The 1968 Riots in Washington, DC

By M. Marie Maxwell

Recent events in London, of riots being reported in various parts of the metropolitan area, reminded me of a series in the Archives I holdings documenting a similar event in the American capital in 1968.

Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, upon hearing of the civil rights leader’s death, rioting broke out in several American cities, including Washington, DC. The rioting lasted several days but the damage to property lasted longer, taking several decades for those areas to recover. Most of the damage occurred along the commercial corridors of H St NE, 7th/Georgia Ave, 14th St NW, the Downtown area in the northwest quadrant of the city and 8th St SE, as well as scattered sites throughout the city.

Record Group 328 (Records of the National Capital Planning Commission, 1900 – 2000) in a series called Washington Civil Disorder Survey Files, 1968 – 1974 (ARC ID 2549871, MLR entry A1 14), documents the level and location of damage in Washington, DC as a result of the riots.

Within the boxes are lists, summaries, and surveys of business and residences in the damage corridors. These include incomplete and nearly blank surveys from property owners and businesses and responses from locations not damaged. There are property damage and property assessment forms collected by surveyors establishing the value of the properties and business prior to the riots as well as plenty of raw data.

Sadly, the summaries are very bare and do not include a lot of narrative information that is revealed in the more complete surveys. Complete surveys are roughly 3 or more pages providing the name, race, business and home addresses of the owners, dates of damage, type of damage, financial and building information data. In addition to these questions, one asks for more information to be provided regarding future plans or other thoughts. That is question, #33, which reads, “What reasons are the most important in selecting one of the preceding alternatives in Item 32 for you personally or your business interest? (Please explain and use the reverse side of this page, if needed.”

Senior victims of riots

Page 3 of post-riot form
Record Group 328 (Records of the National Capital Planning Commission, 1900 – 2000), Washington Civil Disorder Survey Files, compiled 1968 – 1974 (ARC 2549871), MLR entry A1 14, Folder: Business All Negro and other XIV 7th St NW.

Some of the heartbreaking narratives are found in question #33. Ms. Anna L. Shulman, of Chevy Chase, MD experienced extensive fire damage at her properties at 1237-1239 H Sts, NE. Her answer reads, “Very sad over the situation- the city, the war – She is 75 and very depressed. What happened?”  Jacob and Ester Love, experienced limited smoke and water damage to a building they rented out at 1301 H St NE, that had 2 apartments and 1 business. They wrote, “I depend upon this for my living expenses, as we both receive only $52 mo., combined from Social Security.” On a slightly different form where question 33 is number 38, Mr. Jesse McCain an African American man over the age of 50 whose barbershop at 643 P St NW, just off the 7th Street riot corridor, was made a total loss on April 5th, wrote: “I AM TOO OLD TO BE WORRYED ANY MORE I JUST DON’T WANT ANY MORE BUSINESS.” A form for Samuel and Ida Feldman, whose business received extensive glass, smoke, water and fire damage, was completed by their son, Irwin Feldman. The younger Feldman wrote at the bottom and rear of the form about how his father was shot defending the business since the form was sent and his own frustrations with authorities in the aftermath. A Washington Post article reported that the 65 year old Samuel was shot in the wrist after 3 gunmen attempted to rob his liquor store at 1450 P St NW in June of 1968.

The National Archives Building and the riots

Page 1 of post-riot survey form
Record Group 328 (Records of the National Capital Planning Commission, 1900 – 2000) in a series called Washington Civil Disorder Survey Files, compiled 1968 – 1974 (ARC 2549871), MLR entry A1 14, Folder: Property IX Downtown NW (White).

The District of Columbia location of the National Archives is sandwiched between Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues, and 7th and 9th Streets, NW, a few blocks south of the major downtown rioting. Looking through the surveys I tried to find the closest damage the rioting ever came to us. I found three examples. The closest was 711 D St NW, about 2 blocks away from the Archives. The owner reported extensive breakage of glass and smoke damage with a notation about gas. The second closest was 635 D St NW, which experienced limited glass breakage and damage to the skylights and a rear door. These buildings were damaged on April 5th. A building at 427-429 7th St NW, was attacked on April 4th and only had some glass broken. Nothing was found to indicate that the rioting ever reached the doors of the Archives, thus protecting and preserving the nation’s history continued.

Suggestions for research

Because of the level of detail of information this series would make an excellent resource for an urban studies or history student or a neighborhood historian looking to delve deeper into aspects of the 1968 riots beyond the newspaper reports and what has already been written. One could take a corridor and map out the business along a road noting which ones reported damage, which ones didn’t, which ones closed up forever and which ones came back, looking for patterns, if any. Visiting the National Archives building downtown is the best way to carry out this research, so please refer to our website before planning your visit.

One thought on “The 1968 Riots in Washington, DC

  1. Thank you so much for putting up this fascinating post. I read it with great interest both as an historian interested in the history of Washington, DC and as a longtime resident of the Metro Washington area. I was in high school in this area during the 1968 riots and remember seeing the smoke from some of the fires.

    Reading your post reminded me also of one of the most interesting exhibits I remember seeing in the NARA ExHall: “Washington: Behind the Monuments.” I think it was up around 1990. After some research in such records, ome of this information also could be incorporated into an exhibit by a curator interested in DC history!

    Thanks again for a great post.

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