Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City
A “comprehensive” study of Baltimore’s ’68 riots falls short
Published: September 28, 2011
The careful reader of Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City (Temple University Press, softcover) will see the problems inherent in this remembrance of violence and upheaval from the first page. The book opens as Robert Bradby, a 21-year-old African-American steelworker, is “relaxing” at his girlfriend’s home. In the second paragraph, as the rioting starts, he is “concerned” for the safety of his girlfriend’s children, but finds them safe and so “stops for a beer.” By the third paragraph, Bradby has been shot at—or at least, bullets are fired near him. In response, he concocts an “improvised Molotov cocktail” and tosses it in a restaurant.
Bradby’s firebomb, we are told, was “about to go out when another man threw a bigger firebomb,” burning the joint to the ground and killing Louis Albrecht, a white man who had sought refuge inside.
The careful wording in these opening lines, conveying both neutrality of judgment and utter implausibility, carries through the book. Nowhere do we learn Bradby’s motive, in the midst of a riot, for stopping for a beer. Nowhere are the details of just how he quickly “improvised” a firebomb, or the calculations behind his decision to fling the thing into Gabriel’s Spaghetti House. The alleged guy with the “bigger firebomb” is not heard from again.
Bradby, who was convicted of murder and sent to prison for life, was not interviewed for the book.
In fact, virtually no one quoted in Baltimore ’68, which was edited by Jessica Elfenbein, Elizabeth Nix, and Thomas Hollowak, was among those actually burning and looting the city on those chaotic April days and nights in which six people died, some 1,150 fires were lit, an equal number of stores were looted, and at least $10 million in property damage was done. Instead, historians and sociologists strain mightily to fill the void, speculating about the motives and meaning of what York College historian Peter B. Levy judiciously calls “the uprising.”
This will be irritating to any who take seriously the prerelease promise of a “comprehensive study of this period of civil unrest,” or Howard Gillette Jr.’s forward, which compares post-riot America with Reconstruction, when white citizens saw post-Civil War reforms as simply repression by federally backed carpetbaggers. “As the historian David Blight has demonstrated so convincingly,” Gillette writes, “the victims of this prevailing collective memory were the freedmen themselves, whose voices were all but silenced in civil discourse. . . .”
And the lack of participant sources is too bad. Because Baltimore ‘68 has much to offer, and its authors (as part of a six-year oral history project helmed by Elfenbein, a University of Baltimore associate provost, with an expanded roster of interviews at tinyurl.com/Baltimore68), clearly tried mightily to include as many voices as possible. The book contains just a few of the oral histories, interspersed with expert historical analysis that seeks to contextualize the events and in the end weighs heavier than the eyewitness accounts while lacking their drama, immediacy, and unique insights. They do succeed in rethinking events that many see as the modern-day turning point for Baltimore City.
The essays in the book show that the disinvestment and white flight that many blame on the riots were actually underway more than a decade before. In Chapter 4, Emily Lieb shows how federal highway projects devastated large sections of the city—mostly African-American neighborhoods—before the upheavals of the 1960s. And the riots themselves did not mark the end of commercial strips like Lombard Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Indeed, the riots did not explode in every black section of Baltimore.
In Chapter 3, John Breihan discusses why there was no riot in Cherry Hill, then a newish development designed as a “planned suburb” for African-Americans. Isolated from the rest of the city, with a mix of public and private housing, Cherry Hill was devoid of liquor stores (a main target for looters) and its commercial district consisted of a single strip mall, but its main blessing might have been its strong community association.
While the authors are eager to explore the institutionalized racism of the dominant culture, and spend a laudable chapter investigating then Gov. Spiro Agnew’s infamous dressing down of Baltimore’s African-American leaders in the wake of the violence, they seem to tiptoe around the racially motivated undercurrents within the riots themselves. So while the authors knock down Agnew’s attempt to blame the riots on an April 3 Baltimore visit from Stokely Carmichael, no author faces squarely the origins or implications of the “Soul Brother” signs hurriedly painted in the windows of black-owned shops.
We’re left with the heartbreaking story of Sharon Singer, a woman* whose family’s North Avenue pharmacy/check-cashing store was destroyed and who, as a teen, remembers not thinking about “race as an issue at all.” This is contrasted with a single line from Charles Dingle, perhaps the only actual rioter encountered here: “And I’d go in, take a little of this, a little of that. But as you get older, you realize now you wasn’t doing nothing but hurting yourself. Because we needed those stores.”
There’s a bit more from Robert Birt, a philosophy professor at Bowie State University who grew up in the Latrobe Homes on the east side. Birt did not participate in the violence, but he says Martin Luther King Jr.’s death radicalized him. Even though he knew better by age 15 than to deal in broad statements of collective guilt, he says, when pressed at Mergenthaler a few days after the riots he found himself saying to his white classmates: “Y’all started it. The last thing you did was kill Dr. Martin Luther King. And that’s just the last thing you did.”
Baltimore ’68 is hardly the last word on the riots. Indeed, the online component of the project seems open-ended. Perhaps with time more people will step forward to fill in the gaps of memory that have left so much myth and misunderstanding masquerading as knowledge.
Correction: Due to an editing mistake, Sharon Singer was misidentified as African-American in the initial version of this story. City Paper regrets the error.
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.