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 two-block 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.”