My mother’s parting words were about tear gas: “If you’re hit by some and can’t breathe and your eyes begin to burn, cover your face with this cloth.”
It was 1968 and my family was living in Washington, D.C., where I was born. Our townhouse was in Tiber Island, a new, middle-class community in Southwest. We had moved there the year before from nearby River Park. From the perspective of an 8-year-old, it was ideal: places to play, a neighborhood pool and a lot of kids. I didn’t notice the angst the adults were going through or that it was considered an “experiment” blending a poor, mostly black community with a middle-class one made up of both blacks and whites.
My best friend at the time was black (I am white and Jewish). The day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, I was at her apartment when her grandparents told me I had to leave and go home — it wasn’t safe for me there. “Safe from what?” I asked. “From angry people,” they said. “Black people who are angry at white people.” I left their apartment in tears, thinking they didn’t like me anymore.
The next day, to protect ourselves from the black people who were angry with us, my family and another piled into a single car and drove to a second-rate motel in West Virginia. We stayed a couple of nights, spending most of our time gathered around the television to watch the looting, the riots and the torching of streets where my family once walked and shopped.
When we returned, there was a curfew. National Guardsmen seemed to be everywhere, rifles ready, including on my route to school. That’s when my mother handed me my lunchbox, along with a wet washcloth. “Keep it in your hands until you get to school,” she said in her no-nonsense way.
Even before then, things were not idyllic in this neighborhood experiment. My mother, a first-generation American, had insisted on moving our family to the city from Maryland. She and my father had wanted to raise their children in the District, to be part of what she called the “wider world.” She volunteered in community groups, including the Urban Service Corps, which helped underfunded schools and teachers in the classroom, and the controversial Tri-School Program, which had two main goals: to improve and equalize the quality of education for all children in our underserved Southwest schools, and to promote integration.
It worked in some ways, most of which went over my head. To me, it was just school. Outside the classroom, things were more complicated, particularly on the playgrounds and while walking home from school. There were fights with fists, with knives, with words, even with pencils. My older brother was robbed going to the store for my mother. I was robbed bringing a record album to school for show and tell. When the principal made me walk from classroom to classroom with him to identify the perpetrator, I pretended I didn’t recognize him.
Things deteriorated rapidly after King’s assassination. It didn’t take long for the middle class to move out — black and white middle class, though my mother still calls it “white flight.” My folks decided we had to move, too. After a decade of trying to change things, they were burnt out. We stayed in the city, but we moved to Northwest, where there was less crime, though the schools and race relations were only marginally better. Busing had created a whole new set of issues.
My mother still talks about the move with sadness. When I asked her recently whether she harbors any bad feelings about it, she said, “You have to work to get past the bad feelings and focus instead on bringing about change. It’s the only way to bring people together and create respect and understanding.”
As I watched the news about the riots and looting in Ferguson, Mo., the thought was unavoidable: The more things change, the more they remain the same.
I miss my childhood friend. We lost touch decades ago, and though I’ve tried to find her, I haven’t been able to. I understand now that her grandparents were trying to protect me. It’s too late to tell them, but I’ll never forget.
The writer lives in Dallas.