by Dana R. Casey 8/10/15
I watched it happen. It started when I was seven years old. Then I watched it happen again, 47 years later. I saw Baltimore burn from my bedroom window in 1968. As a child, I lived in a Baltimore row-house neighborhood made up of working- and middle-class families.
My parents’ house perched in a group at the top of a small hill that allowed us to see just over the roofs of other houses from the back bedroom windows.
From the tiny bedroom I shared with my sister, I got a clear view down to the harbor, which in 1968 was nothing but warehouses. Not much of a view, just open sky and rooftops, but on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve we could watch the fireworks display at Memorial Stadium from that back window. However, on those fateful nights in ’68 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King we watched the entire skyline of Baltimore on fire, a different kind of fireworks altogether.
My parents were true–blue, old-fashioned Democrats. They marched for civil rights. My father was a leader in the teachers’ union uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s. All of the children in the family marched on the strike lines with our parents, my mother fervently hoping that the police would arrest her with my baby brother in her arms and Baltimore Sun photographers snapping photos. They were devastated when they saw their city on fire.
A teacher at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute his entire career, my father supported Poly’s desegregation two years before Brown v. Board of Education and helped make it a reality in our city. My mother worked with NECO, the Northeast Community Organization in Baltimore, to fight for housing rights, to get street lights on dangerous corners, and to support political campaigns of Democrat candidates.
They wept when Kennedy was assassinated. They wept when King was assassinated. They were devastated when they saw their city on fire. Their hearts broke, and their will was finally shattered when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
Within one year of those riots, my grandparents moved out of their modest northeast Baltimore Clifton Park home they had built in the 1920s. Three years later, my family moved out of our Chinquapin Park row home. That would technically make my family part of the great “white flight” that occurred in many major cities in America during this era.
So much of what is being reported about Baltimore on news stations across this country is just not true or is only partially true. In an article entitled “White flight decimated Baltimore businesses long before rioters showed up,” by Jake Flanagin, a New York-based journalist who blames white flight for all of the problems plaguing Baltimore, he states, “Because when we watch these events unfold on television screens or Twitter feeds, and ask ourselves, ‘Christ, how did it get this bad?’ we should already know the answer.”
The answer apparently is me and my family, except that like most things, it is never that simple. So much of what is being reported about Baltimore on news stations across this country is just not true or is only partially true. One of my mantras lately comes from an old Yiddish proverb, “A half-truth is a whole lie.” There are quite a few half-truths going around these days.
I know that white racism is not the cause of Baltimore’s problems, although it is certainly the most politically correct and convenient answer. I will never deny that racism is part of our city’s history, but it is not the main cause of Baltimore’s problems today, especially considering consistent representation of
blacks and Democrats in the political power structure of Baltimore for decades, two groups who are not supposed to have even a smidgen of racism.
I must deconstruct the lies upon which the narrative of white flight is built.
I know economic events added energy to so-called white flight and the various riots. Two of these events were the flight of heavy industry from the city itself (e.g., Bethlehem Steel, Maryland Shipbuilding, and Continental Can), along with the abandonment of other major employers in clothing and textiles to the surrounding counties where they were eager to retool their plants, usually with substantial subsidies from the welcoming local governments. Both had a major negative impact on employment in the city. Perhaps the move of McCormick Spice to Hunt Valley (many miles from the city itself) is the most compelling example.
I know policies and political ideologies pushed changes on Baltimore in the name of social justice that ultimately ended up creating more harm than good. Forced school busing was just one of these programs. The irreparable harm it caused is still evident in the city’s broken school system.
In just one article, I cannot adequately address all of the factors that have led to the multitude of problems in Baltimore and other failing cities, but I must deconstruct the lies upon which the narrative of white flight is built.
Before I do so, I will acknowledge that there were a certain percentage of whites who fled because of race aversion. People fear what they do not know; it is human nature, which can be adjusted with exposure and time. The segregation that existed in Baltimore meant many people on both sides did not know each other and therefore had fear. Fear often turns into anger and hatred; there was plenty of that being stoked in the 1960s, but much more than racism caused white flight.
The violent threats made against white families during and following the 68’ riots caused another percentage of whites to flee. Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Touré, a leader in the Black Panther party who promoted the concept of Black Power commented on Baltimore radio during the riots. My husband, who was a young father at the time, heard him say that blacks needed to stop burning down their own neighborhoods and start going up to places like McClean Blvd and cause destruction in white neighborhoods. My husband’s young family actually lived right off of McClean Blvd. Many men of the neighborhood, including my husband, went to Towson to buy guns out of fear and the need to protect their families. Luckily, none of those guns were put to use.
My father heard Carmichael’s threat, too. We did not live far from McClean Blvd, either. In spite of a daytime curfew on the whole city, my father started pulling out the camping equipment so our large family of young children could evacuate the city if needed. I asked him if we were going to get arrested for breaking the curfew. He assured me that we would not, because we would be heading out of the city. Luckily, we never had to put our camping equipment to use, either (I must admit I was a little disappointed at the time about not going camping).
After the riots, unscrupulous businessmen played upon people’s fears using the new housing desegregation laws. It was more financial fear than racial fear. There was a practice called blockbusting that occurred across Baltimore and other large cities. Men looking to make fast cash invested in a type of racial flipping. BlackPast.org describes blockbusting as follows:
After intentionally placing an African American homeowner onto a block [as my parents told me, generally not the doctors and lawyers from the black community], speculators solicited white owners with tales of impending depreciation. Fearful residents often sold their homes to these speculators well below market value. As white residents began to flee in great numbers, other white residents sold their homes at even lower prices, thus further depressing housing prices in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One of the accusations of white flight being caused by deep racism was really based on deep fear of losing all financial stability. For most working- and middle-class families, their house is their greatest or only lifetime investment. For many of these families, the future value of their house is their main retirement income. The loss of their house’s value made their future look very bleak indeed, so people sold before losing everything, which is what the speculators told them would happen if they did not sell quickly.
Another falsehood is associated with the blockbusting practices of that era. I speak from eyewitness experience supported by stories my parents told me. An urban myth tries to explain what happened when the black families moved into those newly emptied houses. The following description also from BlackPast.org describes the currently accepted “truth”:
The inflated cost of the suddenly available houses placed an onerous burden on black homeowners. Already facing steep housing payments, they often found it difficult to get bank loans to make needed repairs on their new homes. Renters in these integrated enclaves faced similar difficulties, notably substandard living conditions imposed by slumlords who viewed these properties as expendable commodities ripe for exploitation. These problems exacerbated declining housing prices and equity loss.
That is exactly what everyone believes is an irrefutable truth, but I witnessed something different. Before the riots, my grandmother’s well-maintained neighborhood was a neighborhood of rose gardens and neighbors talking over the back fence, of bakeries and a walk to the local church on Sundays, of kids playing baseball in the side streets and the local family dog getting scraps from everyone up and down the block.
In less than a year, it no longer looked familiar. There were boarded-up windows and scary guys hanging on corners, trash in the alleys and chained dogs surrounded by piles of excrement in backyards, loud porch parties and screeching children fighting on the front street.
Then the bullets came through my grandparents’ front bedroom window one night, hitting the wall just above their bed. My parents watched a young teen take a baseball bat to the uprights on the railing of the front porch across the street, a bat he used to systematically smash each upright until the porch looked like a mouth of broken and twisted teeth. This was not slumlord neglect, but purposeful destruction of a recently beautiful neighborhood.
Then the bullets came through my grandparents’ front bedroom window one night, hitting the wall just above their bed. Fear made my grandparents flee, too. The agent who bought the house for far less than it was worth advised my father to take the newel post statuette and the stained glass over the front door and windows, because they would be destroyed shortly after the house was occupied. Destruction of those beautiful art deco architectural elements is exactly what happened not much later.
There was no time for slumlord neglect to take place; that neighborhood was destroyed in a brief period. The point I am NOT trying to make is that these are the natural actions of all black people. Those times in Baltimore were different, and people’s experiences were different. Blacks and whites did not know yet how to react or adjust to the circumstances in which they found themselves. Certainly, there were many people who did not act that way, but that is what happened in that neighborhood. I looked up the last sale price on my grandparents’ house in 2012. It was around $5,000.00. That was probably the price it cost when first built in the 1920s.
The neighborhood of my childhood integrated peacefully and looks the same today as it did almost 50 years ago, but it was not targeted by blockbusting. A few white neighbors made some noise about integration and one took a black family to court for putting up a basketball hoop in the alley where we played and rode our bikes. My mother, who was head of the neighborhood association, defended that family in court. The complainer shut up. Life went on. People lived together in peace.
Then forced school busing started. My family fled Baltimore in 1971 after the failed experiment of forced school busing. My brothers and sister were in junior high school, I was in elementary school, and my younger brother who was only four was still at home. Our neighborhood had been a relatively safe place. Children had boundaries of three blocks in any direction from the house, but “Don’t cross The Alameda!” Children got into typical playground scuffles where we romped unsupervised. Kids walked to school and back with little fear.
Tough kids from poor neighborhoods used to the life on the streets bullied and beat up the middle-class kids who had no idea how to respond.
Busing did not affect my elementary school, which was peacefully integrating with black children from the neighborhood. Busing much more heavily affected junior highs and high schools. Students from poor black schools were bused to white, middle-class schools miles away from their neighborhoods, homes, and experiences. White middle-class students were bused to poor black schools also miles away from their neighborhoods, homes, and experiences.
This was supposed to equalize everything, but you cannot force people from either neighborhood to change overnight. The clashes were inevitable. Tough kids from poor neighborhoods used to the life on the streets bullied and beat up the middle-class kids who had no idea how to respond, at least at the junior high level.
I cannot speak from experience about what happened at the locally zoned high schools. Poly, where my father taught, and other citywide schools were a totally different situation, because those schools had already been admitting black, white, or any color of qualified student for over a decade.
After months of my brothers and sister getting attacked, the final straw for my parents came one day when my little brother, a sweet, rather sickly little boy, was playing in the alley where we all played. He was riding his Big Wheel up and down behind the house. My mother periodically checked on him from the kitchen window. Then he didn’t pass by for a bit, and she went looking for him. She found him surrounded by several junior-high-age students who had been bused to the neighborhood school but were playing hooky. They would not let him go home. They kept poking him with sticks and shoving his Big Wheel with their foot, saying, “What you gonna do, white boy?” My mother found him choking in tears and now utterly afraid of a neighborhood that until that day had been utterly safe.
So we fled the city, too. White flight is not simple racism; sometimes it is just a simple choice to protect one’s family. Protecting your family is not racism. My family had actively fought for civil rights in the schools, on the streets, and in our neighborhoods. They had tried to tear down the walls of segregation, but found instead that the children of Baltimore, black and white, were being smashed against those walls. Whites who hadn’t yet fled out of fear now fled the city to put their children in safe schools. Middle-class blacks who could flee did the same. Those who stayed, and who could afford it, found Catholic schools or private schools. The school system, once one of the best in the country, never recovered. The children left behind still suffer from a substandard education.
Today, I live in Baltimore City. I am a city girl and, though my parents dragged me kicking and screaming to the country in 1971, I came back as soon as I could. I live only about a mile away from my grandparents’ original home in a similar row home, made by the same builder. I teach in the same system as my father did. My children go to city public schools.
My current neighborhood has somehow held on, mostly peacefully integrated and slowly returning to the type of neighborhood that I remembered my grandmother’s used to be. There are a few less-successful blocks here and there. Still, children do not play unsupervised baseball in the park across the street. Teens walking down the street view the sidewalk as a trash can. Sirens and sometimes gunfire split the night air. The old lady who lived down the street since the 1950s lives there no longer.
Miss Frieda’s house used to be graced with a lovely flower garden on her postage-stamp-size front yard. Overflowing flower pots lined the porch railing. She had been a Polish freedom fighter during World War II. She had survived the concentration camps. She came to America with her husband and settled in that house, where she raised her family, nursed her dying husband in her later years, and now lived alone where she wanted nothing more than to tend her flowers and visit John Paul II in Rome every few years.
My daughters and I met her while she was tending her garden. She took a liking to my girls and even gave them intricate handmade Christmas ornaments she folded out of paper, a craft she learned in Poland in childhood. She was a joyful and generous woman in spite of what she had experienced long ago.
Frieda was driven out of the neighborhood by local angry Baltimore youths who repeatedly stomped on her flowers, smashed her flower pots, broke a window, and finally made her fear for her safety. Imagine what this woman had survived in life, only to be driven out of her beloved home by uncivil, unsupervised, angry Baltimore teens, just like those who burned and looted Baltimore this April and who Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby appeased by saying, “This is your day.” Frieda’s escape was not white flight; it was flight from crime and uncivil behavior.
On April 27, 2015, I listened to the sirens rush past my bedroom window all night, heading to another fire at the senior center less than a mile away, a center being built by a black church for local citizens. Baltimore was never the same after the ’68 riots, but I don’t think that will be the case today unless we keep listening to people like author Jake Flanagin or Al Sharpton, Loretta Lynch, Malik Shabazz, and even President Obama, who all keep pointing the finger instead of calling for healing or common ground.
Their supposed calls for dialogue are really a demand for monologue. The rest of us (meaning white people) had better shut up and accept the fact that we are all racist and everything is entirely the fault of white people, all white people. Then we should be made to pay (as Sharpton has so successfully modeled).
So what is true? I can only speak to what I know, but if we start including everyone’s stories and not just the politically correct stories or those that support “the narrative” being pushed by the Left as the only truth that matters, we may get closer to the actual whole truth.
Just putting in writing the things I actually witnessed in Baltimore in those troubled times will be enough to make some people hate me and call me a racist. I am willing to take that chance. Real dialogue, not just monologue, has to start with someone. I know I do not have the whole truth, but I do have a part of it and I may be that part’s only voice right now in Baltimore. Real truth, real dialogue, and real healing of our wounded city will only start when all legitimate voices are considered.
Dana R. Casey is a veteran high school English teacher of more than two decades in an East-coast urban system. • (1190 views)