There is a saying, that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And then there is another saying, “This time it’s different.” Both can be true.
In 1968 Shaw, and some other areas, experienced an uprising, a riot, a civil disturbance, or whatever you choose to call it. Buildings were burnt out, stores were looted, windows were broken and it took 30 years for the neighborhood to come back.
I am concerned about the neighborhood and what may happen after Election Day. I’ve been predicting presidential elections correctly since I was 10. Y’all ain’t gonna like the results, so I’m taking Desctructo-kid and hanging out with friends in the boonies of Maryland for a while. I could be wrong. If so, it’s a little vacation. [UPDATE 11/9/20. It looks like my prediction streak hit a snag. Well as long as the people are happy, so be it.]
Our block fared okay in 1968. It should be okay. However in 1968 businesses on the corner of New Jersey and Rhode Island were damaged.
Most of the damage Shaw experienced in 1968 were along her commercial corridors along 14th, 9th, and 7th Streets. Black businesses were hit as well as white and Asian businesses and property.
The destruction brought neither justice or peace. It did hasten building public and affordable housing because it also made neighborhood property cheaper. The thing with urban renewal is that the government buying the property gets to value to the property. And in minority areas, the government doesn’t pay top dollar.
Yes, this time it is different. Shaw isn’t a slum. But this time there are struggling businesses on the edge, as there was in 1968. COVID-19 has made it a sad Darwinist contest of survival of the fittest businesses. I just hope we never see the days of burned out husks of buildings and rows of empty storefronts again.
Another item from the “pile”, this is another post 1968 riot for a Shaw business. Carl R. Webb owned Personality Studio and Gift Shop at 1618 7th Street NW, Washington, DC, in Shaw. Currently that same location is for some medical supply store.
The store experienced extensive glass damage and theft. It appears the owner Mr. Webb, an African American man, decided to remain after the riot but was planning on changing his shop into a Ben Franklin store, a kind of five and dime.
Morton’s Thrift Store was located at 1330-1332 7th Street NW. There are apartments there now, formerly the Immaculate Conception Apartments. The survey says the shop just got glass and smoke damage. However, a Washington Post image has a burned out building on the corner, so it must have been more towards the center of the block, in the current parking lot.
Anyway, in this survey conducted several months after the April 1968 riots, the business was still running and repairs had been made. But by then sales were down 60%. Knowing in general what happened to Shaw I don’t think business got any better.
The owner of Morton’s Thrift Store was Matthew Morton 1721 Jones Bridge Road in Chevy Chase, MD, and he was an African American. At least according to the survey.
Anyway, John Delaney owned a pool room at 1720 7th Street NW, where a post riot building currently sits. He did not suffer any fire damage. Instead he got a lot of broken glass and some things were stolen. It is unknown if he put “Soul Brother” on his shop to keep it from getting torched.
I don’t know if I’ll make this a series, like the 1957 Church Surveys, but who knows. My reason for posting this is to show that history is messy. The present is messy. There is no clean narrative where you can say, there were no black businesses in the Shaw ghetto. There were. There were plenty of black owned businesses, and some of them got hit by rioters. Some closed shop, and some, like Delaney thought Shaw was a perfectly fine neighborhood to do business.
So when I was doing the Truxton Circle neighborhood history and using the census to track every resident (see TruxtonCircle.org ) I noticed almost every Chinese person, usually guys, who identified as Chinese (so not that one Chinese guy who was white) were listed as being in the laundry business. Almost everyone. I am hoping Chinese residents in the 1950 census do something else besides cleaning clothes.
Anyway. So it was no big surprise to find a Chinese launderer who was a victim of the 1968 riots. Shaw Foo Chin was the owner of Bill’s Laundry and Dry Cleaning at 1718 14th Street NW in Logan Circle or U Street and experienced damage and theft on April 5th and 6th. It was a small business employing just himself and his wife. He owned the building as well.
He experienced extensive damage and theft. He lost a sign, had broken glasss and people stole his customers clothes. About half of his business came from the immediate neighborhood, so it may be a fair guess that rioters were not only taking from Mr. Chin, they were also taking from their neighbors.
Mr. Chin seems fairly resilient, like the past few businessmen I’ve reviewed here. His insurance didn’t change, his business was still open in June, and he wrote: It is not much damage to my property, so I plan to repair it as much as I can. He did however request financial assistance.
The building that is 1618 7th St NW is so nondescript it just blends into the non-cool side of the 1600 block of 7th. Now the cool end is where the Dacha beer garden sits. 1618 has a rolltop gate that I’ve never seen unrolled. It seems shuttered or not open to me.
Anyway, Carl R. Webb was the manager and owner of Personality Studio and Gift Shop at 1618 7th Street NW, near the corner of 7th and Rhode Island Avenue. Mr. Webb was a Black man over the age of 50 who owned the building and the business that had been there prior to the 1940s. He ran it with a family member, possibly his wife.
Despite experiencing extensive glass breakage and theft of merchandise over two days, Mr. Webb seems pretty positive about going forward. He didn’t seem to lose insurance, some like other owners. He did ponder changing the name and enlarging the store. He claimed he could enlarge it because he has “the know how.” I don’t know if he ever did, I’d have to look that up in the 1970 directory. Considering his age, I’m a tiny bit doubtful, but I do applaud his attitude regarding the whole thing.
So there isn’t anything at 703 R St NW now. You plug it into Google maps and you get the intersection of R and 7th Streets NW. I’m guessing that 703 is over where the CaBi bikeshare sits. Before that it was a parking lot.
Apparently, Ellis Transfer, a moving company owned by Henry Ellis was the business at 703 R St NW prior to the riots. Mr. Ellis was a local African American man who lived around the corner on the 1600 block of 6th St NW. His post-riot conclusion could be summed up as ‘not that bad’.
Well what he actually wrote was: “Business as I have done pretty good here, but business is slow now and I have had to go to work elsewhere, my wife is keeping things going here.” Including himself and his wife he went from 8 employees to six due to business slowing down. The damage he experienced was extensive glass breakage and some minor fire damage on the roof. Unlike say a retail store, a moving business isn’t that dependent on foot traffic, so I won’t say the riot had a major impact on his business. But the building isn’t there, so something happened between 1968 and whenever the Shaw metro station got put in.
Mr. Ellis had no plans of shutting down his business or relocating. Was he a victim of the riots? Yes, as broken glass and a slightly damaged roof is unpleasant. But he was resilient and his business was the kind that could weather that kind of storm.
It has been 50 years since the riots that destroyed several DC commercial corridors. And it has taken about 50 years for life and vibrancy to return to those corridors. However at the time, several of those places were already in a downward spiral. The heyday had passed. When the community is strong and disaster strikes, you rebuild. When it is weak, you leave.
Jessie McCain had a barbershop at 643 P St NW. During the riots it was completely destroyed. So what is there now? A parking lot. Next to it is a vacant lot, where Clark Construction has a couple of mobile office trailers that have been there for years. So in 50 years the only improvement has been clearing off the rubble.
Just after the riots officials sent out surveys to business owners to figure out the level of damage. The image above is from the survey Mr. McCain returned in September 1968. He was a 50 year old African American, and back in the 60s, 50 was old. Fifty year olds are a whole lot healthier and active these days, but back then they were well over the hill, probably not going to see 65. The destruction the riot brought Mr. McCain was the final straw. He wrote: “I am too old to be worryed [sic] any more. I just don’t want any more business.”
There were plenty more victims in Shaw for whom the riots were the final straw, and I’ll introduce you to them in the month of April.
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.