I have written before that I am a native of Baltimore, with long and strong roots in the state of Maryland.
The Baltimore you are witnessing on your news tonight is not my Baltimore. The hordes of rioters, looters, arsonists, and thugs you have seen on your screens tonight—or that you may have watched on “The Wire” some years ago—is a part of my Baltimore, but it is not the whole.
I cannot bear to watch or listen to any more of the news tonight. It just fills me with too much anger and pain. All I can do right now is to hunker down in my home, with the doors locked, lights blazing, and write about the anguish, the pain—and even the pride and love I feel for my city.
If I had the guts, I would be out on the streets tonight with a bullhorn, telling the roving, disaffected, mindless people who are hell-bent on destruction and mayhem to GO HOME. STOP TRASHING YOUR OWN neighborhoods—neighborhoods that I have either lived in or driven through, countless times in my 61 years on this Earth—and GO HOME.
You see, I have witnessed this madness before. In April 1968, just before Easter, some Baltimoreans took to the streets and ripped apart communities, businesses, and homes as a misguided response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I was 14 and a half years old back then, near the end of my sophomore year of high school. The damage inflicted on my city back then was never repaired, much less rebuilt. In fact, today—47 years later—we are still suffering from the damage that was inflicted on my city during that horrible weekend.
Before that weekend, I could walk with my family or friends—without fear—through parts of the West Baltimore neighborhoods now known as Sandtown and Marble Hill. We walked to church, to school, to corner stores, to Druid Hill Park, to THE famous Pennsylvania Avenue of Baltimore. We shopped at Mondawmin Mall and watched the annual Fire Department’s safety demonstrations there in the parking lot.
When we would visit my greatgrandparents’ home near St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, their doors were never locked. We could walk right into the house and know that no one who was sinister would dare to follow us or hurt us. Other family members’ homes in other communities of West Baltimore, Northwest Baltimore, and Northeast Baltimore were similarly accessible.
All of that changed in April 1968. We were Easter-shopping at Sears on North Avenue and Harford Road (the building now houses a District Court House) when we first learned about the rioting. We scurried home, locked our doors, and sat horrified and transfixed as we watched the news. Much like many of us are doing now.
When we saw the aftermath, we were stunned. Just like many of you will be tomorrow morning. And we learned the huge consequences of the callous actions of a “few” insensitive people: stores that had been staples of the community closed forever, leaving behind empty black shells that never again served another customer, to this day. New businesses just didn’t want to locate in these dangerous neighborhoods—neighborhoods that just days before had been thriving! We watched the shopping and entertainment district of Pennsylvania Avenue disappear. The world-famous Royal Theatre, where the who’s who of Black entertainment, from Jackie “Moms” Mabley to James Brown and from Duke Ellington to Motown artists had performed for decades, is gone, marked by a sad little marquee sign in the middle of an empty corner, catty-corner from a bronze statue of Billie Holiday. Pennsylvania Avenue, home of the West Baltimore Black Community’s Easter and 4th of July Parades, which drew standing-room-only crowds, is a mere shadow of its vibrant and colorful past self.
Elegant row homes in Marble Hill, which once were owned by Black teachers and doctors and lawyers who served their immediate community, are now boarded up, falling down, or torn down, all because of the 1968 riots—and Urban Renewal and other programs that came after that initial blow to Baltimore’s Black community. All over the city, areas that could be considered stable, if not historic, for the Black community were destroyed or damaged as a consequence.
And now, just as some of these areas were finally—after 47 years—beginning to show signs of new growth and promise, here comes yet another generation of the lost and disaffected, killing off seeds of hope. The CVS that was torched today…. In my day, we were lucky if we had a local pharmacy, much less a chain store, where we could buy the kinds of goods offered there today.
In East Baltimore, a beautiful Community Center—still under construction—went up in flames tonight. Granted, it is possible that the fire was accidental. But I doubt anyone thinks that it was….
My family was never affluent. Not in the way that White people would define “affluent.” But no matter how my forebears earned a living—whether it was cleaning telephone booths or taking in laundry or being a teacher, a government worker, or whatever—we had pride. We worked and saved, and sacrificed, and helped each other up, in order to build a better life for ourselves and for our communities.
We did not have the technological advances of today’s world. I can’t even afford a smart phone! Yet everywhere I travel in Baltimore, there are young people—even in so-called disadvantaged communities—walking around the streets with their heads buried in those smart phones, oblivious to traffic around them, oblivious even to the Walk-Don’t Walk signs at every other corner. And they dare to complain about what they don’t have. They do not have a clue how fortunate they truly are, compared to their counterparts from earlier generations, or even across today’s world.
I am angry and frustrated and sad about the state of my city and the world we live in now. Too many generations are so far removed from the values and rules and ethics I grew up with. But I also have to take responsibility for this change—we all must. Because, instead of insisting on community and individual responsibility for our actions, instead of electing to office people of honor and commitment and real leadership, instead of fighting for a quality public education for everyone, and instead of teaching our children to take care of their environment and each other—in short, instead of being a community—we have all sat back and watched while our societal, cultural, emotional, spiritual, and physical infrastructures have been cracked and split and torn to shreds. We have reaped what we have sown.
And yet, as I said, this dire picture I present is not the whole of Baltimore. Although the world I grew up in has been torn asunder in ways we have never seen before, there are still beautiful neighborhoods and communities filled with people whose values and lives are more in line with mine.
It is easy for me to sit back and complain. It is much harder—but also necessary—for me to look for solutions and answers; to do the work of reaching out to my neighbors, to strangers, and even my enemies, to create a better world.