The day had been warm and breezy, with a high near 70. But the teeming intersection of 14th and U streets was tense. There had been an ugly fight there two days before. Objects had been thrown at police, and two arrests had been made. As the sun set, this cultural and financial center of black Washington was still volatile.
Then the awful news came over the radio.
Stanley Mayes: “It made no sense to me.” Mayes, then 18, lived around the corner from 14th and U streets and witnessed the beginning of the uprising at the Peoples Drug store. A political activist and lawyer, he now owns a leather-repair shop nearby.
As night fell, angry people began to pour from their houses into the streets. Headed by the black activist Stokely Carmichael, crowds surged along 14th Street, ordering businesses to close. Carmichael tried to keep control, but things quickly got out of hand. A rock was thrown through a store window. Then a trash can was hurled. Someone used lighter fluid to start a small fire in a tree. As firefighters doused it, someone in the crowd yelled, “We’ll just light it again!”
Store windows were shattered and bystanders became looters, dashing inside to grab what they could: TVs, clothing, food, beer, hats, shoes. One man bled to death when he slashed his neck and chest on a broken store window.
Fires began spreading throughout the city. The D.C. fire department’s handwritten logs from that night note the crowd growing bigger and angrier, setting cars ablaze at dealerships and stoning overwhelmed police and firefighters as they responded.
Panicky reports of nonexistent snipers came often. Although instructed not to shoot rioters, the police shot and killed two — one a 15-year-old boy. Police began to use tear gas for crowd control, and that mingled with the smoke that was already fouling the air.
“We’re surrounded by a mob of about 50 people,” said an officer on one of the calls pouring into the police radio communications center. “What do we do? They’re looting. Do we arrest them or do we leave? Or what the hell do we do?”
Tony Gittens: “It was anger. Real anger. It had to blow.” Out on the street, Gittens saw a buddy get clubbed by police and hauled away. Gittens attended nearby Howard University, where he led a student sit-in that shut down the college for five days to protest the Vietnam War, ROTC on campus and the lack of a black studies curriculum.
Much of the mayhem — real and imagined — was tracked by Secret Service and Justice Department officials, who began collecting reports from police, fire and FBI officials on April 5, about the time city officials petitioned for federal help. A recent, first-time analysis of 205 pages of those records offers the most comprehensive look at the federal city in upheaval. Many reports proved false. But plenty were true.
The Secret Service reports, some plotted on the map here, demonstrate how the chaos erupted throughout the city.
April 5, 6 p.m. “Small groups of young males average age about 20 years old are wandering about smashing windows and looting.”
April 5, 6 p.m. “Fire department is leaving the scene of a large fire because being shot at.”
April 5, 5:30 p.m. “Car with rifle 400 Kentucky Ave.”
April 5, 8:55 p.m. “Four men with rifles spotted on top of Hawk and Dove restaurant . . . Police responding.”
April 7, 9:05 p.m. “Stoning passing autos.”
Clint Hill: “Things were just going downhill.” Hill was the Secret Service special agent in charge of presidential protection and with President Lyndon B. Johnson through the tense days and nights.
By 2 a.m. Friday, hundreds of police had begun to regain control, but fires ignited again by noon and the riots intensified. The city’s mayor asked for federal troops to move in. Other neighborhoods erupted — Seventh Street NW almost down to the Mall; H Street NE to Benning Road; Rhode Island Avenue NE; streets in Anacostia, among others. Stores were smashed and looted; hundreds of fires finished the job. Many never reopened.
“It looked like a war zone,” said Darryl Stoutamire, who lived at 15th and W streets. The damage was staggering — at least $175 million in today’s dollars. More than 900 businesses were damaged, including half of the city’s 383 liquor stores. Nearly 700 dwellings were destroyed, most because they were above or next to merchants. Police arrested 7,600 adults and juveniles on riot-related charges. Bustling blocks were reduced to rubble.
The area around 14th and U streets NW was known as the Black Broadway, a world of black theaters and jazz clubs, black lawyers and pharmacists, black newspapers and the local offices for two major civil rights groups. During the riots, the stores north of U Street, where blacks felt exploited, became targets. They were stripped clean, up the 14th Street hill to Columbia Heights.
More than 275 businesses along 14th Street were damaged by fires and looting, and half of those were total losses. “There was a confluence of anger and hurt” about King’s death, said Charlene Drew Jarvis, a former D.C. councilwoman. “A lot of it had to do with, ‘We’ve been contained here. We’re angry about this. We owe nothing to people who have confined us.’ ” Ten years later, Rosemarie Stoutamire, Darryl’s mother, told The Post: “It was all so unnecessary. We only hurt ourselves.”
Of the three major corridors, Seventh Street in Shaw was the most decimated. Half of the housing damaged throughout the city was along that corridor, and 200 of the 250 businesses along the major shopping thoroughfare were hit. Many black proprietors put “soul brother” signs on their windows, and that offered some protection. But a sign was of no help when someone firebombed the shop next door.
Alma Gill was 4 and remembers seeing flames and her father, Ulysses Martin, wiping away tears as they drove through the city. She learned years later that his Shaw tailor shop, Wohlmuth’s, was destroyed. Her father owned the business but had retained the name of his benefactor, a Jewish dry cleaner who took out the loan when banks wouldn’t lend to Martin, a black man.
H Street NE was a neighborhood shopping district that ran from Second to 15th streets and was the second largest in the district. At the far end were a Sears, a Super Giant and two department stores. All of it was convenient to the working-class rowhouse neighborhoods and high-rise brick apartments that extended for blocks in both directions. Much of it was unsalvageable when the smoke cleared.
A brisk walk away from H Street sat the Capitol building and the imposing Supreme Court, whose justices had ruled the previous summer that interracial marriage could not be criminalized. Thurgood Marshall had become the first African American nominated to the bench. Those advances were points of pride from the pulpit but eased none of the burdens of daily life.
From the air, through the haze of smoke, the city looked like a battlefield. On April 5, a convoy of soldiers from Fort Myer in Virginia began rolling over Memorial Bridge into the city. More came in from Fort Meade in Maryland. Eventually, 13,000 troops would arrive — the most to occupy an American city since the Civil War.
By the weekend, the smoke began to clear. Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.) made a tour of the damage. Bewildered people started making their way among devastated neighborhoods and wondering how and when their communities would ever come back.
The city did eventually recover from the destruction of 1968. Most of the riot corridors now brim with prosperity. But in many places, including the block where Kennedy picked his way through debris, redevelopment took more than 30 years. In the end, many black Washingtonians found that the rejuvenation did not include them.
Explore the data and the Secret Service reports on your own.
About this story
Points on the map are from more than 2,000 declassified Secret Service reports compiled by Daniel Kryder of Brandeis University. The map shows 1,027 of those reports where the accuracy of the location could be reasonably determined. Present-day road delineations are shown.
Building damage point and polygon data were obtained from an assessment conducted by the National Capital Planning Commission in May 1968.
Imagery from Post archives and the D.C. Fire and EMS Department.
Lead photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images.
Design and development by Danielle Rindler and Armand Emamdjomeh. Graphics by Lauren Tierney and Armand Emamdjomeh. Reporting by Ann Gerhart, Danielle Rindler and Michael E. Ruane. Editing by Ann Gerhart, Kaeti Hinck and Chiqui Esteban.
Videos by Rhonda Colvin, Dan Mich, Whitney Shefte and Zhiyan Zhong. Archival footage from the National Archives. The photos used in the videos are by Frank Hoy/The Washington Post and the Associated Press.