Remembering the Riots
Forty-one years ago, the neighborhood around the medical campus erupted in looting and burning. For those who were there, the violence became a wake-up call.
EVEN FOR A CITY nicknamed “mobtown” it was an unusual sight. On a bitter cold Saturday morning last January, tens of thousands of good-humored Baltimoreans—black and white, young and old—stood packed in front of City Hall, awaiting Barack Obama, on his way to Washington to become the nation’s first African American president. It was, reported the Baltimore Sun, an “ebullient crowd.” And for those whose memories were long, it was a lifetime away from the nadir of hopelessness four decades before when the city had burned.
On the morning of Saturday, April 6, 1968, two days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, memorial services took place across Baltimore. The city remained quiet until about 5 p.m. that day. Then on Gay Street, looting started near the corner of Orleans, a half mile from the Johns Hopkins Hospital. In the end, the Baltimore riots would last three days, kill six, injure more than 700, and require the National Guard and 5,000 paratroopers to restore order. By then, 4,500 people would be arrested, and a thousand businesses would be looted or burned.
Ronald Elkins, who recently stepped down as chief of thoracic and cardiovascular surgery at the University of Oklahoma, was doing a surgical fellowship at Hopkins back then and recalls watching the looting from his back door. Elkins was living with his wife and two young children in The Compound, the fabled apartment complex for residents that house staff from those years remember fondly. “You could hardly believe it,” he says, recalling how Compound dwellers began feeling vulnerable as gangs of youths attacking pawn shops and liquor stores were seen removing guns.
That evening the hospital asked all families living in the Compound to move into Reed Hall for their safety. “We spent the night sharing a room with students,” Elkins recalls. “Out the windows, we could hear the sirens and see the light of the fires.” Looting and lawlessness stretched from the Hospital westward, encompassing most of the city’s poor African American neighborhoods. And although the medical campus itself remained undisturbed, coming and going became a challenge.
Henry Seidel ’46, who had just started his full-time position on the School of Medicine pediatrics faculty, found himself trapped on campus. “In those days it was easier to find an empty bed somewhere,” he says. “I remember nurses looking after me and bringing me a toothbrush and toothpaste.”
Today, Seidel, who is 86, can’t help reflecting on how his understanding of the situation has evolved over the years. “I remember at the time thinking, ‘What is going on in the world?’” he says. “Now keep in mind that when I started my residency at the Harriet Lane Clinic in 1946 there were still drinking fountains labeled ‘Black’ and ‘White.’ And there were for many more years. Maybe we just weren’t smart enough to sense the tension in the air in 1968. There was still a lack of appreciation for what the black community was experiencing.”
At the height of the riots, Hopkins patient-care personnel were advised to stay inside and use the tunnel to get from Reed Hall to the Hospital. Out on Broadway, soldiers had erected barricades. A machine gun nest rested atop the Marburg building. Frank Adkinson ’69, now a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Asthma and Allergy Center, was a junior medical student then, working a clinical rotation in the Hospital. “We were looking out the windows and wondering what was going on,” he remembers. “People were running up and down Monument Street. There was concern that it would spread to the hospital, but my feeling was that the community didn’t see us as a target of their anger.”
For many Baltimoreans the uneasiness persisted even after calm had been restored. John Boitnott ’57, a long-time faculty member in the Department of Pathology here, lived in Towson. He and his wife, Carolyn, a Hopkins nurse who’d left her profession to raise a family, had been active in a fair housing group that worked to open restrictive neighborhoods to African American home buyers. In the days following the rioting, Boitnott remembers his neighbors in Towson looking south in the evening and telling each other they were witnessing the glow from the riot’s fires.
“I had been going to work at the hospital all that week and could tell you that the city was not on fire,” he says. But to his neighbors the city had become a dark and dangerous place. “People would ask me all the time, ‘Is it safe to drive down there?’”
Still, it was that week in 1968, many say, that provided the incentive for a fresh start. “There is nothing like a wake-up call,” is how Elkins describes the aftermath of the riots. “When the Eighteenth Airborne comes in and closes your city down with curfews starting at 4 p.m. and they put a machine gun nest on the roof of your building, it gets your attention. It was hard to think that these sorts of things could occur in America.”
Seidel also sees the riots as a turning point. “At that time,” he says, “we hadn’t made sufficient effort to work constructively with the people among whom we were living. We weren’t communicating on a satisfactory level. After ’68, I remember [future mayor Clarence] ‘Du’ Burns working with [future hospital president] Bob Heyssel. Things began to change.”
And Adkinson, looking back from 41 years, marvels at what he has witnessed: “I think I and many others are amazed at how far we’ve come. It may indicate not a linear path but an exponential one as to what’s possible. It gives me hope for the nation and for our society. It affirms the possibility of healing.”
Elkins recalls an incident only a day or two after the violence ended that seemed to indicate the seeds of healing were already taking root. It was suppertime, and he and his young family had just moved back into their apartment in the Compound when they heard the sound of a loud car crash outside. “Gerald Finerman ’62 and I went running,” Elkins says, “and when we got to the scene of the accident a crowd of neighbors had gathered around. A neighborhood boy of 8 or 9 had been injured.”
And so, at a moment when the newspapers were describing East Baltimore as a racial war zone, Elkins and Finerman found themselves the only whites in a crowd. “But the neighbors were happy to see us,” Elkins remembers. “We examined the boy and determined he had a fractured femur, so we asked for splints. The people quickly found something for us. Then we said we needed something to tie up the splint. Without hesitating, a lady in the crowd pulled off her blouse and handed it to us. Then she walked on down the street.”