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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.

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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.

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"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."