Monday, April 7, 2008
In response to a Washington Post request for accounts of April 1968, several hundred residents shared what they saw and did or what they remember most. Here are some of their stories.WHAT THEY SAW
Betty-Chia Karro, 66
Minutes after hearing about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, Karro and a friend drove to a church.
"A veteran of civil rights struggles, I really felt the need to be with people. "
Crowds were beginning to gather on 14th Street NW. "I heard burglar alarms going off. I looked up and remember seeing a man using an umbrella to remove items from a jewelry store window. ''
She saw police officers who appeared to be waiting for orders. "They were standing around, doing nothing while the looting was going on."
Her friend slowed down when a man fell just a few feet in front of their car.
"We were surprised by the speed with which the police [rushed] to help the person who had fallen. Suddenly it was clear that the police were protecting people and not property."
* * *
Eugene Gooding, 92
Retired D.C. police officer
Gooding rushed to the 10th Precinct station from his Bethesda home about 8:30 p.m. Thursday. "I knew that things were going to happen."
"We lost control within a couple of hours. Every arrest we made, we had to take the person back to the station and file a report. We didn't regain control for three days."
Gooding stayed on the beat for 54 hours, mostly on 14th between Euclid and Irving streets, an area where fires and looting consumed entire blocks. "Every one of us were in danger. Several of us received injuries."
The department promoted Gooding to captain several weeks after the riots. He retired on disability two years later.
* * *
Konrad Chisholm, 56
Retired personnel specialist, Department of Homeland Security
"You could feel the anger in the air, anger that King was assassinated."
D.C. schools let out early April 5, and Chisholm, then 16, stood on his front porch on H Street NE, watching his neighborhood burn. Eventually, he ignored his mother's order to stay inside and began walking along H Street. "I was curious."
At Seventh and H streets, a crowd of mostly young men broke the showroom glass of Morton's Department Store and rushed in to grab clothes. Asian restaurant owners fled into the alley. Flames engulfed High's ice cream store, the Waxie Maxie record store, Thom McAn shoe store and Peoples Drug Store. Chisholm spotted his younger brother carrying two cases of soft drinks, which he stashed under the family's front porch. ( His brother treated friends to soft drinks daily for about two weeks. )
At one point, Chisholm got hit in the back with a bouncing tear-gas canister. "It hurt a bit -- like getting hit with a can of corn."
The tear gas spread like a pall over H Street. In a panic, Chisholm ran home and plunged his head into a bathtub of water to soothe his burning eyes.
* * *
Sheila D. Scriggins, 66
Retired social worker
From her diary:
April 5, 1968
"About 3 p.m., after walking my dog, I join the group of neighbors on sidewalks to talk and watch heavy smoke come toward us from H Street NE about 7 blocks from my Capitol Hill apartment. Most businesses as well as the government have closed. As we talk a large black man comes down the street from where the smoke is thicker. He has blood stains on his shirt and a small cut on his forehead. Tears are coming down his face. 'They busted up my truck,' he says. 'I couldn't save it. They was black kids and I pleaded with them, but they set my truck on fire. That's my job, driving that truck. What am I gonna do?' "
April 7, 1968
"Today, as I walk home from the local bakery via a route that passes the Supreme Court Building, there are four soldiers walking towards me, two in front and two behind, with bayonets on their rifles. I step aside for them to pass me. The federal buildings are being guarded. I wonder whether this is what martial law is like."WHAT THEY DID
Idriis Bilaal Jr., 81
Retired electronics engineer
"I had just come back from Vietnam, and I was angry. I was upset because of Dr. King. I went into stores and set fire to them. I went into a furniture store where I was treated in ways I thought was not right. It was personal with me. I went into a liquor store on Florida Avenue, a gouging-type store at Sixth and M."
He remembers police officers and firefighters telling him he could take anything he wanted as long as he didn't set any fires.
"It's not anything to be proud about. It's not something I'd do now, at my age. I'm an upright person in my community, the oldest on my block."
* * *
Harry Gates, 82
Retired D.C. firefighter
Gates was on duty at the Democratic Congressional Dinner at the Washington-Hilton Hotel ."I was there when they got the word that Dr. King had been shot. Hubert Humphrey spoke."
A fire department captain, Gates left the hotel to deal with burning cars and dumpsters. "I guess you'd call them nuisance fires." The next day, he encountered a disaster. Smoke enveloped the skyline. "The whole city was black. " Too many fires for him to count.
Near Mount Vernon Square, he watched burning pigeons soaring out of a four-story warehouse. "They looked like World War I airplanes . . . and zoom, down they would go."
At another fire, Gates saved a man's life by grabbing him by the neck and pulling him through a window.
Sometimes, he felt like a target. "I got hit upside the head with a salt shaker." He had thought people would understand that firefighters were there to rescue them.
Gates lost track of how many fires he fought, but he keeps yellowed newspaper clippings in a scrapbook the size of a coffee table.
* * *
Art Grosman, 64
On Friday, Art Grosman, editor of the underground Washington Free Press and a part-time physics student at Howard University, wandered with a friend into a Safeway on 11th Street NE. They found "absolute chaos. It was being looted, and I remember how the floors were slimy with broken glassware."
As the two men wandered the crowded aisles, they heard a shout from the back of the store: "Hey, there's whitey!" And then another voice: "Hippies gotta eat, too."
Grosman picked up a few items to show solidarity and walked to his home at 12th and N streets NE. During the next few days, the doorbell would ring, and he would go to the door, but no one would be there. Each time, there would be a case of beer or a small care package. He assumed the goods were left by looters. More solidarity.
* * *
Clyde Nance Jr., 58
Short-order cook, L'Enfant Hotel
"I'll admit it. I went into a couple of liquor stores and got a little joy juice."
Nance, then 18, left his part-time job at the Chastleton on 16th Street about 5 on the evening of the assassination. He caught the bus home to 13th and Monroe streets. At 14th Street, he heard sirens and saw crowds smashing store windows.
"I was mad because they had killed King, but these people were burning up their own neighborhood. And 14th Street had always looked so beautiful."
He got off the bus and began walking home. He and a friend talked about a boy -- maybe 10 -- who was pushing a grocery cart out the front door of the Safeway at 14th and Park Road NW . The cart, piled so high with goods that the boy could not see over it, was filled with ice cream. No meat, no bread, nothing useful.
* * *
Anthony Peacock, 58
Owner, Peacock World Travel
Peacock had gone to buy dishwashing powder at a neighborhood grocery at 18th and D streets NE. By the time he returned home to 19th and C streets NE, near the D.C. Armory, a nearby liquor store and pharmacy were in flames.
Anthony's parents sent him and his two sisters to the basement.
"We're on our knees, eyes closed, just praying. I am scared to death."WHAT LINGERS
Gayle Fisher-Stewart, 56
Professor of criminal justice, University of Maryland
With traffic nearly at a standstill, the bus was creeping through downtown. As it got to Seventh and G streets NW, Fisher-Stewart, then 16, could see looters running with boxes, clothes, shoes and TV sets. Passengers were speechless. "Nobody could figure out what was going on."
Fisher-Stewart was traveling from Western Senior High School (now Duke Ellington School of the Arts) in Northwest to Michigan Park in Northeast, a commute she then described as "leaving the white folks and going to the black folks." A member of the drama club, she had stayed late for play practice.
Geneva Gray, her mother, was home, watching TV reports about riots and growing nervous.
When Fisher-Stewart finally got to her bus stop, she "knew something was terribly wrong. My mother was standing there."
Her mother had been waiting for three hours. "She said she stood there looking at every bus. She was scared."
Fisher-Stewart and her friends were not afraid, even as the National Guard patrolled their streets. "We were young and dumb then. We would wave to the troops."
* * *
Larry Rosen, 87
Retired owner, Smith Pharmacy
Black business owners -- and some white owners -- scrawled "Soul Brother" or "Black Power" on their windows, hoping the signs would convince looters to spare the stores.
Rosen, who had run Smith Pharmacy in the 2500 block of 14th Street NW for nearly a decade, didn't think he needed a sign. He had treated black customers with respect and had hired neighborhood youngsters to work part time.
An employee who lived in the neighborhood called him late Thursday night to say the store had been looted but not burned. On Friday night it burned. Rosen was shocked.
"Here's the question I still have today: What did we do to deserve that?"
* * *
Richard Lee, 64
Owner, Lee's Flower and Card Shop
Lee didn't have time to grieve over King's death. "It was about survival."
A few months earlier, his parents, William and Winnifred Lee, had purchased the building at 1026 U St. NW for Lee's Flower and Card Shop, a business the family had operated out of a rented building since 1945.
The day King died, Lee and his mother sat in two chairs inside the store with a loaded shotgun all night. "We didn't take a chance on sleeping." It took three days for smoke in the neighborhood to clear.
The flower shop remains in the neighborhood, where urban renewal has brought $500,000 condos, coffee shops and upscale furniture stores and restaurants. Semi-retired, Lee relies on his two daughters and granddaughter to run the business.
He still wonders about the motives behind the riots.
"As a resident, I regretted it. It didn't make sense to me. Why burn down your own neighborhood?"
* * *
Sharon Marlow, 50, and Lavern Marlow, 55
School bus attendant and customer service representative
The sisters still struggle with sad memories and a mystery: The day after King's assassination, their brother disappeared.
There was speculation that Vernon Francis "Flat Top" Marlow Jr., 14, died in a fire at Morton's Department Store. Friends who were nearby along Eighth and H streets NE say Vernon was in the store when it collapsed, but his body was never found.
So Vernon's name does not appear on the city's list of the 13 people who died during the riots.
The sisters' last memories of Vernon are intertwined with King's death. Sharon remembers that their mother repaired a hole in Vernon's sock that morning. Lavern recalls that he was going to see his probation officer for some minor offense. He also made a vow: "Mom, I promise you I will never get into any more trouble."
As fires burned and the National Guard patrolled the streets, the Marlow sisters remember, their mother pleaded with police to find her eldest son. The family filed a missing person report, saying Vernon was last seen wearing a short-sleeve blue shirt, bluejeans and black socks.
Lavern says stories over the years kept her from having any sense of closure: "The way we heard it, there were so many stories, you don't know. I slept downstairs in the living room for a long time, thinking he was going to come home. He never, never came home."
* * *
Ernest Drew Jarvis, 46
Managing director, CB Richard Ellis
About once a month, Ernest Drew Jarvis takes his son, E.J., on a Sunday morning ride through the city. He shows E.J. the three-story rowhouse where he grew up in Columbia Heights. He takes him to 14th and U streets, where Jarvis's family had owned a funeral home for 60 years. It closed in the 1980s. They drive by the new Target, Best Buy and Marshalls department stores.
At 7, E.J. is nearly the same age his father was during the riots. Jarvis and his younger brother, Peter, were fascinated by the jeeps and rifles of National Guard troops, who resembled their toy G.I. Joe figures. While other businesses were looted and torched, the funeral home was untouched.
Jarvis is amazed that it took four decades for the 14th Street corridor to stage a commercial comeback.
"When people think about all the shops and chic clubs and nightclubs, I think about how this was once a thriving urban corridor. It was not only cultural black Washington, but commercial black Washington."
The family funeral home is history, not because of the riots but because of increased opportunity. The younger generation of the Jarvis family, including about 25 cousins, decided to study law, medicine, business and information technology.
"As integration came along, we had different opportunities."
E.J., like all schoolchildren, will learn about his great-grandfather, the renowned Charles Drew, from his history books. He can ask his grandmother, Charlene Drew Jarvis, a former D.C. Council member, about local politics. Jarvis says he will talk with E.J. about the riots, about the 40 years before new businesses arrived.
"The city's hot again. It's vibrant. It's the continuation of the revitalization of the core of the District. I look at that and say, 'These are the neighborhoods I grew up with. This is the city where I will raise my family. I'm not leaving.' "
More memories from readers can be found online at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/metro/specials/mlk40.