Baltimore Riots 1968

The recent unrest in Baltimore stirred my memories of the night of April 6, 1968 and the Baltimore riot that occurred in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I had dropped out of college after two years due to lack of funds, and was working two jobs in order to save enough to finish my degree. My day job was as a secretary-typist at IBM, and I waitressed three nights a week at Baltimore’s Park Plaza. A Mount Vernon area landmark, the Plaza, built in 1842 had been a private home, a social club and several incarnations of restaurants.
The front dining room was relatively sedate, and except for the long bar down the east side of the room, the space and menu might well qualify for a nice place to take Granny on her birthday. The large room to the north of the dining room housed Baltimore’s first discotheque. As the evening grew later, the music got louder, the young crowd grew, and a retracting wall between the two rooms was opened to combine the space. As the restaurant became an extension of the disco, less food was ordered or served, but that was fine with me as I made much larger tips serving Brandy Alexanders, Screwdrivers, and Whiskey Sours.

Gloria, our young African American cook stayed on duty to cook the occasional cheeseburger platter but the kitchen definitely calmer down when the liquor began to flow. On one of my visits to the kitchen I found her hovering near an old radio that sat near the stove. “There’s trouble brewing” she told me. “Some kids broke a window and looted a store.” She was probably the only one in the building who was aware of what was going on in the outside world. Each time I returned to the kitchen she updated me on the latest news report — more windows smashed, additional stores looted, a large furniture store going up in flames. In those days before cell phones, in a windowless strobe-lighted room roaring with the Motown beat of Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson, the remaining staff and certainly the customers were completely unaware of the growing havoc. I shared my growing concern with my fellow employees. The bouncer and his wife smiled benignly and showed me a small pistol tucked in a blue bedroom slipper behind her hat-check counter. One of the regular bartenders showed me a sawed off shotgun hidden on a deep shelf behind the ice well. “Nothing to worry over” said our manager, Mr. Krumm “the police will soon have things under control.”

My next visit to the kitchen found Gloria more upset. The news reports indicated that the chaos had widened. A growing number of businesses had been looted and ransacked, there were more fires, including a 4-alarm blaze now consuming a large A&P grocery store. Young men were attacking police with thrown rocks and bottles. The mayor, with his police department nearly overrun, had asked Governor Spiro T. Agnew to send in the National Guard, and an 11PM to 6 AM curfew had just been announced.
“I’ve got to get home to my kids” Gloria wailed. “The buses are going to stop running!”
“Go” I told her. “Krumm won’t even notice. He’s going to have his hands full, and he’s got to announce the curfew so these people can get home.”

I left in search of my coworkers. The disco was going full beat, the strobe lights bouncing across the dance floor, the music loud. The disparity between that room and the news from the outside world was frightening and nearly incomprehensible. It was as though I had stumbled into a bad dream. The staff was now taking the situation seriously. We circled Mr. Krumm in the ornate lobby. He remained resolute in his plan to stay open, no doubt fearing the halt to his ringing cash registers. “You have to tell people what is going on”, we insisted and finally after some argument – particularly the specter of his possible liability — he relented. The house lights were turned up; people were advised of both the dangers and the curfew. Customers poured out of the place in record time.

From the front steps of the Plaza I looked east down Madison Street, the route of my bus home. I could see fires burning in the distance and knew I would probably not be going home that night. It was eerily quiet in Mount Vernon, but there was no destruction. One of our service bartenders lived several blocks away and offered the stranded a roof for the night. We piled into a single car and drove the short distance to his apartment, passing the Fifth Regiment Armory, an imposing fortress-like structure. Along the streets surrounding the Armory were open military transport trucks, their benches filled with grim-faced National Guard troops holding bayoneted rifles. It felt as if the world had suddenly gone mad.

I thought of Gloria this week. At the time of the 1968 riots she lived near the Mondawmin mall, then the site of much unrest in 1968 and the site of significant looting in 2015. And I am deeply sad for her and for us all that so little progress has been made in 47 years.