The Night Washington Burned Black

Black people destroyed their city in order to claim it.


They told us to stay in the dorms that Thursday night, so we hit the streets as soon as the hall monitors closed their doors. We slipped off the Howard University campus and headed down Georgia Avenue/Seventh Street, toward the smoke and flames and unceasing sirens that started soon after news hit that Martin Luther King had been killed in Memphis.

A gaggle of fearless freshmen, we were oblivious to the dangers of burning buildings, fleeing looters and what sounded like gunfire. All the traffic in the world seemed to be headed north, getting out of downtown at law-breaking speed. We ducked into side streets or over to Eighth Street at the sight of cops, but they seemed to be mostly watching as the rampage heated up.

D.C. had its riot at last. For years, Negroes in the capital had watched as Watts, Detroit, Newark -- even Rochester, New York -- exploded in racial outrage. And though it shared the frustrations expressed in cities elsewhere, black Washington had held calm, either because its second-class citizens were intimidated by proximity to such concentrated power, or because they were too comfortable in the middle-class advantages of federal jobs.

All the way down 7th Street that night, we witnessed a righteous chaos. It was grief and lifelong frustration released in a burning, destructive fury. We saw poor people tearing up their own neighborhoods; targeting stores, but mindless of apartments above them; breaking windows and burning shops along the commercial strip long known its for exploitative merchandising. Jewelers, haberdashers and merchants of cheap furniture routinely sold at high prices to captive shoppers, often charged ruinous credit rates.

We would later learn that similar, even worse, outbursts were going on along 14th Street Northwest, H Street Northeast and along F Street downtown. Pushing past the venerable, but eventually burned-out O Street Market and rundown low-rise apartments, we heard children cry in terror and saw old people watching from darkened windows.

Women called on the Lord and young people ran in and out of stores taking advantage of the open-air shopping. Streets and sidewalks were covered in broken glass--sheets and shards of plate glass store windows, bottles, car windshields.

It was a lark to us, but this outbreak was deadly serious. Twelve people died, some of them caught in burning homes, more than a thousand were injured and 6,000 were arrested. Millions of dollars were lost in property damage.

In one harrowing and unforgettable sight, we saw several youngsters smash through the bottom of a gold-lettered window in a fancy downtown men's store near Ninth and F. As they scrambled in, a scrawny straggler followed, just as the top portion of the broken window began to slide down, like a guillotine, directly toward his head. His leap to safety inside was one of the closest escapes of certain death I ever witnessed.

We were mostly voyeurs, that historic April night, out to see the revolution for ourselves--up close, picking up a few crumbs left by looters. I rescued a copy of Otis Redding's last LP from the floor of Waxie Maxie's record store -- where shelves had been stripped and the floors left carpeted with album covers -- still in mourning the sweet soul singer from Macon, Georgia killed in a plane crash the previous December. It remains a prized souvenir.

At Seventh and F Streets, near today's Verizon Center, the shattered display windows in Hecht's department store had been cleaned out, the golf clubs, men's resort wear and leather luggage gone. But I salvaged a decorative leather covered flask, also a treasure to this day.