Riots in Washington, D.C.
That day was one of those moments in an a lifetime that never should be forgotten mostly because the history books will never tell the truth. I was there and the things I saw, heard and experienced during April 4-5, 1968 and for several days afterward deserve to be retold by one who listened, saw and lived through those days.
On the evening of April 4, I remember leaving my part time job and running to the bus stop a little after 9 p.m. and being surprised that I actually was able to find a seat. In the far distance I heard sirens and fire trucks…not so unusual in Washington, D.C. The store where I worked my second job was just off Capitol Hill and not too far from the neighborhood that was undergoing the 60’s version of Urban Renewal except we more accurately called it… Negro Removal. The sirens and the sound of emergency vehicles made me curious and I remember looking through the bus window while idly wondering what could possibly be going on. I wouldn’t know what had happened until I walked into my apartment door and my roommate told me that Dr. King had been assassinated in Memphis! She then idly added that the radio said folks were rioting on 13th Street N.W.
I had been in Detroit visiting Marilyn just before the riots started at 12th and Grand River so the riot news didn’t bother me as much as the news about the death of Dr. King. Soon the neighbors began ringing the doorbell. All of us were graduate students at Howard University so we had sort of adopted each other as extended family. We had also lived through the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a man we had such high hopes for. The death of M.L. King was like losing a close family member…a beloved older cousin or uncle….so we banded together just like all families do when death strikes unexpectedly and horribly. We watched the news, we listened to the radio, and we talked into the night. By the next morning…the local news were still discussing the assassination but they did say ….that the riots were over so…. every one got up and went to work.
The riots were NOT over. By noon..it was apparent that fires had been set because the smoke was hanging over Northwest D.C. One of my co-workers came to my classroom to tell me her husband was coming from Virginia to get her and did I want to go home with them because the riots were close to where I lived. I refused her offer but promised that if I felt in danger, I would catch the bus to Arlington. She left the building. Shortly thereafter..school was dismissed and again I caught the bus to my apartment off Adams Mill Road. Everyone on the bus was talking about the riots. Was I afraid? No, I wasn’t…but I was curious and while riding home and listening to the various conversations surrounding me…I decided to go and see for myself….AND…take my camera..that trusty Argus C-3 that I had managed to buy from a photographer friend when I was an undergraduate.
As soon as I got home, I rushed to the bedroom to put on my jeans and a sweat shirt. My room mate demanded to know where I was going and I told her..I was headed to 13th or 14th and Park Road to see for myself exactly what was going on. Her next question was blurted out, "Wasn’t I afraid?" I shook my head no and reminded her that I had worked in the area since 1965 and lived in the area since early 1967. Since I didn’t have a car, folks were used to seeing me….at Cardozo High School, in the shopping district, at Wings and Things…lots of places. Like any city neighborhood…you might not know names but you recognized faces you saw regularly.
Besides, I thought to myself, if folks were really rioting…what would be threatening about another black face?
Finally, I relented and told her to stick her (straightened) shoulder length hair under a faucet and pick it out. There was no way I was going in the middle of the neighborhood with someone who looked out of place. After all…we were still in the Civil Rights era and Afrocentric hair styles raised no eyebrows and caused no undue attention. The humidity in D.C. solved that problem for me….my hair was never straight! I do remember having to tell her why she needed the Afro and why she couldn’t go out looking like "Miss Social Worker." Finally we were ready and my camera was loaded. We left the aopartment and walked up to Columbia Road…and ran into a youngster of maybe 12 or 13 years. He was carrying an armload of dress shirts…good dress shirts. He wallked up to usa and said, "Here Sister, take these…I don’t want them and I have to go back!" Here we were two grown women standing on the sidewalk..holding probably 30 men’s shirts. In shock, my roommate looked at me and asked, "What are we going to do with this?" I remember thinking…we’d better take them home…because getting caught with an armload of stolen shirts would probably hjave gotten me fired. We went back to the apartment.
Once more we started out toward 14th Street. The smoke was getting heavier to the point where the sun could not be seen (if it was out…..I really don’t remember). The shopping area had been destroyed…windows were broken, people were walking back and forth across the street …walking in and out of stores..picking up anything they wanted or thought they wanted. No vehicles moved on a normally busy street…just people…carrying whatever. I snapped pictures, here, there, over there and was fine until I snapped a picture of a line of D.C. cops standing there..not moving, not saying anything, just standing. One swung his billy club and started toward me demanding my camera and threatening to arrest us. I snapped his picture and kept on walking backwards. I set no fires, I looted no stores and I would be damned if a cop was going to arrest me for taking pictures…besides, I still had my Kentucky Press Association identification card…so he couldn’y say I wasn’t legal.
My roommate was having a panic attack so we left 14th street and started across the neighborhood toward 7th Street (Georgia Avenue) and U street. By the time we got there, we were confronted with a combination line of D.C. cops and National Guardsmen (I guess) in riot gear. Never in my entire life had I seen such a massive force of men. There they stood, shoulder to shoulder to shoulder in an unbroken line along U Street as far as I could see. I walked toward the line and found myself facing an impassive soldier who , speaking out of the corner of his mouth, said, "You young ladies need to go home NOW…GET OFF THESE STREETS! The orders have been given, at 5:00…we are going to cloear these streets and anyone we catch still out here is going to Lorton (a federal prison in nearby Virginia).."
It was time to go and we headed home..walking down U Street to 18th..then up 18th Street to Columbia Road. By 5:00 we are back in the apartment. April 5th, 1968
in the neighborhood came to an end, almost…because Martial Law had been declared and a curfew was in effect. Imagine my surprise at 10 p.m. when someone pounded on the door. I looked out through the peephole and there stood my brother in full Army uniform! I opended the door and in he came. "How did you get here? I thought there was a curfew?"
"Of course there is a curfew but what idiot in his right mind would question an Army Lt. Colonel? After all, who in blue blazes(a rephrase of a more colorful statement) do you think is enforcing the curfew? Daddy called, he says he can’t get through and he figured out that you live right in the middle of this mess. I am supposed to find out if you are all right!" What could I say? Even my brother couldn’t argue with a 73 year old parent. I assured him that I was just fine, loaded up the men’s shirts that the kid had dumped on us, put them in a garbage bag and handed them to my brother. He glared at me, took the garbage bag and announced that he was going home, he’d call Daddy and I had better keep my behind in the apartment because he was not coming back into the District if I got myself in trouble. He left and I went to bed. The first 24 hours had ended.