Memories of the Riots Captured on Tape

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The University of Baltimore has compiled a collection of oral histories of the 1968 riots. Professor Elizabeth Nix, the project curator, shares some of the memories.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.

We're going to continue our exploration of the legacy of the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. We're spending time in the city of Baltimore. Big stories are often told by the people out front. The leaders, the big names, and then by the historians and journalists who seek those big names out. What often gets lost are the stories of the people who were just going about their business and those who got caught up in the story. People who lost their homes, their faith in the city. The University of Baltimore is doing its best to keep those stories alive. The school has collected dozens of oral histories from those who lived through the riots as part of its program, "Baltimore '68: Riots and Rebirth."

Betsy Nix coordinates the oral history project. She's a professor in the division of legal, ethical, and historical studies at the University of Baltimore, and she joins us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Professor ELIZABETH NIX (Legal, Ethical, & Historical Studies, University of Baltimore): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Betsy, why do you think it's important to gather these kinds of interviews?

Prof. NIX: Well as you said, a lot of times these stories are told from the top down, and you don't really hear the stories of the people who lived it on the street. Peoples' lives were completely altered by those days and if you were a politician, it might have been, kind of, one in a long series of events that were significant. But for some people, this was the most significant event of their lives. And we wanted to make sure that we captured those stories.

MARTIN: Give us an idea of the range of people that your students are trying to speak with.

Prof. NIX: Well, they've - you just quoted the Doctor Randell(ph). Doctor Randell delivered 4,000 babies. He was an African-American physician in Baltimore. The first graduate of University of Maryland Medical School and so, he - we got to hear his story. We also heard the story of a white rent collector who collected rents in African-American neighborhoods during the riots. We have the story of a white female reporter who was a television reporter, who - her producers told her she had to do a story about Easter chicks instead of the riots, because they didn't think that their viewers would want to see a woman out on the street in the middle of all this danger.

MARTIN: Oh, that's interesting. I want to play a clip from one of the interviews that I think you told us you found most affecting. This is part of the interview with the Pats family.

Ms. SHARON PAT SINGER: I think what happened was when the riots came, I don't really think that we thought anything bad was going to happen. It was a trusting kind of thing, where this was our neighborhood. One of the women who was working at Lou's Bar up the street, I remember, a black woman named Brooks. And she came into the store. Remember her? And she said to my father, you'd better get out. That Sunday morning, we went shopping, and I came down 83, and the whole block was in smoke.

Unidentified Woman: That's right. Right.

Ms. SINGER: That was the end of my life, as I knew it.

MARTIN: That was Sharon Pat Singer(ph). Betsy, what is it about their story that touched you?

Prof. NIX: Well, they lost not only their family business, but also their apartment, which was above the store. As she said, they had grown up in that neighborhood. They felt like they knew their neighbors intimately. People had warned them that they should get out, and they just thought this couldn't happen. And when they discovered that their house had been looted one day and then firebombed the next day, they had no clothes. They had no photographs. They had no place to stay. Their family was separated, moved to different relative's houses, and then Sharon Pat Singer goes to school and finds that her classmates, who don't really know that this has happened to her, say that her family and shopkeepers like them, deserve this.

And she breaks down in the interview, and she says that everything else that happened didn't have the same emotional impact as hearing her classmates say that.

MARTIN: It sounds like what Mayor Schmoke was talking about a few minutes ago, about the emotional scarring that resulted from this. The other interesting thing about these stories is how they challenge some of the assumptions I think many people may have about the riots. You mentioned Doctor Lewis Randall. We are going to play a short clip from the interview that you all had with him. Here it is.

Dr. LEWIS RANDALL: I was delivering a baby at Provident on Division Street and all of a sudden, we heard this noise, and we looked down the street, and there were buildings on fire on the next block. I ran home and attached my hoses and got permission to buy a gun, because they were attacking anybody who looked like he had money, and it was part race, and part just chaos.

MARTIN: That was the voice of Dr. Lewis Randall. Did it surprise you, or any of the students doing the interviews and helping with this project, that there were African-Americans who also were victimized by the riots? Betsy?

Prof. NIX: Yes, that was one of the things that they were very surprised by, and I was surprised as well.

MARTIN: Because?

Prof. NIX: Well, I think that we had - just looking back at it, we had seen it as very stark. Black people rioting and white people having property damaged, and that really was not completely the case. And it gives you another way to look at it as an economic riot instead of a riot that was all about race.

MARTIN: You didn't just talk to people who were victimized by the riots. You also spoke to people who - well, you could argue that the entire city was a victim of the riots since the effects, as we've discussed, have been sort of felt for long after, but you also talked to some of the people who participated in the looting. We have here a clip from Baltimore resident, Ruth Stewart(ph).

Ms. RUTH STEWART: I went in for what was going to help me and my family. This is survival now, you know. Who knows what we're going to have after this? So I better get stuff that's going to help me survive with my children. You know, keep them well. You know, we knew that Martin Luther King had died, and that was a travesty, and we were upset about that, and we were showing that we were upset.

MARTIN: That's Baltimore resident, Ruth Stewart. How hard was it to get people to tell that side of the story?

Prof. NIX: Well, the marvelous thing about the University of Baltimore is we have a wide range of students, a very diverse student population, and they were able to interview people and their families. In that case, that was a teacher in my class who interviewed someone that she worked with at a public school in Baltimore. And so, the interviewees trusted the people who were asking the questions, and I think that was a marvelous aspect of this project, that we were really able to get answers were probably more honest, I would think, than if it had just been me as a professor going in and talking to someone I had never met before.

MARTIN: What would you like us to draw from all these stories, and how can we hear more of them?

Prof. NIX: Oh, well, you can certainly hear more of them. You can read the transcripts for all of them on the University of Baltimore's web site, Baltimore '68 - that part of the archival collection. And what I'd like for people to get from this project is the idea that history is not one narrative that you can read in a textbook, that a contested piece of history like the Baltimore '68 riots, in order to understand that, you need to hear from a wide variety of voices. And sometimes, the experiences of ordinary people really add a new dimension to our understanding of those events.

MARTIN: Betsy Nix is a professor of legal, ethical, and historical studies at the University of Baltimore. She joined us from member station WYPR in Baltimore. Betsy Nix, thank you so much.

Prof. NIX: Thank you so much for having me.

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