Last summer, history teachers Patrick Cronin and Tom Neville organized an unusual summer camp for District high school students: three weeks researching the riots that engulfed Washington after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The highlight, the teachers promised, would be a visit to the District police department’s archive to look at documents from April 1968.
The day before the students were scheduled to go, the police withdrew the invitation. Patrick broke the news to the students.
“I felt like I was telling my children that Santa wasn’t going to come this year,” Patrick said. “It was crushing.”
As it turned out, even without that particular field trip, the summer camp was full of interesting discoveries, perhaps the most important one being: You don’t have to be in grad school to fall in love with original source documents.
Patrick and Tom met when they both taught at the Flint Hill School in Oakton, Va. They bonded over a shared belief that students learn best when they can immerse themselves in material. Textbooks can do only so much. Better to enter an archive, sift through documents and photographs, fire up a microfilm reader.
The idea of putting together a summer program appealed to them, but on what topic?
“Ferguson was all over the newspapers,” Patrick said, referring to the demonstrations in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown. It struck them that Washington in 1968 might be an echo of Missouri in 2015.
“It’s so timely,” said Tom. “The stuff was still unfolding as these kids were studying Washington from the ’60s.”
They advertised the free program at District libraries. They called it “THAT Summer.” It stood for The Humanities And Technology.
“We were hoping for 12 students, maybe even 16,” Patrick said.
They had overestimated the number of teenagers interested in spending three weeks inside a library in July.
“We wound up with five very strong students,” Patrick said.
The first thing the students did after assembling in the Martin Luther King Jr. Library downtown was bulk up the Wikipedia entry on the riots, raising it from four references to 27. The students did most of their work in the Washingtoniana division, but they also visited the National Archives and the D.C. Fire and EMS Museum, where they examined original call logs from the riot and learned how firefighters responded to emergencies.
One of the students was Brian Davis, 14, a rising ninth-grader from the Washington International School. He helped create a digital map that pinpointed buildings damaged by rioting along the Seventh Street corridor.
“I didn’t really know much about it,” Brian said of the 1968 rioting, in which 10 people died. “It did surprise me in terms of how big it was.”
Brian was also surprised at how much he enjoyed THAT Summer. It wasn’t “fun fun,” he said, “but I wanted to keep researching and I wanted to keep going. It was interesting and I wanted to keep pursuing what I was doing. After it was over, looking back, I wished we’d had more time.”
High praise, indeed.
Besides improving the Wikipedia page, the five students created a website that includes color photos of the riot’s aftermath that they digitized. They shared their thoughts on the riot’s causes — not just King’s assassination but also longstanding racial inequality and ghetto living conditions. Last November, they presented their research at the annual D.C. Historical Studies Conference.
Tom now lives in Paris and teaches at the American school there. Patrick is pretty much a stay-at-home dad. But they will join forces again this summer. Their 2016 project is alluringly titled “Downtime and Debauchery in Civil War Washington” and will explore the “unpublished, untaught and taboo aspects” of that conflict in the District. Once again, the program is free to participants, thanks in part to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. (If you know a teen who’s interested in, go to thatclass.org.)
When it became clear last summer that the students wouldn’t be able to visit the police archives, they helped Patrick and Tom file a Freedom of Information Act request seeking pertinent materials. Six weeks later, the teachers received a set of documents. Among them was one titled “List of Deaths Positively Established in Connection With Civil Disturbances in Washington, D.C., April 5-7, 1968.” They added it to their website.
The first person to die was Thomas Williams. Police said he was among looters at a men’s store on Minnesota Avenue NE. As a police officer held a suspected looter at gunpoint, Williams, the report reads, “raced past in front of him, striking his out-stretched hand, which was holding his service revolver. The pistol discharged striking the decedent.”
He was 15 years old.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.