Story of Em­pow­er­ment

Au­thor Peter Levy tries to change con­cep­tion of fa­mous blaze in Cam­bridge

Dorchester Star - - Front Page - By DUSTIN HOLT dholt@ches­ Follow Caro­line/Dorch­ester Editor Dustin Holt on Twitter @Dustin_S­tarDem.

The Eastern Shore Net­work for Change (ESNC), along with its many com­mu­nity stake­hold­ers, com­mem­o­rated the Civil Rights Move­ment in Cam­bridge with the four­day “Re­flec­tions on Pine: Cam­bridge com­mem­o­rates civil rights, com­mu­nity and change” se­ries of events from Thurs­day, July 20 through Sun­day, July 23.

CAM­BRIDGE — Eastern Shore Net­work for Change co-founders Dion Banks and Kisha Pet­ti­co­las wanted the com­mu­nity, the Eastern Shore and the coun­try to hear the truth about the his­tory of Pine Street in Cam­bridge.

To tell the story, they or­ga­nized “Re­flec­tions on Pine: Cam­bridge com­mem­o­rates civil rights, com­mu­nity and change” from Thurs­day, July 20, through Sun­day, July 23, which co­in­cides with the 50th anniversary of the July 1967 fire on Pine Street that dev­as­tated the city’s African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity.

The four-day re­flec­tion in­cluded vis­its from civil rights cham­pion Glo­ria Richard­son Dan­dridge and “Civil War on Race Street” au­thor Dr. Peter Levy.

Banks said the nar­ra­tive of the fire has been told wrong, and he wanted Cam­bridge to tell the real story with the coun­try fo­cus­ing this year on “The Long, Hot Sum­mer of 1967,” which saw race ri­ots oc­cur­ring in cities around the coun­try.

Levy spent 10 years re­search­ing his book and con­cluded no riot took place in Cam­bridge in July 1967. Levy spoke about his find­ings Friday, July 21, at the Dorch­ester County Pub­lic Li­brary in Cam­bridge.

He blames Po­lice Chief Brice Kin­na­mon and the all-white fire com­pany for al­low­ing a small fire at Pine Street El­e­men­tary to burn for sev­eral hours be­fore the fire turned into an un­con­trol­lable in­ferno, lead­ing to the de­struc­tion of 17 build­ings in a twoblock area of Pine Street, the cen­ter of African-Amer­i­can com­merce, cul­ture and com­mu­nity.

Levy be­lieves the false­hood of the al­leged riot con­tin­ued for the past 50 years be­cause the doc­u­ments of the Kerner Com­mis­sion, which in­ves­ti­gated the fire, were not re­leased to the pub­lic.

“I had heard a riot took place in Cam­bridge,” he said. “In learn­ing the back­ground, many of you know Cam­bridge was the site of one of the most vi­brant civil rights move­ments in the en­tire coun­try.

“Why hasn’t Cam­bridge got­ten the at­ten­tion? There are a va­ri­ety of rea­sons why it just doesn’t fit with the na­tional nar­ra­tive. I re­al­ized this was an in­cred­i­ble place whose story had not been told.”

Levy said when he be­gan his re­search, the late Fred­er­ick Malkus tried to con­vince Levy not to open Cam­bridge’s civil rights wound.

“Aren’t the ri­ots bet­ter for­got­ten,” Malkus told Levy. “What good could come from re­mind­ing peo­ple that Cam­bridge had ri­ots?”

Levy said the good that came from his re­search was learn­ing Cam­bridge did not, in fact, have a riot, and he wanted to show ev­ery­one the com­mon nar­ra­tive many be­lieve of H. Rap Brown mak­ing a fiery speech to in­cite ri­ot­ing, di­rectly lead­ing to the dev­as­tat­ing fire is false.

“The truth is the po­lice chief essen­tially said, ‘Let the whole place burn down,’” Levy said. “The fire con­sumed the Sec­ond Ward be­cause the fire com­pany re­fused to do its job, not be­cause of an in­cen­di­ary speech or ri­ot­ing.”

He said the Kerner Com­mis­sion looked at not just what peo­ple said, but what was writ­ten down in of­fi­cial logs.

“State po­lice, the Na­tional Guard were all here, and they have writ­ten logs of what had taken place pretty much ev­ery 10 min­utes,” he said. “Their logs show what Kin­na­mon had said, that a riot had taken place im­me­di­ately af­ter Brown’s speech, was not true. They found a dif­fer­ent ren­di­tion of events.”

Levy said, ac­cord­ing to the Kerner Com­mis­sion, Brown com­pleted his speech at about 10 p.m. July 24, then walked a woman home and was shot by a deputy sher­iff with­out provo­ca­tion. He said Brown then was patched up and se­cretly taken out of Cam­bridge at about 10:05 p.m.

He said while Brown was be­ing patched up, the white night riders drove through Ward 2, fir­ing guns, and then there was a small fire, but the fire was put out. He said by mid­night July 25, the Na­tional Guard and the state po­lice were sent home be­cause Pine Street and Ward 2 were calm.

“About a half hour later, an­other small fire broke out, prob­a­bly at the Pine Street El­e­men­tary School,” Levy said. “In be­tween, Kin­na­mon heard the speech and was fum­ing, and had wanted to go clear the place out. But the cru­cial thing is what took place be­tween roughly 12:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m.

“What took place was the fire be­gan to spread. The res­cue and fire com­pany, which Kin­na­mon had been a chief of and closely associated to, stood on Race Street and re­fused to in­ter­vene.

“Kin­na­mon claimed that he didn’t let the fire com­pa­nies go in be­cause he was wor­ried about the safety of the fire­men. There were util­ity men in the Sec­ond Ward at the time, cut­ting wires with no prob­lem. There were jour­nal­ists in the area who were not harmed at all.

“In fact, when the fire­man fi­nally came in, they were helped out by the com­mu­nity. When the fire com­pany fi­nally comes in not even led by the fire chief. The state’s at­tor­ney has to com­mand one of the trucks, but by then the fire had spread out of con­trol.”

In the two hours from when the small fire at the school to when the fire com­pany en­tered Pine Street, Levy said, many res­i­dents called for help, but the fire com­pany ig­nored them.

Af­ter the fire, Wil­liam Greene, the brother of Green Savoy owner Hansel Greene, said “one lousy truck” could have pre­vented the de­struc­tion of Pine Street.

“I called (the RFC) three times,” he said af­ter the fire. “My brother called twice. Coun­cil­man Charles Cor­nish called. Still the fire­men wouldn’t come. The school was burn­ing a long time be­fore the fire be­gan spread­ing ... But they just wouldn’t come down here.”

Levy said in the wake of the fire and his losses, Hansel Greene com­mit­ted sui­cide a week af­ter the fire, and Pine Street has yet to re­cover.

Though Dan­dridge was not liv­ing in Cam­bridge at the time of the fire on Pine Street, she be­lieves the Race Street boy­cott on white busi­nesses and in­volve­ment of the black busi­ness­men is what caused the fire com­pany to let the Pine Street busi­nesses burn.

“I think they let that place burn down be­cause they knew the black busi­ness­men in Cam­bridge were also sup­port­ing the boy­cott,” she said dur­ing an oral his­tory pre­sen­ta­tion at the Hy­att Re­gency Ch­e­sa­peake Bay in Cam­bridge Thurs­day, July 20. “They were glad to see the stores and restau­rants and mo­tels and such, that the black peo­ple had built up, were burnt down.

“I think also why they let that place (Pine Street) burn down, is that the black busi­ness­men hired and paid for buses, the gaso­line, and the driv­ers to take peo­ple out to Sal­is­bury and Eas­ton to shop.”

Levy said the African-Amer­i­can writer Ge­orge Collins and Cam­bridge na­tive writer John Barth got the story of July 1967 in Cam­bridge cor­rect, but their ver­sions largely went un­no­ticed re­gion­ally and na­tion­ally.

“This is our story,” Banks said. “What hap­pened with the na­tional story was that some­one else took con­trol of our nar­ra­tive. All of the ef­forts that we are do­ing this weekend is to take con­trol of our own nar­ra­tive.”


Cam­bridge Mayor Vic­to­ria Jack­son-Stan­ley, left, and civil rights leader Glo­ria Richard­son Dan­dridge hold an artist’s con­cept of the Cam­bridge AfricanAmer­i­can mu­ral at the Re­flec­tions on Pine Gala Friday, July 21.


Civil rights leader Glo­ria Richard­son Dan­dridge gives a “Re­flec­tions on Pine” oral his­tory pre­sen­ta­tion Thurs­day, July 20, at the Hy­att Re­gency Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Re­sort.

“Civil War on Race Street” au­thor Dr. Peter Levy, left, and Eastern Shore Net­work for Change co-founder Dion Banks stand to­gether dur­ing a “Re­flec­tion on Pine” event Satur­day, July 22, in Cam­bridge.

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