Recalling human toll of a 'rebellion' in Newark's 1967 riots

The 26 names of those who died in the 1967 Newark riots had already been read aloud, but Kimberly Spellman wanted to read them again during an observance two blocks from where it all started.

Wiping away tears, Spellman did roll call once more, reading from a 1968 report -- the Governor's Select Commission on Civil Disorder -- that lists where the people were and how they died between July 12 and 17, 1967.

Eloise Spellman, her mother, was the 22nd name on the document from which Kimberly read.

Spellman was emotional, asking the crowd for its patience at Rebellion Park, a small swath of land at Springfield and 15th avenues, where a crowd gathered Wednesday for the 50th anniversary.

"She was minding her business," said Spellman, speaking of her mom, who had 11 children. "She was taking care of her babies."

Her mother was cooking dinner July 15, pausing to move one of her children away from the window of their 10th-floor apartment at Hayes Homes, a public housing project. When she leaned out of the window, Spellman was shot in the neck by a National Guardsman, who thought she was a sniper.

"She bled out," said Spellman, who was 4 then, the youngest of the 11

People listening could hear her anguish, some hugging Spellman afterward as she stood by the monument that bears the names of those who died. She was with her sister, Pam Spellman, of Orange, her brother, Frank Spellman, and several nieces and nephews.

"Time doesn't heal this wound," said Pam, who held a large black-and-white photograph of their mother. "Every day of my life, I think about my mother."

Organizers of the observance and witnesses of the civil disturbance said this should not have happened. They describe the unrest as a rebellion, because blacks were fed up with stifling economic and social conditions laced with discrimination.

The city was in turmoil for five days, marked by looting and gunfire, $10 million in damage and the 26 deaths.

"The rebellion was a response to what people were experiencing in this country," said Larry Hamm, a community activist who is president of the People's Organization for Progress, a Newark-based community civil rights group.  "It was a collective response to collective repression."

Since 1983, the group has organized the annual commemoration to remember those who died. In 1997, the monument was installed and dedicated so others can examine the circumstances of what happened.

The uprising that summer was sparked by the arrest of a black cab driver, John Smith, who was beaten by white police officers after they said he passed them improperly on 15th Avenue and Seventh Street in Newark. Large crowds gathered around the Fourth Precinct station on 17th Avenue, where people had seen Smith being dragged.

After rumors that he had been killed were quashed, community activists demanded that Smith be taken to the hospital when they saw him bleeding and in pain in a jail cell.

His brother, James K. Smith, was 11 years old at the time in Salisbury, N.C. Soft- spoken and quiet, James, a musician and resident of Brooklyn, stood in front of the precinct on Wednesday. He told the crowd that had marched there from the monument that his brother would be honored because of the respect from Newark, but he probably would be sad as well.

"It's bitter sweet,'' he said. "Bitter because the names are there."

He had never been to the monument, but said seeing the names offers a measure of comfort to surviving relatives who are still here.

"They are still in the rib cage, still in the heart," he said.

David Armstrong, of Orange, came for his 20-year-old uncle, Albert Mersier, who was shot in the back July 14 by Newark police for stealing from a warehouse.

Armstrong was 10 then, but holds fond memories of his uncle. He said Mersier made sure he'd go to school, let him tag along to the basketball court to shoot hoops with his older friends.

"He was my role model," Armstrong said.

Dennis Westbrook, who lives in Pittsburgh, came back to honor the fallen and share his role in the rise of black political power in Newark.

Westbrook was on the slate with Kenneth Gibson when Gibson became the first black mayor of the city in 1970. Had Westbrook won re-election in 1974, he said, he'd probably never have left.

"Newark has always been my heart," he said. "It's my second home."

The annual observance was among several events this week to define the upheaval as a rebellion. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka made a point of reminding people Tuesday night at Abyssinian Baptist Church that it was not a riot nor should the period before it be romanticized.

He said Newark began to decline long before the riots. After World War II, he said, the Federal Housing Administration redlined many neighborhoods, meaning there would be no investments or loans.

The FHA, he said, encouraged white flight when it provided low-cost mortgages to mostly white soldiers returning home from the war so they could buy homes in the suburbs instead of renting in the

Between 1950 and 1967, the white population declined from 360,000 to 160,000, while the African-American population, many of whom came from the Jim Crow South for a better life, jumped to 220,000.

"While the federal government subsidized homes in the suburbs for most white Americans leaving these cities, they trapped African-Americans in the city that was wholly redlined and subsidized with low-income housing that we know as the projects."

By 1966, the public housing stock was dilapidated. Poverty was concentrated. Upward mobility for the poor was limited. Housing was substandard, urban renewal plans uprooted blacks from neighborhoods and more than a third of black men age 16-19 were unemployed, according to the governor's commission, an independent panel that studied the riots.

Even with fewer whites as residents, Baraka said, Newark was still governed and controlled by whites in a city that was predominately black.

"It was almost a de facto apartheid structure," he said. "Newark was a cauldron that boiled over. It was a rebellion."

On Wednesday, it was a time for reflection.

When the crowd returned to the monument, there were more speakers as the crowd began to thin. James Smith pulled out his trumpet and played a peaceful tribute to his brother, John, a saxophone and trumpet player himself.

He taught James how to finger the instrument and play " 'Round Midnight" by pianist Thelonious Monk.

Wednesday, he played that for John -- just as he had done, in 2002, at John's funeral.

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