Déjà Vu Hell: 1968 Baltimore Riots Revisited

Like many Americans sleep would not come on Monday night. Each time I tried to rest I found myself once again in front of the television set, watching the horror and suffering in Kathmandu, Napal, due to a devastating earthquake, as well as shocks closer to home, ones that felt like Déjà Vu from Hell.

I have lived in Philadelphia since 1964, and when I am asked where I live, the answer is easy. It is, of course, Philadelphia. But when I am asked where I am from, my response is always Baltimore. Although I no longer have close family living there, many wonderful friends would never dream of leaving. And I remain deeply invested in my Baltimore alma mater, Goucher College. Once again, as in 1968, I watched as rioting, fires, and looting destroyed parts of my beloved hometown. Once again National Guards stood on my, our, streets.

The 1968 Baltimore riots lasted from April 6 to April 14. As most who read this blog know so well, the immediate cause was the April 4th Memphis murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This tragedy led to riots in 125 cities across the United States. The present Baltimore rioting, as is also known, began following the funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died in police custody for reasons still questioned.

No doubt, the area impaired by riots will suffer the most intensely from this present devastation, one that will intensify their very difficult challenges. One-third of those whose neighborhoods have been burned and looted live in poverty. The average unemployment rate in this area is twice as high as the city's average. Half of the households earn less than $25,000 a year, and deadly violence is pervasive. But I know all too well that there will also be expansive ripples of pain and depletion experienced by others for myriad reasons, both economic and psychological. They will rarely speak of their loss, and even their shame. Both will remain largely invisible to almost all who know them.

On April 10, 1968, my birthday, eight months pregnant with my first child, I stood in front of my father's former fuel oil business, begun by his father. It had been scorched and burned, destroyed. Only a few rooms, charred in smoke, remained. The accounts receivable were gone. The trucks that delivered fuel oil were demolished. Above the heads of the members of the National Guard lining Arlington Avenue was a large neon sign, with a moving Major, that read Major Oil Company.

The 1968 riots erupted in the black neighborhoods in East and West Baltimore. Most of the businesses destroyed were located on commercial neighborhood streets owned by Jewish families. In these neighborhoods, conditions were, as in areas hit today, problematic and dangerous. Unemployment was more than double the national rate. There was also substandard housing, high rates of infant mortality and high crime rates.

Throughout Baltimore the disgraceful Jim Crow laws were observed. Blacks could not drink from white public water fountains or enter most stores, restaurants, or theaters, and rode at the back of the bus. There were large signs as one entered certain neighborhoods, as well as at the entrances of many stores, restaurants, clubs and pools that read, "No Jews, Negroes or Dogs."

The majority of my father's customers lived far from the neighborhood that was brutalized. He had always been generous to his neighbors, providing gifts to churches and charities and oil for heating for many, many neighborhood families, knowing bills could never be paid. I remember anguished calls for heat coming to our home in the middle of the night, ones my father responded to immediately. This did not matter to the rioters, many of whom were from other areas. My dad had purchased every conceivable type of insurance, but if riot insurance was even available, he did not have it. Our beloved Rabbi, Dr. Uri Miller, urged him to declare bankruptcy, but he adamantly refused.

My parents sold their comfortable home and most valued possessions, so important to my beautiful, elegant mother. They cashed in their savings and met their financial responsibilities. As soon as they were able, they moved to a very small apartment in a decidedly unstylish Florida neighborhood, my father believing he had failed his father, his wife, and had disgraced his family. Both of my parents found jobs, my mother for the first time since her marriage. My father never wanted to return to Baltimore, but he returned once to keep his promise to my mother and bury her there. Several years later he was buried beside her.

My dad experienced further disgrace that I was never able to help him remove. When my two daughters were young, divorce became necessary in my life. My father never understood or forgave me for what he viewed as a failure as grave as his own. I believe that his loss and shame so devastated him that compassion for me became impossible.

Today, in the early morning, I watched as, despite ongoing danger, brave citizens of my hometown, along with their children and grandchildren, determined to build again. As they cleaned up their streets and neighborhoods with hope, love and fortitude, I pictured my parents in happier times meeting my very little girls and me at the Baltimore train station for a much-anticipated visit. I could clearly imagine them at the top of the designated arrival stairs, smiling broadly, as each granddaughter leaped into their outstretched arms. As this happened in my mind's eye, I also pictured the large neon blinking sign with the major in positive motion, despite all.

My father, having done his best, walked away from his wrecked professional heritage as soon as he could pay his outstanding bills. The sign, amazingly with lights and marching intact, was left behind. To me, today, it seems a symbol of hope and endurance bravely expressed by many of those who will forever remain my loved ones and my Baltimore neighbors and fellow citizens.

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