April 4, 1968, began for me by going to work at Allied Radio (now known as Radio Shack) at 100 N. Western Ave. in Chicago. After work, myself and a coworker, Gloria Mims, who was also my neighbor, rode the bus to Roosevelt Road and Homan Avenue because we had a taste for Dave’s Hot Dogs, a well-known establishment on the West Side then and now.
While waiting for our hot dogs, a news alert came on the radio. It said that Dr. King had been shot. Within a few minutes as we left the restaurant it was announced that Dr. King had died. Gloria and I knew we had better get home immediately. We lived on Homan Avenue and Franklin Boulevard, and riding the bus north on Homan was one of quite fearful emotions.
My father and stepmother lived on the second floor at 442 N. Homan. I lived above them on the third floor. Across the street was the old Bundy Candy Company building, which would later become Westinghouse High School. As the news reports started coming in, we began hearing sirens, and the neighborhood refrain at that time was “burn, baby burn.” And burn it did. In fact, by 10 p.m. that evening, the Chicago Fire Department came to our building and suggested we gather personal items. They anticipated the entire block might burn because we lived two blocks from a large service station.
Funny, when you are young, major events that might scare you at age 50 or 60 don’t frighten you as much at 20 or 30. Instead of gathering personal items, I grabbed my camera and, along with family members, went walking to see the “Great West Side Fires.” The A&P store on Madison Street just east of Homan was burning down. The flames were so huge, just standing there it felt like 100 degrees. The corner drugstore and many apartment buildings were also burning, and Madison Street was in total chaos. Standing on the corner of Madison and Homan became so dangerous because of the massive flames and tremendous heat. We finally started back home after watching in shock. People were everywhere, many crying. Some were looting, and store owners whose establishments were not burned were afraid to leave.
We were afraid to sleep that night. The smell of smoke was so strong you could taste it on your lips. When daybreak came, it was unbelievable what had happened. The main areas of the West Side fires were from Roosevelt Road to Chicago Avenue, and Western Avenue to around Pulaski Road. I took pictures. My stepmother and Gloria went on a walking tour the next day. When we got to the corner of Pulaski and Washington, we were shocked that a men’s store, Robert Hall, had been burned to the ground. Robert Hall never returned to the West Side after April 4. We also walked over to Roosevelt Road and Homan where the National Guards were manning the streets. The Certified Grocery Store that was on Roosevelt Road was also gone.
Mayor Richard Daley ordered the police to “shoot to kill” any looters, and imposed a curfew, closing some streets and banning the sale of guns and flammable materials. Police were sent out to protect the firefighters, and some 6,000 National Guardsmen were walking the streets on the West Side. Two of my stepmother’s daughters, Rita Cloyd and Evelyn “Cookie” Hall, lived around the corner. We all worked at Allied Radio and knew going to work the next day would be out of the question because now we were living in a militarized area. It took about two or three days before order was restored. Areas that were impacted looked like those photos from World War II. We also did not have a place to shop because the A&P had burned down. By burning down grocery stores, this created a food shortage for many, so volunteers brought in food from other areas.
In 1968, there were few blacks living in nearby Oak Park. We later learned how residents there were so concerned because they could see the smoke and flames from their homes and feared the riot and burning might come across Austin Boulevard.
I remember my father saying they did not have to worry because the rioters would not go past Pulaski Road, because crossing Austin “would be a death sentence.” April 4, 1968 was a date which will live in infamy.