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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Revisiting the "Baltimore '68" Oral History Interviews: Part Four

BHW 19: June 10, 2023


 

Black-and-white photograph of a stretch of Baltimore City storefronts showing significant impacts of the 1968 unrest. Many are boarded up and all appear closed. People walk by on the street.
Figure 1. “Photograph of Toby's Men's Wear Baltimore Shop 1969,” National Archives, unrestricted access [1].

 

“You shot Martin Luther King, you shot us all.” That is how Black Baltimorean Terry A. White described his reaction to the events of April 1968, emphasizing collective pain inflicted on the Black community. [2] This article is the fourth and final installment of the series “Revisiting the ‘Baltimore ‘68’ Oral History Interviews.” It examines the final page of interviews as presented on the archive’s website. This fourth group features a fascinating combination of individuals directly involved with the civil rights movement in Baltimore with individuals who tried to minimize the events of spring 1968. For White and others, the assassination of Dr. King felt like a personal blow. This combined with systemic injustice faced daily as well as personal life events to create multiple collective and individual grief experiences. For example, Black Baltimorean interviewee Devon Wilfred-Said lost her grandmother three months prior to losing Dr. King. For her, this became a season of pain and grief. [3] Interviewees who attempt to tone down these events provide sharp contrast. For William Donald Schaefer, President of the Baltimore City Council in 1968 who would later become Mayor of Baltimore and the Governor of Maryland, “our [Baltimore’s] riots were minimal riots.” [4] Others recalled the Baltimore unrest as comparatively mild and “lesser” than the violence that occurred in places like Newark, NJ, and Washington, DC. [5] Considering these recollections together, much is learned about how race, civil rights involvement, connections to city politics, and individual life events influenced Baltimorean 1968 experiences.


Black Baltimorean Lynwood Taylor is the most radical voice of the civil rights movement in this group of interviews. She remarked that post-1968 “Baltimore has changed tremendously.” The interviewer responded by asking, “Would that be because of the civil rights movement or is that the riots?” Taylor answered, “They’re one and the same, sir. They are definitively inseparable, and anyone that thinks any[thing] else is naïve at best, and I can think of some other adjectives that I’m not going to say.” [6] It’s fair to say these adjectives were of a critical nature. It seems the conviction behind Taylor’s viewpoints resulted from growing up within the civil rights movement. She was seventeen years old in 1968 and already actively involved in the movement with picketing and other activism. From this young age she picketed and boycotted “any business whose name is prefaced with the word ‘white’—be it White Tavern, White Elk Lounge, White China Inn—because that was a signal to us back in those days that people that looked like me and you weren’t really welcomed there.” [7] It is clear that Taylor represents an active civil rights generation. Her boycott target also provides cause to reflect on the historical implications of businesses and institutions that continue to feature white in their names. Taylor was far from the only interviewee in this group with direct civil rights involvement.


Other interviewees involved with the civil rights movement include Black Baltimorean Wilson Thornton, Jr., and white Baltimorean religious leader Chester Wickwire. The latter was introduced to civil rights during his time attending Yale Divinity School, where he learned the ways of “the social gospel.” [8] This Ivy League social justice upbringing could only have a real-world impact if he learned to apply it to the community in Baltimore, where he chose to build his life. Wickwire was adamant that he did so successfully, claiming, “In any case, you know African Americans welcomed me into their midst to work with them. That meant a lot.” [9] Only other community members themselves could speak to the actual community impacts of his work. Wilson Thornton, Jr., on the other hand, was himself a Black Baltimorean and “lifetime member of the NAACP.” [10] He provides insights into the nature of Baltimore’s civil rights movement itself. He said, “the civil rights movement in Baltimore was sort of clandestine if you remember. It wasn’t covert it was sort of undercover.” Intriguingly, he used this line of thought to say that he did not operate directly within the movement himself because he worked through more established channels. When discussing his work with the NAACP, he framed it as a mainstream movement. This characterization is certainly true when all aspects of civil rights are considered. [11] Neither Thomas nor Wickwire considered themselves radical civil rights activists, which is likely contrary to how Taylor would self-identify.


Some interviewees discussed their involvement with official city politics in relation to civil rights. White Baltimorean Thomas Ward served in various city roles including on the Baltimore City Council and with the Metropolitan Transit Authority. He described his self-relation to the civil rights movement when he said, “Well, I was in the City Council during all the civil rights bills and when I entered the City Council in 1963, Baltimore was a segregated city except for the educational decision by the Supreme Court [Brown v. Board of Education].” This involvement in the movement through not much more than pure association is really the bare minimum of being worthy of historical acknowledgement as a contributor. At no point in his interview does Ward express any notable positions on civil rights or describe any occasions where he advanced civil rights in ways other than casting votes. [12] City Council President Schaefer similarly did not express direct views on civil rights. He gave his colleague Mayor D’Alesandro credit for handling the unrest situation gently, asserting, “He didn’t like to hurt people and he was particularly interested in the black community. He was a very close friend of the black community.” [13] When the conservatism of Ward and Schaefer’s positions on civil rights is considered, it is clear that Thornton was a prominent civil rights contributor despite not crediting himself as such.


Schaefer also actively attempted to lessen the spring 1968 contributions of Baltimore civil rights leaders and communities in the historical record. As mentioned, he called the Baltimore unrest, “minimal riots.” [14] This phrase is an oxymoron in and of itself. The families and friends of the six Baltimoreans confirmed to have died from the unrest would also likely beg to differ. [15] It is worth noting that the other interviewee in this group who expressed a minimizing perspective on the unrest was, unlike Schaefer, himself a Black Baltimorean. Indeed, Larry Alexander Wilson described himself in 1968 as an “Average kid… living in a middle class black neighborhood – northwest Baltimore.” [16] His take on the spring 1968 violence as minimal had more to do with his comparative line of thought. He focused on a regional perspective to put the Baltimore unrest in a national context, as not as extreme as in some other places. However, for the purposes of Baltimore focused analysis, it is also important to examine these events with a Baltimore lens. The strongest argument for this comes from the experiential aspect. Emotion was at the core of many experiences, as Wilson noted when he said, “I think we feared more than anything else.” [17] The emotional experiences of historical events are inextricably personal and local, not amenable to regional comparisons.


Continuing with this personal emphasis, individual life events significantly impacted experiences of spring 1968. As mentioned, interviewee Wilfred-Said claimed the assassination of Dr. King was, “detrimental to me because I was so close to my grandmother and umm, she was a role model to me as well.” Her grandmother passed away on January 4, 1968, and Dr. King was murdered on April 4 that same year. She lost two of her main role models in a very short period. [18] Black Baltimorean Rosalind Terrell similarly felt like the loss of Dr. King affected her as would the loss of a family member. She emphasized, “Since then, members of my family have died, and I can’t differentiate the feeling. I actually felt like it was a member of my family. My father so to speak.” [19] When emotional words like “anger” are used to describe the spring 1968 unrest, it is important to keep in mind the deep individual and collective grief underlying these emotions. Terrell took her experience of these events as a Black person to an evocative historical level. She recalled that in order to go to work during the April 1968 enforced curfew, she “had to get a pass from work to let them [the authorities] know that I did work.” She stated, “And for me that was really humiliating. It reminded me of slavery. A pass for slavery.” [20] For Terrell, the unrest brought up for historical intergenerational trauma associated with the policing of Black mobility during slavery. This is extremely powerful and an important reminder that while historians regularly draw connections in the long struggle for Black civil rights in the United States, Black people experience this trauma directly.


White Baltimorean Stuart Silberg also felt the personal and familial effects of the 1968 unrest, but in a very different way. In 1968, he lived in the predominantly white Baltimore County and commuted into the city for night school at the University of Baltimore. [21] His father owned a store in the city called “the Manhattan Drugstore.” [22] The interviewer asked Silberg, “Was your father physically there [at the store] when there was looting [in spring 1968]?” He responded, “Yes, yes he was. He was in the store, and his life was threatened. Several men came into the store with a gun [and] held it to his head, told him he would die and he didn’t follow directions and allow them to take whatever they wanted to take.” Silberg emphasized priding himself in being a family-oriented individual and thus having the mentality: “You can do anything to me, but when you hurt my family, whether it be above me or beneath me, I take no prisoners.” He stressed that the way he took revenge against the people who looted his father’s store was by completely removing Baltimore City from his life. He reflected, “I don’t think that I went back into Baltimore City for twenty-five years, except coming to the University of Baltimore… I discarded the city and everything about it for a long time.” [23] This sustained resentment of the city itself for a quarter century is very striking. However, it also demonstrates that Silberg’s whiteness and associated position of privilege allowed him to locate his life entirely in Baltimore County. Since this was an almost entirely white area, this option probably would not have been available to a Black person who underwent similar traumatic experiences.


Recollections of the April 1968 unrest in Baltimore City that attempt to minimize the significance of these events appear insensitive and harmful when deeply personal implications are considered. For those with direct personal or collective investment in the future of Black Baltimore and Black people in the United States, the assassination of Dr. King and the events that followed included immense grief. For those with direct involvement in the civil rights movement, these events also carried a feeling of setback for the Black freedom struggle. Whether involved on the frontlines fighting for civil rights or more marginally through mainstream Black leadership organizations, spring 1968 was a time of disappointment and pain for activists. White Baltimoreans also lived through these events emotionally, but their privileged positionality brought minimizing factors enabling coping mechanisms not available to all. There is nothing wrong with Silberg’s decision to resent and disassociate from Baltimore City in response to spring 1968. Yet, his ease in feeling at home and included in mostly white Baltimore County was less likely an option for Baltimoreans with historically marginalized identities. When possible, it should be left up to individuals themselves to articulate how they feel they or their family were impacted by these events. This is why oral history interviews are such an excellent resource for understanding how Dr. King’s assassination reverberated around the United States. The University of Baltimore’s “Baltimore ‘68” project is thus crucial to understanding the tumultuous Baltimore City of spring 1968. However, this project is now fifteen years old. It is crucial to keep these intergenerational conversations and memories going to ensure that they are never forgotten.

 

[1] “Photograph of Toby’s Men’s Wear Baltimore Shop 1969,” photograph, 1969, National Archives, unrestricted access, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/178690601.

[2] Terry A. White, Baltimore '68: Riots & Rebirth Collection (hereafter BSR), University of Baltimore, July 23, 2007, 12, https://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/white.pdf.

[3] Devon Wilford-Said, BSR, University of Baltimore, October 25, 2006, 1-2, https://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/said.pdf.

[4] William Donald Schaefer, BSR, University of Baltimore, unspecified date, 4, https://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/schaefer.pdf.

[5] Larry Alexander Wilson, BSR, University of Baltimore, October 7, 2007, 9, https://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/wilson.pdf.

[6] Lynwood Taylor, BSR, University of Baltimore, January 8, 2008, 16, https://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/taylor.pdf.

[7] Taylor, BSR, January 8, 2008, 4.

[8] Chester Wickwire, BSR, University of Baltimore, December 1, 2006, 9, https://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/wickwire.pdf.

[9] Wickwire, BSR, December 1, 2006, 11.

[10] Wilson Thornton, Jr., BSR, University of Baltimore, December 1, 2006, 14, https://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/thornton.pdf.

[11] Thornton, Jr., BSR, December 1, 2006, 8.

[12] Thomas Ward, BSR, University of Baltimore, August 28, 2008, 4, https://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/ward.pdf.

[13] Schaefer, BSR, unspecified date, 5.

[14] Schaefer, BSR, unspecified date, 4.

[15] Joseph DiBlasi, BSR, University of Baltimore, November 2006, 21, http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/diblasi.pdf.

[16] Wilson, BSR, October 7, 2007, 4.

[17] Wilson, BSR, October 7, 2007, 9.

[18] Wilford-Said, BSR, October 25, 2006, 1.

[19] Rosalind Terrell, BSR, University of Baltimore, unspecified date, 3, https://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/terrell.pdf.

[20] Terrell, BSR, unspecified date, 7.

[21] Stuart Silberg, BSR, University of Baltimore, June 15, 2007, 1, https://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/silberg.pdf.

[22] Silberg, BSR, June 15, 2007, 5.

[23] Silberg, BSR, June 15, 2007, 9.

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