Remembering the April 1968 Riots

Though I moved to Shaw in 2000, I have some memories of the neighborhood prior to that because my aunts attend Shiloh Baptist at 9th and P. As a teen and a twenty-something visiting from Florida, I would get dragged to the neighborhood.

The scars from the ’68 riots were unavoidable and looming 20 and 30 years after the fires. The boarded up vacant buildings that outnumbered the occupied spaces was the character of 7th and 9th Street. Depressing, sketchy and dirty were other characteristics of the area before it shifted into full gentrification mode. It has taken 50 years to heal, mostly. There are still vacant buildings and nothingness at the corner of 7th & Q, the Shiloh side of 9th St, and other spots, so not completely.

Ray Milefsky (RIP) before he passed was working on tracing what was damaged on the block where he lived during the riots. I found this and shared it with him.

From what I can tell 0 meant no damage and 3 meant severe damage. Anyway, Ray had a theory that the riots were like a kristallnacht, since a number of white businesses damaged were Jewish owned. So the Jews in Shaw were removed.

Recent events with the Ward 8 councilman making an off hand remark about Jews controlling the weather, is a fair reminder that the African-American/Jewish relationship hasn’t been perfect. There were complaints about these white owned businesses and post riot reports of damaged properties revealed that the business owners weren’t too keen on the neighborhood either. For many the riot was the last straw and for others not being able to get or renew their insurance prevented them from coming back.

The riot transformed the neighborhood. Spots that once held stores or commercial properties later became apartments. There were other transformations, but I’m unsure to whom or what to give credit. The city and urban planners scaled back their grand plans to bulldoze the neighborhood, but earlier efforts by local leaders probably should receive credit for that, but the riot added something to that dynamic. It also weakened the neighborhood leaving it ripe for the redevelopment/ gentrification that came 30 years later after the neighborhood failed to rebuild and recover.

The Washington Post did a great feature this week on the 1968 riot. The graphics are excellent and the stories well written.

Chocolate City- Book Review

Chocolates- GodivaSo my neighbor has a book group regarding DC history. Because I choose not to read as fast as I did in my grad school days, I participate when I’ve already read (or listened on audiobook) the book. Because this book, Chocolate City by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove, was recommended by a co-worker who knew of my interest in DC history and more importantly, because it was in Kindle form I figured I’d read it.

Reading it, and having the text to voice function on the Kindle Fire, I thought I would never get out of the 19th Century. That period may or may not have been the longest (maybe tedious) part of the book but I felt like I was slogging through. The 20th Century zoomed by in comparison. Brett, the organizer of this book group, mentioned he found it too depressing and skipped chapters. I was very tempted to skip chapters.

I didn’t skip chapters and I actually got to the end notes and skimmed that. Why? Because I looked at the end notes constantly while reading the book because I questioned the conclusion or interpretation of an event or idea. Then I got annoyed when the citation (when I finally got past 1900) was the Washington Post, for things where a better primary exists. If historians are doomed to repeat other historians, this book is doomed to regurgitate the Post.

My other problem with the book is language. This book may not age well. The authors are fast and loose with the word ‘conservative’. It is used when ‘segregationist’ or ‘Republican’ would have been more precise. The definition of the word changes depending on the time period and place. There are other words that are trending right now, not used as much but I’m sure will date the book when new phrases or words are created and come into fashion.

So what did I like about the book? Well, it starts with Native Americans and actually goes into the the early settlement history. In the 20th Century, the area of the authors’ strengths, takes on a different narrative a bit. When writing about Marion Barry, he’s less of a personality, as he is in other histories. They don’t exactly ignore his womanizing and substance abuse, but it is not the focus and barely the reason for DC’s woes. The main narrative is racism and the struggle for Black autonomy. Barry’s famous line has less to do with being a horny crackhead and more to do with the Federal government going after Black mayors and elected officials.

I’ve got a lot of notes and highlights, and hopefully before the Wednesday, I can have it synthesized into something where I can add to the small group discussion.