Monument remembers those who died in the Newark riots

The triangle-shaped patch of grass at Springfield and 15th avenues is long overdue for some grooming.

A tree stump sticks out of the ground, its roots visible. Three nearby flower pots contain unrecognizable plants.

Between the two, is a 20-year-old monument that leans left from where the land slopes awkwardly underneath.  On the front of the grey colored granite stone there is an inscription above the names of 26 people who were killed in the Newark riots, which occurred 50 years ago this Wednesday.

"We will forever remember the names of those whose lives were lost."

Farrell Lee, a homeless man on crutches, doesn't forget, even though the city hasn't kept up its maintenance. He passes by the historical marker all the time, pausing briefly to reflect. About a week ago, Lee stopped when he saw two men standing there talking about how the monument came to be erected in the Central Ward.

One, the narrator, was Larry Hamm, president of the People's Organization For Progress (POP), a grassroots Newark civil rights group. 

The other, his audience, was me.

The patch of land is known as Rebellion Park, a lasting memory to those who died. POP overtures for a monument began sometime after 1983, the year it was founded and started holding liberation marches on July 12 to observe the anniversary of what Hamm calls "the rebellion." Newark, rife with poverty and discrimination, erupted that hot summer night in 1967, with five days of rioting that left the city ravaged with $10 million worth of property damage, and the loss of 26 lives.

In memory of that tumultuous period, the liberation march route was one big loop, starting from Fairmont and Springfield avenues, about five blocks from 15th Avenue and 7th Street. That's where John Smith, a black cab driver, was arrested by two white Newark police officers, John DeSimone and Vito Pontrelli, who claimed he had been tailgating them before passing by their patrol car improperly.

Marchers would walk down Springfield Avenue, turning right onto Irvine Turner Boulevard. They'd weave their way through Scudder Homes, Hayes Homes and Stella Wright, three behemoth public housing high-rise complexes that have since been demolished.

The march ended with a rally at the Fourth Precinct on 17th Avenue, which is where Smith had been taken by the arresting officers.

"That was ground zero,'' Hamm said. "That's where it all kicked off.''

Rumors spread that Smith not only had been beaten, but that he had been killed by police. Only one part of that story was true as a large crowd gathered outside after witnesses had seen Smith dragged into the precinct. Smith would be transferred to the hospital for his injuries after community leaders Bob Curvin, Esta Williams and James Walker demanded to see him at the precinct. They found him bleeding and in pain.

Hamm has heard these accounts and relays them to whomever has attended the commemoration over the years.

Lee was still at the monument, looking at the backside of the stone marker, which is blank.

"This (riots) shouldn't have ever happened,'' Lee said. "They're not going to be forgotten.''

He thinks something from the past should be affixed to monument. Maybe pictures of the Stella Wright and Hayes homes.

"How does that sound?'' he asked.

"Sounds good,'' said Hamm.

Lee took off, expressing hope that the monument eventually will get some attention.

"We need to put it on a firm foundation,'' Hamm said. "It does need a little work.''

By Wednesday's 50th anniversary commemoration, the city will have cut the grass and straightened up the monument. New flowers will be planted, a nice substitute to the unsightly flower pots. The park is supposed to be maintained by the city, but Newark Council President Mildred Crump said there hasn't been an active parks and grounds department over the years.

"There was no one to do the work,'' Crump said. "But since the mayor has been in (office), they're catching up.''

She said she has been assured Rebellion Park will be taken care of.  

Sandwiched between two heavily traveled streets, the monument looks out of place. Low income housing is on the 15th Avenue side. The social security office, a liquor store and bodega line a one-block section of Springfield Avenue. The surrounding grounds need to be cleared.

Despite the optics, the monument is right where it belongs. It's close to where Smith was arrested and jailed.

"We had been saying that there needed to be a monument, but the idea had been floating around in the community for quite some time.'' said Hamm

The late Central Ward Councilman George Branch never let go of that thought after the riots. Former Mayor Sharpe James said it became his "pet project,'' and his council colleagues and the administration were not against it.

"It was an idea whose time had come,'' James said.

Two years after the Million Man March, the monument was dedicated on July 11, 1997, which at the time was the 30th anniversary of the uprising.

Once installed, the demonstration through the neighborhood was scaled back to a short march from the monument to the police precinct for a rally. Marchers would come back to the new gathering place, and the observance was officially called a commemoration.

"This gave us a place to come to,'' Hamm said. Sometimes family members came. People showed up spontaneously, some out of curiosity.

When they do attend, folks gather in a circle to hear the names read aloud of those who died. Flowers are always placed at the foot of the monument. Motorists honk their horns.

This same ritual will happen again on Wednesday. And the story will be told again of what happened, and how it started.

Many of the deaths - including Newark Police Detective Fred Toto and Newark Fire Capt. Michael Moran - were at first blamed on snipers. But historians doubt that assertion made by former national guardsmen and police officers.  It was never determined conclusively where the shots came from that killed Toto and Moran.

Eloise Spellman, 41 was cooking dinner, when she was mistaken for a sniper by a National guardsmen as she leaned out of her 10th floor apartment window at Hayes Homes. He fatally shot her in the neck.

Kimberly Spellman, the youngest of Spellman's 11 children, calls it murder to this day. She'll be at the observance on Wednesday.

"It was unnecessary for them to think there was snipers shooting down. They never ever found the sniper,'' said Spellman, who lives in Queens, N.Y.

Eddie Moss, 10, was a passenger in a car when he was shot behind the ear from a stray bullet at a National Guard checkpoint.

The point is this. A lot of shots were fired by police and guardsmen, who used reports of sniper fire to justify indiscriminate shooting of the civilians who died.  Former Mayor Ken Gibson, the city's first black mayor, had said, "There were just a lot of cops and guardsmen with guns, firing at shadows."

The first two deaths of the riots, however, were the result of looting and burglary.

Each year the turnout at the observance varies, except for the 40th anniversary. Hundreds came that day for the tribute in 2007. Maybe it will be the same for the 50th.

Hamm stops the history lesson when Dorreen Adams and Chris Cade sit on the concrete bench by the monument.

She lives in the neighborhood, and like Lee, the guy on crutches, Adams sees the monument every day.

It may look forgotten, but it's not. Adams said strangers get out of their cars to take pictures.

"People know it's there,'' she said.

Hamm listens and the conversations shifts. They begin to talk about long ago treasures in the neighborhood, pointing as if they can still see the bread factory on Irvine Turner.

"Who remembers the National Theater?'' Hamm asked.

There was a Foodtown supermarket nearby, a pawn shop, an ice cream parlor. Vendors drove horse drawn carriages selling fruits and vegetables.

Cade jumped in, recalling the New Ark School, an alternative educational institution.  The Black Panther Party, he said, would have kids in the area clean up the neighborhood.

Jimmy Jones heard them talking as he was walking by, and tossed his memories into the soup.

He grew up in the Stella Wright homes and was a member of the Boys and Girls club on the site. They competed in sports against the other clubs across the city. Life, they all said, was meaningful, less complicated back then.

"That's when Newark was its finest,'' Adams said.

There were lots of stores and good neighbors. You could leave your door open and nobody was going to take anything.

Until the riots.

But there's respect for the monument and its historical import.

No one bothers the stone.

No one should.

It's been that way for 20 years.

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