Baltimore tries to heal wounds from riots – 40 years later

Through dance, drama, and candid conversations, city residents erase lingering marks of the social chaos that erupted after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death in April 1968.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Police arrested 5,500 people, including this man, in chaos that rent the city along racial lines.
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    Wired city: Some 1,000 businesses were destroyed or looted in 10 days of rioting after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in April 1968.
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Robert Birt's contribution toward healing his native city was to draw stick-figure people, orange flames, and a military tank onto a ceramic tile. It was his way of expressing a painful civic memory and it was long overdue.

For 40 years, the violent civil disturbances that erupted in this city following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. have been a taboo subject. In a feat of willful community amnesia, the citizens of Baltimore have tried to erase the events of early April 1968 – when grief, anger, and frustration exploded into looting, arson, and street violence – devastating neighborhoods and rending the city along racial lines.

Families didn't talk about it, teachers didn't plan civic lessons around it, and policymakers didn't draw valuable examples from it. And two generations of Baltimoreans have grown up with no idea it ever happened.

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Yet the scars from that time are still evident, and entire swaths of the city have still not recovered. Baltimore's present-day woes may be laid bare for all to see on television dramas like "The Wire," but the city's real-life, four-decade-old wound has never properly healed.

Mr. Birt's memory tile, and the process of creating it, is part of that mending. His tile is part of the Baltimore '68 Mosaic Monument, an artistic collaboration that will be installed in the center of the city, honoring the many private stories that combine to form a complex public narrative. And the mosaic monument is part of a broader effort to get Baltimoreans to wrestle with the racial, political, and economic issues that fomented the unrest and still haunt the city today. "The conditions that provoked the rebellion of '68 are ones that, sadly, largely remain," says Birt, a soft-spoken educator who was 15 at the time of the riots.

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Baltimore was hardly alone in suffering from racial unrest in that fateful month in 1968 – more than 140 cities and towns erupted in flames. But the divisions and destruction here have lingered longer than most, and now the city is one of the only to engage in a frank, if belated, introspection about the price it has paid for neglect. Other cities are certainly watching Baltimore's experiment with truth and reconciliation.

Jessica Elfenbein knew the city needed to come to terms with this searing episode now. The people who lived through the riots were growing old, their memories fading. Believing in the adage that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it, Professor Elfenbein, who is director of the University of Baltimore's Community Studies and Civic Engagement program, was determined to get people talking – and listening. "If you ignore the circumstances, it won't heal, it doesn't get better," she says.

Elfenbein convinced her university colleagues of the importance of chronicling the events of April 1968. She brought together historians, law and business school faculty, experts in conflict resolution, archival specialists, and artists in a variety of disciplines to join the effort.

They launched an oral history project, sending students into the community to record the recollections of more than 100 witnesses of the civic unrest, who offered powerful testimonials: The African-American mother who looted milk and pabulum from a grocery store to feed her babies, the white drugstore owner who lost his shop to arson, the college student who drove food and blankets into burning neighborhoods, the National Guardsman dispatched to restore order who actually had no bullets in his gun.

The stories – raw, shocking, heartbreaking, filled with tales of quiet heroism and bitter memories of betrayal – put a human face on the bare historical statistics: 6 Baltimoreans killed, more than 700 wounded, 5,500 arrested, and 1,000 businesses looted or destroyed during 10 days of social chaos.

Those stories also formed the basis for several artistic interpretations: a literary magazine, a dance performance, and a play, which wove the oral histories into a poignant drama performed by a troupe of Baltimore high school students. The play drew tears, and a standing ovation, at the "Riots and Rebirth" conference organized by Elfenbein's crew earlier this month, where 400 people spent three days in something akin to a communal talk-therapy session.

Every Saturday morning, from January through March of this year, the mosaic workshop met in a classroom, 12 people, black and white, who lived through the riots and volunteered to participate, hoping to piece together an authentic account of what happened and grapple with its effects on their lives. "And everybody didn't see it the same way," Birt emphasizes.

"I went in the door realizing I didn't know the whole story," says Terry White, who drew on his tile a scene of his Baltimore neighborhood under martial law. "I brought in one story from one guy, and I left with the heartfelt stories of 12 people."

Lee Baylin's tile portrays what he saw on the streets of Baltimore as a young newspaper reporter as a series of snapshots on a roll of film. Dr. Louis Randall, who was delivering a baby when the violence began, drew the scene he witnessed driving home from the hospital, filled with military jeeps and burning buildings.

"What surprised and pleased me was that strangers were willing to come together and tell it like it was," says Arthur Cohen, who was a young legal aid lawyer at the time of the riots. "It was very candid."

Devon Wilford-Said told it like it was – and shocked her husband. "I wanted to tell my story and put my feelings on the tile," says Ms. Wilford-Said, a Baltimore community activist who, as a teenager, participated in the looting of a store. Her husband, the Rev. Ahmed Said, never knew this about his wife. "Someone so spiritual – I was surprised," he admits.

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Christina Ralls was stunned by discoveries that came out about her family. Ms. Ralls, a 22-year-old graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, conceived of the mosaic project as a way to express memory and emotion in visual form. The story tiles will be incorporated into a "people's monument" at the University of Baltimore's downtown campus this summer. Ralls led the weekly mosaic workshops.

"Not until I facilitated these workshops – not until then – did I learn my mother's story, how her home was destroyed in the riots," she says.

Alice and Lou Ralls, Christina's parents, made the four-hour trip from their home on Maryland's Eastern Shore to attend the workshops. Christina knew her parents had grown up in Baltimore, but she never knew that her mother's childhood home in a mixed-race neighborhood, where her grandmother was raising 10 children as a single mom, had been ransacked during the riots. All the family's possessions were taken – "down to the wallpaper" – and the house vandalized by their own neighbors.

Alice Ralls's tile depicts her classic Baltimore brick row house in its prime, with her siblings drawn in a circle of smiling faces, and then her house as she last saw it, with its windows and door boarded up. The family never returned to the house. "My mother told her story for the first time to a group of strangers in the workshop," says Christina, her voice choking. "It was an incredible experience. I'm so proud of her."

Alice Ralls's story – told with sadness, but no rancor – had a profound effect upon her fellow mosaic group members as well.

"As I looked at the riots while they happened in my neighborhood," says Birt, "I knew the stores of white merchants were burned. But to be frank, after King was killed, I didn't give a damn. That was my attitude. But when you hear the story of Christina's mother getting burned out of her home – somebody's family – come on. And she was my neighbor, too, I realized."

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