Sunday, April 6, 2008
Smoke from 40 Years Ago
As I read the articles about the 40th anniversary of the 1968 riots in Washington DC following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, most of the themes center around ruin, rebirth and recovery --but where are the stories from the residents?
My house is located one block from 14th and U St. The riots began April 4 1968 at the People's Drug Store at 14th and U around 9:30 PM. Before it ended three days later 12 people had been killed, more than 1000 had been injured and over 6,100 arrested. By the time the last blaze had been extinguished over 1,200 buildings had been burned, including over 900 stores, devastating for years vast stretches of 14th St, 7th St and H St NE.
So what happened at our house? You had to be one of the first to smell the smoke and hear the sirens and the sounds of glass breaking. What did you do? Did you feel safe? At one point there were 200 fires burning simultaneously in the city. Did you stay in our house or evacuate?
What was your opinion on what was happening in our city? Were you outraged? Anguished? Saddened? Supportive?
As I sit on the steps of the porch I look down at the outside faucet. Were you prepared to use this and your hose if the flames spread down the block from 14th St? The Fire and Police Department were overwhelmed and would not have been able to help you. Closing windows and drawing curtains won't keep out smoke. Were your eyes burning? Did you have children in the house? Were they coughing? Crying? What did you tell them? What did you hear on radio and television? What rumors were you hearing?
Eventually President Johnson dispatched some 13,600 federal troops to quell the violence. What was it like seeing armed armed troops on the streets--reassuring or frightening? The occupation of Washington was the largest of any American city since the Civil War. Again did you stay? Or did you leave?
What is your story?
A few years ago I was ripping up some carpet in a closet that was once part of the attic. I recall the slight but distinct smell of smoke and at the time just assumed that smokers had once lived in the house.
Now I wonder...
Photo: The United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division
Update: 4/07/08 7:30 am
See this morning's article in the Washington Post "Memories of Mayhem and Mercy"