radios, color televisions and even huge sofas.
The faces of many of the people were very recognizable to me, but I did not feel any measure of disapproval of their actions or pass any judgments. I only wished that I could have gotten one of those televisions, or a shiny brass coronet, which would have been nice. After a short while, a couple of small scuffles erupted in front of the pawnshop when more than one person was interested in the same merchandise.
This time, when the police showed up it happened much more suddenly, and to me they seemed a little more ticked off than before. The police arrested more people this time, and the cops exercised a good deal more force as they made the arrests. Not a very comfortable situation when you have a lot of angry Black people yelling ‘Black Power’! However, one dude got a big laugh from onlookers, and even the police officers, as he insisted that he had only gone into the Pawnshop to take a piss. To underscore his point, he kept trying to zip up his fly as they were leading him out of the rubble. The city police left several officers holding rifles and shotguns to guard the pawnshop, and there was a sense that these cops were going to stay for a while. There were guns, rifles, and ammo missing from the pawnshop, which raised the level of concern for the police and everybody else. Night was closing fast.
Another interesting development was that the owners of Club Astoria and a few Club loyalists had decided to form a human barrier around the entrance to the Club. This was a show of force for anyone who might be getting any dumb ideas about taking out their establishment. They were somewhat discreet about it when the cops were around, but several of them were packing guns, which they occasionally brandished as a clear warning. Club Astoria was Black owned, a fact that should have assured them of inviolability against looting. However, they understood, as did the people on the streets, that the allure of alcohol would surely take precedence over the fact that they were Soul Brothers.
Essentially, things had gone as the Black merchants had hoped. Those businesses that were Black owned had made it through the day intact for the most part. The artifice of spray-painting the words Soul Brother across the front of a store worked well. One story that quickly made its way around the neighborhood, involved the dark skinned Pakistani store owner who sought to protect his store with a sign declaring him to be a ‘Sole Brother’. The misuse of the word ‘Sole’ sealed his doom.
By the next day, things had calmed down considerably in our immediate area, but there was still a fair amount of violence in other parts of the city, largely in the form of fires. I was in Allen’s block that afternoon when I saw smoke in the distance, somewhere up towards Lafayette Avenue where Harlem Park Elementary School was located. Allen, Bruce and I ran up there to see what was going on. What we saw was another recently looted grocery store. It was just across the street from the school, but this one had also been set afire. The blaze intensified quickly because of the debris inside. We sat across the street on a metal rail alongside the school and looked at the thick flames. Some of the kids sitting near us were eating boxes of black and white good ‘n plenty candy they had just looted from that store. One of the kids kept throwing the black pieces of candy on the ground. They sat near us, peacefully consuming their goodies, while the store burned to the ground. I used to buy candy in that store when I went to the elementary school. That small corner store was Black owned.
That afternoon, the National Guard arrived and there was going to be a dusk to dawn curfew, but that did not stop the madness completely. That night, I was sitting on my front steps when a Black National Guardsman, in full combat gear, came over and asked if he could sit with me. We began talking about all that had been going on. He told me he was there to protect Club Astoria.
“Are you in the army, man?”
“I’m in the National Guard, little guy.”
“Looks weird to see real soldiers dressed up for combat here in Harlem Park.” I said.
“Yeah, well, it looks strange to see people running around screaming ‘Black Power’ while they’re burning down their own community. People should think about that.”
“I don’t think they care,” I said.
Just then, we saw a flickering flame across the street, and it was moving — fast! Before the soldier could get up to investigate, a guy came running out of the alley, crossed the street and tossed a flaming Molotov cocktail at the entrance to Club Astoria. He then continued fleeing down the alley alongside the Club, and was gone. The guardsman ran to the Club’s entrance and managed to stamp out the flames, which was not difficult because the bottle the arsonist used had bounced from the wall of the club, before shattering, and the flames spread over the sidewalk. Another soldier came down the street to help him out, so it wasn’t even necessary to call the fire department. Things quickly settled down, and the streets were again silent.
Maybe an hour and a half later we heard a loud — BOOM. The soldier jumped to his feet, and while checking his weapon and heading up the street, he yelled at me to go inside. Of course, there was no way I was going to do that. I heard the sound of police sirens, and very quickly, what seemed like an army of police and National Guardsmen descended on our block, with searchlights and rifles trained on a house up the block. After a brief standoff, the police brought out a shoeless and shirtless man, wearing black pants. They were shoving and knocking him around pretty good. He was shouting the Black Power slogan, and he continued screaming it until they took him away in a police vehicle. The loud booming sound we’d heard was that shirtless guy firing a shotgun at a guardsman stationed across the street, but he missed. You had to wonder what was he thinking, and what would have been proved had he shot the guy.
Sunday was markedly quieter than the day before and the rioting appeared to be on the wane. Now, the time had come to clean up the mess and reflect. On Monday, a couple of the store owners cleaned up their establishments in an effort to try to reopen on a limited basis. Others simply came down to board up what was left of their businesses, salvage what they could, and return to their county residences. The already tenuous bonds of trust between them and this Black community were forever shattered. More than a thousand businesses were lost, looted and burned. Most of them left the community for good. What else could they reasonably be expected to do? There were fears that the summer would bring more rioting, but that did not happen — enough already. The community was devastated, and sadly, it never fully recovered.
The above account is excerpted from the memoir, “In Black In White,” by L.T. Woody, a program coordinator with the Focus on Families program at the Health Promotion Council of PHMC. Woody was born and raised in inner-city Baltimore.